The Social Side of Selling

Crowd-sourced imagery is changing the way people shop. How are brands and retailers adapting?

By Renata Certo-Ware

User Generated Content on the homepage

Fashion advertisers have long played on our desire to keep up with the Joneses with compelling images designed to make us shell out piles of money to look like the models within them. Lately, though, what is just as likely to make consumers spend has shifted from the pipedreams of traditional advertising to the photos other consumers post to their social media accounts or blogs, or submit directly to brands and retailers. As more and more retailers are catching on to the fact that User Generated Content is a powerful driver of sales, it's becoming increasingly common in lieu of conventional ads, and arguably more effective. In a report highlighting the advantages of its services, ReadyPulse, a social media consulting firm, posits that UGC has the advantage of authenticity, as consumers trust content and recommendations from their peers much more than they trust branded content.

The tendency toward User Generated Content likely comes as the result of a perfect storm of consumers' mistrust of branded advertising, obsession with exploitative reality television and the baggage - albeit, designer baggage - that comes with it, and a tendency to overshare. We're more likely than not to publish every detail of our lives and every achievement on our social media feeds, from the innocuous (an #artisanal salad we had at that impossible-to-get-into bistro) to the grand (the birth of a child).

Social media makes it easier than ever to keep the world updated, so from cronuts to custom grills, if we eat, see, buy, or want something, it's likely to make its way to our social networks. Our digital DNA that began in chatrooms and AIM away messages today lives mostly in images that relay to our friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and that girl from summer camp who we are, what we like, and what we have. Basically, we're obsessed with ourselves, and everyone around us is, too. So it's only natural that social media, where civilians can become celebrities with the latest photography app, is the perfect place to source inspiration for styling, shopping, doing, and buying from people who don't appear to gain a whole lot from the sale, and most importantly, aren't paid models in an ad.

Industry newcomers and heavyweights such as Vogue are betting on the social media phenomenon - specifically Instagram, whose users submit 60 million photos each day - to drive sales and generate revenue. A slew of new apps designed with Instagram in mind has been rolled out in the past few months to optimize shopping online by giving it a social edge. RewardStyle's new app,, emails its users product pictures and links when they "like" designated Instagram photos from its partners - bloggers, celebrities, magazines, and retailers. Curalate recently unveiled LikeToBuy, which uses an Instagram-like template to display user-submitted images that link to product pages from retailers such as Nordstrom and Target.

At the same time, while social media users are busy projecting their lives to their networks and publishers and retailers are starting to tap into harnessing the power of all this content, traditional advertising is on the decline. According to new findings by Ipsos MediaCT, a global market research company based in Paris, millennials trust User-Generated Content 50 per cent more than other media. This can no doubt be attributed to the fact that consumers have wised up to the notion of how advertising works. Throw anything on a model with a BMI of 16 or less, add the right lighting and a million dollars' worth of photography, editing, hair, and makeup, and everything looks saleable and desireable. Post-recession, loosening our purse strings takes more than smoke and mirrors, and consumers now want to know "How would that look on me? How would this work in my life?" They are finding the answers - and the relatability that brand-driven ads don't provide - in UGC.

The Blonde Salad wearing Calvin Klein in what is likely a paid collaborative blog post.

The credit for ushering in the UGC trend for fashion advertisers could go to the industry's bloggers, who were the first to successfully position themselves as the civilian spokespersons for brands, with built in readership, tech know-how, and social media skills. Successful bloggers such as Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast and Chiara Ferragni of TheBlondeSalad, who for years have dominated the blogosphere with their enviable wardrobes and travel diaries, don't just wear clothing and take pictures. They also quickly learned to parlay their influence into overtly driving interest - and sales - towards brands and retailers, effectively creating lucrative partnerships in the process.

