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Exclusive: How Instagram’s Eva Chen Is Bridging the Worlds of Fashion and Tech

In Eva Chen’s forthcoming children’s book, “Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes,” a young girl — named after the author’s grandmother — discovers the famous footwear of illustrious women throughout history.

Juno’s own nondescript shoes have gone missing, so she steps into pairs from Cleopatra, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, astronaut Sally Ride, Serena Williams and Lady Gaga, among others.

“She’s inspired by all these amazing trailblazers,” said Chen, the head of fashion partnerships at Instagram, who got to know both her illustrator and publisher through the platform’s direct-message feature.

Eventually, Juno decides she’s most content in her own shoes — a key moment that Chen hopes her daughter Ren, 3, son Tao, 1, and many other kids will remember.

It’s fitting that the social media pioneer, who originated the ubiquitous #evachenpose, has written a book about one of her own obsessions. Chen coined the hashtag years ago as a way to document her signature shoe/bag/fruit photo shoots in the back seat of New York taxicabs.

She was a must-follow on Instagram from its inception in 2010. And the former Lucky magazine editor-in-chief has been the official fashion force, and face, of the digital phenomenon for the past three years.

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Eva Chen at the Facebook and Instagram headquarters in Manhattan.
CREDIT: Annie Tritt

With 800 million active monthly users, Instagram has dramatically changed the way people communicate and interact — and how they create and consume photos and video. “You can find people who love something, whether it’s fashion, food or slime, and tap into that community,” Chen quipped.

There’s no question that the platform has also changed the marketing game — transforming so-called influencers into bankable social media stars and paving the way for young talent eager to break in.

“You could be an aspiring shoe designer in Korea or a coat designer in Copenhagen [Denmark]. Instagram has opened the door to an international audience and customer base,” Chen said. “It’s leveled the playing field, and I include [people and brands] like Virgil Abloh and Supreme in that. Something that might have felt niche or relegated to streetwear or sneaker culture can suddenly take on this mainstream kind of hugeness.”

Chen recalled the day that Abloh, the Off-White founder and new artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear, visited Instagram’s open-concept (and oft-photographed) offices inside the downtown New York headquarters of its parent company, Facebook.

“We’ve had a lot of models, Victoria Secret angels, celebrities and musicians here,” Chen said. “I’ve never seen such fangirling or fanboying as when Virgil was in the office. He’s a personality and a lifestyle, and Instagram is a big part of it. People know what kind of matcha tea he drinks on the go or when he’s DJing in Berlin.”

Abloh, who sat with Chen and Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom at the Met Gala last month — along with Kendall Jenner, Kim Kardashian West, Bella Hadid and other big names — called Chen a “visionary” who has helped bridge the gap between fashion and tech. “Eva has always looked out for me as a designer and connected me with individuals that [help me] expand beyond my own ideas,” he said.

Much of Chen’s work is centered around coaching creative talent on Instagram strategies. “There’s no one right way to use it. But we know that millions of people come here to be inspired. They don’t want to see images shot against a white background,” she said.

Coming from the editorial world, Chen said she understands why designers pore over the images they put out. “They’re asking, ‘Should I do number 642 or 643?’ And the difference is one flick of hair on the face. But the average 20-year-old girl doesn’t want that kind of perfection. She wants to connect with the product on an emotional level.”

For Chen, who is a judge for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition, boosting rising stars is the most rewarding part of her job — and she encourages the industry to do more to promote up-and-comers. “It’s important to shine a light on them and for retailers to get behind them. Fashion is about excitement and newness.

Eva Chen
Eva Chen at the Instagram and Facebook headquarters in Manhattan.
CREDIT: Annie Tritt

When you see someone like Aurora James or Chromat’s Becca McCharen, help them,” she said. “That can start earlier, too. Give an ear to someone who’s 18 and wants to become a designer. I do informational interviews with almost anyone. Even if it’s just 15 minutes and I never hear from them again, helping young people is important to me.”

