The new shop window: Stylist investigates the retail power of Instagram

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Instagram is now the most influential social platform for the fashion industry. We meet Eva Chen, the woman behind the hashtags, who is directing the future of fashion – one like at a time

Words: Tamsin Blanchard

Whatever else you do on Instagram today, make certain that you check out the hashtag #evachenpose. It documents the shoes and bag of a street style superstar – posed nonchalantly on the back seat of her car, usually accompanied by an apple – the embodiment of NYC fashion insouciance. We guarantee you won’t get to the end of the feed without gaining some kind of fashion inspiration or a smile on your face.

Eva Chen (@evachen212) is the 36-year-old, New York-born former editor-in-chief of Lucky magazine who was given the rather enviable job of being head of fashion sponsored_longforms for Instagram last July. You may wonder what exactly the “head of fashion sponsored_longforms” does and indeed, why the social-media app would even need one? (More later.) But despite only being launched in October 2010, Instagram is already one of the most powerful forces in fashion.

Fashion (like food) works on Instagram because it is such a visual medium. With its in-built filters and square format, Instagram makes pictures look cool and glossy in a way that Facebook just doesn’t. And Twitter… Well, when you want an instant fashion fix, Twitter is too much like hard work.

Instagram has a very active community. During September’s fashion shows, there were 44 million unique Instagram accounts posting about fashion with 360 million posts, comments and likes. “What Instagram has done is make fashion much more democratic and taken away the velvet ropes,” Chen tells Stylist by phone from New York (we get 15 minutes – Chen is a busy woman). “I think the fashion industry has historically been a bit Wizard of Oz-y, meaning we are behind a curtain. We put something out, you consume it and then we go back behind the curtain.”

Such is Insta power that entire brands now run their businesses off the back of their followings, which is hardly surprising when you consider the platform now has over 400 million monthly active users. If the right person ‘likes’ your designs and the collection sells out in seconds, then who really needs to show at Paris Fashion Week?

Importantly, it’s not just established fashion designers who are benefiting from Instagram’s rosy glow. When Chen (who has 529,000 followers) posted a picture of her new black Manu Atelier Pristine bag in June 2014 simply because she loved it and not because it was a sponsored snap, that post rocketed the brand straight into the spotlight. “We received hundreds of enquiries from both consumers and retailers, which was followed by other editors and bloggers posting their Manu Atelier bags,” says designer Merve Manastir. “Supported by our PR, it created huge excitement around the brand on a global level.”

The Pristine bag has repeatedly sold out on their own website and in bricks-and-mortar stores, plus their Insta account now has more than 28,000 followers, because when Chen loves something, you can guarantee that thousands of others will love it, too.“We definitely see the biggest commercial impact from Instagram,” Manastir continues. “As an emerging brand, Instagram has given us a global visual platform to talk to our customers and for those who love our brand to talk to their network globally. We find it really interesting to see which images have the biggest impact, whether posted by us or by others.”

This access to a global market without any language or currency barriers is also cherished by small independent brands. In September, new designer Misha Nonoo staged an Instashow during New York Fashion Week: she broadcast her entire collection via Instagram in a series of 174 individual photos instead of staging a traditional runway show, resulting in a 200% increase in e-commerce sales.

Currently, users can’t directly shop from Instagram (unless it’s an advert, where you can click through), but there are services such as that email you with purchasing links for your favourited items. Most brands, though, rely on users tapping on the link to their e-shops, which Instagram lets them include in their profile bio. And for many, it works.

Some brands are just naturally Instagenic. Triangl bikinis, with their graphic block-coloured neoprene, for example, have 2.8 million followers. On the brand’s website, you are directed to the models’ own Instagram accounts. When they then pop up on your Instagram feed in a Triangl bikini in an exotic location, it becomes a perfect circle. Chen tells us about a bag brand called Octabag (44,700 followers) that she spotted on Instagram. “I’ve never seen these bags, never touched them, don’t know anything about the brand, but they have a great account,” she says. You can see the appeal. The feed is a riot of juicy colours, pastel-coloured bags (interesting how the new bag shape is square and boxy; perfect for an Instagram frame) shot with bear-shaped macarons, sprinkles of gold confetti or against an armful of sweetie bracelets.

Chen has had a dynamic career in fashion. She was hand-picked by Anna Wintour to edit Condé Nast’s American fashion shopping magazine Lucky in July 2013 (she had previously been at Elle, then seven years at Teen Vogue as beauty and health director) and was heralded as the first editor to speak for a new generation of Insta-savvy, selfie-obsessed women. “For a year and a half at Lucky, it was an amazing experience,” she says. “I loved editing a magazine and during that time I got pregnant – yay! – and I had my wonderful daughter.” Her 13-month-old daughter, Ren, features heavily in her posts. However, those sort of high-profile jobs – she re-launched the magazine, its website and the brand’s e-commerce offering – do not take a backseat if you want to spend time bonding with a new baby. “I went back to work three weeks after Ren was born,” she says. “While I think it’s every woman’s right to decide how she wants to do her leave, for me personally, [going back to work so soon] was too much.” After juggling a newborn and a job for three months, Chen took three months of maternity leave, during which time Instagram called. “When they approached with the opportunity to be head of fashion sponsored_longforms globally, I leapt at the chance. It’s an understatement to say I was a superfan of the platform,” she laughs.

