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Published: Mint Lounge, September 22 edition

When jewellery designer Kaabia Grewal hosted a Grecian bachelorette trip in Mykonos in July, she posted pictures of guests wearing custom-made Shivan & Narresh ensembles on Instagram (the designers themselves were on the guest list). Perhaps actor Sonam Kapoor’s May wedding—with #sonamkishaadi grabbing 68,800 posts—filled with decadent couture designs had set the tone.

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 2.11.08 PMAn Instagram campaign by Shivan & Narresh for their ‘Eden Noir’ collection

Instagram, launched in 2010 and acquired by Facebook Inc. for $1 billion (around ₹7,250 crore today) in 2012, is one of the world’s most popular social media apps. During a panel discussion titled Fashion On Instagram held in Delhi in July, Sandeep Bhushan, director, Facebook (India and South Asia), said, “Fashion is the third-most followed category by young people globally on Instagram, behind music and entertainment.” With a worldwide community of over one billion users, and 25 million businesses, the photo- and video-sharing app has changed the way we live, interact and shop. What is its digital charisma and can brands get famous by just getting on the bandwagon?

A level playing field
An audience ready to scroll and shop has created unprecedented opportunities for businesses. While the internet strips shopping of the touch-and-feel experience, Instagram’s ability to create evocative stories and user-generated-and-curated reportage of runway shows, collection and campaign previews and behind-the-scenes stories, infuses the fashion industry with a new dynamism.

Today, most Indian fashion brands use the platform proactively, while Kolkata-based couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee has been an Instagram trailblazer since 2015. His eponymous brand has seven Instagram accounts, including a core account (started in 2015 with 2.6 million followers), city-specific accounts and one dedicated to “Brides of Sabyasachi”. The designer’s Firdaus line debuted on Instagram in 2016 and his jewellery line followed suit in 2017. “A couture show is not meant to be a democratic release. But I wanted to flip the concept—do it in a way that it goes to every single household,” says the designer. “Gone are the days when you could build luxury with the concept of distance. Today, it has to be more inclusive.”

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 2.10.21 PMA screengrab from Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s official Instagram account

Raul Rai, co-founder of lifestyle brand Nicobar, believes their audience has been built largely on Instagram—50% of their customers discovered the brand via social media. Its reach also means that geography doesn’t restrict shopping. Shivan Bhatiya and Narresh Kukreja have tapped markets like South Africa, Singapore, Jakarta and West Asia, courtesy their eponymous brand’s Instagram account.

Indie brands too capitalize on the platform. Carol’s Shop & Tea Room, selling vintage clothing and collectibles from Nagaland, has worked purely off Instagram from the start, taking orders directly through the portal. “The interaction with the customer is more on a personal level,” says model Carol Humtsoe, who founded the e-shop in 2016 (she is now putting together a small brick-and-mortar shop in Dimapur).

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 2.11.24 PMAn Instagram post from Carol’s Shop & Tea Room

From grid to gallery
The 3×1 grid on Instagram (the display format on user profiles) has become a dazzling visual playground for brands. When formulating campaigns, a sizeable amount of planning is dedicated to Instagram and brands are upping their content strategy to establish a distinct voice that, they assume, will eventually lead to sales. Arjun Sawhney, managing director of communications agency TCCGGD, believes Instagram creates communities and enables a strong point of view. “Social media helps create brand awareness, in the right tone, and garner an audience, but it is not necessarily a driver of sales,” he says. “A focused, relevant audience with the economic potential to engage is critical to a brand on social media. It is not just your content game; it is the stories you are pushing.”

During the New York Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2016, the Tommy Hilfiger show witnessed the “InstaPit”, an influencer-only section with claims to maximum visibility—#TommyFall16 and #TommyHilfiger reached 137,170,550 people on Instagram (according to marketing company Pixlee).

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 2.07.44 PM

More recently, American fast-fashion brand, Fashion Nova, has been in the news with 13.2 million Instagram followers. The brand’s customers have generated volumes of content, including selfies with #NovaBabes, driving sales via micro-influencers and celebrity endorsements.

While worldwide influencers make or break businesses, in India, the trend remains nascent. Malika Verma Kashyap, founder of digital agency and online publication Border&Fall, says, “It is filled with many smaller players who are engaging brands, but the level of ‘influence’ is negligible whether it be a stylist, designer, blogger or other. Bollywood remains the strongest influencer, and Sonam Kapoor reigns supreme with fashion brands.”

The evolution is rapidly underway, even if it hasn’t matured. “There is a shift in focus from bloggers with maximum follower count to creators of organic and original content with a targeted and niche followership, which, in turn, has given rise to a newer generation of thought leaders,” say designers Bhatiya and Kukreja.

For many brands, the platform is weighed down by the price of influencer marketing and Instagram’s reshuffled programming. What may have started as a democratic approach is now curated by algorithms that control the reach of posts. Meanwhile, consumers are also likely to get pickier about purchase triggers, gravitating towards authenticity and quality (over quantity) of posts. Rai keeps editorial and marketing teams separate to ensure an independent voice for Nicobar; while Mukherjee says: “I like to keep the voice intimate. Instagram allows you to connect directly with your consumer without a filter. The good, the bad and the ugly—it is all out there in honest, transparent communications.”

A digital economy of excess
A Hootsuite Instagram stats-list suggests that 60% people discover products through Instagram, and 70% are likely to make a purchase on their mobiles. Earlier this year, Instagram expanded its shoppable posts’ feature to eight countries and enabled electronic payments for some companies. Now, Instagram is reportedly developing a stand-alone shopping application that may be called “IG Shopping”.

But the sense of immediacy combined with the need to own can drive impulsive purchases. Among the selfie-clicking generation, can an Instagrammer be “seen” in the same garment again?

Buyers swipe their cards on both sides of the fence: those who swear by online shopping and others who continue to prefer the traditional touch-and-feel purchases. New York-based brand strategy professional Tarana Mehta, who goes online for most of her purchases, sees Instagram as a “discovery platform”, finding new brands via influencers or ads. She has, like many others, bought into “the convenience of shifting the dressing room to the bedroom”. Kashyap, on the other hand, chooses not to shop on Instagram to avoid the “re-targeting algorithm” (an online code tracking customers to display ads relevant to their search habits).

Yet the platform’s ability to build a strong voice expands to those balancing the scales as well. Organizations like Fashion Revolution and Global Fashion Exchange are using the platform to start a global dialogue on fashion and enable consumer awareness. As consumers drive trends, a platform like Instagram, when not diluted with aggressive advertising and clickbait, can facilitate meaningful dialogues on fashion.