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‘A DIAMOND IS FOREVER’, OR IS IT? DISCUSSING FASHION, COMMUNICATION AND ETHICAL BEHAVIOUR WITH OLGA MITTERFELLNER

OLGA MITTERFELLNER IS A LECTURER IN “FASHION MARKETING AND SUSTAINABILITY” AT THE LONDON COLLEGE OF FASHION. WITH VAST EXPERIENCE IN THE INDUSTRY, OLGA HAS RECENTLY PUBLISHED “FASHION MARKETING AND COMMUNICATION: THEORY & PRACTICE ACROSS THE FASHION INDUSTRY” (ROUTLEDGE, 2019) WHERE FASHION MARKETING, COMMUNICATION TACTICS AND ADVERTISING SCHEMES ARE DISCUSSED FROM HISTORICAL AND ETHICAL STANDPOINTS FOR THE FIRST TIME. THIS ARTICLE INTRODUCES THE MAIN THEMES TOUCHED UPON IN OUR INTERVIEW WITH OLGA IN RELATION TO HER BOOK. IN OLGA’S EYES, EDUCATING THE NEW GENERATION OF FASHION DESIGNERS FROM AN ETHICAL PERSPECTIVE REQUIRED A NEW LITERARY SOURCE.

Words By Elisa Felici

‘How to teach fashion when you stop believing in fashion?’

This is what Olga Mitterfellner asked herself in 2015, when she was awarded a professorship in Fashion Management. The question also marks the beginning of ‘Fashion Marketing and Communication: Theory and Practice Across the Fashion Industry’ (Routledge, 2019), her latest publication. Not only does the book analyse the fashion industry from multiple key perspectives, but offers a comprehensive exploration of Olga’s personal question: ‘How to teach fashion? Especially, how to teach it ethically?’

Writing is often like a journey, and in most cases, it comes from the need to communicate a message. In Olga’s case, the book is the result of her commitment to reevaluating and reimagining the fashion industry. As a teacher, she wanted to combine her love for the industry’s artistry, craftsmanship and beauty with the crude reality she experienced first hand: fashion is a manipulative business, where people and animals are exploited, and consumers are drawn into vicious cycles of personal inadequacy and an increasing compulsion to buy products. It was only by unveiling the industry’s unethical practices that Olga saw an opportunity for the industry to recreate itself. The world of ‘glitz and glam, fairy tales and extravaganza’ needed to be called into question as to what is not working. To teach fashion from an ethical perspective means escaping the ‘tunnel vision on how marketing is and will be done tomorrow’.

“No academic source within fashion uncovered how marketing works well and how it doesn’t.”

Ad created by N.W. Ayer for De Beers; Photography by Irving Penn.

Did you know that our ‘cultural’ image of a diamond as something connected to an everlasting love comes from nothing more than a 1950s advert? DeBeers, the world’s leading diamond company, is discussed as a case study in the first chapter of the book (pp.1-16). As Olga explains in the book, the 1955 campaign called ‘A diamond is forever’, shot by the famous photographer Irving Penn, was developed to meet the company’s sales strategy: at the time, supplies were at a peak but DeBeers did not want diamonds entering the sales market too quickly as prices would have dropped tremendously. ‘There were too many diamonds’ says Olga. What DeBeers needed was ‘a campaign to tell people never to sell a diamond, so they connected it to love and the wish for love to last forever’.

The DeBeers case study may just resemble a funny anecdote. However, there are imaginaries, qualities and symbols the fashion industry continuously sells that are harmful to us as consumers and highly unrealistic. As DeBeers did with diamonds and love, fashion marketing educates consumers with highly unethical values. ‘It is a proven fact’ says Olga, ‘that fashion advertisement makes us feel not pretty enough, not tall enough, not skinny enough, not white enough, not brown enough’. Fashion products continuously tell consumers that by buying something, they will feel better. It’s like selling hopes.

What is the real problem here? And what is the problem in not knowing this?

“We believe a diamond expresses love, but what it really expresses is a business interest.”

