The path toward becoming a well-known fashion designer has followed a rather traditional route over the last few decades: Attend a prestigious design school like The Antwerp Academy, Parsons or Central Saint Martins, intern for an established designer, then work behind-the-scenes until you either find yourself appointed creative director to a big brand or you launch an eponymous line of your own — or perhaps even both.
While fashion programs continue to churn out graduates who find work at some of the most storied European shops, today's up-and-comers have the option to venture down a different path, one that exists alongside the advent of social media. The phenomenon of Instagram brands — a brand which uses Instagram as a primary launchpad, rather than relying on traditional channels of marketing and education to enter the fashion space — has been slowly taking off over the past few years.
If you follow any influencers or celebrity style accounts, you've likely spotted a number of Instagram brands on your feed. Examples include I.Am.Gia and LPA, though mega-influencers like Alexandra Spencer and Teale Talbot, Danielle Bernstein and Chiara Ferragni, have launched Réalisation Par, Second Skin Overalls and Chiara Ferragni the brand, respectively. Perhaps the most successful example of a brand that has leaned on the social media platform to turn its founder with no formal design training into a respected tastemaker is that of Virgil Abloh's Off-White, which has documented Abloh's creative process on Instagram and solicits design ideas via comment and DM.
There are plenty of reasons to launch a brand on Instagram, rather than toiling through years of apprenticeship for a design house, only to eventually find that the costs of launching your own brand can be prohibitively expensive. There's the free(ish) marketing, the ability to connect with shoppers directly and across the world, as well as the freedom to produce garments at your own pace, without being subject to the fast-paced fashion calendar or wholesale buyers' demands.
Meanwhile, fashion students enrolled in world's top programs find themselves stressing out more over their senior theses than Instagram "drops." At a time when the value proposition of higher education is in question, given the soul-crushing burden of student loan debt and availability of resources outside of academia, how do fashion graduates actually feel about Instagram brands?
Shanel Campbell, who completed the Parsons graduate fashion program in Fall 2017, saw her own brand get a boost on Instagram when she dressed Solange Knowles for one of the school's benefits in May. But because she doesn't boast the number of followers of those aforementioned Instagram brands, she doesn't see the same benefits.
"For Instagram brands that are successful, they're making a lot of money compared to people who went to school and lost money, in a way," Campbell says, referring to the cost of higher education. "Granted, you have resources and a platform, but school is expensive and Instagram is free."
Of course, the price of tuition to a school like Parsons includes the very resources Campbell used to hone her skills, those that would land her internships at Thakoon and Kith, and eventually lead her to meetings with the Council of Fashion Designers of America to work on an upcoming presentation for New York Fashion Week.
"The kinds of resources that were available to me — a personal studio for my MFA, drafting tables where I could leave my supplies overnight without worrying about them, $2,000 irons to use on my clothes, professional cameras to shoot my work — there's no way a young designer can put all that together, plus a New York Fashion Week-scale show without the help we received," she says.
Some students, like Parsons and Fashion Institute of Technology graduate Xenia Amirah, received scholarships to lessen the financial burden of their education, allowing them to take on a formal education without the added stress of a looming student loan payment.
"I don't think I'm better than anyone because I have an education, and I respect people who learn the craft from family or YouTube or whatever," Amirah tells Fashionista. "But when you learn about all the things that go into making something, you respect the craft of design and artistry of the clothes. And if I'm going to work for myself, I need to articulate to people who work for me and with me what type of seam I want, or if you're working with a manufacturer, you need to know what you're talking about. That's how good clothes are made."
Ashley Romansko, a 2018 fashion graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, isn't so sure that influencers with clothing lines have pushed the bounds of good design with their work.
"I think it depends on the 'influencer,' but I haven’t seen anything that's caught my eye," she says. "I'm still trying to wrap my head around why a $2,000 T-shirt is the coolest thing on the market right now, but we can all agree whether we like it or not that the creators of these ideas are legendary right now."
While the focus on Instagram's relationship with budding fashion brands is often on how the platform may be leveraged to create buzz, one frequent criticism of Instagram brands is that they may lift design ideas from fashion design students and established designers alike.
"I've seen big name Insta brands copy from indie designers," Amirah says, citing Fashion Nova as one example. "That's why I refrain from posting my work on Instagram. You really can't protect yourself." (Indeed, legal protections for young designers, whose work may be stolen by a brand with a larger following and more resources, are few, and the process of litigating an intellectual property theft case is costly.)
Not all young designers are as cautious as Amirah, though.
"People have warned me about [copycats] and cautioned me to be more selective about what I share, but for me, sharing my work is the entire intention behind creating it," says Grace Insogna, a 2018 FIT fashion design graduate. "Of course, if someone rips off my design and capitalizes on it, with the means to produce it in a factory or something, that's my worst nightmare. But censoring yourself and not allowing your work to be seen by the world is counterproductive."
Ultimately, as long as consumers are using social media platforms like Instagram to discover new brands and engage with them, leveraging new platforms is a reality most young designers will have to face.
"These institutions have been in place for so long that people think it's the only way to find success as a fashion designer, but that's not true," Campbell says about fashion schools. "Instagram brands exist, they're not going away, and if they're successful and have a huge following, good for them."