01 October 2019

Fashion

Hot for the spot

It was a viral fashion phenomenon that became a spot-the-dress game. So what happened next?

By Elle Hunt

Claire Liddy thought she’d packed “tonnes” of clothes for her holiday to Monaco, but she still found herself with nothing to wear to dinner one evening. So, she did what many women in her shoes would do: she nipped in to a local Zara. There, she fell in love with a dress.

It had three-quarter-length sleeves and a full-length skirt, with a subtle but distinctive ruffle a few inches from the hem. “I thought I looked amazing that night,” Claire, 48, said. “Everyone was making comments on it.”

The compliments kept coming after she returned to the UK, where she lives near Liverpool and works in London as a marketing director. “For the first couple of months, everyone was like, ‘That dress is lovely, it looks really great on you’.” But within six weeks, the response had changed dramatically to: “That bloody dress.”

Before it was The Dress, it was just a dress. Made from 100% viscose, sized from XS to XXL, £39.99 off the rack from Zara. It stood out on the shop floor for its modesty – the bodice fitted loosely, the skirt not at all – and the print. The black-on-white polka dots were as visible as a billboard. By mid-August, within months of Claire’s holiday, capital cities across Europe had broken out in spots.

Zara’s polka dot dress was the sartorial smash hit of summer 2019, climbing to Despacito levels of ubiquity – far bigger than any previous fast-fashion flash-in-the-pan. It came to be spoken of only as “The Dress”, often with mock reverence, but also knowingly, like a password. “It is very much like a club,” Faye Oakenfull said one day in early August – a club many would say that she founded.

According to the 28-year-old stylist, The Dress was a surefire high street hit for its ease – it is as suitable for the office as for a wedding – and its affordability. But Oakenfull has been credited with making it a must-have item thanks to the cultish community she helped form around it, using Instagram. With her account @Hot4TheSpot – billed as “a safe space for The Dress” – Oakenfull turned it from an item of clothing into the uniform of a global “sisterhood” (her term). That women are still buying The Dress, even now that its omnipresence has been widely ridiculed, is testament to its pull. And Oakenfull says: “I’ve done this all by accident – that’s the thing.”

A week before Easter, Oakenfull was at a photoshoot in Kings Cross when the art director and the makeup artist both turned up wearing the same outfit. Oakenfull took a photograph of them together and posted it on her Instagram. That night, a friend replied with a photo of her friend wearing the dress. The next morning, another woman messaged to say that she’d just bought it, too. “As a bit of a joke, I said, ‘OK, I’m turning my account into a Zara polka dot dress account only’.”

Soon, Oakenfull was inundated with sightings, the pictures piling up even as she went on holiday to Morocco. In early May, after three weeks of posting to her personal account, Oakenfull set up a new one, @Hot4TheSpot. Hardly anyone followed it. “My friends were like, ‘How much can you do with taking pictures of dresses?’”

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THE @samsmith fangirling The Dress at Wilderness last weekend 🥳😱 @woody_netherendfarm

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Then Oakenfull’s account was mentioned in Stylist magazine – the first to articulate its omnipresence and to decree it “The Dress”. The mention took the account from fewer than 150 followers to more than 700. “Then the Daily Mail got hold of it, Refinery29 got hold of it – then it just exploded,” she said.

Around that time, in early July, Jessica Twentyman drove 45 minutes from her home in “very rural” Portugal to the city of Coimbra, a journey she made about once every month. She needed to buy an outfit for her cousin’s upcoming wedding. “It was just on the off-chance that I nipped into Zara,” she said. Not knowing anything of the dress phenomenon, she tried it on, liked it, bought it, and went to a nearby café. “It’s just the weirdest coincidence – straight after buying it, I was flicking through Twitter and I saw a tweet about ‘that Zara dress’,” said the 48-year-old tech journalist. “I thought ‘it can’t be’ – then I clicked through.” She hadn’t even returned home and already her purchase had been relegated to second choice. On the day, she chose something else for the wedding, and sure enough, another guest wore The Dress.

But what came first – the dress or the viral sensation? Did social media make the phenomenon, or was it the sheer popularity and ubiquity of it that cut through? Oakenfull is adamant that @Hot4TheSpot did not launch a high street sensation, but was borne of one.

