The World at Her Feet
It was surprising when a teenager in a Dallas suburb caught the eye of New York fashion editors with a blog about shoes that she worked on after school. It was more surprising when her passion for footwear attracted the attention of Karl Lagerfeld and Kanye West. But most surprising of all? That Jane Aldridge, who is now one of the top style bloggers in the nation, refuses to leave Texas.
My hands are covered in gold glitter. It is obviously expensive glitter—softer, shinier, and a much deeper yellow than the stuff I remember from second grade. The source is a pair of short $750 Miu Miu boots. The owner of these boots is twenty-year-old style blogger Jane Aldridge.
“Hello! I’m trying to shoot those. Can you put them down?” she snaps at me. Jane takes a deep breath and runs her fingers through her hair—dyed a comic-book red—as I wipe my palms on my jeans. She picks up her camera, a Nikon D-SLR, and peers through the viewfinder at the boots, Italian ankle shoes the size of desk lamps that also feature pink suede bows. There are many women who love shoes, but Jane’s infatuation with footwear—discernible in her narrowing green eyes, her mean-girl tone, and proprietary bossiness—is intimidating. “Shoes are the only accessible thing in fashion,” she sagely pronounces, with a slight lisp.
It is a February afternoon, and we are in Jane’s bedroom. The room is part of an upstairs suite in the house she grew up in, a traditional two-story in Trophy Club, a small planned community thirty miles west of Dallas. Stacks of nineties magazines and Japanese kids’ books surround us. Nearby are her bed, dotted with plush animals, and a curtained closet full of vintage fur coats. And then there are the shoes: a wall with 88 pairs of kooky convex wedges; clunky clodhopper boots with buckles and superfluous crisscross laces; prissy, pale-pink pumps with vertiginous heels—all with insoles bearing names like Dries Van Noten, Stella McCartney, Proenza Schouler, and Prada. It is here, in her bedroom, that Jane creates the content that, over the past five years, has turned her into a celebrity in the fashion world. Her blog, Sea of Shoes, features daily photos of Jane wearing a wacky-sexy mix of thrift-store designer blouses, tight jeans, and, of course, over-the-top footwear. The captions are brief and girly confessional—“the cutest fitting crackled leather pants ever”—and are read by almost 400,000 people every month.
Jane ranks in the upper echelons of a new breed in the world of high fashion: the outsider armed with an Internet connection, a digital camera, and discriminating taste. In 2008 her blog, which had a handful of followers then—mostly her high school classmates—caught the eye of editors at Teen Vogue, who a year later featured her in the magazine’s pages for her DIY blend of vintage clothing and runway footwear. Soon she was debuting at the Crillon Ball, in Paris, in the company of Saudi princesses and such Hollywood royalty as the daughters of Bruce Willis and Forest Whitaker; being heralded in Vanity Fair as a “bright young thing”; attending private dinners with Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld; and exchanging photographs with Kanye West (“Peep this 16 year olds blog from Texas! Whoooa!!!” he blogged). Jane is now considered to be one of the country’s top five style bloggers. She has worked with Coach’s executive creative director Reed Krakoff on his eponymous label, and when designers such as Nicolas Kirkwood come to Dallas for trunk shows, they first make appointments with her. This spring she is being featured in the Barneys New York catalog alongside legendary sixties supermodel Penelope Tree.
Click-click-click. Jane gets to work. She fluffs a shaggy pillow behind the Miu Mius as a dramatic score by Ennio Morricone blares from desktop speakers. Click. Deep breath. Run fingers through hair again. Check the image. Clench jaw. Click-click. Turn the shoes upside down. Add a plastic dinosaur. Click. No, a glass-top table. Windex the table. Add a bronze ram’s head—no, a wonky-eyed, Ewok-looking animal. Or a bright—“Aaagh!” Jane screams, then exhales loudly. She stomps barefoot across the room in frustration.
“Mom!” Jane calls, morphing from industry veteran to child in crisis. “Why isn’t this working? The light is always good up here.”
Her mother, Judy, arrives at the top of the staircase, Jane’s laptop in hand. A former model and clothing designer (her nineties Vogue clips hang framed on the wall), the 48-year-old now functions as her daughter’s manager, business partner, confidante, and, as Judy tells it, “partner in crime.” She also runs her own blog, the interiors-focused Atlantis Home. It was Judy who planted the seeds of Jane’s career when, after closing a store in Dallas where she sold high-end designs to become a stay-at-home mom to two girls—Jane has a younger sister, Carol—she packed up her stock and wrote “For Jane” on the cardboard boxes. Jane opened the boxes when she was fourteen; now Judy spends more than forty hours a week answering Jane’s email, fielding interview requests, negotiating collaborations with designers, hunting down props for Jane to use, and taking many of the photos on Sea of Shoes.
