At their very essence, all of the web’s dominant social media platforms are marketing channels. They might not have started out that way, but to survive in the hyper-capitalist, eat-or-be-eaten environs of Silicon Valley, any lowly tech geek wishing to go the way of Zuckerberg and have truckloads of money dumped on them has to find a way of turning their app or network into a viable advertising space.
Snapchat might have started out as a novelly entertaining gimmick, but it was threatened by extinction until it found a way to monetize itself by transforming into a viable marketing channel for brands to sell shit to its users.
The initial hook of disappearing picture and video messages that let you send a glimpse of your junk to people, while reducing the chances of it coming back to haunt you like a traditional sext could, was exactly that: a hook designed to reel in an audience large enough for brands to regard as an essential advertising space for their products and campaigns. That’s how you manage to get a $29 billion valuation for your digital gimmickry.
Individual social media platforms appeal to different industries in different ways. Infotainment companies like VICE are beginning to use Snapchat to publish short-form video content. Instagram, meanwhile, has always been the most natural fit for the fashion industry because of its overt visual focus.
The platform’s distinct visual language allows clothing brands to show off their wares in adverts that don’t quite look like adverts, which tiptoes around ingrained consumer cynicism, all while saving cash that might usually be spent on billboards.
And it is this symbiotic flirtation between industry and platform has birthed one of the most notable developments on the fashion landscape of the past decade: the Instagram influencer.
In certain segments of the fashion world – particularly the one that you regularly read about here on Highsnobiety – the influencer has become the go-to vessel for brands to pin their latest marketing campaign on.
The reasoning is totally self-explanatory: influencers have large social media followings, commanding plenty of eyes that brands would like to show their products off to.
The influencer’s feed or blog or vlog is a potential avenue for product placement, just as music videos or James Bond movies have been in the past.
People are far more likely to buy a product if it’s suggested to them buy someone that they know, trust, admire or generally have some sort of rapport with.
It’s like celebrity endorsement, but the DIY nature of blogs or Instagram breeds a false sense of intimacy that creates an illusion of direct dialogue. So when Zoella recommends a brand of lip gloss, it feels like it’s a suggestion coming from an acquaintance.
When Nike seeds its latest sneaker to an influencer, seeing it pop up in your feed feels like stumbling upon a friend’s photo rather than staring at a glossy Vogue spread.
Obviously influencers (Instagram, blogger, or otherwise) are useful to the fashion industry because they offer another revenue stream for brands and designers, but could they potentially be bad for the industry’s “brand”? Fashion, more than most industries, relies on aspiration and exclusivity.
Long-established publications have pedigree and history. They have an institutional quality to them that’s been built over the course of decades. Blogs and Instagram are products of the new millennium.
The accessible, grassroots nature of social media makes it less prestigious by default, which risks cheapening the brands that rely on it.
It’s very different to advertising on a billboard, for example, or in the pages of i-D, because both are displays of power, wealth and access: not everyone can afford to pay for a billboard because a billboard is more than a marketing space – it’s a sign that a brand has the power to purchase a slice of public space.
Its scale, the way it towers over you and dominates your field of vision, is an expression of virility that a vlog could never match, regardless of how many views it gets.
Before the rise of the internet and the proliferation of social media, the bar of entry into the fashion world was much higher.
Anna Wintour isn’t simply a woman with impeccable taste and an ability to articulate it in written form, she’s a qualified journalist. Alexander McQueen isn’t just someone with superhuman talent for designing clothes, he was the graduate of the world’s most elite school for fashion design.
He learned a process, a craft and had exceeded a certain professional standard. He was qualified to work in the fashion industry in the same way that a pilot is qualified to fly planes or a surgeon is qualified to slice people open and fix defective organs.
Influencers, on the other hand, are simply the winners of a popularity contest. They haven’t endured the same level of scrutiny from people who know how and what to scrutinize. It’s the difference between getting a match on Tinder and passing your driving test.
The keys to the door are now shared between the “establishment” and consumers, but making fashion more accessible, in my view, corrodes some of its prestige.
I realize that this is an unpopular opinion, especially in these populist times, but I suppose I’m just old fashioned: I like the idea of standards and meritocracy. Although, arguably, fashion has never been anything but a meritocracy.
Perhaps on the design side it is, but a sizable chunk of the rest of the industry comprises of clingers, the beneficiaries of nepotism, and people who’ve slept their way to the top.
Models, the face of the industry, owe their success to the lottery of the gene pool rather than hard work. But I get why people like this new democratization that has come from social media: it feels more egalitarian and it gives them the feeling of being part of the action, as well as boosting their chances of getting into the fashion world themselves.
Let’s not forget that Madame Wintour comes from a very wealthy family and is the daughter of a journalist. That’s a head start that many bloggers and influencers didn’t have.
But I would also argue that the rise of the influencers risks compromising the creative vision of the industry. Before the digital era, there was very little discourse between the industry and outside forces: fashion professionals picked the supermodels, dressed them, curated the image and beamed it out into the world.
The only way that consumers could have a say was through their purchasing decisions. Their choice of influencer puts the tastes and desires of the consumer into a very public forum that the industry can observe. I have no doubt that this info comes into consideration when making creative decisions within the industry.
The more outside metrics that a designer has to consider, the less that their creative vision is their own – inspiration inevitably gets watered down by data.
But then again, fashion has always been a compromise between creativity and commerce. A painting might be a pure expression of its creator’s artistic vision, but clothes are made to be worn.
The end product is created with the consumer in mind. So, in that sense influencers haven’t really changed anything, they’ve only made the voice of the public clearer and louder. Is that a bad thing? Well, that depends on who you ask, I suppose.
Now read why social media has created a generation of self-obsessed narcissists.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.