Horseshoe crab exoskeletons found while kayaking in Nantucket. A fossilized megalodon shark tooth discovered on a beach in North Carolina. Pretzel-shaped napkin holders picked up in Round Top. Objects like these fill the East Austin home of jewelry designer and photographer Sarah Murphy. They’re souvenirs of her travels, like the cross-country road trip that led Murphy and her artist/musician boyfriend, Matthew Kemp (natives of the Washington, D.C., area), to Texas, in 2009.
One morning in late July, Chris Santos climbed out of bed filled with anxiety over which pair of shoes to wear. This wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary; for Santos, almost every waking moment revolves around athletic footwear. He spends at least an hour a day on websites like NiceKicks (“the most read source for sneaker news, information, history, and release dates”).
It was a lovely April evening in downtown Dallas, the sky blank and blue. The Kate Spade cocktail party was scheduled to start at six o’clock, and as the minutes ticked past, two hundred young women in all their polymorphic plumage—stilettos, Céline bags, bangles, blowouts, and iPhones, always iPhones—began to gather on an Astroturf lawn across the street from the Joule Hotel. Passersby, leaving their offices for home or happy hours, might have thought the gathering was just another party full of beautiful people, not all that unusual in Dallas.
Except these weren’t just beautiful people. These were fashion bloggers, selfie stars whose facility with heated hair tools and knack for posing long ago upended a field once strictly dominated by runway shows and magazine glossies. In attendance, for example, was Aimee Song (known as @songofstyle, with 1.58 million followers), a Los Angeles blogger famous for her girly grunge aesthetic and lips-parted-eyes-staring-dead-into-the-camera expression; her Instagram of a pair of $580 Isabel Marant sandals (basically Birkenstocks with pink bows), which she’d bought earlier that afternoon, had garnered more than 27,000 likes. There was also Julie Sariñana (@SincerelyJules, 1.4 million), another L.A.-based blogger, whose photo outside the Joule in a white slip dress and Vince espadrille platform sandals would later be used to advertise the shoe, which had sold out at all department stores, on eBay. There was Andreas Wijk (@andreaswijk, 129k), the orange-colored Justin Bieber of Sweden, and Wendy Nguyen (@wendyslookbook, 510k), subject of the viral YouTube video “25 Ways to Wear a Scarf in 4.5 Minutes!” And then there was Dallas’s own Jane Aldridge (@seaofshoes, 132k), quietly slinking about in leather pants and a red flannel shirt, champagne in hand.
The influence wielded by this flock of pout-prone lips and dewy eyelashes was nothing short of staggering. These partygoers reached more than 13.5 million followers on Instagram combined. Many made more than $20,000 a month—some more than $80,000—just from posting links to sites that sold the short-shorts and Chanel shoes that they wore in their photos. Factoring in the revenue from banner ads on their websites, sponsored posts, and store appearances, a number of top bloggers raked in more than $1 million a year. And now they were waiting—having flown in from Los Angeles and New York and more than eighteen countries, some as far away as Australia and China—to meet the person who had made much of this money-making possible: a redheaded 26-year-old from Highland Park named Amber Venz.
Amber and her boyfriend, Baxter Box, had revolutionized the fashion world a few years earlier when, almost single-handedly, they figured out how to do the near impossible: easily monetize the content of fashion blogs. In 2011, with only a modest family investment, they’d built rewardStyle, a fashion technology company that collects commissions from retailers on behalf of bloggers and more-traditional publishers (think the websites of some major magazines) whose pictures induce readers to buy baubles online. In three years the company had grown to include 87 employees in Dallas and London, a network of 4,000 retailers, and more than 14,000 “publishers,” who drove $155 million in retail sales in 2013 alone (rewardStyle declined to release information about its amount of revenue). As rewardStyle’s top 200 earners, the bloggers on the lawn had been invited to the company’s second annual conference, hosted at the Joule. Because rewardStyle only makes money when its publishers do, the goal of the next three days was to teach the women how to make even more money by giving them strategies for effective website design (NewYorker.com was used as a model) and for search engine optimization (using, as an example, the key words “Valentino Rockstud pumps” ). The cocktail party was a networking event to kick the invitation-only conference off.
Amber, however, had yet to make an appearance, though she had been haunting the premises. Two days prior she’d Instagrammed a picture (@venzedits, 31k) of herself peering into a soft-lit mirror, looking like an ethereal nymph. It was geotagged to the Joule penthouse. But earlier that afternoon she posted a video outtake from her shoot with a local style magazine at her headquarters, just north of downtown. Few that day had seen her in the flesh.
