TikTok is luring fashion away from the manicured perfection of Instagram - but can its popularity last?

·6-min read
TikTok @larsenthompson @charlidamelio @leoniehanne  - TikTok: @larsenthompson @charlidamelio @leoniehanne
TikTok @larsenthompson @charlidamelio @leoniehanne - TikTok: @larsenthompson @charlidamelio @leoniehanne

TikTok may still baffle most people over 30, but the app famous for dance videos and viral challenges has captured the eye of the fashion industry.

The Chinese-owned platform has a simple concept – users upload 15-second videos or a series of clips of up to a minute – and has proven particularly irresistible to Gen Z , with a third of the 800 million global users now under 24.

During the pandemic, TikTok rebranded itself as a fashion hub by recruiting influencers and helping luxury labels launch campaigns. When fashion shows moved online, brands like Dior used it to post clips from their digital showcases, and Gucci, Balmain and Balenciaga all opened TikTok accounts this year. In late June, TikTok for Business was launched to lure in even more retailers. 

“TikTok for Business [offers] Branded Hashtag Challenges, or our TopView product which provides brands the opportunity to do a full screen, sound-on, immersive takeover,” explains Kristina Karassoulis, who manages luxury partnerships at the company. “But we're not stopping here. We will continue to experiment with and test even more ad solutions so that as we grow, brands can grow with us.”

For years, fashion had a monogamous love-in with Instagram. Thousands of long-legged influencers multiplied on the photo sharing site, advertising clothes in front of ice-cream coloured Notting Hill houses or on the scarlet banquettes of Parisian cafes. Now, brands keen to woo Generation Z are realising under-25s want something different.  

“One thing we know about young people is that they want their feeds to feel organic,” explains Mary-Leigh Bliss, the vice president of content at Ypulse, a youth consumer insights firm. “Instagram is very carefully laid out, very filtered and has an edited sheen of perfection. Tiktok feels more authentic and in the moment, which leaves room for showing flaws. TikTok stars have quite a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards things that used to be all about perfection, like beauty and fashion.” 

Fashion, which generally presents an aspirational face to the world, needs a new approach if it is going to reflect this growing desire for realism. Luxury brands are accustomed to producing highly polished content, which is the opposite of what TikTok represents – hence why so many of them have handed over the reins to TikTokers who are better placed to make the raw, unfiltered videos that engage a Gen Z audience.

Leonie Hanne joined the site this spring and already works with Dior, Givenchy and Fendi on the site. “Even Instagram users are craving more realness lately,” she explains. “They really love to get to know you and that’s something I find easy to do on TikTok, as the options to create varied content are endless and I can constantly mix things up by using different music and styles of video.” Her move onto the platform has been so successful Prada even asked her to create TikTok content for their SS21 online show, and gave her total autonomy over the project. 

“The difference is we aren’t trying to emulate the aspirational content you’d see in the pages of a fashion magazine,” says Karassoulis. “We're here to help brands add another dimension to their personality that’s authentic, joyful and that sparks the imagination of the TikTok community. If you think about trends in the fashion industry, the dial has moved very much towards challenging traditional standards of what constitutes style and beauty. Our audience is practicing rebellious self-love – TikTok is ground zero for this sort of content, so it’s essential that fashion brands speak this language.”

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♬ Skechers - DripReport

Gucci in particular embraced this ‘rebellious self-love’, both on the platform and off it. So it is no surprise that they are one of the most popular brands on TikTok, posting viral videos of models with uneven teeth and greasy hair, or of two women in their 80s dancing in the latest collections. 

Brands are also tapping into the interactive and teaching element of TikTok – Burberry asked users to create videos where they contort their hands into the TB shape for Thomas Burberry, generating 57 million views, and JW Anderson’s crochet cardigan tutorials went viral. A video showing the making of the new Dior Bobby flap bag has garnered 2.3 million views, while Balenciaga’s shoppable Christmas campaign got 25 million. And then there’s the ‘Skechers Challenge’ – a song about the brand by artist DripReport was remixed on the platform, got millions of likes and boosted the shoe brand’s sales by 400 percent in April.

“One of the big unique selling points of TikTok is that anything can become TikTok famous,” says Karassoulis. “Because we prize views above all else, you can go viral on TikTok without a single follower. Brands can make the most of that either through organic content or by tapping into existing trends or viral songs, or through ad solutions.”

But while TikTok can generate millions of views in minutes, it is not as adept as sites like Instagram at translating engagement into sales. Which means for the moment, brands are pouring money into campaigns that capture the attention of a young audience, but which aren’t all turning into cash.

“Remember TikTok’s growth has been enormous in such a short time,” says Bliss. “It’s been much faster than any of the other apps. They’re new, so they don’t have as many retail functionalities as Instagram, but it will come. Anyway, if you want a future consumer, you need to be focused on Gen Z, regardless of whether they have the money to buy now.”

And then there are the rumours of a US ban. While this would be a real blow for nascent creators on the site – particularly now Instagram has rolled out its TikTok-like video feature called Reels this UK – there are talks of a Microsoft buyout, which would put some of the concerns about security to rest. 

Banned or not, the TikTok aesthetic and the desire for raw, unfiltered video content from even the glossiest fashion brands is certainly here to stay.

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