A new wave of activist accounts are coming for brands and influencers but are they trailblazers or trolls?

Not only are these accounts empowering us, their actions have forced global fashion and beauty brands into action: cancelling fashion shows, pulling products and publicly apologising.

But, with the power harnessed by these accounts comes a dark side: the often overlooked human cost to call-out culture. How do we square our caring with our cancelling? Is this a pioneering movement for change, or just the freshest breed of online bullying?

We’re living in a new age of activism. Where once the fight was brash, physical protest, a subtler – but no less impactful – wave of Insta activism has risen to the top of our feeds, and it’s finally coming for fashion and beauty. Its name? Cancel culture. The ability to bring a person, brand or entire industry to its knees by the sheer power of internet fury. Think Johnny Depp after the Amber Heard abuse allegations. It’s simple: you’re called out. You’re cancelled. Bye, bye.

At the heart of this are two trailblazing Insta accounts: Diet Prada and Estée Laundry (with a slew of upcoming others, including Yeezy Busta and Retail Slambook). Their mission is to call out the misdeeds of brands, influencers, and, yes, publications such as.

“Our goal is to inform and empower our followers,” the anonymous collective behind Estée Laundry tells us in a rare interview. “Our fans have shown that they are not afraid to stand up to brands and vocalise their concerns.”

The revolution will be ‘grammed

Diet Prada began back in 2014, when twenty-something New York-based fashion buffs Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler met, working on the design team at accessory brand Eugenia Kim. They started @dietprada (initially anonymously) to call out copy-cat designs within the industry. The first post pulled no punches – taking aim at its namesake Prada, accusing the brand of copying a design by Raf Simons, the then-creative director of Dior.

At first, the account was a joke between the pair, but within two years they had 1,000 followers. After the #MeToo movement broke in 2017, and Instagram became an increasingly disruptive force, Diet Prada took a more serious, purposeful tone. By the end of that year, it had amassed over 150,000 devotees, including British Vogue editor Edward Enninful, and Gucci’s main man Alessandro Michele. At last count, that following totalled 1.5million.

Fans are entertained – or in the case of the biggest design houses, fearful – because Diet Prada has come for everything and everyone. When the account called out Gucci for its blackface balaclava jumper in February this year, the brand was forced to apologise and discontinue it. Prada got the same treatment for a keychain that depicted a racist caricature, and designer Christian Siriano actually dropped a design from his AW19 collection, after the account accused him of copying Valentino SS18.

Diet Prada’s harnessing of the outrage over Dolce Gabbana’s offensive 2018 China campaign (featuring a Chinese woman attempting to eat pizza with chopsticks) was so impactful that the label shut down its Shanghai show and was removed from China’s ecomm sites. That’s right. An Instagram account actually cancelled something, IRL. As Diet Prada itself said: “Like… actually cancelled.”

Dirty laundry

The account is so influential, in fact, that it arguably has its own knock-off – Estée Laundry (@esteelaundry) – which popped up on Instagram in April last year, and aims to take on the beauty industry in the same way that Diet Prada has rugby-tackled fashion. The account now has 79,000 followers, including celebrities and beauty editors.

“We started the account because we were tired of the lack of transparency in the beauty industry,” Estée Laundry tells us. “There’s a dark side to it that we are trying to expose. Our goal is to inform and empower our followers.”

Estée Laundry certainly isn’t cowering. In April 2019, it called out Rihanna’s Fenty make-up line for appropriating Geisha culture with its ‘Geisha Chic’ highlighter. Fenty immediately apologised, pulling it from the shelves. Estée Laundry has also challenged brands including Glossier for its unsustainable packaging; skincare brand Sunday Riley for fake reviews; Byredo for inappropriate naming; Drunk Elephant for misleading retinol advice; and accused Lashify of transphobia for its controversial ‘not everyone wants to look like a drag queen’ comment directed at YouTuber Manny MUA; and raised awareness around the lack of beauty campaigns for women of colour.

Even the beauty media (gulp) is not immune. “Traditional media has failed the consumer to some degree,” the people behind Estée Laundry tell us. “The beauty industry is still largely led by white women. Their perception of beauty is skewed and typically equates to white, thin, tall and privileged.”

