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How TikTok changed fashion

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The most famous scene in the most famous movie about clothes, “The Devil Wears Prada,” explains in 90 seconds how the machine of fashion works.

Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the editor in chief (and Anna Wintour avatar) of the Vogue magazine stand-in Runway, oversees a run-through of photo-shoot looks, deciding between two belts while a pre-makeover Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) and her split ends observe.

“It’s a tough call,” says a stylist urgently, holding the indistinguishable belts before Miranda’s exacting gaze. “They’re so different.”

Andy snorts, and the fashion vipers snap their necks to her. “I’m still learning about this stuff,” she bumbles in her defense. And thus begins an epic dress-down: Miranda traces Andy’s “lumpy blue sweater” from a 2002 Oscar de la Renta collection of cerulean dresses to Yves Saint Laurent cerulean jackets and through department stores until it “trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner, where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance bin.”

The message was that the decisions made in that elite room determined what everyone buys: “You’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room, from a pile of ‘stuff.’”

This monologue is still cited today as an example of how fashion works and, more importantly, as an explanation of why it matters. You may think that people swiping through runway images on vogue.com or spending hours choosing between two black dresses are wasting their time, but whether we know it or not, we are all a part of a great chain of style. (Kumbaya!)

On Monday, the Met Gala — known as the Super Bowl or the Oscars of fashion, celebrating the annual Costume Institute exhibition and the continued dominance of Wintour — will cement the end of that chain of influence.

One of this year’s sponsors is TikTok, which arrived in the United States in 2018 as a global version of the Chinese app Douyin. This has raised eyebrows as, per a bill signed into law late last month, the app faces a ban if its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, does not find a new owner in about nine months. Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s CEO, is expected to attend the gala.

More controversial may be Vogue’s financial embrace of the platform that has ushered in the irrelevance of high fashion: putting fast fashion and outrageous trend cycles in focus and redefining who determines what we wear. It has made personal style more important than fashion — a positive change for consumers, but one that has sapped designers of their creative authority.

A decade ago, Instagram uprooted the front rows of fashion shows, replacing fading editors with bloggers, then influencers who raved about brands they loved (often for a paycheck from those brands). It made designers reorient their work to favor front-facing, even flat clothing. But Instagram and fashion became fast and happy bedfellows, with former Wintour protégée Eva Chen becoming the de facto fashion director there after the Condé Nast title she edited, Lucky, folded.

In retrospect, the Instagram model of influencing was a simplified version of what magazines and fashion ads had always done: It pushed people to buy things through aspirational imagery. The media updated its model and threw the rest out, and the bloggers who once threatened the influence of veteran editors are either no longer front-row fixtures — Rumi Neely (Fashion Toast), Tavi Gevinson (Rookie), Scott Schuman (the Sartorialist) — or, like photographers Tommy Ton and Phil Oh, are part of the firmament they once challenged.

TikTok’s effect on fashion has been far more disruptive, upending the system Miranda Priestly championed. Changes in fashion — whether they be hemlines, colors or the way we think about and shop for clothes — no longer begin with designers, marketing executives or even influencers. Now, it is the Andy Sachses of the world who shape our opinions about style and clothes. (That lumpy blue sweater? Maybe she’s just having a rat-girl winter!)

They may not have the traditional tokens of power. (Few of TikTok’s influencers, or creators, are fashion-show mainstays, and it’s unclear whether any TikTok power users will even attend the Met Gala.) But they have taken the reins, wielding information about fashion as a new way to “consume” clothes, and making brands their own worst publicists.

Mandy Lee, a trend forecaster on TikTok, sees the winds changing. “The influence that has come from TikTok is way bigger than anything from Instagram ever was.”

The rise of TikTok coincided with the arrival of ultrafast fashion, putting companies such as Shein and Zara at the center of consumerism, rather than the brands they once knocked off. The coronavirus pandemic saw an explosion in downloads of TikTok, which surpassed 2 billion in 2020, and of Shein, whose app downloads nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020. TikTok was the center of Shein’s expansion plan: It worked with about 2,000 influencers in India, for example, before the country banned the app in 2020.

Global clothing production was already mounting before Shein came along: It doubled between 2000 and 2014, a United Nations report stated, with shoppers buying 60 percent more than they did in the early 2000s. But Shein upped the ante: Its website adds an average of 2,000 new products daily, and it allegedly made $10 billion during 2020 and nearly $16 billion in 2021.

