There are a few things that have thrived in lockdown. Sourdough starters, banana bread and independent fashion to name a few.
With brands like Molby, a slow-fashion label started in lockdown, selling out collections in six minutes, the rise of slow and vintage style on Instagram has been unprecedented – and for good reason. More and more of us are keen to invest in smaller brands that are kinder to the planet and to employees. That they’re largely female-founded and also make fun, interesting clothes that last longer than a Boohoo trend makes these firms especially desirable, their being a little under-the-radar only serving to lend extra cachet.
But in using Instagram and TikTok as their primary platform, social media has become essential for these smaller brands’ successes. And what happens if that platform disappears overnight?
“I was just about to go to bed and I saw a message from Instagram to say I’d breached copyright on my account,” explains Ciara Booyens, owner of slow-fashion label Benjamin Fox. “I clicked the link, filled out the report and thought ‘thank god I saw that before I went to bed’. It was just after that I realised I couldn’t get back into my account.”
Losing access to a platform is no small inconvenience for businesses such as Booyens’, which has become well known on Instagram for its bloomy collars and delicate prints, created from high-quality sustainable fabrics. “I stayed awake the whole night just seized by panic,” she admits. “I know how reliant I am on Instagram for my orders and I remember how hard I’d worked to grow the account in the first place. All could think was, I just can’t do that all over again.”
On February 28, as Booyens contacted Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, to try and regain control of her 6,000 follower account, she had no idea that Gwynnie Burrows, owner of vintage brand A Curated Life, had received the same message.
“I was getting ready for an online market when I received the message about copyright,” Burrows sighs. “When I was locked out, my first thought was that I had logged in wrong – that it was something I’d missed. But then, I started receiving email after email in Turkish and I realised that I’d been hacked. Luckily, Emily over at A Virtual Vintage Market really kept calm. Within fifteen minutes, we’d set up a new account and the market went ahead.”
For Burrows, it was a happy ending – she managed to regain control of her account. But, for Booyens, the worst was yet to come. “The hacker sent me a WhatsApp asking if I wanted to get back into my account,” she explains. “Basically, if I wanted my account back, it was $200. I also started to discover that I wasn’t the only one that had been targeted.”
Siobhan Mckenna had just completed her first fashion film with her business, ReJean, a zero-waste denim brand, and was flying high on the back of the project until she too found that her account had been hacked. “I’d done my research, so I knew that the ransom note was next. But Instagram didn’t give a shit. I reported it, but I ended up having to make a completely new account.”
McKenna’s replacement grid gained almost 1,000 followers in a day, while Booyens’ new account is now above 5,000. “We all rely heavily on Instagram for our sales,” McKenna says, ”so, that Tuesday, I had my down day. Then I figured I just needed to get on with it. I messaged everyone asking them to put the word out there.”
This rapid growth, both women agree, has been down to the Instagram makers community. “These other girls didn’t see me as a competitor at that point,” McKenna smiles. “They just saw me as another maker. I had so many small brands share my story that I’m just really grateful.”
Nonetheless, McKenna admits she’s been shaken by the breach, not least because “it feels really misogynistic, you know? These are almost entirely female-led brands that have been targeted. They know that we rely heavily on Instagram for our businesses and it just feels very violating. I just thought I’m not giving you a single penny.”
But what about the women who paid up to get their account back? Lia Briamonte, the creative director of Anemone Interiors, had built a following of nearly 11,000 on the business’ Instagram account by the time she was hacked. “I decided that I was going to befriend the hacker,” she says now. “I started speaking to him about what he was doing and I discovered that hacking allowed him to support his entire family. He’s only seventeen.”
Briamonte knew how valuable her Instagram account was to her business and realised the only way she could get it back was to pay up. “I said to him that I’d pay him half now, and pay the other half once I had my account back. And I did just that.”
Since then, Briamonte admits she’s invested more in other areas of her business, such as her website and mailing list, explaining “Right now, 90 per cent of my business comes through Instagram, you know? If they decided to shut it down tomorrow, I’d be really stuck.”
And what about the hacker? “I got my account back and I said to him, ‘I’ll hire you to help me. Tell me what you can do!’ Do you know what he said?,” she says incredulously. “He said ‘I’ll delete all your competition!’ It was at that point I just said, ‘no, thank you and good luck’.”
Today, each of these women is now building back with the help and support of the small business community. Yet Instagram, they all say, offered little support when the chips were down. Without the company behind them, all of those involved agree that they’ve learned the same very valuable lesson: “Get a verification app and remember – Instagram will never contact you by DM.”
That’s never. So, the next time you see a message suggesting you’ve breached copyright or are in some other way about to lose your Instagram account, report, block, and whatever you do, never send private information through the messaging channel.