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How Marc Jacobs and Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom Built Their Companies on Optimism

The pair discuss the photo-sharing platform — and the designer's Fall 2017 social media ban — at "Vogue"'s Forces of Fashion conference on Thursday.
Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an uplifting time to work on the internet. For the last, uh, however many months, us digital doers have been instructed to log off when possible and to seek device-free solace from an incessantly troubling news cycle. Alas, many — present company included — have turned to Instagram as both a resource and an escape, with the fashion business especially glomming onto the platform with an exponentially increasing frequency. Over the course of fashion month, Instagram's fashion community — which boasts 143 million people — garnered 709 million likes, comments, stories and posts, nearly triple the amount of engagement from the previous season.

In a discussion at Vogue's inaugural Forces of Fashion conference on Thursday, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom discussed the fashion industry's initial, and growing, attraction to the platform. It all began in 2010, when Systrom (and co-founder Mike Krieger) recognized a gap in the market that had just been made wider by an improvement in iPhone quality.

"Like me, you guys are visual," said Systrom to the audience. "Like me, you guys want to communicate visually, and your art and your work is visual. So, the two of those combined led to a natural marriage. You guys have all been kind enough to bring to Instagram your work and your passion every day."

Marc Jacobs, who sat on the panel with Systrom, was, he admitted, late to Instagram; the platform launched in 2010 and he didn't join until 2015, at which point the fashion community had already set up shop. (His brand's account, @marcjacobs, had already joined years earlier.) But he's all caught up now, updating his personal account (@themarcjacobs) with rapid-fire frequency; selfies (which he said get the most likes), behind-the-scenes snapshots and memes (as well as the accidental semi-nude image) all make an appearance on his feed and are often accompanied by lengthy, meaningful captions.

It was at this point in the panel that Jacobs referenced Instagram's potential inauthenticity, referencing "Black Mirror"'s now-infamous "Nosedive" episode. This notwithstanding, though, the platform has proven to be an overwhelmingly positive presence within the digital space. Systrom attributes much of this to Instagram's no-tolerance policy on trolls; the same, unfortunately, cannot be said about Twitter and its longstanding abuse problem.

How is it that Instagram can be so optimistic? Systrom began thinking about this particularly in-depth recently, as his wife is currently pregnant with the couple's first child. "I thought to myself, what legacy does Instagram want to leave in the world and how can we be a force for good? This kid's going to grow up in a world where Instagram is a force," he said. "How can we build technology for kindness, not technology for market capital margins?" He explained that his team took that on as a challenge, later realizing that they could use machine learning for this purpose to either identify bullying or ban trolls.

It's a responsibility Systrom takes seriously, addressing the platform's absolutely massive audience (which, as of last month, reached 800 million monthly users).

"You realize that what you do every single day affects a population twice that of the United States," he said. "If every single person in the United States counted twice, Instagram would still have more people using it every single month than live in the United States. We can't get 50 percent of the people in the United States to vote. So, we have to be optimistic because we're one of the only platforms that can influence the world in an optimistic way. If you look at the world, where are you going to get your optimism from? Certainly not the news."

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Jacobs, too, has built his namesake fashion company on similar ideals. Tolerance and acceptance are, of course, a cornerstone of the label, but so is the concept of being present — the latter of which may explain why he effectively banned phones and tablets from his Fall 2017 show.

"I got really pissed off, to be honest," he explained. "I was frustrated that you were offering a live experience that you worked on for months, only to have everybody holding up an iPad or a phone and not actually looking at the models as the walked down the runway or not actually experiencing something live."

But Jacobs said a friend encouraged him to adopt a different mindset that may have influenced his phone ban being lifted for his latest show last month.

"This is our experience right now," he said. "It's weird to have a phone up here or even in front of you at dinner. Now, it's just normal to have a phone with you, and I don't think it's a question of manners or not. It's just part of what our experience is with each other."

That Jacobs has such strong feelings is not surprising: Just as tolerance has become a tenet of his label, so, too has his resolve — something Jacobs and Systrom share.

"I think what you're going to find is [that] the best leaders in the world are the ones [who] take strong stances and push for them both inside and outside the workplace," said Systrom.

Right now, this week, today, this attitude — and this optimism — is seemingly more important to perpetuate than ever. "I'm a big believer in keeping my side of the street clean. I work with people and respect people as people. I address them by their name. And what I appreciate about them is what they bring. The whole [is greater than] the sum of its parts — man, woman, race, gender, whatever, it doesn't matter to me. I'm interested in people's talent, ability, creativity and energy. That's what I'm attracted to, that's what I look for, that's what lasts, that's what works."

The panel concluded with a sound bite from Jacobs that caused the room to burst into applause: "I do my best every day and again, try to surround myself with people who do their best every day. People who do their best every day. Not men. Not women. Not gay. Not straight. Not black. Not white. People."

Clearly, we are all ready to have some positivity in our lives.

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