Authenticity and Transparency
in Fashion Media —
The Fashion Law with Julie Zerbo
Script & Narration by Alek Rose
Interview by Eugene Kan
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Heather Sten
Interview by Eugene Kan
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Heather Sten
Julie Zerbo began The Fashion Law while she was still in law school, using it as a way to ground the theory that she was learning in something concrete. Julie’s website originates around the explosion in popularity of fashion blogging. Those who were not formally part of the industry could attempt to carve their own path inwards. Many of these platforms faded into obscurity just as quickly as they began. But the refreshing candor of The Fashion Law, alongside an intense level of rigor for the craft, gained her a significant following who want to see beneath the surface. The Fashion Law reader isn’t satisfied with what meets the eye.
Zerbo’s perspective sits in a unique place. It’s unfocused on the frills and superficiality common in the industry and offers a liberal dose of credible legal commentary. She approaches fashion from an analytical standpoint and leans heavily into the idea of accountability. Rather than find out about a new collection, a visit to The Fashion Law is more likely to reveal infringements on human rights or intellectual property in the world of fashion. Zerbo’s ultimate goal is to lead fashion media to a more transparent and authentic place, to unload the unnecessary and concentrate on communicating a more honest portrayal of the industry.
In a saturated media space, Zerbo’s honesty and professionalism highlights The Fashion Law as one to watch. Zerbo refuses to take part in the race to the bottom, she has found her direction and knows what’s at the finish line: “authentic, transparent media.”
I think that I am really fortunate to come at the industry and stay, in terms of my perspective in relation to the industry, as truly an outsider.
At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Julie Zerbo: I’m Julie Zerbo. I founded The Fashion Law, which is a website that doesn’t just discuss law in relation to the fashion industry, but also my big passion I suppose in discussing the industry, is looking at it critically and not falling into the politics or the bureaucracy that tends to dictate the content that we see every single day.
Alek Rose: Julie Zerbo’s history is rooted in the world of law and economics. It’s from this standpoint that she approaches fashion on her site The Fashion Law, introducing a critical voice to fashion media which Zerbo knows is all too rare in 2018. Eugene recently sat down with Julie to discuss her stance on the current state of fashion media: where its pitfalls lie and where she wants to lead it.
Eugene Kan: What part of this industry and that sort of critical thought and analysis is missing because it’s never had a sort of solid foundation? Or more recently anyway, maybe because we ended up in a space where everyone sort of became bloggers and no one had a sort of foundation to the craft? I wondered like what your thoughts are on you having obviously a definitive background that allows you to kind of analytically look at things but a lot of people, a lot of your peers don’t have that.
Julie: Yeah I mean I think that that’s what drove blogging from the outset right? It was all of these people that were not editors that were ‘outsiders’ and that’s why they originally were so valuable. At the same time, I think that I am really fortunate to come at the industry and stay, in terms of my perspective in relation to the industry, as truly an outsider. I don’t have a fashion background. I have law and economics background so it allows me to look at everything in a completely different way than a fashion person would look at it. I think fashion is, and fashion media is, its own worst enemy. I think it’s great that everyone has a voice and you know all of these different voices make up a really rich discussion. But at the same time I think that I personally wish that there were some more traditional writers in this sphere that are our ages or younger.
Eugene: And this is me sort of providing my sort of context to it. I think looking back that I was one of those people that weren’t trained traditionally as a journalist. You know, these are people that honestly looked at it as: ‘Well, I like sneakers and I can write.’ So that became the job itself. And I wonder if there’s a chance for that to be pulled back in and to kind of return to a place of credibility?
Julie: Oh god that would be so cool.
Eugene: It’s very very challenging topic but I wonder if it was really a byproduct of a moment in time you know where it was a wild wild west of like of the internet. No one knows how to build a blogging business, you just kind of go on this path.
