The Demise of (Beautiful) Brands

[This is the original unedited version of my column for Courier Magazine entitled “Death by Algorithm” in their June 2018 issue.]

Remember the good old days when an idea could gestate in the mind of, say, Vivienne Westwood and, then, voila, the hallucinatory output of a single theme like “Seditionaries” or “Buffalo Girls” would emerge on the runway fully formed, causing jaws to drop (one way or the other) among the small cabal of editors who ruled the fashion establishment? “Les Incroyables,” John Galliano’s Central Saint Martin’s 1984 graduation runway show dishing up 18th century French romanticism interpolated with hard-edged punk flair was possibly the zenith of that epoch, just as Marc Jacobs’ ode to the street style of homeless people was an unmitigated critical and commercial catastrophe during the same period.

These days, the fashion industry is spared from giant errors of judgment like Jacobs’ grunge collection — but also from moments of elation and awe, the sort customarily inspired by the collections of Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood twenty years ago. That’s because, for decades, statistics and, now, analytics, have slowly strangled creativity.

For better or worse, in the past, ideas germinated and developed in a vacuum for the simple reason that we were not instantly connected to ideas, images or each other. That in and of itself was not actually a plus, but simply a fact.

In the late 80s, creativity started becoming big business. Louis Vuitton merged with Moet Hennessey in 1987 to become the world’s largest luxury conglomerate and Johann Rupert set up the Richemont Group one year later. The advent of brands like Calvin Klein Jeans (remember how nothing came between Brooke Shields and her Calvins) and Ralph Lauren signaled the mainstreaming of luxury. Not surprisingly, the professionalization of the fashion and luxury industries, no longer a series of family-run enterprises, brought with it the newfound discipline of numbers. Designers’ imaginations still ran amok but their enthusiasms were curbed, at least at the margin, by sell-through reports and managers with MBAs beholden to shareholders. (Considering that sell-through reports, back then, still required a high level of manual tabulation, they had marginal impact on creativity and were more seasonal post-mortems than predictive blueprints for action.)

Then came the influence of Google and, with it, search results including images which eliminated the necessity of sourcing inspiration from travel, museums or even coffee table books. Suddenly, collections about “Venice” or “safari” started resembling each other rather than their native environments because designers, hard pressed for time or, worse, lazy, started culling references from the same first page of Google search results. Fast-forward to today, with most “creative” visual output a cut-and-paste of freely available design references, and it’s no wonder that the depth and intellectual commitment which marked the creative projects of twenty or thirty years ago have gone missing. The creative process, once based on independent, even solitary exploration, has given way to the mental terrarium of Google.

That artists and designers are discouraged from risk-taking by large-scale capital and our imaginative capacities vastly diminished by Google paint a bleak picture for many creative industries. But the real coup de grace has been analytics and its apparent ability to foretell commercial success or failure, even before the lightbulb goes off in the mind of a designer or artist. With job security based on positive ROI and designers themselves obsessed with Instagram like counts, the sheltered space for creative germination which once led to the birthing of full-blown works of art has been squeezed out of existence. The current system, if anything, penalizes unbridled creativity. (To take an example from an industry which has undergone the same seismic shifts, music, contrast The Wall by Pink Floyd, an entirely original, integrated work of art referring to nothing which came before it, to the music created by today’s major pop stars, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, etc.. The showcase for musical artistry formerly known as the “album” has been abandoned, much like the runway collection, in favor of hit singles based on riffs, tropes and styles known to provoke the desired aural reaction among listeners.)

Thus, consumers are treated to an endless stream of thinly veiled retreads of best sellers and hit-or-miss collaborations, each a desperate stab to reproduce the glory days of last season. The formulaic recycling of old ideas has become so instinctive that it feels practically suicidal to return to the more venturesome days of creative risk-taking, when brand integrity was defined by a philosophy, a mission, an aesthetic. Athletic brands like Nike and Adidas are especially guilty of this form of “product development”, forsaking investment in product R&D to chase after collaborations with the next big streetwear influencer. Similarly, Louis Vuitton has never been the same since Marc Jacobs invited Takashi Murakami to co-create a collection. The brand is practically defined by its collaborations and LV’s recent appointment of Supreme creative director, Virgile Abloh, to helm its menswear design is an unapologetic case of the commercial tail wagging the creative dog. I never thought I’d see the day when streetwear tropes, so easily wielded within the world of Adobe Photoshop, would ascend to the apex of the luxury world.