As a beauty-focused publication ourselves, where one of our own beauty editors was subject to Estée Laundry’s wrath (more on that later), we could, of course, have shied away from this story. But these Insta crusaders have a point. Major publications notoriously don’t criticise brands that – spoiler alert – they rely on for advertising revenue. Which is why we need independent accounts such as these.

People power

As popular as these accounts might be, the real power behind them is, of course, in their followers. So, let’s meet the packs. Diet Prada and Estée Laundry’s followers have their own monikers – Dieters and Laundrites – and contribute ideas for posts. Estée Laundry tells us that 60% of its content comes from Laundrites sending DMs highlighting issues that they care about, or brands they’ve seen copied, while Diet Prada said its long-term goal is to be a forum for offended consumers of ripped-off brands.

One Diet Prada mega-fan, 22-year-old Oscar Young, says following the account has changed how he views brands. “I’ll never buy from Dolce Gabbana again,” the avid fashion consumer told GLAMOUR, responding to the label’s China fiasco. “Diet Prada are the ultimate check and balance, and that’s no bad thing for consumers who want to be diligent about where they shop.”

Another Dieter even found herself at the centre of the D&G scandal, when she posted a negative reaction to the campaign in her Insta Story. Michaela Tranova, 26, a student based in London, then received a flurry of irate and incredibly racist DMs from the account of Stefano Gabbana himself (who’d seen it, as she tagged the brand). What did she do? Called. Him. Out. Duh!

“I had to publish them immediately and I did it without thinking of the possible consequences,” she tells GLAMOUR. “The response I got from the public was overwhelming.”

Diet Prada regrammed her DMs and rallied its million-strong Dieter army to charge at Gabbana; global news outlets covered the fallout; Vogue China pulled advertising and the brand saw a seismic shift in reporting – at an estimated cost of £6.3million. D&G was forced to issue a public apology on behalf of its cofounder, claiming that both its Instagram – and that of Stefano – had been hacked.

Mob mentality

“I don’t want them to come for me.” That’s what countless people said when we contacted them for this feature. The force of the internet army is so strong that most feared the backlash if they said the ‘wrong’ thing. Which begs the question: is cancel culture silencing as many voices as it’s amplifying? And where do we, as followers, fit in when things turn nasty?

Writer and former fashion student Ruby Abbiss, 23, used to follow Diet Prada but stopped when she felt that she was condoning a kind of bullying by supporting the page. “I think it is important to hold people accountable,” she says. “But, if you go down that road publicly, you also have a duty to moderate the comment section.”

Ah, the comment section. If these accounts draw attention to industry ills, it’s the followers who really go to war. Comments range from “cancel this brand” to actual death threats, such as those received by the model who starred in the controversial Dolce Gabbana ad. Online abuse can be easier to digest if the victim is a faceless brand, less so if the subject of online vitriol is a single person: an influencer.

Dani Austin, a 26-year-old blogger from Texas, was called out by Diet Prada for the uncanny similarity between her line of bags and Valentino’s Rockstud range. She initially started the business from her college dorm room, but when she relaunched it as a larger endeavour, with a big wholesale provider, the styles were jumped upon 48 hours later by Diet Prada and its followers. The attacks – “People said they wanted to ‘destroy’ me” – led her to shut the business down 72 hours after launching. She agrees that criticism about the bags was fair, but the hatred from Dieters was “an aggressive brand of education via public shaming”.

“It’s taken me time to truly understand Diet Prada’s mission,” she says. “I had to separate its stated purpose from the persistent hate I receive from its followers. The cancel culture that exists is the very definition of online bullying and mob mentality,” she says. “They choose character assassination over using the platform to truly educate, or offer solutions. The new business of the internet is to profit from imperfection with moral superiority.”

The experience has taught her a lot, but she’s still dubious, and furious, about the tactics. “Next time I slip up – and there will be a next time – just shoot me a DM… for the sake of my mental health.”

She’s not alone. Arielle Charnas, a 32-year-old influencer from New York with her own fashion line, Something Navy, came under fire from a mob of Dieters in April, when she didn’t name-check Prada as an influence for her Nordstrom collection headbands. The hatred directed at her by Dieters was so intense, including calls for her infant daughter to “commit suicide”, that she published them on Instagram, calling out Diet Prada on its own turf. “I’m sorry that you think the only way for you to
create a successful career for yourselves was putting other people down,” she posted. Diet Prada claimed no responsibility for “trolls” and accused her of “deflecting the issue”.

