This summer, TikTok users around the world received a crash course in how to apply to an elite sorority.
Panhellenic hopefuls from the University of Alabama with handles like “whatwouldjimmybuffetdo” and “dollypartonwannabe02” flooded the short video app with their “OOTD” — outfit of the day — the mimetic dresses and skorts they would be donning for cryptically named events: sisterhood, philanthropy, pref and the all-important bid day, when houses accept or reject sorority hopefuls.
It was an unusually public glimpse into a cloistered world, where the trials and tribulations of rush week are more typically discussed in country club hallways and magisterial white mansions on Southern college campuses.
For many watching on TikTok, the clothes were just as much a revelation.
From their dorm rooms, PNMs (that’s potential new members to the uninitiated) identified their rings, necklaces and bracelets as “Shein,” “normal,” and “mee-maw’s.” They showed off their Eirmish (pronounced much like Hermès) bracelets and dress after dress from The Pants Store, whose name proved misleading. Certain brands — Hello Molly, Golden Goose, LoveShackFancy and Kendra Scott — were ubiquitous.
All told, the most popular hashtags, including #rushtok and #bamarush — generated at least $4 million in earned media value (EMV) over the week, according to Tribe Dynamics, though most of the college students may have slipped through the database of influencers it tracks. That’s on par with a major brand campaign; Coach’s “Coach TV” ads starring celebrities such as Megan Thee Stallion and Jennifer Lopez averaged about $3.8 million in EMV per month. For some labels, going viral on social media was an unexpected windfall. But for many, their inclusion in the #rushtok phenomenon was the result of years of assiduously courting college-aged Southern-based young women.
Their success offers a glimpse into the goofy, creator-centric, subculture-gazing and hashtag-driven future of fashion on the platform for brands that invest in community-building. Omnipresence in niche segments can quickly turn into mainstream exposure, and eventually, sales.
“The brands that are blowing up — It’s not by chance,” said Megan Jones, partner and vice president of marketing at January Digital. “They’ve already put this work in. They really aren’t lucky. They’ve prepared for it, they’ve researched this consumer. And most importantly they’ve put forth and invested in a strategy that thrives in this sort of environment.”
Why Everyone Was Watching #BamaRush
Part of what made #bamarush a viral trend was that many who encountered it, from office workers in New York to moms in Oregon, were confused about how they ended up getting served so much content from Tuscaloosa PNMs in the first place.
TikTok’s algorithm is quick to pick up on recurring topics, however narrow, and recommend them to a broad swath of users. If those early videos see strong engagement, they’ll be recommended to even more people, creating a feedback loop, said Marc Faddoul, an AI and algorithm expert at the University of California Berkeley. The same goes for brands; when college-aged women began tagging Kendra Scott or LoveShackFancy en masse, it likely caught the attention of the algorithm.
The algorithm reinforces biases: many viewers will watch videos featuring conventionally attractive people for longer, whether they realise it or not, Faddoul said. For much of its existence, TikTok has faced criticism for promoting homogenous beauty standards that put creators of colour at a disadvantage. Black creators behind viral dance trends can find their videos reach a fraction of the audience of the white women who mimic their moves. The imitators then go on to fame, garnering brand deals and appearances on Jimmy Fallon.
For better or for worse, the University of Alabama’s rush week, mainly featuring white, thin, blonde women, was tailor-made for TikTok. The Alabama sorority system and Greek life on US college campuses have a history of exclusion. Alabama’s Panhellenic Association, the governing body for the school system’s sororities and fraternities, only officially desegregated in 2013. It’s clear from the videos it remains a white-dominated space. Makayla Culpepper — better known as “whatwouldjimmybuffetdo” — was one of the few mixed-race PNMs to go viral on TikTok. She was eventually rejected by all houses. (She did not respond to requests for comment.)
Laying the Groundwork
Texas-based jewellery brand Kendra Scott spent years glueing itself to the segment that gave it TikTok notoriety. With its sparkly, bright-coloured gems, the jewellery is a mainstay in sorority culture and among young Southern women, thanks in part to an ambassador programme where over 200 “Gems” promote the brand on more than 100 campuses.
#Rushtok is helping the brand find a new audience. Last week, Kendra Scott registered a 17 percent increase in new visitors to its site.
“It takes one moment and we are a very blessed beneficiary, right now, of moments going viral,” said Mindy Perry, Kendra Scott’s chief marketing officer.
LoveShackFancy has hosted graduation drinks and events around colleges campuses before, and is considering more elaborate activations, including a mini bus to match its mini skirts, and a sorority house makeover competition.
