The old gatekeepers of power are gone, but who will we elect to be our new leaders?
Did you unfollow a lot of homogeneous social media faces? Their flashy posts felt discordant with the rolling news coverage about the pandemic’s deaths? Did you unfollow those apps? The hyper-polished individualism that they promote suddenly seemed too discordant in comparison to the human connection we all desired in lockdown. Did you find it disappointing, but not surprising that brands failed to address inequalities in their supply chains or their hollow responses to protests for racial equality?
The pandemic has affected all aspects of human life. It has changed perspectives and priorities, caused the collapse of structures and institutions built on sand and exposed exploitation and worsened existing problems. Celebrities and influential people were not spared. The rich and famous, the same people who told us that a pandemic was disproportionately affecting BIPOC and low-paid frontline workers and that the vulnerable was “the great equalizer” tried to convey inspiring messages to a grieving global audience. The sour taste in the mouths was left by vapid sentiments, empty John Lennon lyrics and tone-deaf black&white filters. Insensitive posts documented luxurious lockdowns at large, remote second homes. Now that so many brands have exposed their ignorance (and sometimes complicity), it is clear that influencer culture has become irrelevant and out-of-step with current realities. Who or what will be the next to influence us?
Despite many people wanting to find a more peaceful way of life and reject the structures that had ruled our lives before we were all shocked into stillness, the fact is that humans are social creatures. We are wired to look for community and leaders to help us. Influence has always existed. This includes the socialites from the upper classes and Hollywood stars and pop icons of the former, as well as the celebrities born out ’00s tabloid culture and the recent social-media-born social-media influencer. It’s certain that a new structure will soon emerge. Despite our desire for a return to basics, we are all still digitally engaged. Instagram’s reported views on IG Live have more than doubled in March compared to April in the UK. Meanwhile, in March, TikTok had 12 million unique users in the U.S. It is unrealistic to expect that, after the pandemic, we will not choose leaders or live in a utopia without brands.
We have had to slow down and rethink what we value since the pandemic. What does the new world look like now that the scales are falling from our eyes and there have been irreversible shifts? What are our choices now? Whom should we follow and whom should we buy from, once the old guard is gone and brands and individuals who were unable to adapt to the changing times are left behind?
“The meaning behind influence, and who’s driving it, is changing,” Camilla Clarkson, senior comms manager at global fashion search engine Lyst, says.”The old gatekeepers of authority – traditional media, big retailers, and celebrities – no longer hold the same power they had before the world stood still. We have shifted our focus to the collective good rather than individual opinions. Many of us have now shifted our attention, time and financial support to those who are bringing about real change for the greater good and helping us grow as individuals.”
Fashion traded in exclusivity, FOMO, and fear. Fear of missing summer’s “it”, fear of not being on the list. Fear of not knowing the name of a designer. Fear of being outdated. But post-pandemic, community is fashion’s currency. We want to feel connected beyond just finding comfort in Animal Crossing’s pastel-hued utopia, or accepting cottagecore (its hashtag now has more than half a million views on Instagram and TikTok with 3.4 billion views.) Brands are now being asked to help us foster our tight-knit communities. Take Barcelona-based Paloma Wool, which hosted a lo-fi virtual show early on in lockdown, featuring a collective of interesting and relatable musicians, artists, and dancers from across the world who self-styled the brand’s new collection, turning their back gardens and living rooms into their very own catwalks. The brand is not a label, but rather a “project of clothing, photography and other experiments”. The show was nothing like us dancing in our bedrooms before going out. It’s far from the glamour and exclusivity of fashion month. We are welcome in this world.
Cross-field collaboration is key to the success of the new generation brands. It involves not only tapping into fashion, but also music and art. Clarkson says that social networking platforms have long turned authority upside down. The traditional hierarchy of influence is discredited when everyone has a voice. GANNI, Denmark’s most popular export, is a clear example of this. It’s most recent turn at Copenhagen Fashion Week saw the brand shun the traditional catwalk show, and instead host a gesamtkunstwerk – a synthesis of artists using different mediums – featuring journalists, choreographers, and visual artists, rather than models.
