Fashion and lifestyle bloggers have become a major force in the industry. With strong business ethics rooted in genuine passion, curiosity, and a little tech know-how, they've proven they are here to stay.
I rushed downstairs and darted across the concrete courtyard towards the town car that Clarins had sent to pick me up and take me to Bloomingdale’s for the evening. The driver, chauffeur-capped and pleasantly smiling, was standing outside with a placard bearing my name and blog URL in neat Sharpied handwriting. I was whisked off to the suburban department store for a night of makeup trials and skincare tips that, made even sweeter by the round-trip ride and full-sized samples, I enthusiastically relished and later wrote about just as excitedly. Sitting in the car on my way home that night, surrounded by French skincare and flipping through photos I’d taken with my Canon EOS Rebel (the go-to blogger cam), I felt like an bonus Kardashian sister. And then, just like that I was back in my apartment, editing photos and tapping out a review of the event to publish on my blog the next day. (During a lunch break at my regular 9-5 job.)
At its best, being a blogger can feel a bit like being a celebrity, or at the very least, a street-style star. There are parties, events, fashion shows, freebies, dinners, and on more than one occasion, opening night performances that the public can’t even buy tickets for.
Since “Blogger” is still a relatively new position in the fashion industry, it can be a somewhat precarious one. However, with social media becoming the norm for communicating trends and movements within the fashion sphere, bloggers are taking ownership of their cachet and prestige, and are figuring out what it means and how to leverage their influence to turn a blog into a business - and a brand.
Starting a blog is cheap. Growing that blog, on the other hand, involves strategy, social savvy, and some cash. “I didn't have too many start-up expenses, because when I started blogging in early 2008, it wasn't meant to be my career or a serious pursuit yet,” explains Kara Weymouth, the blogger behind the beloved Beantown site The Bostonista. “I learned some basic HTML, signed up on Google Blogger, and tried to create compelling images with my limited photoshop skills. I think I paid about $5 for my custom domain.”
Since her initial start-up costs (essentially the price of a footlong sub), she’s invested a few hundred more into graphic design and a custom logo. Has it been worth it? Weymouth thinks so. “Since my site was redesigned last summer, I feel that with the new, cleaner aesthetic, I’ve become more desirable to brands. I now see a wider demographic of readership and I get more traffic from abroad than before - especially from Japan and France.”
After design, the next big opening costs some fashion bloggers incur is, not surprisingly, fashion. While some use PR or stock imagery for reviews and trend reports, for a blogger to produce totally original content, of-the-moment clothing, shoes, bags, and accessories are key. Even if a blogger incorporates vintage, down-market wearables or items she already owns into her blog looks, to attract readership a certain investment is necessary. Until a blogger gains prestige and is able to access those things gratis, it’s a crucial expense.
“Aside from clothing, my biggest expense has probably been my camera. It's really important to have clear images that can really allow the readers to see details on the clothes,” says The Boston Fashionista founder Kristen Uekermann.
Katherine Tabinowski of The Style Tab agrees. “Once I started using a digital SLR camera, I started getting a lot more hits and interactions,” she says. “Photography is so important if you want to take your blog to the next level.” Tabinowski was lucky enough to get a hand-me-down camera from her father, an avid photographer, but she did pour some money into marketing. “My biggest expense as a fashion blogger to date would have to be advertising. It was an investment in getting my name out in the crowded blogosphere.”
So what does one stand to gain from blogging? That depends, and the range is quite staggering.
While my mother proudly introduces me as her daughter, the blogger, from my perspective, blogging is hardly my job. In terms of cold hard cash, in the five years since I started my blog I’ve netted perhaps $500 through direct blog engagements like hosting links or writing about a certain topic, brand, or retailer. I make a living as a freelance writer, consultant, and on occasion, stylist, but for my mother, referring to me as a blogger is arcane and important sounding, like diplomat or philanthropist. (Plus, it makes a pretty neat catch-all for my admittedly protracted, “slash”-riddled job title that no doubt more than a few other millennials and non-career bloggers bear.)