Julie: Yeah I mean it’s kind of like what we’re seeing with Facebook today, like they’re literally learning on the job that you have to protect your data. There wasn’t anything really for them to kind of… a path for them to follow and I think that that’s like what you’re saying. There wasn’t really a model for something like this. I mean I think that it’s great for people of different backgrounds to be writing, like neither you nor I have a journalism background but here we are asking questions, talking about these things that matter in our industry. I mean does that make us any better or not? I’m not sure. I think that you don’t have to have a journalism background to care about ethics in media. I don’t think that most people do, but maybe that’s the lawyer in me talking and caring so much about authentic transparent journalism.
Alek: The idea of authentic, transparent journalism is a key aspect of Zerbo’s media presence. In a crowded media space, how can a platform rise above the noise and make their point heard? Even if you do succeed in creating an authentic experience, devoid of branded content, that provides real points of discussion, does anyone even care?
Eugene: So, everything you mentioned about authenticity and communication, transparency. What does that mean when the reader actually doesn’t even care that much?
Julie: I’ve been asking myself that constantly because people… I don’t know if it’s that they’re so used to being fed branded content in disguise, I feel like maybe that’s just a generational thing that people kind of grew up with. I mean for me and my website were not serving you know 20 million people every month, it’s a more niche audience of people that do care. I think that, you know, you have to kind of pick your battle there and mine is you know, putting forth content for people that value independent writing and independent thought and transparency. That’s not going to be everyone though.
Alek: Whether people care or not, Zerbo is sure of the direction that The Fashion Law should take: one of authenticity and transparency. But what is the goal at the end of this path? It’s all well and good providing substance to fashion media but if nobody wants to listen, then no progress can be made.
Julie: I think that a lot of the challenges that fashion media faces it has in common with other industries, whether it be tech or music or sports. I think that all publishers are up against this wall of people not wanting to read and not wanting to do more than look at a meme, and I suspect that that is external to our industry. I mean what do you think?
Eugene: I think that the overall fashion landscape, what like I kind of alluded to a little bit earlier, is that it seemed as though you could be a participant within fashion media without having a particular set of credentials or with an underlying knowledge. You could just like have an opinion that was sufficient, whereas you know, soon even having an opinion sort of a pushed out in favor of being in the good graces of brands. I think in general that’s sort of how more people looked at it like, how do I look at it? When I look back at our editorial stance at Hypebeast it was like very neutral like you know, the fact that you’re posting about it is enough because you’ve sort of editorialized it by choosing it. That was sort of the extent of it and it wasn’t something that we were ever going to engage in. I think looking back like, whether or not that was the right decision? Maybe HYPEBEAST was never meant to be that platform – to be the critical thought and analysis of the industry. It was mainly meant to be just a place to look at products you know, news, period. And maybe there are conflicting sort of things to consider, it’s like you know is it just news? or is there sort of like an editorial side to this that needs to be further promoted? But I would also argue, it’s like, to have an opinion, to formulate something that’s stress tested or bulletproof – it just requires a lot of time and effort and like I wouldn’t say you need a background but just having a thought process and the underlying way of breaking down arguments or creating arguments anyways. That’s not easy for everybody. Especially now like you know, maybe fashion and media itself, the topics that dominate are really stuff that are driven by predominantly hype and it’s like it doesn’t need any further explanation perhaps? Not to say that you shouldn’t try but you know, at the end of the day like the average reader is okay with just seeing a few images.
Eugene: What does success look like for you in that realm?
Julie: Success for me with this site in regards to that is quite wide-ranging. You know, if an article can impact how brands are approaching sponsored content – which articles have – that’s a win. Success is also formulating or building a community of people that care and maybe building that out a little bit.
Eugene: What role does critical thought and analysis play from a media perspective onto the brands themselves? Like, do you think that if there was more of that analysis and critical thought that brands and their direction and what they would be accountable for would change?
