The Rise of 'Instagram Brands': How the Platform Is Leveling the Fashion Playing Field

As traditional business models continue to crumble, there's a new way to launch a fashion brand — but is it sustainable?
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Jordyn Woods in Poppy Lissiman sunglasses and an Orseund Iris top. Photo: Instagram/@poppylissiman

Jordyn Woods in Poppy Lissiman sunglasses and an Orseund Iris top. Photo: Instagram/@poppylissiman

At one point last winter, my Instagram feed was suddenly flooded with gingham, scalloped-edge, cut-out mini-dresses by a brand I'd never heard of (or seen for sale IRL anywhere) called Paris 99. I knew nothing about it or its founder — nor did my fellow Fashionista editors, who had also noticed it on their feeds — until it got a flood of coverage in outlets like The Coveteur, Refinery 29 and even the New York Times, in addition to a co-sign by the influential retailer Opening Ceremony, which picked up Paris 99 shortly after its debut. If you've heard of it or labels like LPA, Daisy, I.Am.Gia, Orseund Iris, Poppy Lissiman, Realisation Par, Cult Gaia, Miaou, Danielle Guizio and Fashion Nova, that's probably a pretty relatable scenario.

We all know that Instagram is changing the fashion industry; it goes without saying that a strong Instagram presence is a crucial component to any fashion brand that aspires to any significant measure of success, and that influencer marketing has become one of the most effective methods of building awareness and driving online sales. But all of these factors, in a time when both the traditional fashion calendar and the wholesale model have become less relevant, seem to have converged to create a new wave of "Instagram brands," which use the platform as a primary launchpad.

"I got my job from Instagram," says Pia Arrobio, almost incredulously. She founded LPA, a successful, affordable, Los Angeles-based, direct-to-consumer women's clothing line in partnership with Revolve and its manufacturing leg, Alliance Apparel, in 2016. She was leaving her job at Reformation, where she first witnessed Instagram's power to drive sales, when Raissa Gerona, Revolve's Chief Marketing Officer, reached out. At the time, Arrobio had a strong personal following on Instagram (which included Gerona), where she shared much of the work she did at Reformation. "What she noticed from what I was sharing was that I was capable of designing product; I was capable of marketing that product and I was capable of doing photo shoots with that product — and then I was capable of putting that product on people on Instagram who had influence," says Arrobio.

Pia Arrobio. Photo: Instagram/@piaarrobio

Pia Arrobio. Photo: Instagram/@piaarrobio

With that sentence, Arrobio might have laid out the foundation for a modern fashion brand. Traditionally, launching a clothing line has been insanely, prohibitively expensive. In a 2014 story, we had an advisor estimate that a designer would need between $2 million and $3 million to get a clothing line off the ground. It's why so many brands are founded by wealthy, privileged people — and those that aren't often struggle to establish themselves or end up in debt to investors. But now that brands can sell their wares and connect with consumers online, there's a little more wiggle room; Instagram has become one way to bypass many of the skills, schedules, events and other expenses and parameters that were once necessary in getting a line off the ground. "While press appointments and showroom visits are still crucial to help drive traditional buzz around a new product launch, Instagram is a sure way to gain global exposure quickly, (especially if you are working with influencers) and cultivate relationships with a community of potential customers," says Sarah Owen, WGSN's senior editor of digital media & marketing.  

In Arrobio's case, Revolve — an e-commerce site whose business model is largely based around influencers posting its wares and driving sales — was willing to handle all the production and logistics; she just had to work her Instagram magic. "Everything I do, from my wedding, to LPA events, to LPA clothing, to LPA branding is: Is that Instagrammable? Is that a photo moment?" she readily admits.

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Paris 99 was launched by 24-year-old art history grad student Paris Starn, who started making her own clothes while in college and posting herself in them on her personal account. After countless strangers, including stylists, DM'd her requesting pieces, she decided to take the time to launch the brand for real. Much of the press she got initially — press many brands couldn't get even with the most expensive PR firm on retainer, especially weeks after launching — came through her DMs. She continues to do everything on her own, producing her signature dresses locally with Instagram as her only marketing tool. "It's really an incredibly powerful tool for people who don't have investors or are small, taking baby steps just like me," she says of the platform.

