The fashion crowd, be warned: It’s time to open up.
This story first appeared in the January 26, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Social media’s growing power to sway buying decisions of “friends” and strangers alike continues to shake up the fashion world. Shoppers now have a need-to-know mentality when it comes to designers and brands. Somewhere, someone is watching. Always.
They don’t just want a behind-the-scenes look to ensure a company has fair labor practices, environmentally friendly sourcing, domestic production, an original design process and an approachable chief executive officer. Images of a designer offering a quick wave and slight bow after a runway show will no longer cut it with the new techno-savvy shoppers — many of whom troll the Internet all day long in search of the latest gossip. Such a shift toward greater transparency about all things fashion will only intensify, since the iGeneration (anyone 18 or under) is even more discriminating and socially conscious than their elders, according to an assortment of fashion insiders.
If a designer is selling something, he or she has to be very public and that has only intensified in recent months, according to Carolina Herrera. On holiday in Santo Domingo, she could not walk about freely because the cyber world seemed to be tracking her every move. “In a way, it is very flattering. I don’t mind giving time for an autograph or a photograph, even on the plane. Can you imagine? That can be a little embarrassing,” she said. “But it means your name is out there.”
Even Saks Inc.’s ceo Stephen I. Sadove is tracked on the Web and recent photos of him vacationing in Mexico with his family were plastered all over the Internet. Sadove has subsequently vowed not to “tweet,” in the interest of securing some privacy. And Tory Burch was recently tweeted about by a stranger who spotted her barefoot in an airport security line. The upshot? The designer was inspired to create a travel sock for women.
Urban Outfitters Inc. ceo Glen Senk agreed transparency is now a necessity for anyone in the brand game. “I don’t think you have a choice. First of all, the youth of today believes in transparency. Technology is such that people want to know everything. The only way to deal with this is to live an honest life and run an honorable business.”
That means “game on” for Baby Boomers such as Senk, who find themselves catapulted into the Internet age. “You probably know more about me after a half-hour Internet search than some of my friends do,” he said.
Consumers 18 and under expect transparency to be a given with the companies they patronize, according to Larry Rosen, whose “Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn” will be released in March. Having interviewed more than 3,000 people for his book, Rosen said this group is shaping up to be the most socially and politically conscientious generation since the Sixties. Aside from wanting goods made in America and free from sweatshop conditions, they are choosy about how brands communicate. If finding contact information on a retailer’s Web page becomes a scavenger hunt, the iGeneration will take their business elsewhere. A toll-free phone number or e-mail address won’t cut it with them either — they want instantaneous contact via Twitter, Skype or instant messaging, Rosen said. “It’s not necessarily just the product they are looking for but the presence. These kids need to makes decisions quickly. They will give a Web page a good 10 seconds. If they can’t find what they want or contact information, they will move on,” he said.
Some designers are looking to satisfy the hunger for information by revealing more about their day jobs to the general public. At her new Las Vegas store, Herrera is giving passersby a look at her runway show, thanks to video footage splashed on the building’s exterior at night. Advertising is also becoming more telling: TJ Maxx recently ran commercials that spotlighted one of its buyers and offered a glimpse of the professional life she leads. Then there’s Anthropologie’s Keith Johnson, whose “Man Shops Globe” show on the Sundance Channel clues in TV viewers to his buying trips.
Social media’s viral reach has prompted senior executives to try to shed their boardroom images via the chatty digital world. Zappos.com Inc. ceo Tony Hsieh has amassed more than 1.5 million followers on Twitter. Alexander McQueen, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana are a few of the many designers tweeting their thoughts and work and free-time plans. McQueen’s tweets range from plugging his work: “Take a look at our new SS10 RTW collection which is online…” to being overworked, “Press day yesterday — shooting tomorrow — does it ever stop?”
Others are more inclined to delve into their daffier side. Rather than tweet photos of her new signature bikinis, songstress-designer Jessica Simpson recently uploaded a video of herself using an ear candle. Unexpected as that was, it was picked up by various media and bloggers alike. Lindsay Lohan tweeted to her fans that she’ll expand her 6126 leggings line into apparel before her manufacturing partners were ready to go public.
