Consume This! Fashion Influencers and COVID “Chic”

In this month’s blog post Jordan Foster uses his research on fashion influencers to discuss how conditions under the COVID-19 pandemic have shaped their work lives, and reflect on what issues and questions they as well as brands and consumers in the fashion world face in our current moment and going forward. 

— Richard E. Ocejo (Section Chair)

Consume This! Fashion Influencers and COVID “Chic”

By Jordan Foster, University of Toronto

Fashion influencers—bloggers, digital content creators and social media aficionados—have generated much attention in mainstream news media throughout the COVID19 pandemic. These news media suggest that influencers, owing to the precarity of their work aside shrinking advertising budgets and brands at the edge of bankruptcy, are losing their edge. For example, Cristina Criddle (2020), a journalist for the BBC News, explained that influencers’ contracts, press trips, and brand deals have all been “cancelled.” Amanda Perelli and Dan Whateley (2020) at Business Insider similarly reported that influencers’ collaborations and revenue streams have receded rapidly. 

For readers less familiar with influencers and fashion influencers specifically, we might think of these content creators as cultural intermediaries and arbiters of taste (Bourdieu 1984; Childress 2017). They are located between producers and consumers and they play an important role in framing purchases and establishing value. Fashion influencers, for example, tout their latest apparel purchases online, sharing with viewers their thoughts on the seasons’ most important staples, as well as secrets around how to style them and, of course, where to buy them.

Given the role that influencers play in framing purchases, they are sometimes critiqued for promoting (over) consumption or else (Hund and McGuigan 2019), tied to the reproduction of broader, largely class-based, inequalities in the consumer landscape. What with [some] influencers marketing the purchase of a new product every day, it isn’t hard to see why.

My own research addresses these critiques, shedding light on the work that influencers perform with a critical eye toward how this work has been shaped by the COVID19 pandemic. My recent correspondence with contacts in the industry, including social media influencers, advertising agents and public relations personnel, confirm that some news media speculation circling around influencers is, of course, true— brands are proceeding with increasing caution and some deals are falling or have fallen through. In part, this is because of broader contractions in the global economy that make consumer spending less likely and advertising more costly for brands. And because of public health restrictions that make influencers’ day-to-day work like high-production photoshoots and trips abroad more difficult.

Still these industry figures and influencers have managed quite well throughout the pandemic, with some reporting an uptick in their brand collaborations and advertising deals. Now, more than ever, they say, consumers’ eyes are on their screens, providing influencers greater access to social media followers and, importantly, more leveraging power to use against the brands and advertising agencies they work with. In fact, for some influencers the pandemic has provided new opportunities to sell consumer goods that might have otherwise fallen outside the scope of their aperture, including slippers and robes to wear around the house, home workout accessories, essential oils, and DIY project kits.

Throughout the pandemic, influencers have encouraged their followers to reimagine stay-at-home orders and nation-wide lockdowns in ways that are eye-catching, playful, and frankly, quite fashionable. Em Sheldon, for example, an influencer based out of the U.K. has devoted considerable time and attention to crafting content that is solicitous of public health advisories (image reproduced with permission), encouraging consumers to make the most of their present circumstances in lockdown.

But as restrictions loosen in fashion capitals such as New York City, London, and Toronto, influencers are stepping out of their homes, returning to city streets and well-worn hotspots. And, they’re poised to make social distancing “chic.”

As per their usual, fashion influencers are dressed to impress. Only now, their photographs might feature masks, gloves, and t-shirts embroidered with suggestions for social distancing. Their content is accompanied by written reflections on the global pandemic as well as “hashtags” like, #WearAMask and #StayAtHome.

On the one hand, social media influencers who encourage their followers to abide by social distancing and public health recommendations play an important role in modelling behavior and in providing much-needed caution to thousands and, in some cases, millions of social media users. Fashion influencers might be especially well suited to encourage social media users to purchase and wear facemasks (a contentious issue for some), demonstrating how these masks can be worn in normatively fashionable ways. Or else, direct followers to brands, local businesses, and independents who manufacture masks for fashion conscious consumers.

On the other hand, social media influencers risk appearing to capitalize on the tragedy of the pandemic, or trivializing the issues at stake, obscuring important questions around health and health inequality, while rendering superficial the scope and scale of the present pandemic and its effects around the globe. With this in mind, we might ask, what role, if any, should social media influencers play in modelling health behavior and guiding consumers more broadly?

This question arises while influencers are still implicated in promoting consumption and what many would argue is normalizing inequality. Social media influencers are moving products from everyday apparel and accessories to four and five-figure handbags. In recent weeks, for example, a handful of widely followed fashion influencers have taken up a strategic campaign with the Parisian designer, Dior. Each are dawning (and displaying) Dior’s new “bobby bag,” sharing what colors and hardware combinations the “timeless” bag can be purchased in and reflecting on what they like or love about it. The bag costs approximately $2,900 (USD) dollars— a detail, I should add, that is conspicuously absent from influencers’ posts.

And while posts of this kind are not new among fashion influencers, the global spread of COVID19 colors these posts in a different light. Recent financial shifts around the globe propelled in part (if not in whole) by the pandemic render many consumers unable or unwilling to consume as they might have before and exacerbate what were already deeply fractured class lines in the consumer landscape. Who can afford to follow in their footsteps and, at this time, is it appropriate to do so?

References

Criddle, Cristina. 2020. “Coronavirus: Influencers’ Glossy Lifestyles Lose Their Shine.” BBC      News. Retrieved July 21, 2020 (https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52362462).

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Harvard University Press.

Childress, Clayton. 2017. Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel. Princeton University Press.

Hund, Emily and Lee McGuigan. 2019. “A Shoppable Life: Performance, Selfhood, and Influence in the Social Media Storefront.” Communication, Culture & Critique:1-18.

Perelli, Amanda and Dan Whateley. 2020. “How the Coronavirus Is Changing the Influencer Business, According to Marketers and Top Instagram and YouTube Stars.” Business Insider. Retrieved July 21, 2020 (https://www.businessinsider.com/how-coronavirus-is-changing-influencer-marketing-creator-industry-2020-3).

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