Fashion’s Latest Muse? InstagramSusan Scafidi in The New York Times, September 13, 2013
A compulsive snapper of all things stylish, kitschy or arcane, Susanna Lau, the blogger known as Susie Bubble, wandered earlier this summer through the Meiji Park flea market in Tokyo taking pictures of vintage Hawaiian shirts, toy robots and tiny Minnie Mouse dolls to upload to her phone.
A handful of years ago, she might have archived those images, marking them for her eyes only. Now she has made them accessible to anyone with a camera phone and an Instagram account. So it didn’t surprise her, Ms. Lau said the other day, that when she returned from her travels, “I saw some of my images on designers’ mood boards.”
Her experience is hardly unique. In recent months designers of every stripe and aesthetic persuasion have turned to Instagram for a glimpse into the lives and tastes of their fans — bloggers like Ms. Lau, stylists, models, artists and random visitors, who in turn are snapping and posting their way into designers’ consciousness, onto their mood boards, into ad campaigns and, directly or obliquely, onto their runways.
“Imagery is such a big part of how we get inspired,” said Jason Wu, a self-professed Instagram addict whose profile lists close to 85,000 followers and who routinely follows more than 150 users himself. “You’re privy to their way of thinking, or at least what they want you to think,” Mr. Wu said. “And that changes the way we design.”
Since its inception two years ago, Instagram, with some 150 million monthly users (it was acquired by Facebook last year for $1 billion), has emerged as a kind of visual Twitter. No surprise, then, that it is being exploited by fashion labels at every level of the marketplace as an image bank, a research tool, a showcase for their wares and now, most compellingly, a route into consumers’ heads. Fashion’s persistence in scouring the app for inspiration and feedback promises to turn the industry’s old hierarchy squarely on its head.
“Traditionally the fashion industry has been all about maintaining creative control,” said Maureen Mullen, who heads research for L2 Think Tank, which reports on and analyzes social media trends. But lately fashion appears to be ceding some of that authority to the people who buy and wear their clothes. “Designers are treating consumers like artists, people who for the first time are creating aspirational content that brands want to use,” Ms. Mullen said.
Diane von Furstenberg routinely scours the site for commentary. When she recently posted pictures of searingly colorful wildflowers, her followers promptly registered approval, some suggesting they would make a fine print on a dress. Would she consider it? “It’s possible,” she said.
Ms. von Furstenberg is not alone in harnessing Instagram’s formidable crowd-sourcing powers.
“Instagram has changed my eye,” said Nanette Lepore. And colored her runway, as well. Ms. Lepore’s spring show on Wednesday was enlivened by a series of poppy prints, their subtly washed-out acid tones credible reproductions of the bleached-out colors and oddly ravaged effects shown in Instagram snaps by her fans. Late last spring she tried to capture the irreverent spirit of the style-struck, snap-happy young denizens of Venice Beach in California in her resort collection.
“We were inspired by how these girls just go out in the street and take pictures of themselves,” she said. She integrated elements of their personal style into her show in June and in her advertising campaign as well.
It was but another instance of fashion labels “enabling everyone to feel like an author,” said Ferdinando Verderi, the creative director of Johannes Leonardo, an advertising agency for a variety of brands. Instagram, he said, “nourishes the significance of individual voices and the power of the one persona behind them.”
Earlier this year, Mr. Wu came across a series of Instagram shots of the model and eco-activist Christy Turlington with her children on the beach and nibbling a Philly cheesesteak. He had never met Ms. Turlington, but was sufficiently charmed to contact her on her site to ask her to appear in his fall advertising campaign — and even more charmed when she agreed. The photos of Mr. Wu and Ms. Turlington about to enjoy a spread of savories at Mr. Chow made their debut this month.
By fostering such relationships, and encouraging the spontaneous exchange of ideas, Instagram has gained a measurable edge over YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr and even Facebook. A recent L2 study showed the app generating 25 times the level of engagement of other social media platforms, Ms. Mullen said.
Michael Kors, whose account shows more than a million followers, has been forcefully struck by its reach. “I love that we can post a picture and within a few hours, 10 or 20 or even 40,000 people liked it or commented on it or reshared it,” he said. “It makes connection possible on an incredible scale.”
The designer Wes Gordon has a company Facebook page. “But Instagram feels more personal to me,” Mr. Gordon said. “It’s a nice glimpse into someone’s world that’s real and not too affected.” On occasion, he said, “a girl I’m friends with posts pictures of herself at a party or on vacation, and I’ll think, ‘Oh, she looks super cool right now.’ Those screenshots become part of my visual library.”
Such seemingly spontaneous images give Mr. Gordon and his peers insights into customers’ lives. “Often I ask myself, ‘Where is this girl going in my dress?’ ” said Jonathan Simkhai, another aficionado. The app, he said, answers that question. “It fills a lot of holes. It’s my customer talking about her needs.”
Mr. Simkhai has acted as his own muse, interpreting snaps of the Santa Monica Pier, which he visited last year, in a print for spring.
The app’s influence is not always so direct or easy to detect on the catwalk. But on their sites, and on the Web, designers post snapshots by their followers and cater to them candidly. Last month Marc Jacobs featured an image of three dainty chain necklaces on his Instagram account. “Gold, rose gold or silver?” he asked, inviting fans to cast a vote.
In the broadest sense, Instagram functions as a crowd-friendly extension of the traditional trunk show, in which clients could order variations on a design. “At trunk shows we think of ourselves as co-creators with the designer we love best,” said Susan Scafidi, a professor and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School in New York. “Instagram takes the process to the next level and allows for mass collaboration.”
“As a crowd-sourcing model,” she added, “it’s a new way to take some of the guesswork out of predicting consumer desires.”
Rebecca Minkoff, an early adopter of the app, with more than 250,000 followers, is more prompt than most to incorporate users’ suggestions into her clothing and accessories lines. “If a customer tells me, ‘I like a bag with gunmetal hardware, can you include it?’ I might,” Ms. Minkoff said. “If I can get 25 girls to request it, I will do the production.”
Honoring fans’ wishes is part of a broader agenda, she said. “I want these girls to feel like they’re part of the creative process,” Ms. Minkoff said. “It definitely makes them feel more invested in the brand.”
Not every random visitor is fit to place her stamp on fashion. “Fashion is supposed to lead consumers to unexpected places,” Mr. Verderi said, “not ask them where to go.”
Using the app to take the shopper’s pulse has its perils. Few visitors to a designer’s site can make a claim to expertise. Nor does a “like” on the app signify commitment.
“On Instagram people ‘like’ the things they find most extreme or eye-catching,” Ms. Scafidi said. “Those often are different from things one might actually buy.”
Such reservations have yet to sway Ms. Lepore, who has been transfixed of late by images of Andre Judd, whose posts she studies avidly. “He’s always wearing the same paisley shirt,” she said. “He has the most amazing style. I may want to do a line one day inspired by some cool shirt this guy is wearing.”