just a thought – photoshop police state

There’s a certain aspect of the internet that drives me nuts. Its when the mob goes mental over the most minute, mundane things as if Great Revelations of Terrible Injustice are being made. A great example of this phenomenon in fashion blogland is Photoshop Phreakouts.

Examples of bad photoshop jobs are everywhere and are not exactly news stories, except that they are. Sites like Jezebel have popularized this genre of blog posts, always delivered with an accusatory tone. The posts always generate a ton of comments. Something about them usually bothers me, whether the accusation of “photochopping” seems justified, or not.  This post has been a long time on the back burner, because its taken me a while to tease out what it is that really gets to me when people get so indignant about this subject. Lets break it down.

1. The Photoshopping is so Glaringly Ridiculous it is Obviously Accidental

Examples: Ralph Lauren’s lollipop-head model, Bloomingdale’s razor-elbowed model

This stuff is genuine AHA “journalism”, even though it shouldn’t be, because all it takes to uncover something wrong with the image is the sense of sight.  Because bloggers are perfect people who never screw up ever, they’ve been endowed with the right to shame mere mortals who make mistakes. No creative director allows this kind of stuff to see the light of day on purpose, its not a conspiracy to make people feel like their elbows are not acute enough. It is just the result of human error, and there’s something about gleefully, self-righteously shaming people for making honest mistakes, whether caused by omission or inexperience, that bothers me. It is bullying.

2. The Photoshopping is so Tastefully Done, People Mistake Real Incongruity for Bad Retouching

Examples: Demi Moore’s angled hip on the W cover, Nordstrom’s skinny polo shirt model

This one drives me crazy, because its often seized upon by otherwise intelligent people who should know better. One thing that I’ve learned as someone who draws, is that when you really pay very close attention to the way things actually look in real life, they often look really weird. Often when I’m using reference material, I have to make changes to the way something is folded or change the angle of an arm or a hand, because if I don’t, the drawing looks awkward or “unnatural”. Even though I’m using a real model or an un-retouched photograph as a subject.

My ex, who works in special effects explained it to me really well once, he observed that real snow often creates unusual looking formations that don’t conform to our expectations of how snow should look. When he dressed a set to look snow-covered, it was more important to do it the way that people expect snow to look like rather than imitating actual nature. Otherwise, the eye gets drawn to unimportant details instead of focusing on what’s important in the scene.

Really tasteful photoshop jobs are incredibly subtle – if you look at the Demi Moore photo in question above, you can see that a few minor changes were made, to the angle of the ring, the saturation of the colours, the fold on the waist. But mostly, the photo was left alone. The paradox is that for a sharp-eyed audience tuned to spot “photochops”, the focus was on the sharp angle of her hip, obscured by the swag of fabric on the bodysuit. Looked at in isolation, the line seems too straight and looks wrong, however when I traced the outline of Demi’s body, the proportion and angles all seem to be in the right place. The irony here is that the real mistake might have not enough photoshopping, because if a slight curve was introduced by the retoucher nobody would have “noticed” anything wrong.

3. The Photoshopping isn’t Recognized for the Art it Is

Examples: David LaChappelle’s portrait of Sophie Dahl, Madonna for Louis Vuitton

Photoshop isn’t just a totalitarian tool to turn people into idealized robot versions of themselves – its an incredible tool that allows artists to transcend reality to create fantastic visions and impossible scenarios. Accusing LaChappelle of using Photoshop is like blaming the rain for being wet – this is what LaChappelle does! Madonna has been creating over-the-top, fantastic identities for herself for her entire career, using every weapon in her considerable arsenal – why should she be barred from using photoshop too?

Marlene Dietrich continued her career as an icon of style and glamour with a stage show well into her sixties and even seventies. She did this with lighting, makeup, restrictive garments, every artifice she could get her hands on. She would have loved the possibilities of Photoshop. There’s an anecdote I read in this book that I am reminded of – at one stage show a member of the audience brought out a pair of binoculars. Dietrich stopped the show to call him out. “No,” she said, “don’t ruin the illusion.”.

For those who want unimaginative reality, you have it surrounding you every day of your life. Some of us want to create and enjoy fantasy and beauty that transcends the ordinary, that is exceptional, even impossible. If you don’t like it, don’t buy fashion magazines, go to movies, or consume any other type of art or media, and please, stop spoiling it for the rest of us.

4. The Photoshopping is Overdone

Examples: Kelly Clarkson on the SELF Magazine cover, Faith Hill on the Redbook cover.

This is the one flavour of photoshop outrage I don’t have a problem with. Photoshopping people to appear a different size or age than they actually are is patronizing, distasteful, and insulting to both the subject and the audience.

just a thought – compliment culture

One of my favourite aspects of the fashion industry is what passes for small talk. Small talk is usually nobody’s favourite activity, however in the fashion industry, instead of talking about the weather or the traffic, it is traditional to observe something that you like about the other person’s appearance, and compliment them on it. It is flattering, it is fun, it is positive, and sure, it can be back-handed, but as far as small talk goes it doesn’t get any better than that.

Considering that giving compliments costs absolutely nothing, and totally makes everyone’s day, they can be surprisingly rare in regular life. Not only are they a great way to show appreciation to people, they are a wonderful way to introduce yourself.  Looking for opportunities to give compliments encourages you to listen and observe others more closely and signals that you are a generous, open person.  Here are my thoughts on the best ways to offer compliments:

  • Be sincere! Don’t give compliments you don’t mean, it devalues the act of complimenting.  Don’t give half-hearted compliments, if there really isn’t anything nice you want to say to someone, why are you even talking to them?
  • Pay attention to details – if they have flaming red hair or are wearing a giant fur coat, they will always receive compliments about that thing.  Look for the less obvious flare and you will be remembered for your keen eye, and for being different.
  • What is different? If you can pick out a new haircut, manicure, glasses frames, or shoes on a familiar friend, it not only shows you appreciate them, it demonstrates how well you know them.
  • Listen instead of look. Its easy to take a look at someone and tell them what you like, but the next level is engaging them in conversation long enough that you can compliment them on their character.  Do they tell delightful anecdotes, do they have a great memory, are they considerate, do they have a fascinating life story, do they have impressive expertise, a way with words, or a devastating sense of humour? Why not let them know you noticed?
  • Follow through – don’t just give a compliment, try to use it as an icebreaker to open up a conversation about something real – take it from small talk to real talk.

