Why the Vibe Shift Might Finally Leave the Kardashians Behind
After a particularly controversy-ridden 2022, was this the year the fashion industry and the general public finally started turning away from this family?
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Take a minute to consider the top stories at the nexus of fashion and pop culture from this past year. What stands out in your mind?
Perhaps Kim Kardashian setting off outrage for treating Marilyn Monroe’s historic dress like any old piece of mass-produced Skims on the Met Gala red carpet (which celebrates and raises money for the preservation of — i.e. not wearing — such dresses). Or maybe Kim saying she was “re-evaluating” her relationship with Balenciaga after consumers got upset about its recent holiday and spring ads and asked what she had to say about them.
Maybe, now that you’re thinking about this family, your mind wanders to the backlash to Kylie Jenner’s Christmas tree, erected by hired professionals as though it were an installation in the lobby of an investment bank. At which point your thoughts might then drift to Kylie asking her Instagram followers which of two private planes she should take, commenters pointing out that it was this kind of cavalier diarrhea of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere by the rich that moots efforts from the rest of us plebeians to abandon plastic straws and start composting.
There was also Kim’s “get your fucking ass up and work” comment; Kim calling her expensive beauty treatments “attainable”; Kourtney Kardashian’s wedding turning into a collab with controversial label Dolce & Gabbana, which was in turn a starter log for the brand’s #CiaoKim Milan Fashion Week show; Kim having to denounce her ex-husband Kanye West’s anti-Semitism. There is more, but the point is: the KarJenners had a particularly controversial 2022.
Related in Back Row: Kim Kardashian Temps for Dolce, Gabbana
This family has always gotten hate, but a shift in consumer attitudes around things like consumerism, privilege, capitalism, climate change, and nepotism has resulted in backlash finding them with increasing frequency. Cultural cornerstones of the post-pandemic “vibe shift” include shows like White Lotus and movies like Triangle of Sadness*, both of which succeed as commentary on wealth and privilege. The public used to look upon the lavish empire that monochromatic shapewear, lip kits, and reality TV built with bemusement above all else. But now, are the Kardashians seen as so out-of-touch and distasteful that brands and consumers will finally be ready to turn away from them in 2023?
I called fashion marketing expert, who led a successful turnaround at Banana Republic as chief brand officer and previously worked as an executive at brands like Rebecca Minkoff and David Yurman, and who writes one of my favorite Substacks, (you must go subscribe). She senses a cultural shift that will negatively impact the Kardashians’ appeal. “Culture is not willing to forgive them as it was before,” she said. “And when the culture changes, brands follow. So just wait, they’re going to start dropping them — but not immediately.” The Kardashians are, like Gucci and Balenciaga, a “zeitgeist brand,” said Andjelic — as soon as the zeitgeist changes, these brands struggle.
Let’s look at Kylie’s Christmas posts, for instance. As recently as 2019, Kylie made a YouTube video about the enormous playhouse her mom Kris gave to her daughter Stormi for Christmas. BuzzFeed called it “Legit Bigger Than Some Apartments” in a headline at the time. The post blithely notes that when Kylie told Stormi she had a “surprise” for her, the toddler replied, “Birkin!” Meanwhile, just around a week ago, Kylie took down a TikTok of her Christmas tree after commenters dragged her for shameless wealth flaunting. Covering the tree, BuzzFeed went with the angle that it “Has Pissed Off A Lot Of People.”
Andjelic predicts that the Kardashians won’t fade into a bush at the same quick pace as fellow Balenciaga collaborator Homer Simpson. They won’t wane next year, even. “It will take longer because brands are like, oh they have 100 million followers, we want that,” she said. “Give it two to three years.” I pointed out that a lot of people in the fashion industry are ready to move on. She noted that those people are “at the pinnacle of culture. Just wait until the mainstream gets tired.” Their decline in fashion industry appeal, she predicted, will be signaled by partnerships with increasingly low-quality brands.
If you think about it, two or three years is a relatively short time period for a family who’s only been getting more and more famous since Keeping Up With the Kardashians began airing on E! in 2007. In this beginning period, the fashion industry wouldn’t go near them. The turning point, Andjelic and I agree, was Kim starting to date Kanye West in 2012. West had worked for years by that point to establish himself in the fashion industry. And, crucially, he already had a relationship with the industry’s leader Anna Wintour. In 2013, after years of the Kardashians unsuccessfully calling the Vogue office and asking for invites to the Met Gala, a pregnant Kim appeared on the red carpet on West’s arm. This was a turning point that foreshadowed an even bigger turning point: Kardashian and West’s April 2014 Vogue cover, pegged to their wedding. (You can read more about Anna coming around to the Kardashians in my book, ANNA: The Biography.) “Everyone was waiting for Anna Wintour,” said Andjelic.