Aside from the excitement of having an outlet to express myself and hone in on my interest in fashion, there are certainly some other, more tangible perks. In the past several months, I’ve been the recipient of several bags of beauty products from luxury brands, a jacket from an e-commerce company in England, a pair of jeweled sandals from Massachusetts-based footwear company, an outfit from a high-street Newbury Street store, a custom dress and a few haircuts, blowouts and facials. I was also invited to dress rehearsals at the Boston Ballet, parties and store openings and have been granted unlimited access to clothing and jewelry to photograph for my site. Then, twice a year, there is the opportunity to attend fashion shows and parties in New York during Fashion Week. (Although it’s worth mentioning that there have been strong efforts in the past two seasons to limit blogger attendance as we are perceived as non-essential players in the industry.)
For bigger, more lucrative blogs the payoff is even more cushy. Thirty-five-year-old lifestyle blogger Erin Gates originally gained notoriety for her impeccably curated site, Elements of Style. A handful of years later, after refining her craft through the site and the partnerships she gained through it, she used her platform to publish her first book, Elements of Style: Designing a Home & a Life, which quickly become a New York Times bestseller.
Elsewhere, blogger Jean Wang of Extra Petite attracts more than one million monthly page views to her site, and 20,000 feed subscribers. She’s a top earner at Reward Style, a commission-based revenue share program used by Vogue and other top publishers, meaning some months she earns more than $15,000 just from shared sales alone.
Even if a blog doesn’t propel one into internet super-stardom, it’s not all for naught. Even at its basest, blogging can provide that extra oomph needed for gaining college acceptance, job interviews, and other opportunities that require a degree of differentiation and achievement; a digital calling card of sorts, proffering other pluses that are as simple as new friendships and opportunities to network.
“I was about to graduate and I felt that I needed something to distinguish myself when I searched for jobs.” says Molly Flynn, of starting her blog, Boss and Tonic, in early 2014. Since it launched, she’s enjoyed benefits like networking and, through “Boss Lady”, a section on her site featuring interviews with female head-honchos, she gets to talk to women she’d otherwise not be able to access.
Who gets what? In true Fashion form, there is a very clear-cut caste system of bloggers, who fit more or less into tiers, each commanding different levels of readership, clicks, followers, engagement, revenue and partnership. Top tier bloggers like Gates and Wang can earn up to six- and seven-figures annually through book deals, design collaborations, appearances, consultation fees, and commission-based revenue sharing. Mid-level bloggers can still earn enough to make blogging their full time occupation, with the added perk of virtually never having to pay for wardrobe, beauty, home decor or activities like dining and entertainment, which can all be sourced gratis. Lower level bloggers, which describes most local bloggers (myself included) happily accept freebies, but don’t earn enough to qualify as career bloggers.
Brands are very well aware of the tiers that a blogger falls into, with different budgets and perks set aside for each. For example, one retailer in Boston hosted a holiday party for bloggers, with a free outfit given to each in attendance. The Tier 1 bloggers (their exact words) are invited first and if the RSVP list wasn’t yet filled, the Tier 2s were invited, and so on.
Aside from all the free swag, mid-level bloggers like Uekermann and Weymouth have been privvy to considerable extras. In 2013, Uekermann, along with a handful of other international bloggers, spent several days in Denmark for Copenhagen Fashion Week as a guest of ECCO footwear. In November, she flew to St. Lucia and enjoyed a stay in a seaside resort as part of a new collaboration with JetBlue. Weymouth, who is represented by French agency Ykone, commands fees that are sometimes in the triple digits to review a sweater from a new celebrity-backed line or to (tastefully) model lingerie in a post published on her own blog.
It’s typical for a brand or organization to gift a blogger a product, store credit, event tickets or even cash with the implicit expectation of a glowing review. Whether they get it or not is up to the blogger and how strictly they maintain their moral codes - and Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, guidelines.
With all the complimentary swag changing hands, bloggers get a bad rap for invariably gushing over anything they are given. While that does occur (I myself operate under the philosophy that there is always something nice to say, even if it’s just about the zipper on a pair a pants rather than the quality or the style) there is a certain integrity involved in the reviewing process.
“I get a few freebies and invite offers, but I don’t accept if it doesn’t feel in line with my blog.” says Boss and Tonic’s Flynn.
On her blog, Weymouth clearly states her philosophy about honest content. In a statement in the “Contact” section of her blog, she writes the following:
I love to write reviews, but I do not publish paid reviews. I give my readers an honest, unbiased opinion of products, no matter what.
Sponsored Posts are always labeled as such in accordance with FTC guidelines. Please note that while I do use affiliate links, and may receive some sales commission from them, they do not affect my editorial content or opinion.
