NEW YORK, United States — The pandemic has not been kind to fashion media, as plunging ad sales have forced publishers to cut staff and shutter publications. A growing number of writers and commentators, however, are starting their own ventures with self-published podcasts and newsletters.
In May, freelance writer Jonah Weiner and Apple talent scout Erin Wylie launched the fashion newsletter Blackbird Spyplane. For anywhere from $5 a month to $100 a year, subscribers can access a "Classified SpyTalk" chat room as well as “BlackBird SpyMall,” a curated selection of products that offer “unbeatable recon."
Subscribers to the menswear podcast Throwing Fits can pay $5 to $20 a month for exclusive content, merchandise and access to a chat room on the platform Discord and co-hosts Lawrence Schlossman and James Harris.
Garance Doré, who has found success as a fashion blogger, photographer and illustrator, among other pursuits, also has a members-only chatroom. For $8 a month, fans can access a private newsletter, videos and podcasts, all ad-free. Those who splurge for a $72 annual subscription also receive two high-resolution prints by Doré.
Many creators are now looking to find more success with their own followings, hoping that fans will pay for services and content that other outlets and influencers have given away for free. Fewer writers and media personalities were finding fame and fortune via the likes of Condé Nast even before the pandemic, and the health crisis has dealt an additional blow. Self-publishing is also open to anyone, including creators of colour who were historically shut out of many opportunities in legacy media.
The newsletter platform Substack and subscription service Patreon have partially filled the void, allowing writers to upload content and send it directly to paying subscribers’ inboxes. In a sea of free online content, motivating users to subscribe — and more importantly, renew — their subscriptions month after month, can be an arduous task. But it can also provide the freedom to create content designed for devoted followers rather than algorithms and advertisers.
“I was one of the people who contributed in creating that expectation that digital words and art … should be free,” said Doré in a blog post announcing her new venture in June. “Never did I wonder what exactly I was saying about my value as an artist.”
A successful newsletter or podcast can snowball into merchandise, live events and other lucrative outlets, though the indie content boomlet has yet to produce the sort of singular personal brands or media empires that came out of the blogging world or Instagram. But a growing number of creators are generating a steady income, even if they can’t walk away from freelance work just yet.
“The ecosystem for fashion writers on Substack is still pretty nascent,” said Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie. “Fashion is kind of waking up to this being an option.”
A One-Person Show
Newsletter subscription models first took hold in the tech sector and Silicon Valley, with the most notable success being analyst Ben Thompson’s Stratechery newsletter. (Thompson hasn’t given a recent breakdown of subscribers, but the newsletter has been his full-time job since 2014, and in 2015 he stated he had over 2,000 subscribers paying $10 a month or $100 a year.)
Many fashion podcasts and newsletters start at a $5 or $10 entry for access to exclusive episodes or newsletters, and depending on the perks, double by tiers. Some also include packages for super fans — Blackbird SpyPlane offers a “Saint-Tier SuperSpy” level of $100 for those who want to show extra support.
Blackbird Spyplane gained traction after scoring a rare interview with Andre 3000, as well as a reputation for memeable graphics that are circulated among devoted subscribers. (Andre 3000 was a fan of the newsletter’s coverage of the CIA origins of the Rage Against the Machine logo.) The platform recently launched several subscriptions and currently has over 4,000 subscribers.
Weiner spends roughly half his time on the newsletter, and half on features for The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and other publications. He has developed a kind of alter-ego for the newsletter, a voice that varies from his freelance reporting.
“It helps make the newsletter that much more idiosyncratic and fun to follow as a reader,” said Weiner. “You can start to get these in-jokes and get a sense for this character who’s narrating the newsletter.”
Still, fashion has been slower to embrace newsletters, in part because the industry has traditionally relied on dramatic visuals and celebrity interviews to drive traffic.
“One of the problems is that [Substack is] not visual,” said former Teen Vogue Chief Content Officer and Out magazine Editor-in-Chief Phillip Picardi. “It’s hard to feel incentivised to create on Substack regularly when the capabilities are so limited on the platform.”
After leaving Out, Picardi started his own Substack newsletter, Fruity. He sold subscriptions for $5 a month, and accumulated over 5,000 paid and free subscribers. He later paused the project to focus on a podcast, Unholier Than Thou, produced by Crooked Media, a company created by the founders of the political podcast Pod Save America.
Creators are on their own to produce, edit, fact-check, advertise and market their services, without the stability and benefits from a full-time job. Substack is testing Substack Defender, a legal support service to writers, and has said it is investing in editing, healthcare, distribution, design and even co-working spaces for users.
Many have leaned into the DIY nature of these platforms, offering collage graphics and a personal tone that resonates with subscribers, reminding them that they’re supporting a personal project or a small business.
