Personal Style in the age of the Personal Brand

Are we losing our sense of individuality in the pursuit of Instagram likes?

rosie goddard column

By Rosie Goddard

Standing outside Riccardo Tisci's first Burberry show, I watched fashion's most noteworthy figures stream into the venue past a hoard of photographers. Amongst this treasure trove of well-dressed people, the outfits ranged from classic-cool – a Burberry trench, crisp white shirt and over-the-knee denim boots on Beyoncé's stylist Zerina Akers – to "How many cult items can I wear at once?" This wasn't just from the attendees but various other influencers and hypebeasts who had come to be a part of the spectacle from the sidelines, hoping to feature in a round-up by street style legends such as Phil Oh (Streetstyle fact no. 1: I had no idea this was an actual thing until one of the bouncers told me it was an actual thing. You're welcome.)

Everyone at the show from editors and buyers to influencers was subscribing to trends, and all were undeniably well-dressed. But what made certain outfits  worth a double-take was the wearer's innate sense of style versus a purely trendy look. There was self-assuredness in the way people like Sarah Harris, Susie Bubble and various other personalities wore their clothes that in itself was quite beguiling. However loud or softly spoken their outfits, they had a subtle, nuanced understanding of what pieces and accessories worked well together while others gave off a definite sense that the trends were wearing them. 

Replicating the 'Instagram Aesthetic' (Off White, tiny sunglasses, Balenciaga trainers, Gucci, Vetements and Cult Gaia etc.), these looks faded into the noise of fashion weeks past. They lacked soul, personality, and were at once statement-making, yet sterile.

In a cut-throat creative industry which demands higher and higher levels of originality to make your point of view heard, it feels contradictory that a homogenised sense of style seems to be forming, defined by a few statement pieces from cult designers that hold legitimacy in the eyes of us, the online masses. I often think to myself: do I really want to wear the Balenciaga Triple S because I like it as a shoe, or because wearing it will admit me into the inner circle; like I've walked up to the VIP section of a club, and the bouncer has waved me right through (this is, of course, purely hypothetical as A) I've obviously never been bounced so wouldn't know any different and B) I do not even have enough money for a Balenciaga shoe lace, let alone the entire shoe).

Brands themselves have paved the way for this current state of fashion as they have attempted to harness the power of user generated content. In 2017, 78% of brands turned to influencer-driven campaigns to sell key trend items, so it's not surprising that we feel bombarded by similar outfits again and again online and at real-life events like fashion shows – the Fendi Mania collection being a case in point. At the same time, I know if a brand was offering to pay me an insane amount of money to wear an item, I would 110% accept, as long as I wasn't promoting something I had an issue with. Actually, come back to me on that when I'm being offered £100 000 to wear Uggs.

At the other end of the scale, influencers and online style authorities have become savvy marketing machines – they know that there are certain statement items, be it a Moschino bag or Gucci loafers that are guaranteed to appeal to their followers, lend their look authority and gain them traction with a new audience. While bigger brands do dominate, it's also never been a more exciting time for smaller independent labels to have their turn in the spotlight – the swift rise of Cult Gaia's bamboo bags is an example of this. But with more and more people using Instagram as a shopping tool (around 72% of millennials), these brands reach a high saturation point in a short period of time.

The way we subconsciously select trend items based on their social cache is reminiscent of our social media use, too. We no longer solely view our posts in terms of what we like or what we deem cool, but through the eyes of others and how they would perceive us, something I'll be the first to admit I've been guilty of doing.

There is a lot at play when it comes to building a personal brand (which from the outside may look like an overnight empire but requires a lot of work) and those that have made it to the top have to be adept at making connections with the right brands in order to control how we perceive them. These style authorities have done a lot to democratise the industry – taking the control away from an exclusive group of editors and bringing it to the masses while making millions in the process – but social media and the immediate nature of engagement have paved the way for an industry that's struggling to diversify.

How then to really make fashion your own, and to carve out a niche for yourself when it feels like everyone is starting to look and dress in a similar aesthetic? Well there's no guidebook for that – it's one of the most beautiful things about self expression. Gianni Versace once said: "Don't be into trends. Don't make fashion own you, but decide what you are, what you want to express by the way you dress and the way you live." I know what you're thinking – rich coming from a man who set trends before us season after season, but there are some nuggets of truth to be found in his words. A guideline to shopping, if you will.

Trends are fun and exciting; they're a form of self expression and a way to update your look every few months. But if we don't filter, we're kept in a perpetual loop of wanting more and feeling wholly unsatisfied with our wardrobes and to an extent, our lives.

At this point, I'd like to refer to my Livestrong band obsession of 2005. The band was sold out around the world (87m sold, $67m raised for charity), and I was a teenager obsessed. I was struggling to sleep, and in the throws of my first Ebay addiction, I ordered one at a highly inflated price. My little hypebeast heart was soothed, and I was finally able to wear this ugly yellow band for all the wrong reasons (this lasted approximately two days, until I dropped it down a drain while getting onto the school bus). I promptly ordered another.

Keeping a sense of what you like and who you are is ultimately about reflecting on trends that you genuinely enjoy and buying into the ones you would want to wear for longer than a season, because there's nothing worse than spending your hard-earned money on something you think you'll love for a long time, only to toss it out with your next wardrobe refresh. How many people will be wearing their Triple Ss in a year, I wonder?

There are so many people doing inspiring things and so much originality to be found when you look in the right places. And when you feel like the mainstream is getting a little too contrived and you crave something fresh, it's important to look to the true creators for fashion rejuvenation; the people who have always marched to the beat of their own drum regardless of the likes, who have forged ahead with distinct looks; and who, let's face it, probably inspired a few of the trends you're seeing on Instagram today. The Rhara Nembhards, Lulama Wolfs, Manthe Ribanes, Shelley Mokoenas and Keneilwe Mothoas of this world.

Now these women have got style.

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