Uekermann has a similar statement on her blog:
Please Note: While I accept gifted items, I only promote sponsored content that I personally love and would wear or recommend. Sponsored or gifted content will always be noted as such, in accordance with FTC guidelines. I employ affiliate links, and may receive some sales commission through them, however, these in no way affect my editorial content.
It’s not all (free) champagne and glitter, however. There are plenty of lulls, lots of trial and error, and some rejection. For weeks-long stretches there will be parties nearly every night, new store openings to toast and seasonal collections to gush over with cliques of other bloggers. Not to mention packages of free clothing, skincare, shoes and makeup to sign for, unpack, photograph, and review. Then, radio silence. Nothing. Not a party invite, not an offer for a free facial, no car service, not even an uber voucher in sight.
Like many niches of the fashion industry, there’s a certain degree of inconsistency. In the case of bloggers, this can perhaps be attributed to a lack of loyalty as a result of the prevalence of one-and-done “partnerships” and collaborations. While some bloggers certainly have long-term partnerships - both Uekermann and Weymouth work with Zappos on a regular monthly basis - most interactions between a blogger and a retailer are really more of a once, or once in a while, “I-send-you-this, you-blog-it” deal.
This is in stark contrast to the types of relationships a brand might have with a publishing house such as Conde Nast or Hearst, for example, which are built on years-long ad campaigns and professional partnerships. Aside from being easier, it’s also cheaper to work with a blogger, and so top bloggers enjoy world-class treatment and fat paychecks that editors or writers may be obliged to turn down, and there’s more than enough to trickle down to lower-tier bloggers, as well.
All of these joint efforts involve a lot of back-and-forth communication, and unspoken expectations and negotiating deals, gifts, payment, and personal relationships can be tricky. Not surprisingly, some rather awkward and uncomfortable run-ins do occur.
“The very first freebie I received from a brand was about 9 months after I started, and it didn’t go so well,” says Weymouth. After attempting to explain to the PR rep that while she appreciated the product, she was still going to give it an honest, not-entirely-flattering review, she wasn't prepared for how aggressive a PR rep could be. It was uncomfortable, but it also led to her writing a very clear policy on working with brands that she now send to potential partners before a project even launches.
“Sometimes brands just don’t hold up their end of the deal.” Weymouth continues. “It doesn’t happen as much now that I have an agency to advocate for me. But before, I’d really have to chase down a brand to get them to fulfill their end of the contract like payments or shipping goods promised, whereas if they weren’t happy with me, I had no doubt they wouldn’t let anything slide. Sometimes you have to just save the relationship and let it go. Other times, it's worth the bit of a fight, especially if you dedicated a lot of time to a project.”
So what’s next for bloggers? For many, the immediate goal is to continue carving out a place among top style authorities, and then to eventually convert their platforms and voices into a more distinguishable, clear-cut career - there just isn’t the market for them all in every city, yet. And with most bloggers supporting themselves with careers outside of the industry, there isn’t a big rush to get there yet, either.
Indeed only a handful of bloggers are raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from their blogs and immediate offshoot projects, but for most here, that seems a ways down the road. “Blogging as a career? Sure that’d be great,” says Flynn. “But I’m not there yet. Maybe eventually - it’s too far down the line for me at this point.”
The levels of financial success and fame reached by Gates and Wang and the rewarding partnerships experienced by Uekermann and Weymouth aren’t typical, and certainly don’t come without a bit of elbow grease and a lot of planning. What is a more likely result for bloggers across the board, however, is strong, lasting (and occasionally lucrative) relationships with each other as well as with brands and PR agencies.
What some scrappy bloggers have proven is that, despite the superficiality of the fashion industry at large, size doesn’t matter. Even those with only a small platform (read: not that many social media followers and/or readers) can stay afloat by producing timely and consistent content, with a smile. What some potential partners are looking for isn’t necessarily the exposure provided by a widely-read blog, but rather a different kind of content, like well-shot imagery of their clothing on a diverse range of men and women, or just an honest review.
Whether blogging is a livelihood, a social habit, or a respite from the daily work grind, its rewards are considerable enough to encourage new waves of bloggers to sprout up continuously, and the blogging community is rare in it’s supportiveness; as an example, a quick scan at the incredible amount of collaboration and communication among the Boston Bloggers group’s nearly 1200 members on Facebook reveals as much. It remains to be seen if the industry will follow suit and allow bloggers into the folds of its mantle as more permanent power players, and not just guests of honor.