To put it in the simplest way possible: When is the last time that you experienced an electric frisson looking at a new runway collection, photograph, piece of music — or sneaker? In short, when is the last time you felt like you were looking at something BRAND NEW and it actually gave you a JOLT?

If brands lose their leadership position, it’s their own fault. Why should a consumer look up to them when they fail to demonstrate confidence, leadership or sure-footedness. Commentators complain that “millenials don’t give a sh — -t about brands.” But the truth is, most brands, the big ones anyway, deserve to be abandoned, not just by millennials but by all of us. Soullessly following statistics rather than the inner compass of an original vision, brands have lost their very reason for being in the first place.

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Trace at Hirshhorn by Ai Weiwei (Washington DC, 17 Sept 2017)

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Daily Mind-ful 19 May 2017 (Zabludowicz Collection)

My standards for my son’s behavior are pretty low: as long as he’s not a drug addict and doesn’t contract AIDS, I’m happy; I don’t look down on affordable art fairs. If anything, I like their obvious raison d’etre; high-end art fairs are the same thing but with a circus of snobbery around them; I visit the Primrose Hill studio of Djordje Ozbolt with Olga Ovenden, a London-based art consultant who, in addition to privately consulting clients one-on-one, also conducts art tours in London (and elsewhere, like Venice); Ozbolt’s paintings are vivid, sardonically whimsical and he himself appears to be incredibly hung-over accounting for why he prefers to let his gallerist do the talking; no matter, it’s an interesting excursion which allows me to capture the customary format of Ovenden’s art tours on film; I’m bummed I didn’t meet Ozbolt earlier because I definitely would have checked out his exhibition, The Grand Detour, at Holborn House last year; our next stop is the Zabludowicz Collection which is housed inside a private museum located in Primrose Hill; Paul Luckcraft, the Exhibitions Director, gives us a private tour and it’s a huge treat, because of Paul’s insight and glibness, which totally belie his youthfulness; in contrast with Photo London, which I liken to drinking from a fire hydrant without slaking my thirst, Luckcraft’s careful and restrained curation speak volumes about the evolution of art photography, with the main exhibition entitled “You are looking at something that never occurred,” containing images from Lucas Blalock, Sara Cwynar, Andreas Gursky, Elad Lassry, Richard Prince, Thomas Ruff, Cindy Sherman, Wolfgang Tillmans and Jeff Wall, among others; I’m introduced to the layered reworkings of Blalock and Cwynar for the first time at the Zabludowicz Collection and find their images fresh and timely; Photo London proves the point: there are too many “art” photographers working within the arena of traditional method. Any keen observer of photography over the decades can see that these “purists” are now grasping at straws because of the universal availability of good, affordable cameras; finally, after an insanely jam-packed week in London, I’m back home! The best fish & chippery in Suffolk is in The Codfather, in Sudbury, my nabe; as I get older, I’m beginning to suffer from what I call “rolling short-term memory loss”; the main reason that Instagram stories are addictive is because they’re literally kinetic; Stories are a great way to winnow away Instagrammers who are a waste of protoplasm, either because they have personalities which repel you or because of their sheer vapidity (especially if they post prolifically); another sin is overweening vanity, a widespread symptom among striving fashionistas who seek to telegraph their desirability as clotheshorses and VIP guests; making matters worse, these same would-be divas, use the word “like” every few seconds and end every declarative sentence as if it was a question.
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Daily Mind-ful 8 May 2017

