You couldn’t make it up. It’s brunch time in Mayfair and I’m sitting with influencer Camille Charrière (Instagram followers: 494,000 and rising) on a plush teal velvet-upholstered chair. She’s wearing Vetements and Gucci, and we have frothy lattes and two orders of poached eggs and smashed avocado on toast before us. It’s an Instagram cliché come to life, and one that Camille might have posted, except there’s no Wi-Fi here. The irony. But in any case, faded Levi’s, slip dresses and sweatshirts are more her shtick than smug tabletop breakfast scenes. She knows this – duh – because her Instagram Insights tell her so.
“I know what works and what doesn’t,” she says. “I know that if I want 8,000 likes on an Instagram post then I need to be wearing jeans and a T-shirt with Converse. In general, people like simplicity. They’re looking for reality, because that’s something they can emulate and buy into. That’s how bloggers took off,” she adds. “Whereas fashion magazines were showing clothes in glamorous shoots, we were showing how to wear them on the street.”
Do those numbers matter? “Your highest currency right now seems to be your number of followers,” she answers. “It’s more important than anything else you can add to your CV, and yes, perhaps that’s a bit sad, but it’s the way the world works. It has become your worth.” But it’s also about having the right followers. Eighty-one per cent of Camille’s are women aged between 25 and 35 who live in London, New York or Paris. That’s a loyal demographic with good spending power; hence her appeal to brands.
Camille is part of a relatively new industry: that of the fashion influencer. These publishing dynamos are paid to turn up to events, designer dinners and fashion shows; they wear the clothes they’re generously paid to; and they typically charge £2,000 to £5,000 for a post on their > Instagram feeds, with the high scorers (those with multiple millions of followers) regularly demanding upwards of £30,000. Lord knows what they might actually spend that money on, since their lifestyles – their wardrobes, their holidays, their handbags – are pretty much paid for. “Yes, it’s a weird job,” she admits. “You’re marketing yourself and sharing yourself, yet you’re smart enough to know it’s a bit cringe, but it opens some incredible doors. There is no way I would be living this life if it weren’t for this.”
“There’s no denying the attraction of the influencer relationship for any brand,” says Sara Byworth, founder of her own PR and communications agency. “As traditional editorial space shrinks, this is a brilliant way to reach wider audiences. The girls at the top of their game are smart; they know the big bucks come from the less desirable and more commercial brands. But they know they need to temper the big-money jobs with the cooler initiatives,” she says, adding, “Remember, all of the girls we engage with started out in this because they love getting dressed in the mornings, and while they can charge large sums for a tag on an Instagram post, they also frequently post a cute shirt from a young design duo who lent them a slightly worn sample from the runway that they will expect back the following week.”
Along with various other brand alliances, Camille forms part of the #Mangogirls line-up, a campaign that enlists some 50 influencers across the globe, each of whom chooses her favourite pieces from the brand’s collections and then Instagrams herself wearing it, with all the requisite hashtags. Mango’s communications director, Guillermo Corominas, admits there’s no real skill in drawing up the list. The names are suggested by the “fashion fanatics” working at Mango’s headquarters, who all follow these influencers. The list, which includes Julia Restoin Roitfeld, Giorgia Tordini, Gilda Ambrosio and Blanca Miro, is constantly edited, but Guillermo insists it generally isn’t about the number of followers they have but more about the fit between the style of the influencer and the brand.
“In fact, we’ve rejected several girls who have a huge number of followers because they aren’t credible as Mango girls. It’s important to us that their style is admired and feels unique, but they also have to like the brand in order for it to not feel forced.”
Furthermore, they have complete freedom to choose the clothes. He mentions a long coat that several girls happened to select; you might think that’s bad marketing, to promote the same piece over and over again, but it went viral and was a huge sell-out. But did it sell out because the influencers were promoting it? Or did it sell out simply because the Mango customer also considered it to be the best piece in store?
In other words, would it have sold out regardless of any social-media post? “Can we insist that there is a clear correlation between an influencer’s post and these sales? It’s really difficult to say,” he acknowledges.
