Is the era of selfie-centred fashion blogging coming to an end?
The fashion blogging scene is changing globally and Hong Kong's selfie-centred, freebie-obsessed proponents would do well to take note, writes Abid Rahman
Dressed to impress and armed with cellphones to keep their legions of social media followers happy, fashion bloggers are easy to spot at parties, runway shows and boutique openings in the city. Bloggers have demystified and democratised the once veiled world of high fashion and their number, and that of their followers, has rapidly proliferated.
The low barriers to entry and allure of free products and parties mean the fashion blogging scene in Hong Kong is booming. But as with the global phenomenon, what started as individuals' original comments on style have increasingly moved towards an economy of paid-for social media content. Bloggers' posts about fashion items and attendance at events are commonly paid for either in products or cash.
Lately, however, the brands they promote, the agencies they work with, the public and even some of the bloggers themselves have begun to wonder if fashion blogging has become too repetitive and commercial.
The most vocal criticism is coming from the big fashion capitals but it's starting to be heard in Hong Kong, even as the local blogging scene becomes increasingly crowded.
"It's become a cool thing to be a blogger," says Davena Mok, founder of A-VIBE, a boutique fashion PR and marketing agency, alluding to the growing number and influence of Hong Kong-based fashion bloggers.
"Veronica Li, the girl behind Vnikali, is a good example of someone who has come up really fast and is doing a lot of campaigns now," says Mok, running through an exhaustive but incomplete list of bloggers. Seventeen-year-old Zoe Suen's Fashiononymous blog has seemingly come from nowhere to be one of the most popular in the city with more than 70,000 followers on Instagram.
Similarly, blogger and stylist No.7, whose real name is Cecilia Ngan, has brands tripping over themselves to reach her 233,000 followers on Instagram alone. "Hong Kong was slower at developing a fashion blogger scene, but it has reached a level today that any brand, major or minor, should have a dedicated blogger strategy as part of its marketing campaign here," says Mok.
Working with hip street brands like Converse and Beats Audio, Mok's agency is among the most savvy when it comes to digital and social media.
She says it's difficult to find Hong Kong bloggers with focused content and who are technologically savvy: "Brands need to work out, and bloggers need to see, the difference between content and clutter. Because there's a lot of clutter out there at the moment."
For Mok, the recent visit to the city by British blogger Susie Bubble, real name Susanna Lau, showed how most Hong Kong's fashion bloggers are far behind the level of professionalism of their overseas counterparts.
"Susie Bubble talks about web traffic, analytics and conversion rates, and that's an indication of her professionalism and experience. I don't think many [bloggers] in Hong Kong do that," Mok says.
Another PR consultant, who preferred to remain anonymous, was more candid about the lack of technological know-how among Hong Kong fashion bloggers. "Most of these young bloggers don't even know what SEO [search engine optimisation], PPC [pay per click], GA [Google Analytics] and Alexa ranking mean, let alone permalinks or metatags.
"And what's even worse, they don't know that these things are what drive traffic to your site and increase your 'searchability', which is what drives advertising and online revenue. Right now, the business of blogging in Hong Kong is about giving and getting free stuff and invitations," says the consultant.
Stories of fake paid-for web traffic, Facebook likes and Instagram followers are rife, says the consultant, and this makes fashion companies more wary of engaging with bloggers.
Blogger Grace Chan, who created Lushgazine in 2010, takes a keen interest in the analytics of the process and has noticed a shift in what brands and the audience expect from fashion blogs.
"Things have changed since I started," she says. Although there are different types of fashion blogs in Hong Kong, those that post shots of the blogger wearing clothes in everyday situations is the most common.
"There is a saturation of . . . fashion bloggers who only take pictures of themselves, or selfies," says Chan. "It's all right once in a while - I do it too - but if every blog or Instagram post is like that, it becomes repetitive and boring. Even brands and PRs get tired of it."
She sees the selfie trend as self-defeating, especially pictures that are taken at fashion shows and supposedly exclusive events.
"Sometimes it's just showing off, there's no real story there. Also, if you've taken a picture at an event, but so has every other blogger, then people's Instagram or Facebook feeds become cluttered with pictures from the same event."
While local bloggers have become better at selling themselves as the star, Chan questions what the value of this approach is for fashion brands and for a blogger's long-term success.
"I think readers know about the freebies and, to a large extent, they don't mind so much. If you like something and it fits with what you do, then it's perfectly fine. The problem comes from brands sending stuff [that you may not like] and then expecting you to write about them," says Chan, who doesn't take advertising on her blog. She often turns down monetary offers to write about unrelated topics like football or casinos, she says.
"The free stuff is a bad cycle of content. There are bloggers in Hong Kong who give the brands what they want, but their blogs suffer. If you want to make money or get something from your blog, then there are other less obvious ways of doing it," says Chan.
The subtler way Chan alludes to involves money paid by brands for blogs and Instagram posts that are an open secret on the local blogging scene.
"Bloggers can charge between HK$1,000 and HK$5,000 to attend an event, and between HK$1,000 and HK$5,000 to post one picture on Instagram," says the PR consultant, confirming what other bloggers and industry people have said off the record.
PR professionals are often bemused by the fees charged, especially if they know the blog has modest traffic.
"A lot of so-called top bloggers in Hong Kong only have 500 followers on Instagram and 400 page views per month. But many PR agencies are not up to date, don't check the numbers, or the kind of readership the blogger has, and what key words they are tagging," says the consultant.
Nevertheless, compared with what brands are willing to pay celebrities and even minor celebrities to attend events - which is still the most common way for them to attract media attention in Hong Kong - bloggers represent better value for money and have a potentially bigger reach.
" Milk Magazine has a weekly circulation of about 100,000, and blogger No. 7 has 200,000-plus Instagram followers, so it comes down to simple maths," Mok says.
High fashion brands and PR agencies may be more circumspect, but young, up-and-coming designers have little choice. Fashion bloggers are critical to their success or failure, says Tania Reinert-Shchelkanovtseva, a former blogger who co-founded Hong Kong-based online retailer A Boy Named Sue.
"Our budget is much smaller, so you have to be smarter as you can't afford to approach editorial or create advertorials," she says. "Online advertising, traffic from blogs to our website is direct, it's measurable and quantifiable, so, for us, bloggers and especially Instagram, are very important to reach people."
A Boy Named Sue's founders have looked to international and local bloggers to create meaningful content for them, proving there are some willing to think outside of the box to create what they call "real stories".
"Where we are positioned, we need more than just 'fashion' posts or selfies," says Reinert-Shchelkanovtseva. "We need a whole campaign, something lifestyle-orientated. So we work with bloggers to create a travel story or a campaign like the one we have now called 'Who Made Your Clothes?' about where our clothes come from."
Long-time critics of bloggers, particularly those in powerful positions in the four big fashion capitals, have become more outspoken as brands grow increasingly weary of the phenomenon, and are scathing about street-style bloggers camped outside fashion-week venues.
Barely a week goes by without an industry observer predicting the end of an era for bloggers, a view that seems at odds with the ubiquity and influence of bloggers in Hong Kong.
But like all fashion trends, what's happening in New York, Paris, Milan and London eventually comes here, and if the city's bloggers fail to change with the times, they could quickly find themselves out of fashion.