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Who Will Be Fashion’s First Clubhouse Star?

The traditional influencer playbook won’t work for brands experimenting with how to engage the audio-only social media app’s fast-growing user base.
Designers like Virgil Abloh and Dapper Dan were early adopters of the audio-only app. Getty Images, Clubhouse.
Designers like Virgil Abloh and Dapper Dan were early adopters of the audio-only app. Getty Images, Clubhouse.

Building a following on social media comes naturally to Jenna Rennert. She drew enough attention to her skin care product reviews and hairstyling tutorials on Instagram to quit her beauty editor job at Vogue. She made the leap to TikTok in 2019, where videos on pricey La Mer moisturisers and Barbara Sturm face masks proved popular.

The denizens of Clubhouse, the audio-only platform that has stormed onto the social media scene in recent months, are proving a tougher audience. Rennert joined the app in mid-February but so far has limited her activity to listening in on “rooms,” which can range in format from lectures to free-for-all discussions, with topics running the gamut from cryptocurrency to wellness tips.

Make no mistake though: beauty and fashion have arrived on Clubhouse. Some of the earliest members were fashion A-listers, including Virgil Abloh, Dapper Dan and Naomi Campbell. Culture Club, a weekly discussion on streetwear and sneaker culture, has 20,000 followers. Diane von Furstenberg participated in her first Clubhouse chat recently, as did Valentino’s chief brand officer Alessio Vannetti. Beauty influencers are making inroads too: Summer Fridays co-founder Marianna Hewitt recently hosted a chat.

It’s too soon to say whether Clubhouse will develop into the next TikTok, or prove to be a flash in the pan like Vine. The app’s user base — 10 million weekly active users in February, according to the company — is tiny compared with Instagram’s one billion or TikTok’s 100 million monthly users, though growing fast. Brands can’t even join Clubhouse, let alone sell products through the app. The audio format isn’t an easy fit for industries built around slick visuals. And, Clubhouse is experiencing many of the same growing pains as other social networks, including misinformation, bullying and a lack of quality control.

Still, brands are finding ways to make themselves heard, no doubt anticipating commerce will one day come to the platform. The app is already cementing its status as a networking hub for fashion insiders.

“I’ve been able to discuss and pitch concepts to editors and photographers that I’ve watched and admired,” said Oliver Brown, a stylist who hosts “The Bias Cut,” a weekly chat with about 8,000 followers. “I [didn’t] know my intentions when I first joined Clubhouse, but I didn’t expect so many organic possibilities to happen over an app.”

What Is a Clubhouse Influencer?

Each social network has its own algorithm that determines who becomes platform-famous, and who remains mired in obscurity. On Instagram, influencers quickly figured out how to make their lives look aspirational (often, misrepresenting their lives offline). Those who could adapt to TikTok’s quick cuts and quirky humour found their followings grew even faster there.

Relatively few influencers have cracked Clubhouse’s formula. The app is still invite-only and doesn’t surface content in the same way as TikTok or Instagram. So far, the Clubhouse calendar of events is curated based on which rooms users already belong to or the people they follow, though users can also seek out new rooms and personalities on the app’s explore page.

The fashion personalities who have developed audiences on Clubhouse so far are more like thought leaders than traditional influencers, though.

“For me, the sense of who can explode on Clubhouse is the sort of the influencer that has another dimension to them that’s been untapped,” said Shannon Stokes, a stylist who hosts a weekly room with Out digital director Mikelle Street and Antoine Gregory, stylist and Black Fashion Fair founder. “It’s definitely a great place for people who are just totally undiscovered as well.”

Stokes, along with Street and Gregory, have managed to translate their Twitter personas for the audio app, discussing hot-button topics like Vice President Kamala Harris’ recent US Vogue cover or Harper’s Bazaar’s new look under editor-in-chief Samira Nasr. A few hundred people usually tune in to listen.

Then there’s the question of how to capitalise on that audience. Clubhouse throws up a few barriers to cashing in on influence: brands can’t join the platform or purchase advertisements yet. (Brands have begun tacking on Clubhouse room talks to existing influencer branded content deals, though.) Rooms are capped at 5,000 participants and recording discussions is discouraged, an approach at odds with fashion’s usual method to digital events: the more eyeballs, the better.

The anything-goes nature of some rooms is also a challenge.

“Anybody can raise their hand and be called on to speak and you have no idea what they’re going to say,” said Reesa Lake, executive vice president of brand partnerships at Digital Brand Architects, which represents influencers. “It’s kind of like walking down the street and having somebody throw paint on somebody who’s wearing fur.”

Many brands’ initial forays into Clubhouse involve veteran influencers or executives who know how to stay on script and to shut down awkward encounters with audience members. Diane von Furstenberg, who also hosts the recorded podcast “InCharge with DVF,” is no stranger to live formats. That means talent with experience leading discussions or moderating live audience panels are appealing to brands.

“If you’re not the Gen-Z TikToker, then you might be the Clubhouse MVP,” Lake said.

Talent agencies are also keeping their eyes peeled for “homegrown stars and formats,” said Kendall Ostrow, head of client strategy at United Talent, DBA’s parent company.

More Candor

Many brands are using Clubhouse to raise awareness with their target customers, rather than flog specific products.

Executives at skin care brand Ciaté London has mainly used the app “as a learning tool from other peers ... getting inspiration from creative talents, learning about other successful cross-industry businesses,” said Nora Zukauskaite, global head of marketing.

There are limits to how deep these conversations can get, said Stokes.

“In high fashion, no one wants to share too much of their most candid thoughts, for fear of some sort of retaliation or a damaged future business relationship,” he said. “I think to a certain level [this] censors the discourse on Clubhouse.”

Some attempts to use Clubhouse as a direct public relations vehicle have flopped, said Mary Keane-Dawson, group CEO of the influencer marketing agency Takumi. In one room Keane-Dawson listened in on, a group of fast fashion executives attempted to extol the values of their respective brands, including some dubious sustainability efforts. The audience “booed” the participants, she said.

Keane-Dawson said that “brands with a depth of narrative” like heritage fashion houses will likely have better luck.

So far, the most successful brand experiments on Clubhouse have been less about driving consumers to an e-commerce site and more about communicating values. Prabal Gurung and Phillip Lim joined Susie Lau, Tina Craig, Allure editor-in-chief Michelle Lee and Bryan Yambaoto discuss the #StopAsianHate campaign, for example.

“We should not underestimate the power of the intimacy of audio,” Keane-Dawson said. “The spoken word is very, very powerful.”

Related Articles:

How Fashion Can Leverage the Audio Appeal of Clubhouse

How to Work With TikTok Talent

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