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Selling Style III: Welcome to the 21st Century

L'AN 2000 video call

By Cameron Walker

In the third and final installment of a three-part series on the history of fashion marketing, we explore how style was sold at the start of the 21st century, and look to the ways we will market la mode in the future.

Style Surfing the Web

There was a time, just before the dawn of the 21st century, when consumers did not have the option to buy clothes with a click and have them delivered the next day. Pre-Y2K shoppers braved overfull mall parking lots and fluorescent-lit changing rooms in brick-and-mortar stores — or waited weeks for their catalog orders to arrive. But the dot-com boom ushered in the era of e-commerce fashion, now a burgeoning industry with worldwide revenue expected to exceed $765 billion by 2022, according to research group Forrester. 

Online Retail

In 1999, frustrated customer Nick Swinmurn combed a California mall, searching unsuccessfully for a particular pair of brown boots. He saw a niche that web-based retail could fill, so he quit his day job and launched what is now online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos (originally under the domain name Bluefly had launched the previous year, and 2000 saw the roll out of ASOS, an online fashion platform geared toward 20-somethings, founded by the trio of Nick Robertson, Andrew Regan and Quentin Griffiths, as well as online luxury fashion hub Net-A-Porter, started by former fashion writer Natalie Massenet. Quirky and vintage-inspired online women’s retailer ModCloth followed in 2002, and was acquired by a Walmart subsidiary in March 2017 for a reported $51 million to $75 million. 

Net-A-Porter car parked on a street.
Photo by Philafrenzy

Online fashion has only grown since then; in fact, some estimates predict 36% of global fashion sales will be made online by 2022. Myriad companies now operate either solely online — like ShopBop, Gilt and Lulu’s — or with an online presence — like Nordstrom, Gap, Anthropologie and Target; much of their advertising dollars were also spent online. In 2018, U.S. ad sales reached a record $208 billion, and half of that spending was online, whether on display ads, search engine optimization (paying to elevate advertiser in search results), social media (including Pinterest), pay-per-click, native advertising (often found at the bottom of blog and social media posts), affiliate marketing (when an influencer promotes a product and earns a commission of each sale generated through that promotion), video ads and remarketing. 

You may have noticed ads for a particular pair of shoes or sunglasses popping up on various websites you visit. This is remarketing, or retargeting, and though somewhat spooky, it is a highly effective advertising strategy. Using cookie-based technology, a product or website will follow a user from site to site, staying visible and reminding the internet user of their previous interest in a brand or item. Only 2% of web traffic converts (or takes action, such as completing a purchase) on an initial visit; statistics show that the more often people see an ad, the more likely they are to convert. Remarketing is used in other ways, such as reminding a consumer that they have abandoned items in a shopping cart or that time is running out on a particular deal or sale.

As of July 2019, everything-retailer Amazon has 66 apparel sub-brands under its private-label umbrella, including Amazon Essentials, Lark & Ro, Essentialist, Ella Moon, HALE, Daily/Ritual, Core 10, Goodthreads, Emma Riley, Kid Nation and more. Outside brands pay a premium to advertise on the site, with sponsored product ads, headline search ads and product display ads. 

Anak Jihem posing for BryanBoy at Paris Fashion Week 2019.
Photo by Myles Kalus Anak Jihem | BryanBoy at Paris Fashion Week 2019


Way back, before Twitter or Instagram, when Facebook and MySpace were in their infancy, the first fashion blog was born. Telecom professional Patricia Handschiegel (who now heads Condiment, a digital magazine and marketplace) started blogging as a creative outlet in August of 2004, sharing her outfit-of-the-day mirror selfies on 

In October that same year, 24-year-old former web developer Bryan Yambao launched the BryanBoy blog (he’s now on Instagram at @bryanboycom). He became known for his signature pose: one hand on his hip and the other holding a designer handbag aloft. Marc Jacobs named a purse after him in 2008 (the BB ostrich bag) and he became a social media correspondent on Cycles 19 and 20 of America’s Next Top Model. The influencer has transitioned to Instagram, and is currently followed by nearly 600,000 people on the platform.

Street style photographer Scott Schuman created The Sartorialist in 2005, turning the camera’s eye toward “regular people” and showcasing how fashion can be accessible in the real world. Since starting the blog, he covered fashion for, GQ Magazine and Saks Fifth Avenue; his work has appeared in Vogue Italia, Vogue Paris and Interview Magazine; he modeled for Gap, contributed to ad campaigns for Banana Republic, Nespresso and DKNY Jeans, among others. He has produced several anthologies of his work, including the forthcoming “The Sartorialist. India” (December 2019). 