Behind-the-scenes shows like “Project Runway” and “The Fashion Show” have made viewers “begin to understand that things don’t just materialize out of thin air,” said David Macaulay, who wrote “The Way Things Work” more than 20 years ago. Bravo seems to be illustrating that notion through its new agreement with RueLaLa.com, the invitation-only Web site that will debut the winning collection from Bravo’s new show “Launch My Line.” Commercial gain, however, is not necessarily the impetus for full disclosure, or at least the semblance of it, Macaulay said. Whether beset by economical or ecological woes, “maybe people are a little more desperate to have something definite to hold onto. Architecture, fashion and industrial design are very much a part of everyday life. To begin to understand the practicality of these things we kind of take for granted is ultimately reassuring.”
Macaulay is not surprised by how society seems to be hung up on transparency now. “Things have been covered up for a long time, and people are inherently curious, especially if they feel they are losing the world around them, which will all come to an end some day,” he said. “There is a need and willingness to understand things in more in-depth terms. What is heartwarming is after so much time spent accepting what could be, based on what we were told by people in positions of power, people want to know more.”
The trend is not entirely brand-driven. The Save the Garment Center campaign in New York argues for greater transparency about how much of the neighborhood is actually used for apparel production. There has even been talk of how an all-glass factory would give pedestrians a glimpse of how clothes are made. By raising consciousness, Seventh Avenue advocates believe consumers will be more inclined to support domestic efforts to preserve fashion production in New York.
John Winsor of Boulder, Colo.-based ad agency Victors & Spoils, pointed to Patagonia’s “Footprint Chronicles,” which allows consumers to track the environmental impact of a specific product from design through delivery, as an example of how apparel companies are opening up their processes. Banking on the notion that consumer desire for more involvement with brands will only increase in the months ahead, Winsor’s new agency is a proponent of crowd sourcing, essentially an open call for consumers to contribute to an individual brand’s decision-making.
Brands need to be more imaginative about using unconventional multimedia too, said fashion photographer Stephen Sebring, who collaborated with Patti Smith on a documentary, art exhibition and book. “For me, it’s just not any one thing. It’s not just a photograph. At this point, who cares? I am more interested in the technological things that allow us to move into more interesting places.”
But transparency is evident in all aspects of society today, not just the fashion world. President Obama campaigned on the promise of a more transparent government, but that has proved to be more difficult to deliver. The anti-Wall Street sentiment could be a factor as well. The Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002, after all, was put into place after such corporate and accounting scandals at Enron, Tyco International and other firms cost investors billions of dollars when the share prices of affected companies collapsed and shook public confidence in the nation’s securities markets. Now Obama, battered at the polls by Massachusetts voters last week, is pressing financial firms to be even more transparent by criticizing Wall Street bonuses and pressing for limitations on firms’ activities.
Village Voice columnist Michael Musto dubbed the Nineties “the decade of the TMI generation” and a decade later sees no relief in sight. “You don’t have to wait anymore for Barbara Walters to negotiate an interview,” he said. “New media allow for levels of immediacy and intimacy that were never options for people before. That’s very seductive.”
Victors & Spoils’ Winsor said, “I call it radical transparency. What’s happened relatively quickly is everybody has the ability to publicly comment about anything. They can also attack you, and companies aren’t used to that. It is a fundamental change. Everyone has to be ready to be more open. You have to be proactive and get out in front of things or you’re going to get caught.”
There is a flip side though. J. Crew Group Inc. creative director Jenna Lyons countered that social media has created somewhat of “a monolithic, untouchable feel” to communications and perhaps as a backlash there has been a surge in requests at the retailer’s call center from consumers eager to speak with an actual person. In stores, consumers are being encouraged to use personal shoppers regardless of whether they’re looking for a T-shirt or a wedding dress, Lyons said.
J. Crew staffers are continually keeping up with consumers’ online posts. “If anybody blogs about J. Crew, we call them and try to resolve the situation. People need that. There is a lot of impersonalization out there these days,” Lyons said. “And our sales associates are writing notes to follow up with customers and calling them when new stuff comes in.”
But senior executives aren’t the only ones being more candid — lower-rung staffers are also sounding off or sharing more information after, or sometimes before, jumping ship to another label. That didn’t used to be the case, said Bud Konheim, president and ceo of Nicole Miller. “It’s really left to personal ethics, which is really quite dangerous. There is a whole crowd of Americans who believe there is no right or wrong, it’s just can you get away with it or not,” he said. “This demand for more transparency gets into some fuzzy judgment calls.”
And the public’s hunger for reality TV and fast-track stardom is furthering the phenomenon, Konheim said. “When was the last time you heard someone say, ‘No comment’? It’s rare,” he said. “I don’t see there is any way to avoid it. If anything, it will only get worse.”