Fashion

Where Does Recho Omondi Go From Here?

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Leandra Medine Cohen waited nine months to grant an interview about her decision to abruptly shut down Man Repeller, the fashion blog she spent a decade building into a media company. Rather than sit down with Vogue or The Cut, she chose The Cutting Room Floor, a little-known podcast hosted by the designer Recho Omondi that averaged just 10,000 listeners per episode.

Over the course of the hour-plus episode, Omondi probed Medine Cohen about why she had fired a senior Black employee last year, and how she handled the criticism from staff and readers that boiled over last summer. The wide-ranging conversation covered everything from the fashion blogger’s views on the Black Lives Matter movement to cancel culture and her experience growing up “on the lower end” of the city’s “upper echelon.”

If Medine Cohen had hoped her unconventional choice for a platform to come clean would rehabilitate her image, it didn’t work. The episode, entitled “The Tanning of America” and published July 7, went off like a bomb in fashion and media circles, racking up 150,000 plays, 15 times Omondi’s usual audience. Choice quotes — “I’m not surprised that I got cancelled … I’m just really surprised about why I got cancelled,” for one — were circulated on Twitter and Instagram as evidence that Medine Cohen had learned little over the last year. Mainstream fashion publications published their own takes. The Cut’s headline: “Upper East Sider Realizes She’s Privileged.”

Medine Cohen has not responded to the episode to her own audience on Instagram or Substack, where she has a newsletter, and she declined to comment to BoF through a representative.

But it wasn’t long before Omondi, too, found herself at the centre of a parallel cycle of online outrage. Throughout the episode, the host had made references to Medine Cohen’s Judaism that, to many listeners, veered into anti-Semitic tropes. In a monologue at the episode’s start, Omondi referred to Jewish slaveholders and at the episode’s end, Omondi evoked Jewish stereotypes to argue that Medine Cohen could not call herself an outsider.

“At the end of the day you guys are gonna get your nose jobs and your keratin treatments and you’re gonna change your name from Ralph Lifshitz to Ralph Lauren — but at the end of the day you’re gonna be okay,” she said. “These people haven’t learned anything.”

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on Omondi’s “false and offensive references.” The Cut attached an editor’s note to its initial writeup, noting the controversy. The New York Post’s first mention of the episode, six days after it aired, was headlined “Podcaster accused of using ‘anti-Semitic dog whistles’ in Leandra Medine episode.”

Omondi has since pulled the episode and replaced it with an edited version that cut out her comments about Jews. In an interview with BoF, she said she understood why her words were “dangerous” and that her comments exposed her own biases. She said she edited the podcast “out of respect” to Jewish listeners who objected to her phrasing.

I really wanted to understand what I was saying sorry for.

“I really wanted to understand what I was saying sorry for, and that took talking to a lot of people and really getting it,” she said.

Omondi plans to publicly apologize ahead of publishing the podcast’s next episode, but she doesn’t see the controversy over her remarks as a reason to retreat from the internet.

Omondi is a rising star in a new generation of fashion media, a growing cohort of podcasters, Instagram critics and Youtubers with loyal audiences, few if any advertisers, and no editor or publisher enforcing journalism’s conventions. It’s a wave that Medine Cohen herself helped start more than a decade ago when bloggers like her undercut the influence of fashion magazines.

What’s changed since Man Repeller hit the internet, however, is that fashion is following a larger cultural shift in grappling with how racism and socioeconomic privilege shape the industry. Much of fashion media has embraced coverage of politics and social justice to keep readers engaged. However, many of the most highly charged conversations are coming from social media accounts and independent publishing platforms, rather than glossy print magazines.

Those new voices are often firing from the hip, and don’t feel as beholden to maintaining a pristine public image, currying favour with fashion’s biggest brands or upholding journalistic norms. Medine Cohen took a social media sabbatical and shut down her site after finding herself a target last year; Omondi sees the controversy around her remarks as material for her next episode.

“I would really like to have the conversation on the show … in all of its stickiness, rather than be coerced into issuing [a quick] apology so that I can simply get out of the doghouse, publicly,” Omondi told BoF. “I don’t think that’s what we want. And I think that’s exactly what the episode exposed.”

A Joe Rogan Approach

Omondi isn’t a traditional media figure by design. In working out her approach to podcasting, she said she often thinks about Joe Rogan, the comedian whose freewheeling interview style and eclectic guests has propelled him to the top of the most downloaded charts. A penchant for offending listeners with his views on everything from transgendered people to Covid-19 hasn’t dented his popularity.

“[He has said] he’s not a journalist, he just likes to speak to people,” she said. “And I tried to adopt that. I don’t know if it’s totally possible.”

When Omondi published the first episode of The Cutting Room Floor in 2018, she was still running her namesake fashion label and looking for an outlet for her frustration as an emerging designer in a rapidly changing fashion business.

“I was a young Black designer in New York who was like — I don’t really believe in the CFDA as a system, no disrespect to them, I didn’t think that Vogue was so relevant anymore,” she said. “There were a lot of things that were changing at that time [and] there were no clear answers about what I should do. The podcast was truly the only thing I knew to do to talk about my struggles.”

