Kevin Systrom stretched a long arm across the dinner table and reached for the mobile phone of Catherine Deneuve.
The iconic French actress, sitting beside the host of the evening, Jean Paul Gaultier, was being persuaded by her friend Farida Khelfa to sign up to Instagram.
And Systrom, the 31-year-old billionaire co-founder of the photo-sharing app, wasn’t going to keep her waiting. And voila! The sign-up instantly succeeded. Madame Deneuve could be responding to your posts now!
Last year it was Apple’s Jonathan Ive who wooed the fashion folk, with the new Apple Watch. This time, it is the turn of Systrom, the CEO of the four-and-a-half-year-old phenomenon that is Instagram — whose number of active users has grown from 200 million to 300 million since a year ago.
The $1 billion Facebook paid to acquire Instagram in 2012, and the income the app might earn from its expansion into advertising, puts Systrom in a commanding position. And he is making the most of it.
“We find value in keeping things simple,’’ said Systrom, who had been viewing Paris like any tourist — except he had been able to take a selfie not just at the Eiffel Tower, but also in the sacred rooms of Coco Chanel on the Rue Cambon.
And he had a post-dinner appointment with Karl Lagerfeld himself, during the designer’s all-night photoshoot.
Why fashion? Why now?
The reasons Systrom gave me and the other guests at the table did not offer many clues.
“People are going to ask me, why does Instagram care about the fashion world?” he said, before going on to list the values that the company holds dear.
“Our first value is community. 70 per cent of users are outside the United States, so I have left San Francisco to visit our community,” he said, adding that his team had voted for him to start his European adventure in Paris.
“The second value is creativity,” the young executive continued. “We are not a photography company. Whether it is fashion or science, we inspire people to tell their stories.”
Systrom’s decision to visit Europe now must surely be connected to Instagram’s new policy to accept advertising — something that is already established in America, has just started in the UK, and is destined shortly for France. He said that in an aim to keep Instagram upscale, luxury advertising would be ideal.
“We try to keep ads as high level as possible,’’ he told me. “Honestly, we model a lot of what we do on Vogue — and we say that if we can keep what we are doing as high quality, and fitting with the content, then we are good.”
So what is his perspective on fashion in a world of speedy internet access and apps?
“Fashion is becoming more seen and accessible through Instagram,” said Systrom. “People will see a look on the runway and expect to buy it a few weeks later. Houses like Chanel have told us they are having trouble, because there is such a small gap between getting it out there and massive consumer exposure.”
He explained to me that the Instagram success of the American brand Public School proved that this digital route could be a viable way to establish a fashion name.
Yet it seems that fashion for Systrom is not only a business opportunity. It is also personal.
“I was in L’Uomo Vogue once — I got to wear a white, tight-fitting shirt,” said the digital crown prince, although he declined to show me an Instagram of his modelling moment, and was occupied more with the colourful and artistic dishes dreamed up by Michelin-star chef Jean Imbert.
“I like men’s fashion,” Systrom continued. “Kiton is one of my favourite brands — I like sartorial things, handmade, manual. And I love tailoring. These are the types of things that inspire me.”
Although he has not yet been to Naples, Systrom orders handmade shirts from Kiton, and wore a tux from that company to the Oscars, which he attended with his partner Nicole Schuetz.
“I love Italian fashion for men, not metrosexual, something manly with a rugged feel,” he claimed, citing Brunello Cucinelli as a favourite, along with Brioni (“I love their suits — they fit like a glove”) and Ermenegildo Zegna, especially for sporty wear. (Apropos, he and his fiancée had done their daily run around the Eiffel Tower, with Instagram pics to prove it.)
Gaultier, a digital refusnik, had arranged the room with a gauze of white voile and elements of his couture collections — which will go on display for the touring retrospective of his work, on its tenth stop, at the Grand Palais, from April. The rest of our table was filled with performing artists, such as Arielle Dombasle, and tech experts.
What are Systrom’s aims and dreams for Instagram? To keep expanding, it seems, to reach more and more people. He says that outside of the 30 per cent of users in the US, strong areas are Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico and Russia. In Asia, the app is a government no-no in China, but is already strong in Thailand and Vietnam, with South Korea and Japan on the rise.
After Europe, it looks like Systrom, with just 200 employees in California, is going to have plenty more members of the ever-growing Instagram community to visit.