Everyone who has spent the past fifteen years scrolling on the internet has an opinion on them but no one really knows what a fashion influencer is. Despite that, the vast majority of young people desire to build a career in influencing. In this third installment of our fashion mini-series with 1 Granary, writer and editor Aya Noël explores what being an influencer involves, how hard it is to break into and whether it’s really as simple as just blogging and cashing cheques.
Ask a young person what they would like to be when they grow up, chances are you’ll hear them choose “influencer” over any other profession—over three quarters of Americans aged 13 to 38 would become an influencer if they had the opportunity.
With the promise of full independence, waking up when you want to, being paid to take pictures of your life and having access to the most glamorous parties and events, influencing has everything to fan the flames of aspirational desire. But it’s also an incredibly opaque field. In an ecosystem built on the business of make-believe, it can be difficult not to get distracted by the smoke and mirrors.
How much can you charge for a paid post? How many followers do you need before you can launch your business? Which expenses are worth the investment, and which ones can be skipped? Is going to fashion week, for example, always worth it? In the mirage of hotel bathroom mirror selfies and charcoal latte snaps, it can be hard to find an answer to those questions.
In fashion influencing, especially, there is little transparency around the profession. The term is ill-defined at best, highly controversial at worst and many content creators prefer to avoid the word influencer for fear of giving themselves a bad reputation. “I think people don’t like calling themselves influencers because it’s perceived to be a very easy job, which, to be honest, it is. But is it as easy as people make it sound? No, it’s not,” says Hanan Besovic, founder of @ideservecouture, the witty fashion commentary page.
Besovic carved out a niche online space for himself after losing his hospitality job during the pandemic and built a cult following with content that centers around opinion rather than product. This means the fashion critic has no lifestyle image to uphold and doesn’t need to perform the way most people who are professionally active on social media do. “When you’re that type of influencer, there isn’t any space for anything that is not perfection. It’s all smiles and happiness. In life, there are days where I’m pissed off, but those influencers can’t show that,” Besovic explains. “I know so many influencers who are widely successful online and are making a lot of money, but they’re deeply unhappy in their personal life.”
To keep up appearances, most influencers hide their sources of income. That is also the story of Rylé Tuvierra, known as @thefiercewalker online, who started fashion blogging in 2014, but could only afford to do influencing full-time when her account started gaining brands’ attention during the pandemic. She had already amassed a staggering 200k followers by then. “When I first started, I was working as a cashier in 7/11, twelve hours a day,” the Filipino content creator and activist shares. “It’s something I should be proud of, but I learned to hide it. In the evening I would attend luxury fashion events, and need to lie about my day job.”
The social media sphere is ripe with content creators who know how to amass huge followings and traction without the accompanying paycheck. “I know a lot of nepo babies whose parents bankroll their career,” says Besovic.
“Nobody talks about this, but everybody is just pretending to be someone,” agrees Tuvierra. “They all have sugar daddies or a full-time job on the side and they don’t want to say it. Most of them are not earning any money, they’re just accepting gifts. They don’t know how to convert it into a business, all they know is exposure.” There is a crucial difference between knowing how to secure engagement and how to have brands pay you for that engagement—and in an area where faking it is a reliable path to making it, that difference can be invisible from behind a pocket screen.
For someone like Tuvierra, who didn’t have insider connections showing her the way, the learning curve was steep and figuring out how much to charge was a game of hit-and-miss. “The first time I charged for an appearance, I asked for €1500. This was in Barcelona and I thought I was getting a good deal,” the activist shares. “Later, an agency approached me, and they’re the ones who taught me I was charging way too low.”
Besovic has found a way to outsource the need for financial strategizing and hired a manager. “My manager knows how to monetise my work, I don’t,” he explains. “I care about the content, she cares about how to make money from it. She thinks about it as business, while I think about it as…‘yay!’”
