Tamu McPherson, one of the original street-style stars and a former editor of Grazia Italia, has 319,000 followers on Instagram. For years, many have watched her pose in immaculately styled outfits at runway shows, glittery parties and on vacation. During the fashion weeks in September 2019, Ms. McPherson, who was born in Jamaica and lives now in Milan, flew to New York and back four times to produce content for her Rolodex of clients, which include the jewelry brand Bulgari, the fashion label Etro and the fast-fashion retailer Mango.
In 2020, the jet-setting stopped.
“I haven’t been on a plane since March,” Ms. McPherson said this month. During the pandemic’s first lockdown, all of her brand partnerships were put on hold. For months she waited, uncertain of what might happen next. But in May, the phone started to ring again. Since then, it hasn’t stopped.
“There is so much work coming in, and I know it is the same for many of my peers,” Ms. McPherson said. “The key difference is we don’t travel the world for our jobs anymore. Most of what we do is now being done from our living rooms.”
In the last decade, a booming economy adjacent to the fashion industry has emerged. Largely powered by social media, it is made up of careers such as high-end fashion influencing and street-style photography. As companies increasingly look for new ways to reach customers, a growing coterie of these professionals has come to stand toe-to-toe with the traditional fashion elite, like magazine editors and photographers and stylists. Like so many, their livelihoods were derailed when the pandemic hit. But unlike other corners of the fashion industry still struggling to recover, some operators within the fashion-adjacent ecosystem say that, for them, business has never been better.
“It’s been my best year yet in terms of income and projects,” said Camille Charriere, a Parisienne in London with one million Instagram followers who is also a podcaster, consultant and writer. One reason for the influencers’ resilience is their relatively low overheads and production requirements — often as simple as a smartphone and ring light — which have allowed many to pivot nimbly to working from home. Lavish international photo shoots and red carpet events are still not feasible for most brands.
Instead of continuing to channel those dollars into more traditional advertising mediums, like print magazines or billboard campaigns, many companies are focusing their spending on partnerships with influencers, who offer faster turnaround times, versatile messaging options and real-time product demonstrations.
“We are very used to working alone and turning the camera onto ourselves to share personal experiences,” Ms. Charriere said. “The pandemic didn’t change that.” Still, she conceded that creating digital content with partner brands had become more “stage-managed” in recent years. There is a need for heightened sensitivity from both parties.
Selling a slice of fantasy, particularly at a time when people are re-evaluating their moral relationship with consumption, has its dangers. Her focus is now on creating uplifting or relatable posts with a more homespun D.I.Y. feel — even if her content still hinges on outfits from Prada, Dior and Chanel. But this hasn’t been a very difficult transition; her more successful posts have always been her more personal posts.
“What we provide is an intimatized sense of interaction with our way of living, whether that is at fashion weeks, eating toast or going to the grocery store,” Ms. Charriere said. “I didn’t cover fashion weeks, I covered myself going to fashion week, and that’s what I think my followers find interesting to see.”
The Sidewalk Economy
Before the pandemic, fashion weeks in February and September represented the most lucrative time of the year for both these high-fashion influencers and the photographers devoted to capturing them on the street — hired by publications and brands to capture the fashionable people filling seats at the fashion shows.
But September was a different story. This fall, there were smaller shows and fewer heaving crowds of showgoers hovering on the sidewalks of Paris, Milan, London and New York “looking for their cars.”
“In Paris, which is normally the busiest — you’re running to shows from the morning until the evening — some days there was literally just one physical show,” said the photographer Darrel Hunter, who is based in London and has been shooting fashion weeks since 2008.
Photographers had to work harder to find their subjects. This turned out to be an advantage for those subjects who were less established. “There were many more people who were local, who you may not have seen before, or who wouldn’t be invited to shows,” said Mr. Hunter, whose street-style photos have been published by Teen Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, among others.
This was a good thing, too, for photographers who had tired of the circuslike atmosphere outside shows, where some people show up uninvited, in their most attention-grabbing outfits, just for the chance to be snapped by someone with a big Instagram following.
In Paris in October, Mr. Hunter said, “a couple of us would just walk the streets and capture people who weren’t part of fashion week, instead of capturing people outside the show who have just been dressed head to toe by the brand.”
Acielle Tanbetova of Style du Monde said the smaller crowds and fewer photographers “reminded me of my early days as a street-style photographer, in 2008.”
Still, some publications were wary of highlighting this kind of work in 2020. “Magazines didn’t want to cover street style, to promote traveling in a pandemic, which is obviously understandable,” said Asia Typek, a photographer in Warsaw who has shot for Porter and Dior. Some outlets wanted only photos of people wearing masks; others wanted only people without masks.
With social distancing rules in place, competition was also tighter for jobs inside the show sites. Ms. Tanbetova mostly shoots backstage at shows now, but this fall, only three or four photographers were given this kind of access, compared to the dozens normally hired to shoot backstage. (Ms. Tanbetova said she was the only backstage photographer at Chanel this season.)
Getting through the summer and fall without a full fashion calendar — or the ability to freely travel internationally — hurt many photographers financially. Some were able to find a steady source of income in licensing old photos to international magazines, for example, but others had to focus on booking more traditional jobs, like editorial work or advertisements, to supplement lost fashion week revenue. But the pandemic slashed budgets for those projects, too.
Mr. Hunter found himself pursuing photojournalism outside fashion, selling photos he took while attending Black Lives Matter protests in London this summer to publications like Wired. The only way to survive 2020 was to adapt, he said — and to hope that in 2021, the editors, buyers, influencers, celebrities and crashers could return to clog traffic again.
A Reset Moment
Since 2019, TikTok has sired its own breed of megastar influencers, like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae, who have been embraced by the fashion world. Recently, some old-guard influencers like Bryanboy have also started using TikTok, attracting millions of followers in a matter of months.
But for now, the bulk of fashion influencers’ and street photographers’ business still involves Instagram, where people become valuable to brands either for their vast followings or their niche audiences (hence the reason some micro-influencers or even nano-influencers are thriving).
As the fashion-adjacent economy has matured, brands have acquired increasingly sophisticated tools that allow them to closely track rates of engagement. And as the pandemic continues to place pressure on bottom lines, they are demanding more from their “partners,” sometimes across multiple social media platforms.
“Gone are the days when brands would suck it up and put large amounts of cash toward social media campaigns without any guaranteed return on that investment,” said Jordan Mitchell, the managing director of LMPR, a British talent agency that represents influencers. “There is a much greater emphasis on data and on budgets working harder now. That will make winning contracts tougher for talent who don’t get the right levels of engagement.”
Some influencers have also become more vulnerable to exploitation by brands that push legally unsound contracts, ignore invoices or expect up-and-comers to settle for payment in discounts or exposure (i.e. nothing). The American Influencer Council and the Creator Union were both established in 2020 to ensure proper protections are in place as the industry grows.
The Instagram account @influencerpaygap, created by the agent Adesuwa Ajayi, has used anonymous submissions from influencers to underscore pay disparity based on race. Despite creating and driving many of the internet’s biggest trends, Black creators receive fewer brand deals and are consistently paid less than their white peers.
Ms. McPherson hopes to lead change there. This summer’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement brought Black influencers and photographers more attention and assignments. Brands are being held accountable in entirely new ways.
“It is already happening,” Ms. McPherson said. “This is an important reset moment for all brands to look at who they work with, who they hire and promote and the communities they will be able to reach out to.”