In a couple of weeks, Jane will be leaving Trophy Club and moving to her own apartment. It’s a decision that’s been heavily chattered about by her followers; she is, at last, striking out on her own. But for now she is still here, in her childhood bedroom, surrounded by the shoes that have made her the sensation she is. Judy looks at the back of the camera, then looks down at the Miu Mius. “I don’t know,” she soothes. “It’s weird. You know what could be cool? Put them on. What if we got the chair and the mirror and the boots and you lay down—”
“Yeah! I could even be facing the mirror.”
Jane sprawls on the floor in pale jeans, underneath a framed black and white photograph of Grey Gardens’ Little Edie. Jane wrings her slim torso and maneuvers her long legs through the legs of an ornate, hot-pink chair. “No, no, not that far! Put your legs through—yeah.” Jane seems suddenly reticent. “Come on, Jane,” says Judy. “Be a contortionist. Don’t be such a baby!”
“Mooom! This is retarded.”
There is no arguing that the advent of the personal-style blogger was a game changer in fashion. An impenetrable world once dominated by editors, designers, and photographers was cracked open in the mid-2000’s when well-dressed laptop owners began chronicling and uploading their own style online. London-based fashion editor Susanna Lau, known as Susie Bubble, was perhaps the first to post daily outfit photos, back in 2006; the elite were put on notice in 2008 when Marc Jacobs named a handbag after a Filipino blogger known as Bryan Boy. The next year, thirteen-year-old Internet wunderkind Tavi Gevinson landed in the front row of Rodarte’s spring 2010 show (the New York Times headline: “Bloggers Crash Fashion’s Front Row”). Now style bloggers are legion, their highest ranks occupied by the likes of Kelly Framel (the Glamourai), Leandra Medine (the Man Repeller), and Gevinson (Style Rookie). They get their own profiles in the New Yorker, invitations to velvet-roped parties, design jobs, and coffee-table-book deals. Just before the Calvin Klein fashion show this past February, the company announced that blogger Hanneli Mustaparta would serve as the “curator” of the company’s Twitter and Tumblr accounts.
“Jane was an early pioneer, and now there are a bunch of imitators,” says Teen Vogue’s fashion news director Jane Keltner de Valle, who has championed Jane’s presence in the magazine. “We were in such a celeb-crazed society. There’s been a shift. Personal-style bloggers have helped democratize fashion. These are real people dressing themselves.” What sets Jane apart, explains Keltner de Valle, is her point of view. “She doesn’t follow trends—part of that comes from being in Texas and being isolated.”
No one could have been farther from the center of fashion than a fifteen-year-old in Trophy Club in 2007. When Jane first registered seaofshoes.typepad.com, she wore braces and attended a charter school that required uniforms. She lived with her mother and sister—her parents divorced in 2003—surrounded by megachurches, a miniature horse farm, and estates with names like the Blessing. A suburban kid with an interest in fashion magazines and Dynasty reruns and no driver’s license, her main source of excitement was going into Dallas with her mother to buy designer shoes at Neiman Marcus, Barneys, and Forty Five Ten. She soon began to throw herself into a life online, chatting with friends, learning hexadecimal coding, and searching for vintage clothing on eBay. Bored one afternoon, she asked her mom for the $6 it took to register a TypePad blog; she then began posting photos of what she wore on Free Dress Fridays, when she got to ditch the uniform. She named the blog Sea of Shoes, after her main passion—and because she’d found a cool illustration of an octopus holding shoes.
She got a few hits, and her viewership grew in tiny increments—she got excited when she realized two hundred people had seen her wearing her new Margielas—but there was little feedback. On a whim, Jane submitted a photo of herself in Balenciaga boots and a vintage sweater to Teen Vogue and was chosen as the magazine’s online “Girl of the Week.” The day it posted, Sea of Shoes got a thousand hits. Before long, Judy had bought her daughter a fancy camera and started helping with the posts, which became more frequent. Comments began stacking up. Then Teen Vogue included her in a March 2009 feature on style bloggers, she got invited to the Crillon Ball, a full-page shot of her ran in Vanity Fair—and the floodgates opened. Jane Aldridge was now a tastemaker.
