The calibre of designers who signed on for the launch is testimony to Chen’s deep connections within the fashion industry and the trust she has built: Thom Browne, Balenciaga and Prada. It is the biggest project Chen has worked on at the company. Before this, she also worked with Zuckerberg to develop Instagram Reels, Checkout and IGTV.
“My role keeps changing,” she says. “Which is a good thing, I’ve always liked learning new things, I am super curious. And I like working from the ground up.” If she had to do an elevator pitch, she’d sum up her role like this: “My job is to think: what is the next generation of tools that the fashion industry needs to thrive and flourish? What can I do, at Instagram, to help the fashion industry?”
Which, given Instagram’s impact on fashion, is a little like saying that Chen gets to decide where the proverbial butterfly should flap its wings, because a tsunami will surely follow.
When Instagram was launched 10 years ago, it was meant to be a portal for photography obsessives to share inspiration. Today, it is an endless scrollfest that has taken to a whole new level the concept of native advertising – that is, advertising that’s designed not to look like advertising but is instead an “organic” post by an “authentic” influencer who really wants you to know how much they love SkinnyMe Tea.
Even its founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Kreiger, who have since left the company, have hinted that they dislike what the medium has become. Zuckerberg bought Instagram for $US1 billion in 2012, looking to this newer, cooler medium to drive profits as Facebook waned. Since then, both platforms have become increasingly commercialised with ads and #sponsoredcontent. More recently, Instagram has mimicked competitors such as TikTok and Snapchat by favouring video content in its feed algorithms, drawing the ire of users.
Instagram’s seismic effect on the fashion industry cannot be overestimated. Fashion and Instagram are now so intertwined it is difficult to think of one without the other. Every fashion brand is on Instagram, even those such as Chanel that typically eschew the digital world. Some fashion brands exist only on Instagram, so immediate, engaging and shoppable is the platform.
Fashion shows are streamed on Instagram Live and, in some cases, filmed to meet Instagram specifications. Designers, stylists and models share their daily lives as well as their work, inviting followers to comment, share and like. Instagram is where trends are born, it is where influencers influence and, increasingly, it is the destination for fashion criticism from a new generation of front-row devotees. And all of this attention, it goes without saying, has come at the expense of the fashion magazines where Chen started her career.
“I remember the day Instagram was launched,” says Chen, “and I remember thinking, this is a game changer for the fashion and beauty industries. Because we all think in terms of images, right? So when you have a designer creating ‘look 42’ on the runway, they are thinking, how does this fringe – you know, like the mustard yellow fringe that Proenza [Schouler] had a year ago – how would that look against the sunset of New York’s skyline? When Peter Do did those amazing backless suits, he was thinking of how sharp the silhouette would look in shadow. The fashion industry thinks about that already; I knew Instagram would be a way to show a new dimension.”
The role of head of fashion at Instagram, her first job title at the company, was created for Chen, who left the now-defunct Lucky after it was acquired by Beachmint, an e-commerce start-up. She was hired by Systrom, but now reports to Zuckerberg.
Chen, with her social media nous, was a no-brainer for a gig at Instagram. And she knew, instinctively, that fashion would take to it “like a fish to water”. “When McQueen started showing all these detailed shots of their intricate dresses, or when Dior would do very raw front-row stories, you felt like you were there with them,” says Chen, who seemingly has a Miranda Priestly-like memory bank of designer collections.
Though she was an outsider to the tech industry, working at Instagram was a dream job. As a magazine editor, she had helped people tell their story through its pages. “I could do the same at Instagram, not for the sake of my magazine, but for the [designers]. I could help give their narrative control and a sense of storytelling.”
One way she did this was by encouraging reticent designers to join the platform. Like Donatella Versace, who later visited Instagram’s Menlo Park headquarters as Chen’s guest.
“I remember giving Donatella an Instagram sweatshirt. She immediately reached into her handbag and pulled out this amazing Versace belt, and wrapped it around the hoodie and made it look runway-ready.”
That bridge between fashion and tech? It’s more of a belt.
