Until about a decade ago, there had always been an unwritten protocol when seated in the front row of a fashion show. Do not lean forward. Keep your legs tucked neatly under your seat, your handbag out of camera range, and any papers discretely in your lap. Maintain a poker face. And do not take pictures. Seriously.
It’s hard to believe, but back before the dawn of the 21st century, it was the rare editor who dared lift a camera to snap a shot of a model as she stormed past. Gilles Bensimon, the former creative director of Elle Magazine, was the most notable violator of this unwritten rule. Dressed in his signature white jeans, Bensimon — a professional photographer — regularly took pictures from his front-row perch. But others who attempted such sacrilege were not given the same leeway. Gladys Perint Palmer, the former fashion editor of the San Francisco Examiner, was an accomplished illustrator and often took photographs to inspire her drawings. On multiple occasions, I sat stunned as security guards practically tackled her when she pulled out her camera at a show.
Unauthorized photography was taboo, because the fashion industry was a walled-off community of designers, editors, and retailers. Information was embargoed. Shows were not live-streamed. Access was given grudgingly.
In the mid-2000s, however, bloggers changed that dynamic.
These fashion guerillas hoisted their digital cameras, their iPhones, and their iPads aloft in order to capture the drama on the runway — and its environs — and transmit it directly to their followers. They live-blogged and they tweeted and they initiated a real-time conversation where once only silence existed. The first generation of bloggers, such as Bryan Yambao, Susanna Lau, Tavi Gevinson, and Scott Schuman were contrarians. In their words and images, there was an earnest and raw truth that did not exist in traditional outlets. They had unique points of view and savvy marketing strategies. They had a keen awareness of how technology could help them attract the attention of hundreds of thousands of like-minded fashion fans who had been shut out of the conversation.
Soon, the fashion world signaled its wholehearted approval. By 2008, Marc Jacobs had named a handbag after Bryanboy, who created the template of the self-referential fashion blogger when he began kibitzing online in 2004. In 2009, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana seeded their front row with Bryanboy, Tommy Ton, Schuman, and Garance Doré, who were expected to live-blog the show. And by 2010, a reporter from Grazia tweeted her displeasure at being stuck behind the view-blocking Stephen Jones plumage of Gevinson as she sat front row at a Christian Dior couture show in Paris.
Longtime editors realized that some of these self-created young men and women — many of whom had not paid their dues fetching coffee and steaming samples — now had a personal audience of a half-million people. The reach of bloggers threatened to upend the traditional hierarchy of fashion coverage.
Slowly, the legacy media fought back. Editors went on the offensive. Glamour editor Cindi Leive, Lucky’s Eva Chen, Joe Zee (formerly of Elle), Nina Garcia of Marie Claire — the very people who once were envied for their front-row view of fashion week — were now tapping out quips and bon mots to all who would listen. Legacy editors began watching the runway from the backside of their iPhone cameras as they shared their up-close views with the virtual world. Critics, instead of reserving their droll commentary for post-show dinner patter, now spewed it fast and succinctly on Twitter.
With everyone from powerhouse editors-in-chief to creative directors and standard-bearing critics playing the social-media game, the singular advantage that social media once offered bloggers is no longer so clear. The same intimate tone, once unique to those initial disrupters, can now be found in the Twitter feeds of print folks such as Chen, Derek Blasberg, and Mickey Boardman. They live-blog while at shows, while zipping through airports, while touring art exhibitions, while vacationing. They un-self-consciously share from all corners of their fashion lives.
The distance between the Establishment and fashion’s once-dazzling revolutionaries has narrowed, and there is minimal distinction between them. Because what the fashion industry loves, it woos — then swallows whole.
Bryanboy told me he doesn’t consider himself an “insider,” but evidence suggests his generation of bloggers is no longer made up of “outsiders” either.
Fashion followers can thank bloggers for making fashion coverage more democratic and forcing design houses to accept (and then exploit) the reality that very little communication is for insiders’ ears only. But, now that so many bloggers have been embraced by the industry — and the Old Guard has learned to keep up with social media — is there still an opportunity for new voices at shows? And if so, what kind of voices can still flourish?
“The thing that was different for the first generation was [most of us] rarely put ourselves on our blogs. The newer generation is all about themselves. What can we get out of this? It’s much, much more about self-promotion,” says Schuman, who, along with Doré, won a CFDA award in 2012. “It’s me, me, me. Look at me. Aren’t I cool? Look at this bright, shiny world I’m portraying.”
“Who am I to say don’t take the handbag, or don’t take advantage of the opportunities,” Schuman adds. “But don’t expect people to respect what you do.”
“We’re getting to a tipping point. People are starting to push back,” he says. “They want to be able to believe what [bloggers] are saying.”
While the virtual world may be limitless, real-world guest lists are finite. There are only so many seats at fashion shows. As the media environment has changed, there are more seats being allocated to digital media. Yet, those additional seats are mostly occupied by the online editors of print publications.
“In the original grid, it was very clear what each person did,” says Rachna Shah, managing director of KCD Digital. “Now there are so many ways you can be involved in fashion coverage. A blogger might get backstage access but might be asked to stand at the show. The question is: What do they need from the show? To interview the designer? To see the show? To have their picture taken in front of the show?”
As Leandra Medine, founder of the Man Repeller, wrote in an email, personal-style blogs still “[seem] to gain incredible traction — which is vastly admirable in its own right — similarly to the way reality television stars did in the early aughts.”
The more nuanced lifestyle, contextualized, opinion-driven blog “takes a bit more time to establish itself, finesse its point and earn the following,” Medine said. “Of course the question is really what happens long term, but I don’t have an answer.”
The Establishment, however, will not give up ground easily. And mostly, newcomers are drawn to fashion, not because they are determined to change it, but because they are mesmerized by it. They want to be the next Anna Wintour — not make her existence obsolete. They love fashion. And fashion loves them back. Then swallows them whole.