how instagram transformed the fashion industry
No other social media platform has come to define fashion with such visceral omnipotence as Instagram.
Viktor and Rolf Haute Couture spring/summer 19. Photography Mitchell Sams.
This article appears in i-D's The Homegrown Issue, no. 355, Spring 2019.
Almost ten years after tech entrepreneur Kevin Systrom launched the photo-sharing app, it’s hard not to reflect on the last decade, the turbulent 2010s, as the Age of Instagram. No other platform has defined visual culture, and especially fashion, with such visceral omnipotence. It has become a vehicle for photography, fashion design, retail and media, a 24/7 stream of content both intimately personal and subliminally commercial. Beyond the endless artfully composed still lifes, inspirational quotes, and selfies, Instagram has become a monolithic superpower, a digital mill of content. Eighteen months after its arrival, Facebook bought it for a whopping $1 billion. It was recently valued at 100 times that figure by Bloomberg Intelligence, as well as being the basis of a $1.6 billion influencer economy, according to marketing agency Mediakix.
Two recent Netflix documentaries illustrated the ever-increasing power of Instagram. Fyre: The Greatest Festival That Never Happened was a parable about the influence of illusion, and just how much a like -able lifestyle can be a marketing tool to sell something that doesn’t even exist. Then there was American Meme, which showed just how swiftly social media can transform someone into a Warholian superstar. “It’s like being introduced to a new drug,” observes one narrator. “Yes, it’s awesome, but it’s only been around for a year. We don’t know what the side effects are going to be 20 years from now.”
For the most part, there are many reasons to be #blessed and #grateful for Instagram. Firstly, it’s fun. Who doesn’t enjoy the mindless scrolling and discovery of humour, imagery and access? More than that, though, it has been an invaluable tool for calling out abuses of power. When Cameron Russell, a former model, sent out a call for stories of abuse from fellow models following #MeToo and the Time’s Up movement, what unravelled on social media was an overwhelming outpouring of unheard stories. Russell collated the stories, anonymised the names and published them along with the hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse. As a result, Instagram played a role in initiating real change, with conglomerates such as LVMH and Kering signing a charter to safeguard models from abuse and create better standards for shoots and shows.
In many of the same ways, Instagram has given a platform to people who would otherwise have been ignored by mainstream media, especially those from minority backgrounds or those who don’t fit the Hollywood mould of modelesque beauty. “When I see designers using curvier or differently-abled models, or working with ‘unconventional’ beauties, I think the amazing thing about Instagram is that the community of 800 million strong says: ‘Why should there be a definition of conventional?’” says Eva Chen, a former magazine editor who is now head of fashion at Instagram. Part of Chen’s job is to build relationships with brands, magazines and influencers to optimise their presence on Instagram. “Unconventional in one market can and should be conventional in another. I think that global sense of beauty is very much attributed to Instagram,” she adds.
It’s true that the app has shifted the way that fashion is reported, shared and consumed. But there is no agreement about what has been lost and what gained for creativity and craft in Insta-world. In 2019, clothes must resonate through the two-dimensional photogenic prism of a smartphone screen. That can often translate to designers making bold, loud gestures that grab attention and stop you in your scrolling tracks. Sportswear with hyper-branded, instantly identifiable logos? Tick. Huge feathered gowns and outlandishly hyperbolic hair? Tick. Sparkly, glow-in-the-dark glittery stuff? Tick. Celebrity-endorsed fast fashion? Double tick.
If there was ever an example of a fashion house that has so perfectly nailed the Instagram zeitgeist, it is Gucci. The multifarious universe of Alessandro Michele and its magpie mix-and-mismatch of eclectic references resonates online and on-screen. Those famous backless fur-lined loafers may once have been the kind of sartorial oddity that would appear on a catwalk, produced in miniscule numbers and remained obscure. Yet in 2015, despite the comic impracticality of the slippers, they exploded on Instagram and became an overnight sensation. People bought them and actually wore them, flip-flopping down the street and blow-drying them after the first touch of rain.
On a more profound level, fashion has slowly evolved from simply staging snap-friendly backdrops and model tableaus at shows to actually proposing collections that explore the nuances of the digital age. Who could forget Rei Kawakubo’s paper-doll flatpack silhouettes in 2012? They were simultaneously oracular and satirical, a comment on the flatness of the digital world. Her explanation of the collection: “The future is two dimensions.”
In January this year, John Galliano considered the post-truth URL-not-IRL era we’re living in with a Maison Margiela Artisanal show set against a chaotically printed backdrop atop a mirrored floor. In catwalk pictures, you couldn’t tell where the clothes started and the backdrop ended. In reality, the silhouettes were extreme and unreal, like hyper-edited digital images. In his words: “Overconsumption! Oversaturation! Overstimulation! Overindulgence!” It became about chaos and control and the decadent alternative realities that young people create for themselves. “We decided what is happening is [that] we’re so overwhelmed with so much imagery that you almost want to regurgitate,” Galliano explained on his seasonally-released podcast. “When a fabricated piece of information becomes interchangeable with real life, in theory it becomes a new reality,” he continued. “For young kids, it’s irrelevant if it is or isn’t true. The authenticity origins are redundant. It’s the results that count.”