Although they don’t have retail space in every neighborhood, brands in this new generation still feel like local. Robin Givhan, fashion critic for High Snobiety, points out that the pervasive presence and flagship stores of traditional fashion houses has made exclusivity a homogeneous oversaturation. Instead, their proximity to us comes from a strong and particular social media presence that won in an isolated lockdown. Georgia Kelly, strategic partnership manager at Instagram U.K. tells me that small business owners are the economic backbone and the heart of communities. We’re all inspired by the way they have adapted so quickly to become digital first. A great example is Nubian Skin, a lingerie company founded by Ade Hassan to promote diversity in skin-tones underwear. The brand launched an IGTV series, “Nubian Beings,” featuring Ade interviewing prominent BAME figures about their careers and giving advice to other small businesses. We are far more inclined to invest in brands that have an engaging, empathetic, approachable, and helpful face. The labels that have emerged triumphant in the pandemic are not only those we feel welcomed in by but also ones that are an important part of our community – just look at the success of Instagram’s #SupportSmallBusiness sticker.
Consumers must ensure that the recommendations are authentic. “I think integrity has become really important to people,” says Natalie Kingham, fashion and buying director at luxury retailer Matches Fashion. “It’s not about what influencers wear, but also the brands they support. It is more important than ever to believe in the brand or product they promote, so influencers’ choices have been scrutinized more closely.”
As shoppers become more conscious of responsible sourcing, sustainability, and supporting entrepreneurs and business owners from diverse backgrounds, people are questioning whether influencers are honest.
Fashion brands that are innovative have socially-led values their customers can be proud to support. Fashion lovers who want to feel confident about their clothes in the face of climate change will be looking for slow, sustainable and ethical fashion. In fact, 76% of those surveyed said that it was a top priority when shopping for clothes. French made-to-order label Maison Cleo encompasses many of the pillars vital for a successful contemporary brand: It’s run by a mother and daughter duo who have a convivial voice on Instagram, decry fast fashion at every turn, and celebrate the people who invest in and wear their eco-conscious pieces by sharing their posts on the brand’s feed, creating a familial relationship with their customer. The London-based designer Marine Serre is perhaps most well-known for her crescent moon print. However, searches for the brand increased 51% last week. Black Is King was released. Serre creates her collections using recycled, upcycled and deadstock materials. She has also fostered a sense of community that people are eager to join. After a pandemic, influential brands’ social values were just as important as their aesthetic appeal.
Telfar Clemens, the inventor of the Bushwick Birkin, is the best example of this. Clemens is not content to wait for approval from the old guard. He stands with a number of Black fashion leaders, including Christopher John Rogers and Pyer Moss’s Kerby Jean-Raymond, Grace Wales Bonner and Stella Jean, redefining the blueprint of success. Clemens was a community leader and supported Black Lives Matter long before fashion houses began posting meaningless black squares to Instagram after the protests that erupted following the deaths of Ahmaud Abery, Breonna T Taylor, and George Floyd. Clemens teamed up with the global organization in 2019 to create a Tshirt. The designer presented it at his AW19 show. A Telfar bag, a sleek design that comes in three sizes and falls in the middle-range price range, is more than just owning the “it” bag of the season. It’s an antistatus symbol and a social symbol. You’re proudly showing your progressive and inclusive political and social values, rather than your wealth. The brand’s tagline “Not for you, but for everyone” has inspired a security program to protect sales and prevent resellers from increasing the price. The aesthetics of a bag are no longer enough to make us want to buy one. When every outdated fashion rule is out of date, our wardrobe should be matched with our ideals.
