NEW YORK – Today, fashion marketing falls into DMs. In fall 2020, 25-year-old Singaporean designer Grace Ling embarked on an Instagram direct messaging spree to promote her new womenswear brand, which combines traditional craftsmanship with zero-waste 3D printing techniques. She eventually slipped into the DMs of 26-year-old Brooklyn resident Albert Ayal, whose Instagram account @upnextdesigner posted an image of her sharp, futuristic couture with the caption: “Designer: Grace Ling. From New York.”
What happened next changed the course of his business.
“I was freaking out because I almost felt like I was living some kind of night [success]says Ling. “My inbox was flooded, and it was just quality requests [for my work], like A-list celebrity stylists, A-list people, et cetera. Ling, who had emptied her savings account to fund her label, credits the position with getting celebrities like Karlie Kloss and Jennifer Lopez to wear her designs on the red carpet and press tours, giving her the the kind of visibility that generated enough orders — from department stores and through his e-commerce site — to allow him to hire a full-time employee and move the brand’s operations out of his apartment.
What Ling experienced was dubbed the “Up Next effect” by other designers who also saw an immediate impact by being featured on @upnextdesigner. The account, also known as UND, has sparked orders from retailers like Selfridges, Net-a-Porter and Ssense and is a favorite of powerhouse stylists like Law Roach, Kollin Carter and Chloe and Chenelle Delgadillo, who created designs featured on her feed for high-powered clients like Zendaya, Cardi B, and Rosalía.
“I’m always looking for the next and the new,” says Roach. “He made the world seem smaller. I can go through the list of things he’s posted and it’s so much easier to find inspiration.
But Ayal is more than a conservative. It is also a link between emerging brands and powerful players in the industry. “The account is like a catalyst for a lot of things, for a lot of opportunities, and it leads to a lot of doors,” says Terrence Zhou, who saw an increase in industry followers after UND released one of her nifty dresses.
Ayal sees herself as supporting young creators. “People might give up. People might want to go into a different industry because they don’t have anyone on their side,” he says. “You never know what it might do for someone, even if you’re just there for them.”
Three years ago, Ayal, who is also a freelance fashion journalist, envisioned what became UND as he lay in bed at 3 a.m. in his bedroom in Gravesend, Brooklyn, a stone’s throw from Coney Island. “At first, I was just doing it for myself,” he says. He was looking for the next great designer to represent and “it was a mood board for me”.
Her early posts featured commercial pieces like an evening dress from designers like Swiss-Lebanese designer Sandra Mansour or a shell bag from Cult Gaia. But as he researched, he veered towards more elaborate works like Zhou’s Yves Klein blue balloon dress, Ichiro Suzuki’s tailored melting jackets, or Georgios’ bias-cut shimmering mesh dresses. Trochopoulos. He kept his captions simple, however, noting only the label name and provenance.
As his stream grew, so did his follower. When Kylie Jenner started following, in July 2020, when the account still had just 5,000 fans, Ayal knew he was onto something special. A few months later, J Balvin, Kaia Gerber, Bella Hadid, stylists like Roach, editors of vogue and shoppers from retailers like Ssense, Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi began to follow.
Lisa Ruffle, Moda Operandi’s Divisional Merchandising Manager, is always looking at various sources such as mainstream media, celebrities and influencers to determine if she’s embracing a new brand. But, she says, Instagram is the “ultimate source for finding new, emerging talent” and calls UND “a modern showroom.”
“After he blows you up, he also helps you deal with it.”
Once a low-key account for insiders, @upnextdesigner now has 136,000 followers. In 2021, his earned media value increased more than 20 times, from $24,438 to $544,582, according to social media company Tribe Dynamics. In September of that year, UND was tapped by Instagram to broadcast from the Met Gala alongside influential fashion accounts like @hautelemode and @ideservecouture. Three months ago, Ayal appeared on NBC’s “Today” show, one of the most-watched morning shows in America.
UND’s influence has grown so much that young designers like Danielle Guizio – whose clothes are worn by the Hadid sisters, Kardashian and Jenner – choose to launch collections on its feed instead of working with traditional fashion magazines.
“Nowadays you’re more likely to be on Instagram than reading articles,” Guizio says. And because UND audiences are always looking for something new, “it’s an effective format.”
“I think it would be great to do a nice editorial and get a nice image, but ultimately we need conversion to sustain the business,” Ling says. “It triggers a ripple effect by increasing both brand awareness and revenue.”
But while curating young designers isn’t a particularly unique proposition on Instagram, Ayal’s magic isn’t just what you see on her grid. Still working on one of his two iPhones, he helped designers with everything from finding jobs to managing production in Italy. And many of those he has advised say he is remarkably approachable and generous with his time.
“He’s very easy to reach, which people in the industry usually aren’t, myself included,” says Trochopoulos, who credits Ayal for connecting him with Kendall Jenner’s stylist. , Daniel Michelle. “After he blows you up, he also helps you deal with it, which is incredibly nice,” adds Ling, who turns to Ayal for guidance, not just exposure.
“UND’s success is due to Albert himself,” says Guizio. “He’s like a walking contact book. He is so generous and caring and so willing to help anyone in general.
This success has yet to generate significant income for Ayal. But he has explored retail partnerships, including hosting pop-up shops. Later this year, UND plans to launch capsule collections with some of the talent it has featured on its feed.
As the UND experiments with revenue models, there is one thing Ayal is sure he won’t do. “I would never want to take money from a designer who is struggling and trying to get their name out there. The only thing I want to do is help them get the resources they need and connect them with the people they need to take them to the next stage of their career. I just want to see them grow.