On today's business of fashion:
Diet Prada Unmasked
Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler, the secretive founders of the industry’s most feared Instagram account, reveal their plan to change the course of fashion history.
NEW YORK, United States — A fashion trend, no matter how relevant and specific to a moment in time, is destined to be repeated. Some argue that there hasn’t been a new silhouette since Alexander McQueen proposed the low-rise, crack-baring bumster in 1993 in his first collection after graduating from Central Saint Martins. And even that was inspired by something else: the “builder’s bum,” or, the exposure of a construction worker’s rear as he bends over with a shovel.
McQueen’s appropriation of this common and crude reference from his working-class upbringing moved fashion away from decades of high waists right into the Thong Era. But the re-interpretation of one designer by another is rarely as meaningful. It can often result in a carbon copy of the original that feels hackneyed — even insensitive.
Now, imagine you’re a frustrated designer, working an entry-level job, relegated to researching the work of others in order to help fuel the creativity of your current employer. This was the plight of Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler, who met in 2010 doing just that. (By all accounts, including Schuyler’s LinkedIn page and Liu’s resume, which was published on fundraising platform AngelList, they worked for milliner Eugenia Kim, although they won’t speak about it publicly. A representative declined to comment.)
“We would look at runway shows, just kind of shooting the shit, and we would do these live roasts back and forth sitting in opposite corners,” says Liu, leaning back on a couch in BoF’s New York offices, dressed in the unofficial local uniform of white trainers, dark jeans and a navy jacket, a near-boiling tea kettle whispering in the background. “One of us would pull up a show and say, ‘Hey, look at this, it’s so Louis Vuitton Fall 2014…’ We would just shoot comments back and forth. We kind of started it as a joke.”
“It” being Diet Prada, the most feared Instagram account in fashion, which began by exposing designers pilfering from one another but has since transformed into something far more layered and impactful. “It definitely was just for the lolz,” adds Schuyler. She has springy curls and the confidence of a mid-generation millennial. Liu finishes her sentence: “We were making each other laugh and making the rest of the room laugh.”
Today, the duo provides colourful, impassioned commentary on a wide range of industry issues — model abuse, racial discrimination, cultural appropriation — in a period when social media-fuelled activism, and emotions-fuelled social media, are on the rise.
“We seem to be living in the era of the ID,” explains Aly Colón, Knight Professor of Media Ethics at the department of journalism and mass communications at Washington and Lee University. “Everything is coming based on our emotions, our reactions, how we feel, how we express ourselves.”
Diet Prada's Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler | Images: Camila Falquez for BoF
By the time they both left Eugenia Kim in 2015, Liu was design director, Schuyler a design and product development associate. Liu subsequently launched a line of casual menswear called You As, which is sold at Opening Ceremony and Mr Porter, and via its own e-commerce site. Schuyler established a consulting practice. But their exit also happened shortly after they started @diet_prada — named in honour of Miuccia Prada, “the original end-all be-all of everything,” and Diet Coke, “the original imitator.” (Like many fashion businesses, Kim’s was a “Diet Coke-heavy office.”)
The first post, published in December 2014, featured a seamed, contrast-collar lady coat from Raf Simons’ Pre-Fall 2015 collection for Dior and a contrast-collar Crombie coat from Prada’s Autumn/Winter 2013 men’s collection. They called out Simons, who designed a cognac-coloured coat with a yellow collar, for copying Miuccia Prada, who designed a cognac-coloured coat with a red collar. One commenter noted they had mistakenly hashtagged the Prada look “#fw2014” when it was actually “#fw2013.”
Other call-outs exposed now-defunct New York label Giulietta for mimicking a look from an early Nicolas Ghesquière-designed Louis Vuitton collection; Sportsmax for taking a cue from a pair of Céline platform sandals; Zac Posen for colour-blocking in the same vein as Simons when he was designing Dior. Along the way, they developed a signature voice — acerbic, sensationalist and jokey with lots of OMGs, lols and exclamation points — compelling users to comment (“Dieters, discuss!”) even when their follower count was low.
Their visual approach also cut through the clutter, standing in sharp contrast to the typical gloss of fashion imagery. It was sharp, unrelenting, graphic and crafted in the mashed-up, cut-and-paste visual language of the internet. Once, they posted a video of a burning D&G logo, Beyoncé’s “6 Inch” humming in the background. Another time, they spliced a scene from cult teen-witch film “The Craft” — in which actress Robin Tunney puts a hex on a photo — with an image of Bruce Weber.