Cancel responsibly

So, if Diet Prada is so eager to call to account the responsibility of influencers, how does it justify disavowing its own? Its 1.4million following is larger than that of both Austin and Charnas, so should it not be held accountable for its actions, too?

When questioned about its responsibility, Estée Laundry stood firm on its openness to “a constructive discussion” with the brands it names and shames, saying it likes to “post both sides of the story, wherever relevant”. But Sali Hughes, one of the only journalists prepared to talk to us about this subject on the record, disagrees. “It’s vital that brands are accountable, but a line has been crossed. Is it always about consumer fairness when an account publishes the dating profile of a troubled person?” She’s referring to Estée Laundry’s posts about Brandon Truaxe, the late founder of Deciem (the parent company of The Ordinary), whose public meltdown was widely chronicled by Estée Laundry and the media at large, and who tragically died in January this year.

“It’s easy for online users to forget that they’re talking about real people, with families and feelings,” Sali continues. “People get hurt and, at some point, the consequences will be grave.”

Julie Zerbo, a lawyer and founder of hugely popular blog The Fashion Law, also stresses the importance of responsible behaviour online – not least for legal reasons. Since her blog started in 2011, it’s become a resource for fashion fans and journalists, eager for her legal opinion on the various ups and downs of the industry – from copyright infringement to misleading product claims. She was also the one to first ‘unmask’ Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler as the people behind Diet Prada. “We can’t disclaim liability,” she warns. “We can’t put information out in the world and then look the other way and say, ‘Oh we have no control over what happens.’ Especially as we are now hyper-aware of the downsides of social media.”

The real question though, is does it actually work? For all the noise, and all the headlines, Dolce Gabbana, which has suffered the most collateral damage from Diet Prada, is back to its pre-China-gaffe profits. Stefano Gabbana may still be ‘cancelled’, but he also still has a job. Beauty brands are still over-packaging. Gucci followed its blackface balaclava drama with a $790 turban inspired by “the Sikh turbans of a New York taxi driver” (for which it has yet to apologise, despite the upset in the Sikh community). And everyone is still copying each other. As Diet Prada would say: “lesson, unlearned.”

Make a change

The internet also has a short attention span. We complain, we shame, we cancel, we move on. It’s easy to wonder when the real change starts. “It’s tempting to think that calling someone out on social media represents a useful action,” says Sali. “But actually doing something in the real world is always a more effective strategy.”

Diana Verde Nieto, cofounder of the sustainability initiative Positive Luxury, prefers constructive dialogues as opposed to cancel culture. She works with brands to help them improve their ethical credentials, awarding them a Butterfly Mark badge of honour when they prove it, and has seen more and more brands clamouring to work with her. She credits younger generations for this – many of whom follow these accounts – calling them ‘Generation Less’. “These guys have set the tone now.”

But as Diana says, “No company in this world will ever be perfect, because they are run by imperfect humans.” And it turns out, no Instagram account is perfect either. Diet Prada is now selling merch, Tony Liu has his own fashion range, and an advert for luxury fashion etailer matchesfashion.com appeared on the Diet Prada account in February this year. While Estée Laundry does have a strict “no sponsored ads policy because we want to stay as unbiased as possible”, it’s likely that Diet Prada’s commercialisation will dent its credibility.

At the time of going to press, we were privy to an anonymous tip highlighting the fact that You As – the brand founded by Diet Prada’s Tony Liu – is selling a rip-off of a Missoni signature shirt. Consider the champions of call-out culture officially called out. Yet hopefully, thanks to the work of these accounts, call-out culture itself may actually have an expiration date in the not-too-distant future.

“Call-out culture has shaken things up,” Estée Laundry tells us. “But now that brands are becoming more responsible and accountable, we’re hoping that there will be no long-term need for call-out culture.”

So, maybe this is short-term pain for a long-term culture shift. But while we’re in the short term, if we insist on brand transparency, we need to be just as transparent about our mistakes and responsibilities, too. After all, we all need a little calling out sometimes; whether we are a mega
brand, a mega influencer, a journalist, a consumer… or even a watchdog Instagram account.

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