Why you should care

Selfies are democratizing the fashion industry.

You could mistake the offices of Minty Jungle, a fashion label that marries sunny boho chic with streetwise grit, for a millennial’s studio apartment. Tucked away on the fourth floor of a gray-and-white building in Los Angeles’ sprawling, seedy Fashion District, it’s whitewashed and sparsely furnished; Ellie Goulding’s ethereal soprano floats above clothing racks overflowing with animal and floral prints. In the center of it all is founder Richard Yu, who rocks an urban lumberjack ensemble and speaks with a slight surfer drawl.

It’s a classic shoestring operation, except for the fact that the company ships hundreds of orders a month from its modest quarters, much of it thanks to Instagram. Minty Jungle’s almost 12,000 followers on the selfie-sharing service have been a secret weapon for the 2-year-old company, letting it bob and weave around stodgy middlemen like department stores while selling “We’re Fucked” tie-dye skater dresses and front-tied jumpsuits to teen girls as far away as Spain and Denmark.

Minty Jungle is far from alone. Fashion as a whole is looking a lot faster and more Instagram-filtered these days, as boutique brands ditch traditional advertising in favor of selfie shoots and hot-or-not surveys. Teen-fashion retailer Brandy Melville has been one of the biggest success stories, according to industry experts, pulling in annual sales of around $125 million by marketing solely on social media, primarily Instagram, where it has 2.6 million followers.

Emerging brands can generate buzz on a dime just by seeming relatable.

Much the way an earlier generation of merchants used eBay and Craigslist to bypass traditional stores, Instagram and other photo-centric social apps like Pinterest and Snapchat are helping new online retailers hack away at the fashion-industry hierarchy, putting merchants and their consumers directly in touch with each other in unexpected ways. Instagram lets fledgling brands with zero advertising budget quickly establish their image with gauzy, highly stylized photos. After launching VidaKush, an achingly hip maker of jewelry and hair accessories, founder and designer Rhianna Cooper looked into buying magazine ads — only to find that a fraction of a page in Nylon cost $2,000. Instead, she shoots all VidaKush’s Instagram photos herself with her phone, often asking friends to model pieces.

In return, customers often indulge in their own “selfie chic,” sharing photos of themselves decked out fashionably on beachside bike rides or at Sunday brunch — tagged, of course, with the appropriate clothing or accessory brands. By re-sharing customer pictures that reinforce their marketing, companies effectively create a naturalistic “catalog” so seemingly grass-roots in its appeal that it’s easy to overlook the sales pitch amid the aspirational imagery.

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Today, fashion trends spread a lot faster and are more Instagram-filtered.

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

All that creates a tight and immediate feedback loop for companies, an Internet innovation that Sears and Roebuck would have killed for back in the day. Occasionally, Cooper posts new items with the caption “Yes or no?” yielding a vast amount of market data that would have previously cost thousands of dollars to acquire. Brands also identify influential Instagrammers with large followings, and ply them with free merchandise for them to model and share out … on Instagram. Analytics reveal which photo posts go viral, letting merchants tweak their inventory, pricing and designs. For New Jersey-based Gypsy Warrior, reliable hits often feature close-ups of ring-gilded hands holding a cup of coffee.

When this all works, emerging brands can generate buzz on a dime just by seeming relatable. People love to see their own photos featured on a company’s Instagram page, says Samantha Coughlan, Gypsy Warrior’s social media manager. They think, “‘This can look good on her, then it can look good on me.’” But relatability may have its limits. “Walmart is ‘grounded,’” says Daniel Durbin, a USC communications professor. Why pay an online brand $60 if Walmart sells the same piece for $6? And as more brands join Instagram, they need to fight harder than ever to stand above the crowd.

It can also be risky to rely too heavily on “free” social media, since those networks can change the rules without warning. A few years ago, Facebook began truncating the “reach” of commercial posts by limiting their display to just a fraction of their self-identified fans. Firms could, of course, expand their reach — by ponying up for Facebook ads. Facebook owns Instagram, which began its own paid-advertising efforts almost two years ago, although the company says Instagram doesn’t limit the photos users see.

Drama can also rear its ugly head, haunting brands. Doe Deere, founder of cosmetic brand Lime Crime, learned the hard way when a customer drew up a meticulous timeline of her rude comments and other alleged misconduct. (A Lime Crime publicist sniffs that the critique “doesn’t matter” and “might as well not exist.”) And Instagram’s commercial viability could be as ephemeral as most social posts. Unlike Pinterest, Instagram doesn’t offer shoppers instant gratification; they have to head to other apps or the Web to actually buy anything. Last month, though, Instagram announced plans to include a “Shop Now” button in its ads. It’s a start.

Instagram has also cultivated community among emerging brands — tech-savvy DIY designers figuring it out together. The platform has similarly allowed Minty Jungle to brainstorm and collaborate more with consumers and bloggers alike, founder Yu says. “I want to see that grow … and just do cool shit.”

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