Then came the wedding, to which Kim wore a custom Riccardo Tisci-designed Givenchy gown that showcased to the fashion industry she was someone with an elevated taste level whom it could accept. Brands didn’t need to worry about damaging their image by inviting her to their fashion shows, featuring her in their ads, or loaning her their clothes. Andjelic notes that acceptance was ironic at first, with stunts like her nude “Break the Internet” Paper magazine cover. That ironic embrace morphed into serious embrace.
This was a significant boon to the family’s business. Kim launched Skims in 2019, at what was probably the peak of her prowess in the fashion industry. It went on to be valued in early 2022 at $3.2 billion. Andjelic said that Kim’s legitimacy in fashion “1,000 percent” helped make this business so successful; while many celebrities and reality TV stars emit product lines, almost none of them are this popular, partly because they start these businesses as celebrities who are not fashion people. Kim was in a different position.
Of course, along with Kim and her sisters’ mega-fame came increasing backlash, but none of it ever took them down. The Kardashians have a remarkable ability to use upheavals in their favor, said Molly McPherson, a crisis communications expert whose TikToks analyzing celebrity PR I find highly addictive. “They have been masterful at plowing through a crisis instead of around it,” she said.
Many celebrities handle crises by denying their involvement in a situation or shifting blame to someone else. “The Kardashians are different,” McPherson said. “The Kardashians are able to frame themselves as either above it or adjacent to it, but not the cause of it.”
Kim’s statement about “reevaluating” her relationship with Balenciaga provides a perfect example of this. “Since then, there has been a spate of all these other very minor Kim Kardashian news hits about what she's wearing to a game with her son, getting a restraining order against the guy who claims to talk with her telepathically — this is all framing used as a distraction away from Balenciaga,” said McPherson. “They're moving the Balenciaga story down the internet.” So attention on Kim over something controversial like Balenciaga becomes publicity she can use to promote herself, Skims, SKKN, or whatever.
McPherson expects to see more of the same from the Kardashians in 2023 and doesn’t see them fading next year. She noted that celebrities have trouble getting out of crises in the eyes of the public when a moral failing is involved (think Adam Levine allegedly cheating on his wife Behati Prinsloo). But, she added, Kim “hasn't had a moral failing because things have happened to Kim Kardashian.”
If you revisit Kim’s Today show interview after the Met Gala dress debacle, you see this strategy at work. The interview took place in late June, around seven weeks after the Gala — unusual stickiness for a Kardashian controversy. Museum conservators had cast Kim wearing the dress as an affront to history and their profession. Yet Kim simply credited herself with promoting Monroe’s legacy anew to young people who had said on social media that they hadn’t ever heard of her. She added that Ripley’s Believe It or Not! — not Kim Kardashian — provided access to the dress and oversaw how it was handled.
“I mean, it was such a process,” Kardashian tried to explain Tuesday. “I had to change. ... I showed up to the red carpet in a robe and slippers. And I put the dress on at the bottom of the carpet. Went up the stairs — I probably had it on for three, four minutes — and then I changed right at the top of the stairs.”
Interjected [Hoda] Kotb: “So all of the [controversy], we keep seeing stuff like ‘the dress is ruined,’ ‘the dress is this... .’ All of that is not true?”
“No, and I mean, Ripley’s, we worked together so well,” Kardashian said. “There was handlers in gloves that put it on me.”
Kim’s latest Christmas decorations were also met with notably negative reception after she shared images of her monastic house and glowing trees looming outside a large floor-to-ceiling window on Instagram, as though they had all magically gathered there in a Fantasia-esque fever dream, perhaps to direct attention away from the Balenciaga controversy.
McPherson noted that the Kardashians’ continued conspicuous consumption could be a tactic. “If you're going to operate in the online milieu of social media and influencers,” she said, “you have to absorb this blowback somewhere.” And it may be that “when it comes to reputation, that's the hit they'll take.”
Finally, while the vibe may still be shifting, one thing it certainly includes is more TikTok and less Instagram. And a lot of people enjoy TikTok because they can escape the world of Instagram influencers showing off their clothes and and homes and perfect lives — something the Kardashians tapped into expertly while it was still on the upswing. Yet they haven’t had anywhere near the same impact on TikTok where, if you don’t want to see them, the algorithm will simply filter them out.
*I watched Triangle of Sadness over the weekend, and I have to say the opening scenes satirizing a male model casting and high-end fashion show are utterly brilliant.
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Brilliant piece! I noticed their popularity had started to decline earlier this year. Many speculated that the controversy around her dating life was a distraction from her divorce (which turned out to be two epic fails). I guess we'll wait and see what the next 2-3 years will or won't bring for them.
Loved this one....and always appreciate Ana’s take on things🔥