Fashion finstas or worthwhile watchdogs?
Anonymous Instagram accounts like Diet Prada have more followers than ELLE and Harper’s Bazaar, but none of the accountability. What does the rise of anonymous commentators mean for the fashion industry?
Meme culture has given us many things. It gave us the distracted boyfriend meme, the side-eye girl and you could say it’s to blame (or to thank?) for the rebirth of Crocs. It also gave rise to fashion-related meme accounts, many of which operate anonymously. @stressedstylist, @givecredit_ and @skipdin are among the accounts posting fashion-related content from anonymous or semi-anonymous Instagram accounts. While each serves a slightly different function, their existence has bucked the boundaries of fashion commentary and poses complicated questions about the ethics of anonymous posting.
It turns out, a lot of people have anonymous – or at least thinly veiled – Instagram accounts. These ‘finstas’ or ‘fake Instagrams’ are largely a way to post content for your close friends to see without worrying about the repercussions on your current career or future employability. In a time when everything is posted online, from political rants and what you ate for breakfast to drunken misdemeanours and dancing in your bathtub, anonymity feels increasingly appealing. Especially when online missteps can cause serious damage IRL. Just look at the legions of people who have been fired or dropped from campaigns over old tweets and new posts alike. The strange thing is that our craving for anonymity doesn’t undermine our desire to share our lives online. Some people simply take the vowels out of their name to avoid detection, others come up with Internet alter-egos reminiscent of their first email address (mine was shopaholic2000) or their old MSN names. Finstas are the Instagram equivalent of a digital magazine putting up a paywall, but the readers are your friends and the subscription fee is trust.
For @stressedstylist, who started their account in November 2017, posting anonymous memes is a way to laugh off the sometimes comical realities of being a stylist without jeopardising their working relationships. “It’s really just about the daily struggles and experiences I’ve been through or I’ve heard of at work,” they say. “Stylists are often neglected in the fashion industry and outside of it most people don’t even know this job exists, so maybe, in a way, my page has raised awareness and created a more public platform for us.”
As well as posting their own experiences, they get ideas from followers, who have found a sense of community on the account. “It’s incredible how memes can really bring people together,” they continued. “Most of my followers are definitely people in the industry. So many stylists and assistants tag their friends or share my memes and this makes me super happy. We often have the same problems and face similar challenges at work.” As the account has fostered a close community of stylists, some followers have started to resent not knowing the person behind the memes. Their identity may be hidden, but the people commenting, liking and sharing posts do not have the same protection. “People often message me asking who I am or try to guess, but does it really matter?” For @stressedstylist, the motivation for being anonymous really comes down to being shy and not wanting their memes to define their career: “I made it anonymous because for now I just prefer not being exposed or recognised for that, there is no particular reason other than that and that I’m really shy. It’s kind of like I have created a character that speaks up for me.”
In many ways, anonymous fashion accounts like @stressedstylist fulfil the role that fashion forums like The Fashion Spot used to. In a Business of Fashion column defending the seemingly antiquated forum in 2016, blogger Susie Lau wrote: “There’s something about the anonymity (and notoriety) afforded by avatars, the moderators chiming in with reminders of posting rules, the threads of discussion that can go on for pages and pages with back-and-forth replies.” She argued that The Fashion Spot and other forums like it was a necessary space for people interested in fashion to share their authentic feelings about the industry. It wasn’t just a place to vent or gossip – in fact, it had strict guidelines on this, and encouraged credible research – it was a place where fashion-lovers could discuss the intricacies of by-gone collections and dissect current trends in microscopic detail. The anonymous forums filled a void left by mainstream fashion commentary.
If #unfiltered is the ultimate Instagram badge of integrity, then it’s understandable that accounts like @givecredit_ are gaining traction for their honest content, void of brand affiliations. Their posts highlight cases of cultural appropriation in fashion, inviting brands to acknowledge their sources and do better. In this case, the anonymity of their account stems from being a broader team running a fledgling campaign. “The idea behind it was not to remain anonymous, but to promote our cause under a generic shared name,” says Andreea Diana Tănăsescu, a founding member. Their campaign recently called out Carolina Herrera for appropriating the colourful striped fabrics initially woven by artisans in the town of Saltillo, Mexico. The brand claimed that their Resort 2020 collection evoked ‘the playful and colourful mood of a Latin holiday’; in reality, it was ripping off indigenous designs. Other posts include Valentino Haute Couture 2019/20 copying Akha headdresses from Thailand and Kim Kardashian trying to trademark her shapewear brand, ‘Kimono’. According to Andreea, the account’s anonymity allows it to take a backseat and hand over the platform to the people whose cultures are being appropriated. “We are a platform that gives everybody the voice they need to be heard,” she says. “We are trying to have an open approach towards different perspectives, so as to find the best and most efficient way of solving cultural appropriation issues.” Crucially, they are not calling for boycotts of the accused brands and nor are they saying the designs cannot be used as inspiration. They are simply asking that brands credit and compensate their sources.
