- Thanks to social media, the fashion landscape appears to be more democratic than ever before, but making your way in an industry tied to advertising and social media is as difficult as ever.
- Stylists have to market themselves as a brand to make it big. This means maintaining social media followers, working pro-bono on editorials, and taking on side hustles to make ends meet.
- Online, anyone can be a stylist, as long as they know how to play the feed. This is great for representation, but makes getting paid difficult—particularly for freelancers.
There have been a lot of positive changes as a result of increased pressures on the fashion industry to evolve. Black editors like Samira Nasr and Robin Givhan are taking the lead in cultural discourse, reshaping the way we think about fashion and society; while sought after stylists like Ib Kamara, Carlos Nazario, and Matt Holmes set the bar for aspirational styling—envisioning a utopian world where diversity is no longer a trend. All of this is due in large part to social media like Instagram, which has given a voice to the historically marginalized, and leveled—or at least tilted the playing field—for those without access to the once-rigid hierarchy of the fashion world. But in an industry tied to advertising and the whims of social media, finding success, and a voice, as a fashion editor is still as hard as ever.
In her 1998 book British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry? Angela McRobbie took a first look at the rise of styling as a form of pop cultural entertainment in the two decades prior. “Of all forms of the consumer culture, fashion seems to be the least open to self scrutiny and political debate,” she wrote. “This is because the editors deem that fashion must steer well clear of politics, and fashion journalists are expected to go along with this. With Vogue acting more or less as a universal benchmark of quality, fashion-as-politics is only conceivable as a catchy idea for a ‘fashion story’.”
Social media has changed all this. Not only is Vogue losing its authority, but stylists, editors, and photographers tend to have more editorial freedom, particularly when it comes to self-aware critiques of the fashion industry on their own social platforms. Independent publications like Vestoj give writers, stylists, and editors a platform to vent their frustrations about the fashion world, providing context and deep dives into the industry’s misgivings. But the cost of editorial freedom is often the loss of advertisers, and without them, these publications struggle to compensate their contributors. Of course, anyone working in fashion is able to show or say whatever they like on social media, but this too comes at a cost. Brands are unlikely to hire overtly controversial figures (they too risk cancellation), and with a heavy turnover of stylists and endless rebrands at large fashion houses, creative freedom is hard to come by. For those working within mainstream publications like Vogue or Harper's Bazaar, there’s a chokehold on creativity, as big fashion houses like Gucci and Prada continue to insist on having their clothes styled as full runway looks—the kind that are guaranteed to look good on Instagram.
In 2020, everyone’s a stylist but breaking into the fashion industry is as hard as ever. With low rates and the expectation from most independent publications that stylists will shoot editorials for free, it takes financial independence, or at the very least followers, to get paying gigs. Up-and-coming stylists know this, and they operate accordingly. Take for example, a recent viral tweet from New York-based stylist Mel Reneé: “Why don’t celebs tag their stylist? We know you didn’t pull that look babe, and that is ok. Your job is to carry it. What’s the prob?”
Stylists no longer operate in the background. They want clout, and they aren't afraid to ask for it. But in order to turn reputation into paying jobs, stylists must market themselves as a brand, and with increasing precarity, the more clients, collaborations, and side-hustles, the better. Artists like Akeem Smith work with companies like the Row and Hood by Air, and celebrities like Kim Kardashian; combining styling work with brand consultations, art exhibitions, and more, while lesser known stylists may dress actors in commercials, shoot editorials for indy publications, and work side-hustles styling people via apps like Glamhive. In the past, these seemingly dichotomous roles may have caused cultural consumers to question the expertise or authenticity of stylists who work in both avant-garde and corporate spaces, but in an era where everyone is a brand and massive corporations like Facebook dictate both our taste and sense of style, being able to navigate multiplicitous worlds and identities is the ultimate signifier of talent.
Online, anyone can be an editor, an art director, or a stylist without having institutional credit, as long as they know how to play the algorithm. On High Fashion (HF) Twitter, teenagers are historians and video bloggers like @hautelemode and @blissfoster are critics, only their seats at runway shows are virtual, and their reviews sound more like the judges on Ru Paul’s Drag Race than the guarded staff writers at Vogue. The result is an increasingly diverse fashion industry wherein cultural consumers have access to varying perspectives—giving both professional and amateur creatives new opportunities to change the narratives around who fashion is for, and what it can inspire. This is particularly significant in 2020, when aspirational imagery often reads as exclusive and out of touch. Not many people are interested in seeing wealthy white women dressed in couture when they are experiencing financial duress and the terrors of an endless pandemic, and thanks to social media filter bubbles, they don’t have to.
Yet the outcomes of this are not always ideal. Virtue signalling can quickly become propaganda, and virtuosity can lead to censorship and a smothering of self-expression. More significantly, the oppression of algorithmic streams makes it so that we are more likely to mimic one another rather than come up with our own ideas. This flattening of culture can result in the rise of bottom-up-trends, resulting in the monoculture we see in luxury brands today. So what is the solution? The precarity faced by stylists, editors, and photographers puts these creatives in a challenging, yet unique position to shift the discourse around fashion. By taking on low or non-paying gigs for small magazines and brands, stylists have the power to create trends that can stretch definitions of desirability in the corporate world, as long as they look good on Instagram.