Looking for a new emoji catalogue/resource/foundry. Please suggest! My business idea for a new emoji business (not actually mentioned in the video) is this one: Emojis by top contemporary artists (not free), with artists compensated through a royalty system. Rather than low-brow or despicable, such an idea actually reflects the crossroads of where the art industry is NOW. It would be hypocritical and disingenuous to pretend that the art world, with its vaunted pretensions to purity, functions in a hermetically sealed world of idealism. Look at the recent Jeff Koons collection for LVMH, which, as usual (for him) actually takes the piss out of us viewers, the general public who mindlessly, obediently laps up his meta-critique of the art world without understanding that the joke is on us.
It’s awful and brilliant all at the same time; I’m also looking for free cloud-based photo editing software; I started a Facebook page for CultureVlog so that I can share third-party content efficiently. Join me there too; what did we do before computers and smartphones? My husband insists that I print out all bills and leave them on his desk, if I want them paid; I just updated my LinkedIn profile so that it’s no longer snarky and ironic. In case you’re interested, you can find my day job credentials here.
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Daily Mind-ful 3 May 2017 (The evolution of the photographic image)

[Main topic of this vlog: I explain why I want to write a book about the evolution of the photographic image and associate, riff and reflect free-form on the subject.] I leave London at an ungodly hour in order to meet John at the antique dealers’ fair in Long Melford; I end up buying an Ironstone pitcher from the turn of the century; I’m intimidated to walk around the hall by myself because it’s full of (only) superannuated white men. Yes, I’m serious; My favorite house in the countryside (so far): the pink house in the center of Cavendish; I seriously mull the idea of writing two books, one about environmental photography, the other about the evolution of the photographic image over the past thirty years, especially these past ten; Not only should the evolution of the image itself be considered (technically and technologically) but the ethical and societal implications of these shifts and what they mean for our interactions with others, our self-image, our morality, etc. THAT is the principal reason why such a book would be fascinating and why this question has piqued my interest so ferociously; Here are the issues about the evolution of the photographic image that I have identified very quickly: 1) photoshopping, its prevalence and universal acceptance 2) the selfie (and its implications for our body image, self-image and psychology) and 3) the democratization of photography (i.e., the phenomenon of everyone becoming a photographer); documentary, “objective” reportage in the style of the Magnum photographers has mostly gone out of fashion and been replaced by a much more subjective style of photography which uses photography as the instrumentality of content or messaging, frequently activist-style messaging, to wit, environmental photography; that’s largely explained by the democratization of photographic technology which enables the man on the street to mimic the style of most news photographers these days. It means that the value-added of the photographic image originally conferred by mastery of equipment and darkroom processes has been replaced, of necessity, by content and meaning. To my mind, that’s a major and welcome improvement in the culture of photography; similarly, realistic, gritty photography in the style of Terry Richardson and Terry Jones (ID Magazine) are now outmoded; gardening is futile – by definition. I don’t get it; not having a Facebook page is really stupid because Instagram is a really impoverished and unsuitable platform for sharing third-party content, especially textual or lengthy, or, for that matter, my long-form rants about capitalism, art, the environment, millennials, child rearing, etc.; my favorite stories on Instagram are Eva Chen‘s because she’s so real, with huge doses of thankfulness and humility. Plus, she’s completely average-looking; My vlogging as a talking head is stymied because my intention to vlog about The Week, my favorite magazine in the whole world, has been defeated by the near unanimity of commentary on the past three weeks of headline news, dammit! (The Week’s strength is collating and summarizing the full range of political opinion on the same issue, news or topic, even when those opinions are diametrically opposed to one another); totally psyched to discover that Macron’s wife is way older than him; and that he may also be bi – ha!
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Daily Mind-ful 24 April 2017 (Why desperate single women are unbearable)

