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Street Style: The people's fashion or a billboard for brands?

Style bloggers at New York Fashion week reportedly paid “$10,000 for a single appearance".

New Statesman
Street style snaps: a tassled Versace skirt at New York Fashion Week (PHOTO: Jenna Marie Wakani)

Street style has long been a matter of public fascination. Its spontaneous, quirky, un-laquered aura feels refreshingly removed from the inscrutable perfection of magazine campaigns or the tightly-wound peacocking of the catwalk. Street style is a lawless state where the only rule is: make it work. Anything goes; you’re entering a model-free zone.

Or are you?

In a revealing feature in Wednesday’s New York Times, Ruth la Ferla turned the spotlight on a trend that - while not new - has become a near ubiquitous marketing scheme at large-scale events like this month’s New York Fashion Week. We can call it “street-style for hire”, or even “blogger-modelling”. In essence it’s a clever little trick that involves paying “ordinary” women to casually turn up to an event wearing your label in the hopes that they’ll be photographed by an influential style blogger who will then promote the look to their thousands of followers. In some cases, said “ordinary woman” is already an influential style blogger, and will post photographs of herself in the garment, hence promoting the look to their thousands of followers.

What was once a “quasi-covert” operation now seems to take place unabashed and in broad daylight. La Ferla recounts scenes outside Milk Studios in Manhattan, a popular site for posing before heading in to the fashion week shows:

...scores of fashion hopefuls, mostly female, mostly young, preened for the cameras, apparently vying for their 15 seconds of fame on Instagram, Tumblr or one of the dozens of fashion blogs proliferating on the Web.

Today many of them are Web icons, trotting out their finery for scores of fans. But what they are parading as street style — once fashion’s last stronghold of true indie spirit — has lately been breached, infiltrated by tides of marketers, branding consultants and public relations gurus, all intent on persuading those women to step out in their wares.”

Such "branding consultants" often work with bloggers to style, direct, and oversee these "on-the-street", "spur of the moment" shoots. She continues:

Seeding new or long-established designer labels into the street style mix “is a new way of doing PR,” said Daniel Saynt, a partner in a year-old agency that negotiates deals between brands and tastemakers. “We watch for the people most likely to be photographed outside the shows,” Mr. Saynt said. “Our job is to make sure they have on the right products at the right time...Few people realize that certain bloggers and seemingly random posers are modeling for a fee…But even those who are aware don’t always understand the degree to which we orchestrate these placements.

[...]

At times even the most casual-looking snaps boast the production values of a full-scale magazine shoot. “We use stylists, we do color correction and Photoshopping, we scout locations every day,” Ms. Robinovitz [founder and creative head of Digital Brand Architects] said. “It often takes hours just to find the perfect street corner.”

 

La Ferla goes on to raise the extortionate pay-out price heaped on the internet darlings, often thousands of dollars per event:

Branding consultants estimate that popular bloggers and other so-called influencers can earn $2,000 to $10,000 for a single appearance in their wares. More typically, though, “If you give them a gift card of $1,000 and you pay their expenses, that’s a good quid pro quo,” Tom Julian [a fashion branding specialist in New York City] said.

“These girls are definitely billboards for the brands,” said Mr. Julian, one of a handful engaged in a particularly stealthy new form of product placement. “People still think street style is a voice of purity,” Mr. Julian said. “But I don’t think purity exists any more.”

Tapping into our collective yearning for fashion with a more attainable edge, it’s certainly not news that fashion blogs have ridden the social networking boom to glorious heights. Where once sat an exclusive cluster of editors, models and industry big-wigs, home-grown fashionistas now readily join the ranks in the catwalk front row – and cashing in while they’re at it (Bryan Boy once famously bragged he earned $100,000 in 2010 alone).

And why not? Power to them. Blogging is by nature a self-starter industry, busting open rigid, outmoded structures within the fashion industry. It’s a medium that’s put ordinary consumers and amateur enthusiasts in a powerful position.

Many of these “personality” style-bloggers religiously document their daily wares, offering a vision of what “real” women wear. There’s thousands out there to choose from, but it’s worth noting how the most successful (Style Bubble, Tavi Gevinson, Atlantic-Pacific and Karla’s Closet to name a few) tend to retain a sense of authenticity, no matter how slick the outfits get. There’s a sense of an accessible personality, something sorely lacking in the world of high fashion. Ironically, it’s exactly the air of “naturalism” which popularized blogging in the first place that brands are itching to co-opt.

But just how much integrity should bloggers themselves feel obligated to retain? Once you’ve made it “big” in the fashion world, is it fair to say you’ve inherently left your readers behind? Is street style destined to be smothered by self interest?