Nashville Fashion Week Panels, Part 2: Selling the Image

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The Look Sharp! Selling the Image panel Wednesday at Emma Bistro had a packed house, many of the attendees looking to be in the high school/college range. Moderated by local fashion guru, writer and media consultant Libby Callaway, this panel featured Nashville designer and recent Project Runway contestant Amanda Valentine.

Joining Callaway and Valentine were Carrie Phillips, owner of Bismarck Phillips Communication, Alexis Borges, agency director at Next Model Management, Sally Lyndley, fashion/celebrity stylist, and Lauren Zwanziger, O'More student and Pinterest superstar.

An overlying theme of the panel was the way in which television, the growing presence of the internet/social media has "broken" the sanctity of the fashion world, as Callaway put it. Ten or 15 years ago, fashion magazines like Vogue called all the shots. But the subsequent rise of bloggers, social media and reality shows has allowed civilians a glimpse behind the curtain of the fashion industry, and the introduction of exciting new voices.

"It was not OK to do television," Lyndley recalls (more on her here). "This has drastically changed, with Lauren Conrad and Teen Vogue — that’s when Conde Nast changed their mind about TV."

Borges agreed, saying that despite how "real" reality television is, "fashion is entertainment — you could be entertained by showing the real thing."

What was once shrouded in mystery is now available to all, and the public can't get enough of it. This, along with the democratization of the industry due to the plethora of information available on the web and through social media, explains the meteoric rise of Pinterest superstars like Zwanziger, who saw her followers jump 27,000 overnight. Within two weeks, she was up to a million. Currently, she has just over 5.3 million followers on the popular site.

For those looking to build a similar following, whether on Pinterest or another social media vehicle, Zwanziger stressed the importance of staying true to who you are and conducting your pursuit with integrity.

"I don’t want anyone to think that I’m selling them anything," Zwanziger said. "I think that’s why sales are so great on Pinterest. People are shopping without even knowing it. So if I break that, they’re not going to follow me."

Phillips concurred, stating that for fashion bloggers, integrity is very important. There's a perception that something delivered through a blog or a Pinterest account is somehow more organic than looking at an ad in Vogue, which Phillips said costs $96,000. Yes, $96K for one page of advertising in one magazine. But the reality is that popular, influential bloggers are often paid for content. Some are more open about this than others, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to know when you're being intentionally marketed to nowadays.

For advertisers, it may seem more attractive to take that $96K and spread it across a yearlong web campaign. But when asked how they felt about print media, nearly everybody on the panel said they still love magazines and still read them.

"I grew up with paper, I still like to rip out a page," Phillips said.

But the urgency to rip open the new Vogue the day it arrives in the mail? That's gone, because they've been keeping up on Vogue.com.

"I have not cracked the March Vogue yet," Callaway admitted. "I already know what’s in it. I never would have said this 10 years ago."

Valentine spoke openly about her Runway experience, and how she had to get comfortable with the fact that, as a designer, fans wanted to know who she was.

"I never had any desire to be in front of the camera," Valentine admitted. "Before I did the show, people asked me who I was going to be, what my character was going to be. I want my brand to be me. Authentic. I’m not an actress. I don’t want to be this façade, it’s so exhausting."

Since reality TV and the web has introduced us to people in the industry who we can relate to and understand, having an image is as essential as having a business plan nowadays. But that doesn't mean that you have to put everything out there if it's not synonymous with your personality or your style aesthetic. Lyndley pointed out that you could easily find someone on your team to be your "social media voice," and Phillips said that her more private, behind-the-scenes personality is a hallmark of her brand.

Around this time, the panel entered a bit of a downward spiral about the size of models and body image issues for young girls. Callaway spoke openly about her teenage struggle with anorexia, and Borges noted that, in the industry, girls have to look a certain way to get booked for high fashion jobs, which is the kind of work many young models aspire to. Valentine, who said that she absolutely tries to use models of different sizes and even design with a curvier girl in mind, pointed out that in the fashion industry, designers have to make sample sizes. All of the clothing they make has to fit a multitude of potential runway or print models. And that sample size is, industry standard, a zero.

"As a designer, I use curvier models when I can," Valentine said. "But to play devil’s advocate, when making samples, at the end of the day, a model is a clothes hanger. Here’s the problem with real bodies — when you look at Kate Upton, you’re not looking at the clothes, you’re looking at her phenomenal rack. These rail-thin, faceless, that kind of serves the designer. I hate that conversation, because it objectifies the person."

Valentine wanted to stress that, obviously, she doesn't view a model as a clothes hanger, but for the purpose of displaying a garment, a model is not meant to take center stage.

At this point, my colleague Laura Hutson pointed out that this is one of the many reasons why bloggers and street style are so popular nowadays — people like seeing real people. Vogue is aspirational, but style bloggers? They're relatable.

So today's YouTube/reality/Pinterest/Twitter superstars may be a friendlier face in the fashion world. But who's to say what tomorrow could bring?

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