Instagram and TikTok seem to be overflowing with young creatives who, one day, decided to share their vision and found themselves front row at fashion week or first class on a press tour the next. But virality and brand popularity aren’t the same as a sustainable, long-term career and many content creators burn out before they learn that lesson.
“Negotiating money has always been very tricky. It’s the wild wild west,” says Chrissy Rutherford. “Everybody who gets to call themselves an influencer is incredibly lucky, but there is a lot of difficulty being a business owner. It’s one thing being able to take cute pictures, but to run a functioning business and manage your money and keep continuing to grow is another challenge entirely.”
The New York-based writer and brand consultant started her career in traditional publishing, which gave her an edge by the time sponsored posts had to be negotiated—she had already seen a fair share of influencer contracts working as digital editor at Harper's Bazaar. “By the time brands came to me I had a healthy following, about 30-40k followers. I was asking 2-4k for a post, and because of my background as an editor, I could ask more— brands see this as more valuable.”
Rutherford firmly believes in the importance of openness and honesty and warns aspiring influencers to fully consider how exhausting the financial instability can be. “You never know how much money you’re going to make in a year. Jobs pop up when they pop up,” she says, explaining how the start of the year, as well as the summertime, are down periods with fewer paid gigs available. “You have to really trust and manage your money properly. That insecurity and instability is probably the biggest drawback.”
While an influencer’s income might fluctuate heavily depending on the market, it’s no secret what the biggest expense is. Asked about unexpected costs and investments, freelance content creators reply in unison: travel. One London-based interviewee recently came back from Copenhagen Fashion Week, where the cost of transport, accommodation and food had accumulated to 3000 pounds. Not a small investment if you’re a young business owner, but considered necessary nevertheless, as your presence at fashion weeks solidify your image and authority with brands, which can potentially lead to new projects and higher pay.
Rutherford appears a bit more skeptical. She wrote a recent newsletter explaining why she would no longer participate in fashion week. Speaking about the decision, she said: “This is the first season where I feel that there is no return on investment. It doesn’t have any impact on whether I make any money or not. I can do it for fun, but it’s not that fun and it’s a huge expense.”
“Just because you attend fashion week, doesn’t mean you’re part of the industry,” says Tuvierra, warning young content creators not to get seduced by online illusions and focus on the numbers instead. “Your bank account needs to be full and your mortgage paid off, only then are you living your life the way you want to.”
But resisting the urge to make high investments isn’t always easy. The influencer space is hyper-competitive, and the algorithm pushes you to post at a high-paced regularity, forcing influencers to invest in new outfits and locations. “I will say, it enables a fierce sense of competition within you,” says Jess Lawrence. The London-based social editor and creator launched her career organically when her job in social media naturally led her to get enough brand deals to start on her own. But now, she’s feeling the pressure. “If it’s your only source of income, and you’re constantly seeing what jobs other people are getting, it can make you work harder, but if you’re going through a bad mental health period, it can make you feel a bit useless.”
The sneaker connoisseur highlights the immense pressure that comes with having to post regularly and having no structure to fall back on. “What I find difficult is the feeling that you’re falling off the trend wagon, especially with upcoming releases on sneakers,” Jess says. “I had quite a significant break due to my mental health this year, and it took about a month of regular posting, going to events, and getting back out there, to get that traction back.”
Just like any creative job, it takes more than talent to build a business out of your skills. You need a thorough market understanding, fierce negotiating tactics, financial intelligence and the drive to keep working at a regular pace. If you can combine those skills, you might be one of the lucky few who manages to build a career influencing online, but never forget, it takes more than a high follower count to get there.
“All the kids want to be famous,” concludes Tuvierra. “But what’s fame if you don’t have the money to pay for your coffee in the morning?”
The Business of Creativity is a cutting edge educational series about how to navigate the fashion industry, in partnership with 1 Granary. In this series, we introduce emerging creatives to the expertise of industry professionals and key specialists. Features explore three highly coveted fashion professions and the financial realities that shape them.