Fashion designers use Instagram for inspiration, sounding board

New York TimesNovember 13, 2013 

A screengrab of Diane von Furstenburg’s Instagram site shows a variety of colorful shots from the designer. As designers turn to Instagram to take the pulse of shoppers, users are posting their way into designers’ consciousness, and, directly or obliquely, onto their runways.

COURTESY OF DIANE VON FURSTENBURG — <capitals>Courtesy of Diane von Furstenburg</capitals>

  • 9 stylish follows on Instagram

    @thesartorialist – Fashion photographer and blogger Scott Schuman captures striking street style.

    @takinyerphoto – Anthony Danielle captures street style in major cities all over the world.

    @streetstylish – Arianna Power snaps stylish Brits on the streets of London.

    @manrepeller – Leandra Medine is a popular fashion blogger with a humorous take on style.

    @dvf –Legendary fashion designer Diane Von Furstenburg is definitely doing Instagram right.

    @ryanplett – Photographer and entrepreneur Ryan Plett travels a lot and loves good shoes.

    @facehunter – Yvan Rodic, a Swiss photographer, author and blogger, has a great eye for capturing things of beauty.

    @susancernek – JCREW editorial and marketing director Susan Cernek (previously of Glamour and ELLE magazines) snaps stylish photos on her world travels.

    @toryburch – Famed designer Tory Burch posts photos of her own work and other beautiful things.

    Compiled by Brooke Cain

A compulsive snapper of all things stylish, kitschy or arcane, Susanna Lau, the blogger known as Susie Bubble, wandered earlier this summer through the Meiji Park flea market in Tokyo taking pictures of vintage Hawaiian shirts, toy robots and tiny Minnie Mouse dolls to upload to her phone.

A handful of years ago, she might have archived those images, marking them for her eyes only. Now, she has made them accessible to anyone with a camera phone and an Instagram account. So it didn’t surprise her, Lau said recently, that when she returned from her travels, “I saw some of my images on designers’ mood boards.”

Her experience is hardly unique. In recent months, designers of every stripe and aesthetic persuasion have turned to Instagram for a glimpse into the lives and tastes of their fans – bloggers such as Lau, stylists, models, artists and random visitors, who in turn are snapping and posting their way into designers’ consciousness, onto their mood boards, into ad campaigns and, directly or obliquely, onto their runways.

“Imagery is such a big part of how we get inspired,” said Jason Wu, a self-professed Instagram addict whose profile lists close to 85,000 followers and who routinely follows more than 150 users himself.

“You’re privy to their way of thinking, or at least what they want you to think,” Wu said. “And that changes the way we design.”

Since its inception two years ago, Instagram, with some 150 million monthly users, has emerged as a kind of visual Twitter. No surprise, then, that it is being exploited by fashion labels at every level of the marketplace as an image bank, a research tool, a showcase for their wares and now, most compellingly, a route into consumers’ heads. Fashion’s persistence in scouring the app for inspiration and feedback promises to turn the industry’s old hierarchy squarely on its head.

Crowdsourcing inspiration

“Traditionally, the fashion industry has been all about maintaining creative control,” said Maureen Mullen, who heads research for L2 Think Tank, which reports on and analyzes social media trends. But lately, fashion appears to be ceding some of that authority to the people who buy and wear their clothes.

“Designers are treating consumers like artists, people who for the first time are creating aspirational content that brands want to use,” Mullen said.

Diane von Furstenberg routinely scours the site for commentary. When she recently posted pictures of searingly colorful wildflowers, her followers promptly registered approval, some suggesting that they would make a fine print on a dress. Would she consider it? “It’s possible,” she said.

Von Furstenberg is not alone in harnessing Instagram’s formidable crowdsourcing powers.

“Instagram has changed my eye,” Nanette Lepore said.

And colored her runway, as well. Lepore’s spring show Wednesday was enlivened by a series of poppy prints, their subtly washed-out acid tones credible reproductions of the bleached-out colors and oddly ravaged effects shown in Instagram snaps by her fans. Late last spring, she tried to capture the irreverent spirit of the style-struck, snap-happy young denizens of Venice Beach in California in her resort collection.

“We were inspired by how these girls just go out in the street and take pictures of themselves,” she said. She integrated elements of their personal style into her show in June and into her advertising campaign as well.

It was but another instance of fashion labels “enabling everyone to feel like an author,” said Ferdinando Verderi, the creative director of Johannes Leonardo, an advertising agency for a variety of brands. Instagram, he said, “nourishes the significance of individual voices and the power of the one persona behind them.”

More engagement

By fostering relationships and encouraging the spontaneous exchange of ideas, Instagram has gained a measurable edge over YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr and even Facebook, which acquired the app in 2012 for $1 billion. A recent L2 study showed Instagram generating 25 times the level of engagement of other social media platforms, Mullen said.

Michael Kors, whose account shows more than 1 million followers, has been forcefully struck by its reach.

“I love that we can post a picture, and within a few hours, 10 or 20 or even 40,000 people liked it or commented on it or reshared it,” he said. “It makes connection possible on an incredible scale.”

The designer Wes Gordon has a company Facebook page. “But Instagram feels more personal to me,” Gordon said. “It’s a nice glimpse into someone’s world that’s real and not too affected.”

On occasion, he said, “A girl I’m friends with posts pictures of herself at a party or on vacation, and I’ll think, ‘Oh, she looks super cool right now.’ Those screenshots become part of my visual library.”

Such seemingly spontaneous images give Gordon and his peers insights into customers’ lives.

A virtual trunk show

The app’s influence is not always direct or easy to detect on the catwalk. But on their sites, and on the Web, designers post snapshots by their followers and cater to them candidly. Last month, Marc Jacobs featured an image of three dainty chain necklaces on his Instagram account. “Gold, rose gold or silver?” he asked, inviting fans to cast a vote.

In the broadest sense, Instagram functions as a crowd-friendly extension of the traditional trunk show, in which clients could order variations on a design.

“At trunk shows, we think of ourselves as co-creators with the designer we love best,” said Susan Scafidi, a professor and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School in New York. “Instagram takes the process to the next level and allows for mass collaboration.”

“As a crowdsourcing model,” she added, “it’s a new way to take some of the guesswork out of predicting consumer desires.”

Rebecca Minkoff, an early adopter of the app who has more than 250,000 followers, is prompter than most to incorporate users’ suggestions into her clothing and accessories lines.

“If a customer tells me, ‘I like a bag with gunmetal hardware, can you include it?’ I might,” Minkoff said. “If I can get 25 girls to request it, I will do the production.”

Honoring fans’ wishes is part of a broader agenda, she said.

“I want these girls to feel like they’re part of the creative process,” Minkoff said. “It definitely makes them feel more invested in the brand.”

Lead, don’t ask

Not every random visitor is fit to place her stamp on fashion.

“Fashion is supposed to lead consumers to unexpected places,” Verderi said, “not ask them where to go.”

Using the app to take the shopper’s pulse has its perils. Few visitors to a designer’s site can claim expertise. Nor does a “like” on the app signify commitment.

“On Instagram, people ‘like’ the things they find most extreme or eye-catching,” Scafidi said. “Those often are different from things one might actually buy.”

Such reservations have yet to sway Lepore, who has been transfixed of late by images of Andre Judd, whose posts she studies avidly.

“He’s always wearing the same paisley shirt,” she said. “He has the most amazing style. I may want to do a line one day inspired by some cool shirt this guy is wearing.”

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