At the beginning of the year when the world went quiet, behind closed doors multiple industries were falling into chaos. They were scrambling to rethink their business strategies; how to continue when their captive audience became quite literally captive in their own homes, far, far away from the front doors of their stores. One of these industries was fashion retail, which, while still somewhat floundering, was perhaps more well-equipped to deal with the unexpected turn of events than the rest.
Influencing in a pandemic
Already a well-established online industry – the rise and dominance of sites like PrettyLittleThing, Missguided and Boohoo are cases in point, to name just a few – they fell back on a tried and tested advertising strategy: the influencer partnership. A process well-suited to lockdown restrictions, partners could – almost like business-as-usual – easily photograph themselves in their own homes with sponsored products, post a short clip to their Instagram Stories, or even develop a substantial video for Instagram TV. American clothing brand Free People was one of these, quickly employing influencers to post content with the hashtag #FPAtHome, their products reaching a waiting community of fashion lovers.
As Susie Lau, better known as Susie Bubble of the fashion website Style Bubble, noted in an article for the Financial Times, “It’s almost going back to the roots of where fashion blogging or style blogging started, which was in the bedroom,” an era before “the teams, editors, agents, art directors, photographers. It became much more pro.” But not everyone is onboard. Many have expressed discomfort at the idea of pushing sponsored content during a pandemic, and have either paused their partnerships or turned new ones down completely. This stance does not come without a cost, and for some a very literal one. Those influencers who have made what they do their defacto job have found their income streams drying up, and fast, but they still have mortgages to pay.
The rise of Instagram
And this, for me, is where it starts to sour. Before the influencer, it was the fashion blog, but even before that, at the very bottom of the chain, it was the personal style blog. Some of the biggest influencers on social media today – think The Blonde Salad‘s Chiara Ferragni, BryanBoy or Aimee Song of Song of Style – started out this way a decade ago. But then they decided to monetise their ventures, and over the years the small personal style blog would turn into a fully-fledged website with subcatergory upon subcatergory of posts, from homeware to skincare.
Then Instagram exploded and they migrated, realising that their audience were quite lazy by nature and would rather have all their fashion idols in one place rather than traipsing over the internet to visit each blog individually. So, another change occurred. Instead of being front of house for their shiny new websites, they stepped back and allowed a small masthead of staff to produce content for them, moving themselves to Instagram full-time. It’s interesting to note here that whilst a Google search for BryanBoy brings up a modest description of “Filipino blogger”, Chiara Ferragni immediately produces a suggestion which describes her as an “Italian Entrepreneur.”
This left those who had flocked to those original blogs for precisely their personal nature and individual personalities, a little put-out. Their websites had become cool, business-fronted outlets but, on the other hand, their Instagram accounts had become bland in a different way, each profile layout and design identical to every other. The Instagram fashion community has a strangely cyclical nature to it, and there is a constant hovering sense of looking and being looked at it, of the same outfit passing from account to account.
A bygone era?
Long gone, it seems, are the days of waking up, turning on your laptop and going through each personal style blog saved in your Bookmark bar. Gone with it the homespun style of blog post and mirror selfie, long before selfies were a thing. When I think back to those days it’s sites like Tavi Gevinson’s Style Rookie with it’s quirky images of shrines and precocious longform posts and Karen Blanchard’s Where Did U Get That that I remember most fondly. And there are the others, the smaller blogs who’s names are lost to the recesses of my mind, vague images, faces, and outfits lingering, like that of a woman dressed in linen, always carrying a basket of flowers in photographs taken with a camera set to self-timer. In its place are social media posts by rote and lifeless captions.
But it would be remiss of me to condemn it completely. There are influencers of a different kind pushing up through the cracks, with Instagram accounts dedicated to sustainability and the circular fashion economy, outfits thrifted or purchased through Depop and other secondhand clothing sites. And even with those who work entirely through Instagram, there’s still a sense of fullness – for example Brittany Bathgate, who often documents press trips in detail through Instagram stories, breaking down for her followers how a dress is sustainably made as she takes us along the factory line, or an ethical brand’s ethos at a product launch. It’s not just a photo opportunity.
A change on the digital horizon
It’s not all lost for the personal style blog, either. Where Did U Get That is still running today, and whilst Karen Blanchard posts primarily on Instagram, she also has a YouTube channel where she runs a series looking at what people are wearing on the streets of New York. The episode she filmed during the pandemic makes for interesting viewing. And whilst Gevinson eventually archived Style Rookie, it spawned something even better – Rookie, an online magazine for teenagers which invited them to submit their own essays, comics, DIY’s and artwork. It ran successfully for seven years, and produced four yearbooks. It speaks to the benefits of staying small, as in Blanchard’s case, or of knowing when to quit while you’re ahead, as Gevinson did. Communities like this, that begin as a means to talk about fashion but become so much bigger in ways that don’t just equate to million dollar partnership deals are an evolution I’m happy to see.
If the personal style blog of old is gone, it’s good to know that there’s hope for something even better to take its place.