MOSCOW, Russia — “My girlfriend was bored. I tried to figure out how to entertain her, found an issue of Arena magazine and thought: why don’t we go out, take pictures of stylish people in the street and publish them on the Internet?” said Vasily Esmanov, recalling the moment in 2005 that would lead him, one year later, to found Lookatme.ru, a Russian website that’s probably the most powerful fashion site you’ve never heard of.
Officially founded in 2006, at a time when fashion blogs hadn’t yet caught on in Russia, Lookatme.ru took a typical street-style approach. But while searching Moscow streets for people with great style, Esmanov ended up discovering kindred spirits. “At that moment in time, if you saw a stylish young person in Moscow, he or she was guaranteed to be interesting and have something in common with you,” he said. “There was no Topshop in Moscow yet, so having good style worked as a certain code."
Esmanov met and photographed much of Moscow’s creative crowd — young designers who now sell their collections in Europe and photographers who now have exhibitions in prominent Moscow galleries — asking them not only what they were wearing, but also what they were reading and listening to. Look At Me soon expanded beyond a style blog and into the realm of social networking. In 2007, the site launched an events service that functioned a lot like today’s Facebook events feature, letting users see what parties or concerts friends were attending. Esmanov would also photograph the events, posting images that resembled those appearing on sites like Dirty Dirty Dancing for others to see and tag. “Look At Me was a successful street-style and party reports blog at the time and Vasily thought he could develop a social media site based on that," said Alexey Amyotov, Esmanov’s partner and now Look At Me’s CEO. “He knew almost every creative person in Moscow and he wanted them to contribute to the site and have their own social network.”
With this ambition in mind, Esmanov and Amyotov soon discovered the third member of their team — Katya Bazilevskaya, former Publicis Groupe Media Russia employee and now Look At Me’s Chief Commercial Officer — and the three, at the time all under the age of 25, started to develop Look At Me as a social media business.
“We understood that to deliver we needed to hire designers and developers, but we had no money," said Amyotov. “We approached a small, very cool and creative web-studio called Nimbler and offered them a share in the future project in return for their skills,” he continued. “Then each of us added 5,000 euros of our personal funds to pay initial salaries and buy office equipment — and that’s how we basically got started.”
Today, Lookatme.ru has grown into an influential media site focused on fashion, film, music and design, attracting 100,000 visits a day and 1.5 million unique visitors a month. There are Look At Me events and gallery shows, and registered users can contribute content (only the best posts appear on the front page) and connect and communicate with other likeminded people. Most are from Moscow and Saint Petersburg, though the site also has a large following in Kiev, in the Ukraine, and a number of smaller Russian cities. A Look At Me online store carries brands like Complex Geometries, Stine Goya, Carin Wester alongside a number of promising young Russian designers and a selection of vintage clothing. And just last year, Look At Me gave birth to a Moscow “web-newspaper” called the-village.ru and launched its own internet radio platform. As always, the site features street-style looks, but these days, most are user-submitted.
Interestingly, outside Russia, Look At Me became known for LAM Magazine, a short-lived, but highly trendy web magazine based on the site. A total of six issues came out in 2008, before the project closed forever. “It was so perky and so amateur, but that was its charm,” Esmanov remembered. “Foreigners loved it — they couldn’t understand the writing, which was rarely of high quality, but the magazine itself looked cool and avant-garde." Indeed, shortly after LAM launched, Jefferson Hack of Dazed & Confused came to Moscow and asked the magazine to work on a dummy issue for a (never realized) Russian edition of Dazed and Confused.
Look At Me has also managed to turn a healthy profit. While the site runs standard banner advertising, most of their revenue comes from special advertising projects. The first such project was with Volvo, back in 2008. “We didn’t have much traffic back then and we understood that we needed to offer advertisers something highly creative and expensive," said Amyotov. “We decided that, in terms of advertising sales, we should position ourselves as a magazine rather than a website where you pay for clicks," he continued. “We practically started selling image advertising, just like magazines did. It was unusual for digital advertising, but after the first project came out, everyone started to talk about it.”
“We do advertising for the brands that value their image. We don’t generate traffic," said Amyotov. “What we sell is contact with a unique audience.” Indeed, these bespoke advertising projects were so successful, sometimes winning digital advertising awards, that Nimbler stopped working for external clients and merged with Look At Me, becoming its “Special Projects Department.”
The site also offers brands a variety of content opportunities. “A brand can sponsor a ‘flow’ dedicated to some potentially interesting topics,” said Katya Bazilevskaya. “The only thing that a flow can’t be about is the brand itself — the subject is usually connected to something that the brand would like to be associated with," she continued. “For example, Beefeater sponsors reports from London Fashion Week. We also can create branded content — flows with content that is specially tailored for brands and based on crucial brand territories. For instance, Pantene Nature Fusion has a popular flow about eco-inspired design and fashion, while Volkswagen Polo sponsors stories on European city life, written by European city natives or insiders.”
But sponsored flows (and banner campaigns) are available only to brands who understand and accept Look At Me’s clear “no editorial support” policy. There are other restrictions: no politics or religion, no medicine, no plastic surgery, no gambling, and for cigarettes, no direct advertising. “We never accepted those categories of clients even when we were in desperate need of money," said Bazilevskaya. “The audience that we have grown is sensible and we don’t want them to see anything tasteless on our website, and that goes for bad ads and obtrusive ‘editorial support’ too."
In order to retain complete editorial independence and stay true to its roots, Look At Me has decided not to pursue external investment. “Theoretically speaking we could have an investor — somebody who we’d love to work with to develop the site,” said Amyotov. “But we haven’t met such a person yet and we’re not really looking.”
But whether it’s due to the decision not to seek external investment, a non-editorial-support policy (that is still considered a commercial suicide among many publishers), or the fact that most of the editorial team is 19-25 years old, Look At Me still retains its original cool factor.
“We never pursued money for money," said Amyotov. “If we did, we would think of something else to do — there are a lot of ways to make fast money in Russia. They are just not as exciting."
Julia Vydolob is a Senior Fashion Editor at Look At Me.