Call-out and cancel culture à la Diet Prada, while a game-changer in fashion, could do with more kindness

Call-out and cancel culture à la Diet Prada, while a game-changer in fashion, could do with more kindness

Call! It! Out!

Text: Gordon Ng

Editor: Jolene Khor

It's no exaggeration to say that the biggest changer and shaker in fashion this decade is call-out (and subsequently, cancel) culture. Back when legacy print magazines and newspapers were fretting about bloggers, all they were worried about was a challenging of the gatekeeping standards. When influencers took over, brands and media outlets had to contend with a medium they were not adapted to. But call-out culture? Perhaps no one saw it coming that morality was coming to bite them.

And it is what it is: call-out culture is a moral high horse parade. That's not to say it's an inherently bad thing. Big problems like racism, sexism, sexual harassment, exploitation, among many others, should be named and shamed. Change can only come from that, as diseases need diagnoses. But call-out culture is also inherently a displacement of power. Brands like Dolce & Gabbana, with their multi-billion dollar valuations, are knocked off their pedestals for thinking casual racism is fine. Consumer voices, even if they are not buyers of luxury fashion — and statistically, most of us are not and can not spend that way — are being heard. Often not for their spending allegiance, but for the stain of shame that public opinion can bring.

Instagram account Diet Prada has been at the centre of this change. They're reflective of the left-leaning politics of the time, and represent a seismic change in consumer stance. That they're ready to be critical of the fashion industry, not just slaves to it. Diet Prada, of course, started off by calling out designers for ripping off other designers' work. Today, it's broadened into the business of cancelling whole runway shows and covering others from the front row.

Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler, the founders of Diet Prada, at the Prada fall/winter 2019 fashion show.

But what we're concerned about is what comes next. What comes after the charge? What is the sentence? What constitutes purgatory, the necessary penitence, and rehabilitation? Think of the differences between Scandinavian prison systems and American one, the humanity with which convicted criminals are treated in the former. The result: lower rates of recidivism and better rehabilitation into society. There are many differences, to be sure, but as an abstract comparison, might not the same philosophy be applicable to the fashion industry?

Because fashion is a business — and one of the largest industries in the world at that — there is no real governing body over it to punish misdeeds. That's placed public opinion, driven by call-out culture and a generation's frustrations, into that position of authority. The worst thing that can happen to a business is to make losses, so the dollar is the place to hit them hardest. That also puts consumers in a place of responsibility: to be educated, to know better, and to be more discerning with the brands, designers, and creatives they're choosing to support. The upside is the actual power this has to invoke change. The downside is that it's too easily susceptible to herd mentality and bullying.

After being called out for ripping off the work of the Harlem haberdasher, Gucci made a real and commendable change by inviting Dapper Dan to collaborate on a collection and have both since formed something of a friendship.

The Internet is a scary place to be, where all mistakes and wrongdoings are recorded for posterity and future shaming. Creatives are working with fear as a motivator, afraid of their references and history they might be unaware of. Research has its limits, and creative work is contingent on building on a history of predecessors. Fashion critic, Cathy Horyn, once wrote in the New York Times about partially rescinding her past criticism of Marc Jacobs for copying designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, recognising that the "appropriations have obviously been key", and that what Jacobs to his credit had done was "not to exclude any method or idea that might be vital to him."

Perhaps that's the sort of maturity we need to all have about our opinions — that they should not be unyielding and ironclad. Change must indeed be allowed to happen, especially if that's what all this calling out is for. Should the purpose of our calling out to be for people and organisations to be punished indefinitely, that leaves no room for improvement, only gratuity and schadenfreude. And what's the good in that? Call-out culture isn't leaving us anytime soon, but here's hoping that it grows both tougher and kinder, that it continues to do more good than harm.