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Diet Prada: Fashion Instagram, creative referee and…brand bait?

One of the first to blow the social media whistle on the similarities between pieces of Gucci’s 2018 resort collection and designs made decades earlier by Harlem designer Dapper Dan, the anonymously run account regularly pits designers against each other like a reality TV show. Its catty captions and encyclopedic knowledge of collections past make it seem like a luxury brand’s nightmare — making it all the more interesting when Gucci let Diet Prada take over its Instagram in September.

Of its decision to give Diet Prada the keys to its social media kingdom for a day, a Gucci spokesman said it fit in with the brand’s “modern and organic approach to digital platforms.”

“We are very glad that it represented the very first collaboration from a content perspective between Diet Prada and a leading fashion luxury brand, followed with interest by other brands, designers and talents,” the spokesman added.

As the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey — or, as the tactical-minded Sun Tzu famously advised: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” And Gucci is not the only brand to try a more welcoming approach to deal with a needling social media personality — or, in another example, an emerging label that repurposes a major brand’s merchandise for its own collection.

Diet Prada is said to have been founded in 2014 by a pair of young fashion designers, Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler, but the account may now be run only by Liu. Neither has publicly revealed their involvement, but it seems only a true student of fashion could be so quick with so many design references.

It seems worth mentioning that the account hasn’t really pointed its virtual finger at Gucci in months, even when the brand defended its apparent use of two artworks by separate artists from New Zealand and Australia in its spring collection as part of Alessandro Michele’s take on “faux-real culture.”

Before that, Diet Prada also got into a self-described “Instagram war” with Stefano Gabbana over a Dolce & Gabbana sweater comparable to one released first by Gucci.

This led to more public barbs over several weeks that infuriated Gabbana and in turn delighted the account and its followers. But now, the designer seems to be attempting a more high-minded approach, after his demand for an apology resulted in the new, sardonic “#pleasesaysorrytome.” When Diet Prada in early January posted a GIF showing a D&G label set aflame with a Bic lighter in a darkened room, Gabbana responded in a comment on the post: “Kill them with kindness.”

The account has lately been going after Vaquera, a young New York brand led by a quartet of designers that markets itself as “fashion fan-fiction” in the business of revitalizing once-admired trends and styles. This attempt at transparency isn’t enough for Diet Prada, which said in a recent post that “forgotten” ideas are just being used without even a tip of a hat while comparing Vaquera’s trompe l’oeil lobster tie and white shirt combo to a strikingly similar Kenzo Homme look from 1993.

“Quite frankly, the whole ‘fashion fan-fiction’ term they coined seems more like a vague safety blanket of an excuse for a lack of creativity,” Diet Prada wrote. “We get it…the four of them love fashion so much, so why not put their heads together and take more risks with new ideas? It’s this sort of mentality and self-congratulation that perpetuates and incentivizes the industry to accept more of the same rather than create an environment for true originality to thrive.”

The post had 1,700 likes within two hours of being posted.

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The issue with @vaquera.nyc ’s “fashion fan-fiction” aka “recontexualization of iconic styles” is that often times they aren’t iconic, but rather forgotten. Would most remember this Kenzo Homme look from Spring/Summer 1993? Neat, but not exactly up in the ranks with Chanel (or Yohji) tweed suits or Gaultier cone bras. Failure to acknowledge such under the radar influences until after the fact comes off as an attempt to claim ownership of the innovation. Quite frankly, the whole "fashion fan-fiction" term they coined seems more like a vague safety blanket of an excuse for a lack of creativity. We get it…the four of them love fashion so much, so why not put their heads together and take more risks with new ideas? It’s this sort of mentality and self-congratulation that perpetuates and incentivizes the industry to accept more of the same rather than create an environment for true originality to thrive. #vaquera #kenzo #fashionfanfiction #recontextualization #japanesedesign #avantgarde #90s #japanese #copycat #knockoff #dietprada #suitntie #redlobster #asstoredlobster #print #nyfw

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Even a creative dressing down like this (merely one out of many aimed at everyone from emerging indie brands to Chanel since the account launched in 2014) isn’t a deterrent for some major houses apparently keen to follow Gucci’s approach. Post-Gucci takeover, Miu Miu hosted Diet Prada at its spring 2018 fashion show, then APC’s Jean Touitou took a meeting with presumably the founder(s) of the account.

But why are brands so quick to show they’re “in” on the joke and in turn validate what is simply an Instagram account doing little beyond calling out designers for copying one another?

