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Trending: How Fashion Brands Are Using Meme Culture to Engage Followers

From luxury brands collaborating with viral content creators to the advent of meme (gasp) couture, Lauren Ashdown examines how the internet phenomenon is shaking up the fashion industry.

We're all familiar with memes - a simple and predominantly visual medium sometimes accompanied by short, witty captions. Recently though, the more specific ‘fashion meme’ has risen to prominence, with both creators and brands utilising its power to drive social media shares and engagement. Can the fashion meme loosen the stiff collar of couture? Could it give new energy to tired brands? Is fashion becoming...funny? I answer these questions and more, as I take a deep-dive into this wonderful (and slightly bizarre) world.

Although we think of memes as a relatively recent phenomenon, the term itself was originally coined by pre-eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 work, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins theorised that in the same way that societies develop physically through passing on their genes, they develop culturally by the passing on of memes, which he defined as a 'unit of cultural information spread by imitation'. The fashion industry has always celebrated the development of cultural phenomena and ideas, and so, it is no surprise that some brands have taken to using memes as a form of guerrilla advertising. In their use of memes, the fashion brand is seemingly attempting to bridge the distance between itself and the consumer, as if to say, 'We share similar thoughts, beliefs and ideas.' In short, hashtag relatable.

An exceedingly well-executed example of meme marketing comes from Gucci, under Creative Director Alessandro Michele. For the launch of Le Marché des Merveilles watch collection, the luxury house unleashed a viral, meme-centric social media campaign, involving a group of prolific social media creators creating quick-witted memes around the phrase 'That Feeling When Gucci' or #TFWGucci. Not only did the campaign use the classic (DIY-looking) meme layout, varied and well-considered visuals and witty captions, but it genuinely resembled memes you might find scrolling through your feed. There was an element of surprise upon discovering it was actually a Gucci campaign, and that's what worked.

via @Gucci

From meme marketing to meme couture, Viktor & Rolf made a lasting impression with their Spring 2019 Couture collection in Paris. Combining finely wrought craftsmanship with acerbic modern phrases, the duo's statement gowns went down a treat on social media, almost instantly transforming into viral memes. Garments were printed with 'NO', 'I Am My Own Muse', 'F* This I’m Going to Paris', and 'Sorry I’m Late I Didn’t Want To Come', tapping into the inherent relatability from which memes are born. Fashion fans quickly turned images of the gowns into jokes or memes, captioned with 'Big Mood', 'Me' and the like. But this isn’t the first time that the Dutch designers have dreamt up meme-worthy fashion. For their Autumn 2005 ready-to-wear collection, they had models walk down the runway in literal dress-beds (pillows included). Years later, the collection resurfaced on social media with captions including, 'Dress for the job you want'.

Then, there are the meme creators and niche Instagram accounts. Freddie Smithson who runs a popular meme-based Instagram account (@freddiemade) explains, '[The fashion meme] reflects people seeking escapism from what feels like rocky times.' Fast-flourishing fashion satire accounts include @Siduations, @hey_reilly@shitmodelmgt@artlexachung and of course, online fashion police, @dietprada. From photoshopping dignitaries into streetwear to scouring art archives for works with an uncanny resemblance to modern-day muses, there's a meme account for virtually every fashion niche - and it's that niche quality that makes a successful meme funny and therefore, shareable.

With some brands dipping into meme culture for a quick thrill, others have the very essence of it at their core. Demna Gvasalia's Vetements is one such brand: in 2014, it embraced meme fashion with its tongue-in-cheek, DHL logo T-shirts - this spurned another meme after DHL Express's CEO Ken Allen modelled the unofficial T-shirt and the company posted a ‘who wore it best’ on Twitter. Season upon season, Vetements elicits feverishness in fans through UGC. When a customer posts an outfit featuring the label's already-sold-out garments (with distinctive slogans belying the designer), it creates scarcity and demand. In this sense, the brand runs on meme culture, appealing to an in-the-know consumer who understands and wants that specific 'unit of cultural information' (to quote Dawkins).

In 2015, Balenciaga appointed Gvasalia as the house's Creative Director and he transformed the waning brand into a contemporary and relevant powerhouse once again. His daring collections were not only saleable but shareable, ensuring those crocs and that Ikea-inspired bag assumed viral status on social media.

The fashion industry's use of memes is indicative of the change in the way that advertising is consumed. We've always had sub-cultures (punk, goth, mods, hippies, the list goes on), but now, we have a unit of measurement (the meme) and the power of instant sharing (social media). Does the meme sound a death knell for poker-faced couture? Perhaps not, but at least it shows we can all lol a little.

Words by Lauren Ashdown


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