SHANGHAI, China — To China’s fashion cognoscenti, the name Ye Si probably doesn’t mean much. But rest assured that his alter ego ‘Gogoboi’ certainly rings a bell or two. Gogoboi — arguably the most influential style blogger in China and a member of the BoF 500 — is late to our interview, having coming straight from the dentist, where he had a rather unpleasant tooth extraction.
Staring through the glass walls of the café atop Shanghai’s 10 Corso Como, Gogoboi looks out over an intersection full of people hurrying in all directions around Wheelock Square. It is the very snapshot of China in the year 2014, a mixture of ancient and modern, with the city’s bustling business district on one side and the 780-year-old Jing’an Temple on the other.
Wearing a grey tracksuit and old sneakers, Gogoboi half-lies, half-sits in the middle of a sofa, hands crossed and resting on his chest, relaxed and radiating self-confidence. He is not like many of his blogger contemporaries abroad, who became famous by posting pictures of themselves in one outfit after another. Although his reputation grows with each passing day and he appears in public more and more often, Gogoboi did not start this venture with his personal style in mind. He doesn’t even look much like someone working in China’s exuberant fashion industry.
“This is a business,” he says, before adding rather bluntly. “I want to do more and earn more money.”
The business he’s referring to consists mostly of critiquing the style of Chinese and international celebrities, publishing fashion news and describing interesting products and stories connected to the world of fashion on China’s biggest social media platform, Weibo. His writing style is unique — full of imagination and so naughty that it makes some readers snicker against their will and better judgement.
Branding one actress as “a seaweed-wrapped rice ball on the red carpet,” Gogoboi’s essence, perhaps, is his ability to expose the embarrassing and unglamorous sides of the fashion and luxury industry. It is also about bringing style critique to public figures who have some relationship with fashion but who are not necessarily courting it.
The breakthrough in his Weibo career came in 2010, when a Gogoboi post ridiculed the well-known and rather rotund comedian Guo Degang for his love of wearing Givenchy — which was picked up by the mainstream entertainment media. Another huge leap came thanks to the actress Yao Chen, who is known as ‘the queen of Weibo’ for having more fans than anyone else in the country — at last count, almost 75 million of them.
It was when Yao shared Gogoboi’s comments on an outfit that generated over a thousand instant retweets. “It’s not so easy to see the bitter tongue as sweet,” she wrote, acknowledging the humorous side to Gogoboi’s critique. After that, Gogoboi was no longer considered a ‘self-entertaining’ blogger known only to insiders, but also to the wider public and even the celebrity fraternity. Despite his often sharp tongue, Gogoboi says that the actresses he’s met at events and shows “were all quite polite to me.”
But with almost 3 million fans and 300 million views a month (according to Weibo statistics), his meteoric rise to become China’s top fashion blogger took more than just a knack for making what are sometimes rather cutting critiques of celebrities.
Prior to his transformation as a power blogger, Gogoboi taught English at university and worked in a clothing company before becoming fashion features editor of Grazia China and later transitioning into public relations. He says that it was while working for Grazia that he realised opinion was important — it was also then that he learned how to express it.
Gogoboi recalls how, at the magazine, the other editors used to come to his desk and ask him again and again, “Who designed this look? Which season is it from?” His talent for spotting even obscure designer outfits and pieces out of context was what would help propel him forward as a quick-fire critic of celebrity style. It was in 2010, out of boredom, he says, that he registered his Weibo account and began blogging about celebrity style in earnest.
Although he was certainly not the first to do it, what made him the leader of the pack was how he seemed able to tread the fine line of amusing the public, but without being unprofessionally trashy in his wit.
“I don’t think I’m harsh,” he says. “I’m only discussing things in an interesting way and that’s what the public wants. I came from a traditional media company so I know that calling things ‘extravagant’, ‘sexy’ and ‘elegant’ all the time is really boring. The public wants to do exactly what I do, which is to express their opinion and their individuality. That’s why the brands see me as a bridge between them and the public.”
Brands have certainly been keen to employ him to be this bridge, commissioning Gogoboi to publish their news and comment on celebrities dressed in their collections. Some of the “high and mighty brands,” as he calls them, later became paying clients, inviting him to events and offering to fly him abroad to watch runway shows. “By now, any brand that attaches any importance to digital has contacted me. From Vuitton to Dior, I’ve met with the managers of them all. And you know what? That does makes me proud,” he says.