Further to that, receiving compliments also has its own set of best practices:

  • Say thank you! Always receive a compliment in the same good spirit it was given.
  • Never contradict a compliment. Don’t put yourself down. Negative self-talk is toxic stuff and it is a total turn off. Treat yourself with the same social grace you would extend to anyone – that means no put downs or name calling, ever.
  • Reciprocate! Return the favour.

There aren’t very many pitfalls to complimenting – I guess if you do it too much it would seem weird, and making observations about people’s bodies can be awkward, tricky territory, but those things are just common sense.

Love getting compliments? Adorn yourself with interesting and unusual accessories and garments that make you feel confident and powerful, especially ones that have a story behind them. Be brave and get statement hair. Take good care of your skin and health. Smile and have a good time, dance if you feel like dancing, be social and daring, adventurous and open, and above all, generous with yourself and your words.

What is the greatest compliment you’ve ever received?

just a thought – extra work

Scott Pilgrim VS. The World opened last Friday to much anticipation and acclaim, at least in Toronto. The movie was filmed here, and set here. I saw it last night, but I’m going to have to see it again, because I missed seeing myself in a scene outside the Opera House.

Being a freelancer isn’t a very steady gig, and until you’ve built up a significant amount of savings, it can be brutal. I’m not going to be one of those bloggers/freelancers who pretends that I’m on top of my game 100% of the time. In April 2009, I wasn’t. I was stone cold flat broke. So I started trolling Craigslist for side gigs, which is how I ended up auditioning to be a non-union extra on Scott Pilgrim VS. The World. I’d never read the books, though of course I was familiar with them. They loved my hair, I got a callback, and my little interlude of Danielle Meder VS. Extra Work began.

Unlike this guy, who spent a single pleasant day goofing off on set, I spent about 12 days, mostly consecutive, and by days, I mean nights. 18 hour long nights. When you arrive, they put you into a place called holding, which resembles a cafeteria. Everyone sits down at tables, and the people at your table become your default group of extra friends. The funny, wonderful thing about being an extra on Scott Pilgrim was that everyone was selected for their appearance of belonging in the Scott Pilgrim universe, so everyone had a lot in common – we were all 20-something, downtown dwelling, creative types without steady jobs. My table had a burlesque dancer, a few recent film school graduates, a sketch comedian, a painter, and me.

Like a lot of shared experiences, the extra friends bonded over the course of the shoot. Our little table forged an alliance (secretly we thought we were the best table) over the course of many empty hours of waiting. Being an extra is a lot like being in high school. You’re slightly sub-human, told where to go and what to do and what to eat, long stretches of time are filled with the most inane waiting games. Add to that a high level of sleep deprivation and the requirement of wearing the same clothing every day, and a total ban on any blogging or facebookery, and you end up with hundreds of punchy young things living in a disconnected Groundhog Day style time loop. The effects are both monotonous and hilarious, creating a culture of in-jokes and intimacy with strangers.

It was my first ever real experience on a film set, and it was a revelation to see how it all went down – what all the ADs and DPs and everyone really does, the joking around and the stress to focus and get it all done, the physical effects team doing their thing, the actors, the stunt team, it really was a privilege to watch it all. We all tried to imagine what the finished scene would look like.

It wasn’t like I imagined it at all – and I’m pleased to say, it was better, unlike any movie I have ever seen. Scott Pilgrim VS. The World is a mash note to Toronto, music, dating and breaking up. Even though it exists on an imaginary, video-game world, it somehow also captures the poignancy of being young and creative in this city. For a variety of reasons, it was incredibly striking and bittersweet to me on a personal level, and though I would never want to do extra work again (unless I absolutely had to) I’m so grateful that of all the movies I could have stood around in for two weeks, Scott Pilgrim VS. The World was the one.

just a thought – hair is a conscious statement

The title of this post is nicked from Sarah Nicole when I was asking her about the social side of building a fashion career. When she was featured in the Worthy 30, this quip:

Why Shinan picked me “My hair looks expensive?”

… made me do a double take.  I asked her in regards to “it girl” social status: How much does hair have to do with it?  I remember your comment for the worthy 30 bit, and I remember thinking that quip wasn’t just a quip – hair seems to play a very significant role in fashion blogland too. Sarah Nicole replied:

Ha! Well, I was just being sardonic, but you’re right–hair is a conscious statement.

I was reminded of that exchange on twitter when there was some discussion of personal brands, and @canice drew the connection to hair again.

Ever since I committed to growing out my hair this year, I’ve been thinking about the connection between hair, personal brands, social status and fashion identity.  The decision to grow out was the first real deliberate decision I’ve made in regards to hair since I chopped off my waist-length hair at the age of 14.  Since then, I’ve had my hair cut in a variety of styles in a haphazard, impulsive fashion, until a stage in 2008-2009 where I was getting hair school haircuts with little to no consultation with my stylists. Random acts of hair are incredibly reckless way to play with your self esteem and identity, especially when you have chosen to make a career in an industry where image is so critical. It took one disastrous cut to force me to my senses.

I am aware that it sounds incredibly flip to place so much importance on hair, but here’s the thing: HAIR IS CRITICAL. Especially in fashion, and even more so when you are creating an online identity.

