Before I begin, I want to state that everything below is based entirely on my own personal experience of working inside the South African fashion scene. I’m not discouraging anyone from trying their hand at becoming a style blogger or “influencer,” but I think it’s important that the less glamorous side of the job is brought out into the open.
I started documenting my personal style and thoughts on fashion while still in high school. I’d often felt like an outsider with no real purpose, but starting a blog helped change that. I chose a name, set up a cheap website, and got posting.
I quickly became an established voice, building a platform from which I could collaborate with some of the most talented young creatives in my city, Cape Town, as well as local and international brands. I sat front row at every fashion week in the country, attended fancy press evenings, and received goodie bags filled with free clothing.
It sounds like the dream, and for a while it was.
The truth, however, is that all of those heavenly benefits came at a price.
Attending fashion shows, press evenings, and launch parties required me to have money for transport and new outfits. So too did the editorials I had to create to promote myself as a professional. All of this posed a very big problem for one simple reason: I wasn’t being paid. Like, at all.
As a brand influencer, I wasn’t given a seat at the table where the real decisions were made. I had no say in the concept, casting, production, and — most importantly for my bank balance — the budget. My job was to walk in at the end, receive instructions, and implement them as best as I could. I had to interpret whatever product was chosen for me using whatever resources I could scrounge together.
It’s easy for people to ask why I didn’t just ask to be paid, but by the time an invitation arrived to be part of a campaign, the only thought running through my head was that they could just as easily choose someone who didn’t need the money. Still, I did ask many times but was usually told there was no budget or that I’d have to make do with a shopping voucher. Either way, who wouldn’t want their face in magazines or fronting campaigns for their favorite brands? It’s very hard to say no.
I know plenty of people think it’s my fault for not pushing harder, but it isn’t as straightforward as that. When your dreams are staring you right in the face, all you keep telling yourself is that it’ll get better with time. I had the support of my family and was adamant that after putting in the hard work, I would finally see some financial reward.
But years went by and the money never came. I started to feel like I wasn’t good enough to deserve it — and no amount of goodie bags could ever compensate.
I had no room to grow as a creative and figure out my place in the industry. I was vulnerable, fearing the day the next “it” person arrived on the scene and stole my place as the new kid on the block. If that were to happen, what would I be left with? A portfolio full of press clippings and no significant work of my own.
The saddest part is probably how long I carried on. I eventually shut down my site and said goodbye to something that had once made me happy and hopeful for the future. It was the hardest decision I’d ever made but definitely best for my mental wellbeing.
It has taken a long time to rediscover my love for fashion and telling stories, but I’m getting there (albeit without the goodie bags). I now run an online platform called UNRULY, which aims to address the issues I faced by placing power and money directly into the hands of creatives.
I don’t think that any one person or group in the industry is looking to exploit anyone, but the system sure makes it easy to do so. Like many others, I was seduced by the glamor of being accepted into an elite group. You’re featured on everyone’s favorite websites, you’re getting free clothes, and you always have great pictures to stunt on the ’gram.
In reality, however, bills are piling up and no one wants to hear your ideas or suggestions. Your job is to stand there and sip free cocktails until they’re done with you. Maybe that’s enough for some people — it was for me for a long time, too. But not anymore.
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