Eva Chen on how Instagram shapes modern fashion, and the role of a fashion critic versus influencer
Let's start from the top. How did you get into fashion and thereafter, Instagram?
I never really had a set career path. I've always been a little more random and I simply follow my passion. I started out as an intern at Harper's Bazaar and then Elle for a few years. I was then at Teen Vogue for seven years and freelanced for publications like the Wall Street Journal and Vogue China. I left my last role at Lucky magazine as I wanted a break because I had just had a baby. Now, I've been with Instagram for almost two years. I never expected to be working there but I loved the platform from the minute it came out. I think fashion and Instagram have a lot in common; Instagram is so visual and fashion is about creating beautiful images. When the team reached out to me, I was like, "Oh, I don't know, I kind of want to stay home with my baby," but everyone was like this is perfect for you. Even before my job at Instagram, my role in the fashion industry helped me to understand how to use it better. It was something I was doing before I even had the job. I helped Pat McGrath join Instagram!
Yeah (laughs), you can ask her! I'd be backstage at a show and be talking to some models like Karlie Kloss, and I'd go, "You have to join this app — it's called Instagram." So much of what I do now is helping to educate the fashion industry about the platform. It makes so much sense.
"If a model is having a hard time with people calling her too skinny on Instagram, we have these amazing tools and settings where she can protect herself from bullies. This is something a lot of people don't know about!"
How was working at magazines different to what you do now?
I don't think it's that different. When I was an editor-in-chief, I was working with photographers, stylists, models and editors trying to create the best work for a magazine. Now for Instagram, I'm working with a lot of the same people I used to work with — many familiar faces — that I've known for years to help them do the best work for themselves on their Instagram pages. Both jobs, I've been very lucky to work with many top creatives in the industry. The team at Instagram is brilliant. They always think of ways to improve user experience and to make the app a safer place.
What does your role entail?
Now that there are Stories, you can do photos, videos, Boomerangs... but how many times a day should one post? Who should you be targeting? Who is your audience? What should your voice be on Instagram? What kind of content should you be posting? If you have a party, should you have an Instagram booth? People ask me these things 500 times a day. My job is to work with models, designers, stylists, and creative directors to help them understand how to use it better. It's not the same for everyone; there is no one size fits all answer. Tom Ford is going to be very different from Marc Jacobs and it will be too, for Karlie Kloss and Gigi Hadid. Everyone has different needs. If a model is having a hard time with people calling her too skinny on Instagram, we have these amazing tools and settings where she can protect herself from bullies. This is something a lot of people don't know about! You can use certain words in your comment moderation so you feel like the app is a safer place.
As people give feedback, I share it with the team. Instagram used to allow only square photos and so many fashion editors have mentioned that they wished they could post landscapes or portraits. We took this feedback very seriously as it was the top request we got from magazines and photographers, including Annie Leibovitz, where many felt they couldn't crop certain pictures into a square. My job is to receive feedback so we can always improve the experience.
How do you think Instagram helps shape modern fashion?
It has made the industry a lot more inclusive. 10 years ago, unless you lived in Paris, London, Milan or New York, people would never have access to designers and they felt very far away. I didn't know what a stylist did growing up and I had no idea what a creative director did. Instagram kind of becomes a fashion education. You can be a 20-year-old living in the suburbs of Paris or you can be a 60-year-old like my mum in Taiwan, but you can feel like a part of the fashion community on Instagram. Whatever it is you like to do, you can connect with people around the world. The best thing about Instagram is that you can find your community, your people, and who you identify with.
Do you have to have a ton of followers to be an influencer?
Everyone could be an influencer — even if you have 50 followers. My husband doesn't have that many followers (laughs).
"A lot of the time people over curate their profiles. I think fashion people look at their Instagram page like a mirror — they want to be able to say it's beautiful."
Do you think the opinions of fashion critics are now less relevant with Instagram influencers?
No. I still read what people like Cathy Horyn and Nicole Phelps have to say. I think it's incredibly valid and I see it more as a commentary. For example, I think of myself as a fashion enthusiast. I love fashion, I love shopping and I love style, but if you were to ask me the history of how Cristobal Balenciaga began his line and why his hats were a crazy bubble shape, I wouldn't know. But then you ask someone like Suzy Menkes or Nicole Phelps and they will be able to tell you the history. This is why I think a fashion critic is just as relevant today.
