I Just Bought a Shirt on Instagram — Is This the Future of Retail?

I do this thing on Instagram where, instead of scrolling down my feed to keep in touch with people I have deliberately selected to follow, I hit the search tab and get lost in an overwhelming archive of unfamiliar photos posted by people I do not know. These have seemingly been picked for me by some algorithmic taste barometer that knows I am a sucker for European beach photos, grocery store fruit and women wearing ridiculous things. I’m not sure why I prefer to treat Instagram like a snapshot roulette, to sneak into the lives of people and brands I don’t know as opposed to the ones I do, but I think it has something to do with making me feel like an adventurer or discoverer in a way that familiar faces or things just don’t. On a recent spiral through the vortex, I met an account called Maison Cléo, for which this photo was the gateway drug:

I clicked in to learn that this wasn’t a person’s account, but rather a very small brand run by a mother and daughter who hand-make all of the garments (~10 pieces) sold through their website. I found the top (which retailed for 80 euro), and bought it immediately. It was the first time I’d conducted an impulse purchase through Instagram. Following said purchase, a “customer service rep” (either the mother or the daughter, I’m not sure), reached out personally to thank me for my order. And then it took two weeks to arrive, but once it did, I was like Yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyesssssss!

Pandora Sykes, a friend and Man Repeller contributing editor who is arguably as passionate about a shoulder puff as I am, dutifully informed me that she ordered the same top. Ditto that for Juliana Salazar, another friend and similarly occasional contributor who looks cool all the time.

This further substantiated a theory I’ve had about the efficacy of Instagram’s algorithmic taste barometer — it is really good at showing you shit it thinks you will like, and not just that, it picks up on the taste level of your friends, too. There’s a sense of pride attached to finding something small and niche amid the exposed global shopping world for which we are all citizens. To illustrate just how small and niche Maison Cléo is, there is a notice on their site currently that reads, “Mum is on holiday for two weeks so all will be available again when she comes back. Subscribe to the newsletter to be noticed when all is available to order again when she is back.” And the mutual investment in one particular top, among people who you know and respect? That’s pretty reinforcing.

So then I wonder, is this the direction that consumerism is heading in? I don’t mean that we’re all going to start shopping via mom-n-pop Instagram shop, but the retail system certainly feels more scattered. There are so many great things to be discovered in so many different places that the value in committing to the centralized space that is a singular specialty retailer or department store doesn’t quite hold as much weight as it used to. But then again, it is extremely comforting to know that one specific place will be able to accommodate every consumerist itch that you have, right? This is why the one-stop shop came to exist and subsequently flourish in the first place.

People talk and talk and talk and talk about the end of retail and the future of commerce as we both do and don’t know it; it is a complicated conversation but I believe that the way to fix the problem is probably simpler than we think. That though the retailer isn’t actually inside the uptake yet, it is picking up on it. You can use the more generous suite of very new, very small designers who show up (and then sometimes disappear) on a site like Net-a-Porter, or who have become an integral part of the Moda Operandi engine, as proof of this concept. But if we’re not buying into brands anymore, if we’re only concerned with product, are we missing a major piece of what makes the shopping pie taste so good? I’m talking about soul! We buy stuff to feel more like we’re part of something that is bigger than us. Brands make us feeeeeeeeeeel in a much more satisfying way than actual products do. But maybe that’s changing. And maybe, just maybe shit isn’t broken as we think it is. It just needs new stuff on its shelves.

Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

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