Omondi said her podcast was a reaction to the scripted formality she saw in fashion media. She aimed for more vulnerable but lighthearted conversations that focused on entrepreneurship and creativity with figures like activist and mentor Bethann Hardison and creative director Michelle Blioux. She often incorporated audio clips from archival interviews with prominent fashion leaders into the episodes or released them in clips on Instagram, adding to the show’s educational, inside-baseball point of view.

“There was no voice [in fashion podcasting] that was hip hop,” she said. “I don’t mean music, I mean the ethos … there was nothing that was fresh.”

The podcast was truly the only thing I knew to do to talk about my struggles.

Omondi refined her approach in the second and third seasons and has recently landed more high-profile guests including Mickey Drexler and Christopher John Rogers. Her community grew too, and in 2019 she hosted live interviews in front of audiences in Brooklyn, Chicago and London.

In 2020, Omondi shut down her fashion label and paused the podcast, but still works as a designer and consultant for different brands. In June, she started a Patreon account, where audience members can pay $3 monthly to receive extra content.

“I am still trying to find my way in the landscape of media and if I belong here, and what my role is here, and what my ethics are here,” Omondi said. “I can’t hide behind a big company or big magazine. If I do something or say something wrong, it’s on me. And I love that because I feel liberated, but it’s also a lot of responsibility.”

The fact that Omondi isn’t a journalist or a historian is one of the reasons why her audience likes her.

“It was incredibly authentic and incredibly casual and it felt real,” said Matthew VanderBach, a loyal listener and 20-year-old consultant working in fashion in Dallas. He said the podcast helped him feel less alone in navigating the challenges of being a young and often underpaid creative.

“Every single podcast episode it’s like, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve been thinking but no one else has said,’” he said.

The Interview

For her interview with Medine Cohen, Omondi decided to “break the fourth wall” and speak directly with the audience about the process of making the episode, even including commentary from audio producer Sebastian Baptiste, who expressed his personal frustration with the interview. Omondi also included interviews with Black women who were past employees or contributors of Man Repeller — including Crystal Anderson, the creative producer whose layoff set off the backlash last year.

“When we, Black and brown people, are dealing with these types of personalities, we cannot speak out the way I normally would because it’s your boss so you do restrain yourself, and you talk about it with your friends later,” said Omondi. “And to me, the audience is my friends.”

At the outset, she presented Medine Cogen as a type of “white girl working in fashion,” which Omondi describes as “skinny, classist, arrogant and ignorant … white, of course, or white-passing and, in the absolute worst-case scenario, she’s your boss.”

It was here, and in her remarks at the conclusion of the episode, that Omondi crossed the line from making the case against Medine Cohen to reinforcing antisemitic tropes, said Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, a Jewish journalist.

“You can argue, [Medine Cohen’s commentary is] not genuine, it is genuine, I don’t know,” she said. “But then to insert this recording afterwards that sneers at her and again keeps commenting on her background, on her wealth, on her Jewishness — that was just so egregious.”

In addition to invoking stereotypes about Jewish appearance, Omondi’s comment earlier in the podcast that Jews were slave owners in the US were taken by some as a nod to the debunked theory, popularised by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, that Jews secretly controlled the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Omondi told BoF she was not referencing Farrakhan’s thoughts there.

After the backlash began, Omondi wrote to her audience on Instagram that she understood “Leandra does not represent ALL Jewish people or the vast culture whatsoever,” and said she would block comments with “hate towards Jewish people.”

“I didn’t bring Judaism into the conversation, Leandra brought Judaism into the conversation,” Omondi told BoF. She said she was aiming to discuss “assimilation to whiteness as a survival tactic” in the controversial conclusion. “The ways in which Black people can’t do that as easily, not because of our religion, but because of the optics,” she said. “The problem is, though, I said it in such a crass and reductive way, that it became a moot point … I still felt like what I was trying to say was valid, but it didn’t matter because of the way I said it. It was really unfair.”

Her core point there is also controversial.

“Jews have tried in many countries and many eras to assimilate and it never worked,” said Chizhik-Goldschmidt. “That’s literally history. It’s very painful when the American discourse ignores that.”

Medine Cohen spoke about her religion at different points in the episode, including her family history. Her parents are immigrants, her father from Turkey and her mother from Iran. But she doesn’t discuss assimilation on the aired recording. Omondi said she sent an edit of the podcast to Medine Cohen in May, ahead of publication, but it did not include her opening and closing remarks. Medine Cohen chose not to comment to the host at that time, or since.

How Omondi navigates the backlash to her own comments will determine whether her new listeners stick around, if loyal ones move on or if she’s able to land prominent fashion industry insiders in the future. She said she plans to return to less controversial territory. That is, after dedicating this week’s episode to explain her comments and air more of her interview with Medine Cohen.

“The content of this episode doesn’t change the nature of the show at all,” Omondi said. “New listeners will learn that shortly.” She expects many of them will drop off.

Will her listeners allow her to return to business as usual?

“It’s up to the audience,” she said. “They’ll have to let me know.”

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