Gabriel Held, a stylist and vintage archivist who last year started a short-lived Instagram series, #WhoWoreItBestTBEdition that showed side-by-sides of celebrities and models in the same couture, said a brand aligning its image with a cool online personality is just “smart.”

“On the one hand, it does feel a little bit like ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer,’ but it makes [the brands] seem cooler to me,” Held admitted. “Definitely it seems like a cooler reaction than to be pressed about it. It’s a fact that designers reference all kinds of stuff and I think if they can be in on the joke, then that definitely makes them present a lot better than being offended or something.”

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#WhoWoreItBestTBEdition #duhmary @misahylton

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Brands, especially of the luxury variety, aren’t exactly known for their humor. In an increasingly social world, however, where even esoteric references get the meme treatment and social justice issues crop up at the whims of Twitter, a more open approach seems to be gaining favor in fashion, with brands either looking to do damage control by making nice or absorb some social cache from a small, creative fish having its way with a legally protected image — maybe even both.

Though Held doesn’t always like Diet Prada’s approach and doesn’t follow the account because he’s “been a little bit turned off by the tone,” he still thinks the perceived mission is commendable.

“It’s important to highlight those kinds of things for people who might not be aware of how rampant designers being, let’s say ‘inspired’ by each other, is,” he said. “But there’s also something to be said for diplomacy and sweetness.”

Those certainly do not seem to be attributes of Diet Prada, or Internet culture at large, but the account may be starting to undermine the air of authority it’s managed to cultivate. At least twice it’s posted something false under the pretense of deep sarcasm that was completely lost on many followers and even some online media outlets. One post claimed to have an “exclusive” on a collaboration between Gucci and Stella McCartney, in an attempt to show similarities between a shoe style, and another claimed to have the first images of Vetements’ new campaign featuring Kim Kardashian and her daughter, to show that the reality star had ripped off one of the designer’s pieces for her children’s line.

In some light irony, the account is starting to spawn its own copycats. In October, an account called Copycat Industry (@copycat.industry) launched, sharing side-by-sides of alleged mass-market imitations of designer pieces. The account is anonymously run by a former employee of Galeries Lafayettes and Printemps Haussmann who is a “big fan” of Diet Prada.

“I just want to make people aware of what they are buying when they go shopping in a fast-fashion retail store,” Copycat Industry’s creator said. “They are not just buying this nice hoodie, but a hoodie Zara copied from [the] latest Margiela show. I want people [to follow] me to get aware of this and [make] their shopping [experiences] different.”

As valid and au courant as that sentiment may be, Copycat Industry positions itself on Instagram as a resource for finding “the copy of the fashion piece you’ve been looking for” and includes shoppable links to the copies it notices — meaning, presumably, the account gets paid each time a click-through results in a sale. A fashion insider fed up with the industry’s baser tendencies this account is not.

That ground is still firmly held by Diet Prada. Even if some find its methods are distasteful or “dramatic,” a word found often in its comments, there seems little chance that the site is headed for a change in approach, with 249,000 followers — and counting, as well as a small line of self-referential merch. Fashion insiders and hangers-on alike seem to delight in the Schadenfreude element of the account, and with the tacit support of brands, there’s probably no going back.

In a twist on its still-developing push for social currency, Gucci in 2016 collaborated on some imagery with Trevor Andrew, the husband of singer Santigold and an ex-pro snowboarder who gained Internet notoriety as GucciGhost, by, among other things, painting Gucci’s double-G symbol and Pac-Man-like ghosts on clothes, city walls and the odd canvas and posting images to Instagram. Last year the partnership continued with a full GucciGhost collection, released around the same time Andrew had an exhibit of his work at New York’s Milk Gallery.

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G👻NG #lifeisgucci

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After a mea culpa over the designs of Dapper Dan, Gucci went on to fully collaborate with him, too, putting him in a campaign and, in January, backed the reopening of Dan’s appointment-only Harlem boutique.

On the flip side, the Australian and New Zealand graphic artists who accused Gucci of copying their designs said they declined offers to collaborate that came after the brand was called out. “This is them covering a massive wrongdoing in the art and design community and in the fashion industry, full stop,” graphic designer Milan Chagoury said.

Levi Strauss & Co. is another giant brand that’s turned a more fashionable and Millennial-friendly corner by teaming up with Re/Done, an upstart that started reworking vintage Levi’s jeans into more modern styles. James Curleigh, Levi’s executive vice president and president of global brands, admitted that Re/Done came onto Levi’s radar as part of thorough and routine intellectual and brand property management efforts, which often include legal action. But Curleigh found himself more intrigued than annoyed by what Re/Done was up to.

