Photography Sam Evans-Butler

instagram's kevin systrom on fashion and #freethenipple

The app CEO and co-founder sits down with i-D to discuss entering the fashion space, whether Instagram will become a publishing force, and the power of celebrity.

by Rory Satran
11 May 2015, 5:55pm

Photography Sam Evans-Butler

Kevin Systrom is the guy that sold his company - this app called Instagram, you may have heard of it - for one billion dollars when he was twenty-eight. But while that would buy most people a private island and a one-way ticket away from the daily grind, Systrom is a relentlessly energetic CEO and something of a traveling spokesman for his company. When we meet in New York, he is freshly arrived from sipping juleps with his friend Karlie Kloss at the Kentucky Derby, and visibly amped for the Met Ball later that night (he'll comply with Anna's selfie ban at the event itself but 'gram a shot of fiancé Nicole in Neem Khan and himself in Ralph Lauren white tie pre-ball). He attended Paris Fashion Week this March, posting selfies with Karl Lagerfeld and Nicolas Ghesquière.

Kevin looks over my shoulder occasionally into the lobby of the Mercer Hotel. "It's so funny seeing everyone walk in with giant garment bags for tonight," he says. He mentions seeing Kim Kardashian at the hotel earlier, noting that "she uses Instagram many different ways, whether that's selfies or talking to her fans." It's clear that Kevin is just as entranced by the glossiness of the fashion and celebrity industries as they are with him. "I don't claim to be a fashionista myself, but it's fun," he says.

@kevin with @karllagerfeld

Founded in 2010 by Systrom and his partner Mike Krieger, Instagram was a "pivot" from an original company called Burbn, developed for geo-sensitive checkins. Instagram's success has become Silicon Valley lore: one million users within a month, Facebook buyout in 2012, video advertising by 2014.

Fashion publishers, brands, and insiders have taken to Instagram as an obsessive hobby and a strategic tool. Jenna Lyons of J. Crew told Harper's Bazaar, "I check my Instagram far too much, like in the middle of meetings, which I need to stop doing." She speaks for many of us, who see the app as a permanent PR machine and content aggregator professionally, and an addictive means of communication personally. To instagram, or 'gram, is a common verb. Vogue's last September was emblazoned 'The Instagirls.'

Why does Kevin think that the fashion industry has latched on so hard? There's the obvious affinity for pretty pictures. "On the one hand you have a natural propensity for visual content being Instagrammed," he says. "It's beautiful, it's curated, it's a safe place, creatively-minded, so people on Instagram are expecting to see creative, gorgeous photos. And then you have an industry that is based on gorgeous creative looks and expression. So bringing those two together was a natural fit."

Systrom is adamant that the relationship was cultivated rather than organic. "There's a saying in the tech world that every overnight success took five years, and it didn't happen overnight," he says. "It was about making sure that we engaged actively with the fashion community. We spent a lot of time at events. I'm going to the Met Gala tonight, this'll be the third year in a row and we love it because we get to sit down with people. Last year I got to sit down with Oscar De La Renta before he passed and it was a really special moment." In other words, he's not at the Met Ball (purely) because he thinks it's "fun."

@kevin with @nicolasghesquiereofficial and #delphinearnault

He sees the real power of fashion on Instagram as its ability to democratize a notoriously elitist industry. We talk about how rampant Instagramming of events like exhibitions (remember Koons at the Whitney?) and fashion shows (that Chanel supermarket) can make users feel like they were there. But could Instagram ever trump IRL experiences? "Our goal is not to replace any specific experience, but the idea is: connecting our community to the world as it happens," says Kevin. "You can be in multiple places at once. Rather than replacing a single event, it lets you access many more events, all at once. So it also democratizes it. There was a time when people couldn't go to - well, they still can't go to the Met Gala, it's a very exclusive event. For a sixteen year-old fashionista blogger sitting at home, she's able to see what people are wearing before they even get to the red carpet."

"I call Instagram a time machine," he continues. "You can zip across the world in a fraction of a second just by tapping a few buttons, and see something happening live. I don't think that'll ever replace the in-person experience, but it certainly makes it more accessible to many more people."

Kevin's fashion spirit animals include Karlie Kloss, who he's known for four years. "Over time her career in fashion and Instagram both took off, and it was fun to watch that relationship blossom. And she's been very helpful, for me, staying in touch with the fashion community, knowing what to wear to events, etcetera." Kevin stresses the power of introductions: "Being a tech nerd, in the valley it's very helpful to have contacts in fashion."