Here’s why: your first impression for a lot of people is a 48 pixel by 48 pixel square.  It should be of your face because as I’ve mentioned before, human beings have an irresistible urge to connect with faces. But lets face it – at that scale your features and expression are reduced to a mere suggestion of information. The biggest feature on your head is your hair – and like it or not, your choices about colour and shape are a signal about who you are. If you have any ambitions at all, that signal should be a conscious one.

Case Studies

I first began to notice the connection between hair and social status, both online and in real life, when I noticed that Gala Darling and Nubby Twiglet made the move from livejournal to fashion blogland in 2007. Here were two personal style bloggers with a considerable following and a strong point of view.

Nubby has a very clear, consistent visual identity, part of which is her striking, carefully-parted, long black hair. It suits her perfectly (and graphically) and she rarely varies it – she is someone who understands the power of a signature look (learned at a young age).

Gala’s hair changes frequently and dramatically which suits someone whose blog mission is all about personal transformation. She chooses bright colours, switches it up with extensions, accessorizes it with a collection of mouse ears, bunny ears, flower crowns, and other oversized, attention-grabbing adornment.  Descriptions of Gala often mention her hair in the first or second sentence – it is a commanding tool that draws people to her writing work, and sometimes distracts them from it. Her recent abandonment of pink was one of those telling little moments in the evolution of an online identity. She wrote:

I really miss having pink hair sometimes, even though I am pleased to be a blonde. I don’t know if I will ever go back to pink hair, because I feel like it does all your talking for you. Does that make sense?

In early 2010, when the fashion industry trend towards celebrification of teenaged fashion bloggers was in full swing, there was another moment worth noting when it comes to selecting an unnatural hair colour, when Tavi of Style Rookie went blue. This was an imitative move, done with the same guileless quality that Tavi does everything. She collected examples of what she wanted and went there – like a lot of kids, unnatural hair colour is a rebellion against your genetics (and your parents) – and in Tavi’s case, it was a deliberate visual entrance into the grown-up club of the incredibly fashionable just before she went to the couture shows. It seems like instinctively, Tavi understands that what’s on your head will get people talking for you or against you. The bow hat fiasco just amplified that lesson for all of us. Now that Tavi’s hair is red (and without her parent’s permission) it is clear that she’s taking control of her own head and her own narrative.

So sometimes hair is signature, and sometimes it is mutable, and sometimes it is absent.  In Toronto, the fashion blogger with the most distinctive head is Anita of I want – I got whose signature look is bald. It completely suits her style which is modern, assertive, unpretentious, with a complete lack of patience for bullshit. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that Anita’s blog has the most powerful clout of any fashion blog in town. The same sense of identity and confidence that makes her such a striking woman allows her to be all the more influential.

From Suzy Menkes to Diane Pernet to Betsey Johnson to Rick Owens, hair statements are clearly not just important for models, regardless of the fashion career you’ve chosen, hair choices can serve to amplify visibility, and ultimately, status and the possibilities status confers.

Conscious Statements

Now that I’m being deliberate about my hair, I very specifically am asking for haircuts that don’t look like haircuts. As I’ve become more confident in expressing my identity visually, I know that my identity is a bit more nuanced and rather than making bright bold statements with cuts and colours, there is a certain quality of anti-statement which I feel is defining of what I do, from the contrary name of the blog to my obsession with archetypal rather than unique clothing.

How has hair affected your own choices as an online persona or as a follower of online personas? Is it conscious or unconscious?

just a thought – poser

I went to the book launch for friend and fellow fashion school graduate, Caitlin Cronenberg.  Poser is a collection of nude photographs, full front view, from the knees up.  A few years ago, after we graduated from fashion school, Caitlin told me about the project she was working on and asked me to pose.  I didn’t think very hard about it – I said yes.  I guess I figured that if I was ever going to do it, I might as well do it while I’m young. I also used the opportunity to get Caitlin to photograph a school project which seemed to call for a nude body.

The night of the launch, I hadn’t revisited the photo and still wasn’t sure if I was ready to. After a few years since I had done it, it had fallen out of mind, and then suddenly stories about Caitlin’s book were in the blogs and all the newspapers, and it was a little bit nervous-making.  I dawdled on the RSVP. When I did show up, in a weirdly pensive mood, and bought my book and opened it up, I felt a sense of revelation. The picture of me and my body was not as strange to look at as I thought.

Caitlin says that the project makes more sense as a collection and it is true. She named the book “Poser“, but in fact, she didn’t pose us at all.  She clicked the shutter before the pose, which results in these candid, unintentional, revealing moments.  In me, I see a sense of trepidation, maybe a little bit of pride, as I try and “fix” my hair. I was not alone, there were many in the crowd who were captured by Caitlin, fellow fashion school students, people of all walks of life, many with higher profiles than me.

At the party I briefly reconnected with a few fellow fashion school graduates. It was neat to find them still in the heat of pursuing what they want. Fashion school was tough, but living a life as a creative individual is incredibly competitive, demanding awesome amounts of determination and sacrifice.  Not only are some of my fellow graduates still living the dream, we’re also supportive of each other’s projects and ambitions. Which made me leave the party with a very real sense of gratitude.

just a thought – social it

Once I was ignorant and proud of my outsider status.  Then I started to get invitations, and I was no longer an outsider.

Fashion Bloggers Inside

When fashion bloggers first started showing up on lists, we were excited by the novelty of it all.  Parties, showrooms, gift bags, the fashion world inside opened up and swallowed us whole. The immediacy of Facebook and Twitter seems to heighten it – you know who is going where, when, and are just as aware of what you aren’t invited to as what you are.

