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 image: Unsplash/Kris Atomic

image: Unsplash/Kris Atomic

Fashion is a complex web of personal and business connections. As an industry, it is a byzantine ecosystem borne largely from the industry’s failure to look outside of its closest circle of friends (and business collaborators) for talent. The result is a significant overlap of roles — a magazine editor styling a brand’s runway show, a critic writing a brand’s show notes, an investor acting as a judge in a design competition, or the same handful of casting directors determining which models walk in shows and appear in ad campaigns during a season.

More plainly, it ensures that the iron-clad establishment stays in power and in profit

This family-like set up tends to give rise to conflicts (legally and ethically) and as a result, creates a very real need for transparency. Yet, the notion of candor and clarity is increasingly obfuscated in fashion because it could potentially dismantle the delicate balance — between advertisers and editors, designers and editors, influencers and brands, conglomerates and potential targets, and still, some further variations thereof — upon which the industry so heavily relies. (Note: This is in no way a fashion industry-specific phenomenon. Politics operates a lot like this, with its participants’ quiet deals and debts).

Fashion’s small club of interconnected individuals — and the routine use of the same editors, journalists, stylists, consultants, creative directors, competition judges, business executives, and investors, and the repetitive and often multi-faceted roles that many of these individuals assume — has led to another very distinct shortcoming: A glaring lack of perspective and diversity (racially and otherwise) on the runway, in editorials, at the helm, and most importantly, behind the scenes.

The Same Creatives, The Same Standard(s) 

It has become wildly commonplace for the industry’s participants to rely on a relatively fixed group of figures with very little variation. This can be seen each time the same group of creative directors jumps from helm to helm of the industry’s most renowned houses. 

The same can be said of the consistent reliance on a small number of in-demand stylists. For instance, famed stylist Karl Templer’s clients include Alexander Wang, Sacai, Valentino, Ralph Lauren, Coach, Dior, Tommy Hilfiger, and Zara (more about his work with Zara here). The muddy the waters further, it is not uncommon for these stylists to also hold creative roles at fashion’s most esteemed magazines, as well. Templer, for instance, is the creative director of Interview Magazine.

Do not forget the influential casting directors. Ashley Brokaw, for example, who the New York Times lauded as “fashion’s most unlikely power player” a couple of years ago, has her say on what models walk for Louis Vuitton, Loewe, Paco Rabanne, Prada, J.W. Anderson, Coach, Proenza Schouler, Calvin Klein, Raf Simons, Ralph Lauren, and others, each season.

As set forth by T Magazine’s Alice Gregory:

“If you flip through a magazine, stare up at a billboard or scroll through the thumbnail images of last season’s fashion shows, chances are high that you will be looking at the faces and figures of models Brokaw has discovered and groomed. Her clients include Miuccia Prada, Nicolas Ghesquière and Jonathan Anderson. She has cast shows for Miu Miu, Balenciaga and Tommy Hilfiger; chosen models for print ads for Calvin Klein, Harry Winston, Chloé and Armani, along with campaigns for more mass brands like H&M, Gap and Zara. She collaborates on shoots with Steven Meisel and Patrick Demarchelier.”

Or what about Fabien Baron? As Forbes recently wrote, “For the past 30 years, [Baron] been the creative helm behind some of the most famous campaigns for top brands like Calvin Klein, Burberry, Giorgio Armani and Balenciaga, Christian Dior and Coach. Over that period he has also revamped five magazines, including Italian Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Interview — where he is currently editorial director.”

Still yet, the same goes for Mario Testino, Bruce Weber, Patrick Demarchelier, Terry Richardson, and co., who have lensed nearly every major campaign and magazine cover in fashion for the past several decades with little variation. And any variation tends to come in the form of a new pattern of repetition that sees Collier Schorr, Mikael Jansson, and Petra Collins (among others) shooting everything from Nordstrom and Louis Vuitton lookbooks to T Magazine and W Magazine editorials. 

It should come as little, if any, surprise that if the industry consistently taps the same handfuls of individuals to dictate the discourse of fashion (often the result of industry friendships and quiet quid-pro-quo dealings), the ultimate product will remain largely static and ethically complex. 

