Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Street Style Bloggers as Brands and Businesses: My Evolving Response to Yuli Ziv's "Fashion 2.0"

I first read Yuli Ziv's book Fashion 2.0: Blogging Your Way to the Front Row about two years back, right as I was starting this project. At the time, fresh out of graduate school and steeped in my disciplinary biases, it read to me like agitprop for a feel-good version of neoliberal capitalism. This was blogger self-help, inspired by the management literature treacle that passes as social analysis in MBA-level marketing courses. Be yourself, goes the mantra, and the money will come. Merge your personal identity with your brand identity. Run your hobby as a business. You see, anthropologists are trained to develop a hyper-sensitivity to the incursions of capital into our everyday lives. We read all sorts of modern trends as redolent with the machinations of the neoliberal master plan. Slowly, but surely, you will be transformed into a commodity, and when you are, the very humanity will drain out of you. Social media, online dating, self-help, hell even yoga and gluten-free eating have been cast by anthropologists as extensions of neoliberalism. After all, each of these trends has to do with self-discipline, and self-discipline, we all know from Foucault, is power with a capital "P." It is "governmentality," that shift from sovereign, state-level forms of power to internalized and individualized self-monitoring that marks the transition to a free market economy. In a dictatorial regime, the state disciplines us. In a free market, we discipline ourselves.
Adam Katz Sinding of Le 21ème, a master self-brander of the street style blogosphere if there ever was one.

I am reading Ziv's book again now, and somehow it fails to elicit the same sense of dread. "Start," suggests Ziv of the first step in becoming a blogger, "by creating a personal brand that aligns deeply with your personal values" (pp 19). Then define your mission statement in accordance with that brand and stick to it. Develop a business plan that corresponds with that mission statement, and find ways to monetize your blog that aligns with who you are as both a person and a blogger. Think strategically, she commands, but also ethically. Don't just offer yourself up to whatever brand comes your way. Make sure that the commitments and collaborations you engage in correspond with your personal brand and your vision for your blog. 
The Sartorialist at work
Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist, shooting lone-wolf style on the streets of New York, and hence, reinforcing his lone-wolf blogger brand identity.

Does this book treat blogging as a business? You bet. Does it encourage its readers to strategize about how best to monetize their blogs? Absolutely. Does it equate personal identity with brand identity? I'd have to say it does. Is that a problem? I'm not so sure. If you are a blogtrepreneur, like Scott Schuman, Adam Katz Sinding, or Tamu McPherson, using your blog as a way to launch your career in the fashion industry, how else would you think about blogging? Fashion 2.0 may be written in the sugary jargon of marketing, but it offers up some eminently practical advice. 
Bill Cunningham of The NewYork Times, joining the hordes of would-be Bill Cunninghams on the steps of Lincoln Center

I have come a long way in my thinking over the last couple of years, for better or for worse. I used to think of blogging in much more idealistic terms. Blogs were a high-tech instrument of a global public sphere, a way for the silenced masses to get their voices heard. And street style blogs were outsider visions, knocking on the door of the fashion industry. Making profit off of them seemed somehow counter to that goal, too crass and calculated not to contaminate it. Now, I can see that profit also keeps a blogger's dreams alive. It enables her to keep on keepin' on.

These days, I find myself using the language of branding for thinking about my blog and my projected image as a blogger. I also, of course, use the language of anthropology: "neoliberalism," "hegemony," "governmentality." I am becoming bilingual. All good anthropologists do. And yet more and more I find myself using the former language more than the latter. It's simply more useful for talking about blogs. And it's the language bloggers use.

Bloggers, after all, are not passive victims of a neoliberal economic order. They do not need to be saved by anthropologists. They are shrewd manipulators of business principles, playing their part in the game, while trying not to get lost to it. Of course they accept gifts from companies, struggle to get on the invite lists of fashion events. Of course, they hustle to get their pageviews up, maximize their number of followers. Of course, they borrow their strategies from the business plans of start up companies. They have careers to build and reputations to establish. They want to make money off what they like doing. Who wouldn't? No one wants to have to keep their day job.
J'ai Perdue Ma Veste
Nabile Quenum of J'ai Perdu Ma Veste, doing his job at New York Fashion Week, while branding himself with his own conspicuous, gender-bending, streetwear-influenced style

So the question for me is: what has changed about me in the last couple of years? Have I drunk the Kool-Aid? Have I bought into the hype? Have the great grubby claws of neoliberalism sunk themselves so deep into my flesh that I can no longer tell me from it? Or have I simply started to see the world the way a blogger does, pragmatically assessing what they—and I— need to do to keep my blog out there and expanding? 

Bloggers may have once been on the political frontline of a media revolution. The verdict is still out on that one. But today, they are mainly small-scale entrepreneurs, doing what they have to do to build a name for themselves and forge a career out of their passions. Are there compromises to be made along the way? Sure. Do these compromises make me fear for the younger generation and the future they will inhabit? Not really. Bloggers may use the language of brands to describe themselves and their practice, but they also often go to great lengths to make sure their brands correspond with who they are and what they believe in.

Ziv's book is not for everybody. Anthropologists will hate it. Critical theorists will file it under "N" for "neoliberal." But street style bloggers may find something of value in it. They are navigating a line between blogging for passion and blogging for profit. Ziv lays out one road map for doing so. 

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