I used to make fun of the people in Toronto Life. Then, my friends became the people in Toronto Life. Just as there is a popularity game in fashion blogland, there is a popularity game in every city, every fashion scene. It used to be that my ignorance made everything seem simple – once I was a player, OK, a pawn – the social question became a lot more complicated. It is very clear that the social machine and the fashion machine are very closely linked.  The social question concerns all of us with fashion ambitions – when is it necessary to be social, and when is it a pointless distraction?  Is being featured in the social pages, dressed up with a drink in hand, an indulgence or an advantage?

Being a blogger – or any sort of career where expression is the trade – you are constantly in the business of defining yourself as a personality, or sometimes having your personality defined for you. What you do becomes who you are. I occasionally do posts about events in Toronto, and sometimes get lucky enough to be invited to a posh party. If I wanted to, I seems like I could easily become a socialite blogger, hobnob with the gossip columnists, borrow clothes from designers, get my hair and makeup done for me, glow for the camera lenses. At the beginning of this year, I found myself resisting this temptation. The social anxieties of caring whether I was invited to this or that bugged me, I felt awkward posing for photographs, I didn’t seem to share the pleasure of preening with my pretty party friends. Maybe the truth was that I was uncomfortable, still feeling like an outsider in insider’s clothes.

The other thing that worried me was the effects socializing was having on Final Fashion. To me, part of this blog’s charm was disappearing. The problem with party and event posts, especially in an atmosphere where most of the people attending have their own blogs, is that they aren’t very original. The only coverage that stands out is by people with a natural penchant and passion for the scene, something I couldn’t muster up without misgivings. The other thing is that pursuing social status wasn’t very true to the genesis of Final Fashion. This site began as a place where I, as a bookish, isolated fashion student, could share the aspects of fashion that fascinated me most – history, making things, observing the business of it, and navigating a burgeoning career. For 2010, it felt like it was time to get back to what made Final Fashion unique – more projects, more digging into history, more thinky posts like this one… and less parties.

The Social Hazard of  It

The funny thing about socialite-ing is that it seems to encourage ennui even in the star players. I follow Sarah Nicole Prickett on twitter, a fashion writer who has been included in Shinan Govani’s “Worthy 30” among other social milestones, I was curious when she expressed discomfort with being called an “it girl” and asked her about it.

I think “it girl” is a reductive and lazy term, and I really don’t think anyone would say it about me if they only saw my work, not pictures or me in person. But I quote-unquote put myself out there. So when I get slapped with the most obvious possible label, I have to smirk and bear it. Right? Do I? I don’t know! I sound annoying.

Sarah is beautiful and photogenic, a confident dresser, and all she has to do to “put herself out there” is show up.  One trade off is that her appearances sometimes outshine her talent.  The other is that “it girl” is a label with an implied expiry date.  Even Shinan Govani’s New York counterpart, Derek Blasberg, bristles at being called an “it boy”.

And yet Mr. Blasberg, who describes himself as a fashion and arts writer, is reluctant to carry the other mantle usually assigned to him: “It boy.” (Early in our correspondence, he said he was hoping for an article that would not include those words because he thought they devalued his hard work as a writer.)

The way that fashion’s minions somehow manage to both raise up and diminish our social stars with labels like “it” is just as reflective as the way that we deify and discard any other trend.  The fear of being “it” is what happens when we judge living, breathing, people with the same criteria of aesthetics and novelty as “it bags”.

For someone like Sarah, the insensitivities of being inside the scene is a moral hazard she’s willing to deal with, at least for now. I asked her if social status is an advantage when building a career in fashion.

I think the more your role in the fashion industry depends on your appearances, the greater your need to make them at parties and such. Models have to be the new girl on the scene. Second to models are “I am the magazine” editors like Lisa Tant, and then personal style bloggers like Anita, and then writers who get written about, and I guess I have to say “like me,” but that’s only because it’s so tiny here in Toronto.

That said, if I’m a good writer, my words should stand alone. I hope they would. You know, this works the other way around, too. Sometimes I think people would take me more seriously if I didn’t go to parties and get photographed at them. But honestly, fuck those people. I like the parties. Well, that’s not true. I like getting dressed up for them and pretending that the next one will be in any way different from the last. And there are people I’m always happy to see but never would see were it not for the occasions referred to fake-jadedly as “these things.”

To the last point, I agree with her.  It is fun to see people at things, it is fun to feel included, it is fun to dress up and go out.  I’ve still got one foot inside the scene.  And like Anita, I’m something of a personal style blogger, and it is a thrill sometimes to have that feeling like I am a character on a stage. There is the sense that “yes” is more fun than “no”, and that opportunities to participate in a scene are so ephemeral it is silly not to take them up while you can.

A Method to It

Once you’ve been to enough “things” to get the lay of the land, it does become apparent that if you are in it to build a career, not just for the free drinks, appearances should made purposefully. This year I have been forming a loose “social strategy”, and I think it is good enough to lay out here.  No secrets.

  • No matter what your business – whether you are a blogger or a writer or a designer or a stylist – your business needs other people to survive.  Face to face connections are incredibly powerful and it is worth spending the energy to make the right ones.
  • Appearances count, especially in fashion – both in the sense that how you look is important, and supporting other people’s projects is important. Quid pro quo.
  • Getting away from your computer, out into the world is just as important for gathering experiences and inspiration as it is for gathering clients. The best events to go to are the ones that are somehow different than events you have been to before.
  • Not all social events are made equal. Try to attend events where you will meet new people or people you admireBe socially adventurous. Resist the temptation to clique.
  • Whatever you spend the most time doing is what you become. Spend most of your time making things, doing things, and if possible, turn creative work into social opportunities. Seek out collaborators for projects, bring your work to the party – show off your designs, take your sketchbook or your accordion, your camera or your audio recorder, share and collect original material. Establish yourself as a creator rather than a partier.
  • Make your own events. Whether it is just coffee with someone you wouldn’t normally meet, or a little shindig to show off your own work, get gutsy and send invitations to the people you want to see, curate your own scene.

