The write stuff

By Cathrin Schaer

Bloggers have been elevated to front row status but now that they're 'in', can they maintain their objectivity?

Flamboyant international blogger, Bryan Boy. Photo / Richard Robinson
Flamboyant international blogger, Bryan Boy. Photo / Richard Robinson

Once upon a time they were voices in the online wilderness, crying out for love from the industry they adored. Fashion bloggers used to have to sneak into runway shows through the backstage door, catfight with a label's PR people and then queue for autographs from the designer, with the rest of the hoi polloi. And best of all, they mostly had to pay their own way, for the privilege.

My, how things have changed. During the last round of fashion shows in Europe and America, which wound up last week in Paris, elaborately clad bloggers sat in the front row alongside the industry's most influential. Fashion bloggers are now collaborating not just with established fashion media like Vogue, Elle and assorted newspapers, but also with designer labels and fashion agencies both to create signature fashion items and to help market new products. They're writing books, making clothes, designing shoes and handbags, helping to launch new fashion ventures and generally being celebrated and wined and dined.

In fact, the casual onlooker might be tempted to suggest that fashion bloggers have gone mainstream, big time. If they were a rock band, their fans would be accusing the guitarist of selling out right about now.

And that is problematic. Back when all this began, weary fashion editors who had been in the business for decades, bitched about the fact that fashion bloggers were ignorant, naive and amateurish. The bloggers defended themselves: they were independent voices, free thinkers with fresh opinions, not beholden to the industry and utterly detached from the symbiotic - some bloggers would even have said "parasitic" - relationships between the established fashion media and the established fashion industry.

Which is why there must be an identity crisis brewing among the devotees of It-bags and idle rumours. Because if fashion bloggers are slowly being incorporated into the industry, then can they still call themselves independent and outsiders?

One of this country's most visible fashion bloggers, Isaac Hindin-Miller, whose reports on his Isaac Likes website are linked to the Herald Online when the 26-year-old Auckland-based writer travels to overseas shows, recalls reactions when he first started blogging around two years ago. "People were like, this is weird, why are you doing this?," Hindin-Miller laughs. "But the reaction to my work has changed as attitudes towards blogs have changed. There is far more respect now. At the beginning it was 'look at those crazy kids on the internet'. But bloggers have proved they can make an impact."

"Bloggers are definitely important and valuable," says designer Kate Sylvester, citing the fact that bloggers get front row seats these days (for those who don't know yet, getting a seat in the front row at a runway show means that the designer has placed you there, so you get a great view, because you are important to their business) as a reason to believe they are becoming part of the industry.

Though he's not sure that New Zealand-based bloggers have the same kind of influence as some of the international ones, Murray Bevan, the director of fashion PR agency Showroom 22, which represents local creatives like Alexandra Owen, Juliette Hogan, Kathryn Wilson and even a young blogger, says fashion bloggers do have an impact. "Internationally, clients like Twenty-Seven Names have experienced huge growth in their business through having their look books syndicated on fashion blogs," Bevan reports. This has resulted in orders and interest from offshore publications.

Designer Karen Walker explains further: "Of course blogging is becoming part of the [media] establishment. That was inevitable. The better the blogger, the more a part of the establishment they are." And, Walker adds, "as with any media, the power comes from the size and importance of the audience. [International blogger] Bryan Boy is front row in Paris and New York because he has an audience that influences sales and opinions, therefore," she continues, "he influences sales and opinions."

In return for that kind of influence, some of the internationally prominent bloggers who got into the game early on, or who have a large reader following, have also seen a pretty lucrative pay day. Overseas, larger brands have been using them to market their wares, paying them to wear a series of outfits, to style window displays, be interviewed about the brand's wares or even to guest edit the company's own website. Bloggers have even appeared in advertising campaigns.

One of Britain's best known bloggers, Susanna Lau, who runs a blog called Style Bubble, told the ever-informative Business of Fashion website that she makes most of her money from special projects like that. She has worked for the likes of Dr. Martens, Giorgio Armani, Selfridges and Hong Kong boutique Joyce, the website reported, and Lau admitted that she had had "limitless opportunities," as a blogger.

Meanwhile flamboyant blogger Bryan Boy - real name Bryan Grey-Yambao, who was flown to New Zealand Fashion Week in 2008 and who now gets front row seats at some of the most important runways in the world so that he can send his fans Twitter reports not just about the frocks he has seen but also his sex life - told The Cut, the fashion blog run by New York magazine, that he makes more than $100,000 a year. Not a bad salary for someone in their early twenties. The blogger, described variously as both "unemployed" and "incredibly entertaining", told interviewers that most of his revenue comes from advertising on his website but that, just like any celebrity, he also charges for appearances.

And in an August 2010 story run by industry news magazine Women's Wear Daily, headlined "Marketing's New Rage: Brands Sponsoring Influential Bloggers", American blogger Jane Aldridge, who is behind the Sea of Shoes website and who has also been involved in design collaborations with major US brands like Urban Outfitters and Gryphon, said she believed it was all about a new model of advertising. "Fashion bloggers are a unique combination of publisher and talent," Aldridge told the publication, "This is part of the next evolution of advertising - a more integrated approach. It's important for both bloggers and advertisers to stay true to their brands."

But wait! Because this is where the blogger identity crisis begins. A number of surveys of internet use have shown that, more and more, consumers have less trust in what we think of as traditional media and more trust in personal opinions - such as those expressed by friends on social networking sites or by bloggers. Good news for bloggers.

