From left: Wengie, the Merrell twins and Jackie Aina at a September 2018 Dior brunch.

The influencer space reached new heights in 2018, with brand partnerships and a shift toward YouTube driving growth.

Influencer launches continued to reign supreme throughout the year, and one of the most anticipated ones came from superinfluencer Arielle Charnas of Something Navy. One year after the launch of her Treasure & Bond x Something Navy capsule collection at Nordstrom, which reportedly drove more than $1 million in sales in less than 24 hours, Charnas brought her standalone label exclusively to the retailer. The collection caused Nordstrom’s web site to crash shortly after it went live, prompting a flurry of social media comments from upset customers. Despite the backlash, the launch continued to beat sales expectations, cementing both of Charnas’ Nordstrom collections as the retailer’s “two most successful launches,” according to Nordstrom co-president Pete Nordstrom.

Charnas wasn’t the only influencer to bring her fashion label to Nordstrom in 2018. Both Chriselle Lim of The Chriselle Factor and Julia Engel of Gal Meets Glam launched collections with the retailer. The model proved successful for Nordstrom, and influencer-retail partnerships began to catch on — especially at Macy’s.

In September, Macy’s revealed it would ramp up its influencer efforts through a partnership with Inspr, a socially conscious fashion brand focused on influencer collaborations. Inspr became a liaison for Macy’s to work with various influencers on limited-edition runs, forming a rotating influencers-in-residency model that has so far included collaborations with influencers Natalie Suarez of Natalie Off Duty and, most recently, Brittany Xavier.

As in 2017, influencer collaborations generated online buzz throughout the year, though they began to take on a new form. Raina Penchansky, founder and chief executive officer of influencer management agency Digital Brand Architects, noted that brands generally gave influencers more creative freedom during partnerships in 2018.

Penchansky said, “2018 was a year when brands finally started to realize that they need to listen to the influencer as opposed to dictating the creative and the tone. If you’re working with an influencer, let them guide the content. Creative briefs are fantastic, but you need to let the influencer guide what their message is. They know how to speak to their audience, they know what their audience wants in terms of content, they know how to work well with brands. We saw a shift this year in brands finally coming around to that. You see it in the ROI in terms of how brands are able to more effectively work with talent.”

Cole Trider, founder of public relations and event marketing firm Chasen Creative Media, which handled some of the buzziest influencer launches of the year, echoed Penchansky’s statement. “Brands are becoming more aware that influencers aren’t just people you engage for one-off posts, but you forge long-lasting, impactful partnerships with,” said Trider.

One such impactful partnership was that of YouTuber star Jackie Aina and Too Faced. The two collaborated to expand the cosmetics company’s Born This Way Foundation range by 11 shades. The response was “over-the-top phenomenal,” according to Too Faced cofounder and chief creative officer Jerrod Blandino.

“[Aina’s] commitment to the process of creating these skin tones for the foundation was something I am so in awe of,” said Blandino. “She researched, she interviewed people, she went deep and I think the customers felt that. When it came time to trying the different shades on and wearing them and living in them, they were the absolute best because of the commitment and the energy she put into it.”

Other standout 2018 influencer collaborations included: Camila Coelho x Lancôme, James Charles x Morphe, Tanesha Awasthi x Lane Bryant and Benefit’s global influencer initiative, for which it tapped 10 influencers from around the world, including Desi Perkins of the U.S. And while some influencers focused on brand collaborations, others further evolved their own brands.

Marianna Hewitt and Lauren Gores saw success with their social-first beauty brand Summer Fridays. The Jet Lag Mask became the best-selling skin-care item on Sephora.com less than two weeks after it launched on the retailer’s web site, and in September, Summer Fridays launched its second product, the Overtime Mask.

Huda Kattan further solidified her five-year-old company as a beauty empire with the addition of fragrances. The company’s sales are expected to double to $400 million at retail in 2018, according to industry sources.

Jordyn Woods, influencer and best friend to Kylie Jenner, made headlines with the launch of her own label, Secndnture. The size-inclusive debut line boasted 24 activewear pieces, all priced under $100.

YouTube stars and identical twins The Merrell Twins launched a fashion label to their built-in audience of 8 million. Called True Img, the line featured styles designed to abide by school dress codes.

The Merrell Twins were representative of the rising demand for twin influencers, aka twin-fluencers. Twin-fluencers became all the rage in the influencer realm, with The Merrell Twins, Brooklyn and Bailey McKnight and Niki and Gabi DeMartino leading the pack. Brands and management agencies found that duos made great partners, as they are apt to generate a surplus of organic content — or in other words, free extra content for the hiring brand.

“We see so much more additional organic content come out of it,” said Kamiu Lee, ceo of influencer marketing company Activate, of influencer duos. “You have two personalities come through, you can have that back and forth. That creates a much richer story.”

Many — though not all — twin-fluencers are of the YouTube star variety, exemplifying a larger shift in fashion and beauty toward YouTube. Brands and influencers began to diversify their social media efforts to include Gen Z’s platform of choice. Dior even flew a handful of YouTubers to Paris Fashion Week in October as part of a collaboration with the platform’s newly formed Fashion and Beauty team under Derek Blasberg.

“People who are big on Instagram are now trying to jump into the video space on YouTube and audio through podcasting, giving their followers diversified content,” said Trider. “YouTube is a way that you can really speak to your following, from doing demos to talking about trends and outfits. It’s a real conversation, which is similar to audio, where you can have guests on your podcasts, you can contribute insight, you can have a more playful conversation.”

“The beauty of YouTube and the beauty of Instagram is that you’re not living in this top-down world anymore,” said Penchansky. “It’s bottom up. We’re creating what we want to see.”

Platform diversification was prompted, in part, by Facebook and Instagram’s algorithm changes. ShopStyle, which has an influencer network of more than 20,000, rolled out new features aimed at helping influencers overcome the algorithm changes.

Virtual influencers emerged as some of the most fascinating, mind-boggling and noteworthy newcomers to the influencer fold. In June, virtual model Shudu made her fashion editorial debut on the cover of WWD. Months later, Shudu was cast in a Balmain campaign and her creator, Cameron-James Wilson, launched a digital modeling agency with a roster of virtual models-slash-influencers he created.

Lil Miquela managed to keep her identity under wraps despite appearing in many popular publications. She even found herself in an Instagram beef with fellow virtual influencer Bermuda. And Noonoouri, the creation of Joerg Zuber, mystified her nearly 200,000 Instagram followers with many a luxury #ad, as well as a video in which she contoured — virtually, of course — with KKW Beauty products.

Both Penchansky and Trider predict there will be continued focus on genuine influencer-brand relationships, as well as platform diversification. According to Penchansky, Digital Brand Architects, which manages top influencers such as Hewitt, Lim and Xavier, will unveil an increased focus on audio, particularly podcasts, in 2019.

YouTube will continue to be a growing space in 2019 as well, as YouTube stars are among the most dominant voices on social media. And though there are a handful of established Millennial YouTubers, kid influencers are in the rising class.

Petite ‘n Pretty is one makeup brand that has already started winning over Gen Z influencers, some of whom have engagement rates as high as 30 percent.

“Working with these younger kids and tweens is so authentic and genuine, and they’re excited because they’re not immersed in this beauty culture yet,” said Samantha Cutler, founder of the brand. “They want to be creative and they love it. It’s refreshing.”

2019: the year of the kid wonders?

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