STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Last month, Bryanboy robbed Prada. But fashion’s original influencer is making no apologies for it.
“Today was the worst,” says Bryanboy with a healthy dose of irony, beginning a TikTok post documenting the act. “Can you imagine? I almost went to jail for theft?” After falling in love with a “major pair of earrings” from Prada’s online-only Spring/Summer 2021 show, he hatched a plan during Milan fashion week last month to unleash his “inner kleptomaniac.”
The next day, Bryanboy, whose real name is Bryan Grey Yambao, went to the Italian label’s showroom to see the collection in person. Once he spotted the earrings, he snatched them from the display, quickly slid them into his Issey Miyake coat pocket, and suspiciously fled the premises while trying not to look, well, suspicious.
But you won’t find Yambao in criminal court any time soon. That’s because the high-end heist was a work of fiction, staged for his popular TikTok account, which he started in April to combat boredom and seize a fast-emerging opportunity while quarantining in Stockholm, Sweden, where he lives. “Corona made me do it,” says Yambao. Six and a half months later, he has surpassed 1.1 million TikTok followers, roughly double the 585,000 followers he has amassed on Instagram.
On TikTok, whenever you post something fashion related, there has to be storytelling, there has to be a narrative.
Yambao thinks the highly-curated aesthetic of people looking perfect on Instagram has gone stale, especially during the pandemic. “What I love about TikTok is that it makes fashion alive again. It makes fashion exciting again,” he says. “[Instagram] is very static, very one dimensional; whereas on TikTok, whenever you post something fashion related, there has to be storytelling, there has to be a narrative.”
Yambao’s fashion influencer peers are expanding their presence on TikTok too, but many rely on posting what they wear to glamorous events or exotic locations. Never mind that these activities, now standard fashion influencer fare on Instagram, have been hit by social distancing measures. They also translate poorly on a platform which favours authentic, fun, and low production video content. Some have turned to more personal at home videos featuring their cooking skills or dancing to the latest dance memes like WAP from Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion in hopes of ending up on #FYP, TikTok’s For You Page, the platform’s hit-making holy grail.
Yambao’s TikToks, by contrast, are more often short-form skits more akin to Absolutely Fabulous, the hit British show depicting the fictional lives of fashion-obsessed train wrecks Edina (Monsoon) and Patsy (Stone). “Bryan never really had an outlet for his true comedic voice,” says Peter Knell, Yambao’s former agent at IMG, who now runs his own advisory firm, Knell. “He always wanted someplace to put it. I don't know if he ever really had a place to put it until now.”
In many of his TikTok videos, Yambao, 38, lampoons his own public persona: a sassy, flamboyant, candid and globe-trotting gay fashionista with an insatiable appetite for luxury goods, casting expensive products from world-famous brands like Prada as his inanimate co-stars, often with “high-low” humour that plays on social class the tastes of the nouveaux riches.
In one, after his ‘ex-husband’ took away his fictional Bentley and American Express card, he traded in his Chanel bag for bus fare so he could go visit a friend. But to “elevate” his public transport experience, he laid an Hermès cashmere blanket on his seat and drank a bottle of Cartier champagne from a metal straw. The video, titled “What It’s Like to Ride Bus for the First Time,” has been viewed 20.1 million times. Another, titled “What It’s Like to Fly Business Class for the First Time” clocked up 21.1 million views.
“I am not saving someone's life. I am not a firefighter. I am not a doctor… My life is quite easy,” says Yambao. “So the idea of creating a joke out of it and showing to people the complete opposite of what a really bad day is and then to just say, ‘Today is the worst’ — it’s satire and people love it.”
In the month of August, when Yambao’s videos featured Louis Vuitton, Dior, Saint Laurent, Cartier and Chanel, they collectively generated a combined $578,500 of earned media value on TikTok alone, according to Tribe Dynamics.
“If you are a fashion lover, it's a given that you know Bryanboy. However, that might not be true for the TikTok community. His fast growth speaks to TikTok's discoverability based purely on the content and connection to the audience,” says CeCe Vu, TikTok’s lead of fashion and beauty partnerships. “Bryan had the opportunity to tell his story again and re-introduce himself to this brand-new and unique community on TikTok.”
Before Bryanboy the TikTok star, there was Bryanboy the blogger. Back in 2004, while living in Manila, Philippines, he started a simple blog before others in fashion’s first wave of bloggers, including Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist, Susie Bubble, Garance Doré, Tavi Gevinson of Style Rookie and Tommy Ton. After saving 6 months of his salary working as a freelance web developer for mom-and-pop shops like his “dad’s dentist,” Yambao, then 22, could afford a trip to Moscow, Russia, a place he wanted to visit after seeing images of the country in Wallpaper magazine. Instead of emailing pictures to family and friends, he decided to share his experience with a travel journal on Typepad, an early blogging platform (where The Business of Fashion also began).
Yambao noticed that people had started sharing his blog, which grew steadily from 5 to 800 readers a day. When he got back to Manila three weeks later, he worked 20-hour days, candidly posting about his life and love for fashion using scanned magazine images. But, what drew people to the site was the now-trademark mock-serious, outrageously vain caricature he made of himself, which his early description of his blog encapsulated: “Adventures of the new-moneyed classless bitch from hell.”