‘I slightly devastated my parents’
Chen is a first-generation American, born to Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant parents who wanted her to be a doctor. She enrolled in pre-med studies at Johns Hopkins University, intending to do just that, but a summer internship at Harper’s Bazaar magazine piqued her curiosity.
After graduating and a short stint at a law firm, Chen began in the beauty department at Elle magazine before moving to Teen Vogue in 2005. She became known for her witty, self-deprecating writing and her relatability. If Anna Wintour was the devil in Prada, Chen was your big sister in Ralph Lauren.
A beauty blog followed, and then Chen became an early adopter of Instagram, posting those #evachenpose photos from as early as 2012. It’s still a thing, and while Chen doesn’t post them much any more, her devotees do. You can even Google tips on perfecting your own #evachenpose.
It’s this approachability in the normally exclusive world of fashion that has made Chen one of its biggest stars. Chen says it all came about by happenstance, but there is no denying the savvy of building a social media following so large and engaged she rendered her day job, in print media, basically irrelevant.
“I slightly devastated my parents when I deviated from that [pre-med] path,” she says. Everything after that, she says, was based on instinct. She insists she “never really had a game plan”. “I thought I would be a doctor, everything after that has been a risk.”
She hasn’t always fitted in, she says, recalling her first day at Instagram. “The room was mostly full of engineers. And I was like, ‘Well, I come from editorial, I was at a shopping magazine.’” She felt something close to impostor syndrome, a very un-Chen-like sentiment. But the engineers were intrigued.
“I wanted to know what a data engineer did all day, but they were like: ‘Is it really your job to write about, like, what sunscreen is good for acne-prone skin?’ I said yes. And then I was like, you are looking for a mineral-based sunscreen.”
Coming from print, Chen had a circle of industry friends ready to inculcate into the world of Instagram. A quick scroll of her Instagram feed is proof of life at the Chen party: there she is hosting an event for Tory Burch, remembering her late friend Virgil Abloh, honouring Prabal Garung at the White House.
In 2021 and 2022, Chen got Instagram to sponsor the Met Gala, putting her in the unique position of helping to foot the bill for her former boss, Anna Wintour. When asked who is the more intense boss – Zuckerberg or Wintour? – Chen hedges: “Anna is so prescient in so many ways, she always wants to try new things. She knows a lot about Instagram for someone who doesn’t have an account. And Mark understands the future and can see around corners. They have that in common.“
Chen is prescient, too. It is because of her that we have the Checkout feature on Instagram – available in the US – where you can shop in the app itself without leaving for a third-party website. It’s because of her that the @shop account exists: it launched in 2019 to spotlight smaller brands across fashion, beauty and lifestyle, and increasingly casts a lens on minority-owned businesses, giving them a boost in front of an enormous audience.
Chen represents Instagram at fashion weeks around the world, sitting in the front row and choosing which influencers will come along with her, giving them and their smartphone cameras front-row access and then going behind the scenes with the designers for a bit more.
She lures fashion celebrities to participate in viral Reel trends such as “jumping” videos, in which a user jump-cuts from one outfit to another. She is a user of the platform just as all of us are, name checking accounts like @ideservecouture (“So funny”) and @stylenotcom (“Such an original voice”) which provide the “granular details about fashion that are like catnip to a fashion nerd like me”.
She shops on Instagram and shares her finds. Her husband, marketing executive Tom Bannister, even has a granola start-up that became Insta-famous during the first COVID-19 lockdown. And of course, Chen has an avatar (it is currently dressed in a red Balenciaga sweater). But she hardly needs one: it’s difficult to separate her online life from her actual one.
Designer threads – for avatars
In October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced that his company would be rebranded from Facebook to Meta, a mark of his ambitions for the metaverse, a simulacrum of the real world which he and others, such as venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and competitor Microsoft think is the next big thing.
In his presentation, Zuckerberg showed himself – or a digital version thereof – getting dressed for this parallel virtual world. Not exactly known for his daring style, Zuckerberg’s avatar, after trying on a skeleton onesie and an astronaut’s suit, settled on a grey long-sleeve tee and black pants (a mirror image of Real Zuckerberg). Around the same time on Twitter, the @meta account tweeted: “Hey @balenciaga, what’s the dress code in the metaverse?” It was a hint of what was to come.