Please do note, this article is not for the exclusive purpose of faulting these individuals or others in similar positions; they are, among others, are, in fact, representative of a sizable number of individuals that operate in a very similar manner. It is for the purpose of addressing the lack of transparency that many of the fashion industry’s participants perpetuate, a lack that impacts and impairs the industry from nearly every angle,to the advantage of many that are situated in the industry’s upper-most echelon. 

Ethical Complications

In addition to tapping the same creatives for no small number of gigs, the industry further ensures the stability of its views by way of multi-hyphenate creatives. Consider a relatively recent Dolce & Gabbana online campaign, entitled, #DGLovesStBarth. The campaign was styled by Anna Dello Russo, a well-known street style star and the Editor-at-Large and creative consultant for Vogue Nippon. Given Dello Russo’s role at Vogue, her work in styling for a brand that is a Vogue advertiser and the subject of frequent seasonal reviews from the magazine is ethically questionable (just as it is questionable for publications to accept free trips from brands without disclosure). In the U.S., it might be questionable from a legal standpoint, as well, as truth in advertising laws require disclosure of material connections such as these. 

Moreover, one could argue that it suggests impropriety on the part of Vogue for failing to separate church and state, as such involvement could lead to preferable treatment — conscious or otherwise — for the brand as a result of Dello Russo’s work with them. 

With that in mind, do not overlook British Vogue’s newly-appointed creative director Edward Enninful, who recently directed and styled an ad campaign for Gap — another Vogue advertiser. It is well known, after all, that magazines are not in any way above giving preferential treatment to top-spending advertisers, something that has been confirmed by both former Vogue editor Lucinda Chambers and magazine covers and editorials, themselves

Katie Grand proves yet another interesting example. The founding editor of AnOther Magazine (and now the editor of LOVE Magazine, a Condé Nast-backed venture), Grand currently styles and/or has styled Marc Jacobs, Miu Miu, Bottega Veneta, Hogan, and Oscar de la Renta runway shows and ad campaigns (per models.com). She also styles editorials for System Magazine, the Sunday Times Magazine, Vogue Italia, Self Service, and of course, LOVE.

Of Grand, Forbes recently wrote: “Best known as the Editor-in-Chief of LOVE, the bi-annual magazine she founded in 2009 with publisher Condé Nast. She is also the advertising creative director for Marc Jacobs’ womenswear, menswear and beauty lines and is the stylist for the designer’s famed womenswear show. The list goes on and on — Prada, Miu Miu, Bottega Veneta, Balmain, Interview Magazine, Vogue, GQ, and Tatler have all called upon Grand to work her creative magic on their brands. Burberry has even allowed her to shoot the entire February 2017 collection for the latest issue of LOVE weeks before it’s meant to show on the catwalk in London, that is how much faith the industry has in her.”

The Business

The circle is further closed (and the situation becomes even more dire) if we consider the oft-complicated connections that coincide with the corporate-backing of publications and brands. The same handful of publications tend to cover (and be given access by brands to) the happenings of the industry, many of which maintain close — and sometimes, financial-based — relationships with brands, other publications, and various industry leaders.

The result can, in its most extreme form, be likened to the assimilation of the free press into the role of a masked public relations outlet because, as we well know, proper truth-in-advertising disclosures are little-utilized in fashion

In terms of the funding if brands and other ventures, the inter-connectedness of Russian editor-turned-investor Miroslava Duma’s company, Future Tech Lab, for instance, should raise some eyebrows, not least because Duma, who was a judge for the 2017 Woolmark Prize for womenswear design, maintains a stake in Gabriela Hearst, the womenswear brand that took home the prize. Hearst and her husband Austin are also members of the board of Duma’s company. 

[Note: The page identifying the individual members of the Future Tech Lab advisory board has disappeared from the company’s website since the publication of this article. Those members include: Carmen Busquets, fashion-tech entrepreneur and investor (Net-a-Porter, Moda Operandi, Farfetch, Lyst, and Business of Fashion, among many others); Diane Von Furstenberg, Founder of DVF and Chairwoman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America; Stella McCartney, designer; Livia Firth, Founder and Creative Director of EcoAge; Diego Della Valle, Chairman and CEO of Tod’s Group; Alexandre Arnault, Co-CEO of Rimowa; Laura Arrellaga-Andreessen, entrepreneur, Stanford lecturer, philanthropist and NYT bestselling author; Austin Hearst, media executive and investor; and Gabriela Hearst, philanthropist and fashion designer.

