Are Social Media Reshaping the Fashion Industry?

Social media have shifted the conversation from fashion brands talking at the consumers, to talking with them, to listening to them. What have people gained from it?

A photo of a smiling girl resting on a cosy sofa while holding a glass of wine has been shared on the social network Instagram. Food brought from Pret-a-Manger, a few fashion magazines and travel accessories surround her. She seems an ordinary person waiting for her airplane or train. A more attentive look, however, tells a different story.

The shot has been crafted to emphasise what she wears: a pair of Stella McCartney ankle boots, a Balenciaga bag, a Louis Vuitton case and a Sandro Maca long coat. Some of them are not easy to spot, but are no mystery for the thousands of fashion enthusiasts who populate the social network, and who will share the post with the rest of the world. This is what fashion visual influencers do, and what Chiara Ferragni – the girl in the photo – has helped pioneering.

“I am pretty much in love with anything that fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni does, especially when it comes to what she wears,” writes Augusta Statz in an article on the online magazine Bustle commenting a recent picture posted on Instagram by the Italian blogger.

According to Le Guide Noir, a website that lists the top fashion influencers, Ferragni is the second most famous. The Blonde Salad, the blog she edits, has allowed her to build collaborations with high fashion brands and magazines, and to launch her own collections.

She is a vivid example of some of the innovations brought by social media to the fashion industry.

“In terms of communication strategy, the fashion world has demonstrated in different occasion to be one of the most attentive to the changes of the society and its protagonists – the clients or the prospect ones – as well as to intercept and adopt rising trends”, explains Valeria Moro, Social Media Manager & Digital PR at Borsalino, an Italian high-fashion hat company.

The spring 2016 fashion weeks have been a showcase of other uses of social media by fashion brands. Burberry has experimented with Snapchat, an application that allows sending pictures and video that self-destroy, to reveal in advance the collection and give exclusive glimpses behind the catwalk. Similarly, DKNY, a New York-based fashion brand, has used Instagram to let users send them direct messages with their favourite designs in order to receive insights on how they were conceived.

“Social networks are a spontaneous creative hotbed and a continuous source of interesting ideas and contents capable of making us understand in which direction the fashion world is going, something to monitor constantly in order to produce suitable material for our actual and prospective followers,” Moro says.

Yet, to what extent have social media empowered consumers?

“In the past, fashion brands have produced collections that have directly dictated and influenced what people wear, and magazine editors and buyers had first look exclusive access to these collection, which they then shared via their edited view to the consumer,” explains Gwyneth Moore, a communications consultant and published author, who runs Cardifffashion.com.

“With the growth of social media and blogging, the individual can now share in real time their own personal style and personal brand with millions of people across the world.”

Marco Pedroni, fellow at the Fashion and Cultural Production Study Centre at Università Cattolica in Milan, explains that, “today whoever works in fashion communication is obliged to listen, or to pretend to listen, to the readers and consumers because Facebook, Twitter and all the rest are forcing interaction.”

Fashion bloggers have triggered this evolution.

“We call them influencers and we expect from them to be authoritative with regards to an ever growing number of themes and topics”, says Valeria Moro.

They use a wide range of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and cover lifestyle subjects, such as travel and food.

Most of them are students in their twenties and have a cultural background that differs from that of the media experts, being most of the time based on self-developed visual and technical skills.

According to Pedroni, “digital influencers have become for fashion businesses a new piece in their marketing mix. If you are a fashion brand, you have to interact with traditional magazines and with them.”

Moore of Cardifffashion.com, who has had personal experience of brand interest adds: “Collaborations are now commonplace as brands understand that an influential blogger can potentially have a direct and immediate impact on product sales. I’m increasingly getting offered opportunities to collaborate with fashion brands, and the opportunities are becoming more and more creative too.”

Rachel Arthur, founder and editor of news website Fashion & Mash, and former senior digital editor at trend forecasting agency WGSN, thinks the relation with influencers does not only benefit brands, by providing a cheaper and straight access to people through their enormous followings, but also consumers.

“They gain access, broad insight, fresh perspective, non advertising led viewpoints, though ads and paid posts are increasingly common and have to be declared as so,” she says.

This relation, however, has some caveats. “The fact that you have a banner of Luisa Via Roma, or another brand, on your blog make us doubt us to what extent you are independent in your judgment, how much you depend on this support,” argues Pedroni of Università Cattolica, who still thinks fashion blogging is an interesting way of promoting participation.

Traditional media have also benefitted from influencers. Gabriele Verrati, fashion editor at Grazia.it, the online edition of fashion magazine Grazia, had witnessed it in 2011 when the then editor-in-chief Tamu Macpherson pioneered the idea of the hit girls. They are a group of rather wealthy young women, who share on Instagram their travel and glamorous experiences, and who have linked their digital identities with the publication.

According to Verrati, they are valuable because they are available to marketing projects, and brands are looking to invest in them.

“Apart from the hustles that bring money to Grazia.it, if there is a brand that gives us some money, this is ok. As a critical figure, the editor offers and gives visibility to some products because he believes they are worthy to buy,” he says.

Journalist Rachel Arthur explains that, “the ability for independent opinion is critical in the industry. But it’s also what is affecting the evolution of traditional media, which maintains its place based on expertise and authority above else. That’s why editors have become bigger personalities, themselves stars of the front row, street style, etc. with huge social media followings.”

User generated content, such as that published on YouTube, or Facebook, is also becoming progressively part of the digital campaigns of brands. From being a mere display of their interests and passions, it is becoming a piece of a bigger digital story.

“A story built by the brands, which in many cases choose to reorganize the contents produced by users to transform them in a unique voice,” says Valeria Moro of Borsalino. “The synergy between consumers and brands, made possible by social media, is destined to be more and more tight, but also more delicate.”

The #MYKM campaign launched this December by the fashion brand Karen Millen is an example of it. Customers have been invited to tag their photos featuring the designer’s dresses on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook in order to have the chance to see them published on the company’s website.

This newly acquired visibility can potentially have a negative impact on people’s life. The example of teenage Instagram star Essena O’Neill, who has recently denounced the social network for having put on her unbearable pressures and damaged her identity, has questioned the actual benefits of social media.

“I guess what we have to be careful of is that the images being created don’t reflect a complete falsehood when it comes to people, their situation, culture and aspirations,” Gwyneth Moore says.

Whether they are influencers or ordinary Internet users, consumers haven’t affected how fashion products are made. Marco Pedroni points out that there have been attempts to critically use social media, for example to denounce unethical production practices, but indifference and a consumerist approach to fashion has hindered them.

The fashion industry has embraced social media to take advantage of the growth potential of the digital market. A report released last November by L2, a business intelligence firm, shows that 80 per cent of the growth of high-fashion companies in 2014 has been driven by online sales.

“The industry has realised it’s necessary to be part of the discussion in order to help shape what fashion looks like,” explains Arthur. “We will see brands focussing on a much more sophisticated approach to their social media strategy: concentrating on influencers, but more importantly their community of ambassadors and loyal consumers that can help build and share the brand for them.”