In Fashion, Who Will Cancel the Cancelers?

Rachel Tashjian

For the past five years, a “cancelation” at the hands of the Instagram account Diet Prada ranked high on the long list of things fashion brands had to worry about. With its two million followers, catty tone, and encyclopedic knowledge of runway history, Diet Prada has been called “the most feared Instagram account” in the industry by the Business of Fashion. The two founders (anonymous when they founded the account in 2014 but revealed as fashion professionals Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler in a 2017 story on the Fashion Law) called out brands that appeared to commit what is often considered fashion’s original sin: knocking off other designers. Fashion’s problems go far beyond that, of course, and soon cultural appropriation, the lack of diversity in publishing and fashion houses, and hits and misses on the red carpet all became fodder for a Diet Prada call-out. The repercussions were real: appearing in the account’s crosshairs could get your fashion show canceled (Dolce & Gabbana’s 2018 Shanghai show), a problematic accessory pulled (a Gucci balaclava that resembled blackface in 2019), the diversity of your design team challenged (Prada and Gucci, in 2019), or your reputation merely denigrated (Philipp Plein, often).

But now, as new coalitions like the Black In Fashion Council and The Fifteen Percent Pledge push the fashion industry to undergo a radical reconsideration of its approach to diversity, and current and former employees of fashion businesses feel compelled to speak out on social media through campaigns like #BlackatR29, Diet Prada is also undergoing a transformation of sorts as it broadens its coverage beyond fashion to include politics and social justice. Most notably, this past weekend, Liu and Schuyler misfired with a post on the heels of Gap’s announcement of its 10-year partnership with Kanye West. Writing with a wink that they were offering a sneak-peek of West’s first drop for Gap, they shared a series of mocked up T-shirts and hoodies in West’s signature desert-tones, with “MAGA” and “SLAVERY WAS A CHOICE” written in the struggling mall brand’s signature spire font. It was intended as a satire of West’s support for Donald Trump, and featured a misquote of comments West made in 2018 about the history of slavery.

To many in Diet Prada’s active community of followers—as well as other internet fashion observers—the post went too far, particularly because it failed to acknowledge that West had appointed Mowalola Ogunlesi, the Nigerian-British designer whose sexy, psychoactive leather pieces have made her an avant-garde fashion favorite, as the design director for his Gap partnership. Liu and Schuyler also stoked tensions with their post announcing West’s appointment by framing it as a blow to Telfar Clemens, the New York designer who had inked a deal with Gap earlier this year that is now postponed due to COVID-19. “Imagine having 2mil followers and instead of highlighting the work of a black female indie designer, you... take the time to photoshop stale ass jokes,” tweeted Mark Sabino, a Brooklyn-based designer.

“I think DP took a lazy approach to satire at the expense of three Black designers, one of them being a Black woman,” wrote Antoine Gregory, a fashion writer and archivist who also commented on the post on Twitter, in an email to GQ. “Black women are already grossly underrepresented in fashion. Here was an opportunity to highlight her appointment. DP ignored it completely.” For her part, Ogunlesi tweeted a video of herself swinging one of her signature bags at the camera from an event late last year, writing, “@diet_prada fight me.”

By the end of the weekend, the Instagram post was gone, with no explanation to the account’s two million followers. On Twitter, where DP has just under 9,000 followers, they posted an apology: “The irony of a call out account getting called out. All the shade is well deserved.” In a screenshot, they stated that “our intention was to open up a conversation about what it means for a huge fashion corporation like Gap to be aligning with a figure like Kanye, whose divisive politics often take center stage,” but that “our intentions of using satire to do so fell flat.” They said that they had missed the announcement of Ogunlesi’s appointment, which was not mentioned in Gap’s initial announcement, and apologized to her.

In an email interview with GQ, Schuyler and Liu wrote, “We’re still trying to think of a more meaningful way to address it on our Instagram. We all know how the typical Instagram apologies go… they’re pretty worthless to an audience that’s already made up their mind. There’s a tendency for people and brands to be too reactionary in their apologies and we could all benefit from taking the time to process and learn.”

