Influencers Are the Retailers of the 2020s

In years past, the main struggle was that brands often expected influencers to wear full looks, or they had strict guidelines for what influencers had to photograph or write in their posts. Now, most of those brands have realized there’s greater value in giving women like Nguyen creative control, both […]

In years past, the main struggle was that brands often expected influencers to wear full looks, or they had strict guidelines for what influencers had to photograph or write in their posts. Now, most of those brands have realized there’s greater value in giving women like Nguyen creative control, both to get her excited about the project and to ensure the #Sponsored post feels natural. “Until a couple years ago, we were still battling a bit with brands to make sure they were going to let us pick the looks and style them the way we want,” says Delphine Del Valle, Nguyen’s agent at Pool Creatives. “Now, for the most part, they let the girls [embrace] their style and aesthetic. If we get the sense that there is rigidity from the brand, or they’re going to be forceful about something, we’ll pass.”

Del Valle also noted that as brands divest from wholesale—a trend accelerated by the pandemic when retailers canceled orders and sent truckloads of inventory back to designers—there are opportunities for them to work with influencers longer-term, perhaps over an entire season, with multiple posts or campaign shoots. “These brands don’t need the exposure retailers used to give them, and they don’t make any money when they’re selling like that [through wholesale]—only when they do direct-to-consumer,” Del Valle says. “And I think people would rather support a brand than a big retailer now.”

Nguyen has worked with Net-a-Porter and commercial brands like Mango, but it’s when she’s partnering with independent labels and driving traffic to their direct websites that she fills the role of a “retailer.” At Lunya, Merrill has notably declined to partner with large department stores, mainly to avoid competing with them for online sales. Instead, she and her team are putting that money toward thoughtful partnerships with a small group of influencers. “Influencer partnerships at Lunya have generally been born organically, with us leaning into relationships grounded in true fandom,” she says. “We want authenticity in our ambassador crew. Typically, these relationships start with an influencer posting about us, and then us building on that relationship.”

Smilovic is trying out an interesting new approach at Tibi. After the pandemic hit in March, she chose to exit most of her department stores to focus on independent boutiques and influencer partnerships instead: “This spring, we’re working with an influencer in a whole new capacity. She’s a stylist who has cultivated a group of followers who seek her out for her distinct, honest viewpoint, and we will essentially be treating her as if she was a boutique,” Smilovic explains. “She can basically buy from us at wholesale and sell it to her clients as if she were a retailer, without four walls. COVID really made us think, Why would we look at wholesale in such a limited capacity? If many of the department stores won’t survive, maybe this is a new model we should explore.”

While some influencers are taking it a step further by launching their own brands (see: Chloé Harrouche, Arielle Charnas, Blair Eadie), the more compelling opportunity lies in the “solve for curation” Merrill was talking about. Maybe that’s a pop-up shop filled with an influencer’s favorite brands—something that could become easier and more affordable as retail spaces empty and rents decrease—or, for influencers with a global audience, a similar shopping experience online. “People want to find that one place they can go, and it used to be Barneys,” Nguyen says. “Now they’re looking for a way to do that at home.”

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