12 Conversations the Fashion Industry Doesn't Want You to Have

At about this time last year, Refinery29 released a year-ahead list, entitled, "12 Conversations the Fashion Industry Doesn't Want You to Have," with a subtext of “Fashion Industry Problems in 2016.” Unlike most of the annual round up-type articles littering your screen at the moment, this one touches on a number of legitimately important concepts that are at play in the fashion industry. Brand licensing, celebrity endorsements, and intellectual property issues all share space in the piece.

Here at TFL, we have made it a hallmark to never shy away from discussing the vitally important issues that face our industry; from labor conditions for manufacturers and interns, to the vital role that intellectual property laws play in protecting novel designs. Here are a few of our favorite of Refinery29’s 12 points, which while they may be unpopular topics of discussion, are ones we have tackled - often at length at 2015 and 2016 - and thus far in 2017 …

1. The dirty secret of editor gifting

We took on this topic most recently in the context of One Direction frontman Harry Styles and his penchant for Alessandro Michele’s designs for Gucci. Absent a contract with the Florence-based house, chances are, Styles has been gifted quite a bit of the Gucci garments you’ve seen him wearing lately. As we indicated, gifting is awesome for brands, as it allows them to bypass complicated and expensive contracts with celebs or editors. Having said that, it can be misleading for consumers.

Because consumers have become increasingly accustomed to traditional forms of advertising, such as banner ads and the like, they have become distrusting of and largely immune to it. As such, advertisers have been forced to evolve to meet consumers’ need to believe that an ad or a celebrity/editor’s endorsement is authentic; that the garment, for instance, is one that the celebrity or “it” blogger or editor actually wears, and is not just wearing in exchange for a paycheck.

This is what makes gifting so awesome for brands. In addition to avoiding the headache and expense of a formal deal, a brand’s PR can send out some garments and/or accessories, which said-celebrity or editor will then presumably style himself and wear in his daily life. The result: it all feels a bit more real, and consumers are more likely to be influenced.

The problem: Such gifting and endorsements likely run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, which are aimed at protecting consumers by informing them of material connections between advertisers and parties that are being compensated to endorse (or wear) a product. In short, they act as advertisements without informing consumers that they are, in fact, advertisements.

2. Stealing Ideas

“For an industry that’s supposed to be rooted in originality and creative expression, fashion sure has a lot of copycats,” writes R29’s Liza Darwin, and she’s right. As we told you this past February, fashion is an industry filled with fakes. In a way, copying is to be expected, as fashion is inherently cyclical. It is an industry that thrives on the proliferation of trends, which means that it is not uncommon for us to see recurring themes and similar looks.

Moreover, it is not usual for designers to look to vintage creations and streetwear styles for inspiration. However, there is a difference between inspiration and gross imitation, and this is arguably where fast fashion retailers take it a step (or 10 steps) too far, blatantly copying and undermining the original creations of designers.

A less spot on missive from Darwin read as follows: “This issue is so prevalent that designers have even begun focusing more on fabric quality and cut (as opposed to signature prints), in order to prevent this rampant forgery.” To be fair, she is partially correct. Because copyright laws in the U.S. do not provide protection for fashion designs in their entirety (aka, the law does not protect a whole dress, only parts of it), designers are working fervently to make their wares more difficult to copy. This often comes by way of an increased focus on quality that cheap retailers simply cannot mimic.

However, opting out of relying heavily on “signature prints” is simply not the case. If brands have a signature print or trademark to rely on, they will use it! This is because signature prints, are, in fact, protectable by copyright law, and signature shapes and logos, are protected by trade dress and trademark law. They still reign supreme as they give rise to lawsuits if copied – something that cannot be said of a quality cut or fabric.

3. Cash for Coverage

“Publications have always relied on advertisers to provide funding for content, but now these ad dollars can go so far as to dictate the content itself.” You can read more about that right here!

4. The inherent irony in fast fashion's "green" and "eco-friendly" collections.

They’re talking about green-washing, a topic we highlighted this summer on the heels of H&M’s latest effort to “promote recycling, cut its environmental impact, boost its ethical credentials and address looming shortages of raw materials,” while still practicing design piracy and manufacturing in ethically questionable conditions.

As you hopefully already know, fast fashion is an industry founded upon low wages, poor worker standards, chemicals and waste, and design piracy. In order to avoid the bad press that comes with the aforementioned staples of the industry (which are, in fact, well documented), fast fashion retailers engage in easier, cheaper ways to rehabilitate their images.

