The Business of Presence

In the new economy, brands adopt direct-to-consumer models expanding their digital presence. Is it sustainable?

Key Takeaways

  1. According to Business of Apps (BoA), the fashion industry accounts for around 25% of sponsored social media posts, which in 2019 amounted to a spend of $442 million on Instagram alone.
  2. Getting on radars is tough, as is converting followers into customers.
  3. Although foregoing a digital presence in 2021 is easier and certainly less of a risk for established brands like Bottega Veneta, the storied Italian leather maker could be in the midst of proving that fashion does not necessarily need prolific digital streams.

According to Business of Apps (BoA), the fashion industry accounts for around 25% of sponsored social media posts, which in 2019 amounted to a spend of $442 million on Instagram alone (fast fashion retailer Fashion Nova was the top spender, with close to $6 million spent in one year). In a survey conducted by BoA, 54% of respondents said they bought something after seeing it on Instagram, and 87% said they responded to some kind of call to action. Although the numbers are not out yet for all of 2020, it stands to reason that they will be even higher heading into 2021. The year's seismic shift from brick-and-mortar supremacy to online retailing (farewell to Barney’s, Lord & Taylor, J. Crew, etc.) has exacerbated the importance of a brand’s digital presence. Many new designers, now with less retail spaces to choose from than ever, are launching with direct-to-consumer models, and using their social media platforms to communicate and sell.

Fashion’s slice of the digital pie is indeed quite large and influential (which makes sense, in that fashion is generally a visual medium, as is social media), yet snagging a piece of that community for new designers can be tricky. It is a struggle to create meaningful followings without relying on multi-million dollar marketing budgets and large PR teams to figure out best-practices for posting and engaging. Getting on radars is tough, as is converting followers into customers. Especially now, with the near-apocalyptic fallout from COVID-19 and traditional retail streams drying up as a result of elongated lockdowns and growing concerns about public space shopping, an emerging designer must focus on their digital voice to build their own community and win attention from tastemakers.

One such tastemaker is Jo Rosenthal, a NYC-native and magazine writer who also models and has more than 62K organic followers on Instagram. A vintage fashion collector and small-brand advocate, her Depop account is filled with some of the coolest underground and yesteryear pieces you can find on that platform. For her part, Rosenthal regularly works with small, up-and-coming brands as an influencer, often helping to elevate lesser-known designers’ digital presences by attaching her own well-respected handle to theirs.

“Especially in this strange quarantined world, there isn't much outside of the digital sphere!” Rosenthal says. “Your digital avatar is going to get much more face time than anything else. So it’s important to be as authentic with people as possible. Don’t be afraid to reach out to accounts you like and want to work with, but ask yourself before approaching them: who am I? And why should they care? It can be hard in the social media landscape to be genuine, but at the end of the day, that's what counts.” She adds, “I love working with smaller brands because I can have a more hands-on relationship. I feel more connected to both the product and the people who make it. People don't want free stuff anymore, they want an experience.”

Patrick Church
, a celebrated artist and designer who launched his eponymous line in 2018 and is now blue checkmark-verified on Instagram with well over 100K followers, attributes his continued success during COVID to the brand’s direct to consumer business model, which cuts out the middleman of brick & mortar and relies heavily on Church’s digital presence and social media.

“We were a direct to consumers brand before the pandemic started,” Church tells us. “So, we didn’t and still don’t really rely on wholesale. We are a very small team and we just kept pushing through as best as we could. [With the lockdown] we felt grateful to be able to have a little more time to execute our ideas and creative processes.”

Church—whose line of embellished, genderless, highly-queer separates and athleisure wear was already stocked in notable boutiques in New York City before the pandemic hit (some stores, like The Phluid Project in Soho, have since closed their physical doors and are now online-only as well)—realizes that now, perhaps more than at any time in our modern history, a healthy digital portion of your brand is paramount.

“Social media wasn’t as important when I started out as it is these days,” he says. “But right now, you really have to appeal to a larger digital audience because there’s only so many storefronts in your own city. And as hard as that sounds to do, social media lets you lean in and be yourself and not make accommodations that aren't true to your vision. So just remember to engage with your audience, keep your content fun and exciting, and take in feedback from your customers. There’s an opportunity right now to build communities online in ways that are just not possible through brick and mortar stores. And I feel so lucky to have my digital community, and blessed to be able to continue creating during this time.”

Mauricio Padilha
—a longstanding fashion guru and co-founder of the NYC-based MAO PR, which has represented designers like Jason Wu, Betsey Johnson, The Blonds, Baby Phat, Rochanbeau, and current scene favorites like Cheng and Victoria Hayes—thinks that producing more content for your brand's digital spaces than usual is extremely important now… along with getting celebrities and mega influencers to wear your line and post about it, of course.

“Today, brands are worried about the amount of content they need to produce,” says Padilha. “With everyone living online right now, there is a need to feed followers with new content every day, sometimes even every few hours, and that is difficult for young brands still trying to make it out the door. In the past you had to be more of a fashion insider to know who was wearing what, but now, with social media’s reach, that little girl or boy in the midwest or across the Pacific will know who their favorite celebrity or influencer is wearing within hours or minutes. So you have to think outside of the box, because it's no longer solely about getting that great credit in a magazine; photoshoots need to be arranged with social media in mind, and you need to work with many more talented individuals who can help you create that content and strategize around it.”

Of course, as more and more budget is dedicated to social media management and content creation, there is a possible countermovement taking form; Bottega Veneta—long considered one of the savviest fashion houses in the digital sphere, with an uncanny ability to be tagged in both luxurious, celeb-filled photo spreads and underground zine shoots—recently shut down its Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. The logic behind this move is anyone’s guess; perhaps a Bottega rebrand, an image overhaul? Maybe a “dry January” concept for a digital cleansing, to push back on the “more is more” attitude when it comes to fashion content? Or is it simply a PR stunt, a way to garner attention in a crowded news cycle? Although foregoing a digital presence in 2021 is easier and certainly less of a risk for established brands like Bottega Veneta, the storied Italian leather maker could be in the midst of proving that fashion does not necessarily need prolific digital streams of consciousness to survive and thrive.

“Ultimately,” Padilha points out, “I think that if the fashion is good, the work will speak for itself. A digital platform cannot make a great designer. Talent does that.”