Lead Image: Susie Bubble, 34, U.K., 396,000 followers. Coat by Comme des Garçons, bag by Maison Valentino, shoes by Blue Roses by Edward Meadham.
Bryanboy was feeling reflective. It was a cold, gray afternoon, and the fire in the drawing room of the Greenwich Hotel was cozy and warm. He ordered some tea and was touched by the smiling waitress who brought him a plate of cookies; whether or not he’d eat them was beside the point. He’d been recognized and appreciated, and that felt even nicer than the butteriest bite.
Bryan, whose real last name is Yambao, has been a public fashion figure for about a decade, ever since the blog he started as an acne-scarred teenager in the Philippines went viral and Marc Jacobs cold-called him and, after convincing Bryan it wasn’t all a prank, explained that he’d be naming a bag after him and flying him to New York to sit in the front row at his show.
That was all such a long time ago! Bryan had a different nose then, and he’d never seen snow. He was still angry with his parents for not buying him a black nylon Prada backpack (they said he could have it as a reward for graduating from high school, but by the time he did, the backpack had been discontinued), and he spent about 16 hours a day in front of a computer screen, obsessing over places he’d never been, things he didn’t own. Now Bryan is married to a tall, press-shy Swedish banker and his main residence is a house on a pretty lake in the suburbs of Stockholm, but he spends most of his life on the road, frequently as the guest of the fashion brands he lusted after during those stultifying Manila afternoons so long ago.
This isn’t just generosity toward a fanboy, of course. In exchange, the brands get the four to five Instagram posts he does a day, combined with the campaigns he collaborates on and the appearances he makes around the world at the openings of shops and restaurants and departments within department stores. All this earns him an amount he will only giggle about and describe as “comfortable. Very comfortable.” He has contracts with Gucci, Calvin Klein, and Valentino, as well as the old-line Swiss watch brand Vacheron Constantin, not to mention all of the smaller jobs he gets here and there, and all of the companies that employ him regularly but still prefer not to be named. “Sometimes,” he says, “the offers that are being proposed … it’s just like … am I really worth this? Because it’s like what someone would make in a year and it’s like three days of work. Every day, I’m questioning myself. Am I worth the money they’re paying? Is it worth the value I bring?”
But mostly, the bigger question is this: “Is this really going to last?” That’s the main concern for Bryan and his similarly employed friends, who have suddenly usurped what felt like the eternal fashion Establishment, or at least its media branches. And, as usurpers, they know just how precarious it can be at the top. “We’re all like, What if this runs out one day? We’re always just winging it. We’re always scared.”
From the outside, of course, the position doesn’t seem all that precarious. These days, business is conducted on social media — Instagram, mostly, and more and more on the 24-hour slideshow that is Instagram Stories, where product is being moved more effectively than it ever, in the history of fashion, has moved before. Magazines used to be the advance arm of this business, the publicity-by-another-name arm, and found themselves glamorous, wealthy, and also “important,” in the sense of shaping the tastes of the industry, as a result. In this new environment, that format may still look glamorous but, by comparison, it is just tremendously slow.
It’s been a fast sea change, when you consider that in 2009, Dolce & Gabbana decided to redo the traditional, rigidly hierarchical seating plan at its Milan show and invite a group of fashion bloggers to sit in the front row. The fashion world was piqued. The bloggers were excited, but there was some skepticism, too. “Even though I think it was very nice, I totally think it was just a media ploy,” Scott Schuman (the Sartorialist) said at the time. “You know what? I will believe it if they still have three or four independent bloggers in the front row for the next three or four seasons.”
He had reason to think it wouldn’t last: There was tremendous resistance from the powers that be, who perhaps disliked the tremors they had begun to feel in the foundation of their authority. Or perhaps it was that they disliked the bald commercialism of the new medium, which stripped away everything that had historically distracted from the transactional nature of the fashion press (even as those transactions ultimately funded its work). In 2016, a Vogue editor, reflecting on a recent trip to Milan, said that looking for style in a row full of bloggers was “like going to a strip club looking for romance. Sure, it’s all kind of in the same ballpark, but it’s not even close to the real thing.” The other editors described street-style stars and bloggers as “embarrassing” and “pathetic,” and described them trotting around outside the shows in borrowed head-to-toe looks as “heralding the death of style.”
