Can the fashion industry successfully break TikTok?
How can luxury brands stand out in a teen-dominated social media space that commands copying?
Chase Hudson and Blake Gray at Dolce & Gabbana via Getty Images
In February of this year, a 15-year-old girl from Norwalk, Connecticut landed in Milan and, 24 hours later, sat front row at the Prada AW20 show, in the company of Pierpaolo Piccioi, Emily Ratajkowski, and Lisa from BLACKPINK. She wore a preppy cropped grey sweater, black high-waisted flared trousers and carried a pink leather bag in her hand. To the masses of photographers, she was pretty much anonymous. But there were swathes of teenage girls waiting outside to witness one of their biggest idols in the flesh.
Charli D’Amelio is a name few people over the age of 18 have heard, but she is arguably the most important person on the internet right now. Having joined the video-based social network TikTok back in June 2019, Charli, now 16, has since become the most followed person on the platform, with 73.4 million fans streaming her dance-based content over 5.2 billion times. Her success is built off of her normality in an internet landscape that thrives off of oddball behaviour. She is the epitome of the unproblematic modern female idol.
Which is perhaps why she became one of the first notable figures to be both ‘TikTok famous’ and ushered into the fashion world; two industries that, right now, seem to stand in stark contrast to each other. TikTok, an endless stream of videos -- most of which consist of dance, comedy, incisive political commentary from teenagers, with e-boys and fuck boys peppered amongst them -- is built on the notion of spontaneity and replicating pre-existing content by and for a Gen Z audience. Originality is not its overriding forte. So how does a fashion brand, one that has to stand out by producing elevated concepts for social channels, slip into the realm of a funny app for teenagers?
It’s a creative pivot that’s already in motion. While Charli has already sat front row at Prada, posting videos of her performing a solo dance to “Walked In” by Ultradiox (a song that features the fashion ode: “I got Fendi and Prada in my house”), as well as one with the models from the show, her peers have been spotted at other European fashion weeks. The ultimate TikTok e-boy, who’s also the founder of content creation collective The Hype House, Chase Hudson (@lilhuddy), attended the Dolce and Gabbana show in Milan last season too.
Noen Eubanks is another; the 19-year-old American kid, who has 10.9 million followers on the platform, fronted Celine’s last menswear campaign. Brands are dipping their toe into the world of TikTok much in the same way they placed bloggers front and centre of their seating plans 15 years ago. But there’s an interesting detachment: kids who wear expensive clothes to a Milanese fashion show and in international ad campaigns, but who speak to an audience who have little interest in luxury fashion -- yet. While those teenagers might be shopping at Brandy Melville and on Depop for now, they also harbour a huge $140 billion spending power, one that will shape the entire fashion industry in just a few years time.
Here lies the paradox of fashion’s increasing interest in TikTok as a promotional platform. We know, from experience, that young people tend to flock to new social media networks first, claiming it as their own space and using it to experiment with their content, before corporations and boomers follow. That is the sweet spot that TikTok is still holding on to: a kind of post-Vine successor to the sorely missed comedy app, with elements of boorish teen male narcissism and young innovators mixed in, making use of the app to promote their businesses or socio-political movements. It’s a medley of indeterminable things, hard to describe.
Instagram, on the other hand, has spent a decade allowing itself to splinter: meme accounts for those who want them; close encounters with celebrity lifestyles that come directly from them, rather than through the filter of the blogosphere; and fashion influencers -- all of these subgenres of digital content are there for those who want them.
Aesthetic still leads in that space though. Looking good, or posting images that adhere to the strict framework of ‘Instagram friendly’ are the natural routes to success. Of course, each brand has established what that aesthetic is for themselves, closely aligned with their campaign imagery for the most part. But for a moving platform like TikTok that relies on shareable content that, in many ways, feels “brought down” to the level of the user rather than offering the kind of elevation luxury fashion is known for, that tone of voice is far more difficult to pin down.
So who’s trying it? Well, early adopters to the trend were Riccardo Tisci’s team at Burberry, who launched the #TBChallenge back in spring 2019, a hashtag that’s since racked up over 100 million views that asks users to recreate Tisci’s TB monogram with their hands alone. Celine, of course, were quick to recognise its power, honing in on one of its stars, Noen Eubanks, and bringing him under the Celine umbrella. There was a hesitancy though, in deciding how best to approach it while retaining brand desirability. Then, Senior Insight Strategist at trend forecasters WGSN Sarah Owen says, the pandemic struck, and the need for new marketing approaches that reached consumers from their homes rather than via now unseen billboards struck. “The events witnessed in 2020 certainly changed the landscape,” Sarah says. “Not only did the pandemic and mandatory stay-at-home orders in many countries result in an uptick in TikTok's user base, but brands realised that they had to follow the consumer. Social distancing forced many luxury brands to pivot to 'shot-from-home' campaigns as well as lo-fi content creation, replacing high-production operations for smartphone photoshoots.”
It is, she says, “the more progressive design houses” that are choosing to dive into TikTok as a viable promotional platform to reach new audiences; the likes of Riccardo’s Burberry, Demna’s Balenciaga, and Alessandro’s Gucci (whose account has accumulated 1.3 million likes since February) leading the pack. “[They] understand that engaging with TikTok does not dilute or diminish their image. If anything it resonates loudly when a brand organically infiltrates the platform with content that feels youthful and entertaining. In this case, the best branded content on TikTok is generally that which is created by Gen Z themselves, as Fenty Beauty did when it handed the reins to a rotating cast of hand-picked influencers to produce content.”
What Sarah points out, this notion of enlisting already successful TikTok influencers to lead your brand’s narrative on to the app, seems to be the most successful, numbers-wise. Just last week, Marc Jacobs revealed their new digital accessories campaign fronted by Laetita Ky, an artist who uses her hair to create elaborate sculptures that have gone viral on the platform several times, be it symbols of Black power or safari animals. There’s also the added benefit of responding to trends that have spawned without your input. When a bunch of Harry Styles fans started learning crochet to recreate a patchwork JW Anderson cardigan he had once worn, capturing their journey on TikTok, Jonathan himself posted the patterns to the original online.
So who might be the next star of TikTok to secure a lucrative deal with a major fashion house? The truth is, they might be anywhere. It could be one of the app’s famed skirt-wearing soft boys, like Jey Jey Gardi, Griffin Mark or Seth Williams. Or TikTok fashion stars like Milan Mathew or Wisdom Kay, who have already used their accounts to show TikTok can be a viable, far more creative alternative to the Instagram fashion accounts that have shaped the industry for the past decade.
For luxury brands with hundreds of years of storied history, or a pre-existing consumer base that continue to spend money on what they make, the launch of a new platform predominantly geared towards teenagers poses the question: is it worth investing in a platform that might show little financial return, but create buzz with a generation of future spenders? As the brands that have so far participated in TikTok’s continued takeover of social media (it now has over 800 million active users) will attest to, it’s a slow-burn that requires a dedicated team with an intrinsic knowledge of how virality manifests on it. The best bet, for now, is to scour the ‘For You’ page and find someone who feels like the next new face. If those luxury brands “want a piece of the pie,” Sarah says, “they need to adapt”.