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Diet Prada, Estée Laundry and the Rise of Watchdog Culture: Harmful or Helpful?

Instagram accounts that call out industry missteps, from copycat designs to cultural insensitivities, are proliferating. How much good are they actually doing?
@pam_boy, @diet_prada, @esteelaundry | Source: Instagram
By
  • Rachel Strugatz,
  • Lauren Sherman
BoF PROFESSIONAL

NEW YORK, United States — You just can't trust the media anymore.

At least that's according to Ellory Camejo, a 22-year-old student studying fashion design at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. Her scepticism about traditional media outlets has driven her to rely on Instagram account Diet Prada for her fashion news. She no longer reads fashion magazines.

“I read them when I was a kid, and when I turned 16 or 17 I got tired of them. It’s the same shit over and over again,” Camejo said. “Diet Prada is better... it’s a more raw, younger take on what’s happening. As far as I can tell, there’s not much of an ulterior motive.”

Camejo is one of roughly one million Diet Prada followers, who look to the Instagram account for unapologetic, unfiltered commentary on current industry pariahs — from Dolce & Gabbana to Bruce Weber — as well as a running play-by-play of labels knocking one another off.

The success of the account — run by designers Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler — has inspired a full-blown watchdog movement on Instagram: @esteelaundry is the Diet Prada of the beauty industry, with its aggressive tone and high-profile targets. Aspiring Youtube star Luke Meagher's account, @hautelemode, sprinkles acerbic fashion commentary across his memes, while @retailslambook aims to shed light on the wrongdoings of big apparel brands. Journalist and critic Pierre A. M'Pelé reviews shows and shares his direct-message chats with boldface names including James Scully and Marc Jacobs.

Many of these accounts update their Instagram stories several times a day — or more, depending on the controversy of the moment — and include plenty of screenshots of tips from followers or seemingly private conversations with newsmakers. Initially seen by many as snarky outsiders, some of these modern-day publishers are now feared within the walls of some of the industry's biggest companies.

And they are increasingly setting the industry agenda themselves.

A substantial amount of social media pressure and criticism can damage a brand — and it's something we didn't have to worry about several years ago.

Dolce & Gabbana is still virtually blacklisted in China over two months after Diet Prada published racist direct messages Stefano Gabbana sent to a critic of one of the brand's ad campaigns in the country. In October, Estée Laundry turned allegations that Sunday Riley pressured employees to write positive product reviews into a viral scandal that forced the skincare brand to respond publicly.

"A substantial amount of social media pressure and criticism can damage a brand — and it's something we didn't have to worry about several years ago," said Malcom Carfrae, founder of Carfrae Consulting and former public relations head for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. "Brands and celebrities are playing it safe to avoid being crucified on social media."

The people behind these accounts say they're shedding light on industry truths that might not have made it through the filter of traditional media, filling a space left open as mainstream outlets cut staff and gave advertisers greater influence over what they publish. As Instagram natives, Diet Prada and other watchdogs also connect easily with younger readers like Camejo, who already get their cultural cues from the social media platform.

"My brutal honesty stems from wanting to reach that mainstream audience," said HauteLeMode's Meagher, who is currently a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "For a long time, we haven't had voices like that."

The rise of watchdog culture is a byproduct of a politically divisive, culturally aware and outspoken society. Consumers' expectations have shifted dramatically. They want full transparency and are ready to call out anyone and everyone who doesn’t give it to them. Designers and founders are expected to maintain an accessible image, which can mean interacting with consumers who challenge the quality of their products or their commitment to the right set of values.  Founders today must have a different level of stewardship, maintain certain values, become voices in these conversations, interact and if necessary, defend their brands and beliefs.

“Brands are no longer these anonymous, faceless corporations,” said Maureen Brewster, a lecturer at Parsons who specialises in fashion and beauty as it is portrayed in popular culture. “Consumers are expecting more transparency and authenticity from all brands and products they consume."

Estée Laundry was launched nearly a year ago by a group of friends who work outside the beauty industry, one of the founders told BoF. The account's following soared over the summer when it gained a reputation as the go-to hub for the latest twists in late Deciem founder Brandon Truaxe's public meltdown.

The account is run by people in multiple countries, allowing for around-the-clock posting. Followers send in tips, with Glossier, Lush, Deciem, Huda Kattan and "Kardashian stuff" the most common targets, the founder said. It has 43,000 followers, or “Laundrites” — a fraction of Diet Prada’s army of “Dieters” — but industry insiders say they monitor Estée Laundry closely.

The founder, who declined to reveal her identity, likened the account to a non-profit, saying there were no plans to introduce ads or sponsored content. The goal is to eventually create a Facebook group where users can submit moderated comments and interact, as well as a website.

