Inside Los Globos on Saturday night, fans of adorable street fashion turned up for Kawaiiland. They filled up both floors, dressed bright colors and platform shoes, their hair often dyed shades of pink, blue and purple. The event, presented by Ninja Crate and Studio Kunu, combined music, art and fashion with a kawaii, or cute, aesthetic.
On the upper level of the venue, vendors set up tiny shops hosting their latest collections. There were delicately beaded bracelets and bold leggings. Sailor Moon characters dangled from long necklaces and My Little Ponies decorated the corners of sunglasses. All this culminated in a fashion show featuring an eclectic range of designers whose specialties included everything from swimwear to dramatic, kind of goth, party attire to Jem & the Holograms chic.
But the event itself is only half the story. The rest of it unfolded on Instagram. Throughout the night, and over the course of the next day, images popped up on the photo sharing app with the hashtag #kawaiiland. The photos weren't always stellar. Some were grainy. Others were overexposed. Still more were marred by an awkward flash of light in the background. In other words, these were just ordinary photos.
However, they were ordinary photos that told a good story. We catch a glimpse of attendees at home, showing off their outfits before the event. We watch them play with oversized stuffed animals in San-X's Rilakuma photo booth. We see their view of rock band Nylon Pink, who played live at the event. We spy on them pose for photo after photo with friends and eavesdrop on the comments, often where girls tell other girls how great they look. Kawaiiland was as much a lesson in the power of Instagram as it was a fun fashion event.
Plenty of the attendees here have large, sometimes massive, followings online. Luna Lovebad, who was the night's host and MC for the fashion show, is one of the best known. She's veering close to 45,000 followers on Instagram. Lovebad has spent the past four years working as a model. She's also a blogger and her style is influenced in part by Japanese street fashion. Tonight, she's wearing a body conscious two-piece outfit from Wia, a Michael Kors jacket and Jeffrey Campbell shoes. Around her neck hangs a large nameplate necklace.
"Swap meet," she responds when I compliment the necklace. "$20."
See also: Our gallery of the event
Lovebad's personal style that has earned her all those followers. She posts professional-looking photos, casual pics and selfies detailing that style. There are elements that surface in image after images: very long, very blonde hair; baseball caps, short-shorts, high heels and platforms. It's not just fashion on Lovebad's feed. The references to John Waters, Mean Girls, Sailor Moon and the late singer Selena are equally important. It's the mix of outfits, make-up and pop culture cues that build Lovebad's Instagram identity as a fashionista you need to follow.
"I think a lot of people look up to the fact that we wear whatever we feel like wearing," says Lovebad.
Hanging out with Lovebad is Jessi Jae Joplin, founder of the fashion blogger collective The Fabulous Stains. The group is named for Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains, a cult film that centers around a fictional punk band.
"I think that the way we dress is kind of the way we express ourselves and stand out and show who we are artistically and creatively," says Joplin. "I think it's important for us to be ourselves and be unapologetic about what we wear and be okay with standing out in the crowd."
For Lovebad and Joplin, their online popularity happened organically. Lovebad began to get attention from her modeling gigs. Soon companies were striking deals with her to help promote their wares. "It's never been something intentional," she says.
Joplin, who is also a singer, first gained followers on MySpace as a result of her musical pursuits. "We haven't just come out of nowhere," she says. "We've definitely been working hard for a while."
In many ways, these Instagram-popular figures appear to be taking the place of the "It Girls" championed by fashion magazines. Where once girls and women tore pages out of Vogue or Seventeen for style inspiration, now it's a matter of liking the image that pops up on your cell phone screen. There's something really genuine about the phenomenon as well. Where the It Girls of decades past were selected by editors for your admiration, Instagram stars thrive in a network where you decide whether or not you want to follow them. The magazines aren't gone - Lovebad notes that she still flips through Japanese street fashion publications for new looks - but Instagram users are offering something else. "We can give way more content," says Joplin. "We can give daily outfits of what we're wearing. That's what I think our readers love. They're getting even deeper into our lifestyles than they could have even five years ago."
At Kawaiiland, some of the Instagram stars were new to the game. Francis Lola and Ellen V. Lora only recently launched their own "personal style" blogs. Lola's hit the web just two months ago. Both women delved into the world of style documentation through Instagram. They both have more than 13,000 followers a piece and admit that their substantial numbers came with some help. "We both work with a lot of different photographers and brands that help us get the followers that we have," says Lola.
Ultimately, they would like to channel their work into sponsorships and collaborations with designers. In the meantime, though, Instagram has been great for meeting people. Lola and Lora became fast friends after meeting on the social media network earlier this year. While they do post professional shots, both women note that some of the most interesting images are the ones that they take alone in a mirror. "I think that's the important thing too is keeping it more organic and real about ourselves, not thinking too much about how it's going to look," says Lola.
Inside Los Globos, it's clear that the bulk of the crowd put a lot of effort in getting ready for the event. The outfits are often outrageous, but also well coordinated. Hair is freshly dyed and expertly styled. Make-up is carefully applied. Still, it's more "real" than many might assume. The women who eventually stroll down the catwalk are of varying sizes and ethnicities. The women in the crowd look very much like them. Some of the participants may have more Instagram followers than others, but they're all peers. The line between the leaders and the followers doesn't actually exist. Maybe that's why the stars of Instagram have caught the attention of so many people.
Lovebad says that her audience tends to range in age from 15 to "23 or 24." Many are from the U.S., but she also has a lot of followers in Japan, Brazil and Russia. Joplin's audience also skews young. She describes her crowd as "rebellious teenager" types, which is also how she describes herself at that age. That, she says, is part of the appeal. "I used to be that rebellious teen growing up in the suburbs and I always felt different," says Joplin. "I feel like a lot of high school can kind of relate. They're not always going to feel like they're alone."
They're aspirational figures because the glimpses of life that they reveal, are attainable. Lovebad mentions the messages that she gets from followers who are young and maybe a bit insecure or shy. "They come to us as their role models because we don't really give a fuck," says Lovebad. "It's really awesome to be that person."
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