Late last week, Jennifer Lopez and Donatella Versace attempted to break the internet for the second time. The first time it happened in 2000, when Jennifer Lopez was the pop megastar of the moment and the masses followed every curve of her career. In February of that year, she wore a revealing jungle print Versace gown to the Grammy Awards. It caused a stir — and those who missed out on it on television swarmed the internet.
The frequency of the search for pictures of the dress was so massive that it prompted Google to create its Image Search, at least according to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. In a 2015 blog post, he writes: “At the time, it was the most popular search query we had ever seen. But we had no surefire way of getting users exactly what they wanted: JLo wearing that dress. Google Image Search was born.”
But according to a recent article in GQ, Cathy Edwards, the director of engineering and product for Google Images, clarifies that an image search was always something the search engine had on the backburner. Though she does credit JLo’s show-stopping red carpet moment with helping make it a priority.
Last week, during the Versace show finale Lopez came out again, almost 20 years later, in a similar dress. The attendees were smitten, blurry phone pictures were taken, the word traveled via Instagram, it trended, mass media followed, and the coup was completed.
This time, the effort to break the internet came courtesy of Google, who, according to a Business of Fashion article, earned $9.4 million in Earned Media Value (a measure of exposure through sponsorship). Donatella Versace insisted that there was “no money involved,” between the company and Google, which I find exceedingly hard to believe. Why? Because in a company blog post, Vincenzo Riili, Google’s head of Google’s marketing for Italy, effused about all the Google things that were featured in the show, heavily relying on “we.”
Invitations to the show featured a Google search box. Google Tilt Brush, a painting tool, was used to decorate the runway, and Versace summoned Lopez onto the runway by pretending to use Google Assistant, a voice command tool that Google equips its smartphones and speakers with. And the icing on the cake? Lopez is in the midst of a press tour promoting her new film Hustlers, all the more reason for her to wholeheartedly agree to take part in creating a new unforgettable fashion moment. It was the perfect storm of branded content — and no one seemed to bat an eye.
Contemporary runway fashion traffics heavily in nostalgia — it has been doing it since it acquired a history of its own. So does Versace. Unlike say Gucci or Balenciaga, which have successfully bet on infusing their brands with fresh blood, Versace cashes in on known quantities. Take for example, its recent collaboration with streetwear boutique Concepts, wrapping its Chain Reaction sneaker in the same verdant print as the Lopez dress.
The commercial nostalgia trip seems to be paying off for its new owners, the US-based Capri Holdings, which used to be Michael Kors, and now has grown to acquire the British shoemaker Jimmy Choo, and, last year, Versace. So far, commercially Versace has been a bright spot for Capri — though not always — in August it caused a backlash in China after it tried selling a T-shirt that listed Hong Kong as a separate country, causing Capri’s stock to fall.
Whether Versace got paid or not (Versace has not yet responded to our request for comment), and whether we witnessed a true fashion moment or not, is up for debate. The reactions to the Lopez show on Versace’s Instagram were overwhelmingly positive, but perhaps only in the way that great advertising can have a legacy of its own.
This felt a little less like a “fashion moment” in the vein of awe-inspiring design and more like the spectacle of a Super Bowl commercial done in the context of a runway. It was marketing inception at its finest—where people overlook the underlying commerce aspect in favor of nostalgia and pop-entertainment. Ostensibly a testament to Donatella Versace’s groundbreaking dresses, it became more a reminder of how Google ushered in a new era of celebrity style consciousness, built on the popularity of Jennifer Lopez’s chief assets. While the reality and meaning of this moment are slippery, one thing is clear: what we witnessed was a lot more about making the internet than breaking it.