Inside the War of the Fashion Bloggers

As Fashion Week cracks down on the number of bloggers invited to this once-exclusive event, a veteran pulls back the curtain on a world of web writers gone wild, from screaming matches in the photo pit to selfies with the stars.

Inside the War of the Fashion Bloggers

The photographers’ pit at New York Fashion Week is a two-feet by three-feet musty trench in front of a few rows of risers. You have to pack in so tightly to accommodate everyone who needs runway pictures that veterans say, “If I can put a fist between you and I, we are too far apart.” It is the pirates crew of the fashion kingdom. Here, the biggest, burliest, most weathered cameramen rule. I am a five-foot-seven female — when I wear six-inch heels. In the pit, I wear clunky boots to protect my toes from being trampled. I’ve dodged screaming matches between photographers, as well as an avalanche of press who lost their footing and went tumbling down on the risers.

Often, to get the shot, I’ve squeezed myself between the legs of another person’s tripod while balancing my Canon EOS 50D camera. There is an unspoken etiquette among the seasoned professionals covering Fashion Week: Don’t block people. Don’t be bitchy. We all know that photographers from Getty Images and Vogue will be let into the pit first, and they will get the prime real estate before the rest of us. We respect that. Then, it’s a mad dash to find a position. Last year, I smuggled individual serving-sized boxes of wine for sipping in the pit and traded them to other shooters to bargain for a better spot.

I am a fashion blogger with a passion for runway photography. In 2010, I walked away from a high-paying corporate job to launch my blog, Ms. Fabulous. I was part of the early wave of fashion bloggers to break into the field, using my industry connections to earn cred. My blogging has led me to being hired as a runway reporter for the embroidery magazine Stitches, and then fashion and digital marketing director of the luxury consignment site Hello La Mode. The latter has landed me on the front page of The New York Times’s Style section and in television interviews on ABC.

Nowadays in the pit, the word “blogger” is spat with disgust.

In recent years, “fashion blogger” has become associated by some designers with the image of a fame-seeking narcissist in possession of dubious writing skills. With platforms like Instagram and Tumblr, you do not even need to write in order to be a blogger. Yet many of these fledgling self-identified fashion bloggers score invites from publicists for fashion shows anyway. In their heyday, fashion bloggers were viewed as mass influencers in style. Some of us added fresh, informed voices to conversations initiated by designers and fashion journalists. Just two years ago, star bloggers were as sought after as celebrities in the front row of Fashion Week, and designers were scrambling to have them wear their products. But the new generation is defined by the selfies taken in front of runways by bloggers trying to cast themselves on reality television shows.

These newbies have made it rough for the rest of us. Earlier this year, IMG, the company that runs Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, made organizational changes to keep out as many fashion bloggers as possible, and instead allow better access for “real” journalists. In a Wall Street Journal article, organizers cited designers’ complaints, and that they wanted to make “invitations once again an exclusive pass for true fashion insiders,” instead of wannabe bloggers and people looking to photobomb the scene. In short, as one fashion insider noted, “It was becoming a zoo.” The fact that IMG now considers “blogger” and “fashion insider” as mutually exclusive exemplifies this new reality. Bloggers have fallen from front-row darlings to outsider villains.

Photos from the fashion world's runways, by Mariana Leung.

I still have my seat at the shows and my place in the pit, but I understand the frustration over such characters as the blogger who showed up in the photo pit in a ball gown prom dress to shoot with her iPhone, or the young man who was asked to leave for wearing a light-up headdress. They distract from the designers who have worked all season to put on a stellar show.

This has made it difficult for those of us who have devoted our lives and careers to fashion. The pros have no reason to try to be “discovered” by wearing crazy outfits. During Fashion Week I look the worst that I have looked all year. Most days, I love a great dress and heels — which would be disastrous in the pit. While covering fashion shows, I sport leggings or jeans, with my hair pulled back in a ponytail. My co-workers are a turtle and a pelican (a folding stool and camera case). Like other serious bloggers, I just want to cover the industry, not make a mockery of it.

I have been in love with fashion for as long as I can remember. I’ve sketched it, I’ve designed it, I’ve even sung about it in an ill-conceived number from my high school musical. I grew up watching Jeanne Beker, the Canadian host of “FashionTelevision,” and reading Amy Spindler in The New York Times. They made me want to be a part of the fashion world.

I attended my first fashion show while volunteering for the Council of Fashion Designers of America as a student at Parsons School of Design. It was 1994, the first time a central location for fashion designers to present was attempted at the risky location of Bryant Park.

My first full-time job out of fashion school was designing lingerie for a sleepwear company. Next I created embroidery for designers like Armani, as well as embellishments and fabric manipulation — like making origami shapes and applying them to a piece of clothing, or taking sequins and rolling over them with a chair, burning and melting them, until they became an interesting pattern. I used film negatives or even bubble wrap as applications for dresses. For Oscar de la Renta, I spray-painted patterns onto sheets of sequins. For Vera Wang, I created beaded scale designs for a Godzilla look. The job took me to Milan and Paris.

But I was living in a crappy studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen before it became trendy, and I wasn’t making much money. I ended up taking higher-paying, less artistic jobs at corporate apparel companies whose survival was dictated by Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. I spent six years at a publicly traded company, where we crunched out loose-fitting sports shirts and printed tees that varied little season after season. The president’s idea of boosting morale after layoffs was to tell remaining employees that they should be grateful to work indoors with air conditioning.

I wasn’t happy. I knew more layoffs were coming. I was used to working through the midnight hour in factories. After eighteen-hour days leading up to Fashion Week, I had forgotten the joy of attending a show as a guest.

