The ANXIETY of INFLUENCE
HOW INSTAGRAM IS CHANGING FASHION — FOR BETTER AND WORSE
WHILE INSTAGRAM cannot confirm which image was first affixed with the hashtag “#fashion”, there are a few contenders. Shortly after the social media platform’s launch in October 2010, photographer Courtney Roxanne posted a street view in California featuring a hacienda-style house covered in bougainvillea. Scott Goodwill, a creative director and colourist, snapped an image of a blonde woman in a white T-shirt. An early adopter of the sharing platform, Goodwill was quick to maximise his reach. His image is accompanied by a volley of hashtags, including #girl, #girls, #tagforlikes, #sexy, #swag and #fashion. To date, he has claimed 3,130 followers. At about the same time, user @jxffb posted a blurry picture of some beads using the same tag. The beads looked kind of stylish, despite their likeness to a string of Maltesers.
Curiously, none of the images really reflects “fashion” in the way Instagram users today might have come to expect. The images are blurry. They are naive in their composition. They don’t feature supermodels. They don’t really feature fashion at all. The images allude to a mood, or environment that could be described as having certain fashionability, but fashion is not presented as a commodity, something to be marketed, packaged and sold.
Today, some 615m posts can be found under #fashion. And millions more can be traced to the morass of subjects that fashion inspires. Search under #streetstyle and you will find 60.5m images of people, mostly women, peacocking in urban landscapes across the world, from Berlin to Beijing, and from Reykjavik to Riyadh. The tag #redcarpet delivers 5.2m pictures of celebrities swaggering their way to awards ceremonies in otherworldly designer ensembles. Fans of Gucci can join the 31.2m users who follow the brand’s main account, or track the further 51 tags that have been dedicated to its name — an astonishing 141,577 tags have been created, for example, to honour the “Gucci flip-flop”. But while the Gucci diaspora is deep, it is not the most followed fashion brand on the Facebook-owned platform. That honour goes to Chanel, with 32.2m followers.
Visually led, surface orientated, much improved by filters, it’s no surprise that fashion and Instagram have come to share a symbiotic relationship. Unlike Twitter, the social media platform built on quick wit, pithy aphorisms and outrage, Instagram has always been the more benign member of the social media family. At best, it offers a generous view of the world through a rose-tinted (or a gingham or crema-effect) lens. At worst, it can be venal and vapid. For the fashion industry, which has forever pedalled a heavily manipulated version of itself to the world, Instagram is the perfect partner.
And yet the fashion world was quite suspicious of this technological innovator when it first appeared, nearly a decade ago. Instagram, which enabled anyone with a smartphone to become a self-appointed stylist, photographer, model or publicist was unwieldy and unchecked. As fashion editor at the Financial Times,
I remember going to fashion shows at which the use of Instagram was forbidden. Brands feared the widespread proliferation of images would deliver straight to the copyists, who produce knock-offs of catwalk clothes at high-street prices. They did.
Meanwhile, many fashion executives and creative directors worried the new platform would diminish their power. It would counteract the “narrative”: the carefully constructed, rigorously edited semi-fiction used to sell the values of the brand. It also meant more work. Fashion creatives, used to proposing a few artfully directed photographs at the start of each season with which to fulfil their marketing obligations, were in for a rude awakening. Today, they must conjure a blitzkrieg of content with which to satisfy their clients. Campaigns consist of tens of thousands of pictures, as well as videos, special projects and collaborations, and broadcasts, to be drip-fed through a brand’s feed at hourly intervals. Alongside the main shows, designers now produce dozens of extra collections with which to lure new customers.
Campaign directors have had to learn the language of digital marketing, where product is “seeded” to “influencers” (people who have sufficient status among their peers to persuade them to buy a new handbag). Influencers create “sponsored content” in which they are paid to post pictures of themselves wearing branded clothing while pretending to seem “authentic”.
