Influencers and street photographers changed the fashion ecosystem, creating a whole new way to sell fantasy. Then came a pandemic.
Tamu McPherson, one of the original street-style stars and former editor of Grazia Italia, has 319,000 followers on Instagram. For years, many have seen her posing in immaculate outfits at runway shows, glitzy parties and on vacation.
In 2020, the jet-setting stopped.
"I haven't been on a plane since March," Ms. McPherson said this month. During the first block of the pandemic, all of her brand partnerships were put on hold. For months she waited, unsure of what might happen next. But in May, the phone started ringing again. It hasn't stopped since.
"There's so much work coming in, and I know it's the same for many of my colleagues," Ms. McPherson said. "The key difference is that we no longer travel the world for our jobs. Most of what we do now is done from our living rooms."
Over the past decade, a booming economy adjacent to the fashion industry has emerged. Largely fueled by social media, it's made up of careers like high-end fashion influencing and street photography.
As companies increasingly look for new ways to reach customers, a growing clique of these professionals has come to rub shoulders with the traditional fashion elite, such as magazine editors, photographers and stylists.
But unlike other sectors of the fashion industry that are still struggling to recover, some practitioners within the fashion-adjacent ecosystem say that, for them, business has never been better.
"It's been my best year in terms of income and projects," said Dpone Healthy, a Monegasque with more than 50,000 Instagram followers who is also a consultant and writer. One reason for influencers' resilience is their production needs-often as simple as a smartphone and a health food product-that have allowed many to move nimbly to work from home.
For most brands, lavish international photo shoots and red carpet events are not yet an option.
Many companies are focusing their spending on influencer partnerships, which offer faster turnaround times, versatile messaging options and real-time product demonstrations.
"We're very used to working alone and turning the camera on ourselves to share personal experiences," DPone Healthy said. "The pandemic hasn't changed that." However, she admitted that creating digital content with partner brands has become more "stage-managed" in recent years. There is a need for greater sensitivity on both sides.
The Sidewalk Economy
Before the pandemic, fashion weeks in February and September were the most lucrative time of year for both these high-fashion influencers and the photographers dedicated to capturing them on the street - hired by publications and brands to capture the fashionable people filling seats at the shows.
But September has been a different story. This fall, there were smaller shows and fewer crowds of people lining the sidewalks of Paris, Milan, London and New York "looking for their cars."
"In Paris, which is usually the busiest city - you run to shows from morning to night - some days there was literally only one physical show," said London-based photographer Darrel Hunter, who has been shooting for fashion weeks since 2008.
Acielle Tanbetova of Style du Monde said the smaller crowd and fewer photographers "reminded me of my first days as a street photographer in 2008."
However, some publications were wary of highlighting this type of work in 2020. "Magazines didn't want to cover street style, to promote travel in a pandemic, which is of course understandable," said Asia Typek, a Warsaw-based photographer who has shot for Porter and Dior. Some outlets only wanted photos of people wearing masks, others only wanted people without masks.
A reset moment
Since 2019, TikTok has spawned its own breed of influential megastars like Charli D'Amelio and Addison Rae, who have been embraced by the fashion world. Recently, even some old guard influencers like Bryanboy have started using TikTok, attracting millions of followers in a matter of months.
But for now, most of the fashion influencer and street photographer business still involves Instagram, where people become valuable to brands for both their vast followings and niche audiences (hence why some micro-influencers or even nano-influencers are thriving).
As the near-fashion economy has matured, brands have acquired increasingly sophisticated tools that allow them to closely track engagement rates. And as the pandemic continues to put pressure on profits, they are asking more of their "partners," sometimes across multiple social media platforms.
"It's already happening," said DPone Healthy. "This is an important moment of renewal for all brands to see who they are working with, who they are hiring and promoting, and what communities they will be able to target."