While plenty of people hated his posts, more people loved them for their candid documentation of his wild nightlife exploits and luxury goods purchases, as well as his colourful, willfully politically incorrect one-liners, like: “There are only 2 types of places in this planet where a 400-pound man such as myself can turn into a beautiful, skinny, willowy swan. Either at your local liposuction clinic or the gym.”
Soon, Bryanboy memes popped up online, just when the term “internet meme” started to enter the vernacular. In the mid- to late-2000s, fans all over the world took pictures of themselves holding “I <3 Bryan Boy” signs, which he often posted on his blog. Among these fans was designer Marc Jacobs, then the creative director of French leather goods powerhouse Louis Vuitton, as well as his trendy New York-based namesake label.
Yambao’s look-at-my-bag pose showcasing expensive accessories like Louis Vuitton bags had made him infamous, and the gesture was often copied. In 2006, Fendi launched an ad campaign with model Angela Lindvall holding the Italian brand’s popular B bag’s mimicking the Bryanboy pose. But in 2008, Jacobs, at the height of his career, named a Louis Vuitton bag after Yambao called the BB Ostrich bag, a major coup which legitimised Yambao in the eyes of the fashion establishment.
In 2009, Dolce & Gabbana sat Yambao and his blogger peers in the front row of its Spring 2010 D&G show, next to powerful editors like Anna Wintour. And in 2010, Yambao was one of nine bloggers featured in the pages of American Vogue’s March “Power Issue” which recognised the disruption blogging was bringing to traditional fashion publishing. (Vogue’s editors would later see them as a threat to the industry, with Sally Singer, then magazine’s creative digital director, saying they heralded “the death of style” and Sarah Mower, Vogue.com chief critic, calling them “pathetic”).
Back then, Yambao relied on advertising and affiliate marketing to monetise his blog which, according to a 2010 article on New York magazine’s The Cut, generated $100,000 a year for its millions of monthly page views and 400,000 unique monthly visitors. But when Instagram launched in 2012, and Yambao and his contemporaries became more visible, brands began to recognise their power to influence consumer purchases and he pivoted his primary source of income to influencer deals.
“Before, the people who would hire talent used to be like C-level executives or heads of marketing. Suddenly, it became the head of social media under the PR group and so, divisionally, the people who controlled those purse strings changed, and so I think they were of his generation and they would internally convince their executives or their leadership that if they weren't a part of this cultural conversation, they would be left behind,” says former IMG agent Knell.
Today, Bryanboy counts fashion brands like Gucci, Valentino, Dior Beauty, Salvatore Ferragamo, Michael Kors, Tod’s and Blumarine as clients. Yambao declined to reveal how much he currently earns from these partnerships, but an influencer with his follower count typically earns six figures for a long-term brand ambassadorship, or $5,000 to $30,000 for single sponsored posts, according to market sources.
“The word reinventing to describe Bryan is great. I really admire him because he is always relevant to the time,” says Alessio Vannetti, Valentino’s Chief Brand Officer, who has been working with Yambao since 2010 when he was at Prada. “I used to call him generation 1.0, then I called him generation 2.0. Now, he’s generation 3.0.”
While the fashion industry is still reeling from the economic effects of Covid-19, people are spending more time online now. “I am in more business meetings than ever before,” says Yambao. And, on top of the typical influencer deals, he has been consulting with brands behind the scenes on digital strategy.
But Yambao hasn’t held back from criticising powerful fashion brands. The pandemic, combined with the police killing of George Floyd, have fuelled a new civil rights movement, and major fashion houses have been quick to get on the right side of the issue. But when French label Celine, late to the game, posted its support of Black Live Matter, Yambao made a TikTok highlighting the lack of diversity on its Instagram feed.
Nor is Yambao apologetic for who he is. He said a French luxury executive “freaked out” when they found pictures of him wearing a dress on Instagram. “From day one, I never really felt like I had an obligation to please people or to filter myself,” he says. “Brands have worked with me because of my voice then and because of my voice now. And I'm truly grateful for that in a sense because they already know what to expect. I’m opinionated. I'm very vocal on so many different aspects. And I have a personality.”
I used to call him generation 1.0, then I called him generation 2.0. Now, he’s generation 3.0.
Recently, Katie Grand, the super-stylist and former Love editor, tapped Yambao to be the Digital Director of Strategy and Creative Partnerships of The Perfect Magazine, her new branded content agency, which dispenses with the increasingly thin veneer of “church and state” division between editorial and advertising maintained by traditional fashion magazines and works more directly with brands to create content they can run on social media platforms.
“Whereas I and some other members of my team come from a world where print is really king, the way Bryan thinks is 180 degrees different from that,” says Grand. “He's always seeing things through the lens of platforms, through YouTube, Twitter and TikTok. This is someone who came from a really different starting point and I love the way his brain works."
“You have to think about these people [creators on TikTok] as publications. So, think of Bryan Boy’s TikTok as like a TV channel that talks about different things,” says Conor Begley, co-founder of Tribe Dynamics.
Some of Yambao’s peers, like Italian mega-influencer Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad, have taken their brands beyond social media, launching more fully developed businesses with editorial teams and lucrative product lines.
But Bryanboy remains largely a one-man show.
“It's always been me since day one. It's me, my personality, the characters I created, my vision, my humour, my point of view, my voice. It's my currency,” says Yambao.
But he’s looking ahead. “I don't want to make my public persona my bread and butter or a huge part of my business forever and slowly transition into something more behind the scenes,” he reasons. “I guess over time I want to rely less on my platforms as a way to put food on the table and Chanel in my closet.”