Future Tech Lab’s “mentors” include: Ian Rogers (Chief Digital Officer, LVMH); Caroline Rush (Chief Executive, British Fashion Council); Burak Cakmak (Dean, Parsons School of Design); Alexandre de Betak (Founder, Bureau Betak); Natalia Vodianova (Founder, Naked Heart Foundation); and Julie Gilhart (Founder, Julie Gilhart Consulting]. 

Still yet, take into account the industry’s many design competitions. The LVMH Prize, the Woolmark Prize, the H&M Design Award, the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation, ANDAM, British Fashion Council/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund, among others, routinely serve to identify and herald in the promising new  talent in the fashion industry.

The limiting of prospective young talent is the small-change result here. The more damning element is that more often than not, the same handful of editors, creative directors, journalists, investors, and consultants participate in these competitions as judges. In some cases, these individuals/brands/publications have a hand in underwriting/sponsoring these events, as well. The fact that so many of the same individuals/brands/publications are tasked with helping select these competition winners — no shortage of which maintain or have direct connections to organizations/companies that hold a stake in the outcome of such competitions — is noteworthy and problematic.

In short: a handful of potentially biased industry insiders dictate the selection of emerging talent within the industry (from which many of them stand to directly or in-directly profit), thereby furthering the complexity of fashion’s intertwined web. 

And still yet, the industry’s most celebrated awards events prove a hotbed for routine. The same designers and other creative tend to be nominated each year for the same prizes. As Vanessa Friedman wrote for the New York Times a few years ago of the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards, “Every one of the names nominated for one of the big three awards has won before — in Mr. Jacobs’s case, nine (count ‘em) times, including a lifetime achievement award in 2011  … in Proenza’s case, five times; in Mr. Wang’s case, three times, though he has been nominated 11 times. Tom Ford, who is getting the lifetime achievement award this year, has also won five times.” 

A Larger Issue

It is vital to note that the growth of multi-tasking creatives or business-between-friends is not inherently problematic. Neither is the rise of a handful of overly prominent (and well connected) publications or of fashion’s reliance on its small circle of friends (or as 99% YOUTH, the collaborative project between the anonymous STEVE OKLYN and French website Apar.tv, calls it, “industrialized, globalized multibillion dollar complexes” and “the spider web of power dynamics and relationships which hold the industry together”).

In fact, at its core, this is a perfectly acceptable creative scheme, as designers CAN be consultants, editors CAN be stylists, and models CAN be photographers. And friends can work on projects together. Moreover, it makes sense that brands would want to rely on the most respected and successful talents in the industry.

This dynamic becomes questionable, however, when it ensures that industry’s output — be it runway show reviews, castings, magazine editorials, or even (and most worryingly) the treatment of news — is skewed, fixed, and at times, downright inauthentic. The relationships behind show reviews, model selections, design competitions, creative director positions, investment deals, and so-forth dictate the end result before they have arguably had an equal or fair chance at innovation, diversity, and/or impartiality.

When well-known brands limit the pool to any fixed group of inter-connected creatives and business individuals, the natural result is uniformity and the proliferation of those uniform standards — whether it be in terms of the look of garments or the appearance of models, or much more importantly, the brands, individuals, and specific ventures that experience success. 

In allowing the fashion industry to operate in a veil of unobstructed interconnectedness, we have, more or less, ensured that any variations on the accepted ideals or interests (financial and otherwise) take a permanent back seat to the reigning powers-that-be — something that will only be changed in a meaningful, lasting manner when the industry begins to look outside of the establishment and its innermost circle, something it has been largely unwilling to do.

This is not unlike something that Jean-Jacques Picart, a well-known fashion consultant, told Vestoj not too long ago. Speaking of fashion shows, he noted: “If we only invite the front row set of this world, the way we view fashion will never change.”