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Has Fashion Week's Influencer Bubble Finally Burst?

Aspiring show attendees calling themselves 'influencers' flood the inboxes of PRs with requests for invites each season.
Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Amy Odell

NEW YORK, United States — Early last year, Julia Friedman made plans to attend her very first New York Fashion Week. The bikini model-turned-fashion influencer wasn't in the top tier of influencers that commands a big paycheck or creates street style hullaballoo outside the venues just by showing up. She had about 250,000 Instagram followers and was just trying to make a name for herself. After sending 30 to 40 emails to fashion labels requesting seats, she ended up with three invites and planned a three-night trip.

She lost money. There was the $500 round-trip plane ticket from Los Angeles. Then the $750 bill for a hotel uptown — which wasn’t even near any of the shows she would attend — and another $300 to $400 in expenses for Uber rides and food.

She knew her wardrobe had to be on point, so before she left, she met with a stylist in LA, who loaned her some cool vintage pieces and she bought a couple of new things to wear for good measure — another $500. But she knew it was important to catch the eye of a top street style photographer, otherwise, why go? When she arrived at the shows, "I realised, I so did not have to do that," she said. "I could have just gone to Zara, H&M and Topshop and buy loud coats."

Friedman has no plans to go back to fashion week after attending for three consecutive seasons. “I love fashion and I love seeing new styles,” she said. But she decided that the last thing fashion week needs is another influencer. “Everyone was dressed up and there was so much competition” to get photographed by street style photographers. “I have no interest in going because I feel like it’s so oversaturated.”

Fashion week is simply not a good use of time for a lot of major influencers who command higher paychecks from non-fashion brands.

Even so, that doesn't stop an increasing number of aspiring fashion week attendees from flooding the inboxes of PR people with requests for invites by calling themselves "influencers" each season. PR firm KCD says the total number of requests from digital media has quadrupled in the past three years (not all of the requests are from influencers but a large number are). Launchmetrics, the company that runs the fashion week RSVP system Fashion GPS, hosts a database of people who can submit requests for invites directly to PR firms; a rep said that for the February show season, they received double the applications in the "influencer" category and approved about 50 percent of them. Factory PR receives about 1,000 requests to their general inbox each season, 500 of which are from self-proclaimed "influencers." Chris Constable, who runs CCPR, said about 90 percent of general inquiry requests he receives are from so-called influencers.

But designers and their reps want influencers at the shows, so someone goes through all the messages. “They’re like, ‘Hi, I’m an influencer and I’d like to come to your show plus one front row,’” said Liz Franco, a publicist at Factory PR. Or, “‘I’d love to share your client’s show with my Instagram followers’ — and it’s 4,000 Instagram followers.”

Factory works with about 25 to 50 new influencers a season from this inbox and has found some microinfluencer gems in the 50,000 to 80,000 follower range. “They’re likely not to charge you or be demanding,” Franco said. “They just want to build a relationship with you and the brand.”

A lot of those who request seats but don’t get in will show up at the venues anyway with a print-out of the email they sent requesting a seat. “We’ll be very polite about it and say, did you receive a confirmation? And they’ll say no and we’ll say you cannot attend,” Franco said. “We’ve dealt with every type of crasher in the book. The good ones and the smart ones will show up and be polite about it and ask if there’s any extra standing room and often we will let them in if there’s space.” (Friedman said she wormed her way into shows she wasn’t invited to in her first season by lingering at a venue after she got into one show.)

A lot of purported influencers try to talk their way in by claiming to be street style stars. Some will even show up to a venue with a photographer to take their picture “so they can say they were at the show but they weren’t even invited,” said Rachna Shah, who oversees digital for KCD. Some of these people seem less concerned with their Instagram moment than seeming like a somebody. “They think it’s someone so uneducated [at the door] who’s like, oh someone’s taking their picture, we should let them in,” said Shah.

KCD looks for new microinfluencers to work with throughout the year, though a very small number break through from the general request inbox when fashion week approaches. “The bottom line is that’s not the only time they should be engaging with us,” Shah said. “They should be wanting to cover something or wanting to attend an event otherwise during the year.”

Chris Constable noticed the influx of influencers attempting to attend fashion shows when he started his own PR firm three years ago. At the time, street style mania was at its peak and people claiming to be influencers would send him street style photos of themselves. “I wouldn’t invite those who only had pictures of themselves street style,” he said. “Why do you even need to come inside?”

The PR people interviewed for this story all described a vetting process for the influencer requests they get. They look at follower count, engagement and the influencer’s look to determine if they’re a good fit for admittance. Constable often invites the ones whose style he likes but with small followings to round out the standing section of shows. But the trouble with a lot of those people is they “really like to steal front row seats, which drives me crazy,” he said.

But he’s found some influencers he likes that he wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. “There is a very interesting gentleman who wears a kind of bike helmet around” — The Suited Racer, who has 140,000 followers — “and a mesh mask over himself and eye glasses,” Constable said. “That’s one that you can kind-of be able to put on the front row. It’s an interesting look.”

For most influencers, attending the shows isn't worth the time and expense.

Though designers pay some influencers to attend a show and gin up content for their website and social feeds, fashion week is simply not a good use of time for a lot of major influencers who command higher paychecks from non-fashion brands and whose followers don’t understand or care about fashion shows. This is why people like Wendy Nguyen and Julia Sariñana don’t attend. For the much less famous influencers who do go, the point usually isn’t earning a paycheck.

“To be fully honest, the value is in the street style,” said Beca Alexander, the founder and president of influencer agency Socialyte, which represents Friedman and Nguyen, and helps get a roster of influencers into the shows each season — but only if the photo appears on a website like Vogue.com or The Cut and only if the influencer is wearing a look by the designer whose show they’re attending. “It makes it seem like they’re more special — like they’re VIP, like they’re hand-chosen by the designer.”

Alexander doesn’t think it makes sense for influencers to attend just to try to get street style photographed. “It’s very obvious that they’re just walking by and where do they go from there? Jump in an Uber?” she said. “It’s really sad and unfortunate that we’ve come to a place where that’s what people think is going to make them more successful.”

Fashion week was a much bigger business for Socialyte two years ago, but now isn’t as much of a priority, since contemporary brands don’t have as much money to spend on influencer marketing. Besides, with more influencers trying to become part of the scene, labels don’t have to pay them to show up and post about a show anyway. (Zimmerman, which Alexander described as “one of the most coveted shows during fashion week” for influencers, doesn’t pay them to show up and can be picky about who they admit.)

Alexander argues that for most influencers, attending the shows isn’t worth the time and expense. Influencers usually spend their own money to go, with no guarantees their photo will end up anywhere important. Plus, hotels don’t give nearly as many discounts to influencers as they used to during fashion week, leaving them to rent on Airbnb.

“It’s very difficult to work your way up now,” said Alexander, who estimates that about 1,000 legitimate influencers with followings above 20,000 to 30,000 try to attend fashion week. “You know with New Yorkers, when people ask you how you are, you say, ‘I’m really busy,’ and the busier you are the cooler you are?” she said. “For influencers, it’s the same thing during fashion week — ‘well, I have 12 shows today and have to wear 8 different outfits, and I have three different after parties and, oh my God, I’m so tired.’”

People who don’t have the stamina for that kind of rat race should stay home. “Everyone in the industry is way too busy to network with an influencer,” said Alexander. “The PRs are not there to network with influencers, they’re there to make sure the fashion show happens.”

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