Wednesday, May 14, 2014

WARNING: This Post Contains Gifted Content (and Several Unsolicited Images of the Blogger). Proceed with Caution.

This post manages to do two things at once that I have steadfastly avoided doing since I started this blog and which both make me very uncomfortable: 1) it uses pictures of myself; and 2) it features gifted content. Yes, that's me, for better or for worse, looking like an extra in a Blues Brothers' movie, and wearing a Members Only "iconic racer jacket" sent to me by the company. They contacted me a couple of months back, saying that they "like my blog" (I'm sure they say that to all the bloggers), and would be happy to send me a free jacket if I would feature it in one of my posts. Now, I don't do that. I come across people on the streets by accident. I don't know what they'll be wearing in advance. I don't "feature" content at all. It sort of features itself. But for some reason I was tempted to take Members Only up on their offer, if only because I wanted to write a post about how, and why, other bloggers feature gifted content. 
Simply put, gifted content establishes a relationship between a blogger and a brand, and it creates the possibilities of future relationships with other brands, ones that might actually pay someday. Gifted content also has the advantage of potentially being "liked" or featured in some way on the website or branding materials of the company in question, which could drive traffic back to one's blog. And traffic is the currency of the international blogosphere. In many bloggers' minds, it's a win win. Plus, you get free stuff out of the deal, and for most bloggers, struggling to get by as an aspiring creative, that's no small thing.

The drawback is that featuring gifted content also potentially weakens the credibility and perceived "authenticity" of a blogger in the eyes of their readers. Bloggers face accusations of compromising their integrity or watering down their personal style, or, to use an apparently now outdated expression, "selling out" their readership. To put it in the sometimes crass, neoliberal language of Web 2.0, it could damage a blogger's brand. But there are at least two ways to reduce the possibility of this happening: 1) By making it very explicit that the content featured on the blog was gifted. This is now standard blogging etiquette. Anything less is a breech of protocol and ethics, and arguably, disclosure laws. And 2) by only featuring gifted content that one "actually likes." To "like" something in the fashion blogosphere erases all moral ambiguity. It is to assert an alignment between an object and an identity. To depict it is to depict you. And as a fashion blogger, especially a personal style blogger, you are your primary subject and medium. If your like something, then, it cannot, by definition, compromise your integrity to feature it. Featuring it becomes an authentic representation of yourself. 

That's all fine and good. But one question has haunted me since I started this blog: How do you know if you like something in the first place? How can you disentangle liking something from the incentives — whether social or financial — that you receive from doing so?

My first thought, after receiving the request from Members Only to feature their gifted product was this: "I'm not above featuring gifted content on my blog in principle, so long as it's clearly marked as such, I actually "like it" (whatever that means), and I have a research justification for doing so. But if I'm going to feature gifted content, I would prefer it to be a pretty good gift. If I'm going to risk selling out my integrity, I want to get something decent for it." So I went to the Members Only website and looked through their catalogue. In short, I liked the black leather jackets best, but they cost upwards of $400. Would they give that to me? I wondered. Was my post worth that much to them? Or would I have to settle for their classic $49 jacket. Aha! Now I had a research question! How much is a street style post on a third-tier blog like mine worth? So I responded to the email, saying that I had had my eye on their leather jackets for some time... and what did they think of passing one on to me? And I told them what they would get in return: a street style feature on my site with a link or two back to their site and some commentary on their product. I wanted to know how much power I had in this situation. I wanted to test the limits of what I could demand. And well, it turns out that I can't demand that much. Their spokesperson said she would talk to her superiors and get back to me. Their response, a week or two later: we'll send you a racer jacket (retailing at $79). No leather. Not exactly what I was after, but by that point, I'd already begun to imagine the post I would construct out of the experience. I was going to take a leap, staging my own sell out for the sake of science. And I would do it by taking up to the part of fashion blogging that makes me the most uncomfortable: turning the lens back on myself.

