Young social media platforms are like the Wild West. Before all the sponsored hashtags, brand accounts and the inevitable testimony in front of a senate committee, there is a wonderful period in which the next big app finds its voice. Like when we used to poke strangers on Facebook, and when we really did tell people ‘what’s happening?’ no matter how anaemic our business really was (‘had cornflakes for breakfast i really hate them xx got tennis at three’ April 2007, 9.11am). TikTok, the video short smorgasbord first launched in 2016, is arguably still enjoying that period as its largely Gen Z userbase works out what it wants to be: dancers, box room activists, thirst trap poachers, or, in a few notable instances, his ‘n’ hers fashion accounts, like those of Nelson Tiberghien and Isabelle Chaput, aka the Young Emperors.
“We met at photography school eight years ago now,” says Tiberghien, Zooming in from Paris. They look at ease, bathed in natural light that accentuates all their best angles (of which there are many, being young and French and all). They wear marbled sweatshirts from designer Collina Strada. They’re both matching.
“Eight?” says Chaput, squinting, a little unsure.
“Seven, eight, something like that. We met at school and we weren’t a couple at first. We then became friends, we started working together as fashion photographers, then we got together.”
“Yeah, we did our duo style of photography and right away, we started matching outfits. When we did that, it was sort of a full commitment to this entity that became a duo: we became a team, in love, in life and in work,” says Chaput. “So this was an extension of that. It was sort of a commitment to a live performance.”
That the Young Emperors have accrued 2.7 million likes on TikTok (and almost 240,000 Instagram followers) shows that this relationship is working. In one memorable video, the pair take to a New York rooftop, then serenade one another with a song from Seventies French pop group Il Etait Une Fois, while wielding monochromatic Gattaca-like tote bags from South Korean label Find Kapoor. This strain of maximalist photoshoot-cum-asburdist comedy sketch is incredibly European. It is also oddly amusing.
The pair says that these videos can take anything from half a day to an entire week to create, although ideas come thick and fast. “We might particularly love a designer that we find on social media, and we just want to feature nice clothes and fun clothes,” says Chaput. “We might see a movie and think we can do this vibe or this wave, or even a painting. When we think of an idea, we don’t think of how hard it’ll be to make it. We just make it happen.”
If it all looks more professional than your average TikTok shoot, well, the Young Emperors are photographers by trade (they've recently worked with Hermès watches, and appeared on The Drew Barrymore Show and in the pages of the Wall Street Journal). Chaput admits, however, that their take on his ‘n’ hers dressing isn’t new: “It’s not something that never existed before, right? It’s not a revolutionary thing, and it definitely came from Asia.”
In South Korea, where there are national holidays devoted to romance almost every month, matching up means more than a shared Tinder swipe. It means becoming your partner. Young South Koreans have taken to coordinating T-shirts, colours or even specially designed outfits as a declaration of their commitment to one another; the idea that a romantic pairing truly is one of two halves, and a badge of honour, according to one South Korean office worker, who told the South China Morning Post in 2013 “that we can show off that we are a couple, not one of those lonely singles.”
In an age of TikTok and Instagram, the art of his ‘n’ hers has mushroomed to multiple nationalities, and generations that precede Gen Z. Bon and Pon (825,000 Instagram followers) are an elderly Japanese couple who do typical old person things, like get their photos taken next to statues of nice dogs. But they do so in quite untypical clothes, like sapphire-hued chambray smocks, and Breton stripes in contrasting shades of red and blue, and matching chunky Fair Isle knits. It doesn’t feel particularly try-hard, and Bon and Pon’s popularity isn’t of the same shock value that’s gleaned from older people having fun with fashion. They look comfortable, and they wear coordinating get-ups. On these shores, the City Natives are ex-Londoners who’ve just set sail on their own Instavoyage, loafing around their new coastal home like Studio 54 doppelgängers who've swapped vinyl for exposed brick.
It’s a foil to the gushing blight of #couplesgoals; an idyll that is seemingly shot on a permanent setbuild of The Notebook as boy tweets girls and love is found and a sad little dog is tossed around like a beachball. Today’s his ‘n’ hers exhibitionists are just as curated, but they’re usually creating something we haven’t seen before, and towards something that feels more authentic than simple bragging rights. And, though naysayers thrive on the internet, Chaput admits that they’ve come under very little fire: “From our own experience, we’ve not had that many negative interactions. I can’t talk about others, I don’t know.”
Perhaps it’s because his ‘n’ hers dressing has denaffed itself in recent years. In 1999, the Beckhams were widely pilloried for arriving at a Versace event in twin leathers; two trainee gimps with too much gel and not enough self-assessment (“what were we thinking?” an exasperated Mr Beckham said to People magazine in 2015). Katie Price and ex-husband Peter Andre cosplayed as matrimonial Mr Kipling french fancies to their own wedding in 2015. And though Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears’ iconic double-denim is a throwback to happier times before we realised just how unhappy these celebrities were, it is still a not universally adored move.
Where the pre-social media era of celebrity played exclusively to the demands of a ravenous tabloid, digitally gestated celebrities eschew that sort of fame entirely. These outfits comprise the full body of their work, not the by-product of another career. They’ve had a chance to hone these skills. Chaput considers this art in and of itself. “Social media is like any other form of art, it’s a medium. And we want to travel through those mediums.” It’s hard to argue that with two statuesque Parisians as they pose in Fendi against the very photogenic backdrop of a Haussmanian block in the 4th arrondissement.
These clothes aren’t unassuming either, and the Young Emperors, like their contemporaries, take risks. It’s a selling point for their followers. Sally Clegg, a 25-year-old science professional in London, has double-tapped the pair for the last couple of years. “I love that they represent both women and men that have an interest in fashion,” she says. “In particular, it’s cool how they go against traditional masculine fashion ideals across a lot of their content.”
Tiberghien is indeed often pictured in skirts, or in clothing that is not traditional menswear – something that has only happened because of this partnership. He is glad of that, and as TikTok cements its place within the social media landscape, it seems as though Tiberghien has realised his. “Now that I’m with someone, there’s someone behind me, to back me up y’know. If I’m wearing a dress outside, I feel strong because we are together,” he says. “In France, the culture is so strong that people might give you a bad look if they see you in these clothes or whatever. But it’s changing, and [Isabelle] pushes me to accept who we are, and who I am as a person.”
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