Cult Instagram Brands and the Challenges of Viral Fame

Susan Alexandra is no stranger to the fashion circuit. Her eponymous accessory collections are sold by enormous retailers such as Moda Operandi, Shopbop, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue. Her bags in particular are famous on Instagram, the people who buy them more akin to fangirls than customers, frequently DMing Susan sightings of her designs in the wild. Gigi Hadid recently carried one. So did Suri Cruise.

And yet, yesterday marked the first time Susan participated in New York Fashion Week’s official schedule of events. Her inauguration took place at Baz Bagels in Nolita, where a dazzling array of multicolored handbags were stacked under glass countertops along with bagels and lox and coffee pots overflowing with rainbow beads. Waitresses in pastel uniforms served appetizers atop silver trays and, at one point, stood on top of tables to belt out a rendition of Petula Clark’s 1964 hit, “Downtown.”

When I posted a photo from the presentation on Instagram, I clicked share with nary an edit. I didn’t even up the saturation. I didn’t need to. Such is the power of a brand whose massive popularity has been cemented and nurtured by social media. It doesn’t need to be made “Instagrammable” because it already inherently is.

Batsheva’s second-ever fashion week presentation took place immediately after Susan’s, in a new pop-up shop on West Broadway. The brand’s success is also largely fueled by Instagram, thanks to the eye-catching nature of its unusual dresses and the #prairiecore trend wave that has taken the internet by a storm over the past year. New Yorker profile of designer Batsheva Hay describes her designs as “beautiful, sometimes stunningly so, and unsettling” — a combination of adjectives fully on display yesterday, as a throng of well-bundled editors crowded around to witness what seemed to be part spoken word slam, part-musical performance and part-presentation.

A mix of models and “non-models” (including actress Christina Ricci) walked slowly down a spiral staircase wearing Batsheva’s signature nipped-waist, puffed-sleeve frocks, with a few skirts and pairs of pants thrown in for good measure. At the end of the quasi-show, the singer — a woman named Esther McGregor (daughter of Ewan) dressed in a white Batsheva wedding gown scribbled with red marker and a tattered veil — crooned the final words of the song “Miss World,” written by Courtney Love, who was also in attendance (“I made my bed and I’ll lie in it, I made my bed and I’ll die in it”) and posed for the hundreds of iPhone cameras.

Attending the Susan Alexandra and Batsheva presentations back-to-back proved to be an interesting, albeit inadvertent, study. Not only have both brands effectively built a business around the success of a niche cult product (beaded bags and prairie-inspired dresses, respectively), but both have also parlayed that success into a spot on the official fashion calendar alongside heavyweights like Oscar de la Renta, Proenza Schouler and Marc Jacobs. In that sense, the viral nature of the internet has created a viable entry point for designers who have otherwise operated outside the traditional system, allowing “it” items to beget industry-acknowledged brands, instead of the other way around.

Mansur Gavriel was arguably the first brand to tap into this ingress on the coattails of its viral drawstring bucket bag, which debuted in 2013. The brand was a hit almost immediately, selling out within the first month of its launch. Garance Doré, a photographer and burgeoning influencer at the time, was one of the first to hype it to her followers. Fashionista called it an “overnight sensation” and published a guide for how to obtain one. Mansur Gavriel made a habit of re-posting user-generation on Instagram with the hashtag #happygirlhappybag, a tantalizing carrot dangled on the phone screens of other eager potential customers.

Since then, Mansur Gavriel has expanded its offering to include shoes (in 2015), women’s ready-to-wear (in 2017) and men’s accessories (in 2018). Even though the brand’s initial success stemmed from a viral product-turned-trend, its overall growth has been thoughtful, steady and — to some extent — trend-averse, favoring simple wardrobe basics like thick cable-knit sweaters, duster coats and slacks in light-hearted primary and pastel colors, and developing new bag silhouettes that merge seamlessly with the originals. (“We love the idea of slowly building a three dimensional world with interesting products, graphic design, and photography,” Mansur Gavriel’s founders, Rachel Mansur and Floriana Gavriel, told The Telegraph in 2013. “We admire brands that have created a deep, rich world — Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Acne, Prada.”)

It’s worth noting, though, that it was years before Mansur Gavriel started building a three dimensional world by means of a new category, and it may be years before Susan Alexandra and Batsheva do as well, if that’s even their intention. Until then, they already organically have what most established brands spend millions of marketing dollars to acquire: a devoted fanbase of proselytizing fashion editors, influencers, cool girls and celebrities — and an item that everyone wants to buy.

Feature photos at Batsheva by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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