December 16, 2011 6:17 pm

Stars, stripes and selling clothes

When these celebrities stepped out wearing the same dress, its sales rocketed. Star quality? Or was the truly influential factor the endorsement of a new wave of online tastemakers?
Celebrities wearing a dress with navy and red stripes

Clockwise from centre, Zoe Saldana, Emmy Rossum, Nicky Hilton, January Jones and Amanda Seyfried in the same dress

A true story: this year, Express, a US high street fashion chain known for colourful, funky pieces, sent a dress with navy and red stripes to a few celebrity friends, including Zoe Saldana, Emmy Rossum, Amanda Seyfried, Nicky Hilton and Olivia Munn. Coincidentally, and in the space of four weeks, all wore the dress in public. Before you could say, “What a cute outfit,” blog sites such as SheFinds.com, Celebuzz and InTheirCloset.com had written about this sartorial mind meld. Within a week of their posts surfacing, all 600 Express stores, as well as their e-commerce site, had nearly sold out of the $49.90 item, which means that, according to the estimates of one industry expert, they had moved in excess of 10,000 dresses.

Did this sell-through occur because celebrities were shown wearing the dress and consumers want to be just like those celebrities? Or was it because key fashion bloggers picked, from the thousands of images they sift through each day, those particular pictures to feature?

Last year, the correct answer would probably have been the former; it is received wisdom in the fashion industry that celebrities sell clothes. Yet Pam Seidman, former vice-president of communications at Express and now working on an as-yet unnamed start-up fashion brand, has no doubt the the bloggers were the biggest reason that the striped dress became so covetable. “Celebrity weeklies increasingly take their cues from hot blogger stories and this was picked up everywhere,” she says.

Ed Burstell, managing director of London department store Liberty, first observed the power of such bloggers earlier this year. “It was when Sarah Jessica Parker, Katy Perry and Cheryl Cole were seen and photographed in J Brand coloured denim,” he says. “It was on all the celebrity fashion blogs, then US Weekly and People picked it up. Sales went through the roof.”

It’s not only blogs about celebrities that are having an impact. Bloggers writing about everything from watches to their own lives are becoming more influential. As Martin Raymond, co-founder of the Future Laboratory, a London-based trends consultancy, puts it: “The influenced are influencing.” And when it comes to moving product, fashion bloggers are increasingly pulling our strings.

These fashion bloggers are not necessarily the same ones who first gained the fashion industry’s attention a couple of years ago. Bryanboy, Scott Schuman of the Sartorialist, Tavi, and Susie Lau of Style Bubble were primarily fashion fans with laptops, embraced for their idiosyncratic take on fashion and invited to sit in the catwalk front rows traditionally reserved for the powerful editors of glossy magazines.

Some from this first generation have subsequently parlayed their fame into paid consultancies or jobs with brands who love them (or their many thousand followers): Schuman has shot campaigns for Burberry, SABA Denim, DKNY, Gant and Nespresso, Tavi has her own magazine, Rookiemag.com, Susie Lau has appeared in Gap campaigns, and Bryanboy has starred in videos for H&M and guest-tweeted for branded events with Burberry. Generally, however, a direct relationship between what they write about and what sells is hard to determine.

The newest breed of bloggers is different. Focusing on red carpet events and celebrities, they play into several contemporary trends: a fascination with famous people, especially reality TV stars; our desire to cut through large amounts of information quickly; and the ability of online sites to drive sales. For the most part, these blogs are distinguishable from the earlier wave because they’ve been conceived from the outset as commercial enterprises, albeit presented in the format of a blog.

This underlines a shift that has happened across the blogosphere. There are still people who do it solo but there are many other blogs, owned by media companies and set up as digital platforms. In the world of celebrity fashion blogs, these include SheFinds.com, the where-to-get-it site launched by Michelle Madhok, formerly with AOL; InTheirCloset.com, a collective blog reviewing celebrity style and directing viewers to retailers; and WhoWhatWear, a blog/website set up in 2006 by former Elle magazine editors Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power, which charts celebrity fashion with links to retailer sites. “We direct millions of dollars of revenue to retailers,” says Power, adding that it was now a “weekly occurrence” for products featured on the site to sell out.

