Is TikTok Democratizing the Idea of Luxury?

Or is it more of a Gen-Z thing?

Asking for a friend, but must everyone be on TikTok?

This sounds rather random when put like that; perhaps elaborating on said friend might shed some light. An enthusiast of all things fashion, the fear of missing out on the content having a TikTok entails isn’t lost upon him. And yet, with an Instagram presence limited to mere lurking capacity, which sometimes leaves him overwhelmed, is the added information overload from TikTok essential? Plus, at the end of the day, wouldn’t TikTok content worth one’s attention eventually make its way onto other platforms, thus constituting a form of quality control? These are the questions that keep me up at night.

Oops, I mean, my friend.

But as I stumbled upon an online guide to TikTok vernacular the other day (and was left feeling ancient in the process), it soon became clear that it was here to stay. Think about it – indie sleaze, quiet luxuries, cottagecore, and the e-girl aesthetic – all trace their roots to TikTok! And though not without its fair share of criticisms, the chokehold it has come to command on the fashion scene is frankly remarkable. In the process, however, has TikTok also managed to democratize fashion, and in particular, the realm of luxury fashion?

Power to the People

Originally developed as two distinct apps both, inexplicably for the sole purpose of disseminating lip-synced music videos (or worse, singing gummy bears), the rise of TikTok isn’t entirely unexpected. A similarly upsetting power struggle had ensued in the late-aughts, with the advent of bloggers undermining the “old guard” of high fashion – journalists, stylists, and such – traditionally perceived as the industry’s gatekeepers. And now it’s TikTokers who’ve come for those coveted front-row seats, equipped with the potential for nabbing millions in viewership with a single video as opposed to, say, a written article (*gulps*).

But what genuinely sets the platform apart, even from its contemporaries like Instagram or Twitter, is its bizarrely powerful algorithm, possessing the ability to seemingly give the gift of virality overnight. And it is by thus granting the accessibility to anyone with the most limited of means to be “chosen” by the masses – such as Mandy Lee’s wildly popular #indiesleaze hashtag that eventually made its way onto the pages of Vogue (VOGUE!) – that TikTok has come to embody the peak essence of democracy. Or as Elle posits, “Is Everyone a Fashion Critic?”

Negin Mirsalehi
TikTok Influencer Negin Mirsalehi

Dupes Galore, But Fakes Too?

The TikTokification of Fashion Week is one, but normalizing counterfeiting is entirely another. And as many have alleged, TikTok appears to be doing just that.

Now the idea of dupes – affordable alternatives to high-end fashion and beauty products – isn’t a new concept. But with a generation as price-sensitive (and notoriously difficult to fit into the traditional retail framework) as the Gen-Z, the desire for dupes, especially for trendy, seasonal pieces, has really gone into overdrive. In fact, a Vogue Business survey revealed that 72 out of 110 Gen-Z subscribers of fashion publications attested to having bought at least one dupe from high-street labels like Uniqlo and Anthropologie within the last year. And if the 3.5 billion views for #dupes on TikTok are any indication, the number is only set to grow.

Problematically, however, it’s increasingly just as acceptable for young shoppers on the app to purchase counterfeits, the #Reps hashtag trending not far behind. With creators proudly posting detailed guides of their “bargain hauls” reportedly bought “on holiday” and even providing tips on circumnavigating customs, the trouble for luxury brands seems to only be intensifying, to say nothing of their already-alienating price points.

And even though the favor towards fakes isn’t unanimous – heated discourse frequently ensues in the comment sections – they’ve only served to publicize the original videos further, thanks to TikTok’s very own algorithm, and despite such content being in clear violation of pre-existing community guidelines and intellectual property rights.

The Paradox of Quiet Luxuries

Unlike some of TikTok’s wilder micro-trends though (clown-core, anybody?), the latest movement that seems to be ruling the mood boards are quiet luxuries, a search term that has already amassed 35 billion views on the app, and now is taking over the Fall runways. Inherently, the idea is to channel an old money aesthetic, where ostentatious displays of wealth, be it OTT logomania or excessive bling, are eschewed in favor of calmer, grounded silhouettes that whisper, rather than flaunt, all the while retaining the eye-watering price-tag. And if you’re puzzled by this trend on an app frequented by thrifty shoppers such as Gen Z, you’re not alone.

Bottega Veneta Pre Fall 2023 Bags 8
A bag from the Bottega Veneta Pre-Fall 2023 collection

In fact, data journalist Chris Beer​ has dubbed the new-age penchant for dupes as “frugal flexing,” where the goal is to look expensive without having to shell out big bucks. Contrast this with the stealth wealth aesthetic. That’s all about paying the top dollar to not look expensive. At the intersection of the two? You have inexpensive, rather basic dupes of, well, pricey items that are basic to begin with – a dupe of a white Prada tank is just a white tank, after all – often purchased from fast fashion retailers like Shein, where quality and longevity too is a far-off dream.

And herein lies the biggest paradox of TikTok’s apparent democratization of fashion. Originally meant as an avenue for expressing unique personal style, the increasingly fast-paced trend cycle on the platform has now resulted in everybody looking and dressing alike, a notion of groupthink that appears to promote virality while veering dangerously towards overconsumption and exploitation.

Prada Supernova Handbag White

But perhaps these are all questions that will be answered once I (eventually, inevitably) join TikTok. Perhaps not being on the app itself means I simply have a bleaker worldview of it. Or perhaps it’s entirely possible that the ‘last sunny corner of the internet’ isn’t so sunny after all. What do you think?


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