Aside from pricey contracts that only the biggest bloggers command, what does one stand to gain from submitting content into the arena of fashion-for-profit? Bragging rights notwithstanding, in some instances, brands or retailers will "gift" a blogger or prominent social media user with an item, with the expectation that they will post photographs of themselves wearing it. For others, an appreciative retweet from a designer or brand is payment enough.

 “Most brand advocates are motivated by the desire to play an active role as main stakeholders,” Cristina Forlani, an account director at the social media agency We Are Social, tells Business of Fashion in an article called "Black Milk, ‘Sharkies’ and the Rise of a Fashion Fandom."

Forlani later elaborated on this notion in an email to me: "There's also an experiential reward for the user, stemming from the fact that both the brand and the community acknowledge the user's role as an influencer as he positions himself as a 'partner' by helping potential buyers (and consequently the brand) through his own experience and opinion."

Ultimately, it all boils down to credibility: Attractive photos with covetable merchandise means more hits and more followers, which leads to more credibility, which eventually leads to becoming a trusted authority - one that could command generous compensation.

American Apparel imagery is designed to look like UGC.

Retailers such as Asos, via its As Seen On Me channel, have incorporated UGC into their marketing plans by tapping into our desire to see our own images plastered everywhere as a driver for sales; "Buy this now and your picture could be broadcast to our entire network!" American Apparel has been light-years ahead of the trend for years, encouraging shoppers to email their own photos for their Seen and Submitted section. And, aside from including images of actual civilian devotees wearing the brand on almost every product page, American Apparel also styles its campaign imagery to look like amateur photography, complete with bald lighting, minimal editing, and "regular"-looking models - body hair and all.

Then, there's multi-million dollar clothing company Black Milk, which doesn't advertise at all but instead attributes its high sales figures purely to social media. “Selfies, man, our business is built on selfies,” says Cameron Parker, head of sales and marketing, in the Business of Fashion article. “This is what sells the gear, not our models.”
Black Milk includes UGC like this bathroom selfie from a customer who submitted her picture in the Black Milk Cheshire Leggings. *Note: This is a screenshot that has been edited to fit the width of this blog

The genius of this super-simple notion is staggering: Instead of spending millions on a photoshoot and subsequent ad campaign, which would be relegated to a limited number of locations, models, and aesthetic, why not tap millions of social media users for free imagery that could be even more viable than traditional product photography?

Of course, when a new movement in the market leads consumers away, advertisers and their celebrity mouthpieces are quick to follow, mirroring the trend but injecting it with their high-budget brand of magic. Vogue published an entire spread of "selfies" of Kendall Jenner wearing thousands of dollars worth of forthcoming designer goods. Before that, Rag and Bone unleashed it's DIY project, a campaign made entirely of homegrown images taken by models like Miranda Kerr, Lily Aldridge, and Hanelli Mustaparta. "Welcome to The D.I.Y. project, where our favorite girls get into our jeans. No stylist, no hair and make-up, no lighting. Just a girl and her camera."


My own humble instagram account, which also includes images from partnerships and creative collaborations I've done with brands and boutiques.


Tiffany's Unapolegetically Modern "T" Collection

Newly appointed design director Francesca Amfitheatrof comes out swinging with T, her first collection for Tiffany. The first woman to hold the position in the company's nearly 200 year history. Amfitheatrof's T embodies a modern woman - bold, fearless, and just a little bit cheeky, with namesake T's appearing subtly (and in some, not-so-subtly) on each piece in the collection. Celeb fans of T include Rosie Huntington Whitely and Rose Byrne, who each positively radiate feminine strength.

Whether you're a shaky novice or a seasoned mixed metals pro, this is the collection for stacking, styling, and piling high sterling silver and gold pieces. I loved layering sterling silver and 18k gold cuffs (from $850), stackable rings (starting at $350), and chain-link necklaces ($3000-$5600) - if you look closely you'll notice right away that the links are actually perfect little T's!