The brand already has a formidable presence on TikTok: organic clothing unboxings and “hauls” are a pillar among certain influencers. The brand responded to #rushtok by posting a recruitment outfit “inspo” video.
Dana Spinola, founder of Fab’rik, a boutique chain whose name was oft-mentioned in the TikTok videos, said a few years ago she banned sales associates from using their phones in the store. Now, she hires employees for their social media skills.
Culpepper is one of those employees, and counts almost 150,000 followers on TikTok after going viral with her “OOTD” posts.
“She puts on an outfit from Fab’rik and it will absolutely sell out,” said Spinola, adding that Fab’rik’s stylists work on sales goals, so Culpepper is compensated for the sales she generates. “She just opened up a really bright future for what’s next for her from a career perspective,” she said.
The Pants Store — an Alabama-based retailer founded by Taylor Gee in 1950, was one of the world’s most beloved ‘Bama discoveries. Gee built his business out of the back of his car, and the store’s motto became “stack em high, sell em cheap.”
The company focuses on the sorority and sorority-adjacent segment in its marketing — its TikTok videos regularly received thousands of views before the #rushtok craze. Keeping with the elder Gee’s ethos, it became known locally, and among collegiate transplants, as the go-to spot to grab multiple dresses for under $60, said co-owner and grandson of Taylor Gee, Michael Gee.
One of the reasons Gee thinks The Pants Store interested so many people is its quirky name. TikTok users began making videos sharing funny details about the store, or commenting on women pointing to their dresses and matter-of-factly saying “Pants Store.”
“People were amazed that there was a store called The Pants Store, and that’s what actually helped us during this whole TikTok sensation,” said Gee.
Completing the Sale
For the fashion industry, it was significant that so many of the viral videos were focused on individual items. Unlike Instagram, where shoppable posts featuring brands are the norm, TikTok is still proving itself at driving sales.
The Pants Store saw its out-of-state customers jump to make up 80 percent of sales last week, compared to 60 percent last year. The retailer’s web traffic and sales increased 465 percent and 652 percent, respectively, and the retailer gained 12,000 followers on TikTok, according to assistant social media director Skylar Fay Fuester.
Because TikTok users find videos via the algorithm rather than who they follow, brands need to prioritise working with creators in addition to their own accounts, said Mae Karwowski, chief executive of Obviously, an influencer marketing firm. That can mean trusting an influencer with a brand’s image. Fab’rik found Culpepper’s videos received more engagement on her own channel than when she made content for the store’s account, for instance.
Brands shouldn’t assume inclusion in a viral hashtag like #rushtok will immediately lead to sales. Young Southern viewers who are already familiar with the Greek subculture might impulse-buy a dress they see in a sorority video, said Jones, with January Digital. A user who sees these videos as entertainment akin to a reality show may not be jumping to purchase a sorority sister’s dress right away. But they will remember the brands they encounter and might shop them later, Jones added.
Feeding the Animal
#Rushtok reinforced emerging ideas about the way people shop — and especially that purchasing decisions can be inspired by more than a brand’s marketing campaign or a celebrity endorsement. Young women unknown beyond their immediate circle of friends became global influencers overnight, convincing viewers to don Golden Gooses alongside Amazon jewellery with phrases like “feel free to copy” and “Longchamp bags are back.”
Fast fashion brands like Shein have a firm hold on Gen-Z’s wallets. But, Gen-Z also loves being engaged in intimate ways: they want to see Kendra Scott comment on their posts, and Dolce Vita’s president imitate them in heels.
#Rushtok made $500 flouncy dress brand LoveShackFancy want to invest more in TikTok. The label’s curated, lifestyle-focused Instagram — full of flowers, garden parties and gilded hallways — helped establish it as the aspirational affluent Gen-Z uniform of the moment.
“It’s like this fantasy world that’s so fun, but also they can buy everything,” said founder Rebecca Hessel Cohen. “So it’s not like you’re walking into Versailles ... and you’re like — ‘it’s so beautiful’ but you can’t buy it.”
If fashion brands want a future with Gen-Z customers, they need to meet them on their platforms and learn to speak their often-goofy, meme-driven language.
“You’re not there and you’re not engaging with them in that informal way?” said Jones. “Then you can’t possibly create a long-term strategy, where you create a relationship with that customer.”
For Gee, owner of The Pants Store who spent years meeting his college-aged consumers on their home turf, the last week opened his eyes to all the business he could do nationally.
“We have a large social media presence and we’re just gonna keep hammering it, just keep feeding the animal — we just try and give them what they want, what they need,” said Gee.