These gutsy moves certainly garnered attention. But Diet Prada’s ascent was by no means fast — at least not at first. There were dozens of posts before they hit 1,000 followers in November 2016. “OMG U GUYS. We’re sooooo happy!” they wrote. “(Tell us why you love us in the comments) #1000followers #1000 #finally #bitterbitchesunfollowmedaily #rememberwhen #jwanderson #blocked #me? #” (On multiple occasions they’ve cited JW Anderson designer Jonathan Anderson, who is also the creative director of Loewe, for being overly referential.)
To this day, that post only has 99 likes. But it was a turning point for the duo because they felt noticed. “When we hit a thousand followers we were like, ‘Whoa,’” Liu says. “A thousand is not a lot now. But for us it was more like, ‘Wow, people are watching what we say.’ We had a few key followers.” Some of the heat was generated by the mystery around their identities. For the first two years of the account’s existence, Liu and Schuyler remained wholly anonymous, offering interviews via email or Google chats only and steering clear of observant journalists at fashion shows and other industry events.
While their names were revealed to the public in October 2017 by another watchdog publication — The Fashion Law — this is the first time the duo are speaking openly, as themselves, about why they started Diet Prada and their plan for the future.
“The time was going to come that we’d need to own it, eventually,” Schuyler says. That’s because, as Liu says, “Ideally, we would like to make this a business. It’s going to be easier to [do that] if we put a face to the names.”
Ideally, we would like to make this a business. It’s going to be easier to [do that] if we put a face to the names.
This approach to public relations also offers more insight into their strategy, which is more thoughtful and planned than the seemingly flippant nature of their posts. Liu and Schuyler want to be seen as serious, and they understand that aligning themselves with a publication like this one will help them achieve that.
Today, Diet Prada’s list of over 390,000 followers is populated with many notable names, including Gigi Hadid, Pharrell, Carine Roitfeld, Edward Enninful and Karlie Kloss. Names that matter — at least to Liu and Schuyler. “I mean, basically every major fashion industry professional follows us,” Liu says. (At the time of publication, other interesting followers include Kim Jones, American Vogue contributor Sarah Mower, casting director Ashley Brokaw and the actor Jonah Hill.)
Supermodel Naomi Campbell and makeup artist Pat McGrath have voiced support of the account. Simon Porte Jacquemus and other well-known designers have left comments. Bag Snob founder and OG influencer Tina Craig, a frequent commenter, signed Diet Prada to her newly formed agency Estate Five in November 2017. “It’s not only industry people, but luxury shoppers, too,” Craig says. “My friends.”
Diet Prada has also earned acknowledgement from several publications, including New York Magazine, the Financial Times and i-D. (“Because it costs nothing to publish on Instagram, the duo are free to say as they please, with no risk, and no stakes,” wrote Emilia Petrarca on The Cut in October 2017. “What a potent cocktail.”) In December 2017, Wendy Williams, a popular American talk-show host, based an entire segment on a Diet Prada post that shamed Kim Kardashian for copying a Comme des Garçons x Kosho & Co souvenir jacket for her childrenswear line Kids Supply. “An anonymous Instagram account, no faces to it, getting mentioned on TV?” Liu recalls. “It was awesome,” says Schuyler.
Authority is what they’re seeking. When asked why they’ve referred to themselves as the “love child of Cathy Horyn and Tim Blanks,” their response is both sincere and self-assured. “We have the unfiltered-ness of Cathy Horyn and I would like to think we have some of the knowledge that Tim Blanks has — the history,” Liu says. “I think we think about fashion a lot of the same way that Tim does,” Schuyler adds. “That everything is building on everything.”
It takes a lot of confidence to make a statement like that, given that Blanks, BoF’s editor-at-large, and Horyn, The Cut’s editor-at-large, have each been covering fashion for more than 30 years and are widely recognised as two of the industry’s preeminent critics. Neither seem to mind the comparison.
“Everything builds on everything? Yes, that’s the way culture evolves. Old masters, new disciples,” Blanks wrote via email. “I’ve always thought fashion drew from more sources than any other creative endeavour, so it’s always going to set off more echoes. DP is like the pinging radar on a submarine, isolating each echo, to the point where every day is a Blurred Lines day in fashion. It’s enough to make you question the very notion of originality.