James, for one, has relied on both Chen’s support and Instagram’s reach as she builds her Brother Vellies brand.

“Eva made Instagram more familial. People are so fickle with time investments, and knowing that Eva is the fairy godmother of Instagram gives me less anxiety about pouring so much into it,” James explained.

The designer also continues to manage the @brothervellies account personally. “Instagram is the largest driver of traffic to our website. It has allowed me to bring the brand to life in a way that other designers haven’t had the opportunity to do in the past,” James said.

She has also used her personal handle to raise awareness of the causes she’s passionate about.

“It’s great to see how people use it for good and change,” Chen said. “On a personal level, I believe if you have a platform and opportunity, you have a responsibility to use your influence. It doesn’t have to be for a political party. It can be for animal rights, the environment or children. It’s important that people have an opinion.”

The longtime influencer, who counted 900,000 followers as of last Wednesday, has used her clout to emphasize the importance of strengthening diversity in the fashion industry. “The talent we have is exciting, but it’s taken a long time to get to that point,” she said.

Chen said it’s crucial for companies to focus on shifting workplace culture — from the bottom up. “The most important thing is [bringing in] people with diverse perspectives, not just in senior positions but also in junior ones. Every time you hire a candidate, ask yourself whether you interviewed someone that didn’t look like you or didn’t go to a school like you,” she said, though she stressed tokenism is not the answer. “It’s not about one person; it’s about the multitude. When those people who are hired on a more junior level become more senior, that’s when it becomes real.”

Instagram itself has also kept the issue at the forefront, Chen observed. “If you cast a show that has just one type of model or have exclusionist kind of policies about anything, that’s going to get called out,” she said. There’s no question that some of the most intense — and meaningful — conversations on social media have centered around the #MeToo movement.

“Cameron Russell and all the brave models who spoke out used Instagram to share,” Chen said. “When you hear all those voices banded together pushing for change, it gives you hope that things can be different.”

While #MeToo has empowered many women to find their voices, it’s just one of many hot topics that have fueled toxic dialogue online. That’s why the Instagram crew, which has a dedicated “well-being” team to promote positivity, has spent considerable time and resources putting initiatives in place to make it clear that it won’t tolerate harassment.

In May, it introduced an anti-bullying tool that filters comments intended to harass or upset people. Last year, a program was rolled out that allows users to hide offensive comments and keywords of their choosing. For example, Chen said, a model who might be ridiculed for being too thin could choose to filter out “diet,” “anorexic,” “skinny” or whatever words make her feel uncomfortable.

“There’s a lot of negativity in the world. Fashion has never not been a negative place. Let’s be real — it’s a stereotype, and it’s not everyone — but there’s a reason why the fashion editors are always the grouchy ones in movies,” Chen said candidly. “For me, celebrating the positive is important. If you use your voice to help others instead of taking people down, it has a far wider ripple effect.”

Chen, whose parents hail from China and Taiwan, regularly advocates for the people she believes in, both on the grid and through her Instagram stories. Fans also relate to her countless posts portraying her frenetic life as a working mom. In one 24-hour period recently, she captured everything from her Met Gala glam prep (“I wasn’t the only one who posted my facial”) to the morning after, when she got up to pack Ren’s lunch (a task she shares every day on Stories) and take her to school after three hours of sleep.

A few weeks later, she chronicled her first trip to Berlin, juxtaposing #ootd posts (featuring shoes ranging from strappy Manolo Blahnik sandals to Louis Vuitton sneakers) with videos of her FaceTiming husband Tom and the kids at home.

As she navigates it all, Chen continues to seek the advice of her most important mentor, her mom — who, along with Chen’s dad, makes reluctant appearances in many of her daughter’s posts.

“My mom was a working mother. Seeing her [do so much] to give my brother and me opportunities, and balance motherhood and be present for me, was really inspiring,” Chen said. Now she’s determined to propel her children and the next generation of leaders.

“The pipeline is going to be bigger, bolder, brighter and more colorful — more reflective of all different experiences,” she said.

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