It’s a convincing argument. The Dress phenomenon at least partially reflects the relative paucity of well-priced, wearable items on the high street that women actually want to wear. Cally Russell, a retail insights analyst and CEO of a shopping app called Mallzee, said Zara “totally nailed this product”. “They’ve managed to make a standout hit in a huge volume because they’ve focused on the product, and they’ve managed to absolutely nail what the consumer wants, at this point of time. … It’s the right price, it’s perfect for all body shapes, and it’s being sold by a retailer that has a really wide customer demographic.” The size range – with XXL fitting dress size 22, unusual for the high street – and its demure cut also broadened its appeal. Oakenfull said: “I see so many Muslim women in it, and older women; immediately it is inclusive.”

Even before the “tsunami of think-pieces” landed, shopper Holly O’Neill had been drawn to its sleeves. “Everything in store during summer was neon, frontless, backless, sideless, cropped, or the skintight clothing of Love Island,” the 26-year-old beauty editor from Dublin said. The Dress, conversely, is “comfortable, doesn’t make me body conscious, doesn’t cost your monthly mortgage repayment and, best of all, it doesn’t need dry cleaning – it doesn’t even need ironing.” All it is missing, O’Neill said, is pockets.

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I’M SHOOK. @giloscope

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But its rejection of the body-con trend also prompted consternation. A journalist for The Daily Mail newspaper, Liz Jones, panned it as “an insubstantial sack” and a “frump fest”, saying, in so many words, that it made women look fat. “The sort of women who have chosen this dress are not looking for a fiance,” she sniffed. But Oakenfull disagreed: when historically – and now “in a world of Kim Kardashian latex” – fashion has demanded that women be constrained and uncomfortable, “isn’t it nice that everyone is wearing a sack?” she asked.

While Oakenfull may not have been responsible for The Dress phenomenon, she did become, eventually, inextricable from it. Over months of coverage – in fashion and lifestyle titles in print and online, all of the British broadsheets, even the New York Times – the account was cited as evidence of the dress’ massive popularity. As The Dress exploded, so did @Hot4TheSpot.

As its following grew by thousands, Oakenfull was overwhelmed with photos from strangers of The Dress “in the wild”. Spurred on by her witty, knowing commentary, it became a kind of global game – though mostly centred around London, where a full quarter of @Hot4TheSpot’s followers are based. The account’s analytics reveal a huge rise in followers – 25.9k in just a few months, of which 70% are aged 25 to 44, and overwhelmingly (96%) female.

One woman got married in The Dress. Another went into labour wearing it. Oakenfull was alerted to them all. She had become ringleader of an enthusiastic, highly engaged community of amateur dress spotters – and inadvertently put a target on every polka-dotted back. In July, freelance writer Sophie Benson accused @Hot4TheSpot in Metro of encouraging covert photography of women, an “added anxiety” on top of street harassment, up-skirting and the other risks of being in public. “Let women wear the same dress … without fearing that they will end up the butt of someone else’s joke online,” she wrote. A week later, Bryony Gordon wrote in The Telegraph that @Hot4TheSpot spoke “to a world where women have been made to feel that turning up to an event in the same outfit as someone else is one of the worst sins they could possibly commit”.

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META – A story 👯‍♀️ @jessikaeve

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Oakenfull felt hurt by the criticism, she said. She later messaged Gordon to clarify that her intention was not to make fun of those who wear The Dress – in fact, many were in on the joke. “It’s them, and their attitude, and how they’ve just owned the page that has made it what it is.” Oakenfull sees the account as “a total sisterhood”. As account administrator, she often chides her followers for describing themselves, even self-effacingly, as “basic bitches” for wearing the same dress as everyone else. “I get asked, ‘Why do women want to wear something that everyone else is in, don’t we want to be individuals?’ But I’m like – ‘Why does that stop you being an individual?’”

Oakenfull said people assumed that Zara planted @Hot4TheSpot to drum up sales, or at least sponsored it – but the only contact she has had with the company has been at her initiation, to inform them of her plans for a “Wear The Dress Day” fundraiser in late August that raised more than £4k for the period poverty charity, Free Periods.

So how did the cult status of The Dress translated in terms of sales? In mid-September, Inditex – the Spanish multinational that owns the company, and one of the world’s largest fashion retailers – reported a 7% first half increase in gross profit to €7.3bn, which the Financial Times credited to the polka-dotted garment. (Inditex itself cited investments in online and offline stores; new technologies and improved logistics) On Instagram, Oakenfull photoshopped the FT’s headline to read, “@Hot4TheSpot boosts Zara sales in tough retail market”, adding: “@Zara when is good to talk?”