“We’re not doing this to make money,” she said.

One sign of these accounts’ influence: out of a dozen brands, designers and influencers that had appeared on Diet Prada or Estée Laundry and later contacted by BoF, only one agreed to speak openly. The rest said they feared being targeted again. One designer said she had a physical reaction to the words “Diet Prada” because she has “PTSD” from repeated coverage by the account. A publicist representing a well-known founder said it was “too fresh” to talk about her beauty brand’s experience with Estée Laundry.

The founder of another beauty brand, who requested anonymity because she said she didn’t want to become a target of the account, said representatives from Sephora have asked about times the brand was mentioned by Estée Laundry. Sephora declined to comment.

But are these watchdog accounts actually doing any good?

Most would likely agree that Stefano Gabbana's direct message exchanges on Instagram were indefensible or that Vogue erred in mis-identifying Noor Tagouri, a Muslim-American activist and journalist, as Noor Bukhari, a Pakistani actress — a mistake Diet Prada called out last week.

And Estée Laundry has called attention to numerous copycat products and discussed issues such as inclusivity and race. A #ShopMyStash Challenge kicked off January 1 to promote sustainability through user-generated content by encouraging followers to “use less, buy less and use up what you already own” by “shopping” their existing beauty products.

Posting these incidents to Instagram is a quicker way to go viral than in a magazine or website. The downside, however, is that the same forces can spread misinformation too. One or two-person operations lack the checks and balances of traditional media organisations.

And some alleged transgressions are less clear-cut. An Estée Laundry post from November suggested that a lip scrub made by KNC Beauty was a #ShamelessCopyPaste of Glossier’s Cloud Paint blush. But some of the Laundrites were not having it.

“This is definitely not your finest post, sorry,” one follower said. “It’s a reach. Glossier does not own pink packaging nor tube packaging with octagonal caps."

Kristen Noel Crawley, KNC Beauty’s founder, said she was happy to see commenters defend her brand, but that the incident had a lasting impact.

“I built this brand from the ground up — no PR, no investment — and it has me second-guessing my judgement,” she said. “I know that I have good designs and good ideas, but it makes you question that.”

Some designers said they feel they have to play it safe so they don't wind up being accused of copying a rival, rightfully or not. "You hear sometimes in design spaces, 'Oh, don't do that, that will get you on Diet Prada.' Stuff like that," said Deanna Hutchinson, a fashion design student at Parsons who has interned at brands such as Gabriela Hearst and Proenza Schouler.

“I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” Hutchinson added. “Some of the side-by-sides they show are exactly the same and it’s just… ridiculous. This is not your idea, this is someone else’s creativity that you’re now profiting from. It’s really important to call that out.”

Diet Prada's Liu and Schuyler declined to comment for this story, but in a May interview with BoF where they revealed their identities for the first time, the duo indicated that they believed their work was pushing culture and creativity forward.

“For us, nothing is sacred,” Liu said. “I don’t know why this industry is so self-protective. Every other industry, people say whatever shit they want and they should be able to do that in fashion as well. I think it’s new to them. We’re such a jarring new voice that any kind of hard criticism seems like bullying, but it’s not. It’s just criticism.”

And their tactics can be effective.

“If used appropriately… it can stop brands from blatantly doing whatever they want,” Carfrae said. “On the fashion side, there have been major callouts of brands showing racism, sexism and homophobia.”

Their approach set the template for other watchdog accounts, some of which cite them directly as inspirations.

“Diet Prada gave me permission,” said the founder of @retailslambook, whose identity was revealed to BoF, though they requested anonymity in order to protect the person’s current position. “I saw their audience and felt like I also had an audience that wanted somebody to say, ‘I hear you. You’re being heard.’”

The account aims to critique the failings of mall brands from the perspective of an insider who has been working in the industry for over a decade, including roles at several multi-billion-dollar companies.

Though the account had fewer than 100 followers as of Wednesday, it has gained the attention of a string of retail industry executives, including former J.Crew creative director Jenna Lyons, who thanked the account in the comments section of a post celebrating the exit of chief executive Jim Brett and praising her work at the brand.

Lyons did not respond to a request for comment on the account.

I want to show people in the industry and outside the industry that it's possible to speak your truth without being scared or without being compromised.

Like Retail Slambook, M'Pelé's @Pam_Boy takes a measured, thoughtful tone, conversing with high-profile industry insiders on a number of hot-button topics — from lack of diversity to the drama at Celine — often tagging posts with #SLOWPUBLISHING or #SLOWJOURNALISM, a commentary on the click-bait era.

