It's no secret that a democratising tide of digital media has brought a radical new accessibility to the global fashion industry, giving rise to a wide range of new voices and transforming what were once closed, industry-facing fashion weeks into large-scale consumer spectacles. Perhaps nowhere is this shift more apparent than in the growing power of street style imagery, which has turned show-goers into virtual actors on a digital stage that's beamed across the world in realtime to thirsty fashion followers via blogs and social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and, now, Vine. Some have actively courted the attention, peacocking for the cameras, becoming online celebrities and attracting lucrative marketing deals in the process.
Writing in The International Herald Tribune last week, in a piece entitled "The Circus of Fashion," respected fashion critic Suzy Menkes laments "the celebrity circus of people who are famous for being famous. They are known mainly by their Facebook pages, their blogs and the fact that the street photographer Scott Schuman has immortalised them on his Sartorialist web site."
Menkes goes on to criticise bloggers, many of whom, she charged, accept "trophy gifts and paid-for trips" from brands, ignoring established journalistic ethics, and court the spotlight of Internet celebrity, while styling themselves as fashion critics. "There is something ridiculous about the self-aggrandisement of some online arbiters who go against the mantra that I was taught in my earliest days as a fashion journalist: “It isn’t good because you like it; you like it because it’s good.”
"It doesn’t seem quite fair to peg the bloggers that have actually become 'famous' as such just for being famous," writes Medine, in a post entitled "Blog is a Dirty Word," taking issue with the way Menkes paints all bloggers with the same celebrity-seeking brush. "When I think Tavi Gevinson or Susie Bubble or Emily Weiss or on the street [style] spectrum, Tommy Ton, I think recognition based on the merit of astounding work," she blogs. "Like all writers do not write with the same pen (how would Hemingway have felt if he were shepherded into a group among the likes of, say, E.L. James?), all bloggers do not type with the same keyboard."
"This is my generation, my vocation, my moment that she is reprimanding, and I, too, have a sincere problem with the notion that front row squatting may be based less on excellence in trade and more on social following density," continues Medine, presenting a counter-image of fashion bloggers as members of an "entrepreneurial generation," who, facing a post-recessionary economy, "couldn’t land the jobs we wanted, so we just made our own."
But Medine concedes that fashion bloggers have made mistakes: "We never should have accepted gifts in the first place. We shouldn’t have bragged about the free trips and cool events and recognition from our industry heroes. We’ve painted a picture portraying the circumstances of blogging that is inaccurate…. how can we really assume that we will cull the respect we think we deserve if we don’t even respect our own brands?"
In a reflective post entitled "The Sad Clown," Susanna Lau agrees with Medine that "blogger" has become a dirty word: "The b word has been tarnished -- asking us [how] much money do we make, suspicions that every blog post is sponsored, outfits that have been littered with gifts, accusations that we’re poseurs and not fashion critics, lack of journalistic standards -- things, which, I along with others have been guilty of to some degree or another… If I am just a 'blogger,' a word that has become an irritant and a pest to the industry, then how can I carry on at present with all the current connotations that go with that word, and still write about the things that I want to write about?"
But when it comes to personal branding and the politics of getting one's photo taken outside the shows, Lau, who has a penchant for eccentric colourful outfits, objects to what seems like a double standard: "Who gets to make that judgment call as to who has 'genuine' style or who is dressing up for the cameras? … An editor can get away with it because he/she has a title. Alas I have a blog, no chic Céline and a sick preference for strange and funny textures. That leaves me in a precarious position."
Indeed, in fashion, the act of personal branding is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it unique to bloggers. Top editors, from Carine Roitfeld and Lynn Yeager to Andre Leon Talley and Anna Wintour herself are vivid examples of established industry insiders who have long cultivated personal brands, complete with strong visual signatures. In today's New York Times, Ruth La Ferla writes: "members of fashion’s old guard, each has mastered the art of visual self-branding, marketers’ pet coinage for the cultivation of a personal style as quirky, distinctive and easy to read as a box of Cheerios on a grocer’s shelf." They are "more like avatars, really, second selves fashioned purely for public consumption," she continues.
But while the old guard of "confirmed eccentrics" escapes the kind of criticism that so easily sticks to young aspirants, La Ferla paints bloggers as part of "a new breed of self-promoters… fanning out their plumage in the hope, it would seem, that a bit of canny self-packaging will secure them a place in fashion’s front ranks."
It's a shame, because fashion has always been an industry populated with wonderfully colourful characters and self-promoters alike, but in the glare of fashion's growing "circus," differentiating between the two is rarely as simple as whether their native medium is digital or analogue.