Julie: I mean I think that if we’ve learned anything over the past year and even the past few months, in particular, it’s that brands – fashion or otherwise, any consumer-facing brands – really are accountable to the general public, especially publicly owned ones because their stock prices will reflect the way that people are viewing their brands. So I think that yes, absolutely. Is it like an overnight fix? No, but I think that now more than ever, critical thinking does stand to impact the activities of brands.
Eugene: I’m curious do you see just like a continual battle lines being drawn on the Internet where it’s like oh you’re someone that cares about purpose and transparency in your media, so you go here. If you don’t care you can be pushed off to the side. Is that good or bad?
Julie: I mean I try not to approach it that way just because I think, you know, I didn’t always care about ethics in journalism. I think that a lot of young people – I’m not old by the way – a lot of young people I think are maybe used to reading truly branded content and content put forth by influencers and they don’t care about its origins necessarily. I think they’re open-minded. They have access to more information than any other generation before them, I think that if one article can impact them that’s a great thing. I think the challenge there is making the information accessible, digestible, attractive.
Alek: Although Zerbo recognizes that accessibility is key in attracting the attention of the majority, is it possible that fashion media has become overly accessible and in doing so, lost its spark of excitement for Zerbo? After six years of running The Fashion Law, she seems vaguely disillusioned with the industry. Despite the occasional flash of inspiration, fashion is now more valuable to her as a vehicle that can be used to connect industries and demographics.
Julie: At some point fashion kind of died and it’s just not enough on its own anymore. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, just how relevant fashion is on its own in 2018. I’m skeptical. Eugene: Actually let me let me ask you: what was fashion to you growing up and then what is fashion to you now?
Julie: Well I’m like one of those weird girls that wasn’t like obsessed with fashion and wanted to be in the fashion industry. I didn’t want to be in the fashion industry. But for me it was, I mean it was clothes. That’s what fashion was to me, it was clothing. Some of it was really beautiful and really well-made and thus valuable to me. That’s not to say that I wasn’t ever like intrigued by fast fashion because I was, this is over the past decade that I’ve just completely sworn that off. But now I think I’ve just learned too much to really see the beauty in a lot of it. I mean there are designers and there are moments when I’m like: ‘This is incredible. This is why I love this industry so much.’ And at the end of the day I really do love the fashion industry. But it’s hard to forget that this is first and foremost a business. Particularly with conglomerates like LVMH and Kering and Richemont having so much control over the climate of the industry, it’s difficult for me to look past the fact that this is a well-oiled machine.
Eugene: Do you see yourself conceptualizing it differently, like your interest in it has changed? Where before you were like ‘I really appreciate the creativity’, now it’s shifted toward something else?
Julie: My interest is more cultural, culturally driven. That’s what’s interesting to me, kind of like you said, connecting the pieces of different industries, of different cultures geographically, different demographics purely within the United States. To me that’s really interesting and seeing kind of how fashion as an art form and as a business has evolved over time so much. You know, dating back to when it was driven purely by couture houses and everything else kind of trickled down from there to 2018 when it seems like high fashion houses and fast fashion brands are competing against each other and in many ways are adopting many of the same tactics. Kind of looking at things more from a business perspective is what is really interesting to me.
Alek: Intellectualizing fashion may not be the only way to make progress when it comes to fashion media though. Zerbo’s vision of success is to use fashion as a gateway into approaching more difficult topics while building a community of thinkers, people who want to have their views challenged. Reaching this goal requires a fine balance between intellectual substance and accessibility.
Eugene: There’s something about fashion that generally has leaned more towards the side of superficiality right? What value is there in terms of intellectualizing fashion? So like, that’s what I see your perspective is, you’re bringing something to think about but when for most people it’s like… and it’s not to return that previous question of do they care not? It’s more what value is there in digging deeper in terms of why something exists?
Julie: I guess it’s probably like the folly of the intellectual. But no, I think that as people that have been involved in fashion or people that are just interested in fashion at the end of the day I think that there is a push for, you know while there are a lot of people that just want to look at memes, but I do think there are a lot of people at the same time that have an interest, that are thinkers, that want to question things or just know a tiny bit more. You know there’s so many questions and there’s so many back stories to brands and the reasons we dress the way that we do. That I find to be fascinating.