To get in the spirit, The Bostonista and I headed to the cafe at the Taj Hotel for cappuccinos and to sneak a peek at T. This November, Tiffany & Co. will be calling the Taj home as they open their newest outpost, right in time for holiday gift shopping.

Hint, hint!

Above images c/o Tiffany & Co. 
From Left to Right: 
Bracelets, $5,000, $8,500, $5,500
Design Director Francesca Amfitheatrof
Braclets, $5,500, $5,000, $5,600
The T Campaign starring Freja Beha Erichsen


Perfect for Halloween! Handmade Leather Masks at December Thieves

Handmade Leather Mask, December Thieves
Jewelry, Tiffany "T" Collection
Cape, Lord and Taylor

There's something so deliciously racy, utterly stylish, and just a little bit bizarre about a leather mask, especially the gorgeous handmade masks (Prices start at $42) that December Thieves (524 Harrison Avenue, Boston MA 617.375.7879) has stocked up on in time for Halloween and Dia de los Muertos.

In stock options range from intricate and ladylike gold, white, or black numbers to Stanley Kubrick approved styles like a slick white leather bunny mask with floppy ears, a mouse, a bat, and a pair of unicorn masks, too - complete with giant leather eyelashes.

I still haven't honed in on this years Halloween costume (Cleopatra, for the 10th year in a row? #LivingIt) so I opted for more neutral versions that I don't have to wait 12 months to whip out again. 

I'll get plenty of mileage out of these, which I'll don for the Boston Ballet's Black and White Masquerade Ball, and again for New Years Eve!

Handmade Leather Mask, Shark Tooth Necklace. and Pocket Square, December Thieves
Jumpsuit, Vince


Exploring "Fashion" with Inez and Vinoodh

Me Kissing Vinoodh (Lovingly) 1999

Inez van Lansweerde and Vinoodh Matadin guest edited the fashion issue of Aperture Gallery's newly revived magazine, and what the Dutch photography duo and fashion/art/advertising crossovers curated is a beautiful Ode to Mode that is as multi-tasking as they are. 

Inside the pepto pink cover, featuring Richard Hamilton's "Fashion-plate", the prolific duo showcases their own work, including some never-before-seen images, as well as that of other artists, photographers, film makers, and editors that influenced their work and the industry at large. 

Images and interviews run the gamut from Sixties Ed van der Elsken nudes to Shisheido ads from the 1970's to a portrait of rising star and all-around outlier Iggy Azalea accompanying an article about the forces shaping post-9/11 fashion. A healthy dose of current and mainstream imagery, like the editors' own iconic shots of Lady Gaga, Anya Rubik, and the ubiquitous Kate Moss are dotted throughout, providing the connective tissue for an issue that in just 131 pages gamely covers generations and genres of fashion, photography, and art.


1.) "Uneasy Bedfellows", a referential article by Alistair O'Neill detailing the tricky relationships between documentary photography and fashion photography is especially pertinent given the glaring presence of the guest editors' blazing, delicious self portrait "Me Kissing Vinoodh (Lovingly)". 

2.) Immediately after followed another article, "Fashion Film & the Photographic", a thoughtful reflection by Marketa Uhlirova that examined the similarities between the two titular mediums.

Fashion film, like fashion itself, is particularly fascinating in that it dances the fine line between art form and commercial, and is more often than not a little of both. One question posed by Uhlirova that even the casual fashion film buff can appreciate is the ever-present notion of "stillness" and "restricted expression". She offers two schools of thought, the first being that photographs are more memorable, and the second that consumers and buyers alike need stillness to be able to appreciate the fine details of the featured pieces. Whatever the reason, it definitely warrants further reflection, especially given the ever-increasing use of fashion filmography to express a designer's mood-du-jour and indeed inspire a tinge of desire dreamed up with the end goal of loosening purse strings.

