What and Who Makes the Cut?


What and Who Makes the Cut?

Fashion PR and fashion journalism. Do they interact in ways that the line of editorial control is often draped over? Does Indian fashion journalism have to be mostly innocuous?

In the mid-Nineties, Anita Roddick, owner of The Body Shop and angel of eco-friendly beauty, hired a powerful legal

team in Britain to weed out critical media stories about her

company. The fear of that legal onslaught made Vanity Fair kill

journalist Jon Entine’s brilliant investigative piece on The Body Shop’s unethical practices. Titled The Stranger Than Truth Story of The Body Shop, it was eventually published in Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot To Print (2004) edited by David Wallis. Entine’s story brought home the fact that lifestyle journalism wasn’t just gloss; it could reveal the dark side of a top brand.

Few such stories appear in the Indian media. Here, lifestyle journalism switches between exaggerated hype and pliant reportage. Often, it is the stuff of press releases, “released” in lavish surroundings at wine-and-sushi press conferences; swayed by the promise of luxury gifts sent home; or on other occasions, seduced by a front-row seat at Milan Fashion Week or a trip to Los Angeles.

“PR rides on the W factor: wine, women and wannabes. Everything

seems fair in this game. Doctoring or fussing up a piece of news, creating events where none exist, writing columns for designers or the script of their interviews with journalists, fixing reviews and pacifying either side when required,” says Anshu Khanna, founder of Delhi-based PR firm Goodword Communications.

Twelve to fifteen major PR firms operate in Delhi and Mumbai, the two cities soaked with “media events”, and represent clients in lifestyle, décor, fashion, luxury and hospitality. To keep a restaurant, a designer, a luxury brand or an art gallery in the news, they manufacture what they call “innovative” strategies. Essentially, it is working out a marketing matrix that benefits all clients. So, a global luxury brand hosts an event with a fashion magazine; an art gallery owner with a fashion designer; a restaurateur with a painter. Booze and venue is sponsored as the sponsor invariably gets “coverage”. Everyone goes back pleased and the media returns with a “story” — sold by the PR army as a “great” idea. There are people, says Khanna, so keen to be seen on Page 3 that they pay Rs 15,000 for a photo.

Archana Jain, managing director of PR Pundit, the firm which handles PR for brands like Tod’s and Ferragamo, argues that co-hosted events are the future of PR. “Hotels and spirit brands have always partnered to influence customers. Likewise, the media is an important ally. A fashion editor plays influencer (sic) in introducing and recommending a brand at a customer engagement event with readers,” she says.

The fashion-PR-media lobby is co-dependent, yet at loggerheads with one another. Designers claim they are disgusted by ignorant and “opinion-less” journalists but continue to oblige them. Journalists say most designers are just glorified darzis but quarrel for front-row seats at shows and expect freebies from them. PR executives smirk at reporters whose reports can be “handled” with gifts and meals, yet chase them 24/7.

Leena Singh of the designer duo Ashima-Leena shares the cynicism. “The opinions of some journalists can be bought. If you are straight and ethical, you can’t get any coverage. Without aggressive PR from our side, few wrote about the outfits we made for the Commonwealth Games ceremonies, a story that was picked up by a number of international publications,” she says.

An unimportant group 10 years ago, the lifestyle media won notoriety as the decade wore on. “The relationship between brands and journalists changed when multinationals and luxury brands, from fashion to liquor and tourism, began to woo Indians. The way to a consumer’s heart — and wallet — is through the media, which got caught in the freebie trap. Many Indian journalists were so dazzled by the exotica of their first real taste of the good life, business-class travel, five-star hotels, expensive gifts and exotic destinations, that credibility and objectivity were instant victims,” says Dilip Bobb, former managing editor of India Today.

Now, fashion journalists are not just indulged with Diwali gifts or champagne and cake at New Year. Season after season, they receive bags, shoes, cosmetics and accessories, anything from a pair of sunglasses worth Rs 10,000 to a luxury bag worth even a lakh of rupees. The line is crossed when a journalist frequently accepts gifts and then reciprocates through favourable coverage. “In the West, journalists state that they are under no obligation to write positively after a sponsored trip. But the Indian media is not so clear about this. It becomes almost obligatory to write nice things if the sponsor has spent large sums of money on you,” says Bobb.

Kalyani Saha, vice-president, marketing and communications, Christian Dior Couture, India, says that understanding marketing through gifts is looking at it the wrong way. “Marketing is really as effective as the hype you create. Strategising every presentation, every launch and collection is primary. Who is on the cover of which publication and who wears your clothes has long-term visual recall,” she says, “We expend resources on making journalists experience the House of Dior every now and then.” Saha cites the instance of the recent launch of the Dior Mumbai boutique. “It was the grandest launch. A museum display of 15 archival couture gowns by John Galliano highlighted a four-course dinner party that everyone will remember. It’s about making an event a memorable experience,” she says.

For most magazines, it is a quid pro quo with their biggest advertisers. Many stories are clever placements of products from advertising brands. Jointly planned features with luxury brands are over-the-table agreements. “It was the Milanese who invented the systemic dealing off, of editorial photographs against pages of advertising. This means when Soprani or Fendi book 80 advertising sites in a year, they expect their clothes to be shown 40 times in fashion stories devised by the magazine’s editors. It is an invention widely attributed to Franco Sartori, managing director of Conde Nast in Italy,” wrote Nicholas Coleridge in The Fashion Conspiracy. From then on, since the early Eighties, it was copied in America and went on to become a sturdy strategy in converting new markets to luxury.

