As indicated by Vogue’s September issue cover, which stars Kendall Jenner, the fashion industry has figured out how to drive enormous amounts of traffic. It has deduced a formula for how to appease existing advertisers with its analytics and maybe even attract new ones with promises of growth potential. It has managed to speak to a large audience, oftentimes without even having to – or being able to – pinpoint who comprises that audience. And many of the industry’s biggest players – from massive, mainstream publications to some of the most popular indie-type blogs – have been able to do so without generating any terribly large amount of innovative or high quality content.
Given the ease with which such publications can increase traffic, eyeballs, clicks, ad revenue, etc. by following a proven method (think: Kardashian, Jenner, Kardashian, Jenner, Hadid, Jenner, and countless covers that tout language that is some iteration of "Insta star" or a mention of "followers" or some other play on social media) and the fact that most publications are faced with the increasing need to tighten their budgets (evident in the shuttering of publications, declining sales of print, pooling of staff, sharing of content, and increase in reliance on digital), it is difficult to blame them for wanting to exert as few resources as possible in order to achieve results. However, in this way, industry insiders are undoubtedly resting on their laurels.
Fashion is not precious; it is a business that relies on the sale of goods, and as a whole, it has taken a very noticeable turn towards becoming more overtly commercial in recent years, in no shortage of cases, eschewing the artistry that gave rise to the medium in the first place. Publications, which are firmly situated in the fashion industry ecosystem, are certainly not immune.
Fashion has always been a business – a fact that has been particularly obvious since the 1990’s when conglomerates like LVMH and Kering (née PPR) began dominating and corporatizing the industry. But at the same time, as we learned several years ago from Louis Vuitton, for instance, and its reliance on the sale of many entry-level products – as opposed to a smaller number of more expensive ones – you can only derive so much positive output from one process before it turns on you. (You may recall that the Paris-based luxury brand’s increased reliance into entry-level goods ultimately led to widespread market saturation, disinterested consumers, and many quarters of poor sales figures). This is something that publications could do well to remember.
There is a delicate balance between a company's ability to increase awareness of its brand and expand its reach – and thus, its profits – while maintaining its identity as a brand (and not devaluing that image and alienating consumers). For luxury brands, this is a very fine line; highly-esteemed authorities and publications, such as Vogue, are impacted, as well. This is because most of these brands – and publications – have invested many decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to position themselves and establish the brand image that they maintain in the eyes of modern day consumers.
The metric for balancing expansion and brand identity seems to come in the form of the following question: At what point does a brand’s attempts to profit (by way of dollars or page views, the latter of which is ultimately just dollars, of course) cost more than those profits are actually worth?
Take, for example, the aforementioned issue that several luxury brands faced not too long ago: They raked in profits but eventually became too mainstream. They appeased too many. The result was over-exposure or dilution in the minds of their most loyal customers. This can take the form of an oh-too-common trademark (à la Louis Vuitton monogram circa 2012 or Gucci’s, as well, around that same time) appearing on a highly sold bag, or a reputable magazine slowly chipping away at its clout by chasing short term goals, such as daily traffic initiatives.
It seems that it is here that publications should take heed. Consider, after all, the significant re-branding efforts that Louis Vuitton and other brands were forced to adopt on the heels of the aforementioned logo fatigue and subsequent sales drops. Louis Vuitton was one of the most successful revamps; Gucci’s, after all, has taken much longer. Neither has proven easy or inexpensive.
The fashion industry would benefit from reflecting on these hard-learned lessons. Modern day fashion – which is obviously in the midst of a mid-life crisis – is failing to adapt to the changing landscape, demonstrated by its slew of arguably lazy initiatives to drum up press and remedy sluggish buying behavior, such as See Now-Buy Now, random scheduling changes, collection renaming’s, etc. Instead of relying on innovative design, many brands have worked to eschew risks by focusing their attention on purely commercial endeavors, such as pre-season collections, licensing deals (formerly just a tool of the biggest couture houses, as opposed to ready-to-wear brands) and affordable accessories, to drive revenue since the actual garments are simply not tempting consumers in any significant volume.
The same can be said for publications and their shamelessly overt reliance on a handful of celebrities to sell magazines - or better yet, to elicit page views - as opposed to being forced to put forth any great amount of innovative, honest and/or thought-provoking content. It is worthwhile to note that this is not necessarily a new tactic. Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour has – since the late 1980’s – been introducing celebrities to the cover of her magazine. The difference between then and now, however, is not necessarily reflected by the caliber of said celebrities. Instead, it is the level of utter reliance by publications to sell magazines or garner clicks based solely on the promotion of this small circle of celebrities (as reflected by the truly endless amount of Kendall Jenner-related articles on Vogue.com on any given day – literally), and the outright pandering that has become so commonplace.
It seems the fashion industry – whether it be brands, retailers or publications – has largely given up the notion of actually trying hard. Publications, in particular, have discovered a way to keep revenues up, sans any real journalistic effort. The industry has found ways to cut corners and make ends meet for the short term, which is effective, of course, for the short term. It is, however, unsustainable, as it does not come without long-term costs of its own.
Maybe this is a trend, a merely cyclical foray into the tabloid; maybe it is fashion subconsciously reflecting the troubled (and very often brazen) state of the world. Or maybe the fashion industry is just being lazy. No matter the answer, it seems fair to say that the fashion industry needs to go back to the drawing board, get its priorities in check and simply, do better. This point should hold even more weight if we acknowledge that the existing formula for driving traffic (think: writing about anything and everything buzzy - aka anything beginning with a "K" - often without context or any larger sense of cohesion) works. That does not, however, mean that the end result is praiseworthy on the merits. Instead, this goes to show that right now, high traffic in fashion (and beyond) is not necessarily indicative of extraordinary or even good content.
This is all to say that, yes, fashion can put forth innovative and exciting content while still working with celebrities - it has done so in the past. Moreover, there is certainly an argument that the fashion industry should not be quite so unashamed in leaving its integrity at the door in the singular attempt to “get more clicks." The industry can find a balance. It just has not managed – or seemingly bothered to try – to do that. That would require effort and that's not part of the formula.