Anna Wintour, Sarah Jessica Parker and more of fashion’s A-list graced the front row of Fendi’s New York Fashion Week runway in September. Also there: 18-year-old TikTok fashion influencer Ellie Zeiler. Huh?
Fashion Week is no longer reserved for just editors and movie stars — influencers have become an integral part of guest lists, to the befuddlement of most observers. Zeiler, who has over 10.7 million followers, is one of many social media influencers who received invitations to coveted Fashion Week shows in the fall. “There I was, sitting in the same room as Kim Kardashian. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that TikTok would bring me such amazing opportunities,” she said.
Brands invite influencers to their runways because they hold value: A niche audience follows their content and wants to see which clothing they’re most passionate about. One 15-second TikTok video or series of Instagram stories can drive thousands of sales.
“Brands ask for our analytics, so they know exactly who is watching our videos. The age, gender, where our followers are based,” Zeiler explained. “Why spend money promoting on a billboard when you don’t know who’s driving past that billboard? You can just hire a fashion influencer and know that people are specifically going to that page for fashion content.”
In searching for a paid partner, companies look for authenticity — the influencer should be familiar with, or a fan of, the brand. “Brands look for how much influencers align with their brand. They also want genuine people who get along with everyone,” said Marissa Ren, a TikToker with over 2.4 million followers. Ren has worked with Revolve for several years — she was scouted after the company saw she had already been posting in the clothes on her page gratis.
“I’ve been able to develop a relationship with the influencer relations team,” Ren explained. “Usually, my ads are just one-time deals, but I’ve really gotten to know the people who work at Revolve and become friends with them. They treat me well and always keep me in mind for fun trips and activations.”
Branded trips are one of the biggest perks of being a TikTok personality. Revolve sent Ren to a private Super Bowl party in Los Angeles, with performances by Justin Bieber and Drake. Zeiler has been on several sponsored vacations, including an Amazon-led trip to Mexico.
However, some influencers don’t feel like it’s an authentic use of their time. “On these trips, everyone’s trying to suck up to the brand people because they want a partnership with them,” Zeiler said. Furthermore, TikTokers often feel like they’re being forced to put on a “show” or make a good impression at events. Appearances can become stressful instead of enjoyable.
TikToker Kristine Thompson, who has 1.6 million followers on her page @trendycurvy, also had a less-than-ideal experience on a sponsored trip. “They give you swag bags and one time they gave me pajamas I couldn’t fit into,” she said. “They don’t necessarily think about the fact that they invited a plus-size person. There could have been more of an effort to include both size and racial diversity.”
A lack of inclusion has become a regular occurrence on Thompson’s branded vacations. “It’s disappointing, but I think about how it’s not the first time,” she said.
Thompson feels an added pressure to fit in at fashion events due to the absence of diversity in the industry. “I don’t get invited to fashion shows by brands very often,” she admitted. “I’m not the influencer they choose to highlight their fashion. They’re not very inclusive.”
Thompson said a “Mean Girls” mentality is ever-present during Fashion Week — you’re either a part of the crowd, or you’re not. “I feel like I’m trying to constantly insert myself into conversations and events,” she explained.
Thompson is not alone. Now that influencers’ fame has transcended social media, some struggle with feeling like they don’t belong in the fashion industry. There’s a pressure to prove oneself as deserving to be there.
“I feel like an underdog,” Zeiler admitted. “To some people, ‘influencer’ is such a dirty word. I have to legitimize my job to people because they don’t know the work that goes into it.”
Zack Lugo, an influencer who has worked with Fendi, Dior, Boss and more, also admits to impostor syndrome. “I’m still very fresh out of my hometown. It’s nerve-wracking to be invited to events that A-list celebrities are at and be in the same place as them,” he said.
Kit Keenan, an influencer and the daughter of fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, has been going to Fashion Week for as long as she can remember. Despite invitations to Michael Kors, Prabal Gurung and more coveted shows, she still feels out of place sometimes. “Fashion Week can make you feel bad about yourself. It makes me feel small,” she revealed. “I’ve seen major celebrities at events. I have to remind myself that I have my own role as an influencer. I don’t feel the need to compete with [celebrities] who have built such successful careers.”
So, are TikTok fashion influencers the next celebrities? Zeiler sees being a TikToker as a steppingstone to a career on the big screen. She recently took on an acting gig, starring on the Brat TV series “Crown Lake.” “TikTokers are like the Disney stars that started when they were younger and then got to do what they actually wanted to do in mainstream entertainment,” she explained. “I don’t like to think of myself as a celebrity.”
Indeed, according to their audience demographic, TikTok influencers may not have reached celebrity status just yet. While celebrities are widely known across different ages, not everyone is on TikTok to familiarize themselves with popular creators. But TikTokers can certainly reach a similar level of fame (take Charli D’Amelio for example, who has over 148.2 million followers).
However, what separates influencers is their relatability. If viewers see a small-town creator building a following from the ground up, they feel like they, too, have the ability to make an impact online. That’s something not even fashion’s A-list can achieve.