The Dirty, Unethical Business Of Fashion BlogsS

Have you heard that people writing about clothing on the Internet is kind of a big thing right now? Women's Wear Daily jumped on the hottest trend from 2007 and ran a story about fashion bloggers, and how they make money. (One-word answer: Shilling.)

What's interesting about WWD's piece is that the story appears to quote some wildly optimistic traffic numbers for said blogs. It reports that O.G. fashion blogger Bryan Grey Yambao — aka Bryan Boy — gets traffic of "4 million pageviews a month." Kelly Framel's blog The Glamourai is said to have "about 4 million [pageviews] per month." Former Dazed & Confused contributor Susie Lau's Style Bubble is said to get "at least 1.2 million page views and 550,000 unique visitors a month." Leandra Medine, who's behind The Man Repeller, gets "1.5 million page views per month." And, again according to WWD, Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast has "more than 1 million per month." The story then goes on to vaguely outline the many kinds of brand collaborations and "partnerships" that actually keep these stylish young people in Fendi loafers and Margiela couture. The quoted sample post from Fashion Toast includes a lavish description of a Rag & Bone ("one of my favorite brands") vest "that was sent to my hotel" — to give you an idea.

Four million pageviews a month is a significant audience. An audience that should attract a lot of advertisers, obviating the need for such shilling. And yet, of the above sites, only two — Fashion Toast and Bryanboy — carry significant third-party advertising. Currently, both are running the same big ad for Derek Lam's diffusion line, 10 Crosby. Man Repeller, meanwhile, has a number of smaller sidebar ads. And only Bryanboy tells WWD that advertising is his "main source of revenue."

It's not clear how or where WWD sourced its traffic information — I did ask Bryan Boy if the 4 million monthly pageviews figure was his or something WWD reported independently — but it's not too hard to look at some of the services that actually measure web traffic. Site numbers are notoriously tricky to accurately pin down — trust us, we'd know — but two of the best sites doing so are Quantcast, which measures global users both in pageviews (the total number of pages loaded on a site) and unique users (the number of individual people who actually visit a site), and Compete, which measures a site's number of U.S.-based unique users per month (which is always a much smaller number, though one that is valued by U.S.-based advertisers). Here's what we found:

Bryanboy

  • Quantcast says, "Traffic data has been hidden by the owner."
  • Compete puts the site's traffic in September (the most recent month for which stats are available) at 5,213 U.S. unique users, but the service warns, "The sample size for this site is small."

Bryanboy says the Quantcast information is outdated. "I used to have it when I was part of the gay ad network in 2006, and they won't give me access to it w/ my own acct since its part of the 'network.'" ([Sic] courtesy of Twitter character limits.)

The Glamourai

  • Quantcast: "We're currently unable to display data for traffic."
  • Compete: 6,960 uniques, but again, "The sample size for this site is small."

Style Bubble

  • Quantcast: 52,100 people visited the site, worldwide, in the last 30 days, generating 554,500 pageviews.
  • Compete: 3,771, but —you guessed it — "the sample size for this site is small."

Man Repeller

  • Quantcast: "We're currently unable to display data for traffic."
  • Compete: 13,877 but, "the sample size for this site is small."

UPDATE: Medine emailed to say that as far as she is aware, WWD sourced its 1.5 million figure about her blog's traffic directly from her. She also says that she was approached about this piece in September, so some of the information is slightly out of date. According to a current screenshot of her Google Analytics dashboard which Medine provided, ManRepeller.com got 1,755,067 pageviews in the past month.

Fashion Toast

  • Quantcast: "We're currently unable to display data for traffic."
  • Compete: 13,783, but, "The sample size for this site is small."

Wherever WWD got its figures, it's pretty clear they are vastly inflated. (For comparison, Quantcast puts Jezebel's audience at 3.2 million monthly global users; these users generate over 50 million pageviews.)

