THE POWER ISSUE
Imran Amed is the founder and editor of website The Business of Fashion (BoF). Cited as one of British GQ’s 100 Most Influential Men in Britain, on British Vogue’s list of 25 New Fashion Faces to Watch and one of Wired UK’s 100 Most Influential Figures in Britain’s Digital Economy, he is at the forefront of fashion journalism. BoF approaches fashion from an angle that has historically been dismissed by mainstream media and, in a time of recession and global economic crisis, we spoke to Imran about what these changes mean to the industry and how he has helped to change it.
A self-professed over-achiever, from a young age Imran balanced his senses for creativity and analysis: “I was a nerdy kid at school and a stage kid in the evenings.” However, he was born to Canadian immigrants from East Africa and his parents inspired a work ethic that would prepare him to ensure the stability that they never had, and so, at 18, “that creative side of my life was really, basically, switched off. I went and did the responsible thing and studied the more ‘conservative’ path.” He followed a conventional journey through the world of business: a degree at Harvard Business School and an MBA led him to a job at McKinsey – the world’s most prestigious global management consultancy – where he stayed until he took a sabbatical aged 29. “I was turning 30 and I realised I was really unhappy. Not because I didn’t have a great career and great friends and family. But I wasn’t feeling very inspired by my work, the most creative outlet I had was my PowerPoint files and I just felt like they weren’t appreciated!”
With expertise that lay in pharmaceuticals and real estate, he started exploring the creative industries to fulfil his ambitions beyond PowerPoint. “I love business and breaking down problems and analysing them, and I thought perhaps if I was able to take those skills and apply them to a creative context, where I might have an understanding and a sensitivity to creative people, that would be a better fit for me.” Although he “didn’t know who Martin Margiela was, or what a bias-cut looked like”, he quickly came to realise that what the fashion industry above all others sorely lacked was business savvy. “The British Fashion Council started introducing me to designers – and so many of them had no idea how to run a business; it wasn’t even anything that anyone had ever mentioned to them while they were in school. It was a pretty difficult time in the London fashion scene: there were designers who were struggling and who had been on the London Fashion Week schedule for years but a lot of them were going out of business.”
When he met Diane Pernet, credited as the woman who started fashion blogging with A Shaded View Of Fashion, he was curious as to her global impact and, while consulting for conglomerate LVMH, fashion brands and tech startups during the day, in the evenings of 2007 he started his own blog – what was to becomeThe Business of Fashion. “People like Diane, Susie Bubble, Scott Schuman – each of these people was channeling fashion through something which was very personal to them and what was personal to me was seeing fashion through this lens of business. I had no plan, it was 2007, the newspapers were freaking out about the crash and it would have been crazy to try to start something in business! I had no idea of what it could become… let’s just put it this way: the URL for BoF when I first started was uberkid.typepad.com.”
Bizarrely, the financial crash was the perfect time to start a website that explored the economics of an industry often treated as frivolous. As the luxury goods market plummeted, consumers started to think differently about how they behaved, whilst emerging markets in China, Brazil and India boomed. The social media revolution came into force as the first iPhones hit the market, and the dynamic of the fashion industry started to shift. “There was nowhere for people who were working in the industry to make sense of it; there was no single destination where there was an intelligent, analytical conversation happening. The Times would put a picture of London Fashion Week on the front page but it was superficial – because models sell papers – not because it was an important business story.” And so BoF began to grow as Imran offered a place that provoked intelligent discussion around the industry.
The combination of the global crash and the social media revolution forced the fashion industry to engage more directly with consumers: as people began using their iPhones in the front row, customers became more determined to engage with an industry which previously thrived on exclusivity. Whilst the internet has operated as a catalyst for change across all creative industries, fashion has been perhaps the slowest to see its effects – “fashion has been slower to be disrupted because it’s a physical product; you can’t download an mp3 of a Céline bag.” But things have changed drastically in the past decade as fashion has been forced to reinvent itself in accordance with a global shift in perception around what it means to be a consumer.
“Music is a very accessible product – if you wanted to go see Michael Jackson or Madonna perform, you could go to a concert. The same with film or with sports: consumers could always participate in those industries. With fashion, you could buy the product at the end of the cycle but you couldn’t be part of how that product came to life: you couldn’t be part of the show or the ad campaign or the shoot.” The internet – and with it, fashion blogging – has opened up new, behind the scenes access to the world of fashion. Journalists like Susie Bubble, and in a sense Imran himself, didn’t work their way up through the traditional ranks of fashion hierarchy; instead, they could achieve industry relevance by directly interacting with an engaged audience, who wanted to buy the clothes that they saw on the runway, but also wanted to hear from the designers and watch the production of shoots or understand the logistics going on ‘backstage’. As Imran says, “that exclusivity, that access to the behind the scenes part of fashion has all of a sudden been opened up. And I think that’s why there’s more to talk about. There’s more media about fashion, because there’s more available content to the consumers.”
Interestingly, when BoF compiled their selection of “500 People Shaping the Global Fashion Industry”, they chose 500 people not just from the conventional roles of styling or creative direction but from the broad range of professions that actually comprise a varied industry. Anna Wintour sits alongside Leandra Medine (of manrepeller.com) and Balbina Wong of Imaginex (a brand strategist firm), Nick Knight and Paul Smith next to Garance Doré (of garancedore.com). As Imran states, “we didn’t put bloggers as separate from media; they’re one and the same. The good bloggers, editors, writers, journalists, are the ones whose points of view are unique, who aren’t afraid to say what they really think.”