Eugene: And do you think that some of the systemic issues, and I kind of have to like laugh when I use that word because people always troll that word when you use it in the context of fashion because it’s almost like taking fashion too seriously, but do think there is something to be said about addressing things and the issues that plague fashion from that sort of vantage point? You need to actually be set up from an argument level to actually make change and progress. So whether it’s like diversity in fashion, whether it’s like, I don’t know, equality in wages. There’s has to be some sort of intellectual slant to that. If you actually want to change it.
Julie: I don’t know. I mean there’s a lot of Instagram accounts out there run by God knows who that are bringing about awareness. I think that in the absence of a blueprint or a game plan any of the ‘changes’ will probably just be a little blips on the radar. I think for long-lasting change, for meaningful change there has to be something deeper and more long-standing in terms of the moves that are being made, the arguments that are being presented, the solutions that are being brought to the table. Because solutions – when it comes to diversity or human rights issues in the fashion industry or even just kind of questioning the powers that be – need to be packaged in a way that’s attractive to people because what good is an argument if no one ever listens to it?
Eugene: While it seems, in theory, nice to be super buttoned up, sometimes it’s more about getting the message across rather than all the granular details.
Julie: I mean honestly I think you need to have both. Which is why it’s so hard, that that’s why these issues persist.
Eugene: I do recall people making the argument that a lot of times long-form content or long-form journalism was really just for other journalists to partake in, it was never for the mainstream to kind of get behind an idea, and maybe there has to be some sort of addressing of that maybe? Because if you have bigger ideas like, I think that you’re probably more than happy to read… Like you’re not turned off by a long article but the regular person might be.
Julie: I was thinking about this recently, I was like: how many long form articles do I actually read in a day, and the number is pretty slim. Like, I was embarrassed by being like: two? One? Depends on the day? And at times it feels kind of like giving in when you’re like, ‘Okay I’m gonna try to shorten this article to as few paragraphs as I can.’ That’s an internal struggle for me.
Alek: Media consumption habits are constantly changing and media platforms need to manipulate these habits in order to survive, or make any meaningful impact. Somewhere, in-between quantity and quality, is the golden mean for this generation. But even if that golden mean is found, how can a platform reach outside of its bubble? What we each see on the internet has passed through algorithms to ‘create the best online experience’ for us. In this over-curated environment our ideas are rarely tested, and we aren’t surprised anymore.
Eugene: There is part of me that recognizes that what we’ve seen to work in the past, those rules of engagement change day by day, right? The generations, whether before us, currently, and the next generation are going to consume media differently. And like you can either be that sort of like, old cranky guy that’s like: ‘Well back in the day this is how he did it.’.
Julie: Yeah and that doesn’t work. I mean, and then it’s like you’re doing all of this for nothing.
Eugene: Yeah, and sometimes I think that that’s the most critical thing is that what you think is the way to do it or what has traditionally worked… I think in a nascent space, and I think the digital world still is, you can consider it a very nascent space where it’s changing and people are making mistakes publicly because there really is no sort of gauge. And I think I’ve always looked at digital development as like a pendulum where it swings so far to one side and they realize oh this is unsustainable, this is wrong. Now you kind of read just it towards a nice middle ground.
Julie: I hope that’s what happens with the state of things now. I mean, I think that there is a happy medium between just going full speed ahead, 24-hour news cycle, throwing as many articles as you can against the wall in a chase for traffic. I mean that’s not sustainable either. You had me thinking when I was wondering you know how many collaborations can Virgil Abloh really do before people are so sick of Off-White and you made such a good point about, you know, the information or this content is fed so specifically to people in 2018, so only the people that want to see this are really getting it. In theory, fatigue might never happen.
