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How influencer-approved Wildflower iPhone cases came to dominate Instagram

Discovered by Miley Cyrus, beloved by celebrities and teens alike, these aren't your average phone cases.

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Wildflower is a family business.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Butterflies or plaid? Leopard print or flames? Cherries or angels or tie-dye or puppies? These might not be questions you ask yourself most days, but for teen girls everywhere, they can be topics of real concern when you're about to drop $35 on an iPhone case from Wildflower, a Los Angeles-based company born out of a chance encounter with singer Miley Cyrus.

On Wildflower's official Instagram page, pictures of teen models, professional and amateur, are interspersed with celebrities, all clutching hold of their iPhones with acrylic nails in endless mirror-selfies.

YouTube is flooded with videos of Wildflower case unboxings, reviews or girls simply talking through their case collections. Meanwhile on Amazon, parents leave reviews, sometimes niggling over the price but ultimately saying their daughters are thrilled with their cases, which are all the rage at school right now.

From middle schoolers to celebrities, a Wildflower case is a status symbol and the perfect Instagram-friendly accessory to be sporting at all times.  But don't let what may sound like a lot of hype lead you to believe their popularity is transient. Wildflower cases are no flash in the pan. 

In fact, the company has been growing steadily since 2012, when the Carlson family (mum Michelle, dad Dave and teenagers Devon and Sydney) bumped into Miley Cyrus in an LA restaurant and their lives changed forever.

At the time, Michelle made phone cases by hand for her daughters, which Cyrus spotted when the girls stopped to take a photo with her. She complimented Michelle on the designs and told her she should start selling them. Sydney and Devon gladly handed over the first cases Michelle had made to the first ever Wildflower fan.

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Sisters Devon and Sydney Carlson.

Elias Tahan

Things escalated quickly. On the way home from the restaurant in the car, Devon's phone started blowing up. Cyrus had tagged her in a tweet with a picture of the cases, and people wanted to know where they could buy them.

"I remember all of us asking, should we create a business because Miley said we should, or should we just pass?" Dave Carlson tells me over the phone from the Wildflower warehouse in LA. Together, they decided to go for it, and from that very first day, they haven't looked back. They stayed up until 5 a.m. that night to get the Wildflower website up and running, and the orders began rolling in.

At first, the family continued making the cases at home out of fabric, clear plastic shells and decorative studs. They roped in friends and family to help, but it quickly got to the point where their "fingers were literally cracked peeling and bleeding," says Dave. Next he found a company locally to fulfill the orders, before outsourcing them to a facility in Mexico. Now the cases are made by a team of people in a factory in Shenzhen, China, who he describes as being "like family to us."

How to win friends and influencers

The company has grown largely organically on a fairly smooth upward trajectory from the beginning. But aside from the fortuitous Miley Cyrus encounter, Dave recalls one other "critical moment" when Wildflower experienced a huge boost. He noticed the site was getting a significant amount of traffic from YouTube. When he investigated, he discovered that a beauty vlogger called Maddi Bragg had been buying and reviewing Wildflower cases and posting videos on her channel.

It was a turning point. The YouTuber quickly developed a friendship with Devon and Sydney, and in 2015 proposed what would be the first of Wildflower's many influencer collaborations. "We have collaborations lined up through the end of this year," says Dave. "It's now just become part of our DNA."

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A Wildflower design favored by singer Lana Del Rey.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Big brands famously court the web's biggest influencers. But while they're armed with well-funded marketing departments, smaller firms like Wildflower have to use more-personal connections. For the Carlsons, the relationships they have with collaborators nearly always emerge as a result of Sydney and Devon's friendship network. These days, many influencers approach the company with their own ideas for designs.

As a result, over the past few years Wildflower has partnered with some of the internet's most influential young women, including model Bella Hadid and YouTubers Tana Mongeau and Hannah Meloche. Perhaps none has had quite the same impact, though, as the collaboration with 18-year-old YouTuber Emma Chamberlain, whom Time included on its 2019 list of the 25 most influential people on the internet, alongside the duke and duchess of Sussex, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump.

"Her first collab was two years ago maybe, and her case just keeps selling and selling," says Carlson. "It's been a very successful one and she already wants to do a new design, so we're probably going to be doing another collab with her."

Chamberlain's design continues to make regular appearances in her own Instagram mirror selfies, and there's a sense that for influencers, the relationship with the company is authentic in a way that paid-per-post collaborations with other brands often aren't.

