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EFF SOURCE Fashion business success without compromise

2 January 2012

Ethics and the Celebrity

Contributor Lucinda Borrell

Lily Cole for North Circular

Celebrity endorsement amongst mainstream fashion and luxury brands is something which has become increasingly popular in recent years. According to Esther Freeman of mswandas.co.uk, input from famous faces would cause a dramatic shift in attitudes towards sustainability, having the potential to be “extremely powerful for ethical fashion”..

According to Daniel J. Boorstin, author of The Image: Or what Happened to The American Dream), the “celebrity is created by the media. The hero is a big man, the celebrity is a big name.” Famous faces are symbolic, representing the morals and aspirations of their followers and as such their brand-like image makes them ideal tools for promoting and marketing a campaign or product.

Indeed, celebrity endorsement amongst mainstream fashion and luxury is something which has become increasingly popular in recent years. From the likes of Cheryl Cole and Amy Childs endorsing beauty and fashion brands to Kiera Knightley currently the face of Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle, product promotion has now become an integral part of a celebrity’s role, allowing brands to access a whole range of potential consumers, all of whom seek to emulate their idols.

So how can this translate into a useful tool for the ethical fashion industry?

There is still a certain stigma attached to sustainable fashion, with many perceiving ethics and design innovation as mutually exclusive concepts. According to Esther Freeman of mswandas.co.uk, input from famous faces would cause a dramatic shift in attitudes towards sustainability, having the potential to be “extremely powerful for ethical fashion”. She explains this rationale further: “Michelle Obama wearing vintage and ASOS Africa received a lot of media attention. Fashion marketing people use celebrities as living breathing catwalks, dressing them up in their latest collections in order to boost their brands and make sales […] if people could see their favourite celebrity’s styles reproduced in an ethical way, it would be hard proof that ethical fashion can indeed be beautiful.”

Indeed, fashion doesn’t come more beautiful than the creations of Ada Zanditon who was recently dubbed by PHOENIX Magazine as one of the top 10 emerging designers to watch. Since winning the Ethical Fashion Forum’s INNOVATION Awards (2010), Ada has gained both celebrity and media recognition for her fantastic contemporary designs and her garments have been worn by modern-day fashion icons such as singer Katy Perry and T4 presenter Jameela Jamil. Similarly, many celebrities such as Livia Firth who recently took part in Vogue’s Green Carpet Challenge and Leona Lewis who recently launched a competition to promote sustainable thinking in design use their celebrity status as a means of communicating ethical concerns to a wider audience.

One such brand that has utilised the power of the celebrity is leading sustainable fashion company People Tree who in 2009 launched a collaborative collection with Harry Potter star and young fashion icon, Emma Watson. Taking on the role of creative consultant, the collection reflects upon the quintessentially British style that she is so famous for, whilst placing emphasis on fair trade fashion. When discussing her inspiration for the range, she says: “I went through my wardrobe and thought that if I filtered out my clothes and took it down to the absoloute basics – what would I want in my wardrobe? It was cotton vests, really easy T-shirt dresses, nice scarves and maybe an easy summer linen shirt.”

As a young star, Emma has a huge fan base many of whom, particularly young female fans, look towards their idol as a symbol of style. In choosing Emma to become the Creative Consultant of People Tree’s younger collections, the firm raises the profile of fair trade fashion as well as turning over a profit by tapping into the market of young girls, wishing to mimic the Harry Potter star’s British style.

The same could be said for Lily Cole, international super-model, celebrity and now ethical business woman. Although most renowned for her participation in catwalk shows such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton and for being the face of Marks & Spencer (2008), Lily frequently campaigns for a more sustainable fashion industry through her very public work with the Environmental Justice Foundation. More recently, these ethical ideals have been transferred to the North Circular label, founded by Lily and her business partner Katherine Poulton. Selling casual yet luxurious knitwear from the wool of rescued sheep which is then “knitted by Grannies”, the North Circular is a prime example of how celebrity status can have a positive impact upon sustainable fashion.

“We have been very blessed that the attention has all been positive for the North Circular”, commented former model and co-founder, Katherine Poulton. “There are a lot of people out there doing amazing things that just don’t get coverage, celebrity status definitely gets the spotlight turned onto you, but once it is there, you have to do the rest… [The North Circular] wasn’t just funny, it was kind of brilliant and caught people’s imagination.”

Of course, a strong product or business concept is indeed the backbone to creating a profitable business and within this context it is possible to be successful without the support of a famous face. However, with 25% of adverts featuring endorsements (this figure having doubled since 1995), doing so is becoming increasingly difficult.

The key to creating a strong brand image lies in a company’s ability to communicate a set of values and ethics with which a consumer can identify. In many cases, this can take decades and so a business is more likely to invest in a celebrity spokesperson as the impact this has upon brand identity and sales is instantaneous. In recent weeks ethical brand Beulah has received much media attention and been featured in Vogue following Kate Middleton being photographed wearing one of their designs. This has, according to brand founder Natasha Isaacs, “had a good impact on our sales and created awareness of our brand and charity ethos.”

In this sense, the spread of celebrity endorsement within ethical fashion is somewhat inevitable; if a celebrity buys, wears and is photographed in a brand, this is a form of free advertising. This natural process can be sped up and tapped into by designers who approach celebrities to draw their attention to the brand. Giving celebrities free gifts, as well as organising endorsement deals with a celebrity that they feel particularly embodies their brand, are just a few of the ways that ethical designers can profit from society’s obsession with celebrity culture.

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