An essay written for a senior level, research methods and writing course at Simon Fraser University, Canada. Originally written in spring of 2019, prior to the global pandemic — edited for improved concision. Special thank you to Katerina Stepanova and Breanne Lewis.
Fifteen minutes after arriving at Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), the venue for Seoul Fashion Week Spring 2020, I was stopped by a photographer for a photo. The instant I struck a pose, a swarm of other photographers flocked around me to join in on the photo-op. I pulled out my phone afterwards and posted to my Instagram story: just had my photo taken by five different photographers, I captioned on my cheeky selfie. My look — as pictured below (Figure 1) — was a retro-blue vinyl skirt contrasted with a burnt-orange blouse with oversized sleeves, and paired by a small, cross-body purse with tribal designs. Weeks ago, I had purchased each of these pieces from boutiques and markets on Garosu-gil, one of Seoul’s most coveted fashion streets in the posh district of Gangnam. I had been anticipating the debut for my fashion week outfit, and it felt good to have my style publicly acknowledged.
But by the end of the day, I was not feeling so special anymore. It made no difference whether I wore a thoughtfully curated outfit or a fast fashion piece that was simply loud. Amateur photographers would take photos of anyone that made themselves an easy subject by standing still in a cool-ish way, or flock toward any subject that was currently being shot by other photographers because that must mean they’re a style-star. And for every squabbling photographer, there was an attendee walking around with a pretense of purpose but whom could not hide their obvious craving to be photographed. It heated me to think that so many of the go-ers at fashion week were more focused on themselves rather than the work of the fashion designers. Then I reflected on my own ambitions to network with Seoul’s fashion scene and felt a twang of guilt — was I any better?
Fashion week has evolved
Historically, fashion week was an insider event for designers to showcase their collections to industry professionals — such as editors or buyers — who would then plan editorial content or buying decisions respectively on the trends that would dominate the fashion scene in the next six months. However, a consumer trends analysis article from Vox has found that since the rise of social media, influencers — particularly those on Instagram — have decentralized this traditional fashion hierarchy (Jennings, 2019, The History of New York Fashion Week, para. 11). Consumers who were previously excluded became privy to the conversation of fashion week vicariously through the stories that fashion influencers shared with their followers.
It is crucial at this point to distinguish between two concepts: influencers and influencer culture. Influencers are an occupation and those who pursue it as a livelihood are often represented by an influencer agency. However, the growing popularity of influencers has created an influencer culture, which is the notion that anyone can become an influencer. With respect to fashion week, influencer culture motivates the public to partake in the fashion experience by sharing their narratives on social media. This paper will distinguish professional influencers from those purely with influencer aspirations.
Rather than focusing on the work of fashion designers, fashion week has shifted to focusing on the story of the “influencer” who goes to see a fashion designer’s show. This paper argues that because influencer culture places interests of self-promotion above fashion celebration, it can cause disruptions for professional audiences at fashion week. Nonethesless, influencer culture is inevitable, and brands must capitalize on direct to consumer engagement and creating extrinsic brand value to culminate bottom-line profits. While influencer culture should be accredited for the democratization and growing public interest in fashion, audiences should be better aligned with fashion celebration. This paper concludes by suggesting that fashion week organizers and designers can improve this situation by taking an educational approach with the public to bridge any gaps that may prevent understanding or interest in runway fashion.
But why should I care?
Statista, one of the most extensive statistics portals online, forecasted that the market value of global apparel demand would grow to approximately 1.52 trillion US dollars by 2020 (Lenzing, 2019b). In an industry worth so much financially, the future of fashion week will have trickling effects on all consumers — especially those in Asia Pacific, Europe and North America, which together constitute 86% of the market (Lenzing, 2019a). It is also imperative to recognize that the force of social media as an equalizer between business and consumers is not exclusive to fashion. In an interview with Business of Fashion — fashion’s most renowned digital publication for industry professionals — the latest creative agency behind London Fashion Week, Superimpose, voiced that other industries have either already been through or are at the onslaught of these changes as well (Suen, 2019, para. 14). Thus, understanding the narrative of fashion week can reveal contexts about the current state of society for any reader of this paper.