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heres selfie and im gonna regret it

A post shared by ☆ emma chamberlain ☆ (@emmachamberlain) on

Since day one, Cyrus has continued to support Wildflower, and the cases have also been spotted adorning the phone of many a pop girl (Dua Lipa, Halsey and Lana Del Rey are all fans). Last year they were even featured on HBO's dark teen drama of the moment, Euphoria.

In spite of the number of famous faces spotted with the cases, Sydney tells me via email that she always feels surprised when she sees them in the wild, regardless of who's carrying them. "Usually when I'm out and about in public and see people with our cases is when I get most excited," she says. "It always catches me off guard and is so rewarding to see people with our phone cases, whoever they are."

Mirror-selfies and niche memes

Having a phone case you can show off is great for making your iPhone stand out when they almost all look the same, but the cases became increasingly important during the rise of the Instagram mirror-selfie of 2017. Around the same time, Wildflower cases started to feature heavily in niche memes -- an Instagram post format that's popular among teen girls and that was described by Taylor Lorenz in a 2017 Daily Beast article as "a unique, hyper-specific collage about the creator."

In the world of Instagram aesthetics, the cases are more than just a status symbol. The frequency with which they feature suggests they're an integral part of Instagram's visual language, with the wide array of design options meaning they can be used to contribute to an equally wide array of aesthetics. Examples include Wildflower's green flame case being featured in a niche meme about being a Billie Eilish fan, or the cherry case (in our header art) being incorporated in a post titled "she always tries impressing her crush."

Wildflower has a curious relationship with meme culture, in that as much as the brand feeds into it, the designs of the cases often also feel deeply inspired by it. "Devon and I are very into the internet world and can definitely say meme culture has influenced our ideas," Sydney says. This feedback loop could well explain the continued popularity of the brand, which over the past eight years has appeared to seamlessly evolve and kept pace with Instagram aesthetics and trends.

It also helps that every single Wildflower case is limited edition, according to Dave. Only a specific number of each design iteration is made, and once they're gone, they're gone. "That mentality has always created a sense of scarcity," he says. "We try to tell everyone, get it while you can. And if Michelle decides to discontinue a style, then it's discontinued and we'll probably move on to the next trend."

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The emoji-inspired cherry is popular in niche memes.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Michelle, who's the company's CEO, still continues to have the final say over designs. She works closely with Devon and Sydney, who have said in their own YouTube videos that they take inspiration from their friends and from fashion trends they observe around LA as well as on Instagram and YouTube. "Our customers have become our muses when designing, and it all comes full circle," Devon recently told Forbes in an interview.

According to 16-year-old Californian model and TikTok star Nicole Sahebi, who's been featured on Wildflower's Instagram page, the biggest appeal of the cases remains the designs, which she says "are perfect to mix and match with different outfits." 

"Coupled with their unique color schemes, each Wildflower case is so beautiful and sleek that I feel the need to have all of them," Sahebi tells me. "And I almost do."

Keeping it in the family

The next year holds some exciting developments for Wildflower, with yet-to-be-announced collaborations branching out beyond the influencer world. Already the company has been working with Urban Outfitters, and more partnerships with household names are yet to be announced. 

Previously there were also efforts to make cases for Samsung Galaxy phones, but this was dropped after they failed to sell in great enough numbers, according to Dave. The company has added Apple Watch bands and laptop clutches to its stable of products, but otherwise it's sticking to the core business of iPhone cases.

"One of the things we've tried just with a company ethos is to just keep things simple," says Dave. This includes keeping the business family-run (there are 23 employees in total now), something he says works well for all of them.

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Once you start spotting them, you'll probably see them everywhere.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

When Wildflower started, Sydney and Devon were still teenagers, answering phones, responding to emails, packing up cases. Now as adults, they're social media manager and brand manager of the company respectively, as well as named co-founders, and they're used to working alongside their parents on a daily basis.

This story, of a business built by a mother-daughter (and father) team, plucked from obscurity by a global superstar after a chance encounter, is the thing that's always propelled the company forward, featuring on every leaflet for every single phone case sold. 

"We love to share the story in the hope that it inspires other young girls -- or anybody, actually -- that wants to pursue something and turn it into a business," says Dave. "I think there are especially a lot of young girls out there that will probably look up to Devon and Sydney and really take a lot away from that."