New York Fashion Week is still a week away, but on a recent weekday morning in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the camera flashes are already pulsing as models slip in and out of focus, wearing spring 2016 sample sizes. Assistants iron blouses, stylists sort through shoes and handbags, and photographers eye the cool September light streaming through the oversize windows at Pioneer Works, an arts center and events space that is playing host to designer Misha Nonoo and her team.
Nonoo, dressed simply in a white blouse, black skirt, and white platform sneakers, radiates calm amid the hum of activity. “That’s amazing!” she says, nodding her approval, as she and photographer Matthew Kristall preview shots on his laptop. The models lounge alongside a rusted, industrial column, dressed in skin-grazing poppy red and cream denim pieces with hints of modern drama in their cutouts and proportions. Three looks down, many more to go.
At first glance, the shoot bears all the hallmarks of a typical editorial project. But the goal is something far more innovative: a fashion show designed specifically for Instagram, replacing the standard runway experience. The idea is to stitch the images from the Brooklyn shoot into a long, horizontal scroll, and then upload them to Instagram as a series of “tiles.” The end result: an “Insta-show” that effectively hacks the app’s design in order to create a full-screen, immersive experience. Heineken and Mercedes-Benz were the first brands to explore the format, but Nonoo’s Insta-show will be the first fashion industry implementation.
“It’s so strange to me that [fashion] touches everyone yet we have these location-specific events that touch just a rarefied few. To me that doesn’t make sense,” Nonoo says, stepping away from the action for a moment. “I love the inclusiveness of Instagram.”
We meet again when the “show” goes live the following Saturday, the event marked by a daytime party in the Meatpacking District that is sponsored by Aldo, a Nonoo partner. Loyal customers and industry insiders, including W’s editor Stefano Tonchi, sip fresh-pressed green juice and champagne while nibbling on crumpets and jam. Many guests are on their phones, showing one another favorite looks. Within hours, @mishanonoo_show has captured over 2,000 followers. Influential fans including Lena Dunham and Olivia Palermo add to the buzz, each posing in a look from the collection on their own accounts.
It’s unclear whether this digital-first strategy will help Nonoo grow her fledgling brand, which had its debut in fall 2011. The London native, born in Bahrain, was a 2013 finalist for the prestigious fashion fund managed by Vogue and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and her clothes are now available in 35 stores across Europe and North America. In the past, she has followed the standard runway show playbook. This time around, she sees benefits in breaking with tradition.
“The nice thing about doing this is it actually gives me more time to be able to focus on the product,” Nonoo says. “I’ve got my preview with Barneys on Tuesday; normally the Tuesday before a Saturday show I would be doing lighting, model casting, fitting.” The Instagram show won’t save her money, but it will save her time and help her focus on the young company’s business objectives. “With the runway show I always felt somewhat sad after it was over. It was done in eight minutes, and it was so many people’s resources and time. It’s all for the assets, that’s what lives on.” With the Insta-show, she can better tailor those assets to her needs.
As a designer, Nonoo is not alone in her experimentation with technology. Always ahead of his time, Alexander McQueen featured robot-painted dresses in 1999 and a floating hologram of Kate Moss in 2006. More recently, Diane von Furstenberg sent models wearing Google Glass down the runway in her spring 2013 show. And last year Tory Burch teamed up with Fitbit; together, they launched a line of fitness trackers “versatile enough to go from day to evening,” in the words of the designer.
This season the trend continued. DKNY invited its Instagram followers to direct-message about looks from the spring 2016 runway show with the brand’s creative directors. And Rebecca Minkoff, known for ladylike accessories with an edge, on Saturday unveiled a line of products designed for Apple customers, including a black leather wristlet with a built-in battery for recharging.
In all these experiments, it’s hard to avoid Instagram, whether it’s the main event or a way to document. Search for images tagged #NYFW, and Instagram generates nearly 2 million results. The photo-sharing app, owned by Facebook, has become the central hub for fashion’s tastemakers and their legions of fans. Cofounder Kevin Systrom accepted the CFDA’s award for media earlier this year, an acknowledgement of the app’s fashion ubiquity. In July, former Lucky magazine editor Eva Chen, who boasts nearly half a million Instagram followers, announced that she would be joining the app’s New York office as head of fashion partnerships. Chen has yet to outline her goals, but she gamely donned a Nonoo look, like Dunham, in order to lend her support to the Insta-show project.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Nonoo arrived at her idea while meeting with Instagram staff on a visit to Silicon Valley, the trip prompted by an invitation to a women’s dinner at the home of Sheryl Sandberg. “It just came to me on the spot; I was inspired,” she says. “I thought, why don’t I broadcast my show entirely on Instagram? The logistics weren’t immediately clear, but I was there for an hour and a half, and in that hour and a half committed to doing it.”
The question facing Instagram is whether influential young designers like Nonoo and their followers will remain loyal to the platform. Nonoo’s Insta-show may be innovative, but it’s also a potential cause for concern; when brands hack the app it suggests that Instagram isn’t serving all of their needs. Nonetheless, history suggests that brands will remain patient. They relied on the ubiquitous “link in profile” e-commerce workaround for years before Instagram introduced “buy now” and other direct response buttons this summer.
For Nonoo, the rare designer with a business degree, the key to success is finding ways to develop direct relationships with women interested in buying her designs. “In terms of social media, Instagram has always been my favorite because of the visual nature of it. But I don’t know what’s going to be around in a year’s time,” she says. “I am reaching out directly to my consumer. The end goal is to be able to interact with them in the way that I want to–which is through my own e-commerce site.”