CHICAGO, United States – Of all the figures who quickly rose to international fame and notoriety as fashion blogging took flight a few years ago, the youngest by far – and perhaps the most controversial – was Tavi Gevinson, the pint-sized suburban Chicagoan who started writing a blog called Style Rookie from her bedroom in March 2008 at the age of eleven.
At first, Style Rookie was a mixture of personal reflections, runway reviews and photos about Gevinson’s daily outfits. In October of 2008, Teen Vogue described Tavi as having “dead-on style observations and fearless fashion sense.” Indeed, unlike the more typically pretty clothes worn by most of her blogging contemporaries, Gevinson mixed thrift-store finds with more cerebral pieces from Comme des Garçons and Rodarte.
“I was really obsessed with musicals and I was really into the idea of how [for] each character there is a completely different set of costumes and different style of music and everything, and I guess fashion just went well with that?” Gevinson wonders aloud, at her choice of outfits. It was Tavi’s passionate critiques and honest commentary on the fashion industry and its idiosyncrasies, however, that really set her apart and soon earned her sought-after gigs writing for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and POP.
Some observers wondered whether Tavi was a hoax, backed by an organised team of managers looking to manufacture an Internet star. But anyone who met Tavi in person quickly realised that she was the real deal. A kind of prodigy, Tavi was polite, charming, articulate and a self-described pop culture nerd, and in many ways, quite unlike anyone else who has ever held the attention of the entire fashion industry.
In recent years, Gevinson has extended her influence well beyond her blog, speaking at conferences, starring in films, appearing in advertising campaigns and, mostly importantly, founding Rookie, “a new site for teenage girls” – part life-guide, part conversation, and part rebellion – of which Ms. Gevinson is the editor-in-chief. And all this before turning sixteen years old.
“It’s a little weird and embarrassing,” says Gevinson, reflecting on how quickly everything has happened and her growth from a sometimes awkward 11 year old into a confident young woman before a global internet audience. "But I don’t really feel that that experience isn’t my own or like it belongs to these other people on the internet and not to me. I’m OK with the amount that I have shared, though a couple of angsty Tumblr posts could be deleted!”
Although she says she wasn’t really aware of it at the time, Gevinson’s blog posts enabled her to develop what people in the editorial world call a point of view. “The thing that has worked out for me is just that writing everyday and collecting all those images and chronicling style, helped me shape my editorial sense and my writing tone," she says. “Those things were totally all necessary to knowing how to start Rookie.”
Gevinson says her ultimate goal with Rookie is to reflect women as multi-faceted and flawed as opposed to the “two-dimensional superwomen” who dominate the mainstream media. It’s an approach that’s clearly resonating. Rookie registered more than 1 million page views in the first five days after launch and within its first 6 months had received more than 4 million visits and over 13 million pageviews, according to statistics provided by Gevinson.
The success of the independently launched Rookie signals a potentially radical shift in the media landscape. Since the birth of modern media, the vast majority of people creating programming for teenagers were adults. But by using easily accessible technology, Gevinson’s Rookie offers content that’s made for teenagers, by teenagers. “There used to be this culture which [was] totally created by adults,” she says. “But when you are a teenager you’re more likely to listen to your friends or siblings than to your parents or teachers.”
Amazingly, Gevinson manages to do all of her work on Rookie around her school schedule. “I divide my day up in two. I have school and I have Rookie, work related commitments, homework time and I have sleep, and then I have a slot for time to myself, or time to hangout with friends, or time to just relax and that kind of thing,” she says. “So I just try to make sure I go through all of those without getting distracted or without procrastinating or starting on another thing too early and just try to do one thing at a time.”
“My schedule also happens to be [the] schedule of all of our readers,” she adds, “so [I post an article] once right after school, once at dinner and once right before bed, and that works out. I think it’s nice, it’s all about the reader’s schedule in a way.”
The Rookie website was originally set to launch in partnership with Jane Pratt, the founder of Sassy magazine, one of Gevinson’s most important cultural references, and Say Media, a digital publishing company. “They would be doing a lot of dirty work for us, the more tedious HTML stuff, like going into Wordpress and moderating the comments” she says. But following the advice of Ira Glass, who is married to Rookie editorial director Anaheed Alani and is host and producer of weekly radio programme “This American Life”, Tavi and team came to the conclusion that they could do it on their own.