Those start-up years were expensive: Jane’s father, Bryan, estimates the investment in the blog runs “several hundred thousand dollars,” mostly in shoes. (Judy says it is closer to $70,000.) But Jane began making money through collaborations with retailers such as Urban Outfitters and by hosting shopping nights at stores such as Guess and Rugby Ralph Lauren. (Bryan, an oil and gas lawyer who lives near his family and serves as Jane’s attorney, says appearance fees can go as high as $20,000 and sponsored posts can bring in as much as $5,000 per post.) In 2009, halfway through her junior year, Jane realized she couldn’t do an interview with a Korean magazine and finish an essay. Judy recruited a neighbor to help manage Jane’s email, and the next year, with only one credit needed to graduate, Jane finished high school from home. Though she briefly considered design school in New York, she eventually decided against a degree altogether. Her parents were fine with the idea. (“Why should I go to college?” Jane asked me a few months ago, as she grabbed a glass of champagne off a passing tray at a boutique party we both attended. “I’m already doing what I want.”)
“We spend a lot of time at home,” Judy shouts to me as I walk through their house, her tall, buckled boots knocking against the polished-concrete floors. Four small dogs—two Chihuahuas, a corgi, and a maltipoo—hop, yip, and lose their collective mind. “Sorry about the dogs! We don’t get a lot of guests out here.”
From the outside, the house is brick and inconspicuous, like all the others on the cul-de-sac. There’s a station wagon in the driveway, next to a flower bed. On the inside, however, it is dim and swank, with outré knickknacks, animal heads, pedigreed chairs, and, sitting on a dining room table, a Plexiglas little red wagon filled with a booty of gold bangles. It is a universe where everything I knew to be virtual is suddenly materializing before my eyes. There’s the wooden owl I’ve seen Jane kneeling beside in fishnets, hot pants, and a skull necklace made by her grandmother. There are those chevron mirrors, floating in so many of her posts. There are the Monster High dolls she collaborated on with Mattel. Save for the kitchen counters cluttered with FedEx packages sent by clothing and shoe designers, every surface is photogenic. That French daybed in the living room is perfect for Jane in thoughtful repose, wearing a seventies polyester disco dress. The black plastic Philippe Starck Ghost chairs? Made for what might be Jane’s signature pose: sitting, knees together and ankles splayed, body pitched forward, a look in her wide-set, Clara Bow eyes that asks, “And?”
Jane has that look now. She hands me a cup of tea. I sit down next to a lone yellow suede boot teetering on a copy of French Vogue. As Judy unpacks a cache of vintage shawls and feather fans for an upcoming shoot, she tells me that a few years ago, she gave the home a huge makeover to reflect their “online lives.” When I mention that this sounds like what futurist writer William Gibson once said, about presenting a world that doesn’t exist and making it real, Judy smiles. “You know, it’s true,” she says. “Our life out here is fantastical. My ex-husband says we live in our own world.”
For someone with such national reach, Jane is, in fact, stubbornly, almost mystifyingly committed to this circumscribed world. Her main haunts are Central Market, Sephora, and Barnes and Noble, and although she now has a driver’s license, she still doesn’t drive. (“It gives me really bad anxiety,” she tells me.) She has no idea who Pippa Middleton is, and because she ignores TV in favor of the computer, Jane has never heard of shows like Access Hollywood. She is inundated every year with invitations to every major fashion show but never goes—in fact, she has never been to one, period. “I mean, why?” she says. “Every blogger wants to go to Fashion Week now. So boring.” And though she could move anywhere she wanted at this point—New York, Los Angeles—the new apartment she has chosen is near Turtle Creek, in Dallas.
But it’s precisely this obstinate detachment that makes her so attractive to the fashion aristocracy, known to be highly allergic to eagerness. “Jane’s decision to stay in Texas was very savvy,” says the Glamourai’s Kelly Framel, who graduated from the University of Texas before moving to New York. Keltner de Valle agrees. Jane’s location keeps her uninfluenced. “Some bloggers’ style borders on the absurd. Girls look at her and say, ‘I want to dress like that.’ ” Jane’s newest source of income comes from commissioned posts she writes for Reward Style, a website run by Dallas native Amber Venz that gives bloggers who post their favorite pieces from select retailers, such as Neiman Marcus and Target, a percentage of sales. (Venz says Jane is usually in the top ten of the website’s earners, who “easily make five figures a month.”)