He also agrees that it’s hard to gauge the success of the campaign in terms of financial figures, but has it succeeded
in terms of brand awareness, perception and buzz? Unequivocally, yes. The #Mangogirls hashtag has more than 4,600 posts, 80 per cent of which are spontaneous content generated by customers. “These are Instagram users who we don’t even know, and that’s a great indicator.” Secondly, Guillermo has
a way of calculating the engagement of a post: add up the number of likes it has together with the number of comments and divide that by the total number of followers. For example, a girl with 100 followers who has 10 likes and 10 comments equals 20 out of 100, so the engagement rate is 20 per cent. “It isn’t scientific, but it’s a ratio to see if you’re going up or down; we can see that anything with a #Mangogirls hashtag has a big engagement rate. It means we’re doing the right thing.”
Jimmy Choo must also think it’s on to a winner, as it’s currently investing hundreds of thousands into its influencer trips – in 2014, it flew eight influencers to Marrakesh; in 2015, to Zermatt in Switzerland. The brand followed these up this year with a trip to India, hosting seven global top-tier bloggers with a combined reach of 6.5 million. A representative there says these trips are an important part of the brand’s social-media strategy, with the objective of creating aspirational and unique content for Jimmy Choo’s audience, but regrettably there is nothing solid to prove a link between this kind of marketing and consumer sales, although they think there is a correlation.
But some stats are more easily measured. Matchesfashion.com has a Shop With initiative in place whereby influencers, roughly once a month, make their own edit of merchandise, cast a model and style it all into 12 outfits, which are splashed on Matchesfashion.com and across the influencer’s social channels. There’s no upfront fee, but they earn their money on the commission that comes from the sales of their edit when the customer purchases via the Shop With page. That’s all easily traceable. So, too, are other nuggets of information – like the fact that, on average, customers spend twice the amount of time on the site after visiting the Shop With pages; they visit double the number of pages, 12 versus six; that nearly 40 per cent of the Shop With traffic is from new customers; that the AOV (average order value) on Shop With is 30 per cent higher than the company’s typical AOV. In short, customers are spending more money and time on these pages because they’re more engaged with the content.
The influencers we feature have a global audience, and yes, so do we, but that’s one of the ways we’ve managed to get that global audience,” says Jess Christie, global communications director at Matchesfashion.com. “Years ago we were a bit of a cult secret in Notting Hill; people used to find us and then go back to New York or wherever and tell their friends about us. This is the digital version of that physical experience,” she explains. “When we accelerated in the US we got to know that market via partnerships with its influencers. But who is that person in Korea? Who is that person in Hong Kong? It’s about finding those poster girls who also have a global reach, who we can work with, and who can introduce us to their audience.”
Another bonus is that it can shift less-searched-for brands. Just as some influencers will inevitably choose eight pieces of Balenciaga for their edit (“We thought that might be a problem at first, but we can’t interfere with their edit, we have to let them run with it or it wouldn’t be authentic,” says Simone Parchment, head of affiliates and partnerships at Matchesfashion.com), others, such as Leandra Medine (followers: 1.6 million through her account @manrepeller), home in on an obscure Anglomania shirt that wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves. She styled it with flared chinos, layered a poloneck underneath, rolled up the sleeves and added a bangle to each wrist. Said shirt promptly sold out in hours, with all consumers having landed on the Shop With page prior to checkout. In that instance it’s easy to see the connection – but it hasn’t always been that way.
Amber Venz Box discovered a way of proving that correlation, and then monetising it, when she launched the affiliate programme Rewardstyle. Her backstory: while working as a personal stylist and earning a good wage from store commissions, she started her own fashion blog. But what she didn’t foresee was how it would cannibalise her business. Her clients would browse her blog for style inspiration and then purchase the featured items direct from the stores, meaning Amber was losing out on any commission from those sales. Within six months she had lost the majority of her business. It encouraged her to discover how other bloggers were making money. So she asked Leandra Medine. “She said she wasn’t, that she just got a lot of free clothes and got invited to stuff,” recalls Amber, on a phone call from her offices in Dallas. “I couldn’t believe that no one was making money from their platforms.” Her idea was simply to prove to stores that they only got specific sales via an influencer’s recommendation. And so, at the age of 23 – together with the man who is now her husband, who at the time was working at a hedge fund for tech investment – she launched Rewardstyle.