Fashion media traditionally depends upon fashion advertising for its survival, which effectuates a tacit contract of courtesy: how can you honestly critique a fashion show when you might depend on its financier for advertising? How can publications host honest opinion when those they critique are essentially their sources of funding? As newspapers turn to syndicated journalism rather than in-house reporting, the place in which young fashion writers can learn their trade within the context of a larger world that isn’t dependent on the ‘money brands’ is disappearing. As Imran asks in his recent piece on Cathy Horyn’s resignation from The New York Times: “Have we, the fashion industry, nurtured and nourished truly independent, informed voices who say what they really think? I think not. Too much fashion writing is fluffy drivel concerned with front-row attendees and the ‘hottest new trends.’ And too often, it describes the clothes in only an elementary, superficial way that lacks an understanding of how garments are designed and constructed, and how they fit into a wider cultural and economic context.” As “opinions are neutered by the powers that be for fear of pissing off advertisers or jeopardising relationships,” the art of fashion critique – historically voiced by pioneers like Cathy and Lynn Yaeger of The Village Voice – is being relegated to the places that can afford to publish it, those with the lowest overheads and least brand obligation: the bloggers.
Whilst the circus of fashion week is only ever increasing, with designers paying for celebrity attendees, front-row politics making their way onto the Daily Mail website and paparazzi jostling street-style photographers for shots on every corner, it is often bloggers who take the brunt of criticism for the shift in focus. The organisation that runs New York Fashion Week, IMG, claims that it is planning to “control and reduce audience capacities… making invitations once again an exclusive pass for true fashion insiders”, whilst London Fashion Week has tightened its accreditation process for the seasonal Somerset House exhibition to avoid bloggers access. This seems like a slightly depressing regression for an industry that appears determined to remain deeply exclusive in spite of its dependence on the ‘great unwashed’. As Susie Bubble wrote in Vogue, “the noise of a few grumbling industry insiders is merely distraction from the real conversation that is going on in this wider fashion landscape. It’s a conversation that keeps fashion, as ever, always changing and evolving.”
Whilst certain members of the industry seem set on a return to the ‘glory days’ of fashion weeks bygone, it is without the necessary perspective of an industry-wide shift. Imran states that “the part of fashion that’s been really disrupted is a) communication between consumers; and b) how consumers transact with the brand, how they buy things. So, even if people are buying things in physical retail stores, often they’re buying those things because they’ve read about it online, because they saw it on someone’s blog, because it came up on someone’s Instagram feed” – and these aren’t changes that should be (or can be) dismissed. Whilst this unsteadies the traditionally fixed roles and hierarchies of an industry built on elitism, on year-long unpaid internships and inaccessibility, it offers a new, more democratic way forward.
What is perhaps most interesting about BoF is not only that it has sparked conversations around the economics of the industry, but that it approaches topics often considered taboo. Recently, Jason Campbell wrote a opinion piece entitled ‘It’s Time to Address Fashion’s Race Problem’ for the site, criticizing Vogue Italia’s potentially polarising ‘Black Vogue’ section, and the new division between their ‘black’ and ‘other’ street style images. Prompting diverse responses from global media (and, furiously, Vogue Italia’s Franca Sozzani herself), whatever one’s opinion is about how to remedy the institutionalised racism so prevalent within the industry, it is indisputable that these are conversations worth having. The reality is that it is through consumer action that brands which don’t use non-white models in campaigns or on runway, brands which rely on poor conditions for garment factory workers and brands which run their fortunes off the misfortunes of others, will be forced to effectuate change. Fashion – like every other industry – is directed by the purchasing power of its consumers and yet without accurate insight and open discussion around these endemic problems, nothing will change.
BoF has an editorial policy of openness: “I don’t always agree with what’s written, but as long as it’s argued in a reasonable, informed, balanced way, then I’m happy to publish it.” Whilst not claiming a position as an industry moral authority or watchdog, the site engages audiences with a range of voices that are willing and able to speak out about weightier issues rather than just trend reporting. BoF has an almost obsessive industry following – but over half of their readership is from outside of that, attracted by these insights. These are issues that affect every fashion consumer: both those who sat front-row for Jeremy Scott’s new Moschino collection (parodying fast fashion), or those who buy into it at H&M and Primark. Trying to isolate these conversations to within the ‘higher echelons’ of the industry is perhaps borne of an understandable fear around accountability, and yet it benefits nobody besides those making vast profits.
On top of running BoF, for seven years Imran has been teaching a business course at Central Saint Martin’s, each year teaching 20 young designers the realities of the industry. Because the reality of fashion is that itis a business and, as Imran states, “in order for the creativity of these designers to have a reason to exist, it must be sustainable as a business. Yes, creativity is the lifeblood of the industry but it would not have any purpose or outlet or reason without all of those other people who make it exist.” The school that raised Christopher Kane (who, last year, sold a majority stake in his business to luxury conglomerate PPR) is hoping to replicate his success by exploring the trajectory of design within a commercially viable framework. As Imran continues to pioneer a multi-faceted discussion around their creativity, hopefully the young designers that graduate will be engaged in conversations around economic viability and accountability on a global scale