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Lithium Startups, starter packs, and the limits of Instagram fashion

Aug. 5, 2020
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Though the starter pack meme has mostly faded from trendiness, we all recognize its basic structure. Whether you’re a VSCO girl or an indie e-boy, you can definitely find one of these posts made specifically to call you out. A starter pack for the former will likely showcase a Hydroflask, Mario Badescu facial mist, and assorted Glossier products; for the latter, a Stussy sweatshirt and a Juul. 

These starter packs embody the sort of universal teen experience that comes with social media and the internet. We like the same memes and follow the same influencers. We shop on the same websites and scroll through the same Instagram ads targeted at us based on gender, race, and age. So when someone says “Hydroflask,” we immediately understand the connotations of the word, the assumptions we make based on ownership of the brand’s water bottles.

Starter packs, on a micro-level of Gen-Z internet culture, indicate just how much our consumer choices define us. Suddenly, our water bottle is no longer a mindless, practical purchase for hydration, but a small social signal about who we are as a person. Suddenly, we are what we buy.

Consumption as a status symbol is not a new concept, especially in fashion. Traditionally, luxury fabrics, designer labels, and avant garde statement pieces have been indicators of status and wealth. The things we own, on their most basic level, are an outward expression of both personal and group identity, and the purpose of fashion in particular has always been to communicate. But social media has warped the idea of consumption into a jumbled mess of Instagram branding, rapidly changing aesthetic preferences, and Gen Z’s growing devotion to brands who claim to be ethical, sustainable, and feminist. 

Because we shop almost exclusively on the internet, social media branding is necessary in order to connect with a younger consumer audience. Endless accounts fill my Instagram feed with recycled cotton sweatshirts in muted jewel tones and handmade beaded bags on the virtual arm of every Soho influencer. It seems like for every kind of clothing item, there are about three startups run by women in their 20s with a “commitment to sustainability,” including but not limited to Outdoor Voices, Thinx, Parade, Golde, Glossier, Mejuri, Girlfriend Collective… You get the gist. 

Consider, say, a starter pack for a hip, chic, eco-friendly millennial: Reformation jeans, recycled cotton Buffy sheets, Veja sneakers. We understand the idea of this woman. Perhaps we even know her in real life. Her commitment to the environment is not through conscious minimalism but performative consumption, her closet and apartment filled with things that signal morality to an audience. 

The branding of trendy companies is simultaneously subtle enough to draw you in and obvious enough to tell you exactly what lifestyle you should have. The cultural symbolism of wearing Outdoor Voices is not as explicit as class or wealth, as fashion traditionally indicates. It is a signal of one’s lifestyle, an assumption of an entire personality distilled down into the purchases of an Instagram-savvy millennial woman.

The appeal of these companies is not necessarily the true quality or appearance of their products, but the feeling that you are living the lifestyle of this brand. I admit, I own the exercise dress from Outdoor Voices, and wearing it gives me a rush of self-satisfactory pleasure in feeling that I really could be (am?) a 20-something woman whose days consist of walking my dog, perusing the farmers’ market, and working in something vaguely related to fashion or media. Wearing the dress makes me feel cool, to put it simply.

Maybe the intent of lifestyle branding is genuinely to shift consumption toward socially responsible brands. But the social media emphasis of those brands makes it difficult to see the benefits of “ethical,” trendy consumerism. Am I buying this Reformation dress because I genuinely want it, or because I think it will look good on Instagram and cultivate a better personal brand? Do I like it, or am I just obsessed with this possible version of myself? Am I eco-friendly or just vain? Brands built on ethical promises, diverse models, editorial lighting, and user-generated content often blur those lines, and I can’t help but feel that vanity is the primary motive. 

In her New Yorker article on athleisure, Jia Tolentino comments that the classic recreation kits from Outdoor Voices “make the wearer look as if she were put on earth to be viewed on Instagram.” In some ways, I want to believe that a company really can be playful and aesthetic and responsible—nothing more, nothing less. But the shallowness of fashion ethics on Instagram is so depressing that I can’t honestly convince myself of optimism. A kale-turmeric face mask and sustainably sourced pearl hoops might be “better” for the world than a sheet mask and silver studs from Claire’s, but using Instagram as an endless display of on-trend ethical consumption is simply narcissistic.

Starter packs are a cultural microcosm of our growing and increasingly nuanced devotion to brands. Teenage style is no longer as simple as having the latest Nikes or Hollister jeans. What you buy and what you wear is no longer a binary measure of “cool” or “uncool.” Now, our purchases place us into one of the internet’s approved niches, our humanity defined by a set of material items. In a way, starter packs function as a one-stop shop for purchasing a personality. 

We worship self-indulgence and consumption. But owning things will never satisfy our desire for meaning. Wearing jeans produced by women who earn a living wage may nudge the needle of capitalism toward better practices, but consumption itself will never change the world. 

Sustainable fashion is a positive trend within the industry, no doubt, but it is still a status symbol. Perhaps it is a more moral status symbol than, say, a fur coat, but the perpetuation of inequality and vanity is nonetheless intertwined in its significance. Just because fashion now exists for social media and answers the calls of a more socially conscious generation, doesn’t mean that it is simply better, nor is it exempt from critique. Cute Instagram brands may seem like the utopian future of sustainable fashion, but they’re ultimately just an outlet for people who are uncomfortable with the guilt of materialism.

In a virtual world where algorithms are God and profit is everything, the fashion industry must cater not only to the demands of “women in their 20s” but to specific personality niches like “New York women in their 20s who want to look hot for cocktail hour and for the Climate March.” Now more than ever, your purchases are used to calculate the contours of your identity. And even if you think ethical brands are, in a way, subversive, your “morally superior” purchases are just a self-congratulatory virtue signal to your followers. Instagram has turned fashion into a status symbol of the virtual world. After all, if you didn’t post a picture in your Outdoor Voices, did you even wear it?