PARIS, France — With high-profile campaigns for Burberry and DKNY Jeans, a best-selling book, and a place on TIME magazine’s 2007 list of Top 100 Design Influencers, Scott Schuman is the streetstyle blogger that paved the way for hundreds of others who have followed in his trailblazing footsteps. For the fashion flock, being shot for The Sartorialist website is still the ultimate badge of honour.
But Mr. Schuman’s influence is felt far beyond the blogosphere. His beautifully framed photos, which feature fashion insiders and football fans alike, now appear on mood boards in design studios around the world. His photographic style has inspired countless advertising campaigns and editorials.
This week, as he celebrates his blog’s sixth anniversary, traffic numbers are spiking. The Sartorialist had around 13 million page views last month, a 44 percent increase over the same month last year, something Schuman attributes to a recent site redesign for which he manually re-tagged more than five years of posts himself, enabling visitors to more easily search his growing archive.
This could turn out to be a particularly savvy investment of time and money. If current traffic levels are sustained and significant portion of the advertising inventory on The Sartorialist is sold, it could theoretically make Scott Schuman fashion’s first million dollar a year blogger.
According to Mr. Schuman, The Sartorialist was originally inspired by Brooklyn-based writer Grace Bonney’s interior design blog Design*Sponge. “I could tell she was doing it by herself and I liked the idea that she was having an interaction,” he said. “She had like 30 comments on a post and I thought that was really cool.” Schuman decided to start a similar blog for fashion after examining a series of photos he had taken of a few stylish guys in New York’s Fulton fish market while on a photography course.
Since these beginnings, the fashion industry has witnessed an explosion of ‘front-row’ fashion bloggers, something that has not always pleased Schuman, at least not at first. Last week, a controversial interview with Schuman was published, showing Schuman’s apparent disdain for some of his much younger blogging peers. “I’ve kind of changed my mind [about that],” he told BoF, looking back with some contrition and pointing out that the interview in question is more than 18 months old. “With everybody, our relationships have really evolved. As I got to know Bryanboy and Tavi more, I’ve come to respect their seriousness of it. It’s a struggle to try and build [something] and still maintain who you are.”
But even if he is now more at ease with his blogging brethren, from the beginning Schuman understood the value of strategically associating himself with the mainstream fashion media, who took interest in his photographic style. “There were no important blogs at that time, so [I needed] to saddle up with someone to get that stamp of approval," he explained. "The very first season, Style.com called me. They took a chance and said ‘Why don’t you [cover the shows] for us?’ They didn’t pay me very much money, but I give them credit for just taking that chance.”
“I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Style.com was the internet place to be; GQ was the men’s magazine to be [in]," he said. "The one thing that really helped was that I really took full advantage of every opportunity I was given. I worked my ass off, posting every night on my blog and Style.com. I remember the first time I went to Milan I had four meals in five days because I just didn’t stop. I had to get to the shows.”
But once The Sartorialist began to attract serious global attention, Schuman left these high-profile gigs behind to focus on building his own business. With his newfound independence, Schuman knew he would have to build out his own revenue streams. “You have to constantly spread out your streams, so if one stream starts to dry up you can go on," he said. “The only stream coming in the beginning was working with GQ and Style.com.”
In 2008, James Danziger called. His eponymous gallery in New York hosted an exhibition for Schuman, selling his prints as “increasingly accomplished works of art in their own right,” according to the gallery’s website. The exhibit was an instant success, selling more than fifty prints at prices ranging from $1500 to $4000 each. But this proved not to be a stable source of income, said Schuman. “You don’t do an exhibit every year, so you’re constantly asking yourself how am I going to make that money next year?”
Mr. Schuman began thinking about his blog more deeply. “At the very beginning I had to decide: do I want this to be a blog about fashion, or do I want it to be an artistic photographic thing? I kept going back and forth. At some point I think I finally decided that I didn’t want to be a magazine. I decided to take a more photographic route.”
Schuman cites as inspiration the photography of documentary style cameramen like National Geographic’s Steve McCurry, the man behind the now-famous June 1985 cover photo featuring an Afghani girl with haunting sea green eyes. Looking at Schuman’s photos, you can sense that he is trying to capture the inner spirit of his subjects, not only their fashion sense. “I’m not reporting on a bag; who’s carrying what bag and who’s wearing what dress. I’m not reporting on people," he explained. “What I am looking for is a certain grace.”