‘I believe you have to educate the readers, although they often feel very uncomfortable knowing the truth’. The issue with not knowing about strategies as seen in DeBeer’s history lies in the fact that communication, marketing and advertising fundamentally influence our behaviours as consumers and human beings: what we value, what we want, what we believe in. The information behind the image we see is concealed from us. Of course, this is all very unethical. 

Defining ‘ethics’ would require an entire book in itself. As Olga argues, to behave ethically is ultimately an ‘individual’s understanding of what is right and wrong’. While such appreciation varies from culture to culture, there are fundamentals in this world that humans universally perceive as right and wrong. ‘Such black and white distinction is very hard to make in relation to fashion consumption and marketing’ says Olga. However, ‘you cannot make that choice for yourself, what is right and wrong, if you are not informed’. By providing the right source of information through an inquisitive approach that investigates the history of the fashion industry, Olga believes that ethical decisions within and outside the industry can follow.

Sometimes, it is also the lack of information from the brand’s side that leads to disastrous, unethical marketing solutions. During the interview, we discussed the Dolce & Gabbana 2018 advert aired in China, for which the Italian fashion house was accused of racism and had to postpone its runaway in Shanghai for ‘unspecified reasons’.

The ‘big elephant in the room’ is the question of diversity and inclusivity, states Olga on this matter. ‘Companies need to think globally, they need to think about emerging economies that have diverse people around the globe’. The D&G scandal provides the perfect example of a lack of cultural sensitivity from the brand and, as a result, an unethical marketing example.

‘There is definitely not enough diversity, full stop’ 

On this front, the book reviews an old marketing theory called the ‘Marketing Mix’, outlining the four main pillars of the field: product, place, price and promotion. The book innovatively replaces them with what the industry needs today according to Olga, embedding an ethical perspective.

Dolce & Gabbana 2018 advert aired in China

‘Product’ is replaced with ‘Design’, as consumers today ‘understand it’. With consumers more aware and ready to appreciate the idea behind the design, the value of a product lies less in its function but in the meaning behind it, which marketing must be ready to emphasize. ‘Price’ is replaced with ‘Desire’, as many consumers today do not care about the price if the product is of high quality. The value of a product, especially if it stands for a good cause, will always outmatch the pricing mechanism. ‘Promotion’ is shifted to ‘Digitalization’ as today’s online presence plays a primary role in terms of a brand’s visibility. And, finally, ‘Place’ is replaced with ‘Diversity’. 

Establishing these shifts is ‘something you do dynamically and strategically’, explains Olga. Diversity, as with sustainability, is not just a label you can put on a product. Proposing an ethical marketing strategy, or adopting a sustainable production approach, requires a fundamental shift in practices, public, as well as internal, engagement from the industry. However, as Olga says, the only way for this shift to happen is to educate the new generations, whether inside or outside the fashion industry. It is with this intent that Olga decided to write Fashion Marketing and Communication: Theory and Practice Across the Fashion Industry’. She needed her students not to turn a blind eye to the inner workings of the fashion industry. For her own sake, Olga needed a way to convey her message and consciously reconcile her love for the industry and her commitment to transforming it.

Information for Book giveaway competition

Are you a fashion visionary looking to delve deeper into the inner workings of the industry? Or perhaps a self-proclaimed fashion nerd and ethical warrior? Or simply intrigued by the industry’s rich marketing history? 

If yes, this book is a must-have addition to your shelf.

In collaboration with Olga Mitterfellener’s Editor, Staiy Edit is launching a giveaway competition where 3 copies of ‘Fashion Marketing and Communication: Theory and Practice Across the Fashion Industry’ are offered to our readers.

The link for the competition will open on Monday 12th October and will be active for our readers until Friday 23rd October. Winners will be drawn on Monday 26th October. To enter, all you need to do is read this article, click on the link below and fill out the form for your chance to win a copy of this illuminating and insightful book!

Link to the competition: https://bit.ly/3cmRXYS