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The Instagrammer Who Became a Fashion Powerbroker

A simple post by @upnextdesigner’s Albert Ayal can change a young designer’s career. But Ayal is as much a connector as a curator.
A simple post by @upnextdesigner’s Albert Ayal can change a young designer’s career.
A simple post by @upnextdesigner’s Albert Ayal can change a young designer’s career. (Justin Sariñana for BoF)

NEW YORK — Today fashion marketing goes down in the DMs. In the fall of 2020, 25-year-old Singaporean designer Grace Ling went on a direct messaging spree on Instagram to promote her newly launched womenswear brand, which unites traditional craft and zero-waste 3D printing techniques. She eventually slid into the DMs of Albert Ayal, a 26-year-old Brooklynite, whose Instagram account @upnextdesigner posted an image of her sharp, futuristic tailoring with the caption: “Designer: Grace Ling. From: New York.”

What happened next changed the course of her business.

“I was freaking out because it almost felt like I was experiencing some sort of overnight [success],” says Ling. “My inbox was just flooded, and it was all quality requests [for my work], like A-list celebrity stylists, A-list people, et cetera.” Ling, who had emptied her savings account to fund her label, credits that one post for getting celebrities like Karlie Kloss and Jennifer Lopez to wear her designs on the red carpet and press tours, giving her the kind of visibility that generated enough orders — from department stores and via her e-commerce site — to allow her to hire a full-time employee and move the label’s operations out of her apartment.

What Ling experienced has been dubbed the “Up Next Effect” by fellow designers who have also seen an immediate impact from being featured on @upnextdesigner. The account, also known as UND, has triggered orders from retailers like Selfridges, Net-a-Porter, and Ssense and is a favourite of powerful stylists like Law Roach, Kollin Carter, and Chloe and Chenelle Delgadillo, who have sourced designs showcased on its feed for high-wattage clients like Zendaya, Cardi B and Rosalía.

“I am always searching for the next and the new,” says Roach. “He made the world seem smaller. I can go down the list of things that he has posted and it is so much easier to find inspiration.”

But Ayal is more than a curator. He’s also a connector between emerging brands and powerful industry players. “The account is like a catalyst to a lot of things, to a lot of opportunities, and it leads to many doors,” says Terrence Zhou, who saw a surge in industry followers after UND posted one of his artful dresses.

Ayal sees himself as a support to young designers. “People could be giving up. People could want to go into a different industry because of not having someone on their side,” he says. “You never know what it could do for someone, even if you’re just being there for them.”

Three years ago, Ayal, who is also a freelance fashion publicist, dreamt up what became UND while lying in bed at 3:00 AM in his Gravesend, Brooklyn bedroom, a stone’s throw from Coney Island. “At first, I was just doing it for myself,” he says. He was on the hunt for the next big designer to represent and “it was a mood board for me.”

His early posts featured commercial pieces like an evening gown from designers like Swiss Lebanese designer, Sandra Mansour or a shell bag from Cult Gaia. But as he did more research, he tended toward more elaborate work like Zhou’s Yves Klein blue balloon gown, Ichiro Suzuki’s melting tailored jackets or Georgios Trochopoulos’ shimmering bias-cut knit dresses. He kept his captions simple, however, noting only the label’s name and provenance.

As his feed grew, so did his follower count. When Kylie Jenner started following, back in July 2020, when the account still had only 5,000 fans, Ayal knew he was onto something special. A few months later, J Balvin, Kaia Gerber, Bella Hadid, stylists like Roach, editors from Vogue and buyers from retailers like Ssense, Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi started following.

Lisa Ruffle, Moda Operandi’s divisional merchandising manager, still looks at a variety of sources like traditional media, celebrities and influencers as inputs to whether she takes on a new brand. But, she says Instagram is the “ultimate source for finding emerging new talents” and calls UND “a modern-day showroom.”

“After he explodes you, he helps you deal with it, too.”

Once a low-profile account for those in the know, @upnextdesigner now has 136,000 followers. In 2021, its earned media value grew more than 20-fold from $24,438 to $544,582, according to social media firm Tribe Dynamics. In September of the same year, UND was tapped by Instagram to broadcast from the Met Gala alongside influential fashion accounts like @hautelemode and @ideservecouture. Three months ago, Ayal appeared on NBC’s “Today” show, one of America’s most-watched morning programmes.

UND’s clout has grown such that young designers like Danielle Guizio — whose clothes are worn by the Hadid, Kardashian and Jenner sisters — are choosing to launch collections on its feed instead of working with traditional fashion magazines.

“These days, you are more likely to be on Instagram than reading articles,” says Guizio. And because UND’s audience is always looking for something new, “it’s an effective format.”

“I think it would be great to do a beautiful editorial and get a beautiful picture, but at the end of the day, we need conversion to sustain the business,” says Ling. “It sparks a ripple effect in growing both brand awareness and revenue.”

Always working on one of his two iPhones, @upnextdesigner’s Albert Ayal has helped designers do everything from find jobs to manage production in Italy.

But if curating young designers isn’t a particularly unique proposition on Instagram, Ayal’s magic isn’t just what you see on his grid. Always working on one of his two iPhones, he has helped designers do everything from finding jobs to managing production in Italy. And many of those he has advised say he is remarkably accessible and generous with his time.

“He’s very easy to get a hold of, which people in the industry are usually not, including myself,” says Trochopoulos, who credits Ayal for connecting him to Kendall Jenner’s stylist Dani Michelle. “After he explodes you, he helps you deal with it, too, which is incredibly kind,” adds Ling, who taps Ayal for advice, not just exposure.

“The success of UND is because of Albert himself,” says Guizio. “He is like a walking contacts book. He is so giving and caring and so willing to help anyone in general.”

That success hasn’t yet generated significant income for Ayal. But he has been exploring retail partnerships, including curating pop-up shops. Later this year, UND is planning to launch capsule collections with some of the talent he has featured on his feed.

While UND experiments with revenue models, there’s one thing Ayal is sure he won’t do. “I would never want to take money from a designer who is struggling and who is trying to get out there. The only thing I want to do is help them to get the resources they need and connect them to people they need to get them to the next place in their careers. I just want to see them grow.”

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