Missing the point
In an op-ed for Business of Fashion, fashion photographer and journalist, O’Flaherty, reported that the social media stories he saw of fashion week often focused on beside-the-point subjects such as line queues or lighting rigs (para. 5). Even when the subject of a post was fashion, the image would typically be the likes of a second row shot, with “the blur of a boot striding past […], slightly obscured by a shoulder or Suzy Menke’s quiff” (para. 5). What O’Flaherty conveys in his sardonic description is that images shared on social media are often not high-quality depictions that faithfully represent the designers’ collections. Figure 2 provides further examples that warrant O’Flaherty’s criticisms with screengrabs which he compiled from major Twitter sources that covered fashion week.
From the figure, it is evident that under high-contrast lighting, the blurry images captured by mobile photography lose much of the details on these garments. In instances where a blue-green filter persists over the image — whether the application is intentional or not — it is a misleading representation of the art decisions that a director made for show.
O’Flaherty insists that much of the motivation for such posts stems from the need to prove personal attendance at a fashion show over interest in fashion itself (2014). Low-quality images circulate social feeds as a result of prioritising the desire to garner “likes” over the inclination to capture the artistic merit of a show. It is evident how such behaviour of posting haphazardly can be disrespectful of the creative efforts of designers and art directors.
May I have a seat?
Aspiring influencers see fashion week as an opportunity to grow their brand, and it is the fashion industry’s Public Relations (PR) community who must deal with their requests. PR firm, KCD, reported in 2018 to Business of Fashion that the number of influencers who requested invitations to fashion shows has nearly quadrupled in the last three years (Odell, 2018, para. 5). The problem is that many of these self-proclaimed influencers had insignificant followings — e.g. 4,000 followers — or failed to prove genuine interest in the brand since they never engaged with the brand outside of fashion week. Despite the manhours publicists work to go through these requests, the number of worthy influencers is usually low, with PR firm, Factory, confirming that they usually only accept 25 to 50 of its 500 influencer applications every season (Odell, 2018, para. 7). And while Chris Constable — founder of the PR firm, CCPR — says that the selection process does discover “micro-influencer gems”, he also admits that a lot of them “like to steal front row seats, which drives [him] crazy” (Odell, 2018, para. 12). It is a PR firm’s responsibility to curate the brand image they are creating for the press when they select their front-row audiences. While the influencers’ desires to grow their brand power is expected, their interests are seen here to clash with the priorities of publicists who work to ensure the success of the fashion show. The sheer number of aspiring influencers and their demands can become a strain on a publicists’ assignments and work conditions.
Let’s talk about fashion
Influencer-culture has levelled-out the balance of power between legacy, or traditional, media outlets and its consumers. This phenomenon can be seen in the media coverage of fashion week, but also applies to the larger fashion industry beyond the event. A study published in the cyberpsychology journal, Computers in Human Behaviour, confirmed that social media has normalized audience feedback and engagement in journalism in the form of tags and sharing features. Hence the influence of legacy journalism has weakened in favour of news outlets — such as journalism based on consumer-driven content or social media influencers — that do privilege influencer-culture by allowing audiences to take part in the conversation (Groshek & Tandoc, 2017, p. 2). Editors and journalists of fashion publications are no exception to this pressure of catering toward consumer preferences. Culture and fashion researcher at Shenkar College of Design, Liroy Choufan, wrote an opinion editorial for The Business of Fashion which touched on how the role fashion journalism has diminished to merely “marketing journalists”. Whereas prior journalism provided objective assessments of the core message in a designer’s collection, articles are increasingly written nowadays to critique collections based on anticipating the demands of the readership (Choufan, 2013, The Democracy that Destroyed Fashion, para. 4). For instance, an article covering Sao Paulo Fashion Week Spring 2015 published by The Fashion Spot, a non- legacy fashion forum, is headlined with “How to Be a Brazilian Bombshell” (Figure 3). The article appears to address the highlights of the collection primarily based on how appealing the garments would be to a consumer.
While it’s valuable to consider the needs of the consumer, Choufan argues that fashion should not always be required to address all of them, and that such obligations have stunted creative discourse (2013, The Democracy that Destroyed Fashion, para. 4). It is evident how these consequences are a product of how influencer-culture has privileged participants to evaluate fashion through primarily self-serving lenses. Fashion journalists who share this perspective would agree that the value of their profession is capped since creative discourse on fashion week is often no longer a clickable headline, and much of their writing autonomy is lost to rising consumer influence.
