Queentonia Ojeka, a 20-year-old student in Leicester, looked at the post very carefully. She liked how long the blazer was and how the shorts came to the middle of her thighs. It also seemed comfortable. So Ojeka did what millions of young women across the country do every day: she went online and bought a tweed blazer from the American discount store Fashion Nova for $30 (£23). She wore it with chocolate-brown cycling shorts from the British brand PrettyLittleThing that cost £8. “I love Kylie Jenner,” Ojeka laughs. “Even though I hate to say it. “Her style is getting better, which makes me like her even more.”
Corsets. Trainers in orthopedics Cut-offs. Shorts for cycling Cycling sunglasses. Sequinned slip dresses and Lace bodysuits. Neon. Latex. Knee-high boots. All of these are fashion trends that the Kardashians have helped spread around the world. Women all over the country painstakingly contour, bake, and overline their lips to make them look like the Kardashians. People who like Kim Kardashian can be seen stumbling around in nightclubs wearing Lycra bodycon dresses and spike heels.
Online stores that sell clothes for very low prices are growing quickly as a way to dress this growing army of Kardashian clones. There are Pretty Little Things, Missguided, Boohoo, Nasty Gal, and the US phenomenon Fashion Nova. But newer players like Oh Polly and Miss Pap are also getting into the space. If you look at these sites, you’ll find yards of tight-fitting lycra and cheap lace in neon, pastel, or earthy colors. Dresses are usually around £15 and there are frequent sales. For the price of a large takeout pizza, you can buy an outfit that, if you look closely, could be from a Kardashian-Instagram Jenner post. Even if you look like one of the Kardashians, now is a good time to be a model. Lookalikes like Lalla Rania Benchegra, who has worked for Pretty Little Thing and Fashion Nova, are in high demand.
For those who don’t know, the Kardashians became famous after a sex tape of the second-oldest daughter, Kim, came out in 2007. This is when their reality TV show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, became a hit. The Kardashian family was already well-known because the late Robert Kardashian was a friend of O.J. Simpson and worked on his defense team during his murder trial. In just over a decade, the Kardashian family has become the Medicis of modern fame. They have more than 536 million followers on Instagram, and Keeping Up With the Kardashians has been on for 15 seasons.
But the Kardashians haven’t always been the fashion world’s unstoppable force. For years, they wore clothes that could be purchased at any department store (their Kardashian Kollection was sold at US retailer Sears). Then, in 2012, Kim started dating Kanye West. He introduced her to designers like Olivier Rousteing at Balmain and Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, as well as his own Yeezy brand. Gone was the polyester animal print, and in came a shape that looked like it was made for athleisure. The West name might have given the family more credibility. By 2014, Kim was wearing a strapless Lanvin wedding dress on the cover of Vogue.
Back then, Instagram was just getting started, but as the Kardashians’ fashion star rose, they solidified their status as famous people on social media. In 2012, when Kim started dating West, she had a million Instagram followers. In just seven years, she would reach a peak of more than 125 million followers. “They have a lot of power just because they are talked about a lot,” says Rijeka. “People talk about them, and they’re everywhere.”
The Kardashians buy from brands like Boohoo and Fashion Nova, switching brands to make more money. Hopper HQ, an Instagram marketing company, says that a single post on Kylie Jenner’s Instagram will cost you a cool $1 million. A post on Kim’s Instagram will cost you $750,000. Brands that, officially or unofficially, link themselves to the Kardashians see their sales skyrocket. In 2018, the most searched-for fashion brand in the US on Google was Fashion Nova. In the last four months of 2018, Boohoo’s UK sales went up by a third, to £180 million. This strong performance can be partly attributed to a successful collaboration with Kourtney Kardashian, the eldest Kardashian daughter, who has been a fan of the brand for a long time. (In the same time frame, sales went up 95% at Pretty Little Thing and 74% at Nasty Girl.) The success of these companies comes at a time when well-known retailers in the UK are struggling: Asos just sent out a shocking profit warning, and Topshop’s sales are also going down. Even bad press can’t stop them from growing like crazy. For example, Boohoo was recently criticized for selling real fur sweaters that it said were fake.
