Instagram has become a Rorschach test for the Australian fashion industry; some people see a community of likeminded tastemakers, others a torture device of unattainably taut bodies in sun dresses.
For emerging designers, it can be both — and lucratively so.
A new generation of small-scale Australian brands have emerged from the social media platform, deftly managing this blend of inspiration and aspiration.
Through largely Instagram-only marketing and online-only retail, these companies — sometimes a team of one — eschew department stores and the pricey go-betweens of traditional retail.
Stavroula Adameitis, who works under the name Frida Las Vegas, makes 1980s-influenced art and fashion with a strong dose of Ken Done Australiana.
Treating Instagram as a "pocket art gallery" of sorts, she has benefited from the close relationship with her customers that social media allows.
It's also a rejection of the typical path.
Retail shops have become "over-commercialised by the Westfields of the world", Ms Adameitis said, and most are unaffordable for a small business.
The internet, on the other hand, is free and offers endless space.
But endless space can become flat space, and social media-driven brands face criticism that they're imposing cookie cutter sameness on Australian fashion.
And as Instagram becomes more driven by e-commerce, how sustainable is three to five posts a day as an indie launch pad?
The 'Australian look'
Ms Adameitis doesn't believe Australian fashion, or Australian Instagram fashion, has only one look.
"As a general observation, there are two design camps that characterise Australian fashion: the 'white, lacy, floaty race-day summer dress' aesthetic and everything else," she said.
You can find any style you like on Instagram, but there is certainly a common character — perhaps best described as 'young woman on endless vacation'.
Danielle Mulham lives some of that dream. From Bali, she works on her brand Posse, which she started in 2016.
The beachy look of Posse is in dialogue with some of the app's most popular "influencers" — a social media-age entity, most often a 20-something slim white woman with enough social media followers to move product if she's seen wearing it — who Ms Mulham sometimes sends clothes.
Karen De Perthuis, a fashion scholar at Western Sydney University, said Instagram fashion tends to be unrooted in one location. And that goes for influencers too.
"There's this global, aspirational lifestyle: healthy breakfast, sitting on a verandah, on the beach, on a cliff, on a balcony, on the top of a building," she said. "Aspirational but approachable."
The brand Spell & The Gypsy Collective has been on Instagram since its launch, and today also works with influencers.
Elizabeth Abegg and her sister Isabella started their line in Byron Bay around 2008, and Ms Abegg said customers can now "sniff out" when someone has been paid to wear something.
Instead, like Posse, she said they prefer a collaborative approach, where an influencer might take over their Instagram account during a festival.
Ms Abegg suggested Australian fashion Instagram has a warm weather aesthetic — Spell, in particular, lends itself to what she called the "vacation trail" — but she questioned its real difference from, say, a California brand.
"These days brands, bloggers, campaign shoots are so international anyway, they shoot all over the world and don't seem to have borders or seasons," she said.
The Instagram effect
So why does Instagram work so well for fashion? Possibly because it shortens the path between inspiration, desire and purchase.
In the past, an advertisement might make you think about a product, but you'd still need to track it down and pass your cash over the counter, Jason Pallant, a marketing lecturer at Swinburne University, explained.
Instagram is advertising on endless scroll, and brands can now use its shopping tools, which allow users to tap a photo and bring up click-through buttons, for almost immediate gratification.
The size of the Instagram-driven fashion market is difficult to evaluate.
A 2018 PayPal survey indicated in the last six months, 19 per cent of Australian respondents had purchased something via social media. Of those, only 25 per cent of those people had done it through Instagram.
Instagram-commissioned research in 2017 suggested that of 1,117 Australian Instagram users, 53 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 had bought a product based on what they'd seen on the app.
But while it's growing, online shopping is still dwarfed by traditional bricks and mortar retail.
"For small start-up brands … that could be enough, but I think it puts a limit on the amount that you can actually grow," Dr Pallant said.
He pointed out more established sportswear and luxury brands are also popular on social media, and have more money to pay for sponsored posts and professional photography.
"[Instagram] is a good way to start, but how do you … keep those people engaged so you don't get lost in all the other brands that are using the same platforms?" Dr Pallant asked.
Instagram-driven fashion brands may ultimately be unsustainable because they have no real control over the app they rely on, suggested Valérie Moatti, Lectra fashion and technology chair at ESCP Europe.
"It's also very valuable for Instagram to get all this data on the brands," she said, pointing to the example of Amazon, which has been accused of creating its own versions of popular goods sold on its e-commerce platform.
"I know some companies and brands start to be more cautious in their use of Instagram," she said.
Group industry director for Facebook Australia Naomi Shepherd said the company's priority is to continue developing tools that support the growth of businesses on Instagram.
"The recent addition of Shopping in Instagram Stories is an example of how we create tools based on both the needs of businesses and feedback from our community," she said.
For the moment, Spell's Ms Abegg said the app gives people the chance to create their own brands without significant financial backing, huge marketing budgets or even an established inventory.
"Right now, hand in hand with Facebook, [Instagram] is everything," she said.
But she understands from a business perspective, "relying too heavily on Instagram, or any one platform, is risky".
'Wizard Of Oz behind-the-curtain schtick'
It's certainly true that brands must play by Instagram's rules to win.
Changes to its algorithm, for example, such as the move away from a purely chronological feed, can throw a spanner in the works.
"Ultimately, I'd like to see more top-down transparency from Instagram HQ [about its algorithm], rather than its current Wizard Of Oz behind-the-curtain schtick," Ms Adameitis said.
"Deep down I am ultimately distrustful of a platform that changes the rules at the drop of a hat with zero input from its stakeholders — aka, the people who actually use the platform, generate content and maintain its sky-high engagement levels."
Spell is also exploring paid digital advertising, and Posse's Ms Mulham sees direct email marketing as an important alternative.
"You've always got to be prepared if Instagram does go away," she said. "Keeping your audience tight and close to you."