One day in July, Tara MacInnis saw the same dress seven times in the span of three hours. Long-sleeved, ankle-length and vaguely tent-like, in an unexpected, Dalmatian-like polka dot print, the dress from fast-fashion retailer Zara was everywhere in London, where she’d recently moved from Toronto.
“[My partner] and I had a sort of unofficial contest to see who could spot it the most in the run of a day and that was my best day,” MacInnis, a former fashion editor, says. “But, a few days later, he saw one before he even left the house. He looked out our window and a woman walked by wearing it. So, he kind of wins based on that experience.”
Over the next few months, the popularity of The Dress (by this point, it has achieved uppercase status) didn’t let up. MacInnis spotted it while on vacation in Italy in August, for instance.
Chances are, you’ve seen The Dress by now, too, and other viral fashion pieces similar to it: Another uber-popular item this summer was a silky, midi-length leopard-print number by Australian retailer Réalisation Par. Early in the year, the Amazon Coat (again deserving of uppercase status) was the “it” piece for winter, a vaguely utilitarian jacket by Orolay, a Chinese company that also makes bookshelves and folding chairs, and sold on Amazon.
These super specific fashion trends are the subject of magazine write-ups, endless knock-offs and sometimes even their own Instagram accounts – fans of The Dress have @hot4thespot, while devotees of the jacket and leopard skirt have the more prosaically named @theamazoncoat and @leopardmidiskirt, respectively. So what makes these viral clothing items platonic ideals? And how do we go from not seeing an item to suddenly everyone wearing the same thing?
What’s the difference between a viral fashion trend and any other trend?
Design has something to do with it, though it’s not the only factor. “I think Zara does a really great job at making stuff lots of people want to wear and this dress is no exception,” MacInnis says. “It’s relatively neutral, which means you can do the pattern mixing thing – I’ve seen people wear leopard-print accessories with it, florals, stripes. It’s also easy to dress up and down and it has an easy-to-wear silhouette. Also, the unofficial uniform of women in [London] is a flowy dress and sneakers (or trainers, as they would say), so this dress fits that bill, too.”
But plenty of retailers make things people want to wear. When it comes to viral fashion trends, social media matters more. Instagram makes it easier for consumers to discover specific products and more likely they’ll embrace those products, because someone they admire has already given it their seal of approval. “Endorsement is still a very important cultural aspect of fashion becoming fashion,” Vancouver-based trend forecaster Emily Miller Palmquist says. “Humans are social animals and we communicate status, gender, values and personal identity in what we choose to look like every day.”
As Armida Ascano, chief insights officer at Trend Hunter, points out, super specific trends happened before social media, too. She offers the mainstream popularity of JNCO jeans in the 1990s and Air Jordan 1s in the eighties as past examples of this phenomenon.
And Alexandra Palmer, the Nora E. Vaughan fashion costume senior curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, offers even older examples: “What’s happened traditionally is you’ve had elite fashion that’s been copied and emulated by people when they see it,” she says. “If you’re talking about 18th-century fashion, that’s through fashion plates and either making it yourself or having someone make it or buying a second-hand thing and redoing it.” By the mid-19th century, a more robust print culture – that is, more magazines and newspapers that covered style – meant information about fashion was not only more readily available, it was more quickly available.
The difference now is scale. The 2019 version doesn’t just mean that thousands of people can discover a particular dress at almost the same time, regardless of location, it means – thanks to mass-market retailers, who are producing items that are accessible in both availability and price point – they can buy it, too.
“As fashion accelerates and information about fashion accelerates, the world becomes smaller. That escalated through the 19th and 20th and 21st centuries, and now we’re down to a very specific Zara dress,” Palmer says.
The psychology of viral trends
But there’s another key way that social media ushers in viral trends; it allows us to join what fashion designer, trend forecaster and Seneca College professor Jennifer Dares calls fashion tribes. “We’re in this global technological sphere. … Everyone’s not receiving their information in the same way,” she says. The result is that one person might think an item is everywhere, while another may never see it. As proof, she points to the Amazon coat. Last winter, while some sectors of the internet were obsessed with that parka, her tribe was lusting after Aritzia’s the Super Puff coat, an aptly named puffer jacket.
