this fashion trend forecaster taught the alt-right how to undermine democracy
How a "data nerd who came in from the cold" used fashion's ‘ugly’ fetish to make Donald Trump a palatable President.
Burberry autumn/winter 18; Trump image via Flickr.
One day in May last year, Kanye West emailed Kim Kardashian West about sunglasses. He told her the huge, face-hiding styles long-favoured by exhausted Hollywood celebrities were out, and that tiny 90s Matrix-style lenses were in. Kim told her sister Kourtney and friend Jonathan Cheban about it over lunch (as shown on Keeping Up With The Kardashians this January). “[Kanye] sent me a whole email like, ‘You cannot wear big glasses any more. It’s all about tiny little glasses’… He sent me like, millions of 90s photos with tiny little glasses like this,” she said, gesticulating at the minuscule pair sitting atop her nose.
The turn of fashion’s tide is notoriously swift. Retailers dream of the halcyon days when Oscar Wilde’s famous observation -- that “fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months” -- rang true. Now, it changes in a Kanye West-approved hot minute, and with a Miuccia Prada-trained eye on the vagaries of ‘ugliness’. But what, you might ask, have Kim’s mini-shades got to do with the fall of western democracy? Good question. To answer, I need to explain some things about how your social media ‘likes’ may have fuelled international cyber warfare.
This weekend, in an astonishing-slash-terrifying Observer exposé by journalist Carole Cadwalladr, whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed himself and his work at the helm of shady data firm Cambridge Analytica. The 28-year-old -- who has a bright red dye job, a septum ring, and describes himself as a “gay Canadian vegan” -- was the data science jedi master behind the company, which “uses data to change audience behaviour”. Funded by billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica has used this magical power (actually just hoovering up all of the little crumbs you drop as you use the internet) for a number of high-profile clients that reportedly include political campaigns -- notably Brexit’s victorious ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, and Donald Trump’s successful presidential run, led by former Breitbart Chief Exec Steve Bannon -- as well as military organisations, and even the US State Department.
"Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’ to the moment when everyone is wearing them?" -- Christopher Wylie
Wylie alleges that the company “harvested” 50 million Facebook profiles using ‘personality test’ apps that Facebook users were paid to engage with and, in doing so, gave Cambridge University academic Aleksandr Kogan -- who has links to Russia and was working with Cambridge Analytica -- access to all their data, and their friends’ data too. Facebook are now taking considerable heat over this. The Observer report that the user data was then used to build psychological profiles, which could in turn be used to predict user behaviour, so that they could be effectively targeted by the weapons of ‘psychological warfare’. When Carole Cadwalladr asked a Cambridge Analytica ex-staffer whether they really called it “psychological warfare” for an earlier article about Brexit, they told her, “Totally. That’s what it is. Psyops. Psychological operations -- the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change. It’s what they mean by winning ‘hearts and minds’. We were just doing it to win elections in the kind of developing countries that don’t have many rules.”
Now, let us return to Kim Kardashian’s trendy shades, which help to illuminate something about how Chris Wylie, a high-school dropout turned data nerd, was able to so effectively destabilise the wheels of western democracy for Steve Bannon and the alt-right. One-upping Kanye on the fashion tips front, Wylie actually studied for a PhD in fashion trend forecasting. It enabled him to explain to Steve Bannon that, “Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically.” Wylie’s key question was, “So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’, to the moment when everyone is wearing them?” Or, to paraphrase, how do you change people’s minds about an odious, multi-bankrupt, self-confessed sexual assaulter like Trump? How do you get them to make him President? “That was the inflection point [Bannon] was looking for,” Wylie says.
"There was a point when only small children and avid gardeners wore Crocs. And then Christopher Kane bolted some quartz into their air holes and... they were the unlikely ‘ugly shoe’ smash hit of 2017."
Fashion’s fetish for ugliness is well documented -- and its Supreme Leader oft quoted. "Ugly is attractive, ugly is exciting. Maybe because it is newer," Miuccia Prada famously declared in a 2013 T Magazine profile. She is right, of course. As a teenager, wearing flares and baggy skate pants, I found the idea of the ‘skinny jean’ totally repulsive. But fast-forward a few years and that’s all I wore. Thanks Hedi. There was a point when only small children and avid gardeners wore Crocs. And then Christopher Kane bolted some quartz into their air holes and stuck them on the long, lithe legs of supermodels, and all of a sudden they were the unlikely ‘ugly shoe’ smash hit of 2017. They were unexpected, fun, a conspicuous ‘it’ item, comfortable and -- as with most clumpy fashion shoes -- created the illusion of more slender legs. Not an ‘unlikely’ hit really at all. An addition to the cannon of great, strange fashion items that includes Martin Margiela’s cloven hoof Tabi boots; Jean Paul Gaultier’s conical bras (made famous by Madonna); and, more recently, Molly Goddard’s towering, ultra-girlie-but-somehow-not tulle dresses.