Selling digital clothing for avatars began in July in the United States, Canada, Thailand and Mexico, with more countries to come. The avatars, and their wardrobes, will be accessible on Facebook, Messenger and Instagram.
But does anyone really want to fork out money to dress their avatar in designer threads? Chen thinks so.
“There are millions of people already playing in this world, whether through Meta’s offerings or another shape or form,” she says, pointing to the gaming industry, which has become a source of serious revenue for the fashion industry: Louis Vuitton has created “skins” for League of Legends, Burberry for Honor of Kings, Marc Jacobs and Valentino for Animal Crossing. “[People] are already part of the metaverse, they just don’t realise it yet.“
Not everyone will embrace the metaverse the way Meta proposes, in a Thom Browne short suit or Balenciaga sneakers. But Chen is confident that even a spectrum of responses, from those who “jump in and adapt and create straight away” to those who “take more time to fully understand the possibilities” will be enough. “You will see early adopters, you will see more measured people. But I really do believe that we are all going to get there. The potential is real, it is there.“
Day to day, Chen says, “your avatar is going to need an outfit”. But then there will be special occasion pieces, the little black dresses of the Instagram world, available to an exclusive few. “Imagine a sportsperson announcing they are joining a league in a Thom Browne suit, and then that day, you can buy or download that suit for your avatar to wear.
“Or, in my wildest dreams, we will have a moment like the Kim Kardashian Balenciaga caution tape look, and the next day your avatar can wear it as well,” says Chen, referring to Kardashian being wrapped in canary yellow duct tape for Balenciaga’s fall 2022 show at Paris Fashion Week in February.
“It’s [about] participating in a cultural happening. Right now, you might direct-message someone a photo of Kim in that look, but soon, you’ll just put it on your avatar.”
Too hard? ‘Work harder’
As social media grows, news cycles quicken and our social mores change faster than an influencer doing a jump cut. Brands are subjected to public feedback, criticism and outright attack in ways that make the old-fashioned picket at headquarters seem like a yawn.
Social media has changed who gets to be an authority on, well, everything, and fashion is no exception. On Instagram, fashion companies are routinely called out by accounts like @dietprada, which unpicks (and sometimes picks on) fashion labels that fall short.
The most famous example is Dolce & Gabbana, excoriated by @dietprada for a video of a Chinese model struggling to eat pizza with chopsticks, which was seen as racist and out of touch. Diet Prada has accused everyone from Sportmax to Kim Kardashian of copying designs, called out cultural appropriation and pointed the finger at companies that celebrate diversity on the catwalk and nowhere else.
Instagram might be where you need your business to be, but it’s also scrabbly terrain to navigate, with nowhere to hide when you misjudge your audience. It is both a trick mirror and a real one, leaving brands and identities exposed.
“The role of a social media director is one of the most challenging roles ever to exist,” Chen says earnestly. That sounds hyperbolic, but she goes on. “You have to be at the forefront of culture, trends, what the hottest meme is, what trend to participate in. But you also have to have a fluent grasp of what the consumer or your followers expect.
“I’ve had people, brands, personalities reach out, and my perspective is always that, in 2022, the reality is this is not for one person any more. Your audience at Instagram is global. You can’t say ‘We’re only trying to appeal to this one neighbourhood in Sydney where the average person looks like this’ because, newsflash, that one neighbourhood in Sydney doesn’t really exist any more either. They might live there but they’re watching a South Korean drama and ordering snacks from Sao Paolo.
“I am constantly reminding people that feeling seen and heard is incredibly important. People want body diversity, they want cultural diversity, they want racial, gender, ethnic diversity. I have heard people say, ‘it’s too hard.’ My response is always, ‘work harder.’ The new generation of shoppers, women in their 20s and teens, they shop for values and morals, and put their wallets where their hearts are. If you have a runway with one set skin colour or hair colour or body type,” says Chen, “well … you should be prepared for feedback.“
Feedback, of course, works both ways. Like when, in 2021, The Wall Street Journal reported on a leaked internal document from Facebook which drew a clear link between Instagram and mental health issues in teen girls. It ricocheted around the world and snapped the illusion of connection, that Instagram was a party we were all invited to.