“We built a platform to track online sales,” she explains. “Stores would then pay us a commission, and we would essentially be the bank and distribute a percentage [typically five to 20 per cent] to the influencer driving that sale.” In 2011, Net-a-Porter signed on, and the rest followed. She has signed 4,000 global retailers in total, covering a million brands among them. “We are an army of content creators who are driving sales on a daily basis, actively bringing in customers, at scale.” Rewardstyle’s influencers create content for about 30,000 products daily.
On a monthly basis they drive 230,000 retail sessions an hour during busy seasons, which added up to about $700 million in sales last year alone. Right now, Rewardstyle drives between five and 13 per cent of all traffic to some of the world’s largest brands. But when social media moved away from blogs and on to Instagram, there was no way of linking out to shop, so Amber launched Liketoknow.it, which tracks that engagement through to sale. Consumers register for the service, and whenever they like a post they receive an email that gives them the shopping information, enabling them to click through and buy. “In 2016, Liketoknow.it drove more than $140 million in sales for our partners. It’s a huge piece of our business.”
No wonder influencers want in. Rewardstyle is invitation only, and to date has received more than 100,000 applicants, but is currently working with 11,000. Once accepted, they have access to pre-negotiated brand relationships all around the world. “But we prune,” she adds. “If they aren’t actively driving a high enough volume of sales then we remove them from the platform.” Amber has several influencers > who are now Rewardstyle millionaires: “They make more than $100,000 a month on commission, and these are girls who don’t go to Fashion Week, who live in Middle America.” She’s also noticed that the number of followers of an account is not in line with retail sales driven. “Some of our top accounts are those who have around 30,000 followers. That isn’t a huge number.”
“Smarter brands are now looking beyond social stats,” says one fashion marketing and communications executive. “Look at the Victoria’s Secret girls,” she continues. “They look incredible, they have millions of followers, but I think engaging with them isn’t about them posting on their feed – because how much of that is just going to be pervy guys creeping on their vacation snaps?” Amber agrees: “I was talking with a British celebrity’s agent recently who said the brand she had worked with the previous evening wasn’t happy with the outcome, and the talent said, ‘Well, they paid me to show up, I showed up, what else do they want from me?’ That idea is akin to buying a display ad.”
Likewise, several of the influencers now agree that simple product placement – paying a girl to post a photo of a handbag – is an outdated initiative. “How interesting is that for a brand? I don’t think they get much from that any more – perhaps, when there was less of that on Instagram, and generally less imagery going through our lives, I think it used to work, but I find it a bit overwhelming. It also makes me feel a bit sick about the amount of stuff I get sent,” discloses Camille Charrière, who donates high-street gifts to charity and resells anything designer. Influencer Sofia Sanchez de Betak (followers: 105,000 on her account @chufy), who also works as an art director and is the face of a new Roger Vivier campaign, agrees. “It’s intoxicating. I like to have things I would have bought myself at full price. Otherwise it’s a waste of their time sending it, my time returning things, and a waste of my square-footage in my New York apartment! I think the idea of blindly tossing a bag at someone is so dated; it surprises me how many brands haven’t understood that yet. They just send random products with no relationship – I don’t remember them and I feel no warmth towards them.”
Camille grew up in an English-speaking household in Paris. Her mother is an environmental scientist and her father works as an engineer. She studied for a bilingual master’s degree in law before moving to London, where she worked at a hedge fund for a year. She was earning good money, but was bored and unhappy. “I hated the culture of that male environment. TT – Tiny Tits – was my nickname.” She started her blog as a creative outlet, and in 2010 applied for a French fashion writer position at Net-a-Porter. She continued with her blog alongside her full-time job at Net, which offered her a credibility that most bloggers didn’t have. After 18 months she was poached by Matchesfashion.com, accepting a role on its social-media team, but by that point, her blog had gained traction, opportunities were flooding in – luxury travel, brand collaborations – and she was earning more from it than from her job. So she quit within a month, before her probation period ended. “It was a scary decision – to go from a career that is respected within fashion to choosing the only position in this industry that even those working in this industry think is the pits. But at the same time, there was a part of me that knew it was exciting, fun and new. We were paving the way for a whole new industry and a whole new way of communicating. But there was a price to pay,” she adds. “You had to accept that people assume you’re an airhead or super narcissistic.”