Enter: greenwashing, the promotion of green-based environmental initiatives or images without the implementation of business practices that actually minimize environmental impact (or any of the other negative effects of fast fashion). This often includes misleading customers about the actual benefits of a product or practice through misleading advertising and/or unsubstantiated claims.

Now don’t get me wrong. Recycling is cool. It is important, but you know what’s not cool? Human rights abuses, design piracy and unsafe work environments. Also not cool: trying to hide important issues that stand in the way of safer, more truly sustainable fashion manufacturing with massive PR campaigns about green fashion.

5. Pay-for-play celebrity endorsements.

Per R29, “Companies have become much sneakier about just how they’re using influencers to promote their clothing […] Some particularly savvy companies are utilizing the ‘pay-for-play’ model, in which they pay a celebrity to wear an item of clothing (comped, naturally) while running errands or out to lunch with famous friends.” This is spot on. However, the fashion site fails to mention what is problematic about it; this tactic can be illegal. A recent example comes by way of Kendall and Kylie Jenner’s outing to the Madison Avenue Ugg store.

If we are to believe the press surrounding the reality television stars’ excursion, and there was a lot of it, the sisters were compensated. However, such an endorsement did not come by way of Kendall and Kylie starring in an Ugg ad campaign or a commercial or another traditional form of advertising. Instead, they were caught by the paparazzi in a seemingly candid manner while shopping at the Ugg store (and if reports are true, they were also paid by Starbucks to carry the company’s coffee cups during the shopping trip).

They subsequently shared photos of themselves in Ugg products. This seems to be EXACTLY the sort of thing to which the FTC’s Guidelines apply. In particular, “The Guidelines make it clear that celebrities have a duty to disclose their relationships with advertisers when making endorsements outside the context of traditional ad campaigns.” Problematic? It seems so.

6. The people who make our clothes.

Darwin writes, “There’s plenty to consider when you’re deciding whether or not to buy a new piece of clothing […] However, one aspect that rarely factors in to the decision-making process is the people behind the clothing.” Unless you’re a TFL reader, that is. As we have told you repeatedly, if you are not paying a reasonable price for the clothing you buy, someone else is and that is the laborers, many of whom are women and children.

They are the ones paying the price, and not just in terms of low wages. (Garment workers in Bangladesh, who supply these exact retailers, make $73 a month, a jump from the $38 per month they were making before the Rana Plaza tragedy in April 2013 that killed 1,100 garment workers).

Laborers also pay in terms of their safety.  Foreign companies that serve as suppliers to fast fashion retailers routinely bypass important quality control and manufacturing health/safety standards because these practices are costly to implement and monitor and that would cut into their bottom line. Hence, the toxic chemicals in clothes, the frequent employee hospitalizations, and the increasing number of fires and buildings collapsing.

So, yes, fast fashion is problematic and we need to continue to talk about it.

7. The items that actually turn a profit. (Hint: It's usually not what's on the runway!)

This is an interesting/confusing thing to include on a list of “Fashion Industry Problems in 2016.” The R29 team is referring to licensing, the practice of contracting with another party to obtain and use rights intellectual property in exchange for an agreed payment (a fee or royalty). Take, for instance, Luxottica, the eyewear company that holds the rights to manufacture and distribute Prada, Burberry, Tom Ford and Chanel sunglasses.

Prada, Burberry, Tom Ford and Chanel still have the right to use their names (aka their trademarks) in the sunglasses/eyewear category; they have just chosen to authorize Luxottica to do it for them. Without such authorization, Luxottica would not be able to manufacture eyewear using the name "Chanel," for example, without being on the receiving end of a trademark infringement lawsuit from Chanel.

Nowadays, almost every brand from Chanel and Prada to Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren has placed significant reliance on the benefits that can be garnered from licensing (think: courting potential new customers; enjoying multi-million dollar budgetary commitments by the licensee to advertise the product lines; tapping into new geographic market and new market categories, and generally, just benefitting from the additional source of revenue from goods that are relatively extremely affordable, etc.), which when executed properly comes with fewer disadvantages.

As for what makes this a “Fashion Industry Problem in 2016” is entirely up to you! 

Now, please head over to Refinery29 to read the rest of their list, and then, continue to read TFL for the latest updates and breaking stories on all these "scandalous" topics.