Eugene: Yeah unless, it will happen to the people that need to see everything, because if you’re a media you technically need to be abreast of everything. And I think that’s going to be interesting because we’re in an age of mass personalization where we’re always trying to personalize and create the best experience. But the reality of it is that maybe we don’t want that anymore, maybe we want to be surprised because when it’s curated a certain way it’s like there’s no surprise there’s no… it’s the worst word to use it’s like no ‘delight’. You know the tech sort of cliche term of ‘delight’ like ‘hmm, I was expecting this.’
Julie: Yeah just fatigue with everything. I don’t know, for me the scary part in the intense curation of everything by us and by algorithms before it even gets to us is just kind of how it’s shaping dialogues. Like you and I are here together for a reason, because we obviously share someone in common but also because we see eye to eye on a handful of things. It’s like, how can we – as an industry and as individuals – have debate or have differing points of view if we’re sharing so much of the same content so to speak? You know how can we progress?
Eugene: I mean that’s another thing too. On the way over I was listening to a podcast with Ray Dalio and he was talking about the need to have sort of a challenging of thoughts and ideas, and I would say that even over the course of this conversation, none of us have said anything like: ‘Wait Eugene, I don’t think you’re right there. I think that’s something that’s scary. Yeah because I want it, because I think that people that want to develop themselves and want to progress and want to be better in their field. They’re more than happy to have their ideas stress-tested which I feel like I’m always trying to seek those opportunities. But I don’t want to force it either. I’m not going to go and like…
Julie: Be that troll.
Alek: Fashion is changing, it’s speeding up and whether that is good or bad is down to personal opinion. While fashion evolves, so does the media around it, rather than give up and say it’s not what it used to be, Zerbo sees that the changes could actually signify a new beginning for fashion media because people still value authentic transparent media. Fashion arguably carries more influence now than ever, and if this influence can be harnessed then it can make meaningful changes to the world.
Eugene: What are things that you personally are still very excited about within the realm of fashion?
Julie: I’m really really excited about expanding my own kind of writing and my own interest into industries other than fashion and looking more specifically at how they interact with fashion. I’m excited about this more macro approach to things that we talked about earlier. I’m excited to see Vogue’s May cover, I never thought I’d be talking about Vogue right now, but there may cover for instance has Amal Clooney on it, which in the past five years I would have never really expected to see.
Eugene: For people who aren’t familiar, like myself?
Julie: Well, most people know her because she is George Clooney’s wife. I know her because she is a really incredible human rights and international human rights lawyer. And for me to see her on the cover of Vogue is really exciting. That was really exciting to me because it was surprising because it was just kind of a different woman. I think that she’s a modern woman, I think that she’s a Vogue woman in the traditional sense. She’s not like Kim Kardashian, but I think that expanding the view of who is interesting and their relationship to fashion and the thought that that might be something that fashion is interested in exploring is really fascinating to me and that’s really exciting. I think that with the rise of social media and with the rise of all of us being able to converse about things is the realization that fashion is such a small industry and that it’s controlled by so few people, like the same handful of people do just about everything, whether it’s judging design competitions or serving on this board or doing something else. Kind of realizing that and making an effort to explore outside of it. That to me is really exciting.
Eugene: I think that what you mentioned about that Vogue cover is that fashion is still incredibly impactful because it’s easy to understand for the most part. Whether you like… it’s kind of a very visceral reaction, like ‘I like that’, ‘I don’t like that’. But we all see what people are wearing, like even though you’re not into fashion you could probably like ‘Oh that person’s stylish’, from your own perspective. So what I find interesting is that fashion at this point in time is still incredibly impactful and it also can be used as sort of the gateway into a deeper message, as you mentioned right there with her advocacy or whatever.
Julie: I hope… I feel some duty to use fashion, having identified and understood the power that it has like any other form of pop culture, to use it to explore topics or put forth agendas you know, whether it’s advocacy or something else. Yeah, I think that’s one of the huge powers that fashion has, and one of the reasons – aside from the fact that it touches every single one of us – that makes it so important.