What is the value of viral fashion?

How muzzled should a fashion fan be? “A lot” seems to be the answer if recent seasons are any indication.

This year alone, fashion gimmicks, jokes and gimmicks – seemingly calibrated to go viral online – have included celebrities in fake taxidermy dresses at Schiaparelli, Harry Styles’ Egonlab crystal jumpsuit at the Grammys, Sam Smith’s Harri inflatable pants at the Brit Awards and models running on the catwalk in animal prostheses on Collina Strada. And that’s only until February.

Whether dressing celebrities in over-the-top looks, churning out mesmerizing products, or staging runway shows with clear narrative hooks, brands have resorted to acrobatics in a fast-paced media environment where competition for attention is more intense than ever.

For nearly a decade, the rise of social media algorithms – which favor provocation by detecting and amplifying debate – has coincided with a fashion cycle in which bold statements by brands like Balenciaga and Gucci have driven the fashion conversation.

But even as the pace of viral fashion moments is at an all-time high, some brands are moving away from this approach, which carries risks and rewards and can be difficult to sustain.

“For brands that were using communication scams to maximize visibility, it became more than a scam, it became their way of marketing,” said communications consultant Youssef Marquis, who previously worked at Louis Vuitton and Givenchy. . “They get locked in a race for the next biggest viral moment.”

This weekend in Paris, Kering’s Balenciaga plans to reboot with an understated, archival approach after years of creating “lightning rod” moments on social media with products like leather trash bags and dazzling platform crocodiles; campaigns including dystopian newscasts; and red carpet stunts like covering Kim Kardashian’s face and body at the Met Gala. These moments often elicited delight and disgust in equal measure, fueling the online buzz – and increasing revenue.

Balenciaga’s sales have declined sharply, however, since the brand faced widespread backlash last November for including S&M-inspired products in a campaign targeting children. While designer Demna insisted the misstep was never intended to provoke, the fallout has caused the brand to rethink how it attracts attention.

Gucci, which for years steered the fashion conversation with over-the-top, distorted outfits and shows that included models walking through fire, carrying dragons and severed heads or parading hand-in-hand with their identical twins, has also backed away from the stunts, as he returns to focus on telling its heritage story after the departure of designer Alessandro Michele.

But Balenciaga and Gucci aren’t the only brands reevaluating their approach. The use of “media earned” metrics that value the quantity – rather than the quality – of online discussion has become pervasive in the fashion industry in recent years, but not all buzz is good.

“Some houses are starting to reconsider their buzz recipe, moving away from a logic of volume,” said Claire Gallon, who advises luxury brands for The Salmon Consulting in Paris. How the buzz is actually contributing to a brand’s attractiveness is back in focus – as are the risks when things spill over.

For smaller brands, courting viral buzz can seem like an imperative to compete with big rivals. But virality can be a double-edged sword, as was the backlash to Schiaparelli’s use of fake taxidermy during the haute couture season in January. The tiny Paris house — which claims it never pays its celebrity clients — dressed Kylie Jenner and Doja Cat in looks that were social media catnip, garnering an estimated $45 million in earned media exposure, according to consultancy Launchmetrics.

The pitch was far from entirely positive: Schaiparelli’s faux taxidermy – inspired by Dante, said designer Daniel Roseberry – went viral not just because the pieces were visually striking, but because many thought Jenner was wearing a lion’s head from true, while others accused the brand of alluring big game hunting and its colonial connotations, whether the lion was real or not.

Still, the buzz of Schiaparelli’s couture tour exceeded what multibillion-dollar brands like Chanel and Dior were able to generate that season with a well-stocked bank of paid ambassadors.

“Thanks to these moments, there is an awareness of these brands and creations that otherwise would not exist,” said Lucien Pagès, the Paris-based PR guru representing Schiaparelli and Coperni, the emerging brand that “won” Parisian fashion. last week in September with a viral moment where Bella Hadid’s Coperni dress was spray-painted live on the runway.

Despite the perceived intensity of many social media storms — “under the umbrella of controversy you have many layers — some of which are acceptable,” he added. “If you respect your audience, you can play with teasing.”

But looking to the future, more of fashion’s biggest brands seem to be redirecting resources towards buying a more stable and controlled visibility through ambassadorial deals with mainstream stars who can promote the brand in a “safe” way – putting the “free” buzz of viral conversation in the background.

Kylie Jenner and Doja Cat walked the Schiaparelli Spring/Summer 2023 haute couture show in Paris wearing custom looks.

“Right now it may make sense to invest in hypervisibility, but as brands look to the future they are thinking about whether this works to constantly surprise or whether this is actually leading to the trivialization of brand awareness,” said The Salmon’s Gallon. “When brands are all pulling the same thread, customers forget who was behind each (acrobatics).”

For smaller companies, creating viral buzz is still often seen as the best way to compete for visibility, with the potential reward outweighing the risks. Of course, Sam Smith was derided by some online users as “desperate for attention” when he showed up on the Brit Awards red carpet wearing an inflatable Harri look. But the look was true to Smith’s and the label’s vision and helped put the designer on the map. Harri says he’s since seen demand take off for custom projects like music videos and presentations: even for a nascent business, viral buzz is most valuable when it’s aligned with a brand’s unique identity and ambitions.

“There are so many brands that small brands can’t resist the lure of a viral moment. It can be a fatal attraction though, because then how do you live up to it?” said Marquis. “The strongest achievement for a young brand is to create an identity, transmit uniqueness to the message”.

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