The Shill Side: Confessions of a Menswear Blogger

To shill or not to shill. The ethical questions accepting free gifts or free shit is something that needs to be addressed.

To shill or not to shill, that is the question.

However, we need not procrastinate on what is nobler; accepting ‘free shit’ and only writing gushing praise of it is not journalism.

Having written about menswear for ten years, I considered it an appropriate time to reflect on my decade in the murky world of fashion journalism, and make sense of the strange creeping influence of the advertorial.

As a lowly blogger and upstart menswear writer, the idea of writing less than honest pieces in exchange for suits, shirts, ties, scarves, collar stays – any goddamn thing going – seemed part of the game.

It’s Great Getting ‘Free Shit’

Menswear blogging when I began in 2007 was in its infancy, and aside from a few, the bloggers were not the almighty, tailor-luvvie, Pitti-going, Lobb-wearing deities they are now.

At the time, it seemed only fair that they – investing time, effort, money and creativity – would eventually reap some fruits for their labour. Whether that be a tie in exchange for a review, or a pair of shoes. Or a Cifonelli suit. Perhaps a Vuitton briefcase. Maybe even a Patek Philippe.

“Wait, what?!” you splutter.

Sure. That’s what it must come to. For braving the wilds of Savile Row and Jermyn Street, for facing up to the awesome terror of Styleforum readers, our intrepid menswear journos and Instagram superstars are taking what’s rightly theirs.

It’s the same thing that celebrities, royals and politicians have been drawing down on for decades; costless clobber.

Don’t be bitter, it’s just success. And you know what they say? People love success – they just hate successful people. And after all, “conscience does make cowards of us all” right?

Well, not quite.

The Dark Side of ‘Free Shit’

You see, the problem with ‘free shit’ – and I would know as I have had my fair share – is that it shouldn’t really affect what a reviewer writes about a brand, but all too often, it does.

I have been offered ‘contracts’ to write reviews for brands’ websites, write copy, gush about their products, wear them endlessly – and be paid in clobber. It sounds like a great deal for both parties; they don’t have to dig into their valuable cash piles but get PR and marketing, and I get free clothing.

But it’s actually a bad deal for everyone.

The thing about lying is not the content of the lie itself but the fact that you lied. People might not like successful people, but they hate liars more.

Nowadays, even though bloggers and journalists are noticeably careful about the words they use (they call them ‘collaborations’ or ‘projects’ instead of ‘free’ or ‘gifts’), they’re still shilling.

And unless you’re naked about what you say you got for free, people will assume it’s all been given to you – and that you’re a lying, shilling, weasel who couldn’t afford half of the stuff you’re prancing about in.

This is the main issue; disingenuousness. It’s perceived as deeply deceptive and unfair for highly qualified, seemingly passionate writers to pass off an advertorial as an objective review.

I know because I have done it myself. It should gnaw away at you, you should feel shame and self-disgust. You can see in people’s earnest comments; “this seems to be a very generous review, did you get this for free?”

And there is the rub. The writer will lose in the end. After the suits and shoes have worn out – and doesn’t matter where they are made, they will – his credibility will be shattered. He’ll be outed and reviled in such a ruthless, Wildean fashion that even his children won’t want to share his name.

We All Lose in the End if We Shill

However, the writer isn’t the only loser. Anyone associated with them – tailors, artisans, craftsmen, brands – will suffer.

The fact is, advertising might be expensive but it’s actually less valuable than a truly objective review. The trouble with brands is that they don’t like criticism. I wrote once for an overseas tailor who said “thanks for the review, but I think we can do better.” In other words; I can find a better shill.

In my ten years and 500 or so articles, the main thing I have learned is this: if you get stuff for free, admit that you got it for free. If you didn’t get it for free, say so.

And if you do get it for free, tell the brand that you are working with that you won’t just gush praise, that you will critique, that it might not be pretty – and that they will be all the better for it. ML

It is the policy of MAN LONDON to state unequivocally when any free goods, travel, meals, discounts etc., have been provided to our editors/writers.