Eva Chen

Five p.m. — the hour long associated with that wind-down cocktail. For Eva Chen, it’s the hour to start imposing order on the disarray of toys and craft supplies that overtakes her apartment each day. Instagram’s director of fashion partnerships is working from home while under coronavirus quarantine with her family. She calls her children, ages five and three, “young beasts intent on destroying every surface of my home.” From their point of view, innocent destruction beats three morning hours of Zoom school.

Chen and her husband, Thomas Bannister, chose to shelter in New York City rather than at their weekend house upstate, where the kids could go outside, to be near her parents. Although she can’t visit them, physical proximity comforts. Chen can easily drop off or order food for delivery, and she feels better equipped to make sure they remain indoors from a mere 10-block distance than from afar. “I’m a teacher right now, I’m an employee, I’m a mother, I’m a terrible chef, I’m a housekeeper and I’m a daughter,” she offers from her apartment via BlueJeans video conferencing. “We’re all wearing so many hats.”

Despite the stress of those piled-on chapeaux, not to mention the devastation the coronavirus has wrought across fashion, Chen feels lucky. “The industry has been so hard-hit by COVID,” she says. “But we are still in many ways fortunate. You think about essential workers. For many people it’s not a choice; they cannot feed their families and shelter in place. It’s a lot more challenging.”

Reality check accomplished, the discussion turns to her work. “Instagram has always been about bringing people together and seeing glimpses into their lives,” Chen observes. “But right now, it can serve a higher purpose in helping people still feel connected, even as they socially isolate.”

To that end, Instagram is actively encouraging and facilitating user philanthropy. Today, the platform launches Instagram Live Donations, through which users can create fund-raisers to benefit nonprofits, with 100 percent of the money raised going to the beneficiary organizations. Users could already fund-raise via the Stories Donation sticker, launched last year, a function that has proven extremely popular, especially now. To celebrate the launch, Brazilian illustrator Leo Natsume created a limited-time “I Donated” sticker, accessible to Live and Stories donors.

Instagram “I Donated” sticker created by Brazilian community illustrator @leonatsume.

Instagram “I Donated” sticker created by Brazilian community illustrator @leonatsume. 

“We’ve already seen so many people do fund-raisers on Instagram, whether it’s for Feeding America or PPE or UNICEF or Save the Children, etc. Now, you’re going to be able to do it live,” Chen says. Inaugurating the program, this week actress Sofia Carson and soccer stars Sergio Ramos and Fabio Cannavaro will create Live fund-raisers for UNICEF; singer Tori Kelly will go live in support of Feeding America. They are but four of Instagram’s more than one billion users globally who have access to Live fund-raising.

An immediate hit when it launched in 2016, Instagram Live has seen astronomical growth with the world under COVID-19 quarantine; the number of people using it increased 70 percent in the past month alone. Now, its adaptation for fund-raising seems like a no-brainer. “I imagine that a pretty exciting slate of people will use it to benefit their charities,” Chen says.

She offers fashion-world hypotheticals. Recalling Victoria Beckham’s DJ set to benefit the Children’s Society in the U.K, she says, “You can imagine her doing that on Instagram Live, or talking about her latest collection and encouraging her followers to donate.” She also muses about Michael Kors going live for the charity nearest his heart, God’s Love We Deliver: “I haven’t actually talked to Michael about this yet, but you can imagine him doing it.”

The idea for Live Donations emerged organically as use of the Donation sticker exploded, which is typical of Instagram launches. “We hear a demand for something or we see a need for something, and the team will frantically work to make it happen,” Chen offers.

In addition to spurring new initiatives — “Stay Home” and “Thank You Hour” stickers launched recently — the COVID-19 crisis has intensified directions already in play, including a circular rotation back toward the platform’s original unglossy imagery. (The first picture ever posted by founder Kevin Systrom was “a very un-curated” shot of a golden retriever and a foot in a flip-flop.) Instagram launched in 2010 as a visual diary of people’s lives. “Then a few years in, bloggers started posting really beautiful, highly polished content that they were shooting on an expensive DSLR camera,” Chen notes. “We saw this proliferation of really high-gloss imagery, content we hadn’t seen on social media before.”

