How Pierre A. M’pelé is working to bring “true journalism” back to fashion
During fashion month, journalist Pierre A. M’pelé’s Instagram stories were a carousel of screenshotted Vogue.com looks from just about every runway presentation. He’d display about 12 looks at a time and include emojis at the top right of each look, a visual stamp of his take. Sometimes it was the smirking face emoji, and other times it was the two hands raised in the air emoji. He’d then write multi-paragraph reviews in subsequent slides and sometimes include screenshots of responses from his followers.
M’pelé looks at fashion as fabric, as emotion, as spectacle, as worthy of intense rumination, scrutiny and evaluation.
On the Marc Jacobs spring/summer 2019 collection, M’pelé said, “The collection seemed to be a sequel of his AW18. It was the same type of woman, only now she was less menacing. Still, she was strong, determined. But like a bud at the dawn of spring, blessed with the light and warmth of the sun, she opened up.”
The 25-year-old graduate of London’s famed art and design school Central Saint Martins just launched his own magazine, SCRNSHT, which “stands for and should be read as ‘screenshot,’” according to M’pelé. It’s the culmination of much of his work, which is focused on maintaining a heartbeat within the fast-dying profession of fashion journalism.
Mic chatted with M’pelé over the phone from his Parisian home as he made Bolognese about compromised fashion journalism, power imbalances and whether fashion is addressing diversity beyond the runway.
Mic: What weren’t you seeing in fashion publications that perhaps sparked your interest in creating your own?
Pierre A. M’pelé: There’s one thing that I would call — without trying to sound pretentious — “true journalism” that you find in newspapers and that you used to find in magazines. To me, it was really a problem because I couldn’t see where I would fit in terms of looking at the fashion media landscape, and I realized maybe I need to do my own publication.
I also noticed that the trust between the press and the fashion media and the readers and audiences were not there anymore. I felt like there was a gap between the press and the audience, and to me, it was kind of like, “We need to start to fill that gap by bringing more honest journalism that is not compromised or that hasn’t been spoiled by industry big players yet.”
I actually have to say it’s not about what I wasn’t seeing but more about what I was seeing too much in terms of brands getting into the magazine pages and having more and more impact on content creation. That was really the moment of realization for me that maybe it was time to do things differently.
Can you unpack that a bit more? When you say you “used to see it,” when did you notice this shift?
PAM: I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exactly when I noticed that shift because I think there’s always been a very ambiguous relationship between the fashion media and the fashion industry. But as I was growing up and maturing and learning as a fashion writer, fashion journalist or fashion observer, it started to become clear to me after the financial crisis of 2009. It became clearer and clearer that the fashion industry and the fashion media and journalism were all walking hand in hand, and that to me was a bit problematic.
How do you seek to mitigate what you call “compromised fashion journalism”?
PAM: I think for me the key point of what I try to do is remain honest with my audience and the people who read my work. I think this is the core of what I’m trying to do because people will know that I’m not biased and I’m not compromised so I’m really trying to give them the most objective vision of fashion as possible.
Who do you see as your audience?
PAM: It’s really funny because I often ask myself this question: “Who actually reads me?” And with the tools provided by social media, especially Instagram, I’ve kind of been more aware of who I’m talking to and that’s really the best thing about what I do. I really speak to a variety of people around the world, from Argentina to Costa Rica to Iceland to Nigeria. I have such a wide audience in terms of geographic location but also in terms of age.
I speak to young girls and young boys who are 14, and then I speak to professionals in the industry who are in their 40s and 50s and have a 20-plus year career behind them, and it’s really interesting how I’m trying to create a community for people who are seeking honesty when it comes to fashion journalism or the industry in general. I didn’t know who or where my audience was from until I started actually asking and I’ve got amazing answers. I was really surprised actually because it shows that there are a lot of people interested in fashion who are not perhaps in fashion.
I also think that my audience is probably made of people that have been disappointed by traditional fashion media. And also I really wanted to avoid being too niche because fashion is a universal language that everyone can understand so it was really important to me to speak to as many people as possible.
Let’s talk about Instagram. When did you first start using Instagram and what did you like about it?
PAM: I started using Instagram professionally around the time I graduated from Central Saint Martins in July 2017. At first it was more of a tool for me to show future employers what I could do and what was my writing style and interests, and then I started to gain more and more traction and I realized that that could be a way of communication directly with people. What I liked about Instagram was the fact that I could write a lot more than what I was allowed to on Twitter at the time. I also liked how with an image you could capture people’s attention and then have them read what you’re doing as well. I think that’s why I focused my digital presence via Instagram.
How would you describe the way you use Instagram?