“Being independent was what I wanted more than anything — and being able to have full control. So, we figured out we could do that and Jane said she would support me in any decision we ended up making, and continues to be a kind of mentor. She helped me realise that Rookie could actually happen and we were very lucky to have had her help and blessing.”
Today, Gevinson’s main focus is on overseeing the website’s content, supported by a lean team of experienced editors and writers. “So, at the beginning of April, I send them a moodboard of all of the images that, the kinds of imagery that I want for May: the colours, the name of the theme, and all of the different things we will be writing about and the style of music that I want. I want to capture a mood for that one month before we move onto another theme.”
“I look at everything the night before it goes up. I’ll change a headline, or have a couple last minute notes. I write some of the pieces. I order the photos and upload it into Wordpress and everything,” she explains.
The result is a site for teenage girls the world over. “I don’t really feel there is a huge difference between girls from other places in the world,” she says. “Friendships and relationships; and family; and experiences with mental illness and sexual harassment; I don’t think those are particularly American things. The girls that are reading it who don’t live in the US, their tastes are already not specific to wherever they are from. They’ve developed it from pictures on Tumblr or movies that have been easier to watch because of the internet. I don’t really think of my tastes as very specifically American because it just comes from images that I’ve seen online.”
So, how will Rookie make money? For starters, New York magazine takes care of the ads. “Advertising is our main source of revenue and right now we are looking into ads on the site that aren’t just the banner ads. We do sponsored content that doesn’t alter the editorial content at all,” she says. “There will just be a logo and then at the bottom it will say ‘this post was sponsored by whatever’, but they didn’t tell us how to write it.”
There are plans for monetising Rookie offline as well. “We’d like to be able to start doing events and meetups where we actually meet our readers. [There are] some projects we can’t afford to do without collaborating,” says Gevinson, “but it’s not like we are taking other people’s money and just putting their logos on our site. There are [also potential] collaborations – one might be with a store, but I guess their aesthetic aligns with our aesthetic.”
And while Rookie is Gevinson’s principle focus, her activities don’t end there. She has a role alongside Christopher Lloyd and Academy Award winner Kathy Bates in the new animated film Cadaver in which she sings Neil Young’s classic ‘Heart of Gold’, has appeared in ad campaigns for AOL and Uniqlo, for which she was paid a fee, and speaks at high profile conferences, most recently for The Economist. And, of course, she still has her original blog Style Rookie, but “it’s just a hobby now, it goes under that slot of ‘me time.’"
Many of these activities are overseen and managed by Tavi’s father, who is now retired. “I guess he’s technically my manager or something. He enjoys traveling and wants to keep tabs on everything and wants to make sure everything is fair, so he’s taken to that position quite nicely,” she says. On the Rookie masthead, he and Mr Glass are described as "guardian angels."
And while other star fashion bloggers have dived head first into round-the-world tours of global fashion weeks, tweeting enthusiastically about the latest fashion collections, press days, ad campaigns and magazines, Tavi seems somewhat more distanced from the fashion community.
“I haven’t purposely distanced myself from it, my interests have just shifted a bit,” she explains. “I still love clothes and fashion. I guess it’s just for me to create my own world and I’m now more interested in music and in movies and in other kinds of writing. Also with Rookie, I don’t have time to keep up with a lot of fashion stuff.”
The distance seems to have given her a healthy sense of perspective. “I feel when I was once obsessed with fashion, I was more defensive of it – the modeling, the weight standards, the beauty standards it sets, and how young the models are,” says Gevinson, reflecting on her shifting interests.
Indeed, adolescence also seems to have nurtured Tavi’s inner feminist, something she says has been there all along. “Feminism is a lens through which I view various situations and decisions I have to make, and just makes thinking about those things easier for me,” she explains. “I guess at the end of 8th grade, I found out about Sassy, I found out about Riot Grrrl. I write a feminist blog and I started to understand I was probably a feminist my whole life I just never knew that’s what believing in gender equality was called.”
“Personal beliefs change as you change as a person, but because feminism is a conversation and a process, and not rule book and leads the way for those beliefs to change, I know that I will always agree with the basic principles, so that’s why I feel I can safely say this isn’t a teen angst phase.”
But in between overseeing her website, writing her blog and attending high-school, does she ever have time to be a normal teenager?
“It’s really nice to go home to my bedroom and my friends and things that seemed very mundane when I was in middle school, which are very valuable to me now.”
Imran Amed is founder and editor-in-chief of The Business of Fashion