But they were wrong. Or, if not wrong (everyone’s entitled to an opinion), at the very least hollering into a bottomless abyss where no one — not the brands, not the readers, not the consumers — cared. To many, the notion of a bunch of do-it-yourself enthusiasts storming the gates of this formerly locked world turned out to be a delight. “I’m not from a rich family,” says Aimee Song (@songofstyle, 4.7 million followers), “and I think that’s why people like me. It’s a hard-work story.”
The blogger community, which came to be called the “influencer” community (echoing the language used to describe more downmarket social-media heavies whose followers reliably bought up products like video games or cat food or sheet masks from Korea), was made up of true believers: fashion lovers willing to do anything to be near the runway, the models, the music, the clothes, and who didn’t bother with poses of cynicism or over-it-ness. Superfans. How could brands — whose let’s-face-it sole mission is to sell not-entirely-necessary stuff — possibly resist a tribe of hungry, dedicated spokespeople longing to help them do their job? The influencers had been weaned on old-school fashion media, so they seemed at first like parvenus meriting mostly amused semi-disdain. But they came to Paris, Milan, New York — frequently on their own dime — not only to worship but also to eat their makers.
“My biggest-ever moment was when, after two years of flying myself to Paris and using friends’ tickets to get into shows, I was front row at Valentino sitting next to all these really big editors, the people I had looked up to and admired for so many years,” says Chriselle Lim, an L.A. blogger who started out doing makeup tutorials on YouTube and now has a million Instagram followers and works with Dior and Chloé and Chanel and Vuitton and Tiffany.
So whom did she sit next to? Was it Grace Coddington or Carine Roitfeld or Cecilia Dean or …
“Hmmm.” Lim takes a long pause. “Honestly? I can’t even remember. At this point, I’ve been to so many shows.”
The “bloggers” are still in the front row. They are the front row. Bryanboy, Leandra Medine Cohen, Chiara Ferragni, Charlotte Groeneveld, Chriselle Lim, Susie Lau, Rumi Neely — this is the new Establishment. The revolution has happened, and in its wake, the business has been deeply transformed. Designers are designing for this new medium; the desire for merchandise has never been higher.
Consider the 2015 case study of the Gucci open-backed, fur-lined Princetown slipper. It’s a loafer with no back and long, coyote-fur lining, exactly the kind of silly and highly photogenic item that, in another era, might have been a runway oddity, produced in small numbers and worn by only the extreme. “When I first saw it, I was like, How ridiculous,” says Eva Chen, a former Teen Vogue and Lucky magazine editor and the current fashion director at Instagram. “But then I saw Bryan and Leandra wearing them online and I was like, Okay, fine, they have larger-than-life personalities, so it’s great for them, but then the more I saw people wearing them on Instagram, the more I was like, Goddammit, I’m going to go buy a pair of backless fur-lined loafers and wear them around New York City and I’m not going to think about the bacteria that’s all over them! I’m going to do it!” Chen’s Princetown slippers have already been resoled twice. “You need reality and dreams in life,” she says. “A life that is just reality feels uninspired, and a life that’s all dreams feels ungrounded. The best influencers have both.”
It’s not only the Princetown slipper — which has become a Gucci staple, produced every season. There are so many strange items that have become sales bonanzas because influencers on Instagram were able to show an audience how to wear them. Chanel two-tone slingbacks — beige, black, traditional — are the kind of thing that might have looked mumsy on a shelf, but, when they showed up on Aimee Song’s and Leandra Medine Cohen’s feet, looked sexy and young and suddenly current. Magazines used to do this, but the clothing was on models and felt remote. If it’s on someone who just shared her recipe for stuffed dates, the whole thing feels more approachable. Acquirable.
To understand how and why influencers have become so influential, consider how much they can sell: Last spring, Tina Craig, a woman in Dallas who calls herself the “Bag Snob,” sold $20,000 worth of handbags for one designer in less than 24 hours just by posting Instagram Stories. When Aimee Song collaborated with a sunglasses company called Gentle Monster, the collection sold out in 22 minutes. A woman named Arielle Charnas, who had started her blog Something Navy in order to show an ex-boyfriend how “cute she was looking, so that maybe he would come back,” reportedly sold $1 million worth of merchandise at Nordstrom in 24 hours last September. (He didn’t come back, but she didn’t want him anymore anyway.) Nordstrom hadn’t entered the deal blindly: Charnas had previously featured a skirt-and-top combo by the designer Petersyn in an Instagram story and sold more that $40,000 worth in two days. Chiara Ferragni, who was a law student in Milan when she began chronicling her outfits on a blog called the Blonde Salad (she’s blonde), was the subject of a Harvard Business School case study in 2015 that estimated that she had generated close to $10 million in revenue the previous year through a combination of appearances, endorsements, advertising, and product launches and collaborations — at the time, she charged brands up to $50,000 to appear at an event and then post photographs for her millions of admirers. (Ferragni wouldn’t be interviewed for this story; through her representative, she very politely declined, explaining that she skips stories that can’t guarantee her coverage will be bigger than her competitors’ — the equivalent of a Hollywood star declaring herself “cover only.”) Last year, a major European designer suggested to a major fashion magazine that Ferragni become its fashion director. It didn’t work out; why on earth would she take that kind of a pay cut?