Like his chill fashion mentor, Anna Wintour. The Vogue editor and Condé Nast artistic director invited him to speak to the Condé editors about Instagram and how it's changing the fashion world. "I spent a lot of time with fashion people, understanding their world, and having that empathy. So it's that active engagement that I think has helped," says Systrom.

That "active engagement" is not limited to the fashion world. Systrom is a kind of VIP Instagram coach, using his newly fancy social life to recruit "power users," as they are called. When we speak, Systrom had just convinced David Beckham to sign up, and within one weekend had drawn over 4 million followers. "We spent a couple weeks chatting with him. He's an inspiring guy, very humble, very friendly. He just loves photography, and asked a lot of interesting questions about Instagram and how it works. Now he seems like he's a power user, so we're really excited for him."

Celebrity Instagrammers are an important part of an ecosystem that is highly user-focused. "We always put the community before ourselves," says Kevin. "If you go onto our blog, you'll actually see that every article starts off with a quote from the person that we're featuring, or on the Instagram account it's actually a quote from the person, because we want their voice to go first. We'll do cool stuff like at the Vanity Fair [Oscars] party, we had this beautiful photo booth with Mark Seliger. But that was something that we set up and made happen, but we didn't take front stage."

In a media climate in which articles are engineered to capitalize on celebrity names for SEO, there's beauty in sidestepping editorialization. As blogs push Willow Smith slideshows on the strength of her buzz alone, why not just let Willow Smith make her own content?

@kevin with @lenadunham

Although a good deal was made out of the recent launch of the Instagram-managed @music handle, Kevin denies that this indicates a shift toward publishing (as hypothesized). He sees it as more of a curation. There's an entire editorial team, whose job is to, as Kevin says, "find cool stuff on Instagram and surface it." He says that internally they describe it as "treasure hunting." "Instagram is this massive collection of interesting moments that happen every day. And what we want to make sure is that everyone can have their voice and that can be heard."

Those users include two of Kevin's favorite fashion Instagrammers: @paridust, who stunningly matches outfits to works of art, and @isabelitavirtual with her multimedia take on styling. He's also into @thedressedchest, a men's style user who indulges Kevin's burgeoning interest in ties.

Yet as passionate about its users as Instagram is, there is much ongoing debate as to how far personal expression can be pushed, and what can be shown on the platform. When I bring up the recent rules clarification, Kevin looks slightly uncomfortable. "We have always had the same exact stance on nipples and butts and all sorts of stuff, and if you want, the team could probably walk you through that stuff," he says. And, what's his take on the #freethenipple movement, which has sprung up in part to protest Instagram's ban on boobs? "I just think it's great that people are voicing their opinion and that's what we look for our community to do. And we're always looking for feedback. Of course, it's not just people that use that hashtag that want it to be a certain way. There are a lot of other constituents, and our goal at Instagram is to always maintain a really safe place for the teens that use it, and the parents that use it actively as well." Whether or not you agree with the policies, there's something to be said for a CEO that is so engaged with his audience.

Because that's the thing about Kevin: he cares. Like, a lot. Although the Instagram proselytizing can start to feel a bit like an episode of Silicon Valley (how much can a photo sharing app really change the world?) his commitment is inspiring. Citing the app's images of the Nepal earthquake and Hurricane Sandy, he says, "If you're creating value in the world, you almost feel a responsibility to continue creating that value."

As the youngest WalMart board member, he has been bonding with legendary investor Warren Buffett, the ultimate model for American values. Kevin quotes Buffett's famous line - 'As long as you love what you're doing, you'll never work a day in your life.' "I think that's true," he says. "What other chance do I get to sit here with awesome people and talk about a product that clearly changes so many people's lives? We got very lucky in the sense that it's changed people's lives in the way that it has, and I get to participate in that. So, that's a cool, very addicting thing to do as an individual, and since I love that, I don't have to work a day in my life, right?"


Text Rory Satran
Portrait Sam Evans-Butler
All Instagram images, courtesy Kevin Systrom/@kevin

Kim Kardashian
Anna Wintour
Karlie Kloss
Met Ball
Free the Nipple
Kevin Systrom