How do you approach socializing when you have fashion ambitions?  Do you have a social strategy?

just a thought – recovering fashion victim

For some people, style is instinctive. I am not one of those people, and yet, here I am, with my fashion blog, ostensibly working in the fashion industry, and I am still in the process of figuring out who I am and what I like.  Sometimes I feel ridiculous, being surrounded by so many innately stylish people, recognizing in them the skill I work so hard to wield inexpertly.  I used to feel ashamed.

I grew up in a very small town with only one clothing store, to parents who were proudly un-style-conscious, and even anti-consumerist.  Perhaps it was the absence of style and fashion around me which made me so fascinated.  I was homeschooled, and once a week my parents would drive me to the library, where I would check out and renew the big books on classic Hollywood, LIFE Magazine photo essays, and costume history.  I was always a small kid carrying a big stack of oversized books that were nearly as heavy as I was.  I took up making paper dolls inspired by pictures in books – slavishly historically accurate wardrobes tightly rendered in ballpoint pen and pencil crayon.  I created stacks and stacks of these.

My own clothes were besides the point – hand-me-downs and thrifted by my parents with no aesthetic considerations, chosen to get dirty with lots of outdoor play.  I didn’t like my clothes and it began to really bother me when I started going to school as a teenager.  I had no money and even if I did there was nothing to spend it on.  The bleak offerings of the SEARS catalogue, the local church Thrift Store, and the preppy basics at the lonely clothing shop on main street never quite matched my desires, not that I had any clear idea of what I wanted.

When I got my first part-time job, I was able to go down to the mall in the nearest small city with my best friend and her mom.  Even though it was a tiny mall in a tiny city, I was awestruck by the abundance available.  Cheap polyester and tacky raver gear was bright and shiny and there for the buying, and I bought it, randomly, cluelessly.  Back home I sifted through the moldy piles of clothes at the thrift store and tried to modify them, and I even bought fabric from Fabricland and attempted to sew together jeans and dresses, shoddily and unsuccessfully.  My clothing was now a lot more colourful and varied, but it still didn’t bring me any satisfaction, and none of it seemed to “go together”.  Even in my small town high school, I could see other girls who were born with stylish eyes, who could combine thrifted stuff with Le Chateau stuff with more panache than I ever could.  The more I tried to look cool, the more self-conscious I felt.  I was a loser – a fashion victim.

When it was time for me to figure out how to leave town, I was at a loss. I didn’t know what I wanted.  I knew I liked to read and write, so I considered taking English or History.  But I decided on a more applied program – Fashion Design – with sort of a selfish, half-formed thought that maybe I would be able to figure out how to dress myself if I learned how to sew properly.

Entering fashion school was far, far worse on my fragile sartorial ego than any experience I had ever had before.  I was surrounded by people who were not just innately stylish, but flamboyantly so.  Seasoned shoppers, armed with knowledge from all the current fashion magazines that I never read. Before, I was dissatisfied with my scrappy wardrobe – now, I actively hated it.  I became a recluse, living in the library and inside my mind.  Every time I did take some of my OSAP money to buy clothes, it was a disaster – I would choke and buy expensive, trendy stuff that I didn’t wear. All around me were girls who were enthusiastically, brilliantly expressing themselves with clothing, and somehow no effort I made was able to transform me into that kind of girl.

By third year, when I was beginning to come out of my shell, I had made a decision, one I know now is a fairly common one in the fashion industry.  I would renounce fashion, resigning myself to admit that I was unable to work a decent outfit.  Over the next five years, I whittled down my wardrobe to the barest essentials – a few pairs of good jeans, tank tops from American Apparel, Dr. Martens boots, messenger bags and black jackets.  I even became proud of my asceticism.

At the beginning of this year, I did my yearly purge of unwanted clothing, and for the first time discovered that I liked almost everything I owned.  After years of anxiety about clothing, to the point of giving up on it, I was finally comfortable with where I was at.  The paradox was that I was too comfortable, that the way that I dressed was boring me.  So this year, for the first time, I’ve started to experiment more – with colour and with shape.  I am starting to pick items of clothing that are unusual and interesting, and for the first time in my life, enjoying the process of figuring out how to incorporate them into my wardrobe.

Style isn’t a competition – it can be a game, where you make up your own rules, where the point is to have fun.  Even if you don’t know how, you are still allowed to play.  Now I just wonder why it took me so long to figure that out.

Were you born with a sense of style or did you learn it? Are there any other recovering fashion victims out there?

just a thought – total disclosure

Lets talk about disclosure.  The FTC has been laying down the law, at least on American bloggers and publicists, and everyone, American or not, has been watching and waiting to see what this sort of legislation means for us.  As small “examples” are made, it seems like fashion blogging and PR will be the ones testing the new laws.  Because of all the niches and industries out there, surely fashion is the one where consumer objectivity is a matter of public health and safety. Okay, I’m being sarcastic. But here we are.

When I first heard about the FTC stuff, I didn’t think much of it. Like many fashion bloggers, I’ve been trying to raise the level of disclosure on my site for a long time – not for any legal reason, but just because its the right thing to do by my visitors. I hate legalese on my website – I don’t feel like its my job to tell people to obey the law, that should be implied. In posts where I was invited to an event, I’ll tell which PR company invited me, and in posts where I feature an item that is a gift, I try to word it in a way where its clear that the item was gifted.  But I know because I try to be creative with how I do it, sometimes it is not so clear.  Its been a process of trying to figure out a way to do it that suits the site.  Well, how about a total confessional?