Ascano agrees. “We can’t really talk about Internet culture or fashion without talking about a sense of belonging,” she says. “Virality is people wanting to resonate not just with an item but with one another. We know when it comes to these viral fashion trends, not only did they pick up a lot of attention, but they also then foster these little mini-communities almost immediately.”
What becomes popular has always depended on a cultural hierarchy – the fashionable elite do the coolest version of the thing, which then trickles down to the rest of us, translated again and again for an increasingly mass audience. With each translation, there’s a related reduction in coolness until eventually, sometimes years later, the trend is over. (Until some stylish person rediscovers a once-popular print, silhouette or item buried in a vintage store somewhere and starts the whole cycle over again.) However, viral fashion trends disrupt that cycle, first because fast-fashion retailers have reduced the time it takes for an item to become accessible to the masses and also because they acknowledge a perhaps difficult truth.
While people tend to want to be “in the know,” most of us aren’t actually interested in, or capable of, being fashion innovators. We get a sense of belonging – and the illusion that we’re at the vanguard of fashion trends – when we follow the right people on Instagram, but since the internet is not exactly exclusive, thousands of other people feel that way, too. That’s how these trends get so big and why The Dress outsold other, equally nice, polka-dot frocks all summer long.
Our feeds even amplify the impact of “old-school” factors, such as exposure. “Consumers are being fed trends daily,” fashion editor and stylist Corey Ng says. “The more we are stimulated by a particular style or piece, we notice it more on other people and we also fall for the trend because when the time comes for us to shop for something similar, our mind is already familiarized with a particular style.”
That’s where “traditional” media comes in. Take Amazon’s Orolay jacket. It was a micro-trend among women who lived in New York’s Upper East Side until a March, 2018 article on New York magazine’s website introduced it to a much wider audience. Ironically, as other mainstream publications picked up the story, publishing headlines about the “jacket you’re seeing everywhere,” there were still lots of people who had never seen that jacket in real life. But as media coverage drove sales, it really did become ubiquitous among certain groups – those who follow trends and read those magazines.
None of this works without savvy retailers
Of course, trends can’t make the jump from URL to IRL if retailers aren’t strategic, regardless of how many Instagram “likes” an item gets or how many fashion magazine stories it inspires. Zara, Réalisation Par and Amazon wouldn’t comment on their products’ popularity, but the fact that some of them have repeat hits and can accommodate growing demand implies that going viral is not an accident. In fact, according to retail experts, their success is due to a deliberate, viral-friendly combination of data-driven strategy, infrastructure and scale.
“Data is the secret to life,” says Mark A. Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School and former CEO of Sears Canada. “Retailers have always had tremendous actual selling data. [But now] merchants know, if not the same day, then the next day, what’s selling. They have empirical data produced for them, typically online or onscreen, in almost real time as to what they sold and where they sold it.”
Retailers monitor that data closely, both to track the performance of a trend they anticipate will take off and to catch unexpected viral hits. And the most successful ones use it to react quickly, though reactions are not always to double down, counterintuitive as that may seem. That’s because the biggest challenge of viral fashion trends is not making them happen, but anticipating how long they’ll stay hot and how much you should invest to meet the demand.
“A retailer’s primary task is to understand where the opportunity falls, then develop strategic plans on how to grow or enter the market,” Grant Cohen, a consultant at Boston-based retail consulting firm BRP, says. “Extension should be the ultimate goal, but recognizing the ‘stickiness’ of the opportunity must come first.”
Zara has a vertically integrated business that allows them to move very quickly; the company can take a product from sketch to store in 13 weeks and can reduce the turnaround time to as little as two weeks if it needs to. But the company rarely repeats a product exactly. Instead, it will capitalize on the trend by releasing new colourways, as it did in August with a black version of The Dress. But it was only available in certain markets – and that’s strategic, too. The company won’t roll that design out to other markets unless there’s data to support it.
And purchase data isn’t the only type of information retailers use. According to business consultant Robert Burke, whose New York firm specializes in fashion and retail, predictive algorithms can collect data on the way customers interact with the brand’s social media posts, or follow their web-browsing habits, which helps the retailer anticipate what will sell in the future and even which products to stock in which geographic location and in what quantities.
