As Avril Lavigne’s “What the Hell” blares, Charli D’Amelio and three Prada models stride toward the camera. The tune, from 2011, probably qualifies as a golden oldie for D’Amelio, who was about six when it hit the airwaves. The 15-year-old TikTok star was a front-row guest this season at Prada, posting several videos of herself dancing in front of the show’s floral backdrop. She boasts 33.4 million followers, making her catnip to fashion brands. And like Emma Chamberlain (YouTube), Aimee Song (Instagram), and Tavi Gevinson (blogs; remember blogs?) before her, she’s coasted on that loyal following—all the way to Fashion Week.
The TL;DR if you’re over 30: TikTok morphed out of the lip-synching app Musical.ly and is now a space where users can post brief videos of themselves doing something to music. That “something” could mean dancing, fitness routines, baking, even dentistry (yes, dental influencers are a bona fide thing). The app has already been a boon to the music industry, with songs like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and Y2k and bbno$’s “Lalala” blossoming from its soil. It’s made art-world inroads; the septuagenarian video artist Cecelia Condit has found her work recontextualized on the platform as a meme. And now its fashion moment is in full flower.
This past February, TikTok sent three representatives to New York Fashion Week: Cosette Rinab, Taylor Hage, and Tyler Gaca. The trio broadcast scenes from shows like Tory Burch and Rag & Bone to their combined 2.4 million followers. Hage went on to sit front row at Dior’s fall 2020 show in a gray Bar jacket and skirt. Her followers got a peek at the look in a “Get Ready With Me” video she posted of her show prep.
Celine, known for its ability to mint new models, recently cast 18-year-old “e-boy” and TikToker Noen Eubanks as a face. And fashion brands have flocked to the platform to create their own accounts, playing along with the fad of viral “challenges.” On Instagram, a perfectly framed and filtered image will garner attention; in the shaggier world of TikTok, it’s all about the challenge. Burberry asked aspirants to form the initials TB to celebrate its founder, Thomas Burberry; the project garnered over 100 million views, according to the brand. “It was a natural fit for us,” says Mark Morris, Burberry’s senior vice president of digital commerce, “to speak to a younger audience and invite people into our world.” Balmain, the first Parisian fashion house to join TikTok, created a #FashionDuality challenge—in which users “transformed” from one style to another via editing—to promote its collaboration with Puma and Cara Delevingne. According to KCD senior digital director Mélanie Crété, who works with Balmain on its TikTok presence, “more experimental and lo-fi” content tends to perform the best. She sees it as a way of “bridging the gap between luxury and pop culture.” Next month, during Men’s Fashion Week in Paris, her team will help Balmain document the second edition of its music festival on the app.
The biggest currency here is, of course, attention, but actual currency is changing hands as well. Ralph Lauren’s hashtag challenge during the US Open resulted in more than 100,000 video submissions, totaling over 790 million views, the brand says. The challenge also did that elusive thing—sell clothes. There were clickable product links on the highly trafficked challenge page. More recently, the brand invited TikTokers to its store and studio and Ralph’s Coffee for a minishoot, giving them creative carte blanche. “Ultimately, it’s not going to be us who defines the success of this platform,” says Alice Delahunt, Ralph Lauren’s chief digital officer. “It’s going to be this new generation.”
That new generation is adjusting to the ways of a sometimes inscrutable fashion system. Gaca’s first time at Fashion Week marked a bit of a learning curve. He arrived at his first show, Rag & Bone, over an hour early, and marveled at how quickly the actual show portion of the event went by. “There was a lot of waiting. It was like waiting in line at Disney World,” he says. “All the anticipation built up, and it was amazing, but once it happens, you’re like, I need it to be five times longer.”
For Hage, she found her TikTok fame preceded her. “One of the street [style] photographers did a double take and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I follow you on TikTok!’ ” And to those who think it’s a sphere only for Gen Z: That man, she says, looked to be in his midfifties.
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of ELLE.