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Instagram Hustles to Become Global Hub for Digital Fashion Shows

The platform’s fashion team, led by Vice President of Fashion Partnerships Eva Chen, released a guide for presenting collections digitally as brands grapple with how to translate the runway online. Will it give Instagram a leg up against hungry competitors?
Fashion show content on Instagram | Source: Courtesy
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — With no way to safely host runway shows in the global fashion capitals any time soon, designers and fashion brands are in the thick of figuring out digital alternatives to share and promote their upcoming Resort and Spring collections.

Is the best approach a YouTube runway show, like what Carine Roitfeld staged with Derek Blasberg and a slate of models and designers? Or a partnership with a fashion publication? Is a virtual TikTok challenge a smart way to stand out? Or a pop-up shop on Nintendo's Animal Crossing game?

Fashion brands tend to follow each other into unknown territory, so it's likely that a few leaders will set the pandemic standard for presenting online. And with the different regional trade organisations setting up their own digital destinations for collection content, popular social media platforms are aiming to become core to the strategy.

Instagram, already fashion's go-to, is no exception, making a strong play for digital fashion week hub status. On Wednesday, its fashion team, led by Vice President of Fashion Partnerships Eva Chen, released a comprehensive "playbook" for hosting digital fashion shows on the app, complete with tips on how to "invite" followers to tune into a livestream, strategies for showing "behind the scenes" clips and pointers for enlisting influencers to boost awareness.

Fashion brands already design their runway shows to pop on Instagram with elaborate sets and front rows full of popular influencers. Livestream presentations are standard. But without a physical event — and the amplifying power of celebrities and influencers in the room — brands will need to get more creative to stand out.

Instagram's guide will be distributed by the regional trade organisations in New York, London, Paris and Milan, and comes a day after Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg announced new e-commerce features for both Facebook and Instagram.

“I don’t believe there is a future where there is a one-size-fits-all fashion week experience anymore,” Chen told BoF. “I do believe Instagram, no matter what, is going to be at the heart and soul of it.”

Chen said the playbook was designed for brands of all sizes, acknowledging that sometimes the largest brands in the industry are the least willing to take risks on the platform where already they have millions of followers. She also said the guide is not meant to be a prescriptive formula, but offer tools and best practises that a brand can pick and choose from, depending on their approach. Instagram is also developing ways to feature upcoming fashion week content more prominently to users on the app, Chen said.

The playbook lands during an interesting time for social media activity. Newer platforms like Tiktok, the Gen Z favourite which was downloaded more than 11 million times just in March 2020, are growing fast. YouTube is making major investments to court the fashion crowd, following its hiring of Derek Blasberg as head of fashion and beauty partnerships in 2018.

Instagram was only projected to see time spent on the platform increase by 1.5 percent in 2020, according to data from eMarketer. But now the research firm expects Instagram will see the biggest boost from the pandemic, during which American and Europeans on lockdown have spent more time on their phones, with gains as high as 14 percent.

These last three months, we have seen a huge shift in the way fashion is using Instagram.

“These last three months, we have seen a huge shift in the way fashion is using Instagram,” said Chen. “So many brands that had never gone live are suddenly going live.”

Capitalising on the increased engagement is a challenge. Advertisers are scaling back marketing spend to cut costs as shoppers stay home and do some cost-cutting of their own.

Facebook, Instagram's parent company, reported a steep decrease in advertising revenue in March but said the market started to recover in April, during which advertising revenue was flat year-over-year. Brands are also spending less with fashion, luxury and beauty influencers, many of whom have their biggest audiences on Instagram. Branded content posts fell from 35 percent of influencer posts in February to 4 percent in April, according to tracking agency Launchmetrics.

But the pandemic provides an opportunity for Instagram to further weave itself into the fabric of the fashion industry as more users watch longform video and livestreams on the platform than they did before the pandemic — views of the latter are up 70 percent year-over-year in the last month. Instagram not only stands to gain by capturing more of the digital advertising market, but also by expanding its in-app shopping functionality.

In 2019, Instagram made it possible to shop from brand posts without redirecting users to a web browser, and allowed influencers and spokespeople to cue followers to shop their posts, too. Instagram gets a cut of the transaction, and brands fulfill the sales themselves.

Chen said the functionality is still in test mode, closed to limited accounts in the US, but plans are still set to expand that product. On Tuesday, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is introducing in-app storefronts for brand accounts, and Instagram will also soon add shopping tags to live videos, allowing brands to prompt shoppers to buy during a livestream. Instagram will also highlight the shoppable product in a tab on the "Discover" page, much in the same way it does on its editorialised fashion and beauty shopping account, @Shop.

Fashion brands now in desperate need to push their direct-to-consumer sales but lacking the know-how or marketing funds to draw audiences to their websites could consider using Instagram's social commerce tools to reach shoppers directly.

Instagram’s guide encourages brands to use their shopping tags to drive sales in the main feed and on Instagram Stories.

“If you’re not see-now-buy-now, you can still take advantage of this high-traffic time by sharing posts with shoppable products before and after fashion week,” reads the playbook. “Use shopping tags to make this experience as seamless as possible.”

Chen and her team are rolling their sleeves up in the hopes of ensuring that Instagram becomes the digital fashion show go-to, encouraging designers to get in touch and join a private Facebook group for live updates.

“Our general philosophy is: we want to teach you how to use the tools so you as a brand — or as an individual or as a creator — feel empowered to use Instagram in your own way,” said Chen, adding she expects to see brands be more experimental in their Instagram strategies moving forward. “In times like these, some of the most creative ideas will surface.”

In the end, Instagram’s efforts may result in a single global gathering place for brands, but much of this advice has to do with speaking to the consumer, not the trade. In the coming months, brands must also figure out how to sell collections to buyers who are unable to visit showrooms. The Fashion Week Problem is far from solved.

Editor's Note: This article was revised on 20 May 2020. An earlier version of this article said Eva Chen's title is director of fashion partnerships at Instagram. She is the vice president of fashion partnerships.

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