Even before COVID grounded flights, the traditional trend-gathering trip was on the decline. Why fly to a trend destination like Paris, London, or New York once or twice a year to take in storefronts and street style, when there are real-time rivers of inspiration and treasure troves of consumer data at your fingertips?

In the calculus of creating fashion that hits the mark with contemporary consumers, Fifth Avenue matters less than the TikTok feed. And that’s true in two ways.

First: content creators, curators, and their communities are big business. Influencer marketing is set to surpass $16 billion in size this year, and the vast majority of brands are now assigning some (or a lot) of their marketing budget to this type of grassroots engagement. That’s an industry-agnostic statistic, but fashion has certainly bet on influencer and creator partnerships to capitalise on opportunities to supplement brands’ direct engagement with consumers with more-trusted indirect channels.

And that engagement runs both ways: brands look to creators to promote existing and upcoming products and experiences, but they also see them – or, more accurately, their fanbases – as veins of valuable consumer data.

Second: social scrolling and other media are now fashion’s direct competition in the fight for shoppers’ attention and discretionary spending. With consumer price inflation riding at or near record highs in major consumption markets, people are likely to start tightening their purse strings, leaving fashion fighting against streaming subscriptions, videogames and other “luxury” expenditure for wallet share. And even where more affluent demographics are concerned, fashion will need to seize every second of active engagement it can from competing channels – either through smart marketing, or through carefully-pitched cross-media collaborations and licensing deals like the ones we’ve seen from Balenciaga and Loewe.

Fashion, then, has a slightly fraught relationship with online communities and creator-governed audiences, but it’s largely been a stable one. The industry recognises them as essential sources of information and rich opportunities for marketing engagement. And it has (correctly) seized multiple chances to build brand collaborations and licensing partnerships calibrated specifically for those audiences.

But a much bigger disruption could be right around the corner: a time when those organic communities can sidestep existing brands entirely, and start bringing physical products to market by themselves.

Why communities want to create products. And what’s holding them back.

Being a creator today is a much more varied and viable career path than it was even a few years ago. While influencer marketing and sponsorship deals have historically represented the lion’s share of the revenue streams of Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube celebrities, growing numbers of them are now able to sustain themselves by more direct means: either bringing in donations, or selling merchandise.

The first of those channels is already well-catered-for. Creator monetisation platforms like $4 billion unicorn Patreon have made it possible for almost anyone with a social following to make money from their audience in the form of ongoing support or by providing exclusive content to paying subscribers. This model is so successful, in fact, that Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram have now adopted it into their platform cores in the form of Super Follows, Channel Memberships, and Subscriptions.

For the uninitiated, it’s easy to be sceptical of just how many people use these tools successfully, but the results are surprisingly positive. In the past, influencer and online celebrity income was heavily consolidated around a few key figureheads, but today more than 40% of digital content creators earn a living wage from that work alone. And by even the least charitable definition, anyone who’s able to monetise their personality and their audience to make a sustainable living has earned the right to call themselves a brand.

Image courtesy of Platforme.

The second of those channels – making and selling products – is where a lot of attention is now being focused. Not just because it represents such fertile ground, revenue-wise, but because it’s an area where the right foundations have only recently fallen into place, and what’s just around the corner could represent a significant shift in the balance of power in fashion.

The mandate for making products, as an influencer, streamer, curator, or creator seems clear-cut. Audiences who will pay to directly support their favourite eSports team are also likely to buy branded merchandise to outwardly declare that support. And people who “super follow” a fashion or beauty influencer will, logic suggests, be interested in buying cosmetics or garments not just endorsed or selected by them, but products they have actually designed.

Practically speaking, though, creators’ options for selling physical garments are, right now, rich in some ways but extremely limited in others. And this is where the change is happening.

Thanks to turnkey platforms like Shopify, Squarespace, and Stripe, it’s never been easier for someone with a target demographic in mind to set up an eCommerce website and start taking payments. Those components of retail have been thoroughly democratised. But what are they actually selling? Right now there are only really two apparel options on the table: branded generics (such as basic hoodies or t-shirts with printed community-specific artwork) or new products designed in partnership with an apparel brand, then produced and delivered through their existing supply and distribution networks to get around the barriers presented by minimum order quantities.

Image courtesy of Platforme.

Frankly: neither option is ideal. Generic garments with embellishments will suffice for seizing quick opportunities (such as capitalising on a short-lived community meme) but in the longer term audiences will want products that are more deeply infused with the personality of the celebrity or community they follow. To put it bluntly: nobody refreshes the feed of a fashion curator in the hope that they’ll screen-print or digital print some off-the-shelf sweaters and slap their name on them. They follow them because they trust their design acumen, and they will want to buy products that reflect that.

And while deeper brand partnerships and collaborations offer an alternative that’s more “on-brand,” they come with their own drawbacks. Chief among these is the necessary association with the fashion industry’s overproduction crisis and fast fashion’s disposable nature – something that modern audiences are acutely attuned to, and something for which influencers are being held to account. For a creator, this poses a problem: creating new apparel and footwear from scratch requires access to sourcing networks, manufacturing infrastructure, and logistics that are simply off-limits for independents, but partnering with established brands instantly aligns the creator with a system that has, rightly, come under fire and is overdue for remodelling.

Which leads to the question of whether creators should be looking to align themselves with fashion’s past, or whether there’s an opportunity to ride the wave of its future.

Production on-tap: powering the post-brand future.

Until recently, that opportunity did not exist. Unless a creator wanted to explicitly become a fashion designer, the only avenues open to them were brand partnerships or generic basics. But those binary options no longer tell the whole story.

The rise of localised, sustainable microfactories (which The Interline has covered in depth in the past) and the software ecosystems to connect them with brands of all shapes and sizes has unlocked an avalanche of possibilities in exactly the same way that the democratisation of eCommerce and payments did. Capabilities and resources that were previously locked away from all but the biggest brands are now finding their way into the public’s hands – from 3D product configurators, to domestic manufacturing and distribution directly from the factory.

From a creator’s point of view, this is a sea change. Rather than turning to one of the two established avenues – merchandise or collaborations – they can design clothing from modular components in a way that truly reflects their brand values, and have that clothing manufactured in a sustainable way, close to their consumers, without having to commit to huge order quantities.

This change is already creating entirely new categories of consumers and creators, including porting the “prosumer” category over from other industries.  But turnkey access to manufacturing, materials, and distribution on tap – which is a combination that PlatformE is already providing to both independent creatives and to established brands’ in-house design communities – has the potential to transform the way the industry thinks about the nature of brands, licensing, and collaborations when that same power is accessible to everyone.

Until now, the brand has been the gateholder, and fashion has operated in a resolutely top-down way. But the world has changed, and more diverse communities that have so far operated outside the structure of fashion are now being given access to the same tools as the biggest brands on the planet. And this disruption could be profound: switching the industry to a truly bottom-up model, where production can be switched on like a tap to respond to demand, where and where the word “brand” takes on a whole new connotation.

Is the post-brand era upon us? Culturally speaking, it’s already here. From a technical perspective, the change is just getting started.

About our partner: PlatformE is powering at scale mass customization, on-demand manufacturing, and digital collections across industries. We are on a mission to drastically reduce overproduction in Fashion, revolutionizing the way brands capitalize on inventory.