In my online job searches, I came across an ad seeking website contributors to a handbag blog called The Purse Page. I had always been curious about writing, and this was an opportunity to cover about a topic I enjoyed, on my own schedule. I made a little money on the side and it opened up a whole new world of social media and fashion publishing I barely knew existed. This was in 2006, when the only people I knew on Facebook were my teenage cousins. There were only a handful of fashion blogs. Twitter had just been born, and none of the big fashion brands had a major presence on it yet.

With The Purse Page, I learned how to use the blogging platform and general principles of SEO (Search Engine Optimization). I learned that the structure of a blog post was very different from traditional news or the editorials I was used to reading. Being paid to pontificate about my favorite designer handbag was enjoyable. I had forgotten work could be fun. I requested access to designers’ showrooms so I could have early opportunities to review their purse collections for the blog. The designers granted my requests.

I started my own site on Blogger in 2008 to write about designers whom I actually admire — real style makers like Colleen Atwood and Byron Lars, whose work is vastly different from the brands I worked on day to day. I contacted many of those designers and interviewed them about their art. I took myself to museum exhibits and followed culture that inspired design. Writing my own blog helped me rediscover why I was passionate about fashion to begin with.

I finally made the decision to leave my corporate job in 2010. On my last day, I walked out of my Midtown Manhattan office building on 57th Street and went straight over to the BlogHer Conference at the Hilton on 54th. It was one of the first times I networked with other professional bloggers. Most were mommy bloggers, which is one of the most powerful Internet groups out there. Others wrote about politics, lifestyle, food and health. Only a few wrote about fashion. I left feeling excited about all of the possibilities this industry held.

In between shows at Fashion Week, I learned about Tweet-ups, intimate events that drew fashion bloggers together with stylish celebrities. Alison Brie of “Mad Men” would discuss vintage fashion and AnnaSophia Robb chatted about her wardrobe on “The Carrie Diaries” while my fellow bloggers and I asked questions, then tweeted the answers to our followers. Public relations people were beginning to understand the power of the blogger.

As my blog grew, brands like Louis Vuitton started to reach out to me. When requests for sponsored campaigns, like a series for Rock & Republic, came my way, I also learned that my blog could be a business.

I learned how to approach designers for invitations to their fashion shows by providing clips and explaining that I strove to offer a more in-depth look at their collections than a traditional publication might. I explained how I drew upon my love of fashion and my history in the industry to describe why it inspires me. I documented the details of each fashion show and charged myself with the job of showing the craft behind designers’ labels.

In addition to words, I embraced the fact that fashion blogging is a visual medium. Taking blurry photos from my seat with a phone did not get my story’s point across. I did not want to use the same images as everyone else, so I earned my press credentials and embedded myself inside the photographers’ pit.

What the newcomer bloggers don’t realize is that many of the original bloggers who became “stars” were well established in their fields prior to launching their blogs. I came in from the design side, but many of the bloggers I met were journalists who had suffered when magazines and newspapers were cutting staff. Personal style blogger Susie Lau of Style Bubble and street-style pioneer Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist were both working editors before their blogs became their full-time jobs.

These bloggers would never have made the mistake that some rookies have made. Everyone who understands Fashion Week’s history would recognize legendary New York style icon Iris Apfel, long known for her quirky personal style (celebrated in a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit), her work as interior designer to nine presidents, and for always sitting in the front row. But when a clueless blogger wrote, “Why is this old lady in the front row?” you could hear a collective gasp among the fashion elite.

It is no secret that people who write about fashion are often showered with designer wardrobes or gifts. What I lost in income from quitting my corporate job, I made up for partly in perks. Sure, I have more hair products than hair. Generous designers serve as enablers to my handbag addiction. So it might not be a surprise that budding fashion bloggers dreamed it would be their ticket to a modeling contract, fame, fortune and a jet-setting lifestyle. What they do not count on are the many hours of research, marketing, networking and passionate dedication it takes before seeing a return on your efforts. The majority of working fashion bloggers are not starring in million-dollar campaigns or reality shows, and never will.

New bloggers constantly ask me how they can get freebies from brands. Sadly, no one has ever asked me how they could improve the quality of their writing or site design.

There is a flipside to the business, like when you explain to others that part of the way you pay your bills is by painting flowers on your nails and posting images of it on the Internet. With the exception of my tutu-wearing niece, I can assure you that this impresses no one at a family reunion full of doctors and attorneys.

I have to remind people who look down on fashion as a shallow or exploitive endeavor that the apparel industry provides more jobs and a better quality of life for people in developing countries than protests or finance lawyers ever will.

The author, far center, in the Fashion Week photographers' pit.
The author, far center, in the Fashion Week photographers’ pit. (Photo courtesy the author)

Recently, IMG made it clear that press credentials would be very much scrutinized. Unless a blogger can show an assignment letter from an established publication, he or she is not receiving an invite. This has led to the declaration from traditional media that fashion blogging is dead. This does not affect me personally. I already have longstanding relationships with many of the designers I write about. They trust that I research and know how to tell their story. The same applies for the other established bloggers who care about what they write.

I have never regretted leaving my old job, even though I was earning more money then. True quality of life is about waking up excited by what you will be doing that day. As long as I have a roof over my head, I don’t care if I work in the dark, or squeezed onto the floor with a bunch of strangers. I love living in anticipation of what I might see that moves me. I have been on every side of the fashion business, and I survived.

After every last duck-faced selfie is taken, after every new voice has dissected the season’s hemline, I will still be here, telling the story both behind and in front of the runway.