Models, once the mute muses of silent advertising campaigns, must now command huge online audiences in order to get the same jobs they used to win with a signature smoulder or waist size. They must be presenters, comedians and directors. They must be brands in themselves. The most followed model currently — and therefore one of the most sought-after by brands — is the 23-year-old Kardashian scion Kendall Jenner (@kendalljenner), who came to fame via her family’s reality television show. She has amassed more than 102m followers, not via her numerous catwalk appearances (although these have lent her a degree of legitimacy in the industry) but via the judicious posting of selfies which often find her wearing nothing but her scanties. Fellow reality stars, the Hadid sisters Gigi and Bella, are the second and fourth most-followed models in the world. Cara Delevingne comes in at number three. to say that fashion has been seismically altered by the advent of Instagram is no exaggeration. It has transformed the pace at which the business works, it informs every modulation in our tastes, it has promoted a generation of new fashion talents who might otherwise have still been labouring in their bedrooms. It has revolutionised the way we shop and helped transform already well-known fashion houses into global brand behemoths.
It has certainly changed my life. I was a reasonably late adopter to the social media platform, which always seemed to represent an unholy breed of narcissism. And then someone tagged an image of me walking into a fashion show in 2014, and I quickly found myself extolling its virtues and cravenly searching for more. The acquisition of new followers, the battle to beat its strict algorithms, and the strange Pavlovian impulse to share everything I do has since become instinctive. Instagram is the first thing I check every morning, and the last place I look at night. It’s an invaluable resource tool for work, by far the quickest way to reach my peers, and a constant source of ideas.
At times, like the magic mirror in Snow White,
I feel enslaved by my dependence, and my psychological weakness for affirmation and likes. But what about those filters? How else would I maintain the pretence of being a stylish woman of the world who has never been accursed with a blemish or a wrinkle? To borrow the line from
Annie Hall about a guy whose “crazy” brother thinks he’s a chicken: “We keep going through it because we need the eggs”.
Eva Chen (@evachen212, 1.1m followers) joined Instagram in 2015 as its director of fashion partnerships. She saw the platform’s
potential from the off. “A picture can speak 1,000 words, and I think that’s absolutely true,” she says of its staggering growth: the platform passed the 1bn user mark in June last year. “You can live anywhere, you can speak any language, but a picture has this universal appeal. And I think that’s the secret sauce of Instagram — the power of the image.”
A former editor of Lucky and Teen Vogue, where she built a significant following as a style influencer in her own right, Chen was brought in to lead the site’s fashion collaborations. But she tries not to be prescriptive when advising on what works. “My personal point of view is that there’s no one right way to do Instagram,” she says. “What’s right for one designer is very different for what’s right for another.”
For fashion brands, she sees Instagram having two main uses: building a commercial business and helping develop a brand narrative. “In the three years that I’ve been here,” Chen says, “the one thing I keep hearing from emerging designers is ‘Instagram launched my business’, or ‘I would not have a business without Instagram’.” For those large brands who already have huge businesses, “Instagram is a way to share behind-the-scenes stories and bring people closer to the brand.”
When asked to nominate an emerging brand which has been quick to seize the digital advantage, Chen singles out London-based Self-Portrait (@mrselfportrait, 721k followers) which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. “That was a brand I learned about through Instagram,” she says. “Han Chong, [its creative director] started posting images of these beautiful lacy dresses. And it was so simple. He built his Instagram through strong storytelling.”
As for a more established brand, she points to designer Pierpaolo Piccioli (@pppiccioli, 197k), the creative director of Valentino (@maisonvalentino, 11.7m). According to Chen: “He has used Instagram brilliantly to show behind the scenes and make the brand come to life for a different generation.”
Although Instagram wasn’t shoppable for some years, meaning brands weren’t able to “monetise” their businesses, the site has also become a vital point of reference for investors looking to gauge a brand’s potential.
“The first thing I do when I meet a brand looking to raise capital is to check their Instagram account,” says Nick Brown of Imaginary Ventures investment fund, which he cofounded with Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massanet in April 2018. “It’s the clearest way of registering a brand’s health.” What does he look for? “Consistency of vision, a strong point of view. It’s a much better indicator than a website, which can be very misleading. Instagram gives a much more accurate picture.”
Frederic Court, founder of the venture capital fund Felix Capital, was the first investor to put money into the luxury online site Farfetch. He has also made investments in the online trade publication Business of Fashion, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, and the fine jewellery company Mejuri. “We’re looking for brands that are relevant,” he says of his habit of trawling through Instagram in search of new business opportunities. Instagram helps him work out if a business can “relate to a community”.