What @givecredit_ tries to do, which other anonymous accounts seem to neglect, is go through a rigorous verification process. Of course, an account like @stressedstylist doesn’t require much verification because it is based on personal experience and doesn’t implicate or accuse specific brands of misdemeanours. With @givecredit_, posts have the capacity to affect brands’ sales and therefore workers’ livelihoods, so the team are careful to do their due diligence. “Verification requires both time and knowledge,” explains Andreea. “Especially culturally, we should pay special attention when presenting a specific situation to the people.” In some cases, this process takes mere hours but in others, it takes months: “We have collaborations with partners all over the world. It is much easier for us to connect with native traditional-textile experts this way. We are undergoing the process of becoming official, through a collaborative partnership which we have started with Donna Bramhall of Haute Culture Textile Tours. This allows us to verify accusations with the communities which keep and maintain this essential type of knowledge, generation by generation.”
While @givecredit_ focuses on cultural appropriation, anonymous accounts like @shitmodelmgmt and @diet_prada have gained an audience for their handling of sexual assault allegations and calling out ‘ppl knocking each other off lol’ respectively. All face similar challenges with verification. While they allow people to speak openly about commonplace issues they face without fear of endangering their careers, their anonymity has arguably played a significant role in broadening the reach of a sensationalist call-out culture, often at the expense of a thorough, methodical approach to researching and discussing key issues. The anonymity becomes a little more sinister when the account is public and, instead of just posting drunken selfies, it posts call-outs. In some cases, this leads to products being pulled or customers boycotting brands, but others simply ignore the accusations. While followers have largely supported their claims about major brands ripping off start-up talent, Diet Prada have faced some backlash when critiquing young, independent designers. Last year, the pair called out Richard Quinn for supposed similarities to Demna Gvasalia’s designs for Balenciaga, only to be scolded by followers who reminded them that Quinn’s exploration of head-to-toe florals predated Gvasalia’s. It raised questions over the account’s responsibility to support young talent, which is often their justification for posting larger brands’ copies. It’s one thing to adopt a cloak of anonymity to protect your own career, but quite another thing when you do it to tear down someone else’s.
“Someone had to do this. I know it’s crazy that a meme account ended up being the person to do it, but it was just time. What would you do if you had thousands of horrific stories? Would you just go to bed at night knowing you had a way to help?”
At the end of February 2018, just a few months after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, Instagram meme account @shitmodelmgmt started posting a ‘blacklist’ of alleged abusers within the fashion industry. Soon, there were more than 450 names on the list, and those with more than three allegations levelled against them were marked with an asterisk. By the beginning of March 2018, the blacklist had been removed from the @shitmodelmgmt account, with the account holder telling followers, “I’m getting too many death threats and threats to ‘find my family’ and ‘make me sorry I did this’. I’m still not sorry for protecting models from future negative experiences. Someone had to do this. I know it’s crazy that a meme account ended up being the person to do it, but it was just time. What would you do if you had thousands of horrific stories? Would you just go to bed at night knowing you had a way to help?” With such high profile additions as designer Tom Ford and photographer Bruce Weber, it is understandable that the person behind the account would wish to remain anonymous. They may be problematic, but the people on the list are also influential, and speaking out publicly could result in the account holder being blacklisted themselves, albeit from work not because of an assault claim. The former model told Paper magazine, “I’m so glad that I didn’t [reveal my identity] because I would be scared.” Whilst the account itself is anonymous, the person behind it was wary to accept tips or allegations from other anonymous accounts. When someone messaged her from an account with no posts or followers and no screenshots of the alleged inappropriate messages, she chose not to share the allegation.
Diet Prada is no longer anonymous – it’s founders were unceremoniously exposed as Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler – but the watchdog account still functions with an air of backstage whispers more akin to Gossip Girl than true journalism. Its early anonymity seems to have granted it a free pass to bitch and gossip, and it encourages similar bullying behaviour from its audience, who regularly send in tips. The ‘news’ shared on Diet Prada isn’t just office gossip spilt at the water fountain, it often comes with receipts: Instagram comments otherwise buried in a flurry of responses, illicit conversations and direct messages with the names covered up are all screenshotted and shared. The issue is that the accused rarely get a chance to respond to allegations before the damage to their reputation is done and the pair have been known to play favourites. Last year, Dolce & Gabbana were forced to cancel a show in Shanghai after Diet Prada drew attention to racist comments made by designer Stefano Gabbana, the New York Times reported that “the internet’s troublesome commentators” were now “too influential to ignore.” Many people suspect that Diet Ignorant, an account dedicated to calling out Diet Prada’s call-outs, is run by scorned designer Stefano Gabbana. On the other hand, brands like Prada and Gucci, who have invited Liu and Schuyler to narrate their shows before, have enjoyed relative impunity despite accusations of racism.
These anonymous accounts exist in a time when consumers pledge allegiance to fashion brands based on their social and political credentials. People brandishing logo t-shirts want to know that they aren’t guilty-by-association. So the allegations Diet Prada throw out have very real ramifications. Encouraging boycotts of brands they disagree with generally doesn’t damage the people implicated but the people working below them, the people who depend on that brand to make ends meet. The legacy of Diet Prada’s anonymity, combined with the fact that they lay no claim to rigorous journalism or research, seems to be that it relieves them of accountability.
