“Could things be going faster? Yes": Eva Chen on sustainability, shadow banning and the future of Instagram

Naomi May
Eva Chen attends the CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund 2019 Awards: Getty Images

Eva Chen's New Year's resolution for 2019 was to "consume less."

“I’m now that weird person who travels with, well… maybe not weird, but I travel with glass jars and I put like food in glass jars – I got that tip from Instagram!” Chen excitedly explains, discussing the app she joined in 2015.

Chen, 39, was recruited to join the team at Instagram when the company’s co-founder Kevin Systrom contacted her to ask if she’d be interested in working with him, as somebody who could “do” fashion.

She’d cut her teeth prior to her appointment at the app as Anna Wintour’s protégée, working at Conde Nast-owned publications Lucky and Teen Vogue, during which time, "I kind of became known as the magazine editor who was obsessed with Instagram and social media and everyone from make-up artists to models would ask me questions about Instagram and so it was definitely around then that I started realising the power of it.”

With Anna Wintour at Milan Fashion Week 2015 (Getty Images )

Power is something Instagram has in droves: in June 2018, the app had reached 1 billion monthly users, an increase from 800 million the previous September.

For a platform which hasn’t even celebrated its tenth birthday yet, it’s quite the feat.

Chen’s job at the app is to orchestrate Instagram’s fashion narrative: it was under her watch that Instagram launched its shopping function in March this year, which enables users to instantly buy the products they see on their feed. 130 million people now use these tags.

Digital-native brands have proven that the app is rocket fuel for their respective growth: research has found that over one third of Instagram users have used Instagram to purchase a product online.

And now eight of these very same digital-first brands have been selected to take part in a limited-edition pop-up at Selfridges, a store which Chen admits has a "real soft-spot for". She says, "We wanted to bring all of these brands together in to one space for people to discover."

The brands include insta-favourite The Frankie Shop (with IRL stores in New York and Paris only, this marks its first foray on to British soil), New York-born, gender-neutral brand, One DNA, and vegan beauty brand, Tandem.

Attending this year's Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion (Getty Images )

Discovering brands has never been a problem for Instagram. After all, the app has acted as the biggest influencer itself, a conduit for individual influencers and their virtual realities, which have, in turn, perpetuated a desire for newness amongst their followers.

A report released earlier this year by the Fashion Retail Academy, one of the UK’s leading fashion schools, found that 73 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds believe influencers have "at least partly caused a rise in fast fashion."

Fast fashion garments which, according to Forbes, we wear less than 5 times and keep for 35 days, and which produce over 400% more carbon emissions per item per year than garments worn 50 times and kept for a full year.

Chen is aware of the complexities of sustainability, and the slow pace of change occurring within the industry: “Could things be going faster? Yes. I would personally love it for things to go faster… I do personally think that a lot of this [move to sustainability] is accelerated through Instagram.”

But fashion and its myriad complexities weren’t Chen’s first port of call. The half Chinese, half Taiwanese New Yorker originally embarked on pre-med studies at John Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“I always thought I would end up working in medicine just because it was what my family expected but I took an internship at Harper’s Bazaar when I was studying at University, and I fell in love with fashion,” she explains, in the midst of a dressing drama as neither Richard Quinn look she was scheduled to wear to the evening's British Fashion Awards (BFAs) fits.

She jokes: “If anybody is available to remove a rib in London to help it fit, that would be great!”

Chen attends the 2019 British Fashion Awards in Christopher Kane (Getty Images )

Chen, who is in London to promote the Selfridges pop-up and attend the BFAs, is affable and candid, readily discussing anecdotes and sharing witty jibes. As our conversation begins to flirt with the idea of diversity and inclusivity, I mention the report released earlier this year in to Instagram's algorithm which found that "risque content featuring thin white women seems less censored than content featuring plus-sized, black women."

"We don’t push anything down anybody’s algorithm - the algorithm is based purely on what you interact with as an individual. So there’s no way that Instagram can control what appears on someone’s algorithm," Chen's publicist interjects.

Chen believes that "Instagram has really democratised fashion," however earlier this year the app faced claims of shadow banning.

"Shadow banning does not exist, it is a persistent myth," Chen says. "I personally think it sounds kind of cool and sexy so people love saying it but the day that the shadow banning word became a thing, it’s because there was legitimately a bug that was affecting hashtags."

What is shadow banning?

Shadow banning is the practice of social networks silencing certain accounts. A shadow ban, in theory, curtails the ways in which attention may be earned without blocking a user’s ability to post new messages or carry out typical actions on a network. Shadowbanned users are not told that they have been affected, leading to speculation when accounts believe they have been.

One brand which certainly hasn't been shadow banned is Fashion Nova, which has amassed an Instagram following of 16.9 million, and was Google's most searched-for fashion brand in 2018.

The Californian apparel brand introduces 600-900 new pieces each week and its colossal following is no coincidence: the brand has relied heavily on the clout of the influencer in order to accumulate its success.

According to Business of Fashion, around 2,000 influencers — including Kylie Jenner, Khloe Kardashian and Cardi B — collectively create roughly 6,000 pieces of content about the brand each month, making it one of the most talked about brands online despite its practical anonymity in other fashion circles.

The eight digital-native brands which Instagram has selected to be part of the edit at Selfridges (Instagram Edit @ Selfridges)

Given the success that Instagram has provided brands, does Chen think it has a responsibility in terms of fast fashion?

"It’s not that Instagram has projected these brands in to the spotlight, it’s that people choose to follow the brands that they love," she explains.

But the app which has catapulted brands and influencers alike into the virtual spotlight, has been trialling the removal of likes since July in seven countries.

Likes, and followers, are an influencer's currency; the metric through which brands can assess whether they want to tap into said influencer and their audience.

"The thing about removing likes is a bit of a misnomer, we’re not removing it completely, I would say it’s kind of more hiding likes, you know, making it less of a focus is more what I would call it,” Chen discusses.

She claims that without seeing the numbers, she focusses a lot more on the "visuals", and that it is about "mental health and well-being and wellness."

Shortly after our chat, Chen attended the British Fashion Awards in a Christopher Kane ensemble. She posted a picture of it to her Instagram and over 22,000 people liked it.

The inimitable power of Instagram and its army of influencers.

Visit The Instagram Edit @TheOfficialSelfridges from December 5-15 in The Designer Studio at Selfridges and online at www.Selfridges.com

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