Total disclosure time. Here’s the thing about almost every item I feature on my site in the what I wear category: they’re almost ALL gifted.  Until the day that I am making money like gangbusters (full disclosure: not even close), I essentially have no disposable income.  What little disposable income I have I put back into the business – computer stuff, office furniture, art supplies, etc.  Clothing – as much as I love it – is not a priority.  Most of the clothing that I post pictures of comes from the following sources:

  • gifted by PR
  • hand-me-down from a friend
  • thrift stores
  • trades for services in kind with other artists and designers
  • and very occasionally… a special item that I have saved for.

It is thanks to the generosity of so many designers and publicists that I even have an outfit photo feature on the blog.  I have never enjoyed shopping as a pastime, so I don’t blog about shopping. Still, I love clothes. I held out on the outfit posts for a long time – I wasn’t sure if it was for me. After much consideration, I’ve decided to just go for it – and as far as I am concerned it is a win-win.  I get cool clothes that I like (I don’t accept gifts of clothes I don’t like – why would I?) and the designers and brands who kindly indulge my tastes get coverage on my blog that would otherwise be unavailable.  Beyond that, readers seem to like it (outfit posts often get more than their share of comments) and I’ve managed to avoid the rat race that puts so many outfit bloggers in credit card debt.


Like a lot of fashion bloggers, I want to develop a blog that is a profitable use of my time.  The blog serves as a calling card for my services as a fashion illustrator, it occasionally allows me the perks of being considered a member of the media, and for the past year I’ve experimented with a sponsorship program.  Sponsors get their own very clearly defined news post once a month, as well as placement of a custom-illustrated badge in the sidebar.  To say that I am biased towards my sponsors should be obvious – any business that is supportive of my business fills me with all sorts of warm, friendly, un-objective feelings.

For a blogger, unlike a masthead, there is no distinct separation between editorial and sponsorship departments, because I do both jobs.  It is in my best interest to be selective of my sponsors to maintain my credibility.  For bloggers, credibility isn’t implied by a history of industry conventions, credibility is earned by demonstrating it on an ongoing basis.  The rules for this are still being discovered, but the lines are easily marked by the instant feedback inherent in blogging.  If I step even slightly outside of what my readers are comfortable with, they let me know – either by unsubscribing or by contacting me.

Overall, I think sponsorship helps me improve as a fashion blogger.  I now feel an obligation to post consistently at a certain level, to constantly strive to increase the reach of the blog.  Now that I have a modest level of income from the blog, I feel justified spending more time on the blog rather than always pursuing freelance work.  I think the result is better for readers and visitors, as well as being better for the blogger and the sponsors.  Win – win – win.

Other Stuff

The last topic to cover is advertising and affiliate programs.  I do have Adsense on some of my most frequently Googled posts in the archives.  I also have affiliate programs with Amazon.ca and Shopbop.com, for when I happen to mention a book or a certain product.  Things I don’t do – I never accept offers for paid links or paid posts outside of my sponsorship program, ever.  That stuff is just lame.

Public Relations vs. Fashion Bloggers

After the FTC made an example of Ann Taylor, I got a peculiar email from a prominent PR firm, with a kind but unintentionally condescending tone, notifying me about the FTC rules and asking me to do some sort of disclosure about my relationship with them.  Naturally the siggy at the bottom of the email was a big chunk of legalese demanding total secrecy.  If I was a publicist, I would be a bit alarmed by the Ann Taylor story too – before I read about that, I thought it would be the bloggers getting disciplined, not the companies offering the gifts, even insignificant gifts.

So there is a bit of a shift happening now in the balance of power between fashion publicists and fashion bloggers.  Publicists are now faced with the unenviable challenge of figuring out which fashion bloggers are worth working with.  Now that bloggers are overwhelming fashion events and dishing out abundant but uneven coverage, publicists are going to be looking to cull fashion bloggers from their lists – and by legal necessity, one of the factors considered will be policies towards disclosure.  Just one more reason to be up front about where your stuff is coming from, especially if having good relationships with PR is important to you.

Celebrities and Fashion Media

As an aside to the topic, I find the enforcement of FTC rules to be incredibly condescending and arbitrary, both towards bloggers and to consumers.  Though the legislation also addresses other media and celebrities, there are no industry standard policies towards gifting that I can see clear evidence of.  While Robin Givhan expresses concern over “what rules bloggers are playing by”, from a media consumer’s point of view the tacit rules that individual magazines, newspapers, and television play by are no more clearly stated – personally I’m curious what much more rigorous disclosure from all types of media would look like.

Lack of disclosure is most outrageous when it comes to celebrities – who unlike bloggers and media types, can clearly afford to purchase whatever their hearts desire.  Imagine if legislation demanded that every celebrity on the red carpet carry a placard clearly stating which parts of their outfit were gifted, loaned or bought.  If disclosure is important, surely we need to know that the relationships between celebrities and the companies they endorse is often much more complicated than a red carpet paparazzi photo reveals – and considering that the influence of these photos is so vast compared to the reach of an insignificant fashion blogger, it is a mystery to me why the strong arm of the law would be trying to grasp at such tiny straws.


Disclosure is a complicated issue, and it really does revolve entirely around you as a consumer of fashion and media.  How do you feel about companies gifting people of influence, no matter how large or small their influence must be?  When do you feel that fashion bloggers or other personalities and media need to disclose?

just a thought – how to be a fashion illustrator

This is what I wrote in the FAQs:

Draw a lot of fashion figures and a lot of clothes.  Have a website, even just a simple one, with examples of your best work. Make business cards with “fashion illustrator” and your website address on them. Go meet people, hand out your cards, draw, meet your deadlines, repeat.

Yes, that is pretty much the gist of it, as far as I know.  Because no one ever told me how to be a fashion illustrator.  I can count the number of fashion illustrators I’ve met on the fingers of one hand, and as far as I can tell, we’re all just making it up as we go along.  Especially now, as I am sure it is for anyone who works in any angle of media, the experiences of previous generations are more fascinating and romantic than they are useful. So before you read any further – its normal to feel like you don’t know what you are doing, and you are not the only one that feels that way.