Why are these stores doing so well? Dr. Jonathan Reynolds, an expert on retail and online shopping at the University of Oxford, says that they have some clear benefits. Since most of them only sell online (Missguided has two stores in the UK), they don’t have to pay for retail space, so they can make smaller batches of products and try out new ones. “If you have a store, you need to stock it with things, which means you need a lot of stock.” “So they are a much more flexible kind of business, which seems to fit with our culture of getting things done quickly today.”
Instagram is the beating sun at the center of this new fashion solar system. More than 3,000 influencers, like Kylie Jenner and Cardi B, are part of Fashion Nova’s network. This is a key part of the company’s success. They post pictures of themselves wearing clothes that can be bought online right away. If the item sells, that’s great, but if it doesn’t, the brand can move on to the next thing without having to deal with a lot of stock. A white polyester minidress that Kylie is wearing is currently for sale on Fashion Nova for $32.99 plus shipping. And if your brand can’t afford to pay Kardashian millions of dollars to promote it, in-house design teams can make copies of designer clothes worn by celebrities in just a few days. After Kim’s sense of style? Boohoo will sell you a minidress in neon pink like the one she wore to Kylie’s 21st birthday party for just £4. “I’ve seen girls out on the town wearing that pink dress,” says 25-year-old Leeds bag designer Lauren Levin. “This is a very common way to dress.” People often tell Levin that they want to look like the Kardashians. In August 2018, Kim wore a neon bag, and Levin got so many requests for one that she made a copy. “They have a huge effect on my generation, for sure.”
The author of Fashion and Celebrity Culture, Pamela Church-Gibson, agrees: “They can sell anything.” She says that they are at the center of an “alternative fashion system” that isn’t about people looking at pictures from fashion shows and figuring out what the trends are. Instead, it’s about women wanting to look a certain way, social media providing those images, and new retailers, especially ones that use social media a lot, like Boohoo, picking up on these trends and using them to their advantage.
Daniel Hassan, who is 23 years old, says of the Kardashians, “When it comes to clothes, they know how to dress.” “If they have an outfit for, say, thousands of pounds, I go to Boohoo or Missguided to see if I can find a similar one for less.” Hassan, a teacher from east London, spends £50 a month on clothes. If she’s going on vacation, she’ll buy a new wardrobe for £300. Hassan bought a copy from Boohoo for £12 when Kim wore a black lace bustier to Paris Fashion Week in 2016. In September 2018, Hassan bought a £20 Missguided dress that looked like Kylie’s bodycon, a calf-length dress.
But the Kardashians sell more than just clothes. They sell a way of life. Amanda McClain, who wrote Keeping Up the Kardashian Brand: Celebrity, Materialism, and Sexuality, says that the Kardashians live lives that people want to be like. If you dress like a Kardashian, you can get close to a lifestyle that would be out of your price range otherwise, thanks to low-cost retailers. “Even a small glimpse of what it’s like to be in their shoes makes it so much easier,” says Rijeka.
Emily Hall, a social influencer expert at the Goat Agency, says that for some young Kardashian fans, social media can be the most important part of a night out. “Before they go out, they’ll do full-on photoshoots because they want approval from a wider audience.” But posting the same outfit twice is heresy when your wardrobe is designed backward to get the most likes.
All the women I talk to agree that there is a lot of pressure online to look good. “I do think it makes things worse,” says Levin. “Because when I post something on social media and it doesn’t get as many likes as the photo before it, I think, What’s wrong with me?” “I know there’s a lot of pressure, and that’s because we live in the age of the Kardashians.” Researchers at the University of Birmingham did a study of 1,300 British teenagers and found that the pressure to post flattering selfies online was making schoolchildren unhappy with their bodies and unhappy with life. What is the most popular body type that these young people are proud of? Does this sound like you? a small waist, big breasts, and big hips.
