@Style panel redux
The first real hot ticket in Toronto this year, in my opinion, was the @Style panel discussion, part of the international event Social Media Week. You had to get up pretty early to grab a spot on the RSVP list – naturally I’m a lark and signed up on 5:30am on January 29th, third on the list, seconds after Susan Langdon tweeted about it for the first time.
Four speakers, invited by Jyotika of exshoesme, brought four very different perspectives to the effects of social media on fashion. At first I was a little skeptical – other than Cherie Federau of Shrimpton Couture, none of the speakers are bloggers – and even Cherie is primarily an online retailer, not a blogger. So what sort of insights could an audience populated mostly by fashion bloggers expect?
The first speaker was Susan Langdon of the Toronto Fashion Incubator (full disclosure – TFI is a sponsor of Final Fashion). Susan introduced the new Social Media Guidebook (available here) that the TFI commissioned, and that I had a small part in contributing to. The guide is made for fashion entrepreneurs who are unfamiliar with the current social media landscape and want to be able to use the tools available to help their brand. I haven’t seen the book in full yet so I can’t comment on it other than the brief overview Susan gave us; while the bullet points seem a bit jargon-y (what the heck does authenticate even mean?) the interviews with many interesting bloggers and entrepreneurs would be well worth the cost of admission. The questions I answered for the guide were good ones and I gave very candid answers.
The second speaker was Cherie Federau of Shrimpton Couture. I was looking forward to hearing Cherie speak the most – the scribbly notes in the moleskine above are from her presentation (I don’t own a mobile, and I don’t live-tweet, ever). Of all of the speakers, I identify most closely with Cherie – not only do I admire her as a tremendously successful online entrepreneur, she is also enthusiastic and genuine with a great sense of humour. Cherie is self-taught by trial and error (like me) and abides by a similar philosophy of relating to people online – essentially, be open to the world, stay on top of your correspondence, be a decent human being, and be true to yourself. Cherie’s talk offered the most real, applicable advice to living and working online.
The third speaker was Dr. Alexandra Palmer, costume curator of the Royal Ontario Museum. She began her presentation discussing buttons on 13th century jackets – and I was wondering what the connection was (because surely it wasn’t to buttons on mobile phones). Over the course of her talk, her insight became a bit clearer – that the application of technology to fashion is what makes new fashions possible – for instance, the development of stretch fabrics made the innovation of pantyhose possible, and pantyhose in turn made it possible for women to wear miniskirts in the 1960s.
However, when it came to the application of social media technology to fashion, Dr. Palmer seemed dubious of the advantages – she expressed cynicism that the greater speed and dissemination of trends could do anything for the development of modern fashion, that somehow the overwhelming preoccupation with speed represented a sense of loss and “waste” to her. She drew some thoughtful parallels between social media and the development of the Jacquard loom, the first computer, which put many weavers out of work. She also discussed a bit about how technology is affecting the modern retail business – such as how prolific communication makes retail innovations like pop-up shops possible. Another revelation on retail was about how shopping for clothing is so dependent on tactility – and how now bricks and mortar stores are being used by customers to try on clothing, and online stores are used to find the best price.
During the question and answer session at the end of the talk, I was able to ask Dr. Palmer whether she had any insights on how the invention of the printing press effected the fashion industry, and whether there are any parallels from that period of history now. Her response was somewhat surprising to me – though she acknowledged that printing sped up the trend cycle, she dismissed that the technology of printing had a significant effect on fashion, which seems unlikely. Now I am more curious about this than before. Dr. Palmer is an esteemed historian and I have enjoyed reading her admirable work on costume history, but on media, she seems uncharacteristically uncurious.
The fourth and final speaker was Lisa Tant, editor-in-chief of Flare Magazine. Lisa is the only EIC of a fashion magazine in Canada who is a prolific tweeter with a significant following online. She can seem surprisingly unguarded on twitter sometimes – just over a week ago she got some flack for “Sobbing to think that a 13 year old gets a front row seat to cover couture. No justice in this world.” which she obliquely alluded to in her presentation by saying that its best to avoid being “cute or sarcastic” on social media. I couldn’t help but find it a bit ironic that Lisa Tant would be telling a room full of fashion bloggers about social media the very next week – seating assignments really do seem unfair sometimes – and wondered if I could think of a slam-dunk question to ask her, but somehow I couldn’t.
Watching Lisa Tant speak, she seemed much more lucid and insightful than she appears on Twitter, which I think does reveal a limitation of micro-blogging. The major message I got from Tant’s talk was how magazines are concerned with the broader strokes of culture and celebrity – while what is important for bloggers is a sense of individual personality. Flare can be commended for recognizing the work of Tommy Ton before he became a phenomenon – but for the most part it seems like the publication is concerned with using the existing momentum behind individual brands – such as Lady Gaga and Perez Hilton, to drive the growth of the Flare brand.
This supports my own conclusions when it comes to the new-media vs. old-media discussion – that mastheads are becoming less valuable than individuals. Flare as a brand is not only hampered by its very corporate-ness (unsupportive Rogers policy tries to discourage the use of social media), it is more and more dependent on the brands of individuals to drive its own brand. Online, Tommy Ton is a bigger brand than Flare – and his fans will follow his work whether its under the Flare masthead, or Style.com, or on his own site. I think that editors and old media say that the holy grail online is speed (Tant says “readers expect immediacy”) but the real prize we’re all after is actually an individual brand (Tommy often posts photos months after they are taken). I think Tant knows this whether she says it or not – her own personal influence is getting pretty close to equal in numbers to that of Flare’s – I would even argue that it is more valuable in qualitative terms to Flare, and especially to Tant herself.
All in all it was a terrific, thought-provoking morning, and the various perspectives provided some fascinating contrasts. If you attended, what did you think? I’m up for a discussion.