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. Street style can be cheap, weird, out-of-season, weather-inappropriate, subversive, scandalous, your mum’s woolly jumper with your dad’s old brogues. Anything goes. You’re entering a model-free zone.
Or are you?
In a revealing feature in yesterday’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 could call it “street-style for hire” or “blogger-modelling”. In essence it’s a clever little trick that involves paying “ordinary” women to casually rock-up to an event wearing your label in the hopes that they’ll a) be photographed by an influential style blogger who will then promote the look to their thousands of followers, or b) said “ordinary woman” is actually already an influential style blogger will post photographs of herself in the garment, hence promoting the look to thousands of their 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.”
Brands often work with bloggers to style, direct, and oversee these “on-the-street” 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 often heaped on these internet icons, 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 no new 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 steadily join the ranks in the catwalk front row or at high-profile events – cashing in while they’re at it (fashion blogger Bryan Boy reportedly earned $100,000 in 2010).
And 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 accessibly 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. Internet darlings strolling in designer duds is an easy route to innumerable eager listeners, all the while retaining that coveted sense of effortless, free will, spontaneity and choice. Absent of false accoutrements of luxury and half-starved models, perhaps designers feel such images retain a sense of integrity, even normality.
We can trust that brands are happy to sell-out, but just how much integrity should such bloggers feel obligated to retain? Once you’ve made it “big” in the fashion world, is it fair to say you’ve left your readers behind? Is street style destined to be smothered by self interest?
La Ferla’s piece raises this, and other interesting points, in a moment when fashion, the internet, reality and unreality all continue to dance around each other in an ever more tangled, frenetic tango. It’s thought-provoking, if somewhat unsurprising news, the sort that makes one sigh and hang ones head to one side. Is nothing sacred? It seems not.