PAM: I think the way I use Instagram is very impulsive. Yes, I do think about what I want to put out there, and I try to keep it as informative and opinionated as possible. But I think the main thing for me is to not try and hold back. Most of the time, I try not to question what I’m going to put out there because then people get the rawest and truest form of what I’m trying to say or what I’m trying to get to. But there really isn’t any method, it’s just that when I see something, I have to say something. There are a lot of subjects that aren’t addressed in the media and I think Instagram and social media in general is a great tool to actually open dialogues. I’m not asking anyone to agree with me, at least there can be a conversation about a certain topic.
Do you think the fashion industry on the whole recognizes the power of Instagram as a platform?
PAM: I think there’s two sides of this. I think there’s Instagram, which really wanted to establish itself as a fashion-oriented social media platform when they appointed Eva Chen as the head of fashion partnerships in 2015. And then obviously brands picked it up, and they’ve really been trying to follow technology, to not stay behind. And in a way, the brands doing livestreaming and Insta-storying — trying to really be where the next generation is — have been doing a really good job in terms of being there. In terms of content, that’s another story.
Let’s talk about the responses to your story and how you repost them as stories of their own. How do you choose which ones to recirculate and why?
PAM: To me the most interesting and honest conversations happen in the DMs. So it became quite clear for me that screenshotting, which is where the name of the magazine comes from, screenshotting those conversations and putting them out there would actually do that.
The responses I get, they range from pure disagreement with a bit of rudeness to it to praising and everything in between. I find it very interesting in the sense that because people are less exposed in the DM, then you really get a sense of who they are. I just found it fascinating even from a social point of view.
But the most interesting conversations usually come from people within the industry who have experienced things and seen things and they want to shed a new light on certain topics. Usually they are the ones whose answers I’m going to use and highlight for the rest of the audience to actually get a better understanding of the power balances in fashion or the behind-the-scenes look. I think that’s what I really want to do, to share the fly-on-the-wall experiences that people otherwise would not get.
And also, I really try to have an account that’s not too serious. Of course, I talk about politics and race and all of that, but to me, it’s also about being entertaining because that’s how you get people to engage with what you do. They always remain anonymous when I share a private conversation. If it’s a sensitive topic, I will ask the person if I can share it.
Power imbalances are not foreign to people, but I do think there is a unique form in which fashion cultivates and shares (or perhaps doesn’t share) power. Can you speak to your own experiences with this?
PAM: Well, in my mind, it all comes from the fact that fashion is a very elitist world. It’s a world where there are certain rules and pyramidal structure, so fashion needs to keep that in tact in order to keep its magical aura in society. I think it also comes back to what we sell in fashion — the luxury retail industry — are products that actually only a fraction of the population can afford.
I think one of the most interesting phenomena to emerge as fashion has infiltrated Instagram is the idea of people being able to criticize without necessarily having the journalistic chops. And often these takes are the ones that go viral. What are your thoughts on this?
PAM: It’s a big problem to me because I always say that I didn’t suffer four years of fashion journalism and probably 10 years of research not to have a legitimate voice. I feel like there are many people who do not do enough research. And because social media and their followings allow them to have a voice, they don’t put in the work because we have to remember that journalism is actually work — it’s not just about shouting out a window what you think of something. You need to back everything up, and you need to have a thought process behind it. It’s imperative.
What are your thoughts around the criticism of a fashion collection by those who were not in attendance at the show itself?
PAM: I don’t think I personally need to be at a show to criticize it. I’ve actually stopped requesting tickets to shows. I go where I’m invited. We have all the tools, including Vogue Runway’s app and livestreaming, to experience the show and look at the clothes. The shows are just a hierarchical circus. And going to a show might cloud one’s judgment because they are becoming more and more spectacular, and it’s easy to be seduced by those Hollywood-like productions.
Diversity in the number of models of color is on the rise — 44% at last NYFW. What are your thoughts on the diversity conversation within our industry, and are we seeing enough POC in non-model roles within fashion?
PAM: New York has been an example when it comes to diversity. And I’m not just talking about skin color. We’ve seen a real variety of men and women. It now encompasses weight and age. We need to keep quantifying those results in order to progress.
As for behind-the-scenes diversity, a lot can still be achieved. Yes, now we have Edward Enninful and Virgil Abloh in powerful positions, but they really are exceptions. Tyler Mitchell, too, is an exception, and him being the first black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover only happened because of Beyoncé.
It’s a bit paradoxical. Because on the one hand we have an industry constantly being inspired by worldwide non-Caucasian cultures, and on the other hand we have struggling non-Caucasian creatives. It’s important for POC to have role models. It’s important to show young POC that they can make it too. We need to create more opportunities for POC creatives.
There’s a lot of ways in which we see fashion not doing enough. What’s something fashion is doing too much of?
PAM: Laziness. Issa mic drop.