I ask her if opinions have changed, to which she bats back, “Did you read the American Vogue piece?” Much hype surrounded Vogue.com’s rant about bloggers and street-style stars peacocking at the biannual ready-to-wear shows, or, shock horror, those in the front row. It branded them as desperate, pathetic and embarrassing. Several weighed in on the debate, but blogger Shea Marie (followers: 1 million) was quick to point out the irony of American Vogue’s most commented-on post “by a landslide” on its Instagram account: a street-style snap of her with Caroline Vreeland, both in leather jackets. The industry may dismiss them, but it must take responsibility for its part in fuelling their profiles. “I was surprised at that story,” says Camille. “Because actually I credit American Vogue’s Sarah Mower for my success – she wrote a piece for Vogue.com about this cool group of French girls living in the UK, she name-checked my blog and that was a
turning point. After that, I was gold.”
The ready-to-wear shows are as much a feeding frenzy for influencers as they are for editors and buyers, except their focus is largely centred on the theatre of being photographed. Everyone has to start somewhere, says influencer Pernille Teisbaek (followers: 435,000), adding, “Of course you dress up for the shows – everyone does, don’t they? But I rarely wear the designer to their show any more. I used to, but it isn’t practical to change so many times a day and it feels fake; you get smarter.” It’s tricky to ascertain who is paying for what when it comes to the shows: some influencers are paid by designers to sit on their front row, but it happens less and less these days. Others self-fund their trips entirely, but most at least have travel expenses paid for by brands. “Like any start-up company, during those early days you have to invest in it,” says Pernille.
A former model, and then fashion editor on a Danish magazine, Pernille started a blog, and her profile rose when she presented the fashion slot on a morning television show in Denmark. Her blog was blowing up and she asked her publisher if he would consider joining forces. He said no. “I remember thinking, ‘Who can’t see the future in this?’ He said, ‘I don’t believe in social media. You have to pick a side: stay here or leave and do your blog.’ I thought he was crazy, so I left.”
She’s now busy building her own empire. Not least because, as for models, the role of the fashion influencer generally comes with an age limit, as she points out: “The idea of standing in front of a camera when I’m too old is a bit tragic.” She’s currently six months pregnant, and says it’s becoming harder to feature herself. Can she still do this job with a baby? “I’m self-employed – there’s no one paying for my maternity leave! My plan right now is to take a few weeks off, and then I’ll probably be back at it.” She’s also considering how much of that side of her life she will want to share; up until now it’s remained very private.
Pernille’s days are varied. Today, she’s sitting on the judging panel for the H&M Design Award, and tomorrow she flies to Madrid for Loewe’s flagship opening (which she isn’t getting paid for, but she has collaborated with the house before, styling its Hammock bag). Typically, when at home in Copenhagen, she wakes up at 6.30am, immediately checks her phone for news (but not for emails), meditates for 15 minutes using the Headspace app, then exercises, reads her emails over breakfast and is in her office by 9am. Right now she’s working with Sportmax and Matches, so she spends her days working on content and ideas for those brands, in addition to her consultancy role on the board for Copenhagen Fashion Week. She usually posts on Instagram twice a day; like many other influencers she’s closed her blog due to dwindling traffic, or rather, traffic moving across to other platforms such as Instagram.
She makes the point that with the loss of the blog comes the loss of advertising revenue, but without the upkeep of it to worry about she has more time on her hands for new ventures, such as co-founding her own agency, Social Zoo, representing a group of younger influencers.
