There were several reasons I was happy to be invited to speak at the Fashion140 event last week: first, it was in the brand spanking new Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center (wow!), and second, it gave me an opportunity to talk about two things that I think quite a lot about these days: fashion and social media.
I’ve given a TED talk on each of these topics – one was about the lack of copyright protection in the fashion industry and the reasons that that might be very good for business and for the artistic craft. (The response I received to this argument from working designers at Fashion140 was exclusively positive.) My more recent TED talk, which I gave in December, was about social media and the transformative impact that I believe it will have on traditional media industries and global popular culture, including the representations we see in magazines, TV, film, games, toys … you name it.
At the Norman Lear Center, which is based at the University of Southern California, I’ve been doing a great deal of research on social media and its impact on the television industry, in particular. As I was combing through data, I kept stumbling across articles about women’s dominance of various social media platforms, including Flickr and Facebook, and Twitter, where 57 % of users are women according to the most recent data from Ignite. I wondered if I could find some global stats and lo and behold comScore put together a very nice report in June of last year called Women on the Web: How Women are Shaping the Internet. In it, they demonstrated that women outnumber men on social media in every region around the world, and they spend a LOT more time on these sites than men do: women spend 5.5 hours per month on social media sites compared to 3.9 hours for men.
It didn’t surprise me that women were flocking to social media sites – there’s quite a lot of academic research that explores why it is that women tend to be more social than men. But I must say I was shocked that this trend wasn’t just appearing in rich, first world nations, but in every region around the world, where, I had thought, women’s access to the Internet, and the hardware and software that they need to participate in social media, might be pretty limited.
The comScore reported only included users who already had Internet connections, and so that helped to explain this, but still, I would venture to say that there are additional obstacles in the way of women who wish to participate in social media in traditional cultures. I think these stats demonstrate just how powerful the drive to socialize online is for women. And, as the medium matures and access becomes cheaper and easier for all, I think we’ll continue to see women dominating social platforms.
And what does this mean for fashion? Well, I don’t think it’s any overstatement to say that it is a potential gold mine. According to Fast Company, half of all computer purchases and two-thirds of all booksales happen online … but only 8% of apparel purchases. I think that the growing influence of social media is going to change this. According to the comScore report, women shop more online than men do, and in aggregate, they represent 58% of all online spending. They are by far the dominant users of websites in every fashion-related category, including fragrances, cosmetics, beauty, style, luxury goods, jewelry, department stores, and, of course, apparel.
Women’s dominance of social media platforms practically guarantees that social retail in the fashion sector is going to take off. And if we also take into account women’s dominance of mobile social media applications (Nielsen reports women account for 55% of users) then we can see why applications like Pose, which bridge the offline and online shopping experience, are attracting venture capital.
But what I’d like to point out today is that we’re not only witnessing a fortuitous shift in platforms for fashion consumers, producers and retailers. We’re witnessing a kind of market correction, if you will, in which the media ecosystem of fashion will more accurately reflect the logic of relationships that govern the business and culture of fashion.
Why? Push media like TV, radio, magazines and newspapers were always instrumental to the fashion business. But social media is far more suited to the business and culture of fashion than any other previous media platform has ever been. And not just because women happen to be the largest user base.
Whether we like it or not, we all participate in the economy of fashion. No matter how unfashionable you may think you are, as long as you drape stuff on your naked body and present yourself to the public, you are participating in the culture and economy of fashion. Meaning in this economy is socially determined. One thing that makes fashion endlessly intriguing is that it is a taste industry, in which guidelines for determining what’s good and what’s terrible are all based on aesthetic judgements, on the opinions of people in a variety of peer groups. Some of those peer groups are more influential than others, and there are some key individuals who wield tremendous power in this vast global ecosystem. But gatekeepers like Anna Wintour only remain powerful as long as they can still process signals from the right peer groups and from the street, where the masses demonstrate their affinities for certain aesthetics, and a rather random assortment of fashionistas signal the direction of future trends.
The business and culture of fashion has always been push-pull, where powerful designers and editors held a great deal of sway, but people on the street determined not only what to purchase, but when, where and how to wear those things. Their choices always had a powerful impact on their own taste communities, their own peer groups, but it was harder for them to communicate their choices back to producers and retailers. Traditional media gave fashion tastemakers an excellent platform for projecting their ideas into the world, but it was fairly difficult to connect directly with those audiences and respond quickly to their opinions and desires.
Interactive media, and social media in particular, has completely changed the landscape – I would say, for the betterment of all. Now, fashion tastemakers can more easily monitor the trends that are developing within their customer base, and Twitter, of course, is one of the better tools for doing exactly that. And it goes both ways: famous designers like Stefano Gabbana have harnessed Twitter to better communicate their vision of the street and their peer groups, much to the delight of their followers, who get to see beyond the smooth contours of a global brand.
In a taste based economy, value is determined through social interactions. Not all actors have the same power to determine a trend, of course, but social media has made it infinitely easier for anyone with access to broadcast their vision, curate their favorites and participate in passionate conversations about the things they love. Any taste-based economy – whether it’s TV, film art, theater, music – benefits from social exchanges and strong fan communities. I have no doubt that fashion will do the same.
Of course it benefits the fashion industry that women are dominating social media channels. But my great hope is that social media platforms will make it possible for men to participate more in the culture and economy of fashion. As someone who frequently shops for men’s clothes, I am appalled by the lack of options. Apparently, 60% of menswear is purchased by women and, from my own anecdotal research, I can tell you that we’re not happy. So, in the fashion industry’s effort to court female customers online, let’s hope they remember that women are not only shopping for themselves, and they’re probably dying to dress their boys and men in something other than hoodies and button down shirts.
Fashion is one of the key ways we articulate our identities, and so the fact that men are offered such meager options for this is really problematic. Everyone’s concerned about their physical appearance. Men just have to sublimate it in a way that, I believe, serves no one’s interests at all.