Is fashion advertising vapid and pretentious or do we not get it?

March 15, 2010

“Dahling, you just don’t get it.”

In honor of the recent passing of Fashion Week and, with it, designer Alexander McQueen, who recently committed suicide in his London flat, I thought a story about fashion advertising would be appropriate.

By definition fashion is advertising. But not the kind you and I specialize in. Uncut and undiluted by narratives, fashion advertising projects the creativity of the fashion designer or the “House” from which it originates: Gucci, Prada, Channel, Dior. For the most part these iconic brands eschew advertising campaigns in the ad agency sense of the word, preferring projection to conception. It is the line that matters and by that I don’t mean theme line. Fashion advertising seldom resorts to anything as parochial as tag lines. Or copy. That would be so uncool.

I’m not being condescending –not completely- when I say fashion campaigns are nothing short of pornography. And like good porn, it is usually quite frank. No need to fast forward through storylines to get to the good parts. The entertainment is the product, be it bags, glasses, or eveningwear. “Shut up and show us your… handbags!”

To be honest, this has always frustrated me. As a copywriter I loathed fashion’s indifference to my craft. Where was the story? What’s the big idea? I disdained these glossy ads for their obsession with obsession. At the same time, I envied their big budget bravado.

Still, it is not lost on me that fashion advertising is almost single-handedly keeping many of my favorite magazines afloat. Where would Vanity Fair, GQ and Esquire be without all that lavish advertising? And for every man’s magazine relying upon fashion advertisements there are dozens of female-oriented publications that are literally devoted to such “window dressing.” Can you say Vogue?

Ironic then, of the hundred or so print campaigns I judged at the Magazine Publishers of America/ Kelly Awards I’d guess less than five belonged to fashion. The closest candidate was the joyous holiday work from the Gap. Yes, the Gap. It seems only mainstream “houses” attended the print mediums most prestigious festival. Here we also found the latest iconic red and white campaign from Target. (Not at the Kellys, other examples of mainstream brands playing in ad land’s sandbox: Dockers “Wear the Pants,” Levis “Go Forth,” and CP&B’s irreverent use of mannequins for Old Navy.)

“Blimey, I’m in a %#@X! fashion ad!”

But where was Gucci, Prada and Ralph Lauren? And what about that striking campaign from Louis Vuitton? Arguably more of a showcase for celebrated photographer Annie Leibovitz, is it not still a commanding use of print? Of course it is. But in the fashion sense. And I’m afraid fashion sets its own criteria for what works and what doesn’t. Our notions of good print advertising falls into the latter category.

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11 Responses to “Is fashion advertising vapid and pretentious or do we not get it?”

  1. At a previous job I worked on several clients in the B2B architecture and interior design industry. I used to look at a lot of trade pubs, and many of the brands suffered from the phenomenon you describe. ( My former clients excluded of course 😉

    Pictures of furniture, carpet patterns, paint, faux finishing, cabinetry, window treatments, etc accompanied with nothing else other than a logo, a website, and perhaps a phone number. No concept, no copy, nothing.

    We used to call it the “Look how pretty” ad.

    Need to try a little harder to different in my opinion…

  2. Jeff Jones said

    As I was told by my then agency, Laird + Partners, upon arrival to Gap as the CMO, “the idea gets in the way of the clothes.”

    Like you, Steff, this disgusted me. What I’ve come to realize is the real truth in this…many (most?) agencies suck at making product the hero. They spend too much time “wrapping” the product in something. And too often lean on funny or ironic as the answer.

    The ultimate irony, however, is that I hired CP+B when I was at Gap and was ridiculed for the decision. Then, several years later, Gap hired them again after supposed success at Old Navy. Now, I understand, they are already out at Gap and Laird + Partners is back!

  3. Unfortunately, too many marketing practitioners behave like lawyers–pretending they have some secret knowledge/language that has to be mastered before one can succeed in their particular expertise. The fashion folks, the car people, the beer guys, the direct marketing folks, the new media whiz kids, etc. While there are certainly things to be learned in each of these particular fields, it’s a lot less complicated than they’d like to have you believe. And, in the case of fashion, their so-called wisdom is pure bullshit.