“You can’t just rip off labels and call it your own brand — ethically it’s not cool and legally you can’t do it, and we have a very robust legal team that’s very passionate,” Curleigh said. “When the vintage movement started heating up a few years ago, we saw Re/Done, and they were doing things in an interesting way with interesting marketing and I said, ‘Why don’t we reach out and meet with these guys?’ So we met with [founders] Sean Barron and Jamie Mazur and it was just an amazing conversation. They were passionate about vintage denim, so we said rather than go through the cease-and-desist process, why don’t we collaborate?” 

That was in 2014 and Re/Done has subsequently released regular collections as Re/Done x Levi’s, with Levi’s as a partner receiving a “small royalty” and providing some marketing support. Curleigh had nothing but good things to say about the Re/Done product and marks it as Levi’s first “authorized vintage” partnership, and collaboration that gave the brand “fresh air to breath.”

“Every season, it’s only gotten stronger,” he added.

In the years since first working with Re/Done, Levi’s has also collaborated with Vetements and Off-White, two other young brands steeped in street style (and frequent Diet Prada targets) and the elevation of the mundane, from binder clips to UPS uniforms.

But for brands to be effectively complicit in what could be cast as derision or dilution — buddying up to “reworkers,” makers of fake logos and snark — it certainly marks a shift in strategy. Once upon a time, a Diet Prada or a Gucci Ghost would have been likely to find itself awash in court summonses and phone calls courtesy of Kering’s and Dolce & Gabbana’s army of lawyers for even suggesting either house sent something less than an original down a runway. Now they’re getting invites to the shows.

Tony Lupo, a partner with Arent Fox LLP who focuses on fashion and entertainment law, agreed that brands recently seem more open to collaborations, but added that working in tandem instead of going through litigation is “brilliant” and that he advises all of his clients to “at least consider it” when faced with such a dilemma.

“If I have a counterfeiter that’s a different story,” Lupo said. “But if I have someone who’s using [a client’s] brand for an homage — it’s like how you treat your fans, and that has to be done very carefully. In today’s world, especially if they have a social following, why not bring them into the fold and make it work for you. Then you’ve embraced the product and maybe you’ve even shaped it so they don’t say anything bad about you.”

There’s a fine line between homage and parody, however, and Lupo said a brand has to weigh the “artistic element” on offer before working with a relatively unknown entity.

“Just because someone is making art about you doesn’t mean they should get to collaborate with you,” Lupo said. “You have to be really savvy, because it can look desperate.”

Vic Drabicky, founder of digital marketing agency January Digital, noted that, as long as a collaboration “seems natural,” both sides of any creative alliance should get a boost.

“The stodgy brand gets a lift and the young upstart gets some more credibility,” Drabicky said. “But if you start stretching it, [collaborations] can lose power.”

But the particular power that a strong and natural collaboration can offer is harder to pin down. For Sean Barron, cofounder of Re/Done, the power comes from remaking and hopefully expanding the fan community around a brand, and Gucci, to him, is a leader in this new wave of branding.

“Whatever Gucci is doing, it’s really good and it’s not just a bunch of clothes,” Barron said. “Alessandro Michele is making amazing clothes, of course, but he, along with us and some others, understands the importance of community instead of just clothes. In order to build a community, you have to collaborate with like-minded folks and you can’t do [a collaboration] just for the sake of it.”

Nike Inc. is another brand known in the industry for being open-minded when it comes to collaborations, and Barron pointed to what he called “mash-ups” by online fans that toe the line between infringement and brand-positive creativity, but often end with Nike tapping them for additional and official designs.

“When people do these mash-ups, like putting the top of a Nike high-top with the bottom of a Red Wing or something, I don’t think that’s bad, if it’s done with good intentions and artistic value,” Barron said.

He added that brands should be more amiable than ever to finding collaborations outside the realm of traditional celebrities and influencers, because not only can they serve as a kind of creative tincture, but younger, sought-after consumers are charmed by a creative surprise.

“Today, there’s not a set of rules for brands, because this customer isn’t following any rules either,” Barron said.

For More, See:

Eyes On: Diet Prada

Buying Less, Wanting More: A Look at Millennial Shoppers

Making Sense of 21st-century Fashion? Not So Fast…

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