Shopping online became an activity and a performance unto itself, with haul videos showing people unpacking shocking heaps of cheap garments. Here was the first hint of the end of fashion’s fantasy machine. Traditional e-commerce is like reading a magazine, with products organized around trends and ideas: “Boho is back!,” claims Asos over a selection of hippie garments, while Net-a-Porter advertises “wanderlust dresses” for a tropical getaway. Shein’s categories are things such as “real,” “glam,” “chic” and “chill.” You have to find the patterns connecting the things you bought or put in your cart or even just browsed.

TikTok was the perfect place to tease out those patterns. Early on, it became a place for armchair sociology, speechified think pieces and eyebrow-waggling conspiracy theories. Suddenly, everyone was Roland Barthes with a great manicure and a tiny microphone. And that kind of thinking worked on every level of garment, not just for items that cost $20.

Recall the mania over the $490 tulle strawberry dress by New York designer Lirika Matoshi. What might once have been called by a retailer, magazine or designer something bland but broad, such as “fairy tale maximalism,” became cottagecore — an emblem of our desire to disappear into the simplicity of country life during our troubled times.

Cottagecore wasn’t the first of the past decade’s specious trends — 2014’s normcore, anyone? — but it captured national attention as a classic TikTok trend: not simply an article of clothing or a mood transmitted through garments, but a lifestyle.

Over the next three years, absurd trends flooded the platform: “night luxe,” “coastal grandmother” and “clean girl,” each with a highly specific set of principles, imagery and even beauty standards. They were usually framed as rejections of what came before. The “mob wife” aesthetic, for example, was contextualized as a brash, dramatic and flashy rebuttal to the clean girl aesthetic, which encouraged women to be contained, efficient and beige.

“People on TikTok started to realize that they could go viral if they had a really pithy aesthetic name,” says Casey Lewis, who started her newsletter, After School, to chronicle these ridiculous trends.

There was even a trend for anti-trends: “quiet luxury.” Pitched as the ultimate dunk on all the trends that came before it, it claimed that people who really have money and taste wear understated labels that you’ve never even heard of.

TikTok became the guide, or the compass, for consumers to navigate and make sense of fast fashion, and then everything else.

“Young people always have this desire to go to Goodwill and try on different identities. And maybe we didn’t have the same sort of vocabulary to put aesthetics to it, but there’s always been this sense of, ‘Who am I?’” Lewis says. “The newer element is sharing online — the performative aspect.”

But fashion media took this experimentation as gospel. When Lee made a video in October 2021 predicting the return of what she called “indie sleaze,” or the “amateur-style flash photography” and “opulent displays of clubbing,” Dazed magazine wrote a story about it within a week. GQ, British Vogue, Vogue, Highsnobiety, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and Refinery29 heralded its return, and anything remotely related to mid-2000s indie rock or American Apparel was seized upon as proof.

Designers seemed to ignore all of this. Hedi Slimane, the elusive designer behind the French luxury behemoth Celine, showed a collection online in 2020 called “The Dancing Kid,” with young people in ensembles that painstakingly re-created the slapdash, subculture-agnostic mixing of styles and signifiers worn by teenagers in dance videos. And there were certainly “viral” products that came from designers during this period, such as Miu Miu’s miniskirt in 2021, or Alaïa’s mesh ballet flats last summer. But they became hits because TikTok creators promoted and contextualized them.

Otherwise, high-fashion brands spent the past four years pitting themselves against each other in a race for record profits and, seemingly, aesthetic insignificance. They raised their prices to astronomical heights, which may be why the shame of what were once called “knockoffs” has been rebranded merrily as “dupes.” It is almost impossible to trace anything about the way we shop, dress and talk about clothes to something a fashion designer created.

In a way, you couldn’t blame the designers for ignoring TikTok trends. They moved so quickly that it was hard to know whether they were even real.

“On TikTok, your main feed is random,” says Lee, who first went viral in April 2021 for questioning whether these trends were genuine. “The power of the algorithm is convincing you that, [for example], red gingham shorts are everywhere.”

Already, performative trends are fading from influence. But that way of dissecting and understanding fashion — yapping, as some affectionately call it — is the way most young people talk about fashion now. Designer decrees are almost meaningless; brands seem to exist to offer up stuff for consumers to unpack online. In late 2022, Slimane, one of the original architects of 2000s style, produced his own indie sleaze collection: Here was the man who put the world in skinny jeans revisiting a look that he had created, and it all began with the yapping of one TikToker.