So it seems prescient that The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute has devoted its upcoming exhibition this spring to the concept of camp and sartorial irony. Camp: Notes on Fashion, a riff on Susan Sontag’s seminal essay, will explore how fashion has reached peak Insta-camp. It’s all about the big, bold gesture being communicated through a megaphone, regardless of how ‘realistic’ it is. Nuanced, discreet clothes that are well-tailored and subtly considered don’t really grab your attention, after all, especially when they’re sandwiched between adorable kittens and Kardashian selfies.
For every potential drawback to Instagram, there are multiple positive gains for young people. Not so long ago, fledgling designers would have to be selected to show their graduate collections in their college’s press show and hope to be discovered by someone like Lulu Kennedy of Fashion East, or a potential employer. Today, before they’ve even graduated, they can have a fan base ready to spend money on their designs via direct message.
Harris Reed, a 22-year-old Central Saint Martins student currently on his placement year, has already designed costumes for Harry Styles and Gucci (he’s also modelled for the Italian brand), been featured in i-D and Vogue et al, and this spring will launch a capsule collection with MatchesFashion.com. He’s the first to admit that it all happened for him through Instagram, where his self-described “non-binary Glam Rock meets Victoriana” aesthetic has earned him a substantial following (almost 76,000 at the time of publication), including some of the most influential people in fashion.
“The buyer from Matches reached out to me through Instagram and we sat down and they said that they were blown away by the world I’ve created,” Harris says over the phone from Rome, where he’s apprenticing at Gucci. “I didn’t need to go to the meeting with a book or portfolio and yet they understood exactly what I stood for. It’s not just a physical collection, the message, politics and activism is just as important.” It’s unsurprising that Reed is seriously considering not returning to CSM for his final year. “You can see a blouse being made at 4am at my kitchen table and then being worn on stage by Harry Styles,” he adds. “I have so many people contact me about purchasing my designs, but I want to stagger it.”
It raises the question of whether higher education, which most students acquire masses of debt to pay for, is relevant for a future generation of fashion stars. “Education is even more necessary now than it was before,” asserts Olya Kuryshchuk, the founder of 1 Granary, a platform dedicated to fashion education and emerging talent. “Making beautiful and considered clothes is a craft that you need to learn. So many designers will have their 15 minutes of fame and Instagram is a great democratising platform for that, but it will be very easy for them to drown in the noise.” According to her, the values for a younger generation of designers have completely shifted from design to image-making. “No one cares if the garment fell apart after you’ve taken the picture, the likes and response of your audience is what you are chasing,” she continues. “Unfortunately, only a few will have a long lasting career.”
Perhaps the platform, which by nature is about image not objects, better lends itself to sustaining the careers of young photographers. For a generation for whom Instagram is innate, not only is it a vital portfolio for their work, it is a lens through which it is viewed and contextualised. “If you’re not on board with that it’s easy to miss out,” explains 26-year-old photographer Thurstan Redding. “It allows you to keep in touch with your audience, which you would only have had via a magazine before, and sometimes you lose control on the way your photos are published by them, or there are images that will never have been seen.”
Not so long ago, fledgling designers would have to be selected to show their graduate collections in their college’s press show and hope to be discovered by someone like Lulu Kennedy of Fashion East, or a potential employer. Today, before they’ve even graduated, they can have a fan base ready to spend money on their designs at the cashiers till of direct messages.
“It’s always subconsciously in your mind that what you photograph will end up on Instagram,” he continues. Thurstan says that the positives are that Instagram can be an efficient tool for research and platform for sharing behind-the-scenes content. “It was a hidden secret before, but now Instagram has unearthed that part of photography and democratised the physical process.”
The downside, he points out, is that it can be constricting for artistic development in the all-important nascent stage of your career. “It forces you to see your work as a continual thread all on one page,” he adds. “You have to fuse different shoots together, even when each shoot should be quite different to one another. A thumbnail is also a reductive way of seeing a picture.”
Even fashion magazines have been completely upended by Instagram and its Young Turks. If you’re reading this on paper, perhaps you’re in the minority. Today, magazine covers flood Instagram for a day or two, and editorial stories are fragmented and posted on Instagram, leaving readers with the impression that they’ve seen the whole issue before even seeing a physical copy. Any kind of nuance that might be felt in the sequence of pages instantly evaporates.
The common thread for so many editors, designers, photographers and creatives is that there is an emphasis on creating a visual identity that is cohesive and branded. Yet it’s not just those who create content for a living, so many of us are weighted by the pressure to self-publish an onslaught of daily content that blurs the line between public and private; reality and representation; exhibitionism and voyeurism. For those who make things, whether it’s clothes or videos or photographs, it can be an opportunity to explore the medium as the message, in the words of Marshall McLuhan.
Remember, we’re living in the Age of Instagram, whether you like it or not...