Understanding the mechanics behind a sea change in taste, as the fashion industry attempts to do on a ever-shortening ‘seasonal’ basis, helped Wylie mastermind a sea change in voters. You can’t -- effectively -- tell people what to like or wear (or indeed who to vote for), but you can show them, over and over and over again, with repeated messaging that is meaningful to them and has a cumulative effect. It doesn’t feel like ‘psychological warfare’ is being waged against you. It feels like you gathered various bits of information, be it catwalk imagery and reviews, street style shots, celebrity endorsements, magazine features, social media mentions, targeted ads and discount offers; or political content targeted to play into your existing biases. It feels like you came to the decision all by yourself. You didn’t, of course, as Miranda Priestly so sagely explains in the famous Devil Wears Prada blue sweater scene:
“With the exception of a follow-up email, most interactions with the customer stop [with the purchase],” a March 2017 McKinsey report on ‘modern marketing’ explains, where the customer in the example is ‘Jane’, who has bought some yoga pants. “But here’s what this example looks like when we activate Jane’s data: three days after her online purchase, the retailer sends Jane a health-themed email. Intrigued, she clicks the link and watches a video about raising healthy kids. One week later, she receives an iPhone message nudging her to use the store’s mobile app to unlock a 15 percent one-day discount on workout equipment. Though she has never bought such items from this retailer, Jane takes advantage of the offer and purchases a new sports bag. What began as a simple task of buying yoga pants ended up being a much more engaged experience.” That is, she bought something she didn’t know she wanted or needed, after being targeted based on the data they had on her.
"Rebekah Mercer loved the gays. So did Steve Bannon. He saw us as early adopters. He figured, if you can get the gays on board, everyone else will follow" -- Christopher Wylie
At Cambridge Analytica, Wylie tells the Observer, they were able to use massive datasets about people’s personalities to discover “odd patterns… for example, people who liked ‘I hate Israel’ on Facebook also tended to like Nike shoes and KitKats.” The many agencies who work with the intelligence services were “all over this research,” Wylie says, “That one was nicknamed Operation KitKat.” In fact, you don’t always need a snazzy data set to profile people. Chris Wylie reports that Robert Mercer’s daughter Rebekah, who oversees the family’s philanthropic and political projects, “loved” him. “She was like, ‘Oh we need more of your type on our side!’” (“Your type?” Cadwalladr probes) “The gays. She loved the gays,” Wylie clarifies. “So did Steve [Bannon]. He saw us as early adopters. He figured, if you can get the gays on board, everyone else will follow. It’s why he was so into the whole Milo [Yiannopoulos, a prominent alt-righter and gay man] thing.” And so, just as the fashion industry mines queer culture to create an ‘edgy’ (profitable) product offer, the leaders of the alt-right employed a young, gay trend analyst to mine consumer culture to ‘get out’ the ultra-conservative vote.
"The alt-right made hateful ideas appear 'edgy' and socially brave; 'telling it like it is' in defiance of the 'politically correct’ liberal establishment."
"The investigation of ugliness is, to me, more interesting than the bourgeois idea of beauty," Miuccia Prada said in that same T Magazine interview. "Ugly is human. It touches the bad and the dirty side of people." There are many in fashion who strive to use this power -- the ability to redefine the formerly ‘ugly’ as something unexpectedly desirable -- in order to challenge accepted and especially oppressive beliefs about what is not only considered beautiful, but socially acceptable too. They use it to create a more liberal and accepting culture around issues such as gender presentation and sexual proclivity, race and size, differing abilities and ages. What Christopher Wylie’s revelations make clear is that, in a political era characterised by the ugliest of human characteristics, the same logic can be used to appeal to voters’ most base desires, and fears.
The alt-right have effectively flipped the switch, co-opting this cultural power to make truly ugly, hateful ideas appear as something 'edgy' and socially brave; 'telling it like it is' in defiance of the ‘bourgeois’ (or ‘politically correct’) liberal establishment. Just as fashion pioneers have used “diversity and data” to celebrate difference and thereby increase profitability, progressive political leaders must learn how to effectively promote the politics of hope, love and inclusion to create social benefits. The culture-changing power of fashion is not to be sniffed at. In fact, it looks like the survival of western democracy might just depend on it.