WhoWhatWear receives 4m visitors a month. But perhaps the most impressive statistics belong to one of the few blogs that does not have the backing of a media group and does not employ teams of people; RedCarpet-FashionAwards.com is a British-based blog launched in 2007 by Catherine Kallon, who worked at a sports marketing agency. The site, charting the red carpet and day-to-day fashions worn by celebrities, became Kallon’s full-time job in 2009 and now gets 50,000 to 60,000 visitors a day. Awards evenings, such as the Oscars, can generate 120,000 hits.

These kinds of numbers have caused a shift in thinking at some fashion brands about the best way to reach consumers. Martin Raymond says: “The greatest transmitter of celebrity culture right now is the web, and bloggers are central to that. When they blog about people wearing things, they’re adding another level of endorsement or curation, and then directing people to the sites to buy items. Brands are realising that they’ve spent a huge amount on advertising and marketing, and they’d be better off targeting the bloggers.”

Some retailers, many of whom are also e-tailers, are doing exactly this, zeroing in on blogs in an attempt to, as Seidman, puts it, “facilitate at the point of inspiration”. She says: “Twenty-year-olds are online every single moment of the day, and wherever they are – phone, computer, Spotify, Facebook – they’re also shopping. Brands are trying to close the gap between seeing an item and buying it.”

Navaz Batliwalla, the British blogger behind DisneyRollerGirl.net, which was founded in 2007 to provide insider fashion news and opinions, says: “E-tailers are now more aware of the power that popular ‘tastemaker’ bloggers have to shift product by linking directly to merchandise. I have certainly noticed a big push in the past year by e-tailers to encourage bloggers to turn their readers into shoppers.” She adds that “one high-end e-tailer” holds workshops to give its key bloggers tips on how to make their blogs more shoppable.

But how does an independent blogger work more closely with a brand while simultaneously retaining what has, for many, made them worth reading in the first place? That sense that bloggers are just like me, only more obsessive; that we respond to them as readers, and as consumers, because we assume a purity in their approach; they are, we imagine, doing it for fun, not filthy lucre. What, for example, does the person behind a blog such as Redcarpet-FashionAwards.com get when she recommends a certain red carpet look? Theoretically nothing – she’s just an obsessed fashion fan. As Kallon says: “I am similar to readers of my site. I see a celebrity wearing something and want to know where to buy it.” In reality, however, things may not always be so clear-cut.

Many top independent blogger sites, including Kallon’s, carry advertising from global brands alongside affiliate partnerships with retailers – in her case, Net-a-porter, Saks and Farfetch.com.

On one level, this makes sense: magazines do this on their websites whereby, for example, Allure.com gets a cut of the sales from customers they send to BeautyBar.com; ditto Style.com, which this month started selling a selection of runway pieces in partnership with six designers, delivering them to consumers weeks before they hit the shop floors.

Bloggers, some argue, are simply borrowing the same tactics. “Bloggers are celebrities in their own right,” says James Grant, founder of Starworks, a London-based brand/celebrity marketing agency, who lists the Filipino blogger Bryanboy alongside Lady Gaga, Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton as the leading influencers for brand tie-ups.

However, blogs are not magazines and bloggers – in particular, the independent, personality-led ones – have built their profile through their close relationship to their readers. What happens if they are seen to be leveraging that for profit? After all, the reason brands might want to pay them is precisely because they aren’t linked to brands.

Paradoxically, it is possible that their very success could ultimately be their undoing. In this, they are simply the latest iteration of a recurring theme: fashion’s ability to identify, and co-opt, an influential minority. It happened with those who rejected fashion’s rules (hippies, punks), it happened with those who wanted to be ironic and distant from fashion (Tom Ford’s early Gucci), and it has already happened with the first wave of bloggers.

“I don’t feel compromised,” says Sasha Wilkins, whose popular personality-led blog LibertyLondonGirl charts her style and lifestyle as an “English style editor in Manhattan”. “I am very transparent on my website about what I have received free or done in association with a brand campaign,” she says. “I think that is the key, and also only selecting things that make sense for you and your site.”

Susie Lau, founder of Style Bubble, says: “People talk about blog followers like they are stupid and blindly being manipulated. They’re a lot smarter than that and can see when something is branded.

