NEW YORK, United States — I've been attending fashion week for nearly ten years. And I've spent much of it in the back row, where the industry relegates its least significant members. Over the decade, I've seen editors who toiled in closets for years, vacuuming and packing trunks, make way for people who might not even have a resumé. Instead, these people have fabulous Instagram feeds and websites with millions of followers and often cute stage names, like Bryanboy, the Man Repeller, or Fashion Toast. And now: front row seats.
These internet stars constantly post photos of their rings against their ice coffee, their hotel infinity pools, their powder sugar-dusted almond croissants at brunch. They linger shamelessly outside fashion shows while throngs of street style photographers — omnipresent at fashion weeks around the world now — desperately snap their pictures. I have seen Susie Bubble slink away from a show with half a dozen photographers stalking her as she tried to hail a cab, god forbid they miss the back of her outfit. It's become such a scene that Vogue editor Sally Singer once labelled it a "comic mess."
I used to find this behaviour repulsive. Now, I just think, bravo. Because the opportunities they've earned are bigger than their seats. They can start clothing lines, expand their websites and hire staff, or collect a paycheck for simply informing their followers which brand of vodka they're enjoying this fashion week.
Self-promotion is a dirty word. It's seen as one of the millennial generation's most odious behaviours. I have been, until recently, quite uncomfortable with self-promotion. I didn't want to be one of the people who was sneered at by my writer and editor friends who weren't in this business to get their pictures blasted across the internet. Posting selfies felt gross; bragging about my accomplishments in any public forum felt even grosser.
My attitude about self-promotion aligns statistically with that of my gender. Study after study shows that women shy away from boasting about their achievements. That's because we live in a culture that promotes modesty, argues Montana State University psychology professor Jessi L. Smith, particularly amongst women, and particularly when we know other women are judging us. Men, who are viewed as confident and capable when they brag about their accomplishments, don't have the same problem.
The style stars I saw work their way to the front row at fashion week weren't just being pretty. This wasn't just self-promotion for the sake of it. Rather, they were doing what so many brands and media companies struggle to do: building up massive online followings. As the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine's website, Cosmopolitan.com, which now reaches 37 million readers a month, I know first-hand how hard this is. Building an organic following is about more than looking or dressing or photographing a certain way. It requires strategic planning, a vision for how you want the masses to perceive you, and establishing a voice that millions of people will connect with.
While I worked as a writer and editor from my back row seat, these internet fashion stars only got more famous — and much more valuable. They signed with agents, landed lucrative endorsement deals, appeared in ad campaigns, got their own television shows, and were flown around the world. They accrued capital with which to expand their empires in any way they so chose. Leandra Medine has turned The Man Repeller, once mostly a stream of photos of her outfits, into an online magazine with an office in Soho and a small staff. Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast designed her own clothing line, Are You Am I, and uses her following to sell it.
Over the course of my career, I've worked with many women web editors who feel uncomfortable with self-promotion. Despite being on social media all day, which is what the job demands in order to keep up with the news and our audience, I find that many women don't want to use these platforms to broadcast their accomplishments to the world. In a recent article on The Cut, several prominent writers agreed that retweeting compliments was something they couldn't stomach.
We're too aware of the bias against the selfie-posting millennial, and reluctant to exhibit any behaviour that will make us appear self-absorbed and not serious about our work. Some editors have become so embarrassed by the attention of street style photographers and the subsequent derision from colleagues — often women — that they don't stop for them anymore. They forget that self-promotion is serious work with serious rewards.
I recently joined Instagram. With my first book coming out this year, I figured I should establish a presence on all social platforms. Twitter was easy for me to pick up as a writer — I never felt like I had a shortage of material to share. But on Instagram, I had no idea what to do. I didn't take good pictures, I certainly didn't dress well enough to broadcast my clothes to the world, and what's more, I loathed the idea of sharing photos of myself. But as I immersed myself in the platform, I followed the advice of friends who had been active on it and knew what was popular. One insisted that I post a photo of myself taken in the elevators of the Hearst Tower where I work. "If you have a good outfit on, it will blow up," she insisted. I haven't done that yet, but I started posting photos of myself here and there. Often it's just my husband and me at a wedding, or a snapshot of myself from a particularly scenic vacation. It didn't take long to notice that those photos got more likes than anything else I seemed to post.
The social media professionals I work with as the editor of Cosmopolitan.com offer similar feedback: people like to see photos of people, so make sure you work human beings into your feeds whenever possible. Now my attitude has changed: if people like seeing the occasional photo of me, so what?
With my book about to come out, I can't help but feel behind on building my platform. Where would I be now if I had started all this sooner? How much more valuable would my book proposal have been, how much more valuable would I seem to any employer, with an audience of people who follow me to keep up everything I’m doing?
That's why I tell all the young women who interview to work for me that they should build up their own online followings. Share everything you write or edit on social media, pick a favourite platform and post to it every day. You don't have to post selfies, but you do have to be passionate about something and able to effectively communicate that to the world. Ultimately, methodical self-promotion isn't about getting validation for how you look or dress. It's about making yourself more valuable as an employee and member of your industry and creating opportunities for yourself that you wouldn't otherwise have. Sneer at self-promotion all you want, but the people who get ahead in any field are those who get the most recognition for their work because everyone knows what they've done.
One of the most recognisable faces on fashion week's front rows now is Vogue Nippon fashion director Anna Dello Russo, a regular on the world's most popular street style blogs for nearly a decade, who keeps one of the world's most fabulous collection of designer clothes. Not a star until her late 40s, she spent the 20 years prior working behind the scenes, doing everything from packing trunks to styling photo shoots with supermodels. She loves her fame — which led to an H&M accessories and luggage line — and shamelessly embraces it by wearing only her best, flashiest clothes to fashion week.
One season, a colleague of mine texted me from a show to say I just had to see Anna Dello Russo that day. From my terrible seat at my next show, I spotted her: she had a two giant gold cherries affixed to her head and the scrum of photographers around her couldn't get enough.