Last week, President Donald Trump made a strange and controversial appearance at a Louis Vuitton factory in Keene, Texas. Customers and fashion fans spoke out in protest, but LVMH chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault insisted the event was apolitical, and on the official @louisvuittton account, the event came and went without mention. And then Vuitton womenswear designer Nicolas Ghesquiere logged onto Instagram and registered his protest. “Standing against any political action,” he wrote. “I am a fashion designer refusing this association #trumpisajoke #homophobia.”
In a not so distant age, a designer might have once shared his or her personal thoughts in a magazine interview or off-the-cuff party report sound bite. But for an increasing number of fashion designers—men in particular—the personal Instagram account has become a place to share what you’re reading and wearing, who you’re friends with, and what you really think, in ways that might not square with the often anodyne standards of the fashion world. Marc Jacobs, Rick Owens, Simon-Porte Jacquemus, Thom Browne, and Alessandro Michele, for example, may have models and spokespeople on their payrolls—or at least advertising campaigns starring such people—but they are also establishing themselves on Instagram as personalities, whose interests and eccentricities are, if not crucial to the brand image, then helping the increasingly corporatized world of fashion seem a little more like the product of a human with a brain and heart. “You can post the books that you’re reading, paintings that inspire you, your vacation shots, or your mom’s cooking,” explains Virginia Nam, who leads Instagram’s fashion partnerships team under Eva Chen. “The personal account is perfect for that.”
If the brand account is the airbrushed dream is upheld, the personal account is where the designer perfects the ultimate Instagram goal: authenticity—as an aspiration.
Nam’s partnerships team exists to provide its powerful fashion industry users with consultation on how best to utilize their accounts (as Tavi Gevinson wrote in her recent cover story for New York Magazine, Instagram provided her with “an impressively detailed, NDA-protected packet with analytics on my account”). In some cases, the team may even recommend that a designer start a personal account—in a recent meeting, one designer told me, Chen recommended creating a personal account despite the designer’s protestations that they had nothing noteworthy to share.
As Nam says, “This question of whether a designer should have a personal account or not, or keep it blended, is something that we get asked quite a bit.” (She names as successful “blended accounts,” or accounts that combine more promotional material like celebrity credits and ad campaigns with scenes from the designer’s personal life, the womenswear designers Tanya Taylor and Brandon Maxwell.) Nam says that the platform does not have a “one size fits all approach to designers,” but that the fashion team might recommend creating a personal account “when a designer wants to, for instance, share an aspect of their lives, or share at a frequency that may or may not be totally aligned with the brand account, because often times brands use their Instagram as a marketing tool.”
But now, she says, “I think more and more designers are feeling empowered to take on that approach versus speaking through a third party,” Nam says. “They're using their accounts to speak to their communities directly and they're letting their hair down. They're being their authentic selves and that's resonating.”
If you’ve spent a decent amount of time on fashion-adjacent Instagram, you already know this. You can follow @Gucci and see advertising campaigns, celebrities wearing the clothes, new products, and clips from recent runway shows. Or you can follow the designer @alessandro_michele and see him hanging out Jared Leto in matching huge hats or accessorizing Gucci Mane behind the scenes of their recent campaign, and admire his collection of antiques. Unlike influencer Instagrams, these images don’t seem achievable—you’re not left thinking that you’re going to hang out with Sienna Miller in your sun hat on a Tuesday morning. But the content contrasts enough with the mannered images of the corporate account that it reads as more human. Just like peeking into the mysterious posts of a new crush, where filling in the gaps between the beach selfies and pics on camels is what really gets cupid drawing back the bow, isn’t it a richer narrative to imagine that your next new pair of shoes comes not from a large corporation, but from the mind of a man living life staring at these crazy-creepy dolls, while wearing these sick bracelets?
A look at a designer’s personal life might be as manicured as their corporate account (especially when the platform itself is on hand to help craft the approach), but the concept seems to be working in designers’ favor. In June of 2018, the New York Times Business section ran a story with the nail-driver headline, “How Marc Jacobs Fell Out of Fashion,” recounting his recent business struggles. Shortly before that, he had started posting selfies, in head-to-toe Balenciaga (including the must-have sneaker of that moment, the Triple S), in the front row at Chanel, and in a multitude of the colorways of Comme des Garcons’ celebrated sequined Spring 2018 menswear collection—hugging Miuccia Prada, no less.