In India, Louis Vuitton and Dior, powerful advertisers as well as market leaders, and other select brands are known to sponsor fashion shoots published in top magazines. Editorial crews are flown to exotic global destinations for stories, all costs picked up by the brand. Which celebrity will wear the brand’s clothes and how many pages would be assigned to it is all predetermined. (Tikka Shatrujit Singh, India adviser to Louis Vuitton, was unavailable for comment despite being contacted by email and phone.) Nonita Kalra, editor-in-chief of Elle magazine, agrees that the trend of product placement has become increasingly prevalent, be it in film, television or print. “At Elle, we have a policy of not presenting a brand in a feature where the brand is endemic to the subject. You would not have a fashion co-production in the big fashion section, nor a single-brand beauty feature in the beauty section. In this day, when both advertisers and readers are more discerning, the press has a responsibility to be transparent,” she says.

It’s a practice, though, that has created a flurry: Indian designers neither have the money to advertise nor can they sponsor shoots that cost at least a few lakh rupees. A stylist told this correspondent that to make “paid” shoots look respectable, they were interspersed with pages featuring outfits by Indian designers. Designers can’t afford to advertise but they work on one-to-one relationships, and some depend upon sending batches of clothes to stylists and editors to gain coverage. PR executives function as the go-between.

Designer Rajesh Pratap Singh, who is inaccessible to the point of being aloof, says he refuses to send freebies to get coverage. “Some designers bait journalists through favours, encouraging the culture of flippant coverage and freebies and there are journalists who blackmail designers into handing out privileges before writing about them. As a result, fashion is turned into a side dish, just entertainment in the larger context of news,” he says.

But Khanna defends the PR machinery. “Where is the journalist who wants to write? Fashion and lifestyle pages today are about wanna-buy and wannabes. In their own way, they support the retail industry,” she says. Besides, as Sujata Assomull Sippy, editor of Harper’s Bazaar India, says, the relationship of journalists with the PR person is not seen as taboo in lifestyle media. “Internationally, PR people work between brands and creative directors of a magazine as gatekeepers and image directors of brands.”

However, here, many PR executives parade as power brokers, trading favours for coverage. Reporters are classified into “types”; and PR executives know what gift can persuade which journalist. They “cultivate” people through weaknesses, not strengths, and create egos where none existed. “Expensive, imported liquor is very popular as are designer garments,” says a PR executive, adding, “we never underestimate our target.”

Designer Rohit Bal underestimated the beast. The darling of fashion in the early half of the last decade, Bal’s biggest folly was his lavish indulgence of the media. His subsequent differences with the press are now legendary. After things soured, he found himself the target of many negative stories. He is a bitter man today; he believes that fashion news is mandated by the benefits journalists get. “I seldom give interviews. Yet journalists concoct and write what they want without any verification. Some of our so-called fashion and P3 journalists do anything for favours,” he says. The power game of some journalists is simple, one designer told this correspondent: “Keep me happy or I give you bad press.”

In this unfavourable environment, many relevant stories go unreported. There is no inquiry into the daily wages designers pay their kaarigars or the working conditions inside factories. Bad news is blacked out before it reaches the newsroom.

Veteran designer Ravi Bajaj believes that the PR culture has severely crippled the quality of fashion journalism, especially in newspapers, as reporters are used to shortcuts. “Few do their homework. They want quick phone interviews and write what we feed them. This suits certain designers as they do not want to provide facts and figures,” he says. Bobb adds that he finds fashion journalists very shallow and wide-eyed, almost in awe of designers.

The absence of clear guidelines for lifestyle journalists in media organisations compounds the issue. “The onus is on the media house to determine what is acceptable and what is not. Clear rules need to be framed and enforced on exchange with PR companies and brands,” says Parmesh Shahani, who heads the newly formed cultural think tank Godrej India Culture Lab, and is editor-at-large of Verve magazine. “Finally, there is the question of editorial independence. A strong editor will ensure that the wall between editorial and marketing is not breached,” he says. Bobb agrees: “Advertising is the big issue for lifestyle magazines. A big brand which is also a regular advertiser can withdraw advertisements. That gets into the grey area between the church and state, editorial, marketing and owners. Not many have drawn the lakshman rekha.”

But Sippy, who took over Bazaar after a two-year stint in luxury PR, is not convinced. “Lobbying happens everywhere in the world and I think it is being blown out of proportion.” She says she learnt more about fashion while working with Bottega Veneta, Jimmy Choo and Gucci. “It taught me the importance of brand development. That background is my advantage as an editor of a fashion magazine.”

When the pieces fall to the ground, it is difficult to differentiate the hero from the villain. A holier-than-thou approach is seen as laughable, as everyone plays the game. However, as Shahani says, the industry must be evaluated for its ecosystem. “Do we have journalists at the top with independent voices? A reflection of the degree to which we are swayed by lobbying and PR lies in the fact that we can’t even count five fashion journalists who have made a difference,” he says.

Here’s a story passed around at a high table during a Paris Fashion Week party: “You can never compete by sending a bigger bouquet, a bigger cake or a bigger bag,” said a designer, a bit miffed with the way “big” luxury brands plied journalists. “My strategy is simple. I am nice to them.”

Fashion journalism need not be all nice, even if everyone is nice to it.