Podcasts, phone covers, celebrities – wherever you look there’s a new craze. Libby Banks reveals how social media is driving binge culture and fast fashion.

It happened with Serial. It happened with Girls. It happened with #TheDress. Whether it’s tulips or the Kardashians, throughout history we have loved whipping ourselves into a state of frenzied obsession – and now the internet allows this collective fervour to exist on an unprecedented scale. Within hours, days or a few weeks, something you’d never heard about has become omnipresent, worshiped, critiqued, exalted, scrutinised. Your Twitter feed is full of people raving about it or slating it. Every website has a handful of think-pieces on it. Your friends are enthralled, and so is everyone in the office.

If the internet’s default mode is obsession, this mind-set is impacting how we shop and how we dress, says Vanessa Spence, design director at Asos.

“The growth of bloggers, vloggers and Instagram means that everything in fashion is becoming faster” says Spence, who estimates the online retailer unleashes between 3,000 and 4,000 new products onto the site every week. “And customer awareness to new trends in getting faster”.

The old system of biannual fashion seasons has blurred into a perpetual stream of newness. In this brave new world, shoppers are constantly on the lookout for that next binge experience and an Instagram post can make an item go viral overnight. In recent months fashion fixations have included Beyoncé’s Kale sweatshirt, Adidas’ Stan Smith trainers, Birkenstocks, Kenzo tiger sweatshirts, Moschino fast food phone covers – and just about every outfit worn by the Duchess of Cambridge.

Beyoncé wears the now famous Kale sweatshift in her video Beyoncé – 7/11 (Credit: MTV News)

At a certain point, for those following a handful of fashion-centric social media accounts, frenzy surrounding these beloved items has achieved the same level of inescapability as of a photo of Kim Kardashian’s rear.

Instant recognition

“Social media is the place the Topshop core demographic spend the majority of their time,” says Jacqui Markham, Topshop’s design director. “The research shows that the average person starts and ends their day on their mobile device and looks at their phone 140 times during the day; as a retail brand we need to be there with them.”

The reach of fashion influencers on social media is impressive. The model Kendall Jenner has 21.8 million followers on Instagram, and a single image of her wearing a knitted Céline dress received more than one million likes – roughly the same as the number of global subscribers to US Vogue.

Fashion trends, like TV shows, used to be presented as one-way conversations, but consuming fashion today is a social activity, says Asos daily content editor Danielle Radojcin. “Now girls can interact with a video by liking it, they can post a comment on it, they can share it with their friends on their social media feed,” she says. “Our consumer is far more likely to react to a Suki Waterhouse selfie from the front row of Chanel than an anonymous model walking on the Chanel catwalk”.

This is good news for up-and-coming designers. “A brand or a designer can achieve an instant worldwide recognition whereas before it was a slow burn,” says Natalie Kingham, buying director at designer boutique Matches. “Now if someone influential with millions of followers features an item, it naturally opens up the doors much faster – it’s a huge shift from the days when success was indicated by whether you were stocked in a big department store.”

Feeding the buzz

Kingham says she thinks about whether pieces are “instagrammable” before signing up a new designer because fashion that is visually eye-smacking is easier to capture online than more subdued pieces. Footwear label Joshua Sanders and swimwear label Kiini are two recent examples of brands she has taken on thanks to their instant visual appeal. Julia Fowler, co-founder of retail analytics company Editd, agrees that consuming fashion through social media is changing what we buy: “We’ve noted block colours, contrasting prints and eye-catching embellishments perform well, whereas the softness of a cashmere sweater is much harder to communicate.”

The challenge for retailers is keeping up with demand when a trend explodes. A video of a cute puppy can go viral, so can a clutch bag – but the latter is meaningless if it can’t actually get into a customer’s hands.

Today, successful fashion brands need business models that can cope with the volatility of trends and constant demand for newness, says Fowler. “Improvements in manufacturing capabilities, growth of e-commerce and social media influence over the last five years means that retailers have to deliver a product from concept to store in as little as three weeks to be able to stay competitive”.

“We are living in an age of instant accessibility and information democracy,” agrees Topshop’s Markham. “Everything we do is driven by our customer who has a constant appetite for newness and approaches trends with a desire to buy and wear now”. It’s not just high street retailers; design houses like Burberry and Moschino capitalise on online buzz by making sure that pieces seen on the catwalk and worn by front row A-listers are available to buy immediately.

But Sandra Halliday, editor-in-chief at style consultancy Stylus, warns of the dangers in getting too caught up in the digital fashion fervour. Just like a certain Oscars selfie, obsession quickly turns to ubiquity and parody – and finally ambivalence: “The Kenzo tiger sweatshirt is a good example of a recent fad. Good item. Viral within hours – then pow! It's over as a cool item and is left to the counterfeiters to sweep up”.

Halliday says it is essential to distinguish between a fad and a genuine fashion trend. “On the surface a trend can seem to move quickly, but underlying trends move at a snail’s pace” she explains, referencing skinny trouser silhouettes, jumpsuits, platform shoes and ankle boots – all of which have been in vogue for years, not weeks. “The industry has been offering up midi skirts and wider trousers for a while but women haven't been convinced. So what was the big news on the recent Paris catwalks? More skinny trousers!”

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