“Sometimes it is impossible to predict a viral move when you are not the one controlling the action,” Burke says. But data helps retailers exert a surprising amount of control, even when it comes to notoriously fickle viral trends. Some retailers are even using predictive artificial intelligence to forecast what will become trendy in the future, and how many they should produce.
What’s the next viral item?
Unfortunately, even if you understand how an item went viral in the past, it doesn’t mean you can anticipate what will resonate with shoppers in the future. But trend forecasters do have some ideas. This fall, Dares says the next must-have top will have incredible shoulder details. “It [could be] extended and oversized, soft and romantic or very sculptural and statement-making, but I think we’re going to see statements at the shoulders being important.” At least, for some fashion tribes. For others, the 1970s, 80s and 90s remain important fashion references – and still others are moving away from fast fashion entirely, in favour of a more individual style.
That’s the case back in London, where, despite it being everywhere, MacInnis doesn’t own The Dress. “I’m trying really hard to kick my fast-fashion habit, so that means no Zara. But one other reason I haven’t bought it is because of its ubiquity,” she says. “I think it might be bothering some people who own this dress, too, based on the fact that I’ve seen lots of people making modifications to it. I’ve seen it dyed pink, yellow and blue, and I’ve seen people hem it and crop the sleeves. That’s definitely something I’d be doing right now if I owned it. That or making it into a pillow.”
“When a piece becomes the ‘the item,’ it is because the market has been conditioned to be attracted to this style and you have a large portion of society who are readily adopt a unified look at any given time,” fashion and trend consultant Emily Miller Palmquist says. Here’s how the leopard-print midi skirt went from Instagram trend to skirt of the summer (twice).
February, 2018: At New York Fashion Week, Tom Ford, Diane von Furstenberg and Victoria Beckham included leopard print apparel in their collections.
March, 2018: Australian e-commerce brand Réalisation Par releases its Naomi Wild Things Skirt, a silky, midi-length offering that hints at 1990s nostalgia – or screams it, when paired with a graphic tee and chunky-soled sneakers.
May 7, 2018: It becomes difficult to find a photo of an Instagram influencer who’s not wearing the Naomi skirt. French blogger Anne-Laure Mais was one of the first; her vacation photo earns 20,799 likes.
June 17, 2018: The Man Repeller’s Leandra Cohen posts a selfie of her wearing the skirt on Instagram, garnering more than 31,000 likes. Later that week, in a post titled, “I Want the Most Popular Skirt on Social Media, Should I Get It?” she worries about whether the trend is over, saying “It’s already been seen, digested, interpreted and co-opted by The Girls of Instagram, so do I really want to add to the noise?” Little did she know.
Summer 2018: The skirt sells out four times over the course of the summer.
July 30, 2018: Harper’s Bazaar UK declares the Naomi skirt – which retails for $162 – the “affordable hit of the summer.”
August 27, 2018: Fashion blogger Aimee Song writes about the skirt, saying it “almost broke the Internet and has been sold out for weeks!” before rounding up eight alternatives, plus some tops and dresses.
November, 2018: Fashion search platform Lyst releases its annual year in fashion report; Réalisation Par comes in at No. 4 on its index of popular Instagram brands, while the Naomi skirt was the fifth most-wanted product on the platform.
Spring 2019: The leopard print skirt becomes Rent the Runway’s most sought-after animal print item of the season.
March, 2019: A Réalisation Par brand rep tells InStyle that the Naomi skirt is the company’s best-ever selling product.
April 24, 2019: Selena Gomez is spotted wearing the skirt with a tie-dyed tee and black heels.
May 22, 2019: Rilka Noel, an e-commerce planner at a New York streetwear brand, launches @leopardmidiskirt after seeing the skirt 30 times in one week. (She does not own the skirt herself.)
May 28, 2019: The Cut declares the leopard print skirt the trend of the summer. (Again.)
July 9, 2019: Yahoo Lifestyle Australia reports that a K-Mart knock-off of the OG Réalisation Par skirt is having a mini viral moment itself, likely because it’s both surprisingly flattering and cheap ($18!).
August, 2019: Réalisation Par launches the Joni skirt. A maxi version of the Naomi, it comes in a modern paisley print and may just be next spring’s must-have.