Kimberley Gordon knew exactly what she was doing with the Puff Dress, the voluminous, cupcake-like garment from her brand Selkie that's become a certified viral sensation. (On TikTok, the #puffdress hashtag currently has six million views.)
"I worked very diligently to get this to happen," Gordon tells Fashionista. "Every time I launch anything, I'm trying to get more people to see it and love it."
In 2018, after being pushed out of her own company (Wildfox, the late aughts favorite known for its cheeky T-shirts and tie-dye sweatpants), Gordon was eager to start anew. "Clothing is an accessory to our stories in life," she says. "I knew I wanted to make clothing that helped women tell their own stories. The women I want to cater to are fantastical girls who love their imaginations, who love dressing up, who have a very feminine side."
And so, Selkie was born, starting with wrap dresses — "lots of silk, very wearable" — and testing different styles and silhouettes before landing on the Puff.
"I had this dream of this dress," Gordon says. "It's like a piece of bubblegum. I wanted to make my first ever princess-y dress that was like a dessert — like a confection come to life for your body."
She also prioritized size inclusivity when launching Selkie. The Puff Dress, for instance, is available in sizes XXS through 5X. With the upcoming spring collection, the brand will extend its size chart to 6X. Ensuring that everyone can wear her dreamy, cloud-like designs is essential for Gordon.
"I get messages that have made me cry, things like, 'I've never felt this pretty in a garment before,'" she says. "That's an incredible thing to hear from someone. When they wear this dress, they get to celebrate themselves and have these pure joys of having a princess moment, even if it’s cliché."
Gordon theorizes that the timing of the pandemic actually worked in favor of the Puff: Selkie released the dress at the end of 2019, and, a few months later, with most of the world in lockdown, people were yearning for an escape.
"What happened was that everybody was stuck at home," she says. "All everyone had was Instagram. Because my dress is so photographable, it was this really fun way to still be social through pictures."
The widespread popularity of the Puff has also amounted to additional scrutiny. For example, the dress has been billed as a bit too fantastical for real-life wear — though, that criticism certainly isn’t specific to Selkie alone. The brand is just one of many riding the wave of princesscore, the "Bridgerton"-inspired aesthetic that encourages followers to dress like they're a character in a Hans Christian Andersen book. For some, the rise of this aesthetic is a welcome exercise in make-believe. For others, it's purely perplexing: Why would grown women want to dress like little girls, anyway?
"I don't think having a brand should make you so vulnerable to bullying or vitriol, but it does," Gordon says. "If you have something like the Puff Dress, and it does have a moment where it spreads, you do end up having some pretty horrible people come into your inbox. It can be really, really depressing to get through each day sometimes."
In addition to dealing with trolls, having a viral fashion hit can also mean feeling more urgency to deliver another overnight success.
"Going viral is a lot of pressure," says designer Susan Alexandra, who's best known for her colorful beaded bags and accessories. "There's no recipe to go viral. There's no equation. The only constants are pieces that are special, new and personal — and that's a tall order."
Alexandra launched her eponymous line in 2014, making jewelry out of her bedroom while working a retail job. Each hand-enameled bracelet took her an hour to make. She never had "a clear rule or guideline" in terms of the brand aesthetic. Instead, she's focused on creating pieces that represent that exact moment in her life. She "never in a million years" planned to use beads in her designs, she continues, but they quickly garnered the attention of the fashion set. It was thrilling, but the adoration was slightly overshadowed by extremely stressful situations.
"When the bags were first launched, they were handmade by one woman alone, and she could only make three bags a week," she says. "So while I was being relentlessly tagged on Instagram and pursued by the best stores in the world, I was miserable and unable to fulfill any orders. I felt like opportunities were slipping out of my hands."
Keeping up with demand is one of the many challenges designers face when a product goes viral. There's also the risk of getting pigeonholed and becoming a fashion one-hit wonder that's as fleeting and fickle as the industry itself.
"When Emily Ratajkowski carried our Gabbi bag in various colors on multiple different occasions, we were like, 'Oh my God, we're onto something!,'" she says.
Yet while the Gabbi is certainly "the frontrunner at the moment," according to Li, the brand is continually working on new styles that stay true to its aesthetic, but that also represent a slight departure from the viral product. Nineties nostalgia influenced past collections, weaving in elements like the scrunchie into the design of their handbags, but right now, the brand is channeling the resurgence of Y2K logomania with its own logo and monogram print.
"When I scroll my own Instagram feed and keep seeing some of my favorite influencers and editors with our bags, that’s a moment that I feel, 'Oh, maybe we've gone viral,'" Li says. "We certainly appreciate the attention from the fashion community, but we see it as support not only for our brand, but also for the vision and values we stand for: fashion, vegan sustainability and affordability."