  4. amber said

    This post definitely caught my eye, as I’m a bit of a sucker for fashion stuff.

    I think a lot of people who work in fashion and are fashion fans see ad campaigns a bit as art, and less as a ploy to get people to buy things. Fashion bloggers wait with reverence for campaigns to drop (see Tavi), and judge them on the art direction and stylist’s rendering of a “look” – elements which require no words.

    I happen to agree that copy isn’t needed for most high-end fashion advertising, because it literally is about selling an image (even though all most people will buy from Prada is a pair of sunglasses, if that). and adding verbiage might seem like the label was trying too hard, in the eyes of the intended audience. High fashion doesn’t want to resort to gimmicks, because gimmicks can reek of desperation, and that is NOT cool. (although they do it in their runway shows to draw press, like Chanel’s icebergs)

    For more mass fashion brands like Gap and Old Navy, since what they all sell is fairly homogenous, I think they tend to need concepts and more ad-like ads to grab attention and remind people that their store is where you should buy khakis. They don’t usually have breakout items that they know will be waitlisted and drooled over (a la most high end fashion houses) – they have performance fleece (ugh!). They have to remind people to spend their $29.99 there instead of somewhere else with basically the same product.

    The one brand I think sits a bit in the middle is Diesel – I’m surprised you didn’t see any work from them. Their ads usually have much more of a message or concept (like the Be Stupid campaign) than most fashion brands with their price points.

    and to your pornography point – yes, I think it definitely is porn. As is any image of something that makes you pant and drool, be it a guitar or a laptop or a Miu Miu crystal and kitty cat embellished dress.

    • SRP said

      Thank you for this thoughtful message. I must try and get some of yesterday’s readers back to view it! Pretty clear mass fashion relies more on advertising “as we know it” versus high-fashion, which just photographs its stuff.

    • Brook said

      I think Amber is totally correct. There’s a big difference between Gap and Prada (just move the decimal point on your receipt). If Dolce and Gabbana has to explain why their pants are right for you, street cred goes in the toilet.

  5. Steffan,
    This is something I’ve always wondered about; why do some many high profile industries completely eschew traditional advertising, preferring to instead “do it the way they’ve always done it” with respect to their particular industry?

    Fashion is obviously a good example, but movies come to mind, as well. Only rarely do you see a high profile movie do anything other than a traditional trailer to promote their film. Where’s the ambient? Where’s the TV that shows me more than just 1-3 second jump cuts from the film itself and actually presents a spot with a concept? It seems like such an obvious move to start producing more thought provoking marketing, but as far as I can tell, it just isn’t done. And when it is occasionally done, it’s rarely done well. I’ve asked a lot of people about that, and I pretty much only get shrugs in response. “That’s the way they’ve always done it.” Ditto new music, new TV, and most other entertainment products. That the world is changing seems obvious to me, but I guess until the generation of people that made a trillion zillion dollars doing things a certain way retire, we won’t start to see people embracing a new way of thinking about their product as a brand, when the product in question is anything less tangible than baking soda.

    I hope that as consumers grow savvier, this new paradigm will become an industry standard, not just an afterthought for the occasional big budget promotional team. That would certainly make things more interesting, from a consumer perspective.

    In the meantime, I still watch movie trailers and feel like I’m looking into the past, the remnant of some bygone era from before people knew any better.


    PS: Thanks again for the meet yesterday. You were my first real informational interview, and presenting my book was even more fun than I had anticipated.

    • SRP said

      Pleasure all mine, Mr. Shandling…
      As for movie trailers, you’re right: same ol’ same ol’. But the posters & taglines can rock:
      “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.”

  6. mandy said

    very godly and respectful opening statement of this post. you deserve a standing ovation and a tri-zillion awards for it alone.

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