Was 2009 the Year of the Fashion Blogger?

BlogHer Original Post

This week, the New York Times reflected on the rise of the fashion blogger. "As a relatively new phenomenon in the crowded arena of journalists whose specialty it is to report the news of the catwalks," Eric Wilson writes, "fashion bloggers have ascended from the nosebleed seats to the front row with such alacrity that a long-held social code among editors, one that prizes position and experience above outward displays of ambition or enjoyment, has practically been obliterated."

Bloggers! They're everywhere!

The biggest fashion story of 2009 was the economy; selling fashion is tricky in a year when shopping -- particularly the kind of conspicuous consumption that the fashion industry relies on -- is entirely unfashionable. But fashion magazines aren't set up to write about not shopping, and so bloggers stepped in to fill the void.

What they wrote about was often how to make fashion work for real women. And they had plenty of inspiration, from real women's closets: Cathy Horyn, in another of the New York Times' Year in Style pieces, dissected Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama's closets, and described Palin's style as "businesslike without being boring, smart without being insider ... the way a lot [of] women would like to dress, and probably do, when they don’t have time or many choices and think that accessories always wind up looking prissy."

By contrast, Horyn writes, "In Mrs. Obama, the fashion industry has found a woman it can admire but cannot completely possess." As much as I would like to disagree with Horyn, I am begrudgingly compelled to admit that I think she's right: What women want from fashion is a look that is simple and appropriate and achievable -- ideally, in under fifteen minutes each morning. In this sense, both Mrs. Palin and Mrs. Obama are role models, but in the end, Horyn is on to something in her assessment that Palin is perhaps more of a role model for average women.

The bottom line, though, is this: 2009 may have been the Year of the Fashion Blogger, but more than that it was the Year of the Real Woman as Fashion Icon. While it is possible to argue that Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama were responsible for this democratization of fashion, there's more to it than that. As traditional fashion magazines cut back or folded or just fell out of touch with readers' economic and pragmatic concerns, bloggers stepped in to fill the void. Sites like The Sartorialist and Fashionist and Style Rookie showed us what was hip and hot on the street, and while Cathy Horyn may be right and we might all actually aspire to dress like Sarah Palin (or Michelle Obama!), it's always inspiring/interesting/intriguing to see what other real people are putting together.

But going digital isn't just the work of bloggers or magazines; companies need to get on the bandwagon, too. Writing for the Times Runway blog, Cathy Horyn reflects on a recent day of brick-and-mortar shopping ("At J. Crew, it was as though a bomb had gone off and wrinkled all the clothes. Had the steamer broken? Had they given up and were just heaving the clothes from out of the stock room like water out of a sinking boat?") and then turned her attention to the growth of digital outreach:

I’m also completely fascinated by the potential for fashion companies to really use the Web and digital technology in much more interesting and purposeful ways than they so far have. I don’t mean Facebook and Twitter and 13-year-old bloggers (isn’t she 16 yet?), but rather rethinking a brand in terms of digital and making it as important a consideration as design and print advertising, which is still what most brand managers trust. Some companies plainly “get it” (look at hermes.com), but more brand chiefs need to inform themselves and make digital a top-down priority.

Why does digital need to be a priority? Because companies who are looking to sell Sarah Palin's look (or Michelle Obama's or Tavi Gevinson's) need to connect digitally with consumers. Because the Internet is where we go for advice and inspiration -- and shopping.

Despite all of this, though, Eric Wilson disingenuously expressed a certain amount of amazement at the fact that fashion bloggers are now finding themselves on a par with traditional fashion journalists. Oh my! Who saw that coming?

Well, most of us, actually.

To the surprise of no one -- except, it appears, Wilson -- bloggers were front and center at 2009's Fashion Week, sitting, in some cases, just feet from print media icons like Anna Wintour. Scandalous! Who could have imagined such a thing?!?

Certainly not the New York Times.

Perhaps it was to be expected that the communications revolution would affect the makeup of the fashion news media in much the same way it has changed the broader news media landscape. At a time when magazines like Vogue, W, Glamour and Bazaar have pared their staffs and undergone deep cutbacks because of the impact of the recession on their advertising sales, blogs have made remarkable strides in gaining both readership and higher profiles. At the shows this year, there were more seats reserved for editors from Fashionista, Fashionologie, Fashiontoast, Fashionair and others, and fewer for reporters from regional newspapers that can no longer afford the expense of covering the runways independently.

But it is somewhat surprising that designers are adjusting to the new breed of online reporter more readily than magazines, which have been slow to adapt to the demand for instant content about all things fashion. Blogs are posting images and reviews of collections before the last model exits the runway, while magazine editors are still jockeying to feature those clothes in issues that will be published months later.

Wilson makes a good point about the dilemma that old media finds itself in -- blogs offer readers timely information, as well as the ability to talk back to the blogger; in combination, this creates a sense of investment and community not found in traditional media. But there's more to it than that: Blogs respond to readers criticisms and desires in ways that traditional media has not.

Example: The Sartorialist's Scott Schuman recently addressed readers comments about the lack of men's fashion at his site.

I have heard a few concerns lately that this blog has become too heavily dominated by women's images. They worry about the "direction" of the blog. Well, I can say that the direction has absolutely remained the same. I've always only shot what I really love and that sincerity remains intact.

Last week, in Sydney, I didn't see any guys to shoot, so....no guys shots. It would have been easy to take a few shots just to keep the mens audience happy but I just can't do that. I'm not saying that there are no stylish men in Sydney but that I just didn't run across any while I was there.

The honest nature of this blog is that the images are a by-product of the cities I visit. Some cities are very strong in womens (Paris) and some in men's (Milano). I always keep my eyes wide open in every city but that element of chance is what keeps this job fun.

What separates blogs like The Sartorialist from other fashion blogs, and aligns it with traditional fashion media, is Schuman's clear editorial vision. While he listens to critics -- and encourages feedback from readers -- he has a clear idea of what his site's project is. What separates him from traditional media, though, is the immediacy and authenticity of his content -- these are real people, not elaborately choreographed layouts. In a moment when traditional fashion media has lost both its editorial vision and its sense of community, it's no wonder that fashionistas and designers are turning to blogs to fill the void.

Is the magazine dead? I certainly hope not; I am a magazine junkie and, despite my digital day job, there's nothing I love more than curling up with a cup of hot tea and the September issue of Vogue. I love the carefully scripted fantasy of traditional fashion media, the elaborate photo shoots and beautifully written articles. I refuse to believe that the Kindle will replace real books, and by the same token, I cannot see blogs entirely supplanting magazines. But I love my magazines more because I read them in the context of fashion blogs, with their pragmatic, accessible content. There is room for both types of media in our closets. But in 2010, traditional media has to stop running in circles flapping its hands and wondering how on earth that blogger wound up sitting so close to Ms. Wintour.

The bloggers aren't going anywhere. It might be time to add more seats in the front row.

Susan Wagner writes about pragmatic fashion at The Working Closet and chic suburban living at Friday Playdate.

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