Left: Ion Orchard’s now-pulled Spring Magnificence ad, and right: a Tim Walker photograph
It seems to have taken the industry by surprise, but why should anyone in advertising or retail be astonished at all?
Last week, the website of Australian-own Mumbrella Asia (“Everything under Asia’s Media and Marketing Umbrella”) ran a report that told of a Facebook post by Malaysia-born, Singapore-based freelance fashion stylist CK Koo, who had pointed at an ION Orchard advertisement that bore a striking similarity to a photograph by British lensman Tim Walker. Mr Khoo had remarked, “Sadly, when copying in this industry becomes common.” His post, unexpectedly, has been deleted.
In a subsequent report, Mumbrella alerted its readers that ION Orchard has removed the “image accused of plagiarism”. A check on the ION Orchard’s website truly uncovered no such photo. A Google image search of “ION Orchard Spring Magnificence” still shows a single, full-bleed picture linked to the mall’s site, but a click on the view image tab will bring you to a photograph of a garden setup outside the mall. It looks like a hastily shot and posted photo. A visit to ION Orchard over the weekend found no trace of the snap that has aroused curiosity and earned disapproval, not even half a standee is left standing.
ION Orchard may be quick to hush a potentially noisy response to a faux pas, but the damage is done and noted. We will never know what really transpired during the project brief to the agency, reportedly a local firm called Tofu Design, but some of us in the media won’t go soft on certain “standard practices” that could easily apportion the blame to as much the client as the agency.
Fashion communication is tough to put out to consumers these days. The challenge is to rise above the din already made shrill by social media. For so many marketing heads—themselves no fashion plates, fashion isn’t fashion until it looks like fashion. And that mostly refers to the fashion someone else has already adopted or communicated. As part of the modus operandi, a standard request by many marketing managers supervising an ad campaign is the “references”. By that, they really mean photographs with every element in there that they could deem “fashion enough” to sell their wares.
The agencies’ creative directors—the all-powerful geniuses, but themselves also no fashion plates—pander to the clients’ whims by providing these references, which could be a printout of a photographer’s published work or, more popularly, tear sheets of magazines. With the magazine library a crucial part of the agency, and sites such as Fashion Gone Rogue a click away, references are easy to find, and willingly provided to clients. The unfortunate scenario is one when a client expects the result to not differ from the reference.
The white dress of identical silhouette, the seated pose, the white peacock feathers protecting the model like a Hindu nāga sheltering a deity, the onlooking albino peacock: they point to a definite visual source
It’s not surprising that the ION Orchard ad is based on a reference: here, from one of Tim Walker’s works, distinguished by the dramatic setting that is often confined to a room. The photo first appeared as a spread in W featuring Jennifer Lawrence with all sorts of birds. The similarities of ION Orchard’s picture are too uncanny to be considered a coincidence, even if the agency, in its defence, may claim that it is. The white dress of identical silhouette, the seated pose, the white peacock feathers protecting Ms Lawrence like a Hindu nāga sheltering a deity, the onlooking albino peacock: they point to a definite visual source.
What annoys many creative souls is the poor imitation. This is a mall trying to boost its fashion standing and underscore its fashion leadership, yet its ad depicts fashion that, at best, is a parody. The main focus of the picture is the gown, but it looks like something sponsored by a Tanjong Pagar bridal shop rather than a reflection of the sumptuousness in the Tim Walker photo that is evocative of the couture plumage of Maison Lemarié. Even the pose of the model appears awkward and speaks of an inexperienced mannequin cornered into a shoot beyond her abilities rather than the graceful beauty that she attempts to imitate that hints at the old–world elegance of Truman Capote’s “swans”.
Requesting for a reference is a media industry-wide practice. Even magazine editors are known to demand them so that they’ll know exactly what to expect. “No surprises from the stylist” is the common justification. If references from the same sources are doing the rounds, it could perhaps explain why fashion pages of magazines are looking dismally the same. Of the present crop of young stylists occupying editorial pages with their work, so very few have a distinctive, let alone identifiable style.
Mr Koo, who took a hiatus from fashion to dabble in F&B before returning to styling recently, contributes to publications such as Nuyou. The latest issue, in which a fashion story he styled is featured, comprises five locally shot fashion spreads by three different stylists, but you wouldn’t have guessed that they are the output of a trio of individuals. Three of them are so similar visually (all with blond models glaring at the reader with smokey eyes) that two of the pages (67 and 109) from two different thematic spreads even sport the same Prada jacket. It’s of no help that fashion editors, like creative directors, are not necessarily able to discern the mono-look.
The sameness that afflicts our image-making industry is exacerbated by the smallness of the pool of fashion stylists, many also engaged by creative directors to style shopping mall ads based on the client-approved reference. The trifecta of creative types too shares similar ideas of what makes an image fashionable—usually edgy or over-the-top, mostly a snapshot of a fantasy existence, enhanced by deft Photoshop manipulation. The problem, for a lack of a better word, is that they all like the same things! It is, therefore, unsurprising, for example, that, while Raffles City and ION Orchard are about 3 kilometres apart and appeal to different shoppers, their communication materials seem to share similar aesthetics. Take away the text that identifies the malls, and you’re left with two sets of images with no distinguishable USP.
If only business owners could see the irony of it all. In desperately trying to be different from their competitors, they end up with a product that is a facsimile of the creative output of someone else. Imitation may be a form of flattery, but rarely is it sincere. Let’s not pretend. Whether ION Orchard will consider this a salutary experience, we can certainly hope.