Other early and notable fashion bloggers include Susanna Lau, who started Style Bubble in March 2006; Rumi Neely, who parlayed the success of Fashion Toast (launched 2007) into a modeling contract and a clothing line; Tavi Gevinson, who launched Style Rookie in 2008 at age 11; Emily Schuman, whose Cupcakes and Cashmere has been evolving since 2008; Julie Sariñana, who founded Sincerely, Jules in February 2009; and Leandra Medine, who started Man Repeller as a college junior and turned the lighthearted, fashion-serious feminist blog into an empire.

These style bloggers — and others like them — transformed fashion hobbies into careers by blurring the lines between consumer and commodity. Many have become celebrities in their own right, sitting front row at fashion shows, designing their own lines of clothing and accessories, and advertising for and collaborating with design houses and commercial brands. However, the landscape is ever-changing; a number of blogs have been quietly closed or archived as their stars migrated to Instagram, and the ones that remain have been made over, resembling glossy fashion magazines in both aesthetics and staff size (see Cupcakes and Cashmere and Man Repeller, as well as Chiara Ferragni’s The Blonde Salad). 

Fashion influencer Chiara Ferragni at Milan Fashion Week.
Photo by Giorgio Montersino | Chiara Ferragni at Milan Fashion Week

Instagram Influencers

In October 2010, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger introduced photo-sharing platform Instagram — and fashion marketing was upended yet again. The visuals-heavy format was an early  success, drawing over 10 million active monthly users in its first year, which quickly attracted fashion bloggers and brands. 

Influencers are people who can affect other people’s purchasing decisions. There have always been fashion influencers: royalty, high society darlings, celebrities of stage and screen. But Instagram opened another door; in theory, regular people with a passion for fashion and a knack for showcasing their personal style could become celebrities in their own right, gaining followers who were interested in where they went, what they did, and — most importantly — what they were wearing.    

In practice, Instagram stars are often paid to promote brands, and this form of advertising has become big business, with companies paying substantial sums for sponsored posts, affiliate partnerships and collaborations. Being an influencer can be a full-time job, with some making six figures. 

Some examples from Vogue Australia include Aimee Song (@aimeesong), with more than 5.4 million Instagram followers, who makes nearly $10,000 per post; Camila Coelho (@camilacoelho), with more than 8.3 million followers, who makes nearly $15,000 per post; Gianluca Vacchi (@gianlucavacchi), with 13.7 million followers, who makes more than $23,000 per post; and Emily Ratajkowski (@emrata), with more than 24 million followers, who makes more than $36,000 a post. 

Chiara Ferragni (@chiaraferragni), who founded her fashion blog The Blonde Salad in 2009, made her first Instagram post in 2012; since then, she has turned her blog into an e-commerce site and online magazine; in addition , she has a website devoted to her clothing and accessories collection. Her early brand collaborations were a 2013 ad campaign for Guess and a 9-shoe collection with Steve Madden that same year. In April 2015, she was on the cover of Vogue España the first fashion blogger/influencer to be featured on the cover of a major fashion magazine; she has since appeared on dozens more. In 2016, Mattel even made her into a Barbie doll. She has cultivated more than 17 million Instagram followers and makes more than $26,000 for each sponsored post.

Shoppable posts

In the past few years, platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest have added shoppable posts, allowing consumers to buy products from companies through the links in the app. In fact, Instagram has recently launched the Checkout feature allowing customers to buy without leaving the app; it is currently in beta, allowing only a handful of brands to sell through the feature, including Burberry, Prada, Net-A-Porter, Michael Kors, Uniqlo, Dior, Zara and H&M.

Model posing for Tommy Adaptive line.
Model for Tommy Adaptive line

Embracing the Audience

Thanks to a lot of hard work by advocates — and a modern audience empowered to talk back to advertisers through social media — clothing retailers, designers and brands are beginning to feature models that look a lot more like real society. 

Figures from the March 2019 Runway Diversity Report by The Fashion Spot show that in Fall 2019, more models of color walked the runways than ever before. Of the models cast in New York, London, Milan and Paris, 38.8% were nonwhite, which is double the number from 2015. Recent years have also seen a generally upward-trending casting of plus-size, transgender and older models, although the overall percentage of models in these categories is still small. 

Traditional ad campaigns have been slower to join the trend, although a number of brands are embracing racial diversity in casting; American Eagle Outfitters, MICHAEL by Michael Kors, H&M, Prada, Miu Miu, United Colors of Benetton, Alexander McQueen and Prabal Gurung all featured more than 50% models of color in their Spring 2019 advertising campaigns.   

