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Will Success Spoil Diet Prada?

The digital watchdog has helped to hold the fashion industry accountable on copying and cultural insensitivity, but its increasingly cosy relationships with major brands could undermine its credibility.
Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler | Source: Getty Images

NEW YORK, United States — A decade ago, Dolce & Gabbana offered a gaggle of fashion bloggers seats in the front row of its Milan show. It was the moment the internet’s troublesome commentators were recognised as too influential to ignore.

Last fall, Dolce & Gabbana was roasted for an advertisement that was bigoted toward Chinese people and for subsequent racist direct messages sent from the account of one of its founders, Stefano Gabbana (the company said his account had been hacked). It felt like the loop had been closed: The fashion brand was being morally reproached by just the sort of independent voice to which it had once tossed a bejeweled megaphone.

That voice was Diet Prada, an Instagram account that has become an industry watchdog, and also an industry success.

Prominent Chinese models and celebrities blasted the brand, and some consumers not only boycotted the company but also destroyed Dolce & Gabbana merchandise they already owned. The brand was compelled to cancel a show in Shanghai. It took the founders a week to apologise; their press office declined a request to comment on how much money they lost, or on anything having to do with a certain Instagram account.

Diet Prada regularly names and shames brands, designers and others for fashion copycatting, similarities in design, and, seemingly more and more, for racism, often after tips from its Instagram followers.

Bryan Grey Yambao — known as Bryanboy, he was one of the Anna Wintour-adjacent bloggers in that fashion front row in 2009 — said that Diet Prada's unrelenting coverage had designers watching their backs.

Mr Gabbana “thought he could get away with it because no one ever really called him out before,” Mr Yambao said. “It took Diet Prada to really put a mirror to him.”

The Role of the Watchdog

Diet Prada is run by Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler, who met while working for Eugenia Kim, a milliner. Now, after four years of running Diet Prada, they have amassed a following of more than a million on Instagram. Their posts show side-by-side photos of original fashion designs and pieces that appear to have copied them.

A brand that calls out copycats now itself has imitators. Some have found success, like @estee laundry, an account that focuses on the beauty industry.

Ms Schuyler grew up in Saint Augustine, Fla.; Mr Liu was born in New York City. They are in their early 30s, and they work on the account around the clock, often in shifts, with Ms Schuyler taking the mornings and Mr Liu “in the DMs in the odd hours.”

The branded merchandise they sell through the account frequently sells out, but they declined to say how much money they make from the catchphrase-adorned shirts, socks and key chains. (In their latest collection, tie-dye shirts went for $54 while hats cost $32.)

“All the merch drops are super-informal,” they wrote in an email. “We’re not sitting there doing sales projections and sell through reports.”

In the last several months, the founders have criticised brands dear to their heart, including Prada and Gucci, though they have been more restrained in their criticism of those companies than they were with Dolce & Gabbana.

Responding to emailed questions, Mr Liu (who has his own clothing line available on Mr Porter) and Ms Schuyler agreed that the furor in the fall was a turning point for them.

“There are detractors that ask why we even bother covering brands like Dolce & Gabbana that have a history of toxic behaviour,” they said. “But the collective effort of everyone on social media proved that problematic powers like theirs can actually be disrupted.”

With the help of their fans, Diet Prada’s founders have helped decode the sometimes cryptic fashion industry: rife with insider references, unsubtle so-called homages and hushed-up bad behaviour. And that industry is in turn paying attention the way it might have beforehand to Women’s Wear Daily in the John Fairchild era, or Hint magazine’s Chic Happens column at the turn of the millennium.

"They have all the eyes and the ears of the fashion world," said Mr Yambao, who has worked with Gucci and Louis Vuitton, among others. "I don't think there has been any outlet as high-profile as them in the past decade that did what they're doing."

The Fashion Law, a site that covers the intersection of fashion, business and the law, was early to identify Mr Liu and Ms Schuyler, in October 2017. Since then they have given only a few interviews. For this article, they responded to an initial set of questions by email, then stopped replying to follow-ups.

Julie Zerbo, the creator of The Fashion Law, said she applauds much of Diet Prada’s work. She also said that its quick-draw accusations sometimes made her queasy.

“Who’s watching the watchdog?” Ms Zerbo said. “I have concerns in terms of the transparency of their methods, about who’s holding them accountable, and I really think this is a function of the fact that they do have such a broad reach.”