From unfair production lines that leave garment workers destitute, to the environmentally-irresponsible speed at which both the fast-fashion and fashion month carousels turn, to small designers being copied without credit by influential labels, and a lack of inclusivity across the board, fashion’s deepest cracks were exposed under the pandemic and BLM uprising. The dust has settled and the most influential brands voices are those who want to make the industry a better place. Labels like PRISM, Girlfriend Collective, and Universal Standard who not only have sustainability at the heart of their ethos but size inclusivity, too, are the go-to models for brands threading together an amalgam of customer needs: being eco-minded, representative of all bodies, aesthetically-pleasing, and community-driven.
It’s possible that someday every item in our wardrobe will align with our political and social values. But for now, that’s not the only reason we shop. The ONS reported that online shopping reached a record of 33.4% in May while retail sales increased by 13.9% in June. We are still strongly influenced by heritage and household brands that promote a simpler way of living. Take Birkenstock. Birkenstock has enjoyed a steady rise in popularity since the introduction of the ugly shoe aesthetic. Everybody (quite literally) owns a pair. Come lockdown, when functionality, convenience, and comfort suddenly became so vital, the brand’s shoes took on a whole new importance. Searches for the Arizona sandals spiked 225% over the first quarter of the year, according to Lyst’s Index Report. Nike saw a 75% increase of digital sales. Sure, it may have been because everyone was watching The Last Dance in lockdown, searching for the Air Jordans x Dior collaboration. But I think it was because sports shorts quickly became the symbol of working-from home ease and we all started running to escape the four walls that we were trapped within. Athleisure is already a part of many aspects of our lives and it’s going nowhere in the post-pandemic world that requires fashion brands to cater for home-centered lifestyles rather than IRL events.
Interestingly, too, both brands – plus a slew of other lifestyle staples that have thrived in lockdown, like Entireworld’s soft-focus loungewear and Patagonia’s functional and sustainable offerings – fall into the genderless category, another important area consumers want to see their brands of choice catering to. It’s obvious that household brands and heritage brands need to adapt to the changing times in order to retain their influence. Nike made waves with its “For once, don’t do it” campaign, riffing on its iconic slogan and pledging $40 million to social justice organizations this June, having .previously championed Colin Kaepernick in the face of brand boycotts. This is where we see the survival of the fittest happening in real-time. Only those who adapt and develop will be able to travel into the future.
TikTok has brought a new dimension to relationship with fashion. It is now investing in heritage labels and promoting ethically, environmentally and morally responsible brands that support our new norm. With its mix of songs, memes and hashtags, the platform has created a new type of content, but also gave creative control to users. By allowing smaller creators to take control of the platform, it allows for greater discovery and decentralization. The app was not the only one to see Cottagecore this year. Lockdown’s tie dye mania and over 4.4 million views for its hashtag are sure signs that people are moving away from buying trendy pieces but creating meaning with their creations. This isn’t to say brands have no place in the fashion revolution, though: JW Anderson recently saw himself at the center of a viral TikTok moment, when users, upon seeing Harry Styles don a patchwork knitted cardigan by the designer on the TODAY show from back in February, began creating their own versions. Anderson decided to publish the knitting pattern and instructions instead of rereleasing the $1,445 cardigan that had been sold out. It doesn’t matter if Styles is wearing a JW Anderson cardigan with a vintage feel or if Adele and Beyonce are sporting Marine Serre bodysuits, it shows that celebrity fashion moments will still have meaning.
Kingham states, “I believe that the desire for newness will continue to emerge.” When surveyed on Instagram Stories, 43% of respondents said that they’d bought something they saw on the app during lockdown. H&M’s fuchsia-tiered dress was a hit in June. Frankie Shop’s Eva T-shirt is a favorite of every Bottega Veneta or Old Celine fan. You’d be hard-pressed not to see a pair of Chanel sandals on Instagram this summer. These trends won’t be dictated solely by the fashion week runways and the people in the front row. They will not be affected by the price or difficulty of getting your hands on the item. We believe that fashion’s future will be led by brands and people who stand for something. They will open up our worlds and create new wardrobes.