3.) As an overall fashion-busybody, I relished Penny Martin's interview with Emmanuelle Alt. Reading more like a conversation, with Martin frequently interjecting her own experiences in the industry to coax out admissions from Alt, the piece painted a gorgeous portrait of one of the industry's Anti-Editor Editors. I plan to frequently refer back to Alt's responses, like these below, which  you can find heavily earmarked and underlined in my copy of the magazine:

Penny Martin: When it comes to initiating a shoot, [are common] influences even mentioned between collaborators of the same age?
Emmanuelle AltWell, this story began with Inez and me exchanging images by e-mail. Sometimes it comes from almost nothing; it might just be a color. When you’re shooting in the sun—you know that strong blue sky in St. Barths—you need a contrast. So I might say, “What do you think about red and white?” And Inez is like, “Oh, yeah, sure!” I’ll send a picture of a red shoe and a RenĂ© Gruau illustration, which is full of red, and just a silhouette or a little sketch. It’s not always photographs—often it’s a painting or a frame-grab from a YouTube film. Very quickly, we’ll start to build up an image of a woman, and then we can discuss the casting. Some photographers will keep changing their casting or think they need a stronger idea. But Inez isn’t someone who hesitates. It’s like three phone calls and everything is booked.
PM: How many people were on set with you and Inez and Vinoodh?
EAOh, it was always twenty, minimum. You have the digital operator, and now you have a's like a mini version of the cinema industry.
PM: Which of the images that you were involved in creating do you look back at - which would you say were most important in terms of establishing your signature visual language?
EA: About four years ago, my first story with David was "Commando" with Iselin Steiro - she was wearing army stuff; this was a tough, new character we created. I was very proud. And not long after I came to Vogue, I started wotking with Inez and Vinoodh and I think we really created something together.

PM: Do you mean all those images of Jessica Miller with the extravagant poses?
EA: Yes, that was the beginning. They were good, I think. I loved the feminity and the mystery of Inez in them.
PM: I remember saying to [Vogue art directors] Michael and Mathias when they first got the job, "Oh my God, that archive! Having that resource downstairs is going to be great." I was so surprised when they replied that they had no intention of using it.
EA: It's a dilemma, working with an institution with such a history. "Should I look back? Should I not look back?"
PM: In our industry, a conversation about using archival references can be very nuanced. [People] might think you're accusing them of copying someone else's work.
EA: Well, people can't say they don't work with references - I mean, they're everywhere, from advertisers' storyboard to fashion designers' mood boards. But sharing a picture in order to discuss lighting or allude to Jessica Lange's hairstyle from a particular film is different from redoing something. And what's the point of that? It's like when singers cover "La vie en rose" - you just know it's going to be a disaster since there's nothing to add.

4.) In "Inez and Vinoodh: The Art of Transformation", Donatien Grau argues that the photograph "Me Kissing Vinoodh (Lovingly)" is a metaphor for the pair's relationship - both in art and in life. The sensual femininity, attachment, trust, and a fierce sense of equality depicted in the image, argues Grau, capture the very essence of the twenty-five year collaboration that has defied the individualistic nature of photography and yielded an incredible portfolio of work.

We're offered nearly 30 stunning photographs accompanying the article, among them these:

A two-tone stretch satin and lace pantsuit by Bertrand Marechal, The Face 1994

Lamb, Agnona Campaign

Maggie's Box, Yohji Yamamoto campaign 1998

Eniko for Peace, Self Service Magazine

Pick up a copy of Inez and Vinoodh's "Fashion" issue at Aperture (547 West 27th Street, 4th Floor, NYC) or online - it's disguised as a magazine but will certainly become a trusted source of inspiration and reference, and a coffee table mainstay for years.


Farm to City

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I love love love denim on denim, and I played off of the farmer-chic look with a fringe bag and an easy, knotted bandana that doubles as a super-light scarf for this in-between weather. Knee-high boots in supple suede were referential, but the burst of sleek black dressed up the look for a city jaunt.

Cue that Target commercial, and sing it with me: "Denim."



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