By Ruth La Ferla
PIVOTING smartly, a hand on her hip, the better to show off her pipette jeans, Laura Ellner seemed the incarnation of street style. As she posed at Lincoln Center Plaza on Day 1 of New York Fashion Week last Thursday, a brace of cameras clicked and whirred, each competing to catch her performance.
And what a performance it was, as cannily staged as any red carpet promenade. But then, for Ms. Ellner, a fashion blogger, the stakes were just as high.
She was hoping to burnish her image (she poses routinely on On the Racks, her style blog) and to appear on a flurry of similar sites. She was also sharing the spotlight with her bag, a roomy multizippered affair that she readily identified as a Kelsi Dagger duffel from by Pour La Victoire, the leather goods company where she works.
“I always like when I’m being shot by street photographers, to call out the different pieces I’m wearing,” Ms. Ellner said.
As the week progressed, dozens of similar scenes were being played out all around the city in the twice-yearly outdoor style show that competes, and indeed sometimes eclipses, the action on the runways. In front of Milk Studios, on the piers along the Hudson, and at other locations where shows were staged, scores of fashion hopefuls, mostly female, mostly young, preened for the cameras, apparently vying for their 15 seconds of fame on Instagram, Tumblr or one of the dozens of fashion blogs proliferating on the Web.
Was it only a couple of years ago that these showily outfitted swans — stylists, bloggers, fashion editors and style-struck students — click-clacked on the pavements, showing off a mash-up of vintage clothes, fast fashion and high-end labels in what used to be seen as a commerce-free zone?
Today many of them are Web icons, trotting out their finery for scores of fans. But what they are parading as street style — once fashion’s last stronghold of true indie spirit — has lately been breached, infiltrated by tides of marketers, branding consultants and public relations gurus, all intent on persuading those women to step out in their wares.
“These girls are definitely billboards for the brands,” said Tom Julian, a fashion branding specialist in New York City, one of a handful engaged in a particularly stealthy new form of product placement. “People still think street style is a voice of purity,” Mr. Julian said. “But I don’t think purity exists any more.”
Neither for established brand nor newcomers eager to get a foot in the door. “Most young designers don’t have the resources to hire high-powered PRs or have access to important editors and stylists,” said Philip Oh, a street photographer, “so lending their clothes to friends and supporters who will get photographed is a great way to get noticed by both the industry and consumers.”
As Christene Barberich, the editor of the fashion site Refinery29, said, “more and more this is being recognized as a business.” There are products to be flogged and, Ms. Barberich added, “stars to be made.”
Style beacons like Josephine P., as she prefers to be known, who fanned out her Champagne-toned hair and turned up at Milk Studios on Saturday in a pair of platform sandals from her employer, Nicholas Kirkwood. Or Ella Catliff, the comely young publisher of La Petite Anglaise, a style blog, who stood nearby, brandishing an Anya Hindmarch bag. It was borrowed, Ms. Catliff said, from Ms. Hindmarch’s showroom in London, to promote the label during Fashion Week. Or Nicole Warne, an Australian blogger, wearing a gift from a designer friend, Alice McCall.
Branding consultants estimate that popular bloggers and other so-called influencers can earn $2,000 to $10,000 for a single appearance in their wares. More typically, though, “If you give them a gift card of $1,000 and you pay their expenses, that’s a good quid pro quo,” Mr. Julian said.
To some designers, the marketing clout of fashion bloggers can equal or surpass that of a red carpet ingénue.
“We all know that there are celebrity endorsement deals,”said Karen Robinovitz, the founder and creative head of Digital Brand Architects, an agency representing fashion bloggers. “On some level this is a piece of the same thing.”
Michelle Stein, whose firm AEFFE represents Moschino, Jean Paul Gaultier, Alberta Ferretti and other luxury labels, routinely makes loans or gifts to high-visibility style influencers. Women like Hanneli Mustaparta, the model turned blogger, or Taylor Tomasi Hill are “new kinds of celebutantes,” Ms. Stein said. “When we give those kind of people our clothes we expect them to say who they’re wearing.”
Indeed what once was a quasi-covert, somewhat haphazard operation is now out in the open and strategically planned. Seeding new or long-established designer labels into the street style mix “is a new way of doing PR,” said Daniel Saynt, a partner in a year-old agency that negotiates deals between brands and tastemakers. “We watch for the people most likely to be photographed outside the shows,” Mr. Saynt said. “Our job is to make sure they have on the right products at the right time.”
During Fashion Week, Socialyte, through its marketing arm, Trendsparks, is managing about 200 placements, he said, for 18 fashion brands and retailers. Among them are limited-edition lines from Pink & Pepper, Vera Wang and Pour La Victoire.
“Few people realize that certain bloggers and seemingly random posers are modeling for a fee,” Mr. Saynt said. “But even those who are aware don’t always understand the degree to which we orchestrate these placements.”
At times even the most casual-looking snaps boast the production values of a full-scale magazine shoot. “We use stylists, we do color correction and Photoshopping, we scout locations every day,” Ms. Robinovitz said. “It often takes hours just to find the perfect street corner.”
A well-conceived placement serves the bottom line. “We keep hearing that if we reach 10,000 people through a half-dozen online bloggers,” Mr. Julian said, “we’re much better targeted, because we’re reaching the people who actually shop.”
Using bloggers, Twitter or Instagram, “we can look at the number of user interactions,” said Jimmy Hagan, a spokesman for Nanette Lepore. “The results are more trackable than print.”
That may not come as news to Coach, which recently enlisted Natalie Joos, a blogger and model casting director, to model on its Web site. Ms. Joos exploits her growing popularity on her own blog, Tales of Endearment, and others to promote the brands she admires. As she posed in front of Lincoln Center last week, she identified the wispy pale lavender dress she wore as by Karla Spetic, a little-known Australian designer. Pressed, she acknowledged it was lent by Ms. Spetic’s showroom.
“Natalie presented us with the opportunity of gaining further exposure for the brand,” said Lia-Belle King, Ms. Spetic’s publicist. “We felt she, more than anyone else, embodies the feeling of excitement and fun, that her personal sense of fashion was similar to ours.”
Of course, not everyone is for hire. “I’ve turned up in hotel rooms where I find racks of clothing,” said Susie Lau of the blog Style Bubble.
The much-photographed Ms. Lau usually, though not always, ignores such tacit invitations, she said. Like her fellow bloggers, she is required by law to disclose on her site which items she features are gifts or loans.
But on the streets of Manhattan no such restrictions seem to apply. And even Ms. Lau acknowledged that she sometimes wears clothes as a favor to their makers. The arrangements are never commercial, she said. “I work with brands I like, when there is already a relationship.”
Even mega merchants like H&M have taken to gaming the streets. When Anna Dello Russo, the studiedly flamboyant blogger and the editor at large for Vogue Japan, stretched her legs outside the shows this week, she wore the brazenly ornamented accessories she created in a new collaboration with the retail chain, showing off, among other items, her H&M cat’s-eye sunglasses with glittering alligators on the brow.
The retailer had not until now collaborated with an editor or blogger. When the company approached her, “I was surprised,” Ms. Dello Russo said. She declined to say how much she was paid.
Parading products at the shows is in her view a fresh way of doing business. “It’s new approach to communication,” Ms. Dello Russo said, “and part of the culture of our time.”