Check out any fashion magazine or blog, and you’ll find a “street-style” photo of a young beauty, dressed in some super-cool outfit, casually snapped on the street. The concept is rooted in the 1970s work of New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham but it reached an apex with The Sartorialist, launched in 2005. And many copycats have followed.
But what began as a spontaneous phenomenon has fast become one of the most powerful tools in digital marketing, selling everything from clothes to accessories to beauty products. “Street-style” images aren’t captured fortuitously much anymore. The women in the photos are most likely fashion bloggers or “high-impact style influencers,” as they’re called in the industry. And the “street” photographer is contractually paid to show up and shoot. The outfit, down to her nail polish, has been given to her by some big fashion brand in exchange for her promoting her look to her many thousands of fans and followers. The most successful of these bloggers can net in the low six figures a year.
Bronx-born fashion wunderkind Daniel Saynt recently launched Socialyte Collective, a marketing company that works with brands such as James Jeans, Sigerson Morrison and Pink & Pepper. It also represents several bloggers, including Beca Alexander of FashionIndie, Julia Engel of Gal Meets Glam, Kristal Bick of This Time Tomorrow and Lauren Elsner of On The Racks, all of whom are transparent about sponsored content, though none of them responded to interview requests to talk about street style.
“These young bloggers are savvy businesswomen who’ve figured out how to capitalize on their image and work the system,” Saynt says. “Fashion bloggers have huge reach and the brands have figured that out.”
How does it work during a high-profile event like Fashion Week, which ends on Thursday? Once Socialyte matches the brand with the right blogger, “We style and dress them in their given brands every day. We send them out to the shows and parties, and our paid street photographers shoot them.” The bloggers then post the images to their networks - and voila! Viral magic.
It’s not quite like doping in sports, but still, many journalists and editors believe the lines have blurred, especially when bloggers praise the brands that pay them. When DAME reached out to several editors, few were willing to be quoted about the practice.
It’s probably safe to say though that traditional editorial doesn’t bat an eye at the practice. “Saynt’s company is simply following the wave of digital and editorial,” says Louis Sarmiento, vice president and publisher of the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week publication Daily Front Row. “He’s got a great connection with the bloggers and he’s using them to enhance advertising… no crime in that.”
Annie Vazquez of Fashion Poet (pictured left) is frank about her relationship with brands. “[They] give me clothes and pay me to write sponsored posts to promote their products. A major brand paid me $10,000 once for a month-long campaign.”
“Selling ‘street-style’ images is simply capitalism at work,” says fashion-marketing strategist, Crosby Noricks, founder of PR Couture. “The original concept has been corrupted and co-opted but it’s not really fair to attack the blogger for manipulating the situation. It’s the machine behind them that tries to fool people into thinking there’s no business side to fashion.”
OK, so don’t shoot the messengers but are the photos even convincing? According to freelance photographer Margrit Wenzel, “we try to make the photos look as natural and seem as spontaneous as possible. I’ll take [a blogger’s] picture on the street as if I didn’t know her.” Wenzel says that Beca Alexander contracted her for faux street style in FashionIndie.
The fact that “street-style” photos are fake isn’t the conspiracy of the century. In fact, maybe it’s a relief to those who agonize over pulling off that perfect look.
Hillary Kerr, co-founder and editorial director of the fashion and celebrity trend site Who What Wear, points out that “whatever inspires real women everywhere to put together looks and feel empowered is great.”
Other insiders see it as yet another illusion, no more harmful than any other. “The fashion industry is a lot of smoke and mirrors,” says Fashion Bomb Daily blogger and Italian Vogue contributor Claire Sulmers. She’s never traded in paid content but thinks that “as long as bloggers disclose what they receive for free and if they were paid to do it, then I guess it's fair and fine.”
That said, every illusory bubble must pop sometime. “Average readers are savvy to the lack of authenticity,” Kerr says. “Ultimately it isn’t sustainable.”