You might think all those lightning bolt and
FOR THE FASHION INDUSTRY, WHICH HAS FOREVER PEDALLED A HEAVILY MANIPULATED VERSION OF ITSELF TO THE WORLD, INSTAGRAM IS THE PERFECT PARTNER
flame emojis underneath a post are a bit daft. But for investors, these indicators are an invaluable asset. “We are more interested in engagement than in the scale of communities,” adds Court, “because we think you can start something quite small and grow. And then, if you put more of a financial hat on, you look at businesses that are capital-efficient. Mejuri has only raised $1m [£785,000] to date, and in the past 12 months they say they have sold 150,000 pieces of jewellery. So they are clearly not spending a lot on marketing to acquire those customers...”
Daniel Marks, chief creative officer at The Communications Store, a public relations firm with clients including Versace, MaxMara and Salvatore Ferragamo among others, says Instagram is his first point of reference whether he’s taking on a client or employing a new assistant. “Absolutely. No question, it offers the most valuable insight.” He too is looking for engagement — the number of comments, dialogue and shares that are precipitated by a post — rather than a wealth of followers. instagram’s influence has been powerfully disruptive. New brands, once unable to penetrate the industry because they couldn’t raise the money to stage a fashion show, or pay thousands of pounds for an ad campaign, can now launch their businesses with a few snaps and a waiting list. And while not every direct-toconsumer business has launched on Instagram, the site has been instrumental in the growth of modern fashion successes such as Glossier, the online beauty brand founded by Emily Weiss in 2010, the sustainable clothing line Everlane, eyewear brand Warby Parker, and smaller niche labels such as the luxury swimwear line Lisa Marie Fernandez or London jeweller Alighieri Jewellery.
Likewise, even huge brands, for whom no marketing expense is too high, have found the platform a vital way in which to communicate directly with their clients. Just look at the success of Virgil Abloh’s Off-White. The Illinoisborn designer launched his high-end streetwear label in 2013. Today, it has 6.4m Instagram followers. Abloh himself has 3.5m on his personal account, and now juggles his responsibilities between that label and his other job at Louis Vuitton (@louisvuitton, 29.5m) where he is men’s artistic director. While his success has been partially due to his knack for identifying the right words to print on a sweatshirt, he has also cultivated a huge following thanks to his digital openness. Lord knows how many hours he puts in sending thank-you emojis to his followers, but his efforts have made him one of the most popular figures in fashion.
During her time at Instagram, Chen has seen the platform change enormously. Where once it only offered users a rigid grid of square images on which to post, today it is a multichannel media hub through which users can publish landscape and portrait images, as well as videos, using either the more ephemeral “story” feature, the basic feed, or via Instagram TV, where one can broadcast hours of footage.
“Stories was a huge moment,” says Chen of the feature which launched in August 2016 and is now used by 400m people every day. “Even adding the portrait and landscape options to the format added so much depth and difference to the feeling of Instagram. Now we
have IGTV, we have IGLive, we have IGLiveWith, and we’re rolling out a lot of different shopping specific tools.”
Does she have any particular advice for the wannabe micro-influencer? “There’s no onesize-fits-all Instagram,” she says. “Look at Pat McGrath [@patmcgrathreal, 2.5m followers] and Charlotte Tilbury [@ctilburymakeup, 2.5m followers], two iconic UK make-up artists who have a very different, brand specific voice. But I do think there’s some common themes that are true for everyone. One: post consistently and frequently. Two: engage with your audience, whether you’re an individual or a brand. I think the next generation of shoppers, consumers, friends, just want that back and forth. They want comments, they want you to talk back to them. And so that’s something I think people expect but also love. And three: use every surface of Instagram. People expect different content from all those different surfaces, because they’re different storytelling mechanisms. So trying to think of what you’ll do on each I think is helpful as well.”
Whether anyone has time in their day to curate a story, compose a perfectly filtered and captioned feed post and edit a video — about what, for Chrissakes? — is another matter entirely. The time and effort required to make a significant impact is possibly too great for most. Stefano Gabbana, the more voluble member of the Dolce & Gabbana duo, once told me he approached Instagram as a “second, third, fourth or even fifth job”. At the time, he would spend up to three hours each night responding to comments and direct messages. The effort isn’t always appreciated. Gabbana was recently forced to apologise for a miscommunication meltdown that resulted in a show cancellation in China. While the designer maintained his account had been hacked and that he was not the author of the messages, the dangers of Instagram became instantly apparent. In an attempt to become more approachable and transparent, some brands give a little too much away.