“There’s a trust issue though. Blog followers feel more closely connected to you, even though you are not friends, so you have to be honest. That’s what I did when I started blogging full-time. I said to my readers, ‘I have to pay rent and eat so you may see an ad or two,’ and they were fine. For me it’s a non-issue, and also takes away from what bloggers do, which is to provide a lot of content for people, for free. Ninety per cent of my content is nothing to do with partnerships or money.”

One prominent blogger who believes commercial tie-ups are an inevitable result of blogging becoming, for some, a business says: “As more and more of the most influential bloggers move from blogging part-time to making it the main focus of their professional activity, they are necessarily looking for ways to monetise their influence in order to make a living.

“Where the murkiness begins is that there are no clear rules for how this should be managed [notwithstanding some Federal Trade Commission guidelines in the US]. I do believe that some bloggers are making short-term monetisation choices, which will affect the longevity and long-term success of their blogs.”

So, if you find yourself surfing the web during lunch hour and spy, say, Ashley Greene in Donna Karan at the premiere of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, and think, “Hmmm, that would be good for the Christmas party ... ” pause for a moment, before you click the “go to site” link and consider the chain of events that might have led you to that image.

Then ask yourself: do you really want that dress? Or do you want that dress because a particular blogger showed it to you and you like that blog? And if they did show it to you, did they do so because they liked it too or because the brand asked them to? The answers are no longer as simple as they once appeared.

FT Gift guide: One week before Christmas

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How do you keep track of the trendsetters?

How you quantify real online influence remains a subject of debate in the fashion industry, writes Lucie Greene.

Scott Schuman of the Sartorialist

Scott Schuman of the Sartorialist

Matthew Rhodes, strategy director at Fresh Networks, a social media agency, says, “There’s no industry standard for measuring viral impact ... Google Analytics can tell you how long someone has been on a site, and the size of its audience, but you can’t find out what people have done as a response to that influence. There’s little nuance or understanding of the real impact of influence.”

One venture hoping to help fashion brands fill the knowledge gap is digital marketing consultancy Joyn. Founded by former Nokia executive Mat Bickley, it uses Linkfluence, a digital research tool devised in France and aimed specifically at measuring social media data, to track online responses to campaigns, celebrities and events and to create detailed qualitative assessments and analysis of this data for fashion brands.

This year the company published a report assessing the most influential fashion blogs, online magazines and websites in the UK and US, basing its finding on the numbers of inbound links, ie links from external websites to the influencer’s website, and on links from “key peer group” users, often in the fashion industry, who are themselves perceived to be “influencers” and who in Joyn’s system boost a blogger’s influence ratings. The report, due to be updated on a monthly subscription basis, found the top five blogs to be Scott Schuman’s the Sartorialist, followed by IndependentFashionBloggers.org, Garance Doré, Style Bubble and Jak & Jil. The top five websites were Style.com, Fashionista.com, Refinery29.com, WWD.com (the site of insider fashion publication Women’s Wear Daily) and photoblog StreetPeeper.com.

Bickley says: “With 15 of the top 20 brand influencers being personal bloggers, we’re watching paid media and PR rapidly lose its power to dictate trends and influence people.”

The need for brands to get a handle on the influence issue is pressing. A report this year, by the Fondazione Altagamma, an Italian luxury trade body, found 27 per cent of European and US consumers consult blogs before purchasing items; in China, it was 58 per cent.

The problem, says Sasha Wilkins, author of the blog LibertyLondonGirl, is trying to define online influence accurately. “If you take a blog like, say, the very popular Cupcakes & Cashmere, there are hundreds of comments from readers on it but they mean nothing as most of them are one or two words, with a link back to the commentator’s blog. They mean nothing in terms of influence and are a simple reflection of her high traffic. But if you look at the comments on other major blogs, they can be mini essays. These comments, though fewer in number, are worth far more.”

Rhodes of Fresh Networks says: “Time on a site doesn’t mean influence, necessarily, any more than the volume of traffic does. An A-list celebrity might have thousands of fans but their real influence may be nothing. Meanwhile, a mum on Mumsnet may have fewer readers but wield massive influence on her peers. Ultimately, brands need to be strategic and focused.”

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