When I question Chen about this – what is Instagram’s role here? – Meta’s publicist interrupts, wanting to send “official messaging from the company”, but Chen gamely takes it on.
“As someone who worked at a teen magazine for seven years, and who has young children – in particular, an eight-year-old girl – I care deeply about teens,” she says. “I am an avid fan of teen culture, that’s why I worked at Teen Vogue. I read young adult books. I love the cohort. The strength and power and potential of that group really moves me.” She has not read the entire WSJ report, she admits. And she is not responding, she says, with a company line.
“On a personal level, I see how social media has changed things for people like me,” she says. “I never understood, for example, how to do make-up for Asian eyes. There were no books out there for me, there weren’t Asian girls in magazines. [Now] teen girls can see themselves out there now, on social media. There is power in representation, and I see a lot of good there. I do feel that is such a good thing now.“
Meta, for its part, says it is focusing on improving the way it approaches these subjects. In June, the Meta Family Centre launched in Australia with new parental supervision tools, and has partnered with organisations such as Butterfly on body image and Beyond Blue on mental health.
It’s a bit like telling someone with a broken leg to meditate more – it feels good, but will it really have much effect on the 32 per cent of teen girls surveyed who said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse?
The fashion industry has cooled on Meta in other ways, too. In July, Meta reported its first-ever revenue and profit losses, which followed the February announcement that daily users had decreased for the first time. Competition from TikTok, as well as more niche social media apps like BeReal and Discord, is fierce. Though TikTok still trails Facebook and Instagram in terms of total audience, it is, crucially, where Gen Z lives. One survey from the US showed that Gen Z reported a decline in use of every social media app last year, except TikTok.
In response, Instagram has tried to give the people what they want – that is, short-form video content – but it’s smacked of trying a little too hard. In August, Kylie Jenner posted: “Stop trying to be TikTok. I just want to see cute photos of my friends” triggering a change.org petition.
Given that Jenner’s 2018 comments about Snapchat caused that company’s share price to dive, it was no surprise that Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri responded swiftly and backed down, promising to undo the changes to the platform’s algorithm that made it highlight video over photos in users’ feeds.
All of this happens after I speak with Chen, and she has not mentioned the controversies publicly. But it is all to say: the metaverse needs to work. Because without it, Meta might not.
Chen admits we are a long way from the idea of shopping for shoes for our avatar being the norm. “We’re not there yet,” she says. “But I know that in the future, there will be brands that will only exist in the metaverse, that create clothing or make-up looks or haircuts just for avatars.” She is excited to be part of a team invested in the “infinite white space of this world”.
“Getting dressed is the most basic, fundamental form of self-expression,” she says. “In Mark’s case that might be a grey T-shirt and jeans, and basic sneakers. I’ve dressed my avatar in a tie-dye crop-top sweatsuit. It’s not something I’d wear in real life, but it’s fun.” Ultimately, she says, “it’s another way to share our identities.”
For Chen, that’s what fashion is: a creative expression of who we are, whether you are in your “Zoom office look”, as Chen is when we speak (bike shorts and a button-down shirt) or a digital version of that. Fashion is a language that we all speak, whether we know it or not, and so is social media.
If you exist online, Chen insists, you are expressing yourself there, whether you’re lurking or engaging. And if you exist online, yes, you’ll need clothes. Luckily there is, as they say, an app for that. She still pinches herself sometimes when she thinks about it all.
“Did I ever think I’d be in a meeting talking about the launch of a feature that millions of people would experience? Absolutely not. It’s an enormous privilege, and one I am just always so curious to explore. It’s been a really fun ride.”
The Fashion issue of AFR Magazine is out on Friday, August 26 inside The Australian Financial Review.