Living the meme: how Kim Kardashian broke the internet – and transformed fashion

At next week’s People’s Choice Awards, Kim Kardashian will receive the fashion icon award for “single-handedly transforming the fashion industry through her innovative designs and trend-setting style over the past decade”. Her critics might argue that she has achieved this through high-level media manipulation, but there is no denying that she deserves recognition for making fashion a conversation topic again.

Kardashian has captured the viral nature of the internet “moment” and bottled it. Like her body and the tabloid engine that follows her and her sisters, fashion has become another prop to ensnare eyeballs on multiple devices.

Her ability to do this began in 2014 when she appeared on the cover of Paper magazine, the same year she wed Kanye West (who would go on to play a sort of stylistic Henry Higgins figure to her Eliza Doolittle). The cover with Grace Jones collaborator Jean Paul Goude was a masterclass in “internet breaking”. It showed her in a black couture dress, balancing a champagne glass bubbling over with fizz on her bottom (which has become her USP). Going forward, these photo-ops became mini mission statements. Here she was using fashion to titillate the tabloid mentality, spark controversy and let us know she was in on the joke (the coverline of the magazine was literally: ‘Break The Internet’. And it did).

It is a tactic she has gone on to use repeatedly, picking clothes fresh off the runway (or even pre-season) to conjure up this magic. This year at the Met Gala, her Balenciaga full-body covering outfit had multiple interpretations: a nod to the fetish fashion revival, a reference to West’s Donda album and a moment dripping with comedic potential that was made to be memed. Kardashian has been expertly schooled in the world of virality, thanks to her mother Kris and close friend Paris Hilton, who know how to find opportunity in even the most inopportune moments.

There is, egter, a darker side to this attention-grabbing. Called out many times for blackfishing, whether for over-tanning, cultural appropriation of hairstyles of words, she doesn’t seem to have learned from these missteps. Hopefully, op 'n sekere punt, she will.

In July this year, I wrote about how memes have become essential to the conversations around fashion – and in the case of Balenciaga and Moschino, literally woven into the fabric of it. All too often on the red carpet, or at a “private” moment captured by the paparazzi, Kardashian is at the centre of these conversations, disrupting style norms, een unexpected fabric or weird accessory at a time.

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