This method of launching a brand is resonating with consumers, perhaps for the same reason influencers do. "Younger generations like Millennials and Gen Z respond to more 'real' influencers over celebrities and gravitate to the candid and authentic nature of those such as Pia Arrobio – her rawness and ability to embrace the unperfected world translate the highly filtered noise from other unbelievable social stars," says Owen. "Welcome to the age of 'brand-ships': The new form of relationships forming between brands and consumers where the brand acts more like a friend than a corporate entity, in which having an aspirational yet attainable face of the company helps foster a more intimate bond."

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that any brand can make its products go viral on social media, or that it's easy. Read on for a run down of what it takes, why it's beneficial, the challenges that can arise and whether relying so heavily on Instagram is really sustainable.

Connections help.

Let's be real: Despite the democratic nature of social media, it's unlikely for a designer to go from total obscurity to Instagram success overnight. A common thread for many of the "Instagram brand" founders I spoke with was that they already had strong personal followings, and/or friends with large followings. "I'd worked in fashion before so I'd been street styled and things like that and had interning jobs throughout high school," says Starn. Eileen Kelly and Paige Reifler were among the "friends" who modeled for her first Paris 99 shoot; they have 401,000 and 94,000 followers, respectively. Starn also interned at Opening Ceremony while in high school and remained close with the team there, which helped her land an exclusive with the retailer. In addition to having a significant following of her own, Arrobio is a close friend of Emily Ratajkowski, who wears LPA frequently at events and on Instagram for her 17 million followers.

However, some other brands just managed to connect with the right stylists. Australian accessories designer Poppy Lissiman — whose narrow, angular "Le Skinny" frames helped usher in today's tiny-sunglasses trend — has gotten her wares on Bella Hadid more times than we can count simply by reaching out to her stylist. "Shortly after that, they were wearing the product," writes Lissiman in an email. "It definitely gave the brand the validation to a wider audience."

In Starn's case, it was The Man Repeller's Leandra Cohen who really moved the needle. She happened to re-gram a Paris 99 post, resulting in 1,000 new followers for the brand. Lissiman had a similar experience. "Leandra was a big supporter of the brand and posted about our clutches when I first started accessories," she writes. "The trajectory of the brand back then was huge, and still to this day, I think the Man Repeller audience is one of the most responsive to new styles."

You need a product, and a price point, that lends itself to Instagram.

In addition to being distinctive and photogenic, the product should appeal to the sort of shopper who feels compelled to post photos, in general. That's exactly who LPA is targeting. "You wear it to a bridal shower or a baby shower, you wear it to brunch, and then maybe you don't wear the dress anymore," explains Arrobio. "I'm a fast-fashion brand. I'm not sitting in my office draping to classical music getting inspired all day long; I'm pumping out 40 things a month that I need to sell 100 of. It's fun and it's awesome, and fortunately that's how people wear clothes now."

Price point is also an important consideration; shoppers are less likely to make a significant investment in a piece that's super trendy or that they're only buying for a special event or night out. Lissiman attributes part of her success to that. "I jumped on the [narrow sunglasses] trend in the very, very early days and came in at the right price point," she explains. "Secondly, I think we live in such a digital (Instagram) world where the practicality of certain fashion items isn't necessarily as important as how fabulous they're going to look for that next selfie or social post. I certainly believe people have been making far more bold choices with their eyewear in recent seasons and the notion of needing them for blocking out the sun is becoming less and less relevant."

Wholesale becomes less of a necessity.

Lissiman also made the choice to stop wholesaling in 2013. (Before then, she had a ready-to-wear line.) "I was jaded by that side of the industry ... many accounts weren't paying or were demanding exclusive rights to the brand covering massive areas and then placing orders so small I simply couldn't survive on that business model anymore," she writes, echoing the frustrations of so many designers. "When I started accessories in 2014, the business model was to be only online, only through my own store, promoted through Instagram (with only gifting a small percentage as our marketing budget), and no wholesale. I also stopped adhering to seasons and simply released stock when I felt the need for new pieces or when it was financially viable. Suddenly the cash flow issues which had plagued the business before went away very quickly." Over the past year, she's dipped her toes back into wholesale, albeit in a selective way, "only with stores who are the right fit for the business." That includes cool and forward-thinking doors like Net-a-Porter, Kith and Galeries Lafayette, all of whom she works with directly.