All of a sudden, he began to seem like much more than his (struggling) brand, and more like a New York institution, an almost Diana Vreeland-esque figure with an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history and contemporary art (and also, an incredibly warm person and supporter of his fellow designers: Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia worked for him at Vuitton). Between his recent collaboration with Procell and his revered Spring 2020 collection, the narrative seems to have turned around completely—thanks in some immeasurable way to Jacobs’ willingness to put himself out there. “I don't know if Instagram was the driving force behind that,” Nam says, “but whatever changes that he's been experiencing or whatever turnaround he's been experiencing, I think he's been using Instagram as a way to communicate that, and allowing his followers to go on that journey with him.”
So are designers becoming—gulp—influencers? “I think it's just showing their communities or their customers who they are as people. I don't think they're thinking, I want to be an influencer,” Nam says. “They're thinking, I want to connect with my community directly, and I want to speak to them directly.”
This personality-driven role for the fashion designer is not without precedent, of course. Think of the way Karl Lagerfeld marketed himself as the embodiment of French fashion elitism, or detailed his Diet Coke-fueled quest to fit into Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme suits. Or the way that Lagerfeld’s rival, Yves Saint Laurent, began to present himself as an embodiment of his brand’s combination of artistic achievement and celebrity gloss. He had muses—but he also posed nude, perching on a pile of cushions, for an advertisement for his men’s fragrance in 1971.
But this latest turn is something different: the designer is not the face of the brand so much as another one. Take Balmain designer Olivier Rousteing, for example: he built the patrician French couturier into an international Kardashian-approved powerhouse with the help of his own Instagram-friendly persona, pouting for selfies with Kim and her posse. Although @jacquemus is a “blended” account, designer Simon-Porte Jacquemus, the hunky Kardashian-adjacent creator of hats large and bags tiny, has similarly used his account as a kind world-building branding exercise; one gets the impression that to wear the brand is to be a part of his inner circle, that there is a message of family-first, Provençal joy inherent in his naughty knits and poppy prints. While @rickowensonline remains the designer’s only presence online, Owens’s reputation as fashion’s dark lord has been burnished by the account of his partner Michele Lamy, who shares an even more rarefied vision of a man that seems only to make him more elusive. (Yves Saint Laurent’s shirtless ad campaign? That’s kids stuff when you see Estonian rapper Tommy Cash’s Instagram in bed with Owens and Lamy.) A personal account may have far less followers than the brand’s official presence (even Rousteing has 5.6 million followers to Balmain’s 10.3 million), but that’s sort of the point. They remind us there’s a human at the bottom of all of this fantasy, and simultaneously build out the fantasy: fashion designers are just as eccentric as you’d hoped.
In some ways, designers appear to be the only people still having fun on Instagram, as figures like Gevinson and Caroline Calloway drive users to question the pressures of perfection and studied un-perfection that being online seems to require. It can’t escape attention that most of the designers doing this are men. Although active Instagram users are split about evenly between men and women, an estimated 77% of influencers are women (or perhaps it’s simply that men are called “creators”). Designers like Clare Waight Keller of Givenchy and Natacha Ramsay-Levi of Chloe have personal accounts where they share snaps from home, travels, and the office, but it’s the men who seem more eager to share—or, at least, who are sharing more glamorous, humblebrag content. “We don't think about that,” Nam says, when asked whether the brand thinks the gender of these users is a factor in their ability to share anxiety-free. “I think it's just kind of the sort of the basic instinct of people wanting to connect with people. And if it's the trend lately that it's more male designers...that's what's happening organically.” Perhaps, as men who mostly design for women, they feel more comfortable constructing the fairytale. Shortly before Gvasalia mysteriously left Vetements in September, he created a personal account, with the image of a loading wheel. And all of a sudden, the end of one chapter felt more like the beginning of a new, even more beguiling one.
Originally Appeared on GQ