“But maybe there is no such thing. The subconscious plays tricks. My favourite musicians, writers and filmmakers owned up to their debts. Their art was in the transmutation. DP makes it sound like there’s not enough of that owning up in fashion, especially when it comes to established houses borrowings from young designers. But then, a fashion collection is so often made in committee, inspiration coming from everyone as well as everywhere and everything. It’s not as honed as a song or a story.”
“I think what they do is generally spot-on and obviously the humour and crisp takedowns work well in the medium,” Horyn wrote. “I also like that they are open about the conflict of admiring a designer and being annoyed with his copying, as in the case of Demna Gvasalia.”
Schuyler and Liu are serious about their work, even if their followers often assume they’re fresh out of college. Liu, 32, graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007. (For one year, he happened to be a student of Creatures of the Wind designer Shane Gabier.) Schuyler, 30, graduated from Florida State University in 2010.
That perception, that they’re young and inexperienced, may not be what Liu and Schuyler are striving for, but it’s grounded in what has been viewed by some as an uncouth (if generally humorous) approach. (“When you both farted, but are too chic to admit,” read their caption on an image grabbed from Hussein Chalayan’s Instagram account, where two models wore their turtlenecks turned halfway up their faces.) Sometimes, they can veer towards the mean-spirited (once they compared Selena Gomez wearing Coach to the Bride of Chucky).
This strategy attracts as many well-placed haters as fans. While the front row is glued to Diet Prada, many question the duo’s intentions, often in hushed tones for fear of becoming the account’s next victim. Like other off-the-cuff outlets, from Babe.net to the Shade Room, Diet Prada riddles their posts with hashtags such as #fakenews, aligning with certain brands and individuals (Gucci — with which they have a known commercial relationship — and Prada, Naomi Campbell) and picking fights with others (Loewe, Stefano Gabbana).
“We’ve got a Pandora’s box of media and we’ve lifted the lid,” says Colón of Washington and Lee University regarding the proliferation of such online outlets. “Both benefits and challenges come with that. The benefits are that more people are able to voice their opinions — people who might not have gotten through the more conventional traditional media. The challenge is that we have become our own filters. You don’t have the same checks and balances.”
However, a detailed examination of Diet Prada’s Instagram account over the past three years indicates that they are perhaps not as fearsome as the gossipers have made them out to be. They appear to simply say what they think. For an industry so uncomfortable with self-examination, that notion itself is frightening.
Emotions aside, Diet Prada often targets offenders, whether alleged copycats or those accused of worse offences, without hard proof of misconduct, raising the question: are they making a valid critique or embarking on a social media-fuelled witch hunt?
“Just generally, when we’re comparing two garments, accessories, bags or shoes, in 2018, it’s a grey area because so much has already been done before, or is based on something that came before,” says The Fashion Law’s Julie Zerbo, who has written that she was reported to Instagram by Liu and Schuyler regarding a TFL-related Diet Prada post. Zerbo declined to comment on the situation, as did Diet Prada. “I think most copying call-out posts generally are opinion-based.”
And yet, there’s no denying that the duo’s post is influencing the way some in the industry approach their work. “We are really scared to end up on Diet Prada,” Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond told BoF in February before presenting his Autumn/Winter 2018 collection. “We didn’t look at pictures [when researching inspiration for the collection].” Instead, he read material about the early history of the rodeo.
Diet Prada might not always be the cleverest, the sharpest or the most insightful, but they are often the only ones pursuing honesty — and these days that counts for something. Since The New York Times published its expose on Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, Diet Prada has taken on a notably different tone. Liu and Schuyler say they were the first to mention past allegations against Terry Richardson — and to scold the industry for continuing to work with the photographer. They regularly call out designers for cultural appropriation, as well as copycatting, and are not afraid to criticise other media outlets as well.
“We just kind of realised there was so much more in this industry that needed to be talked about and a lot of these people have serious concerns and they don’t have a voice, they don’t have a platform,” Liu says. “So, we’re able to give that to them and highlight issues that the industry otherwise, I mean, for the most part, ignores. Diversity. Representation.”
Diet Prada’s more serious turn coincided with an uptick of interest in the account. In the fourth quarter of 2017, the interactions with Diet Prada’s Instagram account — meaning likes, “@” mentions and comments — jumped to more than 500,000, a roughly tenfold increase from just over 50,000 in the third quarter of last year, according to tracking firm Preen.me. (In the first quarter of 2018, interactions increased to over 560,000.) In September 2017, Diet Prada averaged 968 interactions per post. In February 2018, it averaged 12,500 interactions per post.