These days, he has two full-time assistants to help him collect material and retouch pictures. As a way of explaining the size and style of his operation, as well as alluding to his income, he says each assistant is paid a salary on par with that of a senior fashion editor based in Shanghai. But Gogoboi insists that the keyboard is firmly in his hands at all times and that it is still him writing every post.
“On a given day, at most, I can do three posts and an ad,” he says, showing some new work on his smartphone, including a photo series that uses Katy Perry’s album and single covers to illustrate how her style has evolved over her musical career.
“A lot of people don’t understand. They’re like, ‘How hard can it be?’ But there really is a lot of work that goes into it; it’s not just random posting. The content I publish is magazine-quality; the pictures are exquisite, the text is funny, full of substance, stories and jokes.”
Although a Weibo post is limited to nine images and 140 Chinese characters, his Weibo ad prices don’t go below 10,000 RMB (about $1600). However, adverts are only a small part of his business. Always on the look-out for new ways of working with his clients and monetising projects, at the moment he leans towards a “package approach” which sees him deliver a series of posts, as opposed to single messages.
Covering a fashion show, for example, might begin with a pre-show post, then interviews with front-row celebrities and designers backstage, before finishing with post-show commentary and a few street-style photos. With this approach, the payoff for brands is having bigger impact, while, for Gogoboi, it is bigger influence and bigger pay cheques.
It hasn’t always gone down smoothly — take the time he interviewed the A-lister Zhao Wei (Vicky Zhao), during Dior’s fall/winter 2014 show in Paris. “It was the first time I was being officially filmed while interviewing a celebrity and it was a catastrophe,” he laughs, remembering how they ran out of topics to discuss for the recorded interview because the pair chatted too much off-camera while waiting for the cameras to be set-up.
Generally though, Gogoboi’s talent for entertaining the public as well as the entertainers themselves is what keeps him in demand. Part of this comes from the way he actively cultivates a distance from the celebrities he critiques and interviews. Watching his seemingly warm on-camera rapport with celebrities like Kitty Zhang Yuqi at the Marc Jacobs show, the viewer might get the impression that Gogoboi is chummy with them off-camera too. However, he insists that he rejects any advances for friendship, personal invitations or interaction with celebrities on Weibo.
“Criticizing the style of the famous is the very foundation of my work. I wouldn’t be able to keep my position if I didn’t do that properly,” he says. “The secret of my success is the times we’re in. You can’t go against the flow, but you also have to adapt. I’m finding more and more limitations caused by the photo format, so videos are the next step in my business.”
Gogoboi’s latest venture is a celebrity interview series for Tencent, the internet giant behind the popular portal QQ.com and mobile messaging service Wechat, which will undoubtedly make him more money and further differentiate him from China’s other fashion and style bloggers. Tencent reportedly gave him free reign to gain sponsorship from brands or clients who invite each celebrity to take part in the video series.
“For my latest episode, as a supporting brand, Louis Vuitton arranged an interview for when Coco Rocha came to Shanghai to promote her new book and go to Elle magazine’s awards ceremony. We’ve already recorded a few episodes with various celebrities and we’ll soon start broadcasting. If the day comes when Weibo is no longer enough [as a channel], this way I can face new challenges with ease,” he says before mentioning that he continues to use Wechat actively and is also developing an app of his own, which is still very much hush-hush.
“Many people are beginning to tell me Weibo is not so popular anymore. But from where I’m standing, there hasn’t been much change. In China, it’s not that difficult to make money on Weibo. After you put some time into it, PR companies will naturally come looking for you. I know that some bloggers earn much more than I do on [TV] commercials though.”
What about brand consulting, styling or designing? No thanks. Gogoboi knows what he is good at and plans to stick to it, even though he claims he often gets juicy offers to join magazines full time.
Ultimately, it is his combination of confidence bordering on immodesty and a unique personality that are keeping him so in-demand in the digital fashion sphere. But above all, there seems to be a singular motivation and vision that keeps his blogging business ahead of his nearest rivals.
“A hundred million RMB,” he says, in a way that could be half-joking, half-thinking aloud or deadly serious. “Hey, in this still brand-new business, who’s to say something new can’t be done?”