Hitha Prabhakar is a retail industry expert and principal of The Style File Group, a retail consulting firm based in New York City. She has also written about fashion for Forbes.com, Time magazine, People magazine, People.com, ELLE India, Metro Newspapers, and is a contributor on CNBC. Follow her on Twitter at @hithaprabhakar or @stylefilemedia.
What’s the hottest trend in fashion right now? Social media of course.
As part of fashion week prep on Wednesday, I decided to do a quick search for #nyfw (New York Fashion Week, going on right now in New York) on Twitter (). To my surprise, conversations ran the gamut — some Tweeters chimed in about the pending snow storm waiting to blanket the city, and others were buzzing about the Alexander Wang, Marc Jacobs and Rodarte shows being streamed online. When I turned away for half a second (literally) to grab my coffee, I was met with the words “43 more tweets since you started searching.” 43 more tweets? Really?
What was most shocking wasn’t the sheer volume of people talking about the week-long event, but the actual people who were participating in the conversation. Journalists, fashion incubators, retail gurus and people who were just plain interested in the industry were weighing in on a topic that has notoriously shut its doors to anyone deemed an outsider. Why the transparency now?
“People want to feel connected,” says Kelly Cutrone, owner of People’s Revolution and executive producer of reality TV series on Bravo Kell on Earth. Cutrone has orchestrated the campaigns of hundreds of clients, including Donna Karan and Lisa Marie, and has always incorporated a digital strategy when working with them. “It’s one thing if you are a luxury brand and have been around for 60 years and can weather the retail storm we’ve had, but if you are a new brand that’s just starting out — whether you are a writer or a retailer — innovating through social media is crucial. Those that are hidden and guarded will not progress.”
In the past six months, the amount of fashion insiders embracing social media has skyrocketed. On any given day (depending on who you are following) you can learn that Marc Jacobs president Robert Duffy is still pondering locations for their rapidly approaching fashion show. You might know that designer Rachel Roy had an interview with a media outlet, or that designer Tory Burch is hoping to see models with “some meat on their bones” in her show. By letting the public behind the fashion influencer curtain, stalwarts and luminaries have created and connected to an entirely new audience, and capitalized on the 400 million Facebook users and more than 22 million Twitter users. Social media, it seems, has become the hottest trend since skinny jeans and stiletto heels.
“Ignoring the Internet [and social media] is madness,” says designer Diane von Furstenberg who has been advocating for transparency in the fashion industry for years. “We decided to have a presence because it was a very organic way for us to communicate online. And yes, we think about [transparency] but don’t worry too much. We try to keep the focus on the clothes that are in the store, or buy now and wear now, not what is on the runway. But people will always get access to that as well.”
With her following at over 22,000, von Furstenberg is one of the most beloved and popular designers on Twitter. And while that number doesn’t seem high compared to the 4.5 million followers Ashton Kutcher has, von Furstenberg’s followers are loyal key influencers whose voices hold a certain amount of authority not only in the fashion industry but also in high-tech social circles.
The viral marketing capabilities of re-tweeting by this targeted group is something an advertising budget cannot buy. Within the last year of having a major online and social media presence, von Furstenberg’s online traffic has increased by 13% and sales “have been great” according to a source in the corporate offices of DvF.
“Brands are learning how to humanize without killing their mystique,” says Shiv Singh, VP and global social media lead at Razorfish and author of Social Media Marketing for Dummies. “You look at brands like Chanel, who have pushed designer Karl Largerfeld into the social media sphere to further connect with their customers, or Victoria’s Secret, who has 2.63 million fans on Facebook and 1.7 million for Pink — you are able to see how these brands are able to connect with their customers and monetize on it through awareness, loyalty and engagement.”
Likewise, Burberry who launched the “Art of the Trench” campaign last summer shot by photographer Scott Schuman saw incredible success by having fans comment on the pictures. Schuman, who has launched himself into the fashion stratosphere with his photography blog “The Sartorialist” says he has never updated his Twitter account (he claims it is someone he doesn’t know who is posting) but has upwards of 34,000 followers. “The Burberry campaign was the first of its kind to not use a large budget for hair, makeup and models. They got me, and my style of taking photos, and it allowed us to communicate with the customer on a whole new and very real level.”
Not Everyone is Ready to Take the Plunge
Wesley R. Card, CEO of Jones Apparel Group explained at the WWD CEO Summit last November that transparency and lack of control over what is being said online is a worrisome issue. “As a chief executive, you want to think that you have complete control over what is being said about you or your company, and you want to make sure what you are saying isn’t getting misconstrued. Even though I know we need to embrace it as a corporation, I am a little apprehensive.”
Even with those who are tentative or might not understand social media completely, the Fashion Week gods, i.e. the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) and IMG (who produce the shows at the tents in Bryant Park), have also decided to let bloggers populate the front rows, and have established WiFi areas instead of putting the kibosh on their coverage.
The Blogosphere is Getting Access
Nichelle Pace, blogger and owner of the site STYLEMOM, who has been covering the runway shows for three seasons, noticed a significant change in tone of responses when requesting coverage of the shows this season. “The ice has definitely thawed,” she notes. “I have a lot more [invites] to shows this year and publicists are more willing to float me images post-show if by chance they are over capacity and I can’t cover it.”
Another major change is that the dialog between designers, bloggers and social media gurus has opened up. Designers understand their customers are consuming media at mach-5 speeds. Likewise, magazines realize it’s not about printing information three months after fashion weekends. “I think it’s going to be more and more important to get stuff up on the web — images, reviews, interviews, etc. — as quickly as humanly possible,” says Lauren Sherman co-editor of Fashionista.com. “People read what they see first. I think magazines in particular need to figure out a way to cover the shows more uniquely in print because by the time the September issue comes out, no one cares anymore.”
Joe Zee, creative director at ELLE Magazine says that just like in most give-and-take relationships, it’s a compromise. “I’ve always been about what the ‘next big thing’ is. Please, I was the one that would help my grandmother put the VCR together when I was little and got a Tivo 15 years ago. People fear what they don’t understand, but trust me, magazines, designers and retailers are getting to understand what social media is faster than they can say ‘that’s fabulous.’”