That’s all to say that people care. The way Diet Prada has seeped into the ether, spurring its own copycat accounts, including Diet Madison Avenue, “exposing sexual harassment & discrimination in ad agencies since Oct 2017, cuz HR won’t,” and Diet Ignorant, which exists solely to expose what it perceives as Diet Prada’s own shortcomings.
A recent post highlighting that Rick Owens carried a mould of his own head in 2009, long before Gucci’s Alessandro Michele sent out several models doing the same on Gucci’s Fall 2018 runway, was particularly cutting: “…nothing special right? People think it’s innovatory, but is it? When you are in first row @diet_prada can you be objective?” (There is also Diet Nada, which targets Prada.) Liu and Schuyler have a hunch the account is manned by their arch nemesis, Stefano Gabbana, who frequently retaliates in the comments or in his own posts against their criticisms of Dolce & Gabbana’s work.
The duo confesses to playing favourites — to an extent. “There’s kind of one obvious [favourite], which people get,” Schuyler says. (Prada. “And Raf!” they write over email during the fact-checking process.) As for the accusation that they’re bullies, whose work is mean-spirited, not constructive? “For us, nothing is sacred,” Liu says. “I don’t know why this industry is so self-protective. Every other industry, people say whatever shit they want and they should be able to do that in fashion as well. I think it’s new to them. We’re such a jarring new voice that any kind of hard criticism seems like bullying, but it’s not. It’s just criticism.”
We’re not being mean. I hate saying, ‘We’re just being honest!’ But, you know.
“Not to bring in the ‘special snowflake’ thing, but people are not used to hearing a mean word,” Schuyler adds. “And we’re not being mean. I hate saying, ‘We’re just being honest!’ But, you know.”
They believe that, as an independent entity free from the chains of traditional fashion publishing — where relationships with powerful advertisers often influence editorial content — they may be able to actually, really transform the industry. “I don’t want to tell people what to do or how to live their lives but to help develop that critical eye,” Schuyler says. “I want to be able to love the fashion industry more purely. The more I learn about it, I think, ‘Well this needs to change.’ It needs to change so that I can keep loving it.”
Fashion is due for a reckoning and, for many, Diet Prada represents the wake-up call the industry desperately needs.
Of course, Liu and Schuyler are not the first to rally for change, especially when it comes to copying. “In a way, DP is the heir of Bill Cunningham, who called out designer copycats in his columns for Details,” Horyn noted, citing the late photographer’s work from the 1980s and 1990s. (The now-shuttered publication was relaunched as a men’s magazine in 2000.)
More recently, in 2005, Fordham professor Susan Scafidi started Counterfeit Chic, a blog that exposed knock-offs and also offered an explanation around the legal ramifications of stealing from another designer. Just two years later, New York-based publisher Breaking Media launched Fashionista, an industry blog that borrowed from Gawker as much as it did WWD. Early on, founding editor Faran Krentcil, known as much for her witty turns of phrase as she was for her ruthless reporting, established the column “Adventures in Copyright,” a sort of proto-Diet Prada. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I joined Fashionista as an editor in 2010 and occasionally wrote “Adventures in Copyright” entries.)
“We never pulled back. We went hard because we believed in it,” says Krentcil, who left Fashionista in 2008. Today, she consults for brands and writes for outlets including American Elle. “More often than not... We got a lot of flowers and phone calls thanking us.”
Like Krentcil once was, Liu and Schuyler are now being embraced by the establishment. Several of the brands they have scolded have welcomed them wholeheartedly, seating them in the front or second row at their fashion shows. After several publications and industry insiders — most notably the stylist Jordan Page — accused Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele of appropriating the work of Harlem designer Dapper Dan, he not only acknowledged the reference but went on to collaborate with the legendary Harlem designer. Michele also enlisted Diet Prada to take over Gucci’s account for the Spring/Summer 2018 runway show, paying them a fee to do so... and propelling their follower count to more than 28,000.
Schuyler and Liu believe that their followers demand honesty from them, and that they are not worth anything to paying brands unless they maintain their trust. “We want to be transparent and whatever the letter of the law is, we’ll follow it,” Schuyler says. “We’re not about skirting around the legalities of it, especially as an account that pushes for transparency on different levels,” Liu adds. “But it’s so new for us, it’s not like we’re being gifted all this stuff and have to say ‘#ad #sponsored.’”