More glad tidings: In a forecast for 2010-2014, PQ Media, a US-based research firm into digital media, predicted that bloggers and what they call "social media influencers" would increasingly be compensated for their work. However, more than three-quarters of that would be "non-cash based instead offering virtual currency, virtual gifts or free product samples," they wrote.

The bad news is that other recent research, this time the 2010 Digital Influence Index by global public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, indicates that "while blogs continue to be a popular source [of information] consumer confidence in blog content drops if readers know that the authors are compensated by the companies they are writing about".

Which means that as the importance of bloggers, and their value to advertisers, rises, so too does that pesky question of editorial integrity. Even from the beginning there was criticism - often from members of the old school fashion media - that fashion bloggers were too fawning, too naive and that they got into blogging about fashion because they loved it too, too much, darlings. Which, many seasoned fashion editors reasoned, was not always the best motivation nor guaranteed to produce balanced reporting.

What, they asked, would all these sycophantic fashion lovers do when fashion started returning their affections?

Leading newspapers and magazines often have strict ethics codes about freebies - for example, if they're playing by the rule book (which, admittedly, not all of them do), fashion editors may be forced to return gifts or declare them in writing. But, on the whole, bloggers, who mostly publish and edit themselves, don't have those rules to follow.

Here in New Zealand, Hindin-Miller has appeared in an advertising campaign as well as participated in special projects, such as the design of trousers and a shirt for Little Brother by Barkers label, a kind of offshoot of Crane Brothers, a menswear company the blogger once worked for and still has a close relationship with.

He says that most of his income comes from freelance writing (which occasionally includes marketing work) and from any website advertising he does sell - although he admits he's not very good at the latter. He also says he's happy to fully disclose gifts and sponsorships. "I get given stuff fairly regularly and I get a media discount [at some fashion retailers]. I'm also sponsored by Telecom so I don't have to worry about international roaming or anything. I'm not contractually obliged to do anything for them but I do go to their parties or make appearances at their charitable events," he explains. A search of his website reveals plenty of Telecom mentions, from thank yous to brief credits regarding various pieces of telecommunications equipment to disclosure of sponsored travel.

For many in the local industry, the most important thing seems to be this kind of clarity.

The territory can be "very grey," Sylvester admits. For the Auckland-based designer, a recent example was the excitement surrounding "an extremely high profile blogger" who was to attend Australian Fashion week in Sydney, where the label was showing. "But in actual fact she was on a paid trip and could only cover certain shows," Sylvester says, preferring not to name any names. And, "these commercial deals aren't obvious to the public."

Bevan is not positive about the issue: "That's one thing that disappoints me about a lot of bloggers. They're in it for themselves, not the industry. So they'll never truly have integrity."

No doubt Hindin-Miller would beg to differ. "I used to write about sneaking into fashion shows. Now I get invited to them," he explains. "So you can't always be fighting the system. And some brands might see that sort of thing as disrespectful - which isn't positive if you want to build a relationship with them. But I don't see that as selling out, I see that as mutual respect. I started my blog as a reaction against what I could see was being published in New Zealand. It seemed to me that there was a lot of fluff and that nobody was really telling the truth. But I've since come to realise there is a reason for this.

It's a small place, if you go for a coffee on Ponsonby Rd you're highly likely to see five of the people you've just written about - and it's hard being Public Enemy Number One."

Hindin-Miller believes bloggers all around the world are in a similar situation.

He describes himself as "an island with an audience". After all, bloggers are not backed by a major publication with cash or a cadre of copy editors; the audience reading the last post they put up gives them their power.

"So I've noticed there is actually a lot of diplomacy, a lot of bloggers don't write many negative things. There are sites that might be more cynical or scathing. And then they'll have sour grapes about the fact that they don't get a seat in the front row. They're going against the establishment though. They're reporting honestly," Hindin-Miller concludes. "And you can't have it both ways."

- Cathrin Schaer

There was a time when any publicity was good publicity

In London last month, Tom Ford caused an outcry when he refused to invite newspaper journalists to his autumn/winter ready-to-wear presentation. He was only working with magazines with a long lead time, he said; those with shorter deadlines would be invited to view his work at a later date. In Paris last week, meanwhile, Celine, currently among the most feted labels, advised that the house "no longer allows any images to be taken at the catwalk show, posted online or published in any form - except official catwalk shots. The same applies at showroom appointments. Catwalk images will be available as soon as possible after the show."

For the past decade there have been times when it seemed that any publicity was good publicity - the more of it, the better; however raw-edged and/or inexperienced a commentator might be and whatever the quality and angle of the images shown alongside. That may be changing. Both Ford and Phoebe Philo (the designer at Celine) are aware that not only is there something to be said for the right publicity, over and above more widespread communication, but also - and this applies to showroom appointments in particular - when the clothes are seen up close, any copycats can photograph, then plagiarise them. This happens anyway, but for the creator of the original article to hand every last detail to them on a plate is foolhardy, surely.

Time was, only accredited photographers could supply images to illustrate any fashion feature - and that applied right across the press. Now, within seconds of a show starting, pictures are blogged and tweeted all over the world. It's all part of a wider move to democratise fashion which, increasingly, and within the designer fashion industry at least, has its detractors. A certain amount of image management is to be gained by a brand live-streaming its own show, say, as opposed to simply letting the audience do so for them, but more elitist names - and Tom Ford and Celine both occupy this territory - would rather pull back. It's easy to see why. Given the economic climate, the last thing any designer name needs is to facilitate counterfeiting, and there's a fine line between global recognition and overexposure.

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