“I don’t believe in dot-coms anymore,” said M'Pelé, a graduate of Central Saint Martins who is currently based in Paris. “I want to show people in the industry and outside the industry that it’s possible to speak your truth without being scared or without being compromised.”

When executed properly, the openness of this new cohort can feel refreshing. But it’s a fine line to walk. These accounts become troubling, according to Carfrae, when it’s a “one-sided attack” and a representative for the brand is not given the chance to make their case before posts are published.

“With traditional press… there’s a chance to speak to the journalist or ask for an amendment based on what’s true,” Carfrae said. “Publications check facts and sources.”

About 60 percent of Estée Laundry content comes from tips, and the account’s operators try to vet these sources, many of whom are followers. For instance, if a tip is about a product, they ask to see receipts confirming the tipster actually bought it. They also check LinkedIn to ensure tips aren’t coming from someone who works at a competing brand.

“Since we don’t earn any income from this initiative, we do not have the means to employ a professional fact-checker [or] lawyer,” one of the founders said.

In December, Estée Laundry published a series of Instagram stories containing screenshots of Deciem founder Brandon Truaxe’s dating profile on a gay dating app. (On January 21, Truaxe was found dead outside his home in Toronto.)

Prior to Truaxe’s passing, Estée Laundry told BoF that his profile was fair game because it mentioned Deciem, making it relevant to the business even if he was no longer working there.

Nearly three months ago, Estée Laundry also posted an anonymous direct message that said Glow Recipe’s Christine Chang and Sarah Lee are “two of the worst humans I’ve ever been in contact with,” and that the co-founders hated each other. Estée Laundry published a corresponding poll asking Laundrites “Is this true?” (71 percent responded yes and 29 percent responded no).

Chang and Lee did not respond to requests for comment.

Such posts put brands in a bind: if they engage, they risk fanning the flames even more. One publicist who represents designers who have been both attacked and celebrated by Diet Prada and other accounts, said the best defense against a negative post is to ignore it.

According to Estée Laundry, the account tries to publish both sides of an issue and people have more to say when it’s negative, which makes it “easy to say it skews that way,” the founder said. She added that the account is being more selective about posting messages from anonymous individuals insulting or gossiping about brand founders or executives, one of the founders said.

“We’re more cognisant of trying to do the right thing. We’re trying to make sure we don’t post stuff like that anymore,” she said. “This is a learning experience for us too…. we’re going to be careful not to post stuff about people unless they’ve actually done something really wrong.”

Diet Prada has faced criticism for the targets it selects, as well as the perception that the account's founders have gotten too close to some of the brands they write about. For instance, the duo were criticised in December for attending a Valentino press trip, and some felt they held back on Prada, a brand that both Liu and Schuyler have said they idolise, for releasing a product that included a racially insensitive monkey motif.

Liu and Schuyler have said in the past that they view the account as a business and are interested in raising money in order to scale.

Unlike Estée Laundry, both Meagher from HauteLeMode and M’Pelé said they are willing to accept advertising, but they plan to avoid commercial relationships with fashion brands. M’Pelé said he has been approached by fashion brands, but has declined their offers.

“The biggest responsibility I feel is to really show people that it is possible to have a sort of integrity that can’t be compromised,” M’Pelé said.

In addition to their perceived independence, these accounts have a direct line to their readers, which means if they want to fuel the fire, all they have to do is add some lighter fluid.

Michelle Menchaca, a 32-year-old teacher from Southern California, said Estée Laundry has made her think twice when deciding who she supports with her beauty purchases, citing the account’s revelations regarding Morphe's foundation. Menchaca pointed to "too many inconsistencies" with the products and "using influencers on YouTube to push coupon codes" as reasons why she won't buy the brand.

John Jacobson, a 24-year-old freelance romance novel editor, said that Estée Laundry’s commentary on one brand has deterred him from buying its products. He said he respects when Estée Laundry calls out racism or discusses sustainability, but doesn't care about the frequent calling out of copycats.

"I’d rather see a move towards more investigative and in-depth reporting on brands and their behaviour in beauty," he said. “[The account] really plays on the desire you have to go into a hole reading these dramatic negative experiences. You feel like you’re getting a lot of inside info, whether it's verified or true. It’s this series of confessions, almost.”

Others take their watchdogs with a grain of salt.

“I enjoy keeping up with the ‘tea,’ as some people call it, but it’s not something I take 100 percent for a fact,” said Olga Olszewska, 32-year-old 3D artist who lives in Rzeszow, Poland and follows Estée Laundry. “If a topic or brand accusation interests me, I try to dig on my own and check other sources.”

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State of Fashion 2023
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State of Fashion 2023