Redirect your stylists and point the Photoshop elsewhere — social media fans are bored with impossibly ethereal images and are looking to get real.
“What we’ve seen over the last year or so from a lot of the top accounts and a lot of the influencers is that nowadays, those beautiful, perfect pictures are not performing as well,” said Eva Chen, head of fashion partnerships at Instagram just ahead of the last outing of New York Fashion Week.
People will always love aspirational images, Chen explained, but people want to hear the background or origin story. “Perfect can be boring,” she added. “It’s the same reason Jane Birkin and Kate Moss are style icons — the people who are interesting aren’t perfect.”
Instagram, which started with a rough snapshot of founder Kevin Systrom’s foot and a golden retriever, seems to be witnessing a move away from idyllic imagery and a return to authenticity.
For Chen, a few examples top the list: From design houses such as Alexander McQueen to influencers like Victoria’s Secret model Martha Hunt, who has scoliosis, and Glossier founder Emily Weiss, who launched a #bodyhero campaign that celebrates diverse women. They’ve managed to tap into a form of social storytelling with their images, going beyond merely pretty photos to offer the valuable context that modern fans demand. “Prabal [Gurung] did it really well,” she added. “He posted an ode to almost every model that walked down his runway.” The collection of social shares turned into dedications describing how each model inspired him and why he cast them.
Lizz Kannenberg, director of content for social media management tool Sprout Social, sees it as an evolution of taste and preferences. “Instagram aligned with what fashion and fashion retailers were doing prior to social media,” she said. “It just visually and aesthetically aligned with showing people the best version of how a piece of clothing or an accessory will fit into their lives.” Now people want to feel more connected with the companies they admire.
The trend fits neatly into the rise of user-generated content, or images fans post from their own lives. “UGC [user-generated content] is the future for fashion brands on social,” Kannenberg added, and by following their cue, brands have a powerful opportunity to tap into audiences in a more authentic way. She cited Michael Kors and its “What’s in your Kors?” messaging as being very successful. “They took advantage of a trend that was already apparent on Instagram — ‘what’s in my bag’ — and let people show what’s in their Michael Kors,” she said. “[The company] celebrated that by sharing those images with their existing Instagram audience, to give people a little bit of a platform.”
Kannenberg considers realistic imagery from lines such as Aerie, American Eagle’s intimates and swimwear line, a sign of the times. “Their entire campaign was based on real, untouched images from fans of them wearing the Aerie swimsuits in their Instagram feed,” she explained. “And then they raised money for an organization that helps people with eating disorders.
Leah Wyar, chief beauty director at Hearst, which publishes magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle, agrees. If beautiful photography in a single or set of shared images are aspirational, Instagram Stories allows for more off-the-cuff moments. “That’s the reason that Instagram Stories does so well,” she said. “Raw pictures and raw storytelling: A lot of people are spending time looking at that top bar [in Instagram]. I definitely spend more time in those Stories.”
Kannenberg also noted that the phenomenon didn’t start with the Facebook company. “When Instagram launched Instagram Stories last year, Snapchat users who were also on Instagram started using Instagram Stories the way they used Snapchat Stories,” she noted. “It was a lot less polished and a lot more [like] ‘This is what I’m doing right now. This is how I am living my life. I’m not going to set the shot in perfect bird’s eye. I’m going to show you what I’m looking at from my perspective.’”
For Snapchat, as an ephemeral photo-sharing platform prone to fast pics and on-the-fly sharing, “realness” was baked into its network from its inception.
“I think the best way to start is thinking about fashion; when you think about fashion, you think about photography,” said Ben Schwerin, Snapchat’s director of partnerships. “And [with] photography in general, before the advent of Internet-connected cameras and smartphones, you’d go on vacation, take your photos and pick the best ones. And they’d live forever in your networks.”
But now, thanks to social media, they’ve become something else: “Photos and videos have become more about talking,” he added. They’ve also democratized fashion, making it more accessible to people who wouldn’t normally be able to sit in the front row at fashion week.
For Snapchat and its 173 million daily active users, such glimpses let fans feel like they’re part of the action. “They show what it was actually like to be there,” said Schwerin, explaining that the wealth of images and videos offered rare peaks into the fashion world and made them available for the public.
“When you traditionally thought of fashion, you thought of that perfect mag cover or video,” he said. “Now you’re thinking, ‘What are the personalities? What is the emotion? What’s happening behind the scenes? That’s resonating in a more powerful way with younger people.”
The phenomenon is not limited to photo-sharing apps either. Hearst sees this new desire for authenticity taking hold in the magazine world.
“There’s always the attempt to represent both sides of the coin,” said Hearst president Michael Clinton. “That’s sort of been the zeitgeist now. If you look at our fashion magazines, you’ll see all of that: different sizes, diversity. Everyone is inclusive.”
As for what’s coming next, realistic photos and truth in storytelling — or at least the semblance of it — informs the future. “Video is the new ‘filter,’” Chen said. “I’m often asked what’s the most popular filter? It’s video now. Rolling your eyes, because of traffic, or other things.” She seems to appreciate these slices of life, whether in the form of an otherwise gorgeous model wolfing down junk food in her Story, or even the act of whipping out tissues and plastic forks at the top of a recorded lecture.
Already, 95 million photos and videos are posted to Instagram every day. That number may increase, thanks to a recent spate of increasingly better smartphone cameras. “Video has been a huge success on Instagram, [especially] for fashion,” Chen said. “There’s nothing like seeing clothes move.”