For the old guard of fashion, TikTok has made it less powerful and yet more popular.

James Nord, the founder of the influencer marketing agency Fohr, points out that the brands that have become successful on TikTok are the ones that have eschewed social media. “Hermès and Chanel just seem to be killing everybody,” he says.

Someone like Charles Gross is arguably better at explaining a brand than a brand would be. A 29-year-old creator in New York with glowing skin and a humming, ASMR-ish voice, he has built a career from explaining the minutiae of luxury brands on the platform.

“Even if someone doesn’t ever want to buy an Hermès bag, they make it almost difficult to even learn about these bags unless you have the money,” Gross says. “Whereas if I want to see a [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, which I will never be able to afford, I can go to a museum and for a nominal fee — in some cases, it’s free — I can see one, learn all about it and move on with my life. There’s no barrier to some of the most expensive things in the world.”

And creators who hew closer to the traditional influencer model have made the self-seriousness of expensive clothes seem outdated. “I always wanted to bring the relatable to luxury. That’s what I was able to do on TikTok,” says Izzi Allain.

Allain, 25, celebrates the absurdities of designer fashion: dresses designed to look wet, shoes that look like bear feet and outfits made entirely of latex. She brandishes lube to yank her latex on, or struggles to pick something up while wearing a stiff wood corset. “The luxury that we saw before was more like just perfect and a bit more cold,” she says.

TikTok has not democratized fashion, but made it seem less remote. You can mock Allain’s outfits, enthuse over them or both — a privilege that few other platforms allow.

@jesicaelise

Replying to @SuperViviers related: its funny how no one wants to get rid status; they just want greater access to it for themselves. it’s gross, really.

♬ original sound – Jesica

Jesica Wagstaff, 42, says that the TikTok feed has broken down the social hierarchy of fashion taste-making. “We have always, especially in the United States, treated fashion and the arbiters of fashion as authorities on not only how we present ourselves, but how we are in public life and how we interpret others in public,” says Wagstaff, who went viral for her assessment of the Hermès lawsuit filed by two Californians who claim that they are unable to buy Birkins. Now anyone can be that authority: “Fashion is just not as much this inaccessible thing,” she says.

TikTok has made people believe that commenting on, or even just knowing about, fashion makes them a participant.

That’s probably true. Hermès, the Row and Loro Piana, which became ubiquitous on TikTok as users competed to define quiet luxury, could tell their own story about craftsmanship and heritage and scarcity, Nord says. They haven’t, and yet “there is a broad cultural awareness that [these brands have] now,” thanks to creators like Gross and Wagstaff.

We once looked to designers to tell us something about the times we live in through explorations of craft and identity. Rei Kawakubo and Alexander Wang, for example, both made collections a decade ago that commented on the increasingly flat nature of visual culture created by Instagram. Save for Miuccia Prada’s ongoing hilarious deconstruction of American prep at Miu Miu or John Galliano’s Maison Margiela couture show in January, designers seemed to have ceased making collections that challenge or focus the way we see beauty and modernity, or simply influence the way we dress ourselves.

They now seem more invested in reflecting the way we already dress — which is shaped by TikTok. Instead of big ideas, this past season, designers were talking about personal style — the latest obsession on TikTok following the microtrend frenzy.

For some designers, such as Tibi’s Amy Smilovic, this has been positive. She uses TikTok to offer advice on how to style a limited wardrobe of wearable pieces, which has helped her nearly three-decade-old brand skyrocket. “It’s given me the confidence to double down on things that I had always wanted to do, especially for a brand like us that really just did not have any voice in any traditional media,” she says. “It’s been very liberating.”

Backstage at his February show, Dries Van Noten said his collection was about a woman who “decides herself what she wants to wear, so it’s about style and not so much about fashion.” It’s a rosy idea, but it also felt like a shrug. Less than three weeks later, Van Noten announced his retirement, bringing an end to nearly 40 years of collections that asserted that beauty and newness are more interesting than novelty.

Now, novelty begins with the lumpy blue sweater that was once fashion’s endpoint, rather than the designer collections that inspired it. It’s more affordable, and a richer text. And there are dozens of options — or, shall I say, dupes — on Shein.

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