’Gramming With Gucci

In 2017, Diet Prada briefly took over Gucci’s Instagram account. Mr Liu and Ms Schuyler said that, at the time, “a lot of people freaked out that we were selling out.” Before they got with Gucci, they said, Diet Prada had about 30,000 followers.

“Now, we’re almost at a million followers and a lot has happened that should prove otherwise,” they wrote (the email exchange was in December, before the account grew to over a million). “If we were ‘beholden’ to advertisers, the content you’d be seeing on Diet Prada would be completely different. It’s a very old-school mentality that you can’t be critical of brands when you’re working with them. We’re the little guys. That traditional system applies to major media companies who are selling hundreds of thousands of dollars of ad space to brands.”

They also acknowledged that accusing brands of copying “can be completely subjective and definitely not immune to personal bias at times. There are certain designers that we absolutely love and see as innovators, which we tend to look out for.”

The pair stopped responding to emails after they were asked why they had taken it relatively easy on Prada, when their namesake company had to apologize in December for a racist object.

Diet Prada, ordinarily highly vocal about such missteps, stayed quiet until after Prada had apologized. When the account broke its silence on the matter, it lauded the brand “for the inclusivity of their casting” and detailed its history of casting models of colour.

Many of their followers noted the unusually merciful tone. As one particularly popular comment put it: "If this was any other brand you'd have canceled them by now lol." A month later, the account posted copiously about the brand's fashion week show, and called Miuccia Prada "a contemporary hero in fashion."

More recently, the account again had to criticise a brand with which it has been cozy. A Gucci balaclava that resembled blackface led the 'Grammers to lament in a post that the brand, among others, was "severely lacking the cultural context and knowledge" that would help them "avoid these same pitfalls."

It was a harsher tone than that which they took with Prada. Still, it stopped short of the full-scale castigation that the founders’ audience enjoys so much.

Diet Prada can have a big impact on those who lose its favour, particularly the up-and-coming brands and influencers who have smaller followings than the account. Some described being targeted by the account’s followers, with angry and threatening comments, for long stretches.

In a recent profile in The New Yorker, the designer Virgil Abloh, a frequent target of Diet Prada, addressed allegations that he had copied an outfit from the small independent label Colrs. He told the magazine he admired Diet Prada's concept but was more skeptical of their medium.

“That’s what social media can be,” Mr Abloh said in the interview. “All that space to comment breeds a tendency to fester, versus actually making something.”

Ms Zerbo said it was common knowledge that people were scared of the social media army at Diet Prada’s command. Those targeted have told her that they “don’t even want to send a cease-and-desist letter because they’re going to post the cease-and-desist letter and will be swarmed with more angry comments from people on Instagram.”

Even Diet Prada’s supporters believe that it occasionally stretches when calling out copycats, particularly when it does not seek comment from the targets before posting. Mr Yambao pointed out that “anyone can submit a story to them and it’s up to them whether they’re going to fact-check it or not.”

A Turning Point

Lorenzo Marquez, a creator of the blog Tom and Lorenzo and an avid fan of Diet Prada, said that the account’s inconsistency reflected a struggle he found familiar. “I think it has a lot to do with the pressure to put out content,” he said. “To make sure that you’re always saying something.”

One example came in December, when Diet Prada suggested that the French brand AMI had imitated Celine when it featured a model wearing a turtleneck beneath a long, tailored coat. Many Dieters were not convinced. "Umm. it's a basic coat with turtleneck …" one said, adding "#weak, so not @diet_prada worthy!"

Mr Marquez and his blog partner, Tom Fitzgerald, predicted that it will be necessary for Diet Prada to take more paid partnerships to sustain its business (the founders would not discuss their incomes but said they are making less money than when they worked at other jobs), and warned that if it is not transparent about doing so, maintaining credibility with an audience devoted to judgment will become difficult.

In February, the account posted a clearly marked advertisement (for the retailer, a novel sight for those who follow the account closely. Diet Prada's founders, identified merely as D and P, recently told Ssense that they're hoping to start a social platform for their fans: "I almost want a message board where people can be like, 'I think they copied me,' and everyone else can jump in," P said. "It would be amazing."

Mr Fitzgerald said that the account’s founders, for whom he wished nothing but the best, had reached a pivotal moment.

“You reach a point of success and at that exact moment you have to decide, ‘Do I continue what I’m doing?’ because you will burn out if you continue, or ‘Do I change and become something else,’” he said. “And I think that is where they are right now, so it’ll be really interesting to see where they go.”

By Jonah Engel Bromwich. This article originally appeared in The New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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