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Op-Ed | Fashion’s Hashtag Cults

Designers are using social media to amass virtual nations of followers.
Olivier Rousteing with #BalmainArmy members Lily Donaldson, Sigail Currie and Jourdan Dunn; Dolce & Gabbana Spring/Summer 2015 | Source: Balmain, Dolce & Gabbana
By
  • Liroy Choufan

TEL AVIV, Israel — Sometimes, a hashtag can make quite a statement. On May 18th, Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain, announced the brand's collaboration with H&M in a press release in which he referred to "#HMBalmaination: a movement of togetherness, fueled on a hashtag."

#HMBalmaination is an evolution of a similar hashtag previously used by Rousteing, who is no stranger to leveraging social networks. Anyone following his popular Instagram account can see that #balmainarmy is one of his favorite hashtags, especially when his posts include characters other than himself, all decked out in his designs.

But Rousteing is not alone in this approach. This idea of defining a designer's entourage has become a critical marketing tool in today's fashion industry. In this context, consider Riccardo Tisci, creative director at Givenchy. Not only does he use the popular hashtags #gang or #family to define the members of his clan (he recently went so far as to Insta-adopt Donatella Versace), but some of his biggest commercial hits, like his printed t-shirts, covered with numbers or dark symbols, encouragethe interpretation of his brand as a cult.

A similar principle is also employed by Dolce & Gabbana, whose designers have embraced the idea of a Dolce & Gabbana “family” (#dgfamily) to such a degree that they have not made do only with family-oriented marketing campaigns and a runway show full of models carrying babies (with the word ‘Mamma’ appearing ubiquitously), but have even managed to get themselves entangled in politically conservative statements on the definition of the word.

It is the designer who assumes the role of leader. It is he who determines the concepts that drive the collections. It is he who communicates with fans via social media. It is he who coins the hashtag.

Family, gang, army or nation — call it what you will. Why do designers who are active on social media need these rhetorical tools — which distinguish one clan from another — more than before, despite the supposed openness and interconnectedness of platforms like Instagram and Facebook?

Perhaps it’s worth considering these moves in the context of agrowing thirst for group identity as being a response to globalization and other breaches of traditional boundaries (the same drive which has fueled the rise of the political rightin various parts of the world, from Israel to Great Britain).

Nicola Formichetti, the artistic director of Diesel, noted in a lecture this week at the Shenkar fashion academy in Tel Aviv that, amongst the younger generation on social media, openness is giving way to closed societies. Replies, comments and 'likes' from group members are considered more valuable than those from just anyone.

The use of cult concepts like family, gang or nation forces us, at least sub-consciously, to choose sides and requires greater loyalty to the head of the cult, because, of course, every army has its commander, every family has its head. Not surprisingly, in fashion, it is the designer who assumes the role of leader. It is he who determines the concepts that drive the collections. It is he who communicates with fans via social media. It is he who coins the hashtag.

The result is the creation of designer-led virtual fashion nations, which have their own internal hierarchies and differentiate between those who participateand those who do not. There are people who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’ and those who determine who is ‘in’ and ‘out.’ In short, hashtags like #HMBalmaination contain the psychology of fashion in a single word.

Otherwise put, designers are using social media in order to realize a kind of megalomania. In fact — and perhaps by inference from one of the arguments made by trend forecaster Li Edelkoort in her latest manifesto — this might be interpreted as the next step in the development of designers as rock stars à la Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme, who first assumed this role — only, today, they are no longer rock stars, but emperors.

Obsessive hashtagging reflects a process of amassing power and it won’t be long before this kind of designer, who has such obedient admirers that they tag their photos upon a simple command, becomes the greatest threat to fashion brands and their backers. Indeed, what happens when the first such designer turns on his own fashion house and takes his virtual nation with him?

Liroy Choufan is the editor-in-chief of TheCritical-F, a fashion website based in Tel Aviv.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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