So one of the arguments I've been making in my book manuscript (Street Style Anthropology - coming out from Bloomsbury Publishing in about a year and a half, and featuring lots of my own, and other peoples' street style photographs) is that street style photography is a popular, amateur form of ethnography, the primary methodology of anthropologists like me. Are selfies, then, an auto-ethnographic mode of practice? Do they use the self as a method of critical inquiry? Or are they just another emblem of the age of narcissism? I guess, I'm more inclined to believe the latter, as much as the populist in me would like to believe the former. Still, I live by a certain anthropological credo that if something makes you uncomfortable, it's probably worth doing.

So, do I like Members Only jackets? I guess I have to confess that I do. I kind of wish I didn't. They are rife with the symbolism of tacky 1980s self-indulgence. They make me think of Rob Lowe cocaine parties in the Hollywood Hills. But I do like them, in that my own sense of identity is wrapped up in them in some small way. In fact, I've liked them for a long time, ever since they were popular the first time around, when I was like 9 years old. They were some other world that fascinated me, even if I wasn't sure I wanted to live there. I have never, however, owned a Members Only jacket until now. I could never quite commit to it. I was afraid it would make me look like a douche bag. I'll let you be the judge of whether I was right about that.

So, should you go out and buy one? I really don't care. My links to Members Only's website are not affiliated links. I do not stand to benefit from you buying anything from them. My agreement with Members Only was only to feature them. I've done that. I have no further obligation to them.
My wife, Jessica Curtaz, assisted me in taking these shots. She's an artist. See her mind-blowingly detailed drawings here. Make sure you zoom in when you do. From a distance they look abstract. They are not.

By the way, in case you wanted to know, in addition to a Members Only jacket, I'm wearing a shirt by Ben Sherman, a cheap skinny tie from Urban Outfitters, a tie clip from the Tie Bar, a hat from Christys, Skargorn jeans, and, of course, a pair of Doc Martens ten-eyes. The beaded bracelets were made for me by my wife and daughter.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. My comment was too long for your post, so I'll break it up:

    I have so many thoughts on this, but feel like there’s something very obvious that gets lost in this debate from people who argue either side of this situation, but before I get to that, allow me to illustrate the crux of this topic a real-life example:

    You have some teenagers who are in two garage bands—

    Band A practices and works on their product relentlessly in hopes of one day being signed by an indie or major record label; this is in fact what they hope to do for the rest of their lives.

    Band B practices but are in the band primarily because they like playing together and genuinely find music to be a fun outlet in their lives. It is important for them to play in front of people to share their craft to people who care.

    Band C is like the previous two bands, but they’re explicitly uninterested in being signed, and uninterested in playing for fun. They insist on finding some unorthodox path to fame so that they aren’t compared to anyone else.

    If one were to assume that all things were considered equal and the bands were of completely equal talent and drive, Band A would logically have the best chance of becoming successful, and either Band B or C would arguably end up writing the best material. However, reality wins, and there is a long line of historical evidence that suggests that opportunity doesn’t care about an individual’s original or true intentions, and from a truly “historical” standpoint, nobody thinks about, argues or cares which band made the realest music. That this stymie exists in fashion blogging is a problem.

  3. It is an intellectual norm to agree that there is a cognitive difference between fashion and style, and how this applies to everyday life. But for some reason, this assumption is not automatically accepted in the blogosphere. With personal style blogs in particular, you tend to have two types of girls: Girl A has means, and a walk-in closet with 1,000 designer items on the rack. Girl B doesn’t have the means, but possesses an extremely likeable face and frame and just looks good in clothes. Both girls set out to make blogs on the topic of style, however Girl B does not possess enough times to post 365 days in the next year. Should Girl B more inclined to accept gifts because she “needs” it? Should Girl A be more incentivised to take gifts because she already owns a mall’s worth of garments and so a few gifts here and there won’t really make a difference? Are either of the Girl’s *less* authentic because they accept gifts? Better question yet: If Girl B has a talent of looking good in clothes and labels have identified this, does it really matter to us if she actually loves the clothes she’s wearing, and if not, why must she be obligated to disclose this?

    ^ …because the reality is, it’s highly probable that both girls want to become stylists. Isn’t this basically what stylists do, anyway, even if they have to return the clothes? A stylist’s job isn’t explicitly to farm for garments he or she believes in (most of the time), it’s their job to find the *right* clothes for the job or situation.

