There is nothing unique about turning up to a party to find you and at least one other guest had the same lightbulb moment in the same high street fitting room; reader, it’s happened to me. Aged 15, myself and a friend arrived at a 16th birthday party wearing the exact same '50s-inspired number from H&M; on a work trip last year, before which attendees were encouraged to choose clothes to wear from the host brand, it was confirmed within minutes of our arrival that several of us had been swayed by the same items.
More recently, there have been lunches with friends where six of a possible seven have turned up in a grey rollneck; and I’m not too proud to inform you that Solange, Kim Petras, Australian DJ Flex Mami and several other women I have encountered, both on Instagram scrolls and IRL strolls, have the same balloon-like Camper Kobarah sandals as me.
But what if it’s not just the vogue within a specific company or a coincidence you can giggle at before taking a cute snap to share with your most intimate WhatsApp group? What if you’re part of a viral moment, and your go-to fashion piece isn't just your go-to but one so culturally present that it’s the subject of a social media account with a four-figure following? Do you own that Zara dress, that Réalisation Par skirt, that other Zara dress? Because someone you know, on first name terms or otherwise, certainly does.
"I do not own the skirt," writes Rilka Noel, the woman behind @leopardmidiskirt, over email. Part of the web team at New York streetwear store Kith, Noel has been documenting the ascent of Réalisation Par’s Naomi skirt (and subsequent imitations) around the city since she saw it 30 times in a single week. "I am getting an overwhelming amount of DMs," she says. "Everyone submitting is hilarious. I was definitely surprised because I thought it would just be an account my friends and I would use to be silly, a little game, but so many people from different cities are participating now."
Brought to the industry’s attention last summer, the skirt has been the focus of much online discourse, with many brands since attempting to replicate its popularity. A recent visit to Topshop confirmed sale racks were full of lookalikes in block colours (many in shades that alluded to the leopard palette), their numbers only surpassed by those spotted in the wild. "Leopard is the new neutral," reasons Noel of the collective affinity with the skirt, "it has become this staple that people won't let die."
Existing in a moment of increased observation and documentation, this exaggerated hype isn’t exclusive to Réalisation Par or, indeed, leopard print: Spanish label Zara is currently enjoying its second act, following up 2016's off-the-shoulder denim dress (to which comedian Lulu Krause dedicated a gloriously annotated Tumblr account) with this summer’s biggest sartorial craving. The label’s £39 black and white spotty dress – found, as Stylist recently declared, "absolutely everywhere" – is the protagonist of Instagram account @hot4thespot, set up last month by stylist Faye Oakenfull.
Initially highlighting the dress' traction on her own Instagram stories, sharing screengrabs of excited text messages alongside images of it in action, Oakenfull created @hot4thespot, "A safe space for *the dress*," according to the account’s bio. "The first person to send me a picture of the dress in Frank's pink staircase wins," reads the caption of a photo taken at Peckham’s hugely popular rooftop bar, followed four squares later with the requested image, apparently received just three hours after the call-out.
"Many people like to be part of the crowd, like to wear or have what other people wear or have," suggests Dr Joan Harvey, a chartered psychologist and senior lecturer at Newcastle University, of the logic behind this sort of uniform trend. "Not to feel or look different at all. Not to stand out." Coupled with this idea of anonymity are the dress' physical attributes: the monochrome palette, the flattering shape that nods subtly to wider contemporary trends, and the comfortable fabric providing ample reasons to buy into it. The price point is similarly democratic.
"We don’t like to feel we’re missing out," concurs Professor Carolyn Mair PhD, consultant at psychology.fashion and author of The Psychology of Fashion. "If our social group, or those we aspire to, have something, we want to have it too, so we feel we are aligned with them. This is termed 'social conformity' in which our behaviour changes to fit in with a group."
"The more we see an object, or type of object, the more it becomes the norm," she continues. "We compare ourselves with others, in psychology this is known as social comparison, which can make us feel better about ourselves (downward comparison) or worse about ourselves (upward comparison). These comparisons can also work the other way. For example, comparing ourselves upwards can be inspirational and downwards can motivate us to be more caring and altruistic."
In the era of the influencer, I wonder how much those whose screen presence we’re acutely familiar with directly affect what we wear day to day. "Influencers show an escape from reality," explains Mair. "They are 'ordinary' people living what appear to be extraordinary lives. In a sense, [there's this idea of] 'If they can do it, so can I'." Thinking about representation, it’s not difficult to draw parallels between the most prominent influencers on young women’s social pages – namely, white women – and the bulk of submissions to Noel and Oakenfull's Instagram accounts.
"The biggest viral driving factor is typically the personal brand associated with the item," says Dr Lisa Orban, a psychologist and personal brand consultant. "By acquiring and wearing a coveted 'it' item, we can quickly send a message of being 'clued in' or 'on trend'. If we wear something that is instantly likeable, interesting or popular, that becomes part of our own personal brand." Sarah Owen, a senior editor at trend forecasting company WGSN agrees, suggesting that "viral fashion is sometimes less to do with the style or aesthetic and more to do with the catalyst or instigator".
For Katy Lubin, who as VP comms at global fashion search platform Lyst is privy to the correlation between influencers and consumers, this also rings true. "We see immediate spikes in demand driven by influencers, and if a group of influencers all endorse a particular product at the same time, it’s a powerful force," she tells me. "When 100 global influencers posted an image modelling the Dior Saddle bag on Instagram last year, searches for the style spiked 957% in 48 hours. That being said, there’s no magic number of posts that equates to virality. There’s still an element of serendipity in the way fashion products catch fire online; there are some pieces that just get it right, and some that never take off despite significant marketing investment."
Influencer visibility is certainly a mammoth component in terms of informing viral trends, but it seems that social media is really the marketer’s primary promotion tool, with click-to-buy features only further assisting sales.
"Social media – especially Instagram – is the reason why designs go viral," reckons Owen. "The low barrier to entry for anyone to showcase and sell their designs gives it a grassroots feel. The platform is designed for virality, but the recipe isn’t so straightforward, especially given the unpredictable algorithm." Chloé Dorlikar, a buyer at Urban Outfitters, supports this notion, explaining that their customer "wants to see relatability and distinctive style but also revels in seeking emerging trend pieces." At Urban Outfitters, she says, they rely on a gut feeling, primarily setting out to "create pieces that are unique, that our customer doesn’t know she needs yet".
Like anything that inspires such far-reaching recognition, there is an element of backlash to viral trends. Most urgent is the damaging environmental impact of fast fashion. "Going viral is something that rises very quickly, but then quite often sinks just as quickly. At the moment we have a problem that clothing is being seen as very disposable and short term," advises Harvey.
"This is a big change from a few decades ago, considerably amplified by social media," she continues. "The increasing popularity of returns is also being abused so much – part of the same issue of the disposable and short-term nature [of fast fashion]. However, this is now starting to get bad publicity – being one of the biggest world polluters and not sustainable in any real way. I think this is all in a state of flux, and that we will see in the next decade things changing a lot."
Ultimately, there is no magic formula for producing a viral moment, simply a medley of attributes that merge serendipitously. Lubin likens it to "a really catchy song. Even if you’re not immediately convinced, you’re likely to succumb eventually!"