Even before COVID-19, the direction started to shift, going less glossy and more grounded. Among fashion types, Chen notes Victoria Beckham posting her husband David struggling to put together a Lego set and Brandon Maxwell “hanging out and talking directly into the camera.” The global shutdown has sharpened that inclination into “a hyper-accelerated pivot.…You see it in all the feeds, and the Stories and IGTV and Lives of people in the fashion industry, too,” Chen says, citing as examples Michael Kors cooking and Brother Vellies’ Aurora James making iced cappuccino. “They’re not just showing fashion right now; they’re showing their real sides. I think it’s important to show that real side of yourself. The highly curated images feel out of step with what’s going on in the greater world,” she says.

Video, too, continues to flourish on Instagram. Its pre-COVID-19 “hockey stick rise” has intensified; Chen cites its “thumb-stopping effect when you’re scrolling through.” IGTV, launched in 2018, is also popular. Whether people share workouts or cooking sessions, “they post a preview in their feed, and people watch the first 15 seconds, and then go over to IGTV,” she says.

Chen arrived at Instagram five years ago as a point of contact for a fashion community eager to enhance its always strong embrace of the platform. “Now, pretty much everyone is on Instagram, from Celine to Chanel to every creative director. And they’re using it all in different, unique ways,” she says.

For big brands, the Instagram obsession manifests in flexing their might across the platform. Meanwhile, for small brands, it has become an essential element of doing business. “For hundreds of thousands of small businesses around the world, Instagram has now become a source, their main retail presence,” Chen notes. Given that reality, she spends considerable time developing ways to better support small business: “We’re working on a lot of initiatives.”

Instagram’s parent Facebook recently pledged $100 million to support small businesses in general. Specific to fashion, a major focus for Chen is instructing small businesses on how to help their followers shop seamlessly on Instagram, including with product tags, used by 130 million people each month. “A lot of it is education,” she says. The @shop account was launched less than a year ago to bring the work of small businesses to a broad audience. A recent highlighted brand, LHLL [Little High, Little Low], which sells vintage music Ts and new basics, “did gangbusters,” Chen says. “So it’s little steps that we’re taking, but hopefully that will have a big impact.”

Also on the docket: support of the upcoming fashion weeks. With the June market in question and the July couture already canceled, Chen is eyeing September, her takeaway from private conversations with designers that many are hopeful of showing something, likely in presentations rather than full-scale shows.

She expects Instagram to play an essential role in facilitating those scaled-back events. This includes refining the digital experience for would-be show-goers who may choose not to travel this time around. “I think a lot of it will unfold on Instagram,” Chen predicts. She notes that KCD and Karla Otto already have digital showrooms, a direction she expects to expand, and she envisions a heightened focus on capturing the overall experience of a fashion show. “You’re going to see it on IGTV Live and Stories.”

Another significant part of Chen’s role is helping brands and industry individuals refine their messaging. In the age of COVID-19, authenticity matters more than ever, and she strives to help them “facilitate honest conversations, and to use Instagram to connect to their audience in a more vulnerable way.”

More clinically, she listens and acts on the information gleaned from fashion users. “I take the feedback from the fashion industry and share it with the teams that build new features. These features are not built in a vacuum; they’re built with feedback from the industry.

“What I ask of anyone is, tell us what you need,” Chen continues. “We want to help build the features that will have impact for you, whether it’s for your followers, for mental health, for well-being, or to help your business just survive another day in this tumultuous time. We want to know how we can help.”

Chen speaks as an Instagram executive and zealous user. “I think my content has always been pretty real and not overly glossy, but now, I think I’m showing a lot more of the day-to-day realness,” she says. She describes a recent DM from a follower who wrote, “I followed you for street style and for fashion and to see fun fashion week things. Where’s all the fashion?”

 

Receiving that message “was kind of a mind-blowing moment.” In response, Chen posted to her feed a picture of herself surrounded by toys, and one with her kids, her daughter “dangling” from her neck, her son perched in a basket as she’s cleaning up. I said, ‘this is the reason why I can’t post fashion.’ Like so many other people, I’m just trying to get by and get through every day with my children fed and happy and not feeling scared and feeing OK.”

Which leaves little time for the daily curation of perfect looks. These days, Chen lives in sweats, and has “perfected the three-piece tonal sweatsuit.” (For the curious, the third piece is a loosely draped scarf.)

Overall, Chen projects passion for her work and argues convincingly her premise that during this COVID-19 crisis, Instagram is serving a higher purpose. Yet even she acknowledges that connectivity has its limits — at least when it comes to Zoom school for the pre-school set. “After about 20 minutes, the kids lose interest,” Chen sighs, mom hat now firmly in place. “I just don’t think kids are meant to sit in front of a screen at this age.”

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Stella McCartney on the Environment in the Age of COVID-19

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