    We sometimes call the blogs I’ve mentioned above “personal style” blogs, but that’s colloquial; they still fall under the subset of “fashion blog”, which is mostly how the bloggers themselves refer to their websites. That is, the authors say they have fashion blogs, the readers say they are personal style blogs, it’s not supposed to matter but somehow it does, and it’s a big and serious deal. And yet, when walking down the street (with or without a camera), we don’t judge every person who walks by with statements like “that person is style, but that person of there is FASHION.” We don’t care if they bought the stuff on high-street, or via thrift, bartered or stole it, unless we specifically see something that we’d like for ourselves, at which point MAYBE we inquire about it.

  4. In street style, there’s been a tidal-shift of the top-tier blogs in terms of what they cover on the street. But the blogs in question are all being paid by the biggest fashion magazines in the world, who essentially preclude the photographers’ original mantra or agenda with quotas and deadlines. And yet, we mostly accept this—especially when the work itself greatly improves from an aesthetic standpoint. So it was interesting when a commenter wrote on a very recent NYMag street style post, “This isn’t street style anymore, it’s the fashion industry looking in on itself.” …. What??? There are a thousand other street style blogs on the internet, most of which exist in places in the world that are not dominated by the influence of the fashion industry, and yet this spectacular comment ends up on the real estate of a site that makes money by selling the idea of fashion. And that’s my point: the elitists and ethics of blogging are not mutually exclusive, elitists are arguing from a point of ethics while ethics are simply a set of ground rules by which fairplay can exist. If a blogger is presented with an opportunity to receive a gift, or financial compensation, there should be no soul-searching required on making a decision—do you like the stuff you’re getting? Do you want to make money? There’s no right or wrong answer. Being ethical about disclosure, of course is a different matter. But for you, the idea of not being ethical never crossed your mind in making your decision about the MO jacket, because your ground rules are not negotiable.

    For Girl B, why does she have to like the gift before accepting it to post? The only thing that really matters is whether or not she actually wants to do it. We don’t really live in a society where artists and businesses are questioned about the victimless decisions, unless shareholders are involved. But we treat bloggers like executives; we want to know their intentions of blogging (which, I admit, is a reasonable thing to want), when in fact, all that really matters is the quality and authenticity. Authenticity, I might add, that only lies in disclosure of gifted items, not the moral compass associated with “receiving” the gift.

    You should take the MO jacket 10 out of 10 times. Every notable person in fashion or the celebrity world would do it 100% of the time, every time, and nobody has a problem with that. Being a real-person blogger should not subject you to the social construct of inferiority that comes with turning stuff down in order to seem more real. That’s bullshit. You know old money people stay rich? By never spending their own money. I’m real, you’re real, we do what we gotta and keep it moving.

  5. Simbarashe, you are one of the intellectual heavyweights of the fashion blogosphere. Always love hearing your thoughts. They are wise and well-reasoned.

  6. A very thought-provoking, well-articulated post, with a good outfit! Now that I have been blogging for five years, I receive fairly regular requests from companies to "work together". Unfortunately, most of the time this means that they want me to post content that they supply, on my blog, which I refuse to do. I have also been offered merchandise from a few companies, and so far have only agreed to work with two, because I did find something they offered that fit with my personal style, and the company gave me carte blanche to write whatever I wanted. Would I do a sponsored post again? Maybe, depends on the company and whether they are attracted to my blog because of my own quirky style, or they just want another piece of their product out there on the internet.

    I think you made a good choice to take the jacket - it provided fodder for an excellent think-piece, and it is a cool jacket that looks great on you. That said, if you start showing up in gifted designer gear regularly, I'll have to "unfollow" you, like I've done with all the other bloggers (Manrepeller, etc.) who are constantly flogging their recent expensive designer purchases/gifts ;)

  7. Great to hear your thoughts, Forest City Fashionista. It's been a while!

  8. I love that last shot where you show your face sans shades! I've always wondered what you looked like... Many bloggers I follow sneakily slip it into the outfit details that the clothes they're wearing are gifted. It's always best to be clear about things like that, especially when it comes to things like sponsored posts to maintain the integrity and honesty of the blogger. I think your post here has been excellently put together; you seem to genuinely like the jacket, but you're not happy about it. And yes, it does look rather good on you.


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