If I have any choice nuggets of advice to give from my own brief experiences (and I’ve only been doing this for just a few years), maybe the first would be to be skeptical of advice. In fashion school, my illustration teacher cautioned me against putting my work on the internet. In retrospect, if I hadn’t, I have no idea how I would have started a career at all.

The fashion blog has been the catalyst that seems to make things happen – I am lucky that I seem to have a penchant for being a communicator and a connector because those things serve me well when it comes to hustling.  I’m sometimes asked if I want an agent – I’m not opposed to the idea but I’ve never met anyone yet who seems to have a better grasp on what I do than I do.  The only agent in Canada I can think of that I’d be into working with is Anna Goodson Management – read her blog to see why. She gets it.

Since I think making a website and business cards are pretty self explanatory, what I’m going to talk about in this post is more about the financial and philosophical angles of being a fashion illustrator, based wholly on my own experience.

The Right [Nitty-Gritty] Stuff

How much do you charge?  Estimating is an art itself. When I started out and asked the same question of other illustrators, they gave me the very oblique answer “whatever the market will bear” and at the time I vowed to myself that if I was ever in that position, I’d just give a number.  But now that I am sort of in that position, I can see that they were exactly right, in so many words.  I’m still going to try and get a bit more specific, but do keep in mind that the right answer, always, is “whatever the market will bear”.

Okay, so it is your first time making an estimate for an illustration job. Start by figuring out what your hourly rate should be in order to cover your expenses, plus however much you think you should earn based on your experience.  Use a calculator like this one from FreelanceSwitch. A rookie illustrator should be at least $30 an hour.

I prefer to quote by the project so the client can budget up front. Every time I am contacted by a potential client, I try to get as much information as possible about the project so I can develop a fair estimate.  The most important information is what the illustration is, what it will be used for, and when it is needed by.  At that point, I try to estimate how long it will take me to develop the illustration. To that, I add a buffer for a set of revisions – make sure that when you deliver the estimate, you also include a limit on the number of revisions included to keep a lid on scope creep.  Then I add how much time it will take for me to interact with the client – how easily they can give you the project specifics usually is a good indicator of how much effort correspondence will take. However many hours that is times your hourly rate is the minimum amount you should estimate.  If the deadline is really tight, its a rush job.  If you do the calculation and see you will be working outside of your normal working hours to get it done, you should double the estimate.  If you have to pull an all-nighter, it should be triple, in my humble opinion. If a client wants to see you go above and beyond, the extra effort should go both ways.

By the way, you should also have a working knowledge of copyright and usage and all of that – this stuff is tricky but important to know especially as some clients will have contracts for you to sign – I suggest obtaining the most recent copy of the Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook for comprehensive info on that – or check out the CAPIC site for Canadian-specific stuff.  I’m not going to discuss it much here because frankly, I’m no legal eagle.

ALWAYS ASK FOR MONEY. If you want to do this for a living, this is what it is all about, so don’t be shy about it. Ask for MORE money.  You’ll never know what your services are worth unless you push it.  If you get every job you send out an estimate for, you’re undervaluing yourself.  If you never have to negotiate, you’re lowballing.  This is what the illustrators I asked meant when they said “whatever the market will bear”.  Each job is worth whatever the client is willing to pay for it. Figuring out what that number is is the art of the estimate.

KNOW WHEN TO SAY NO. Trust your gut – if a brief gives you a feeling of dread, if the potential client creeps you out, its best to pass on it, even if you’re hungry.  If a client isn’t willing to pay enough for you to cover your costs, if you suss out the hours it will take to do a project and discover you’re working for minimum wage – say NO. That’s not good business and its not worth encouraging those kinds of clients.  I’d sooner walk dogs than undersell my illustration work.

Sometimes – rarely – it is a good idea to say yes to a job for less.  For me, that’s when I’m bartering services with another artist or designer, or if the illustration is in support of a charity I believe in, and most occasionally, if the project opens a new door for networking.  I don’t buy that line you’ll get, sometimes from prominent corporations who can easily afford to pay for creative work, that the job is worth doing for “great exposure” alone, but then I’m not a believer in unpaid internships either. There are some nifty magazines out there which are prestigious but don’t pay. As someone who is a committed blogger, if I’m working for free, I prefer have it on my own website. If you’re not hooked on blogging, you may want to do a few free gigs for hip rags to beef up your portfolio or as an opportunity to show off some of your edgier, artsy stuff. It is your call.

The Right [Airy-Fairy] Stuff

It is normal in the beginning stages of a business to be hungry.  The hunger is a good thing.  It takes time to develop credibility and connections. The first few years will be the most difficult.  Have a part time job, or a generous boyfriend. Get a roommate, find a side gig. Be frugal, really, really frugal.  Don’t buy things. Illustration is an easy business to get into in the sense that the overhead is very low. It is a bad business to get into if you like material indulgences and economic certainty, or if you’re servicing large student loans or mortgage payments.  If you think you can’t live on $1000 a month, you might not be able to hack it, because in the early stages, that is what it comes down to. If you’re lucky.

One thing I’ve had to get comfortable with is the idea that doubt and uncertainty will never be transcended.  The longer I do this, the more philosophical I can be when I confront adversity, but I’m not going to lie, it still gets to me sometimes.  If I go a week or two without a new job, I fear my career might be over.  If a job I wanted falls through I doubt my ability to grow my business.  If I work with a hard-to-please client, I feel insecure in my talents as an illustrator. If I see another fashion illustrator get a client I’d die for, envy chokes me. Not too long ago, I decided that these feelings were normal – that no matter where you are in your life and career, these feelings are part of being human, and are temporary conditions if you allow them to be.  Alain de Botton’s book, Status Anxiety, has been a great source of comfort for me lately.  Especially in the fashion industry, where everyone is so concerned with status and popularity is so fleeting, it is so easy to be overwhelmed by it all.  It is important to be able to figure out how develop the confidence it takes to handle your own ego and emotions as they will be constantly tested.

