The Influencer Revolution: Increased Accessibility & Super Fast Fashion

Sep 02, 2023
The Influencer Revolution: Increased Accessibility & Super Fast Fashion

This summer, as I interned in Chicago, I often walked down Michigan Ave., passing an H&M, Zara, and Levi’s routinely. Every couple of weeks, I noticed that the styles in the windows and the outfits toward the front of the store had been updated. As an avid Tik​​Tok user and fashion lover, I couldn’t help but notice the trendy summer styles displayed confidently in these fashion giants’ front windows were the same ones that decorate my TikTok’s “For You” page.

The similarities between online trends, perpetuated especially by TikTok, and mainstream fashion production are no coincidence. TikTok’s massive influence on the fashion industry has been made possible by something unseemly: everyday people posting on social media. Regular individuals, who routinely post their daily outfits, have been turned into “influencers” through paid advertisements, product placements, and Amazon storefront links. How is it, then, that these social media influencers have made such a visible impact on the fashion industry? 

According to Vogue, creativity and individuality are the key factors behind influencer success. Influencers gain fame by inhabiting a specific niche and providing value to their followers. For example, mega-fashion influencer Wisdom Kaye is known for his futuristic outfits and captivating video edits: He routinely styles challenging requests by his followers — even once accessorizing trash bags — and always surprising his audience with his ability to “make anything look amazing.” 

Similarly, influencer Madeline White amassed millions of followers through her candid “Get Ready With Me” videos in which she shows her personal process of styling an outfit in real time. As she gained success, White began implementing product placements in her outfits, advertising for select fashion brands. She also showcases the PR packages that she receives to her followers, demonstrating how fashion brands will attempt to build brand awareness by sending free items to influencers in the hopes that they will show the items to their followers. 

However, influencers are not stopping at monetizing TikToks — some have climbed to places previously only occupied by “nepo babies,” or children of mega-stars. Take Emma Chamberlain: As a high schooler, she cultivated a following from her personality-filled YouTube vlogs. Chamberlain, known for her coffee “addiction,” then launched her own coffee brand, created a lifestyle podcast, and, most shockingly, hosted the red carpet at the Met Gala for the third year in a row, styled by Miu Miu, a luxury fashion brand. The interesting thing about Chamberlain’s success in the fashion industry is that she never intended to occupy a fashion-related niche — her following and candid personality granted her access in the space. 

The story of Emma Chamberlain, common to many other influencers, reflects the increased accessibility in the fashion industry and a greater emphasis on fashion as a lifestyle. Yet one effect of this cultural change has serious negative implications: Influencer culture is ultimately fueling fast fashion. 

The life of trends has changed massively as a result of influencer culture: Trend cycles have shortened from 20 years to 10, while “microtrends” are becoming increasingly popular. Microtrends are defined by fashion influencer Mandy Lee as “singular pieces of clothing” that peak very rapidly. The resurgence of 2010s “Tumblr Twee” fashion, described as “tights under shorts, clunky loafers & Zooey Deschanel in ‘New Girl,’” reflects this unprecedented shift towards quick trend cycles. By promoting single garments or beauty products to their followers and using TikTok’s new in-app shopping feature, influencers are fueling the popularity of microtrends. It’s not uncommon for a style to be labeled as “so 2020,” and consequently, for consumers to swiftly purchase newer garments to stay in-line with trends. 

These shortened trend cycles have distorted consumers’ mindsets. A constant overturn and resurgence of trends discourages the development of one’s personal style, and instead encourages overconsumption and impulse purchasing. To stay on trend, consumers turn to cheaper, yet unethical, fashion brands. With in-app shopping features, such as tagging a link to purchase a garment on your Instagram photo, shopping is almost too accessible for consumers, fueling a culture of overconsumption. 

Fast fashion giants have capitalized on these rapid trend cycles, shortening production timelines, and mass producing at low costs to sell clothes for wickedly low prices — enabling mass overconsumption. This phenomenon is most disturbingly represented by fast fashion conglomerate Shein. As an online brand based in China, Shein’s creates a competitive advantage through shockingly low prices, including tops priced at $3, and a constant churn of new items. Shein takes full advantage of the influencer revolution, partnering with big and small influencers to promote massive clothing hauls and discount codes on already dirt cheap items. The incredible cheapness of Shein has raised suspicion among nonprofits and even governments, prompting investigations into its environmental and labor practices. 

Most notably, the Swiss Watchdog Public eye discovered informal factories set up in residential buildings, accusing Shein of violating Chinese labor laws. Channel 4 News released a documentary which uncovered that workers producing Shein clothing were paid only $20 per day, some of which was docked for product imperfections, and worked in unsafe conditions. Shein has also been accused of using cotton produced by forced Uyghur labor, an oppressed Muslim minority in China. As for Shein’s (over)production, the brand uploads up to 10,000 new styles a day on its app, and its extensive use of polyester is a big factor in its emissions — which amount to 6.3 million tons annually. 

In response to these accusations, Shein leveraged influencers in an unconventional way: The company sponsored an influencer trip to its manufacturing hub in Guangzhou, China. Shein attempted to use the trust and clout generated by personable influencers to repair its reputation. Initially, the trip seemed a success, with influencers gushing online about their interactions with “happy” workers. However, online hate was fast to follow: Many accused Shein of a blatant propaganda scheme, and some influencers terminated their partnerships with Shein.  

The influencer impact on fashion isn’t all gloomy, however. It has also brought sustainable fashion into the limelight and made the movement more popular. The hashtags “#upcycling” and “#thriftflip” have billions of views on TikTok, and videos using these tags promote sustainable fashion practices such as repurposing clothing and curating personal style. Some fashion influencers dedicate their pages to sustainability, showing off their upcycled outfits, and providing sustainable shopping advice. These “sustainable fashion influencers” also use their platforms to spread information about sustainability, and can be accredited with widespread popularity of sustainable habits among Gen Z. 

Ultimately, influencer culture has granted opportunities to more individuals for a prosperous career in fashion. Yet it has also normalized a mindset of overconsumption which has even found its way into “sustainable fashion,” as seen by the massive “sustainable thrift hauls” which still lead to waste. Fast fashion conglomerates have taken advantage of faster trend cycles by constantly churning out new styles, often at the expense of the environment and low-paid workers. 

Looking toward the future of fashion influencing, it’s imperative that sustainable fashion adopts a more mainstream role to discourage overconsumption and normalize considering the impact of one’s purchase. The rising popularity of upcycling, buying secondhand clothing, and “slow fashion,” which focuses on timeless, high-quality designs over trend-driven pieces, is a beacon of hope for sustainable fashion in the social media space.

Source: harvardpolitics