Camille, too, has other projects in the works, including a series of podcasts that aim to shed light on areas of the fashion industry, produced by Stephen Fry’s team. But there’s no denying that for the moment, it’s brand alliances that pay the rent. More and more, influencers are negotiating those contracts on their own terms. When Tommy Hilfiger approached her to promote its Gigi
Hadid capsule collection (from Hilfiger’s perspective, why hook up with only one influencer when you can enlist another to cross-promote it all?) she wasn’t convinced, but won’t pretend that the five-figure fee being offered wasn’t appealing. (Incidentally, she has turned down lucrative contracts before, specifically, a campaign for Macy’s worth £100,000, because she couldn’t get on board with the clothes.) “At the end of the day, I’m selling my taste and my eye – if I do things off-brand I will lose the respect.”
Regardless, she looked at the Hilfiger collection: cartoony hamburger patches on denim didn’t resonate with her French aesthetic, so she went back to them and asked if they would allow her to do it her way. “I approached it like a consultancy job. I sourced the photographer and I art-directed it all to create a fashion shoot that most would think doesn’t look typically like Hilfiger.” She staged it on the streets and balconies of Paris and styled it up à la Balenciaga/Vetements, layering a slip dress over Hilfiger’s sweatshirt. “They paid a lot, and I delivered a lot. There has to be return on investment for them, there will be people in that office looking at those statistics as they roll in; they will be gauging the results of click-throughs that come via me.” Which in turn, Camille can track, too: “My engagement on that project was through the roof. I got 9,000 likes on an Instagram post of a pair of jeans with a palm tree patch on them.”
For a successful influencer, integrity is everything. “I won’t compromise,” she says. “I won’t do head-to-toe, that’s not my job – get a model to do that.” The projects that are turned down are perhaps more crucial than those agreed to. A good agent will see past dollar signs and help strategise. “Tiffany could come along with a great offer, but if your dream is to work with Cartier, then maybe you say no to Tiffany,” explains Camille. “I achieved my goals thanks to all the nos that I gave, which was difficult at the beginning of my career, but now I recognise how important it was to turn down so many offers,” says 29-year-old blogger turned businesswoman Chiara Ferragni (followers: 7.7 million). Known as the Blonde Salad, she is the world’s most popular fashion blogger – she has even had a Harvard MBA case study written about her. Ferragni has gone on to launch e-commerce on her own blog, selling exclusive product that she has co-designed with brands such as MSGM and Olympia Le-Tan in addition to her own shoe line, Chiara Ferragni Collection, which is stocked in more than 300 stores. It’s a huge business built from little more than the desire of someone on the outside looking in, a blog, and a series of Instagram posts.
“I need to Insta,” admits Camille. “You get used to the likes and the validation that comes with it. It makes you feel good, there’s no point denying it. I’m addicted to my phone, it’s scary,” she says, suddenly realising how unhinged it all sounds. “I have a pool in my building in London that I use once in a while. Last time, I left my phone on the side, and all I could think about was this countdown to when I could look at it again, to check messages, Whatsapp, emails, Instagram. I was thinking, ‘In six minutes I can look at my phone, in four minutes, in two minutes…’ and so on. I thought, ‘Holy fuck, what have I done to my brain?’ If my phone dies during the day I will walk into Apple and buy a charger because I can’t cope with it being dead. It’s a physical addiction.”
Camille is single and says her job is partly to blame. “I bounce around the world, I’m never here because my career is my priority, but it’s very insular. It can be lonely. Also,” she adds, “the element of make-believe that comes with it can really screw you up. When my career took off, my personal life was shit. I was going through a break-up and felt completely empty inside. You’re filtering your life to make it look a certain way. It isn’t your life; you’re creating a version of your life to appeal to other people. You’re not a model or an actress; you’re being you, and yet it isn’t you. You have to know how to give enough to be appealing, but not give enough so it takes over your real life, and that’s a hard balance.” She continues: “Look, everything in fashion is a trend, but with a job like this you feel like you’re a trend and at any moment it could stop. The media and those following you, they are the ones choosing to put you in this position. So it isn’t about you, it’s about who is choosing to let you do it. I don’t have control over that. So why me? I know I’m not the hottest, the coolest or the best writer – I’m just the one who decided to do it.”
As one marketing executive surmises: “Even the most successful influencers, they’re just girls who were desperate to
be part of the industry. Nothing more.”