Then, an actual fashion blog, Fashionista, picked up WWD's story, re-interviewed a number of its sources, and actually reported arguably more new information than WWD printed in the first place. Fashionista noticed what is, aside from off-base traffic stats, the other main hole in the WWD piece: this is supposedly a business story that betrays a certain delicateness on the topic of these businesses' actual, you know, income. Fashionista talked to a number of WWD's sources, including Leandra Medine and Kelly Framel, about how they actually make their money. It must be a dicey thing, running a personal style blog that suddenly becomes successful — brands want your audience's attention, but your early, original posts, written while you were on no advertiser's radar, are what earned you that very readership. Reading someone's personal blog — and all of these blogs still give the appearance of being sole-charge operations where everything is written in the first person, not media companies, and not the fashion magazines whose obvious shilling we've come to expect — is one of the few times the Internet still feels intimate; it's like thumbing through the musings of a friend. But feeling like a friend has sold you out for a Reed Krakoff bag can leave a reader strangely betrayed. Fashionista reports:

Some bloggers feel pressure to wear or write about a certain product in order to maintain a good relationship with a brand, in hopes that either more free product–or a paid gig–will come their way as a result. One popular blogger we spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, told us, "Right now, all brands are doing the same thing: They're sending free product to bloggers or to online fashion publications and having them feature the product. It's a slightly vicious cycle of bribery."

The same anonymous blogger routinely gives brands' PR reps pre-approval of her written copy. And she'll edit it if they don't like what she's written. She does not tell her readers when a product she's mentioning was given to her for free. (This anonymous blogger should probably be familiarized with the Federal Trade Commission regulations that prohibit undisclosed advertising online. If only such rules applied to print publications.)

Framel, meanwhile, tells Fashionista that she always makes such disclosures. "I recently walked away from a sizeable offer from a brand," she says, "because they wanted to dictate what the verbage [sic] was and how I presented their product. They were assuming that we could have the same relationship as they would have with an advertorial."

The same relationship as they would have with advertorial. That's a pretty frightening sentence, if you're a blogger or a reader of supposedly independent blogs. Of course, this isn't a problem confined to the Internet: fashion as a whole pretty much runs on gifts, relationships, and favor-trading, and the media that cover it are, with very rare exception, more or less party to the system. Fashion, for being such a public industry, can be notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to criticism. (I, for one, am not surprised in the least that brands frequently request changes be made in the copy of the blogger who is considerate enough to send it to them for approval. Of course, that's why one of the most basic rules of journalism is never send copy to a source for approval.) And most of the sector's flagship media brands — the big ladymags that make fashion their business — offer little sign that they even hold notional respect for the traditional separation between editorial and advertising. They are hardly role models on the issue.

Of course, everyone assumes there's a line and that you, personally, don't cross it — sure, you'll take a gift bag home from a party, but in addition to, not in exchange for, coverage! And what's a free drink here or there? And in an industry where editors routinely pocket huge consulting fees for things like styling for a major brand, magazines are sent iPads with a company's new collection loaded on them (iPads are the new flash drives), and advertisers try to influence editorial content down to the placement of products and their adjacencies, it's pretty easy to find someone who's doing something more ethically dodgy than you. Just last week, I saw a publicist slip a newspaper freelancer a special gift bag that contained a $125 gift card. (I do not accept anything worth over $50 — no free handbags for me. And I don't take anything that isn't necessary to do some routine part of my job. But I sometimes pick up gift bags, and I certainly attend events that aren't open to the public, such as fashion shows. Fashion is perhaps the only cultural industry where reporters and critics depend so absolutely, even abjectly, on the financial interests that control it for "access": a film critic who's been blackballed by a studio can still expense the cost of a ticket on opening weekend, but good luck writing about a seasonal collection in any great detail without having been invited to the show.)

Pretty much everyone believes, at least notionally, in a "line." Somewhere way over that line, maybe, is Derek Blasberg, who's received thousand-dollar "consulting" payments from brands he covered at Style.com. But bloggers who take free merchandise, or collect consulting fees, from companies they write about — where do they fall on that spectrum?

Hot Fashion Bloggers [WWD]
Can You Trust The Editorial Integrity Of Fashion Blogs? [Fashionista]