The fashion industry has always been fashionably late to the social media party. For years, the girl on the street outstripped the big brands. While stylish snappers' daily Tumblr self-portraits were garnering thousands of fans, creative shoppers were crafting elaborate Pinterest mood-boards and bloggers were blagging prime places in the FROW, the fashion houses trailed behind, throwing freebies and show tickets at the grassroots gurus in an attempt to steal a little of their social shine.
But this September's global fashion weeks demonstrated how much things have changed. Every label worth its salt has a strategy, a livestream or a surprise up their sleeve. Some of the highlights included Diane von Furstenberg's models wearing Google Glass, the company's newly developed AR-enhanced eyewear; US designers Carlos Campos and Suzanne Rae using voting design platform CutOnYourBias to crowdsource their collections; a reappearance of Burberry's brilliant tweetwalk; and Topshop Unique's collaboration with Facebook on an interactive livestream, which allowed over two million people from 100 countries to use a special button to capture and share details they loved as they marched past, not to mention pre-order the clothes, the models' makeup and even the show soundtrack.
Is fashion becoming BFF with social? Maybe not. Four days after London Fashion Week, I sat on a panel at the capital's first Social Media Week Fashion Day, which suggested that anxiety, false assumptions and knee-jerk reactions are still the industry norm. Lucy Norris, founder of trend-spotting website Prêt-Á-Rêver, talked about how instant gratification, fame-seeking bloggers and perma-shopping are homogenising cheap street style and destroying designers' ability to produce complex and sometimes unpalatable art. Norris quoted Miuccia Prada's horror at the idea that one paltry tweet could denigrate six months' laborious work. She's not alone. Read industry press, and in between the paeans to Christopher Bailey's digital nous, there's a lot of similar hand-wringing going on.
Well, welcome to the graveyard, fashion. So far we've seen social media kill off the music industry, publishing, art, photography, journalism... what took you so long? But such fear-mongering tends to rely on two unexamined assumptions – one about your audience and the other about your brand – and fashion businesses must also root them out if they're to move on, and up.
First, audience. The belief that social media 'does' this or 'does' that is nonsense. Social media doesn't do anything. The people who use it, their desires and preferences, are the ones who drive the behavioural trends; and what's more, they're not 'them', they're us. Only a tiny majority of social users are breathless peplum-wearing bloggers. Most use social unselfconsciously, for a combination of function and fun. We're led by what's easy and entertaining, and we consume fashion via a mix of on and offline channels, including TV, magazines, the high street and yes, sometimes Twitter. Sure, it's a thrill to buy a hitherto exclusive new-season trend with a click, but that doesn't mean we don't want to spend an hour trying on timeless investment pieces with our best friend in a boutique. We've always dabbled in high and low, quick and slow. The tools open up more choice, but that doesn't mean we'll always choose the same path.
The second assumption is that brands must be led by the available technology. Where, in Prada's insecure rant, is the confidence of a creative visionary who asks customers to pay thousands for a couture dress? Aspirational brands don't all have to enter the race for maximum sharing just because Christopher Bailey has great press. Tom Ford asked for no photography at his catwalk; Hedi Slimane would only let buyers attend. The fact is, social media is brilliant at unearthing businesses that don't have a strong sense of identity – or belief and pride in that identity. Sure, it's important to keep abreast of new technologies. But those are so varied – and the behaviour they encourage so varied too -that you really do still have the ability to pick and choose what works best for you, as well as what works for your consumers.
There's room in fashion for the content-hungry trend-hounds as well as the cerebral art lovers who prefer slow luxury. It is part of designers' jobs to identify how they outreach to their different audiences without losing their own way. Whether you use Pinterest or pencil, get creative rather than complaining that things just ain't as good as they used to be. It's the oldest, and least productive, moan in the book.
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Admap. Click here for subscription information.