FAIL! Its a part of life as an illustrator – not every job is going to pan out the way you want it to.  Figure out a way to sever the ties between your work and your ego if you want to avoid heartbreak. Whether you do commissions, or you are a fine artist in the gallery scene, or a crafty kid with prints on cards and tote bags, you’re going to discover that most people are not in the market for your work, and somehow you can not let that stop you. You have to hunt down those rare, wonderful people who will pay you for what you do. Your ability to hang on long enough to succeed has everything to do with not giving up when it gets tough, and it will.

TRY! Persist and try again! Be social and meet new people, find new clients. Try your hand at making products – print your illustrations on stuff. Try teaching classes on illustration. Try contributing to a group show at a gallery. Explore designing textiles, graphic design, learn how to make your own website. Make your own opportunities. Explore every tangent related to fashion illustration – myself I’m quite into this fashion blogging thing.  Some stuff will work and some won’t, but its always worth being inventive, especially if the investment is minimal. As Gala Darling says in The Smart Girl’s Guide to Business, don’t be literal about your career definition – be expansive, be experimental, be excited.

I could write ten posts about this.  But I think I’ve covered the important stuff I want to say to all of you who have asked me about how to do what I do.  I am on my own trip, so your mileage may vary.  Feel free to add your own thoughts and tips in the comments.  And good luck on your own trip.

just a thought – fashionabubble

This post came to me over the course of the past few weeks.  During that time, I went to fashion week.  After fashion week, a number of discussions came up, as they usually do – whether fashion week is useful or successful, and so on.  The argument for fashion week is about exposure – is it enough, is it the right kind, is it worth it?  I just received the LGFW wrap-up in my inbox – already they are promising a “bigger and better” event next season. Well, I think its fair to say that things could get better.  But how long can they continue getting bigger?  Fashion week was at its apex of greatness just a couple seasons ago, when it was in Nathan Philips Square.  Now it has gotten too big for that ideal space.  The idea of an even bigger fashion week boggles me.

There is surely a lot of exposure happening, though I can’t help but feel that as the exposure multiplies, the value of it decreases.  A few years ago there were just a handful of fashion bloggers in town – just enough to fill a table for eight at brunch.  Now there’s more than I can count, all busily tweeting and posting about the same events.  How does LGFW figure out which bloggers are worth accrediting? As it has been pointed out, it doesn’t.  Its pretty much a free-for-all.  Measured in “impressions”, the numbers for fashion week in Toronto seem awfully impressive, but others argue that there was only one man in town – for just a day or so – whose impressions really mattered.  He attended a breakfast event at Holt Renfrew, which I was also invited to attend (!), among just a handful of people in the tiny Holt’s Cafe. It felt like a very special place to be, even though I admit at the time I was wholly ignorant of who the VIP was.

Its not just about fashion week obesity either.  Its about the scope creep that has allowed adult unpaid internships to become normalized within the fashion industry to the point that the industry is becoming dependent on them.  Fashion editors say “we couldn’t produce the magazine without them”, and fashion designers (even those who are backed by corporations) often count more than half their staff as unpaid interns.  Corporations have been getting very bottom-heavy – sure the man at the top could well afford to pay a measly wage to its entry-level workers – but they don’t – and worse, they trick people into thinking that their tight-fisted employer is doing THEM a favour, just for the experience.  Or maybe they can’t pay – which begs the question, should they really be in business?  Perhaps there are too many fashion magazines and fashion designers already, and the use of intern labour is artificially keeping them all on life support. If suddenly all of these for-profit companies had to pay or get rid of all their unpaid interns, how many would fail?

As I see it, the only way the whole fashion juggernaut is going to get better is by getting smaller.  This will be an inevitable, unpredictable, and painful experience.  I agree with Clay Shirky (in his discussion of the media industry) that when it comes to downsizing, human beings are incapable of doing it in an orderly fashion.  They will wait until things get so bad, and then it will be all chaos and hell for a while, until some sort of simpler, smaller system can emerge.

Presently, we find ourselves in a “fashionabubble”. Its much like any other bubble – an ephemeral thing (exposure, experience or asset-backed securities) has its value greatly expanded by speculators (public relations, internet, universities – or investment bankers), to some point where it becomes so ridiculous the bubble gets popped by mere logic and the whole unwholesome system is left in shambles. Many have offered their prescription for how to fix the fashion system – and here’s mine.  Let it fail. If there was something I could do to make it fail faster, I would, but its probably a good thing that there really isn’t anything to do but hang on.

Something that bothers me about young people today – both myself (I’m 27) and those younger than me, is that we are complacent.  We don’t question authority. We don’t reject the past.  We don’t rebel.  For all the rhetoric about user-generated media, most of that stuff is chronicling our chronic consumerism, not our creativity.  We idolize punks past by buying their albums and their t-shirts and their vestigial media, but we don’t imitate the way The Clash made their own onstage costumes with spraypaint and scissors, and some out-of-work kids created magazines like The Face with a xerox machine and a stapler, full of profanity and protest, and they won success on their own terms, even against their own terms.  With all the tools and advantages we have, you’d think we could create some original, compelling culture of our own.  But we rarely do. Punk is dead now, isn’t it? Or maybe it is just sleeping.

In the meantime, I think its important for those of us who want to accurately assess the value of things to focus on what fashion is really about: clothing and images.  Be creative, be daring.  Make things with your own hands, and whenever possible, buy things directly from the creators who made them.  When it comes to business, focus on people. Make sure your time and money is going directly to real people, not some shareholders, or website impressions.  Focus on what really matters.

Dare to dream small.