For many industry insiders and observers, the Twitter apology was not enough—and Diet Prada’s stumbling coverage of the news about West, Clemens, and Ogunlesi was representative of a larger, longer-term issue with the callout-and-cancel approach to fashion and pop culture that the account helped pioneer in the first place. Some fashion insiders say that, in searching for the inflammatory angle instead of working towards a cohesive platform for a reformed fashion industry, the account often misses the mark. As Sabino wrote to GQ by email earlier this week, “They [have] especially talked about Kanye and Virgil Abloh in ways that at times felt like they were overdoing it a little,” adding that although West remains a controversial figure for his support of Donald Trump, “putting a budding young, black, female designer at the head of a massive collaboration is a big deal no matter who pulls it off.” Gregory wrote to GQ that Diet Prada is no longer relevant: “We've moved past Diet Prada because no one holds Diet Prada accountable. DP is able to have ‘Black Lives Matter’ in their bio and at the same time uphold tokenism in the industry. You can’t do both. Where is the credibility in that?” A handful of other fashion industry insiders told me that they don’t follow Diet Prada: “I pay them no mind,” one said. Their militant and uncompromising tone can seem out of step with the industry’s current mores: “Abolish the police also means diet prada,” joked (or not!) another person on Twitter.

So has the great canceler become the canceled? The answer isn’t quite so simple.

Fashion, it seems, is moving towards a more nuanced court of public opinion, where consumers and employees are pushing for systemic change at every level instead of the mere removal of figureheads. “‘Cancelling’ people doesn’t give them the opportunity to fix what they did wrong; it deprives someone of full accountability,” says fashion influencer Bryan Yambao, aka Bryanboy. And new industry efforts to challenge racism in fashion that have emerged over the past several weeks push that idea into actionable territory. Aurora James’s Fifteen Percent Pledge is an  initiative to diversify consumers’ spending habits. After the Council of Fashion Designers of America announced a new slate of diversity actions, the Kelly Initiative formed to demand more radical systemic change. Last week, Teen Vogue editor Lindsay Peoples Wagner and publicist Sandrine Charles announced the Black In Fashion Council, an organization of more than 400 fashion professionals that will create a Quality Index Score to work with emerging and established fashion brands and media organizations to diversify staff and provide mentorship and support. In an interview with the Business of Fashion, Peoples Wagner said that she wanted to move away from “cancel culture” towards “accountability culture,” adding, “We want to allow people to rise to the occasion of changing.”

For their part, the founders of DP appear to agree. “When we read what Lindsay said, it was really a relief,” Liu and Schuyler wrote. “A lot of our part in ‘callout culture’ has been born out of an interest and need from the community, which we’ve been happy to serve despite the pressure and the growing number of eyeballs on the account. But as more individual leaders emerge from this shift that’s happening, it’s likely we’ll get to a place where we won’t need ‘callout culture’ as we know it.” Over the past several weeks, the account has adapted a new format that suggests more mainstream media ambitions, with magazine-style headlines and deks, with swipe-throughs that provide screenshots, comments, and other visuals as evidence. Stories have included the controversies around Stephen Gans at V Magazine and a recent rainbow-themed Louis Vuitton campaign that failed to mention LGBTQ+ community in any of its promotion. But it’s also posted about news outside the direct bounds of fashion, like Black Lives Matter protestors burning the American flag, Trump’s partially-filled Oklahoma rally venue, and various stories of statues of slave traders being pulled down. “There’s a huge paradigm shift happening now and somehow fashion grabs our attention the least in this moment,” Liu and Schuyler wrote to GQ

But efforts to broaden their scope of coverage, or the DP universe, have also led to some unfortunate optics: When asked why they chose not to post the announcement of diversification efforts like the Kelly initiative and the Black In Fashion Council, Liu and Schuyler explained that it can be difficult to track all of the fashion industry news with a team of two. They later clarified by email that they covered both of those announcements on Instagram stories. (Though as one Twitter user wrote about the account’s recent struggles, “I used to like diet prada....then I joined twitter and I realised everything has already happened and finished here before it gets there.”)

In this environment, what is the purpose of something like Diet Prada? “I think ultimately Diet Prada will need to decide what role they want in this ecosystem,” Yambao says. “Now, more than ever, both corporations and online personalities will need to make their stances on various issues public—we’re all gonna have to act like politicians because the audiences demand that.” And if brands and figures start policing themselves, either on their own or by partnering with the new groups for accountability, there might not be quite so pressing a need for Diet Prada’s fashion-police role. “We also saw so many fashion employees in retail and at the corporate level speak to their experiences facing racism by calling their employers out through their own social media accounts,” Liu and Schuyler wrote to GQ. “There will always be power in speaking to that individual experience and this is something we’ve seen in the Me Too movement.”

On Tuesday evening, at least, it was back to business on the @diet_prada feed, with story about a lingerie brand knocking off another, and a video of Viola Davis in 2018 voicing her disbelief at being called “a black Meryl Streep.” “Thank you for highlighting these issues,” wrote a follower on the Davis post. “The work you’re doing is beyond impactful ✨”

This story has been updated to reflect that Diet Prada shared information about the Kelly Initiative and Black In Fashion Council on Instagram stories.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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