And it’s not only the super-influencer (someone with a million-plus followers); some brands put their entire stock in micro-influencers (50,000-plus followers), who have a smaller reach but a deeper connection (which means a very high conversion rate when it comes to selling merchandise). No one expects the Blonde Salad to sell shoes to every one of her 11.6 million followers (that’s more people than live in Belgium), but a micro-influencer might credibly convince a heady percentage of them that she’s onto something good.
Condé Nast has even begun influencer training, hoping to merge the old and new ways of doing things — to see editors become more fluent on social media, like Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert, the W magazine contributing editor (@bat_gio) whose recent post of herself wearing a Giambattista Valli couture dress in his studio was viewed 250,000 times.
In the beginning, bloggers made money by running banner ads along the top and the sides of their sites. Various analytic services were able to count the number of eyeballs that saw them, so advertisers knew what they were getting. Profit sharing came next — click to buy an item on someone’s blog (or, eventually, on his or her Instagram) and the influencer would receive a percentage of the sale price — what percentage depends on how many followers that influencer is able to reach, and how in demand that influencer is. The big money, though, came later. Paid appearances at events. Entire advertising campaigns conducted by influencers over Instagram for which the influencer is paid a flat fee (as opposed to a profit-sharing piece of the sales pie, although in some cases the influencer might negotiate for both). Of course, what the influencers say they are offering, above all else, is “authenticity,” even as they become fully compensated players for the advertising team. “Influencers resonate with so many people because of the sense of realness you get from them,” says Chen. “My favorite influencers are the ones where you have a sense of their reality, where they are open and honest about who they are.” Chen is nursing a cold on the day we meet in the Instagram offices. I know this not because we are friends but because I have started following her on Instagram — in certain ways, in addition to being a savvy observer of influencers, she is also one herself. I know that her kids don’t sleep well and that her daughter is picky about what she’ll eat for lunch. Chen sniffles into a Kleenex. “It sounds easier than it is,” she says. “Like, for example, it would be a total fail for me to try to be a really cool, unapproachable fashion person!” Honnnk. (A week later, I see a picture of Chen at the doctor with numbing wands stuck up her nose.)
The influencers are always quick to describe how real they are. Bag Snob’s love of bags “in part comes from being an immigrant,” says Craig. “My little bag holds all the treasures from back home; that’s my security blanket.” Susie Lau, a.k.a. Susie Bubble, a London influencer known for her blunt bangs and colorful clothing, is strict about knowing her place. “I don’t sell branded goods,” she says, which means she doesn’t have her own line — something that lends all the more gravitas to her ambassadorships (Coach, Gucci, Prada, Topshop, Samsung).
Leandra Medine Cohen’s giddy attitude of nonstop full disclosure (pregnancy cankles, body hair) has earned her profound trust with her site Man Repeller’s 1.9 million followers. The old hang-ups seem quaint in the wake of all that, she explains one afternoon at Cha Cha Matcha near her offices when I ask if she considers herself on the editorial or the advertising side of things. When are her motives “pure” (she hasn’t been hired by the brand), and when are they “motivated”? She doesn’t laugh, exactly, but she makes it clear that those distinctions don’t mean much to her followers.
In the old world of publishing, those distinctions were everything: Editorial placements were coveted and came at the urging of publishers but were, nonetheless, valued because they carried with them — however false — an air of honesty. This really is the thing that the editor loves best! There are now FTC guidelines demanding the disclosure of sponsored content (#sponcon) online, and there’s a new Instagram template that allows a line reading “Paid partnership with …” to appear above photographs, but the influencers insist the differences between paid and unpaid content never mattered as much to consumers as the industry thought they did.
“If I get an endorsement deal and it’s from someone cool,” Medine Cohen says, “they’ll just be psyched for me. I mean, Gucci hired me for a campaign. I’m super-psyched, and my readers are, too.” The tables all around are full of girls in beanies and peacoats conspicuously not noticing her, focusing on photographing their viscous green drinks while giving Medine Cohen the occasional, subtle side-eye.
