Online influencers are graduating from promoting brands to launching their own, but cannot rely on their follower count alone
When Natalie Glaze visited Selfridges in London earlier this year, she was surprised – but delighted – to be confronted with a picture of herself posing next to her close friend, Zanna van Dijk. Together, the duo are the co-founders of swimwear brand Stay Wild Swim, which is stocked at the department store as part of its sustainable fashion initiative Bright New Things.
The pair are also representative of a wider trend sweeping fashion: influencers who have gone from fronting fashion brands to launching their own labels. As Glaze puts it, both women already knew “how to build an audience online.” She is a lifestyle blogger with almost 30,000 Instagram followers, and van Dijk is an online fitness star with 285,000 Instagram followers and a popular YouTube channel.
Influencers are well connected, often interested in fashion and hold a powerful sway over their followers, so transititioning from working with brands to launching their own fashion labels is a natural progression for many. Just this week, last year’s Love Island winner Jack Fincham dropped the first collection of his brand, Rey London
A built-in, receptive audience is certainly a boon for fledgling brands, but it is not a panacea. Influencers hoping to break into fashion still have to take sourcing, cashflow and customer expectations into account when launching their own labels.
Stay Wild Swim is not the only influencer-led fashion brand to find favour with a high-profile stockist. Totême, a minimalist premium womenswear label founded by Swedish influencer Elin Kling in 2014, is carried by luxury retailers Net-a-Porter and Browns. US influencer Karla Deras’s brand, The Line By K, is also stocked by Net-a-Porter. Maximalist womenswear label The Attico was founded by street style stars Gilda Ambrosio and Giorgia Tordini in 2016. It is stocked by Mytheresa, Matchesfashion and Net-a-Porter.
This is a trend that is only gathering momentum. Last month, billionaire businessman Silas Chou, who has previously invested in Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors, took part in a $10m (£8m) funding round in US-based influencer Arielle Charnas, which will help her expand her Something Navy clothing brand.
“The affilition will be incredibly strong”
“Digital-first talent have built a hugely engaged, loyal, often global audience, which makes them an effective marketing channel for a direct-to-consumer business,” explains Lucy Loveridge, global head of talent at influencer agency Gleam Futures, which represents content creators including the UK’s Zoe Sugg (better known as Zoella). “When they own that brand, the affiliation will be incredibly strong. Many fashion brands are moving toward a direct-to-consumer model in line with consumer behaviour and spending. A digital talent doing it brings that added level of audience relationship which, when done right, can be powerful.”
Bex Ringer, a director at influencer marketing agency Summer, adds: “Influencers have a captive audience, who they are already often promoting and selling product to. A lot of influencers also have a global following. That’s a huge benefit if they look to start a brand online, because they can reach an international audience relatively easily.”
This bond with the audience can extend beyond mere promotion. Glaze and van Dijk chose to share how they built Stay Wild Swim with prospective customers via the brand’s Instagram account. This dialogue with customers later proved part of the label’s appeal for Selfridges.
“Instagram was our safe space, so we used it to share our journey and, crucially, to test the market and see if there was interest,” Glaze explains. “We would get people involved by asking them to vote on what colours they liked or what we should name a product. It built a personal attachment between customers and the brand. Customers now want more from brands. They want to know the story and the people behind them. When we were initially talking to Selfridges, they mentioned that the audience participation in the brand was something that made it stand out.”
Fashion blogger Ashley Schuberg runs a YouTube channel, and has 302,000 Instagram followers on her account, @Miss_Gunner. She will launch her own label, MGNR, later this year (lead image). Schuberg also sees the ability to bounce ideas off her potential customers as a major advantage and argues that her social following will cut down on marketing costs, which will allow her to invest in creating better-quality product. The brand will start with a direct-to-consumer model, but Schuberg has not ruled out a wholesale offer.
“I want to spend my precious start-up money sourcing garments from manufacturers who can work with me to produce something special,” she says. Product will be manufactured in Thailand by small suppliers. “As a result, my costs will be higher than if I were to re-brand something generic from the cheapest suppliers. So not having to then spend excessive amounts of money on marketing will assist me greatly in being able to sell garments at a reasonable price. Without my existing audience of followers, this would not be possible.”
She adds: “The level of interaction I have with my audience is key. If I need to know whether a proposed look is desirable, or a breakdown of quantities across sizes for different regions is accurate, I can reach out to my followers and get this information just by asking them.”
“Having a large following does not mean you are influential”
A large social following is by no means a magic bullet for success in the fashion industry, however. US-based influencer Ariana Renee, who posts to 2.6 million followers on Instagram under the name Arii, revealed in May that she had failed to sell the minimum 36 pieces that would allow her to begin shipments of her debut clothing line, Era.
London-based lifestyle influencer Fisayo Longe argues that it has taken more than a social following to build her contemporary womenswear brand Kai Collective. She launched the label in 2016, after being asked by followers asking where her home-made clothes were from. Its signature is unusual silhouettes, and retail prices range from £25 for T-shirts to £150 for dresses.
“Having a large social following helped me launch the brand but it wasn’t enough [by itself],” she tells Drapers. “I expected to launch and immediately sell out, because of my following, but that didn’t happen. It took time, learning who our customer was and improving the product. A social following did help build relationships with other influencers and stylists, but great product goes further.”
She adds: “As a brand owner and an influencer, I’ve seen both sides of the coin. Having a large following does not mean you are influential. We’ve had people with 500,000 followers wear the brand with no impact on sales and people with 7,000 followers create a surge in sales. Follower count does not equal influence.”
Influencer-fronted labels also face many of the same challenges that can hit any burgeoning fashion brand.
“As a small business without external investment, cashflow is always an issue,” adds Longe. “To be successful, you need to listen to criticism and take on feedback from customers. We recently launched a new website that was easier to navigate after feedback from users, for example.”
MGNR founder Schuberg adds: “You need a very long-term view. I’ve already had a couple of little disasters when it comes to sourcing and production, and I’m sure there will be more along the way. This is a marketplace dominated by huge brands with huge budgets, so success is hard earned.”
TOWIE (The Only Way is Essex) star Pete Wicks, who has more than 1 million Instagram followers, argues a large social following can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to building a brand. His menswear label, Hermano, launched last year and is now stocked by Topman, Footasylum and Asos.
“It has given the brand a leg-up, but I wanted to build something that could stand alone, that wasn’t just ‘the Pete Wicks brand’,” he tells Drapers. “Having a following does mean more people see the brand, but not everyone likes TOWIE and not everyone likes Pete Wicks. Some men might like one of our shirts but not want to buy it, because it’s my brand.
“I choose not to use myself in our campaigns or photoshoots, so that the product can stand by itself. We’ve focused on making clothes that are different from the rest of the market.”
A social media following that stretches into the millions does not make for guaranteed retail success. The trend for influencers launching their own fashion brands looks unlikely to wane, as more seek to capitalise on their large audiences. Influencers hoping to start a label, or retailers seeking to stock it, need to look past follower numbers and ensure that the brand can stand on its own two feet when it comes to product, design and business fundamentals.