Not that she hadn’t taken care of her acolytes. In their hotel rooms, the bloggers had found galvanized-tin buckets full of gifts, some of them personally selected, like a $595 biker jacket (gray leather, size XS) by the London-based label Reiss given to Leandra Medine, the spunky New Yorker behind Man Repeller (@manrepeller, 650k). They’d also been given glossy “photography guides” that steered them to nearby ivy-covered walls and the Joule’s rooftop pool, places ideal for their snapshots. At noon, the flagship Neiman Marcus had hosted a lunch featuring male models—dressed in baby-blue blazers, paisley shirts, and pink shorts—as doormen. (Tiny takeout boxes of Asian-inspired noodles with pink plastic chopsticks and two-inch cheese pizzas in mini cardboard boxes with “#NMevents” stickers went mostly uneaten but frequently Instagrammed.) In the hotel’s Praetorian Room, racks of clothes had been interspersed with heaps of sweets—Smarties and rock candy and Jordan almonds and macarons (“a blogger’s basic food group,” one posted)—and because the key to a successful blog is having a photographer boyfriend, as all but one of the top five earners do, there was even a “boyfriend lounge.” “It’s wear [sic] the blogging boyfriends and husbands can hangout [sic] and complain about all the stuff we have to put up with,” posted the husband of blogger Julia Engel, from Gal Meets Glam (@juliahengel, 235k), on Instagram. In the late afternoon, caterers had begun to wheel white sofas and cocktail tables across the street from the hotel, where the women were now gathering, depositing the furniture on the Astroturf that stretched in front of Tony Tasset’s thirty-foot-tall, disturbingly realistic eyeball sculpture, a.k.a. THE EYE. The tables were topped with black-and-white-striped tablecloths and special, softball-size pink peonies had been flown in from New York, ostensibly because they were Kate Spade’s favorite flower.
THE EYE had never seen anything like it. As the party got under way, the bloggers, uncased iPhones at the ready, started snapping selfies. A gaggle of them, in Kate Spade shorts and party dresses, posed for a photo that Kate Spade itself would later Instagram. It would receive more than 13,400 likes, and it was relentlessly mocked by the snarky web forum Get Off My Internets (GOMI), whose users were avidly following the #rSTheCon hashtag (for “rewardStyle The Conference”) from home. They were quick to point out that there was a very long tail to rewardStyle’s invite list; a number of the company’s most-acclaimed clients were not present and many smaller bloggers had made it off the waiting list, paying $350 to attend. GOMI dubbed the whole affair, during which no fewer than six bloggers Instagrammed their feet in $995 Valentino Rockstud pumps, “The Rockstud Rodeo.”
And then, finally, Amber arrived, and all the women turned to her, like magpies drawn to a shiny object. She was instantly recognizable, her look that of a high-fashion cartoon character: long red bob, porcelain legs, coral cheeks, a cleft chin, and the sort of small teeth that look rich and innocent. She was wearing a navy-and-white wide-stripe crop top with matching high-waisted short-shorts and strappy gold heels. Her twinset was from ASOS, an online fast-fashion giant, and matched the tablecloths. But her youth, her twiggy limbs, and her flawless complexion made the ensemble look expensive. Baxter, rewardStyle’s CEO, stood beside her in shorts and a blazer. Each held a leash, at the end of which was a Rottweiler pup, sniffing the plastic grass perplexedly.
Mary Beech, a model blonde and Kate Spade’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer, took to the mike and attempted to seduce the women clustered in the audience. “We’re a very authentic brand,” she said, “and you all are very authentic in what you do. You are all incredibly influential, and we love the way you position our product.” But her speech, with its fanciful character descriptions of the Kate Spade customer (“She wallpapers the rental apartment. She sings off-key but with great spirit”) didn’t hold the bloggers’ attention as much as Amber, the epitome of poise and perfect posture.
Amber, for her part, didn’t even address the crowd. As bloggers hovered to make their introductions, she stood with Baxter, greeting young women with a tap-tap of a hug. Yet her smile was warm, and she exuded a charming openness, like an eager-to-please co-conspirator. Her admirers basked in the attention, then crouched down to pet the dogs (@BearandLuca, 279 followers) before posing for more pictures.
In the sprawling backyard of the Houston Foundry, an industrial site turned artists’ studio just north of downtown, 29-year-old Kate dePara looks a bit like a mad scientist. Crouched over twenty yards of fabric spread across the ground, her hands sheathed in sturdy rubber gloves, she applies dye with an assortment of tools—spray bottles, sponges, a bamboo paintbrush, a fork. Nearby, another length of fabric sits in a bucket of steaming-hot water, while others dry on a giant wooden rack.
When Cheryl Schulke is working, few things can distract her—not even slicing open her finger, which she has done twice. “The first time, I rushed to the ER, but the second time, I just taped it back together and kept going.” The reason for that dedication is Stash Co., Schulke’s line of handcrafted leather bags and other goods, which she produces out of a century-old former mattress factory in Sealy, near the German community of Cat Spring, where she was raised. “When you are in the middle of nowhere, you have plenty of time to daydream,” she says.
Before settling in Texas, in 1997, designer (and California native) Kathie Sever worked on a cattle ranch in Montana, where she was taken with the style of the local cowboys. “These rugged, macho guys cared about the crisp, starched edges on their jeans. I loved that dichotomy,” she says. “They would dandy it up a little.” That attitude influences Sever today as she produces Fort Lonesome, her line of custom-embroidered Western wear.
The thing we have to overcome is that people think of Lucchese in a one-dimensional way,” says William Zeitz, the creative director and executive vice president of marketing for the El Paso–based company. “The challenge is to shift perception beyond ‘We just do Western boots’ to ‘We craft beautiful leather goods.’ ”