There’s already an “unfluencer” hashtag out there — the backlash, the idea that anything flogged by a pretty paid person becomes automatically uncool. It’s an idea born, perhaps, of watching influencers at work, posing endlessly, committed to the notion of “authenticity” but living a daily life of contrived and edited situations. (As one agent for influencers told me, “Whenever my husband and I are at a popular restaurant and there’s a clog-up of people posing for pictures and photographing their soup, he’s like, ‘This is all your fault.’ ”)
Because that’s the thing about fashion: The eye gets tired, the eye moves on. Which is why many influencers are trying to figure out if being an influencer is a scalable concept.
Chriselle Lim, who has contracts with brands like Dior, Chloé, and Ralph Lauren, started out flying to Europe, accompanied by a video-editing friend, filming herself outside the shows she’d sneak into, and posting her videos to Instagram. The brands were not angry at her sneaking; they were grateful for the quick turnaround and thoughtful content, and that’s what she’s hoping to replicate with a production company called Cinc Studios in Los Angeles. There, a staff will produce videos and other content for her clients in the same spirit as the videos she used to make in her car. “The idea is that they don’t have to hire me,” she says. “They can hire Cinc Studios. Because there’s a lot of excitement at doing this work, but at a certain point you realize you can’t be everywhere at once.”
Medine Cohen has separated herself from Man Repeller — you can pay her to attend your event, but Man Repeller is a different beast. Medine Cohen hopes to grow Man Repeller as an independent, multivoiced platform, with a site and social-media channel that produces editorial content alongside content paid for by advertisers: A post called “We Let Amazon’s Alexa Be Our Fashion Intern for a Week” was marked “sponsored by Amazon Echo Look,” but it appears right beside unpaid content — “How to Teach Yourself to Be a Morning Person,” and a piece by Medine Cohen on what she expects to be the summer’s biggest trend (seashells). Over at Cha Cha Matcha, Medine Cohen gestures at her growing stomach. She is pregnant with twins, due later this winter, and wonders if it will be difficult to continue the daily photographs, the content so relentlessly focused on herself, indefinitely. Whether she’ll even want to. But she suspected a while ago that such a time might arrive, and she planned for it. She saw the possibilities in what might have been dismissed as an unusually likable and eccentric person opening herself up online.
“I guess I’ve just always had bigger eyes,” she says, shrugging. “And I guess I always wanted to build a company.”
Craig (the Bag Snob) thinks she can take what she’s learned in her years online and use it to nurture more like her, and so she has invested in, and become, what she calls the “Fairy Blogmother” for a management agency called Estate Five (as in the “Fifth Estate,” which is to say sort of but not exactly like the press). Estate Five is about helping the next generation of online talent get started. So far, she’s signed “Diet Prada,” an anonymous Instagram account that once described itself as “the love child of Tim Blanks and Cathy Horyn,” which is hypereducated in the details and history of modern fashion and determined to point out when Lemaire looks a lot like Céline, for example, or when the garlands in a Reem Acra bridal show remind one a bit too much of Rodarte.
But the biggest new frontier, it seems, is children — the younger the better, presumably because no matter how affected the staging of their Instagrams (and how stage mom–y you imagine the parents), kids tend to be seen not as craven but innocent, naïve. Eva Chen thinks that the best Instagram fashion pictures coming out of a recent Fashion Week in Seoul were the street-style pictures of the kids. She also considers Coco Pink Princess, a 7-year-old Japanese girl who wears baby-size Gucci, the most influential fashion person on Instagram right now. Coco’s parents own a vintage store in Harajuku, and she became aware of style, and of Instagram, starting when she was 3 years old.
There are lots of budding Cocos out there. Arielle Charnas documents the life and outfits of her daughter, Ruby Lou, on a new vertical she’s calling Something Mini. Chriselle Lim’s daughter Chloe wears clothes given to her by Chloé and Ralph Lauren. Charlotte Groeneveld (the Fashion Guitar) brought her two children to Paris last month for the couture collections; a day after she watched the Chanel show, her children walked the runway for Bonpoint. Any day now, Chiara Ferragni will give birth to a baby boy already known to her followers as Leo. “Our little ravioli,” she calls him in captions. The little ravioli will never know a life without fame. And who knows what he’ll want to do with that?
*This article appears in the February 5, 2018, issue of New York Magazine.