“The ethos of my show specifically is that it is rough around the edges, it’s not polished,” said Recho Omondi, designer and host of fashion podcast The Cutting Room Floor. “The guests are credible, the conversation isn’t polished. It’s that combination.”
Omondi pushes guests like Heron Preston, Ava Nope and Martine Rose on questions — asking Rose if her brand has gone beyond her control, or why Preston doesn’t consider himself a political person — leading to conversations that feel spontaneous rather than scripted.
Leaving Advertising Behind
Schlossman and Harris gained followings from working at Complex Media, leaving full-time jobs earlier this year at resale site Grailed and record label Def Jam, respectively, after launching Throwing Fits, a follow-up to another popular menswear podcast hosted by Barstool Sports they started in 2016 called Failing Upwards.
In what’s become a common digital-media-to-subscription-model story, the two left Barstool after disagreements about the business and its shared advertising revenue model, eventually moving to a subscription model that allowed them more freedom to pursue their interests.
“What I would say to our comrades is welcome to the resistance,” said Schlossman of those joining subscription models, describing traditional media as a “racket” and “completely pointless.”
They also control the rights to the content they create; when they left Barstool Sports, the company held onto the intellectual property for Failing Upwards.
Picardi described a similar motivation for starting his own newsletter. “I wanted to make sure that my intellectual property was going to be protected, which is not something that happens in a lot of big publishing houses,” said Picardi. “That’s kind of how these contracts are laid out and that’s an incredibly predatory way of doing business.”
Throwing Fits has a following among ardent menswear fans, with three paid subscription tiers of $5, $10 and $20 on Patreon that generate about $17,500 a month from roughly 2,800 subscribers. “It’s not life-changing money or anything but it’s definitely a salary,” said Harris. “Now we have the freedom to pursue other things that are ancillary to the core product.”
It’s not life-changing money or anything but it’s definitely a salary.
Harris and Schlossman have partnered with Grailed, Schlossman’s previous employer, for selections from the site, menswear rental site Seasons and more recently a shoe collaboration with Italian manufacturers Diemme. Throwing Fits has also signed with talent agency W.M.E. in May, and Schlossman and Harris are planning a tour once pandemic restrictions ease.
While blogging and Instagram helped creators outside of traditional fashion media cultivate followers and influence within fashion, subscription models so far have largely favoured those with established followings and traditional, largely white, backgrounds within fashion media.
Alternative forms of media have also become a lifeline for writers who have faced backlash or criticism from readers or their own publishers. In recent months fashion writer Leandra Medine and food columnist Alison Roman have started newsletters through Substack.
“It’s really hard to monetise these things unless you already have an established following,” said Evan Shinn, co-creator of the popular skincare meme page and podcast Dewy Dudes with Emilio Quezada. Neither come from traditional media backgrounds — Quezada is a musician, Shinn a graphic designer — or have large followings on their personal accounts.
A dedicated Instagram or Twitter following doesn’t directly translate into paying subscribers, and a Substack newsletter isn’t going to turn into a media empire overnight.
“Are you gonna be Rupert Murdoch? I don’t know … you definitely can create a living,” said Omondi. “The overhead is so low, as long as the quality is good and the audience comes back, that is hook, line and sinker.”
Are you gonna be Rupert Murdoch? I don’t know … you definitely can create a living.
The internet has seen previous waves of self-published content, including a political blogging boom in the 2000s.
“I feel like this thing is going to implode again,” said Claire Carusillo, who started the beauty newsletter My Second or Third Skin in 2015 through TinyLetter and recently revived it as That Wet Look through Substack.
Carusillo worked at Eater under Vox Media before she started My Second or Third Skin, but gained most of her audience through her newsletter.
“Nobody took me seriously or paid me to do any journalism until they saw my newsletter,” said Carusillo, adding that her background at Vox connected her with popular writers and editors. “I don’t think this is a realistic way to create a following if you don't have at least five people who have some sort of power in media already reading it.”
While both the Dewy Dudes meme page and podcast have gained co-signs and coverage from New York magazine, i-D and Mel magazine, Shinn and co-creator Quezada are cautious to expand to a paid subscription tier just yet.
“Trying to stay authentic, without sounding cheesy or corny, is a really hard thing to do,” said Shinn.
But the new generation of podcasters and newsletter publishers have a deep reservoir of goodwill to draw from.
“People are desperate to feel a part of something, especially when the world is spiralling out of control,” said Chris Black, founder of the branding agency Done to Death Projects, who began co-hosting a podcast with Jason Stewart during the pandemic. “I think a lot of people are just happy that the people they like are making money.”