For other brands, Instagram ended up being a path to wholesale, which is also a valuable means of exposure. The founders of Miaou, Daisy and Walk of Shame are among those who have gained Opening Ceremony as an account via DM. Likewise, the founder of Cult Gaia told us all of her wholesale accounts came through DM.

Miquela in Poppy Lissiman. Photo: Instagram/@poppylissiman

Miquela in Poppy Lissiman. Photo: Instagram/@poppylissiman

Keeping up that Instagram momentum is hard work and can even bleed into the design process

The trick, once you hit that initial Instagram ubiquity, is keeping it up. Most of the designers I spoke to, despite their clear affinity for and experience with the platform, felt insecure about their presence on it. "I actually think my aesthetic is a little too crowded; when you look at it from afar it's just way too much, but when you look at the individual photos [they] have so many things in them that they're very eye-catching, so I'm trying to figure out a balance between those two things," says Starn. "But I definitely plan to Insta every other day and I plan [them] out in advance."

Arrobio struggles with balancing the wealth of user-generated content from influencers and customers, which she reposts, with original content. "I shoot everything myself and I'm constantly trying to figure out when to do photo shoots and I'm always behind on that," she says. "I can just repost this and repost that, but then my brand won't have a soul, so I'm trying really hard to repost things to drive the sales that are necessary for me, but I also want to go to sleep at night knowing that my Instagram is a reflection of my brand in the truest form." She's also wary of "selling out" her personal account — on which she has 100,000 followers — by overly promoting LPA, even though she asserts that she is her own biggest sales driver. 

In addition, she feels constant pressure to create content at a breakneck pace. "Content now gets so old, so quickly. You used to be able to do a photo shoot, like, twice a month; now for every one photo shoot I do it's maybe two newsletters and probably four Instagram posts, so I need to constantly gift my clothes to get them on girls that are cool because I need that content," she says. "It's a lot of work to find girls that are on-brand, to literally send an email to coordinate all that."

Oftentimes, Instagram even factors into Arrobio's design process. "Even with the fabrics we pick ... I'll fall in love with a fabric then I'm like, that's not going to show up online and it's not going to translate on Instagram," she says.

There are some major benefits to being an "Instagram brand," like having a direct line to customers to interact and get feedback — something traditional retailers might have received through a brick-and-mortar store in the past. "I need that human interaction to validate what I do every day," says Arrobio. "I really can't think of a more beneficial way to have guidance so I can best serve the people who support me," echoes Lissiman.

But as with any type business launch, there are also downsides and risks — like overexposure of a singular style. "Ubiquity isn't necessarily a terrible thing for a brand just starting out," says Owen. "It's important that young brands eventually strike a balance, though, because overexposure might dilute the prestige of the product later down the line." Another problem is knockoffs: The more visible a brand is on Instagram, the more vulnerable it becomes. "If there is one negative to that kind of exposure that was had, it was that it opened that style up to being copied and flooding the market in the form of poorly made fakes," writes Lissiman.

There's also the fact that feeding into this cycle of styles being trendy and popular on Instagram for a blip doesn't really align with sustainability. Arrobio acknowledges this, but stands behind her business model.

"People post every goddamn thing all the time, and I feel bad catering to them. I want to be like, no, clothes need to have more value and we need to invest in pieces and here's how you build out a wardrobe, but what am I going to do, be a crusader against what's happening?" she asks. "I'd rather make sure that girls have a place to go to buy something last-minute that they think is really cute and they look really good in." And if Instagram stops driving sales the way it has been, she says she'll just pivots to what's next.

While some might say Instagram creates opportunities, critics and stalwarts of the old fashion system might argue that it's ruining, well, everything, and allowing people without any training to become successful without paying their dues. (Virgil Abloh is arguably the prime example in the luxury space.)

"People talk all the time about how Instagram's ruining this and Instagram's ruining that. Well, department stores fucked everything up for people," says Arrobio. "Things change constantly, so you adjust and you pivot with the change, or you sit there and feel bad for yourself and complain about it." Arrobio says that in school, she got bad grades and always thought she "would amount to nothing."

"My husband will be like, ugh, this guy only has this because of Instagram and I'm like, 'Good for fucking him then,' because it used to be that you had to be a hyper-intelligent human being to succeed."

So is that leveling the playing field or cheating the system? Like so many things about the fashion industry, that's probably something we'll be debating for years to come.

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