Jane smooths her half-tucked, sheer white blouse. I tell her I think it’s a cool shirt. “Really? I think it’s, like, Splen-did,” she says with a grimace, sounding out the mall brand with the horror of someone being forced to say “ointment.” She nicked the shirt from her sister’s closet; Carol, who is seventeen, is in her first year of boarding school in Wales. “I’m getting my hair dyed in a bit and, you know, what if it messes up my shirt?”
Jane yawns. She has been up since three in the morning. Sipping tea, she tells me she’s already sent her mom more than sixty inspiration photos for an upcoming shoot and read through more than one hundred emails, mostly from public-relations people. After she gets her hair colored, she has to come home to do pin curls for disco hair. (She’s feeling the seventies.) She doesn’t get much rest. “I can’t sleep past four a.m. most nights.”
I tell her I saw a post on Facebook the other day about how she was tired from a photo shoot. “What? I never posted that. That must be a fake page,” she says. Apparently her fame inspires a lot of copycats. “Creepy people are always creating stuff in my name. I friend-requested you, by the way.” I tell her I never got it. “It’s not my name,” she says.
I pull out my phone and check Facebook. I see Jane’s face next to the name CaramelAngel Anxietystar.
There are downsides to Internet celebrity, particularly for a young woman who posts flattering photos of herself wearing really nice stuff. In the years since she began blogging, Jane has encountered her share of both stalkers and vicious commenters, who skewer her for all the Prada, parties, and poses. And cyberspace has, in turn, trapped her into being a perpetual teenager—a Huffington Post story this past fall, for example, reported Jane’s age as seventeen. The gossip and misperception have to do in part with her tight-knit friendship with her mother, which is, by modern standards, somewhat unconventional. In fact, as Jane makes the move into her own apartment, Judy is moving too—into a town house a few blocks away.
But Jane responds to these criticisms with nonchalance. I later catch up with her and Judy at the hair salon—Jane’s mane is even redder—and ride with them back to Trophy Club in the station wagon. As we pass by the discounter Nordstrom Rack (“Gross!” says Judy. “Carol made me go there one time, and I wanted to punch myself”), I ask the pair about their relationship. Judy knows she has been labeled a domineering stage mom. “But I couldn’t care less, because my daughter’s well-being is so much more important,” she says. “People watch our blogs and try to create story lines.”
“Yeah,” Jane says from the backseat, laughing. Even more so now that she is moving. “Like, I’m divorcing my mom.” Well, I point out, they do spend a lot time together. “I’ve heard it all before,” Jane says, bored by the subject. “People have issues about close relationships with parents.” She leans forward. “They’re like”—she growls in a sinister voice—“ ‘Do you have any friends besides your mom?’ ” She does, she says. She gets together with them whenever they come home from college. And as for boyfriends, well, there is always Facebook.
A week later, on a blustery gray day, I meet Jane near the house in Trophy Club, where we take a snaking path into some woods. She calls it the Enchanted Forest. She and her mom have shot some of her favorite blog posts here. She is now almost settled into the apartment—she had the walls painted “marshmallow” and textured, for better light in her photos—and this might be the last time she’s in the forest.
“It’s scary out here, right? I always thought we’d find a body,” Jane says. She’s walking fast, a prim fifties fur coat smacking her thighs. “We did the Fantastic Mr. Fox shoot out here,” she remembers of the series in which she paired a felt-eared hat from Lithuania with her mom’s old Ferragamos. It was the moment she’d decided to add some fantasy-filled posts to Sea of Shoes. Jane stops to pull a twig out of her Laurence Dacade S&M-looking boots. “It’s like the forest doesn’t want me to leave,” she says.
We keep walking, and I ask if, given the ideas that swirl online about her life, she feels trapped in time. “Sometimes. I get it. They still think of me as some kind of teenage phenomenon,” she replies. “I’m so far past that. I think if I keep doing it for long enough, that will go away.”
She can’t quite say what “it” is. “I’ve never had this kind of epic conversation about my work,” she says. “I know I want to improve my photography.” Jane imagines her blog will expand to include a home focus. Maybe one day she’ll actually go to a fashion show, but only to shoot backstage. For now, packing up her clothes and shoes has only helped solidify her passion. “I have the best closet ever,” she says, changing the subject. She doesn’t want to talk about the future or how the world she and her mother created in Trophy Club will translate in Dallas. When I crack a joke about playing dress-up every day, Jane stops.
“But this is real,” she says, her words trailing off into a whisper. “Make-believe is our real life.”