Would you say that Instagram is currently trying to become a shopping platform?
I don't think that's the primary goal of Instagram. When Kevin Systrom started it, it was to help people around the world build relationships and connect, and I do think shopping is something people can connect over. I follow Leandra Medine (of the Man Repeller) on Instagram as I always love seeing what she's wearing. Sometimes I buy things because I saw them on my feed. But, I don't think it's trying to become a shopping platform. It is to make the world feel like a smaller place; you get to feel closer to people because of it
Do you think it has changed the way we view and consume fashion?
Absolutely. It has opened up the world of fashion — you no longer have to be a part of this elite group of 1000 people, let's say. I think that sense of inclusion is special and beautiful, and I think the very idea of creating communities is great. The inclusion of curvy models is something I think very much happened because of Instagram, which led to Michael Kors having plus size models on his runway for example...
What's are some important factors for creating a great Instagram page?
Authenticity and realness. A lot of the time people over curate their profiles. I think fashion people look at their Instagram page like a mirror — they want to be able to say it's beautiful. But I think the most important thing is strong storytelling; to focus on individual posts instead of how your page looks like overall. Have a sense of personality, too. For brands, Alexander McQueen does great storytelling. Instead of saying that this is a dress from spring/summer, they'll talk about how it was inspired by the creative director's trip to Cornwall, England where she browsed through a vintage shop. More brands need to do that. Gucci does a pretty good job with it and Calvin Klein has started doing well by sharing more details.
How about advice on setting up your own brand on Instagram?
I don't think I would ever set up my own brand, but if I did, I'd probably launch it on the app like Glossier did. I feel like they've done a really good job. They have great customer service on Instagram. You could ask them what colour highlighter should you be using and they'll write back to you. Look at this, someone asked how often should they be masking and they've responded: "Feel free to mask every day if you need a deeper clean..." and so on. It's so great. Their account actually got shut down once because they were replying so many customer comments that our computer system thought it was spam!
That's inspiration for so many of us. What about advice on being an Instagram influencer?
Just be yourself. A lot of people think it's about the photos. Of course, the visuals matter but I think it's also about developing your personality and being comfortable in your own skin. Share that, and it will always be rewarded on Instagram. The more you post, the better; it gives your followers something to look forward to. Take them on an adventure and make them feel like they are a part of this creative environment that you live in — especially people who live in cities like London, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, Seoul... You are living in one of the most beautiful, photogenic cities in the world and while some designers say Paris is boring, most people would kill to live in Paris! It's a dream and you have to remember that most of your followers would dream to see the Eiffel Tower sparkling. So what is every day for you — whether it's a tube stop at Covent Garden or a sunset in New York City — find a way to celebrate it and share it. Make it personal.
That's interesting. A lot of people think they have to put up a front to be successful on Instagram...
Exactly. But it's not. There are Stories, which allow people to be real. When people have strong Instagram Stories, I love them so much more — it just feels like you know them better.
What are some of your favourite accounts?
Fashion accounts or weird accounts? Okay, let's do weird accounts. I follow this dog grooming handle where they do slow motion videos of dogs getting blow dries. It's so weird! In terms of designers, I like Phillip Lim. His account is so personal and you get a sense of his personality. Almost every day he'll write something on stationary and it's just beautiful and inspirational, but very real. He doesn't do a lot of selfies but he has pictures of his dog. I also love Alessandro from Gucci as you get to feel who he is and what his design inspirations are, on his personal account.
I can see you love the app, but do you feel overexposed from time to time?
Not really. I don't show what I don't want to show. I think everyone should do what they feel comfortable with. I would never tell someone to post more pictures of themselves in a bathing suit, for example. It's all up to your comfort level. If you don't want to post a selfie, then don't. You know the hair stylist Sam McKnight? His account is brilliant because he loves to garden and he's constantly posting flowers, but like two posts later it will be Cara Delevingne getting her hair done and three posts later, it's one of Karl Lagerfeld. It's random, but you get to see what his passions really are. Let it be an outlet to your creativity. If your day job is an accountant but your secret passion is watercolour, you can set up an account that just shows your secret passion and it becomes an inspiration to people.
What do you love most about your job?
It's amazing to feel like you are a part of something that's changing the way people communicate.