Other brands have reached for inclusivity by casting models with disabilities like Jillian Mercado, who has appeared in ads for Target and Nordstrom, and Mama Cax, who has starred in campaigns for ASOS and Chromat. Aerie’s recent viral campaign featured a model with Down syndrome and models wearing an insulin pump and an ostomy bag. Tommy Hilfiger launched a line of adaptive clothing, Tommy Adaptive, which features one-handed closures, expanded openings and seated options, and organizations like the Runway of Dreams Foundation are working toward a more inclusive fashion industry. 

Stand for Something

More than ever, consumers want brands to stand for something. According to 2018’s “The State of Fashion” report by McKinsey and the Business of Fashion, 66% of millennials worldwide are willing to spend more on sustainable brands. The fashion industry is currently a big polluter; it is the second-largest user of water and is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions, and $500 billion worth of unsold clothing is disposed of, rather than recycled, each year. Companies that aim to change these figures for the better are developing devoted followings, like outdoor outfitters Columbia and Patagonia (which repairs customers’ clothing and refurbishes their older product for resale), Reformation, H&M’s Conscious collection, Room 502 and footwear brands Allbirds and Rothy’s. 

Other stand-for-something brands include VF Corporation (whose subsidiaries include Vans and The North Face), whose vision statement reads, “We power movements of sustainable and active lifestyles for the betterment of people and our planet”; Everlane, which focuses on what they call “radical transparency” in the supply chain; Toms, which, among other things, provides shoes for those in need; Thread Harvest, an ethical and sustainable online marketplace that allows consumers to shop by cause; and Stella McCartney, a vegetarian luxury brand that respects animals, people and nature. The values these companies stress feature prominently in their marketing, especially online. 

Alternative consumption 

What if there were a better way to get your fashion fix? A number of companies are putting their spin on the answer, including thredUP, an online clothing thrift store; Rent the Runway, which connects designer clothes and accessories with consumers for a short time; and subscription services StitchFix, JustFab, Trunk Club by Nordstrom and Gwynnie Bee, which introduce customers to new brands on their doorstep. 

Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management (TATM) assistant professor Delisia Matthews studies alternative consumption such as fashion trucks, second-hand fashion and Sneakerheads conventions and apps.  Read some of her recent work here

Ad for Amazon's Echo Look product.

Future Fashion

So what does the future hold for fashion marketing? Forecasters predict an increase in experiential marketing, with pop-up events and interactive content both online and in real life, to get customers’ attention and encourage them to engage with brands. 

There will be a tilt toward augmented reality (AR), both online and in the real world. Many companies, like Levi’s, have virtual stylists or chatbot assistants to help customers shop for what they want, but companies are thinking bigger. Israel-based Syte allows brands to suggest suggested looks to users when they upload images of their favorite styles; clients include Forever 21, Tommy Hilfiger and Kohl’s.

Amazon’s Echo Look, which launched in June 2018, is a “personal style assistant” with a voice-controlled camera to take social media-shareable outfit photos and a Style Check function that offers opinions on customers’ outfits of the day and suggests items — available for purchase on Amazon — that pair well with clothes the customer already owns. Digital scanning technology already exists that can measure users’ bodies and suggest clothes that will fit them well.

Wilson College of Textiles at NC State researchers recently developed an app and garment system, Prime Fit, that helps customers ascertain their accurate body measurements. Prime Fit could be paired with technology such as the Echo Look to not only suggest clothes similar to a customer’s style, but also select garments tailored to a customer’s exact size and shape. In the near future, such technology could be used to create a user profile to facilitate custom, on-demand clothing.

Some brands, like TopShop, Uniqlo and several Neiman Marcus locations, have utilized in-store AR mirrors so customers can remain clothed while virtually trying on clothes, or can see their selection in different color options. Amazon currently holds a patent for an AR mirror that will allow users to virtually try on clothing — in virtual settings, like a beach or a snowy mountainside — from the comfort of their computer screens.  

So what does the future hold for fashion marketing? The possibilities are endless, but based on current trends, it’s likely that whatever comes next will emphasize quality and sustainability, be tailored to the individual shopper, make the process easier on consumers and make fashion available on demand. 

What do you think is next?

Also read:

Selling Style I: The History of Fashion Marketing Through the 19th Century

Selling Style II: The History of Fashion Marketing in the 20th Century

Follow the Wilson College of Textiles:

Twitter: @NCStateWilson

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