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Individuality loses out to fame and freebies

Jay Ng challenges the idea that fashion blogging is democratising the industry.

Illustration by Jay Ng.

Many commentators herald the rise of fashion blogging as some sort of democratic progress. They posit that social media networks like Instagram and Tumblr have broken down barriers to entry, giving individuals influence in the world of fashion. If this is true, then the industry would no longer be an exclusive community just for fashion editors, celebrities, and professional stylists. Unfortunately, letting anyone with a smartphone, an ego, and cheekbones showcase their style to the rest of the world, hasn’t achieved that happy ending. Fashion bloggers have just been sucked into the world of product endorsements and collaborations with major corporations.

Many fashion bloggers start fresh, full of integrity, original style, and naivety. Any individual autonomy bloggers had starting out is sacrificed for fame and success. As tall, thin and white bloggers like Jennifer Grace (of The Native Fox) become famous with over 500,000 Instagram followers, the pictures on their blogs become so staged that they are no different from Vogue editorials, along with products that a majority of people cannot afford. Emily Weiss, founder of Into the Gloss, hires prominent digital designer Michael Harper in order to give her website an editorial vibe.

Women’s Wear Daily published a feature in 2011 that explores “what [bloggers] do: Reportage and criticism or marketing and promotion?” and details how bloggers like Bryanboy, Leandra Medine, Kelly Framel, Susie Lau, and Rumi Neely make revenues. Bryanboy admitted that “advertising is the main source of revenue but [he] also makes personal appearances at events, [and] collaborates with brands”. His response was pretty much identical to the rest of the interviewees’.

Major fashion brands often bestow fame upon a chosen blogger to boost their brand. Marc Jacobs made Bryanboy, who has 1.4 million monthly views on his website, a fashion week front rower since the open love letter and glorified him with the ‘BB’ handbag. Many bloggers now sign contracts to agencies to secure success, subordinating their creative freedom to corporate control. Leandra Medine (The Man Repeller), who writes fashion commentaries, is currently the most popular blogger with 3.7 million monthly views and 540,100 Instagram followers. She told Business of Fashion that she scored collaboration with Saks Fifth Avenue and a book deal upon signing with CAA, a prominent agency that represents celebrities like Natalie Portman and Kanye West.

Fashion houses and online shops sponsor bloggers with the latest products for promotions. There is nothing more cost effective than getting bloggers to endorse #musthave items to their huge audience base, or even launching collaboration projects that generate financial gain for both the designer and the blogger. This in turn creates a scene where major fashion bloggers are almost uniform, all bribed and propped up by the same fashion institutions. Bloggers claim to have a sense of “realness” since many of them started blogging from scratch, which taps into a different market and makes them valuable to fashion houses.

If fashion was truly democratised we would see successful bloggers from every race and size. Yet, only seven out of 16 bloggers in ‘The Most Influential Personal Style Bloggers’ from are not white. Fashion bloggers may have brought in a glimpse of racial diversity, but a discriminatory attitude towards race and body shape still exists in fashion industry. In fact, Bryanboy was accused of being pro-anorexia by suggesting followers to lose weight for Fashion Week. Ideas of beauty and style entrenched by fashion magazines remain unchallenged.

Fashion bloggers are famous because they appear to live like celebrities. Take Margaret Zhang as an example: in an interview with Inside Enterprise, she reveals that she spent her “weekends and study breaks travelling to seven cities throughout Asia to film for the TV show”. She casually tags fashion celebrities like Eva Chen, editor-in-chief of Lucky Magazine and Natalie Massenet, founder of renowned e-retailer Net-A-Porter on Instagram.

Brands do not simply send bloggers products solely for the purposes of publicity and money. Control comes as a complimentary statement accessory. Bloggers are afraid to be critical about social injustice within the fashion industry. Would they really want to risk their free studded kitten heels from Valentino, especially when the Federal Trade Commission of the United States dictated a policy in 2010 that bloggers need to fully disclose gifted materials? Such policy makes promotion gifts a norm that no one is ashamed of anymore. More importantly, are they willing to sacrifice shiny golden tickets to Lincoln Center during New York Fashion Week for whitewash runway shows and ‘my life is better than yours’ Instagram photos?

At the end of the day, bloggers start their blog with a passion for fashion. If they can make money and fame out of what they love, who cares about becoming a sell-out?

Solid effort has been made by supermodels like Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman and fashion activist Bethann Hardison, calling out on the lack of diversity on runways through creating Diversity Coalition. While there have been improvements in the latest fashion weeks, it did not come from bloggers. They could have used their prominence to open up conversations about body politics and racism in order to achieve real fashion democracy, but that might not trend as well as soy chai lattes.