According to data from Mintel, 22% of consumers say that social media helps them decide what clothes to buy. This number goes up to 64% for people in Generation Z (under 22 years old). “It speeds up a cycle of spending and consuming,” says Church-Gibson. “I’m worried about how fast this is going.”
To accelerate the pace of fashion, brands have relocated their factories back to the United Kingdom. This means that you can buy an outfit you see online even faster. The once-stagnant clothing industry in Leicester has started up again. This might sound like good news, but a recent FT investigation found proof that workers were being paid less than the minimum wage. With a “test and repeat” strategy, low-cost stores make it easier for people to buy things on the spot, says Saisangeeth Daswani of the trends intelligence company Stylus. “They make very small amounts of a lot of different styles in a short amount of time, about two to four weeks.”
Should it bother us that a lot of young women dress in outfits they can only wear once? During a 2018 inquiry into fast fashion in Britain, MPs said that Boohoo sold cheap dresses that charity shops probably wouldn’t take.
“I never thought I’d see the day when Topshop would look like couture,” says Orsola de Castro of the group Fashion Revolution. “But the rise of even cheaper brands like PrettyLittleThing is making it look that way.” “If you buy a dress for £8, which is about the price of a meal, someone, if not quite a few people, along the supply chain will be hurting.” A recent study by Fashion Revolution found that people in Britain care the least about how fast fashion affects the world out of all the countries they looked at. De Castro says that people were more upset when Burberry burned its extra stock than when the Rana Plaza building fell down. “It’s hard to get customers to care about workers. They think their own lives are hard enough that they can’t relate to someone else’s.”
In a time of low pay and general economic gloom, you can see why a £4 dress that makes you feel, for a moment, like a Kardashian would be appealing. Hassan says, “If you’ve worked hard, you deserve to feel good, and wearing clothes you love makes you feel good about yourself.”
But what is it about the Kardashian style that young women like so much? Church-Gibson says, “The way they look is always the same.” “It has the same shape every time.” “Everything is tight, and the heels are very high.” A Kardashian filter is put on high-fashion designs, like when Kim wore a Celine dress in March 2017. “The Celine style is very loose and worn with sneakers, but she paired it with very high heels,” Church-Gibson says, calling the Kardashian style “sexy rather than fashionable.”
Church-Gibson has been shocked to see how the Kardashian style has spread through British fashion like a virus. “I’m worried that everyone looks so much alike. They are selling a complete look, from the top of the head to the bottom of the foot. “It is a very uniform way to look.” She talks about the style blog Man Repeller, which started out as a celebration of things like acid-washed harem pants, shoulder pads, and dungarees, which are often thought to turn men off. The Kardashian style is the opposite of the “Man Repeller” look. It is a very feminine, high-glam style that seems to be made to attract the attention of men. Church-Gibson says that people who copy the Kardashian style “do look very hot, but they’re all the same.” “In a way, it’s the end of being your own person.”
And even though the Kardashians are sometimes praised for popularising a new, more curvy body type called “slim-thick,” it may be just as hard to achieve as the very slim ideal that came before it. Yomi Adegoke, a freelance journalist and co-author of Slay in Your Lane, who has written about the Kardashians’ effect on beauty, says, “They’ve just helped swap one unattainable beauty standard for another.” The ideal has been replaced by a desire for curvy women of mixed races, but only in some places. It’s more like a Mr. Potato Head approach to beauty, picking the “best bits” from different races and leaving women of color, especially black women, at the bottom when they only have “parts” that are considered worthy and beautiful.
Will anyone be able to break the Kardashians’ grip on the fashion world? McClain says, “There’s no end in sight.” The only people who could take their place in the future are their own children.