We’re all equal
But shouldn’t consumers deserve the same experience of fashion as industry-level communities? After all, the clothes are designed for them. In fact, consumers now expect a degree of inclusion and intimacy from businesses, and social media has become the vehicle for that delivery. Indeed, an article published in academic journal, Fashion Theory, concluded that the fashion show allows designers to enrich their brand by creating artistic and cultural value that extended beyond fashion (Mendes, 2019, p. 23). For instance, Danish designer Henrik Vibskov transformed the sets of fashion shows into works of art which also served as backdrop for photo-taking (Figure 4) (Mendes, 2019, p. 21).
Vibskov’s installation worked because it complemented the core message of the designer’s collection. At the same time, it capitalized on an audience’s inclination to share their experiences on social media: interaction with the installation engages consumers with the brand, and any photos shared on social media serves as mass marketing.
Influencer-culture creates an eagerness to partake and share in experiences, and this is what allows brands to connect to consumers and remain relevant in the market. Even so, fashion brands cannot claim ignorance to the burden influencer-culture is placing on other professional communities in the industry; and neglecting such relationships with those communities would create long term repercussions.
The future of fashion week
This paper has discussed several key issues that influencer-culture has caused for professional communities at fashion week. For groups aspiring to produce influencer-type content at fashion week, their social media posts are often devoid of consideration for fashion itself and their desire to access fashion shows can become burdensome on the PR community. In addition, changing power dynamics that favour consumers’ interests has delimited the integrity of journalistic content covering fashion week. These issues can be traced back to the influencers’ priorities to promote themselves.
However, the forces of digital technology cannot be held back or reversed. Industry professionals need to acknowledge that social media will continue to democratize the discourse of fashion. If the root of the issue is a weaker interest in fashion, perhaps one way the industry can maintain respect for all professional communities while including the public in the fashion conversation is to guide the public’s understanding of high fashion. What this means is that rather than pushing consumers to simply make purchases or follow trends, another goal could become suggesting to consumers ways to make higher-level observations on design and style: why does the fashion work or does not work, instead of I like this or I don’t like this. This could be an opportunity especially for fashion publications, who have been struggling to compete with influencers, to repurpose themselves. Rather than creating content to sell, editors and journalists can provide levels of informational content which influencers with no background in fashion cannot.
An example was done by American luxury fashion designer, Tom Ford — who is an industry pioneer for experimenting with the format of the fashion show — presented an intimate showroom in London whereby he personally narrated the presentation of each design (Amed, 2015, para. 5). Not only does Ford’s narration add interest and aid the understanding of the designer’s work, it also satisfies the criteria of direct brand engagement with the consumer.
In an ideal future, consumers have equal power to divine trends, influencers behave with more perspective on their actions, and thoughtfully curated street-style is rewarded.
Amed, I. (2015, Oct. 02). Why stage fashion shows? Business of Fashion. Retrieved from https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/week-in-review/why-stage-fashion-shows
Choufan, L. (2013, Mar 25). Fashion’s Democratic Disease. Business of Fashion. Retrieved from https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/opinion/op-ed-fashions-democratic-disease
Correia, M. (2014, April 22). The Sexiest Swimwear from Sao Paulo Fashion Week. The Fashion Spot. Retrieved from https://www.thefashionspot.com/runway-news/397251-the-sexiest-swimwear-from-sao-paulo-fashion-week/#/slide/2
Groshek, J., & Tandoc, E. (2017). The affordance effect: Gatekeeping and (non)reciprocal journalism on Twitter. Computers in Human Behavior, 66, 201–210. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.09.020
Jennings, R. (2019, Feb. 08). The decline of fashion week, explained. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/2/4/18206907/new-york-fashion-week-2019-death
Lenzing. (May 8, 2019a). Demand share of apparel market worldwide from 2005 to 2020, by region* [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved April 11, 2020, from https://www-statista-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/statistics/821457/demand-share-of-global-apparel-market-by-region/
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Mendes, S. (2019). The Instagrammability of the runway: Architecture, Scenography, and the Spatial Turn in Fashion Communications. Fashion Theory. doi: 10.1080/1362704X.2019.1629758
Odell, A. (2018, Sep. 03). Has fashion week’s influencer bubble finally burst? Business of Fashion. Retrieved from https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/opinion/has-fashion-weeks-influencer-bubble-finally-burst
O’Flaherty, M.C. (2014, Mar 06). Are camera phones killing fashion? Business of Fashion. Retrieved from https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/opinion/cameraphones-killing-fashion
Suen Z. (2019, Jun 04). Superimpose wants to make London Fashion Week great again. Business of Fashion. Retrieved from https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/news-bites/superimpose-wants-to-make-london-fashion-week-great-again