But in four months of coverage of The Dress, Zara’s voice has been conspicuously absent. They declined to be interviewed for this story, just as they have to all the others. But there have been clues to suggest that even they see The Dress’ success as extraordinary. A Zara employee, who had been with the company for three years and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was not unusual for there to be one stand-out, wildly popular item each season; many interviewees drew parallels with a tile-print three-quarter-length jacket from 2016, released first in blue, then red. But, the Zara employee said, “I can’t think of anything going that far” as The Dress. People were coming in to the shop “because they had seen it on Instagram” or bringing up @Hot4TheSpot at the till: “I’m sure we sold more because of the account.”

Even without commenting, the company has certainly capitalised on its success. After The Dress first sold out, it was quick to replenish stock in store and online, ensuring momentum wasn’t lost. “That has made supply equal demand,” said Mallzee’s Cally Russell. “When most products sees that success, retailers can’t get the supply back behind it so we don’t end up talking about them.” The Dress exists now, Russell said, “at that really profitable bit where you get a long time selling it, and you get to sell it at full price”.

In August a version of the dress was released in red-and-black animal print – costing £10 more. In Australia, it was available only in black with white spots, dubbed “the upside down dress”. That iteration reached Zara in the UK two weeks ago, giving The Dress a second, autumnal wind.

In the fast-moving world of fashion, where giants such as Asos and Boohoo are launching hundreds of new products daily, eight weeks of strong sales would be a runaway success, said Russell; The Dress has dominated fashion sales for 12. But the sensation it caused over summer – coinciding with Extinction Rebellion’s challenge to go without new clothes for a year, and Oxfam’s Second Hand September drive – has highlighted questions about sustainability.

Little is known about Zara’s practices in particular, though the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report gave Inditex an A+ for environmental management and an overall A grade. In July, Zara vowed that all of its collections would be made from 100% sustainable fabrics before 2025, among other sustainability pledges.

Pablo Isla, executive chairman of Inditex, told Grazia magazine that the company did not identify as fast fashion. However, it was noted in the same article that Zara nevertheless produces more than 450 million items a year, with an agile supply chain of manufacturers close by in Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Morocco shortening lead times, allowing it to stay on top of lightning fast trends.

The Dress itself is made of viscose: a semi-synthetic fibre made from cellulose or wood pulp, that is often used as a harder-wearing, cheaper alternative to silk. In 2017, Zara was among many retailers accused – in a report by the Changing Markets Foundation – of sourcing viscose from factories in China, Indonesia and India, causing major environmental pollution and health impacts for local communities. Zara has pledged that its viscose will be totally sustainable from 2023.

One Dress has already been pictured on @Hot4TheSpot in the window of a Royal Trinity Hospice charity shop in Camberwell; a spokeswoman said it sold for £8 on the same day it went on sale (and one day after being donated).

Becky Okell, a 26-year-old fashion designer, bought, and loved, her own Zara dress in late April, but watched the sensation emerge around it with concern. “The combination of becoming a bit more aware of what I’m wearing and what I’m buying, and seeing that dress get so popular … It just makes you think, what is the pressure that that’s putting on the factories that they work with?” she said. “I just hope the popularity of it won’t end up with more and more of them in landfill.”

Four months since The Dress first appeared, only one interviewee had thought to get rid of hers, though several said they were more careful about where they wore it. Its undoing seems to have been its ubiquity. “I’ve had friends say that they’re going to buy it because everyone else has it – for me, it’s the opposite,” said 25-year-old Beth Robinson. “I’m a little embarrassed to wear it now. “Even if this dies down within a month, or however long it takes, it will still be that thing of ‘that was The Dress’.”

But many have already been sold on eBay and Depop, a social resale app that functions similarly to Instagram for secondhand clothes. A spokeswoman for eBay (who also owned The Dress – she’d had to go to three London branches of Zara to find it in her size) said that searches had increased month on month since 1 April to 5 August, peaking in July with an average of 49 searches an hour.

That was where Claire Liddy’s holiday buy eventually ended up, after a fashionable colleague told her: “You’ve got to get rid of that dress.” She was surprised to find that there was immediate interest in her dress on eBay, even as it was still in stock in Zara. Eventually, it sold for £36 to a woman in Darlington, County Durham.

She felt a moment of regret after she’d posted it off, Claire said. But she’d bought it for 40 Euros, she reasoned, and had worn it a few times before she fell out of love. “It hasn’t really cost me anything.”

All photographs @hot4thespot/Instagram, Zara.com

Further reading

Zara Uncovered: Inside the brand that changed fashion, by the BBC

Read about Amancio Ortega, the billionaire 83-year-old behind the fashion giant, Inditex

– The Changing Markets Foundation’s report on the fashion industry’s use of viscose