In 2015, the lip-sync video app known as Musical.ly began to attract millions of users. Before long, the platform had spawned a flood of internet celebrities, mainly tweens, teens, and people under the age of 21. Fast forward five years and Musical.ly is now an internet relic, having been rebranded as TikTok in 2017, subsequently becoming the most downloaded app in the world as of 2021, and turning ordinary kids into some of the most powerful influencers overnight. But it was during the early days of COVID-19 that the insanely popular app’s level of cultural sway began to be taken seriously, as millions of people around the world took to killing time in lockdown scrolling through the app's viral fashion-saturated and endlessly entertaining “For You” scroll.
While Instagram and blogs were once the go-to digital platforms for discovering new fashion trends, TikTok is now the arbiter of all things stylish: a 15-second video can go viral in a matter of hours and turn a specific style into a must-have. Take the infamous Strawberry Dress of 2020, by Albanian designer Lirika Matoshi. Covered in glittering strawberries and made from a flowing pink tulle, TikTok posts of the whimsical confection received over 7.3 million views via the #strawberrydress hashtag, and over 4.7 views million views via #lirikamatoshi. There was also the rise of the Gaia Dress by British-Nigerian brand Kai Collective, which saw countless celebrities (including American rapper Saweetie), influencers, and ordinary users sporting their sheer, figure-hugging creation, as well as the #harrystylescardigan challenge, where fans attempted to crochet or knit their own version of the JW Anderson patchwork cardigan worn by Harry Styles.
Shaanti Chaitram wears the Lirika Matoshi Strawberry Dress. Photo: via @lirika.matoshi
The ultra-popular Gaia Dress by KAI Collective. Photo: via @kaicollective.
Harry Styles wears JW Anderson's Patchwork Cardigan. Photo: via Vogue.com.
If Instagram is the home of millennials and their feeds of avocado toast, matcha lattes, and “girlboss energy”, then TikTok is the domain of GenZ. There they spend almost as much time ranking Taylor Swift lyrics and recreating viral dances as they do roasting millennial fashion staples: so far skinny jeans and the side part have been declared archaic by the zoomer generation, while they’ve eagerly embraced the baguette bag, bucket hats, and halter tops reminiscent of the Y2K era. Another glaring difference between Instagram and TikTok is that there’s a perceived egalitarianism when it comes to the latter. Instagram is for traditional, aspirational marketing, while TikTok, with its lack of concern with perfection, thrives on relatability. People typically tend to blow up on TikTok in ways they couldn’t necessarily on other platforms even though content is rarely perfectly polished: it’s everyday users in their clothes against (more often than not) their bedroom walls.
“Instagram is very different from TikTok,” TikTok influencer Sphokuhle.n told South African culture publication BubblegumClub in an interview that also spotlit popular regional stars Mpho_pink and Witney8. “On Instagram, you have to have a lot of followers to get likes or for your content to be seen, you have to have a certain body type, a certain lifestyle you know, all those kinds of things. Whereas on TikTok you literally just need your phone and the app.” Sphokuhle, Mpho, and Witney are three South African creators who are connecting deeply with young audiences. With over 1.5 million followers and counting, their “clout” has led to collaborations with brand campaigns and magazine covers, while their feeds are filled with humorous videos and short clips in which they embody the “e-girl” aesthetic of tie-dyed sweats, sports jerseys, and other items that have come to define GenZ’s casual approach to fashion.
Other African influencers have utilized TikTok to encourage cultural dialogue and change with regard to fashion and style. Ivorian artist Laetitia Ky uses her considerable following of 9 million to promote embracing natural hair through the large-scale “headpieces” she crafts using little more than wire, wool, a needle, and thread, as well as her own from her own locs and extensions. Think sculptures of hands, trees, dancers, and even the female reproductive system, all fashioned from a “material” that carries social and political weight significance for Black women. After catching the attention of American designer Marc Jacobs, he enlisted Ky for a digital campaign to promote a line of handbags in 2020, giving her full license to create three images that stayed true to her authentic aesthetic—one that unequivocally needs to be represented more in the fashion industry.
Internet sensation Elsa Majimbo. Photo: via @majimb.o
Ivorian artist Leatitia Ky for Marc Jacobs. Photo: via @leatitiaky
Ivorian artist Leatitia Ky. Photo: via @leatitiaky
Then there’s the internet’s current it-girl, Kenya-based Elsa Majimbo. Though she may have gotten her start on “The ‘Gram”, it’s the app’s own TikTok rip-off, reels, that feels most suited to the Kenyan comedian and influencer’s hilarious, pithy content. Thanks to her relatable, satirical monologues that usually see her crunching on potato crisps and using a pair of tiny 90s sunglasses as a prop, Majimbo has already accrued over 9 million likes on TikTok since joining the app last year, her name, presence, and the unflinching “realness” that has made her so popular giving the numerous high profile luxury fashion brands she’s struck deals with—including Fenty and Valentino—further access to an audience that may one day become their core demographic. Something about seeing regular, real people posting these clothes makes the items feel more attainable and desirable.
In many respects, TikTok became a virtual runway of sorts in 2020 as much of our lives and looks happened in isolation. It gave millions of people the opportunity to express themselves in any way they want, and because it is possible for users without lots of followers to go viral, smaller creators have been able to radically shape the fashion trends that thrive. As the app continues its growth, brands that have not yet entered its rhythm will need to hop on board, as it rapidly ushers in a new age of influence and begins to shape the future of fashion.
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