The Business of Fashion recently referred to Diet Prada as “fashion’s most exciting new media brand.” The article went on to suggest that, in order to grow, Diet Prada might consider a more journalistic approach, “giving subjects the opportunity to comment, and more rigorously fact-checking tips and corroborating accusations.” The idea that an anonymous entity can play judge to a digital jury is a complicated one. Whether the public participation that platforms like Diet Prada encourage is a good thing is yet to be seen. Of course, in cases where there are sexual abuse accusations involved or racist slurs, there is an element of public interest. It took Diet Prada and @shitmodelmgmt calling out abusers within the industry for mainstream publications like Vogue to finally sever ties with the accused photographers.
“Anonymous communication in journalism is not a new concept, but technology simply offered more ways of hiding one’s identity.”
When Vogue reporter Luke Leitch called out Vivienne Westwood for copying Rottingdean Bazaar in March 2018, it prompted the brand to issue a PR apology. However, publications like Vogue haven’t made a habit of such call-outs. For the most part, anonymous accounts say what mainstream fashion commentators, bound by brand affiliations, cannot. Anonymous accounts may not be beholden to advertisers or affiliations but they aren’t totally exempt from possible consequences. Fashion law attorney Anna Radke helped shed some light on the issues that most commonly arise from anonymous accounts. “Some of the legal pitfalls that anonymous accounts can fall into include defamation, invasion of privacy or copyright infringement,” she explained.
Legal action raises the question of whether account-holders should be able to retain their anonymity. “Being anonymous might not help one in avoiding liability, as the right of freedom of expression needs to be balanced with such interests as crime prevention or protection of one’s reputation. There are various legal steps of defeating a person or entity’s anonymity, and the approaches vary from country to country,” says Anna. “There was a case in which the court decided that Yelp needed to unmask anonymous user in a defamation case. There was also a copyright infringement lawsuit against an anonymous Amthrax blogger who posted a training manual copyrighted by Signature Management Team, but here, the court ruled that his or her identity did not have to be revealed.” For Anna, the internet has made anonymity more achievable. “There is no doubt that the Internet offers new ways of sharing information on important matters, which can be accessed globally,” she says. “Anonymous communication in journalism is not a new concept, but technology simply offered more ways of hiding one’s identity. There are, for instance, certain technical steps that could be undertaken in order to minimise the risk of being uncovered, such as making it difficult to tie a specific IP address to a particular person. There has been a rise in these cases recently, and it’s interesting to see how the outcomes vary in different legal jurisdictions. If they are not unified, it might become easier to ‘hide’ in one country than another.”
Interestingly, as anonymous Instagram accounts have gained popularity, their counterparts in traditional fashion commentary have had to sacrifice theirs. Jess Cartner-Morley, Associate Editor (Fashion) at The Guardian, commented: “When I started, fashion editors were anonymous. Now we’re expected to be models. Blogging had such a huge impact on fashion writing; it essentially broke the fourth wall of fashion writing. It’s now a conversation between you and your audience.” Jess became Fashion Editor at The Guardian in 2000, about seven years before blogging became mainstream. She attributes the loss of fashion journalists’ anonymity to the contrasting visibility of bloggers and the trust that earned them with readers. “That was a huge tone shift blogging brought about; fashion writing is unrecognisable now and having your photo taken is part of that – when you’re having a conversation with the writer, it makes sense that you can see them in a physical way. It’s a valuable thing in a marketplace for people to know who you are.”
George Serventi is the semi-anonymous writer behind @skipdin, the ‘award-wanting meme account for people who love to hate fashion’. While several of George’s posts demonstrate a sharp wit, others err a little too close to bullying, aping the same gossipy tone that so often fuels Diet Prada. Ageist comments about middle-aged women wearing Simone Rocha and a post undermining the achievements of educator, little person and activist Sinéad Burke seem ill-intentioned. It begs the question of whether he would get away with these posts if not for the mask of anonymity.
For George, the account is mostly just an extension of his satirical fashion magazine, SKIP Dinner. He says running an anonymous account, however malicious the content can be, has catalysed his career in mainstream fashion commentary. “I’ve been writing for various online fashwan [sic] publications for a few years, but the account has afforded me a few opportunities” he wrote via email. The opportunities he’s referring to include a column in LOVE magazine. “You’ve got to put yourself out there to get any interest, despite the fact it’s scary and lots of people might not like you.”
It’s not just George getting attention from his (not so) anonymous account. @stressedstylist has been featured in i-D, @shitmodelmgmt in Paper and Diet Prada in every publication from Vogue to the New York Times. Whether or not mainstream fashion commentary has changed as a result of these accounts, it certainly has taken notice. Perhaps the two types of commentator can exist side by side or, like George, writers can straddle both. But as more and more people turn to social media as their main source of news (2.4 billion and counting, according to Forbes), it might be time to apply journalistic standards to anonymous commentators too.