Schuman frowns upon the idea of putting a price on posts that appear in his content feed. “What I don’t like is advertorial posts that are under the table. When I did the Burberry thing – it’s Burberry, a humongous company with such control – and yet I shot that whole thing just like I would shoot everything," he said, referring to his work for the British megabrand’s “Art of the Trench” social media campaign. We cast some of the people, we got people from the blog. Some people had their own Burberry coats, some people we gave them. I was very proud, so I shot 100 of them and I picked nine that I really loved [and said to my readers] ‘Here is the link to this Burberry project that I did.’”
Schuman has also worked on a product collaboration with American skin, hair, and body care brand Kiehl’s, creating a dopp kit with a variety of Kiehl’s products in exchange for a fixed fee. “We had Luca Roda manufacture it in Italy. As I was a stay-at-home Dad, I really wanted to push this Father’s Day thing. So, we went to the park where I took my kids, where I learnt photography, [and] we got 10 dads to run around with their kids and said ‘We want to take pictures of you having fun with your kids,’ and those were the photographs that we got. So, I wrote something very heartfelt [on my blog] about what it was like to be a stay-at-home Dad.”
At first, Schuman hesitates when asked whether he was contractually obligated to write about the Kiehl’s collaboration on his blog, but then offers: “I’m the one that pitched it in. I’m the one who said I wanted it to be about Father’s Day. It was because of me. I wanted to do this photo thing. So it was part of the contract because I wanted to do it. It was a fun process.”
Of course, like other photo bloggers, Schuman also sells his images to magazines, through his agent, Jedroot. But by far his biggest (and most stable) source of revenue now comes from ad sales on The Sartorialist website. Initially, Schuman worked with Style.com to sell his advertising inventory, but has taken this function back in-house, explaining that he is in a much better position to sell the ads himself because he understands the website better than anyone else could.
“I’ve been doing the ads for me and Garance for the last year,” he said, referring to his girlfriend Garance Doré, another superstar blogger, known for her illustrations, writing and photography. “Just like it took me forever to learn photography, it took me forever to learn how to sell [ads] like real agencies” on a CPM (cost per thousand impressions) basis, instead of the monthly sponsorship or affiliate commission models used by many other independent fashion blogs.
“American Apparel and Net-a-Porter came from Style.com and they were just buying a month [of ads] for a flat amount of money. But I didn’t think that was right and I knew that’s not how we were going to grow. We were going to have to talk the talk like everybody else. We couldn’t just say ‘Oh, we’re just a little blog.’ If we’re going to make a business here, we’ve got to talk their language.”
And talk their language he does. Schuman rattles off digital media lingo with ease, speaking fluently about ‘geo-targeting’ and digital ad unit dimensions. He declined to reveal his exact CPM rate, but said that it has been increasing steadily over time, going above the thirty dollar range for the most valuable inventory. "People would tell me all these crazy numbers and say ‘It’s premium, it should be way up here,’” he said, motioning to the ceiling. “But like anything, you start out at a price where people are willing to buy. It doesn’t help to have a $40 CPM if nobody’s buying it,” he said.
But at his current traffic levels, even with a $20 CPM and only 50 percent of total inventory sold, Schuman could theoretically earn over $100,000 per month on advertising alone, easily earning him more than a million dollars of revenue per year from advertisers that now include blue chip luxury brands like Tiffany, Coach, and Ferragamo. Removing some nominal overheads and salaries, this makes for a very profitable niche media business.
And then of course, there’s his best-selling book, The Sartorialist, published by Penguin in September 2009, which has sold over 100,000 copies. “It did good,” said Schuman with a smile, expressing his surprise at the success of the book, for which he earned a six-figure advance against royalties. He received two royalty cheques on top of the advance within the first year of publishing. “I was shocked I even got one,” he says.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise however that Schuman has another book up his sleeve. “Now the process is much easier, because I know how to approach it. And Penguin is very excited.” With the current book still selling briskly, Penguin is waiting for the right time to publish Schuman’s next book, which could be published as early as 2012.
“You can really make a living out of this,” said Schuman emphatically. “It’s tough, but if you work really hard you can create a business, if you’re smart about it and have something real to say.”
Imran Amed is founder and editor of The Business of Fashion