Slowly realising that I live in England – FINALLY – after one year; workout clothes shouldn’t be worn unless you’re actually working out; thank GOD I no longer have to care about the jewellery industry; any opinion on Tyrell’s versus Kettle Chips? I bought both brands as part of my junk food stash in order to conduct a taste test; everything in the countryside takes twice as long because of the obligatory chit chat factor; I generally equate overcommunication with low native intelligence; ditto for repeating one’s self: I deplore it; one of the main reasons I can’t stand hanging out with single women desperate for a boyfriend is because all they do is talk about the same thing, over and over again, violating the cardinal rule I just stated; I love vlogging because it enables me to bitch about things in the abstract without pointing the finger at a particular individual; if you’re one of my female friends who recognises yourself in my comments, now you know why I haven’t talked to you very much in the past few years; my least favourite conversation with a single woman is, “Do you think he really likes me?”; amazing layout on the home page of Simon Aeppli. Then again, maybe it was the startling image! My favorite go-to resource for social media news, Tatiana Platt, shared a great post about the top ten mistakes on Instagram; and I’m definitely guilty of #10 because my main concern is thoroughly updating and optimising my own website.
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Daily Mind-ful 20 April 2017 (Facebook)

Still learning to use the video camera before pushing off to Derby for FORMAT 2017; British traffic sucks; Wind farm; Derby is cute and historic; the founder of FORMAT, Louise, not only established the art and film center, QUAD, in Derby. But the UK’s biggest photography festival, FORMAT; clearly, I’ve been slacking and doing nothing these last ten years; when we met in Hong Kong, I had no idea about the magnitude of what she’s built; I assume Derby is safe because there’s no one on the street at night (????); I can’t believe Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s development agenda is so vacuous. Based on the intentions he stated during the recent F8 developer conference, his top technological and commercial priorities boil down to adding idiotic fripperies borrowed from Snapchat and Pokemon Go. The fact that a platform as powerful as Facebook needs to borrow and copy rather than pioneering its own ground-breaking initiatives based on its founder’s deepest ethical and entrepreneurial convictions is disturbing and disappointing enough. But it’s even worse that his top priorities are so devoid of social, political, environmental, cultural value; for example, he should really be implementing innovative, badly needed functionality which automatically identifies and eliminates fake news and enables greater participation in the political process rather than spending tens of millions developing three dimensional smiley face stickers; imagine other multi-billion dollar companies like Unilever, Lockheed Martin or General Electric pursuing similarly mindless agendas: it would be entirely unacceptable to shareholders and the general public. That’s the problem with a thirty-something year old developer (computer science engineer) without any sociopolitical consciousness let alone conscience wielding enormous power. It’s just as worrying to think that this is the sort of person spearheading crucial technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Zuckerberg needs a conscience internship with Bill Gates!; it pissed me off so badly, I taped a full vlog post on the topic.
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Zuckerberg needs to grow up and get a conscience


Facebook announced its principal areas of focus and R&D during this week’s F8 conference. Call me naive. But I’m disappointed (that’s a very mild way to put it) that Mark Zuckerberg is just another tech entrepreneur mindlessly chasing numbers instead of exerting some moral leadership. He needs to grow up and get a conscience – URGENTLY. [I taped this vlog on the spur of the moment explaining the terrible lighting and my weirdly recumbent posture. Notwithstanding the aesthetics, I’m glad I did it.]
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Daily Mind-ful 10 April 2017

Daily vlog diary: Erin Janus’ indictment of the dairy industry is a social media tour de force highlighting the power of video but it is too ideologically biased to take seriously. It’s my belief that animals should be subordinated to humans. Therefore, I can’t take arguments (like Janus’) against industrial food production predicated on the anthropomorphization of animals seriously; the power of Janus’ messaging style partially explains the effectiveness of Trump’s messaging; Bravo: EasyJet has almost eliminated the use of human agents at check-in; hipster design tropes have percolated into mainstream culture; airport retail is a great example of why shopping today sucks; immigration at Schipol took as long as the entire flight; many Amsterdam taxis are Teslas; we arrive at our Airbnb but there’s no one waiting for us; catastrophe averted – but not before John suggested returning immediately to England; pretty postcards from Amsterdam; last but not least: I was impressed to hear that McDonald’s is now asking job applicants to submit Snapchat footage along with their resumes.
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