“I’ve always been attracted to roles that let me define the work-life balance and style,” says Chen, who is also on the board for Yoox Net-a-Porter. “I had that at Lucky and now at Instagram, too. Facebook [who bought Instagram in 2012] is a wonderfully supportive place to work with a family. Ren often visits me at the office for lunch and has even made cameos in our mini conference room.”  

Chen’s role is “similar to editing a magazine”, she says. Just as fashion magazines need beautiful content to engage readers and attract advertisers so, too, does Instagram need engaging content to ensure users and advertisers utilise the platform. And while usage of Facebook is slowing among teens and 20-somethings, Instagram is the most-effective social-media platform for brands looking to engage that generation.  

Chen works with designers (“I love Donatella Versace’s Instagram – it’s so authentic”), models (IMG has signed more than 50 models through the platform, most recently @alexisprimous who has almost 8,000 followers), stylists and brands to help them make creative, engaging content. At the Golden Globes in January, Chen helped to facilitate an Instashoot with star photographers Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin (@inezvinoodh). They were commissioned to shoot beautifully composed portraits of the winners and nominees backstage on the night of the awards and post them on Instagram, live, with Chen supervising (“I love their passion for Instagram and I was there on the scene to help them out”). Previously, this kind of work by some of the world’s most talented photographers would have only been shot for a glossy magazine.

Designers are also exploring new ways to use the platform. Burberry are using 16-year-old Brooklyn Beckham to shoot its latest fragrance campaign and upload the pictures for his 5.9m followers (attracting criticism from seasoned fashion photographers). Last season JW Anderson asked bloggers Susie Bubble, Bryanboy and Tommy Ton to do an Instashoot with two looks and a piece of sculpture backstage before their show. The pictures attracted around 3,000 likes each from their combined audience of more than a million fashion-hungry devotees. Elsewhere, DKNY direct messaged its 794k followers letting them quiz the designers. “It’s great when people’s accounts are a little more real,” says Chen.

Chen is the ultimate early adopter, demonstrating what is possible, showcasing the latest tricks and coolest hashtags. Hence, when she posted a moving image of herself having her make-up done for the Golden Globes, and waving a record at the Stella McCartney event in an LA record shop, both using a new video app called Boomerang, it seemed that suddenly the whole of Instagram was flooded with other users trying it out, too.

She is in the middle of planning for the a/w 2016 fashion season and the Instashoot idea will keep evolving. “Last season every designer seemed to be upping the ante on what could be done on Instagram,” she says. “Instashoots are a way for designers to say, ‘We are happy we have 500 editors and stylists capturing images for our show but we also want to put out an almost on-the-record image of the collection’. Direct messaging will be used more as a way of engaging with the wider audience rather than simply the press and buyers assembled at the show.”

Instagram is the biggest shift in the industry this century. Which makes Chen, in effect, a global editor-in-chief and us, the users, her team of contributors.

Millennial women, she says, want to be included in the conversation. “You don’t want to feel like you are not good enough and the whole point of Instagram is to bring your followers closer to you. I feel that by following Olivier [Rousteing] or Marc Jacobs or Riccardo [Tisci] or Christopher Kane, I have an affinity with them. And that’s just because I see them on Instagram – they take you on their journey.”

One thing is certain, Instagram is exposing us to more and more brands and changing the way we shop. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to check out some shoes and bags…

Browse the gallery below to see Eva Chen’s latest Insta fashion discoveries

  • Design Milk

    @designmilk “I’m redecorating, so I follow lots of design accounts. I envy the clean, minimalist lines.”

  • Josep Font

    @josepfontc “Creative director of Delpozo. A personal account that really brings a brand to life.”

  • The Costume Institute Library

    @costumeinstitutelibrary “The Library of Costume Arts is great for anyone who loves fashion.”

  • Thingslizwants

    @thingslizwants “I discovered this illustrator during last fashion week. She’s hilarious.”

  • Zoolander

    @zoolander “You’re not qualified to work in fashion unless you follow the original Blue Steel.”

  • Alber Elbaz

    @alberelbaz8 “He shows how designers can use Instagram in fun and interesting ways.”

  • Nabile Quenum

    @jaiperdumaveste “A very cool street style photographer. His own style is incredible too.”

Photography: Rex Features, @fullerton_fash, @le_reber, @koulla_sergi, @kitmcgee, @evachen212

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Stylist Team