In the months that followed their Gucci tie-up, the account published one semi-critical post featuring an advertisement for the brand’s eyewear, which they compared to a Prada campaign that was released months earlier. (“Digging the concept, but coincidence or a case of borrow/steal?” they asked rather than stating outright.) During the same period, the account cited multiple designers for copying Gucci, including the Milan-based label Attico, in a post that was published immediately after Diet Prada ran a takeover of Gucci’s Instagram Stories during the Spring/Summer 2018 runway show.
The duo did take a more serious tone after Michele’s Autumn/Winter 2018 show featured Sikh turbans. Liu and Schuyler addressed the matter in a measured post that was neither mean-spirited nor inflammatory. “In @gucci ’s #pluriverse, we control our own identities. However, certain signifiers of identity are better left untouched,” they wrote. “While various turban styles have been re-interpreted in fashion since the late 18th century, the four Dastaar that popped up on Gucci’s FW18 runway (on non-Sikh, mostly white models) was one that should have been left on the mood board. There are many ways this disaster could have been averted.”
They went on to offer solutions, including hiring Sikh models, as “Italy is home to the second largest population in Europe,” or do a “fashion turban instead,” citing Marc Jacobs and Prada versions, which don’t “read as sacred religious headwear.”
Agree with them or not, could it be that Diet Prada is growing up?
“I think they’re starting to do a great job,” Krentcil says, recalling the moment when she began “pulling back on the tone” at Fashionista. “I realised that I needed to stop being self-righteous and start talking about people as humans. You don’t have to be snarky to write the truth… Imagine that you’re going to be sitting across from the person you’re writing about at dinner one night.”
Liu and Schuyler are surely going to have to face their subjects with increased frequency. They dream of meeting idol Miuccia Prada, who has slipped past them at runway shows but to whom they’ve yet to be introduced. “It will happen,” Schuyler says.
With Prada, of course, there’s little to be uncomfortable about. Other interactions may not be as cordial. However, they say their goal is to “maintain a completely unbiased point of view because there’s so much of the opposite in the media,” Liu says. “It’s just something that our followers are very cognisant of.”
Of course, reputable publications such as The New York Times run fashion advertisements, but their journalists are shielded from these business arrangements, creating a “church and state” environment within an organisation. If Liu and Schuyler are taking money directly from brands, it’s more difficult to consider their views unfiltered. However, they say they don’t consider themselves journalists. “Definitely not,” Liu says. “We’re just two people with an opinion.”
“I think we use journalistic tactics,” Schuyler adds. “But we’re also in an age where there are Tweets on the news. There’s a lot of real journalism that’s not journalism these days.”
Liu and Schuyler do have some of — though certainly not all — the traits of “serious” journalists. “When we think about journalism as we have known it historically, we think about it shedding light. It helps people understand what’s going on,” Professor Colón says. “We talk about transparency a lot today. Transparency really means, ‘I’m letting you know everything that I know.’”
If they are able to maintain an air of transparency with their followers, can they build a business out of it? Other than the Gucci Instagram Stories takeover last year, for which they were paid, sales of Diet Prada-related merchandise and ad-hoc writing jobs have been their main sources of revenue.
Right now, DietPrada.com mostly serves as a landing page for merch, including a sold-out $32 “KIM de GARÇONS” tee. There are plans to further develop the website and maybe even hire a staff, if they choose — and are able — to finance it through both advertising sales and external investment. They say they have yet to make any real headway on raising funding, but that “it’s in the plans.” Their idea, in part, is to create a community-driven brand that relies as much on the audience as it does on Schuyler and Liu’s role as ringmasters. “[Our followers] are all super aware — woke, for the recent parlance,” Schuyler. “It would be great to give them a place where they can interact directly without us being the mediators of everything. They come to us as a resource and a safe space online.”
There may also be a more traditional path to success. “Television producers are very interested in them,” Craig says. “They’re a very fresh voice.”
“We’ve been around for a few years, but the growth has been exponential only in the past seven months, so everything’s still new,” Liu says. “We didn’t have any plan or intention — or vision — when we first started. And, so, we’re just trying to keep it going organically.”
Lifting the veil on their identities is an opportunity to declare their intentions, even if it scares them to be exposed in such a way. “We’re trusting you,” Liu says, standing in the doorway before he and Schuyler slink out.
But can the world trust Diet Prada?
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