Instagram has democratised fashion, and empowered the consumer to make their own fashion statements. But not everyone is so convinced that it’s been a source of good. The transactional benefits, the furtive paidfor-posts, the confusing jumble of editorial visa-vis sponsored content, not to mention the numerous studies linking Instagram use to a rise in feelings of inferiority, have all contributed to a groundswell of distrust.
“I feel quite demotivated by Instagram,” says Gabriela Hearst (@gabrielahearst, 170k followers), who launched her eponymous luxury brand in 2015, and who has always used the platform to nurture the brand’s growth which, until recently, undertook a large part of its business via a direct-to-consumer model. “True luxury product is very hard to translate in the digital space,” she says of the platform’s limitations. “It’s why it took so long for brands to embrace it.”
Hearst, who sells exquisitely tailored suits, eveningwear, knitwear and accessories at quite astronomical prices, speaks for many, especially those at the higher end of the fashion spectrum, when she laments Instagram’s power to convey the tactile pleasures of truly original products. Also, she’s got image fatigue. “I’m just tired of seeing all these pictures. I hate this gluttony.
THE TRANSACTIONAL BENEFITS, THE FURTIVE PAID-FOR-POSTS, THE CONFUSING JUMBLE OF EDITORIAL VIS-A-VIS SPONSORED CONTENT AND THE STUDIES LINKING IT TO FEELINGS OF INFERIORITY, HAVE ALL CONTRIBUTED TO A GROUNDSWELL OF DISTRUST FOR INSTAGRAM
And I resent the amount of time I spend on the site only to feel like shit. It’s info-tech overload.”
Hearst believes there will be an Instabacklash. “We’re oversaturated,” she says. “Who needs to see hundreds of people wearing a bag? Brands need to be cautious so people don’t get tired. It’s a different story if you’re a fast fashion company which is copying a ton of product. But if you’re creating original product, you can’t keep up with the demand. One of the biggest challenges to me currently is how to make the presence of the brand exist in a way that is not digital.”
Jonathan Anderson (@jonathan.anderson, 278k followers), the designer behind JW Anderson (@jw_anderson, 745k followers), has also bemoaned the rapacity of an Instagram audience that requires constant feeding. It’s one of the reasons he’s put emphasis on traditional craft skills. It’s also why he launched the project, “Your Picture / Our Future” last year, in search of a “new, new wave of image-makers.” But with more than 500m daily active accounts and the like button getting more than 4.2bn hits every day, one can only really imagine that the Instagram backlash will only ever be a tiny eddy in the rushing torrent that surrounds it.
Until then, the age of influence will roll on. “There have always been influencers for every generation and era,” reasons Chen. “And just like there used to be models on a commercial for Coca-Cola or Pepsi, now there’s a new category of influencers who are more quoteunquote ‘normal, real people’. There’s room at the table for everyone. I don’t really see the influencer going away, because I think no matter what, people are always looking for advice and feedback on how to wear something or how to apply a product. And today you can learn that from a designer, model, blogger or a micro-influencer. Everyone has to find their own path.”
Instagram is evolving. The greatest threat to its future success, one imagines, is that its technologies will simply become outdated and users will migrate elsewhere. “The fashion influencers of 2010 have graduated, they’ve had babies and got married and whatever. They moved overseas,” says Chen.
The influencers of nine years ago are now brand directors or style consultants or lifestyle gurus. A new generation of fashion influencers is coming through. Chen refuses to make predictions for what the world will look like nine years from now, but she does think things might tilt away from the highly polished, Facetuned imagery we’ve come to see of late.
“The first-ever image posted on Instagram,” says Chen, “by Kevin Systron, one of the cofounders, was a picture of a golden retriever and his foot in a flip-flop. And that was nine years ago. And then we saw, with the advent of bloggers who were posting these beautiful editorial-esque inspired images, the content becoming glossier. And now with Instagram, what we’re seeing in terms of content is something less polished, something a little less perfect.”
Chen suggests that as the move towards diversity and inclusion within the fashion industry gains traction, so too will Instagram become a little less curated and self-edited. Maybe in some future digital space, it will be common to see #wrinkles and #ilovedoublechins. Then again, I wouldn’t bet my Gucci flip-flops on it.