The Click Clique
How Dallas’s Amber Venz transformed a stylish group of young bloggers into a powerful force in the world of fashion—and made them rich along the way.
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.
HERE’S A THEORY about the rise of fashion blogging: in 2008 and 2009, during the dark days of the recession, magazines laid off employees left and right. Ad pages shrank, and, perhaps coincidentally, the brands that continued to advertise continued to be written about. Yet aspiring fashionistas, many of them unemployed millennials living with their parents, had plenty more to say. Blogger software was free and easy, so those young women turned to the Internet and started doing what magazines weren’t—mixing high and low brands and taking pictures that were rough and unexpected. Some bloggers developed loyal followings, and soon icons like Karl Lagerfeld, the white-ponytailed Werner Herzog of fashion, were greeting bloggers like Tavi Gevinson, a then fourteen-year-old from the Chicago suburbs, after their shows. In 2009 Dolce and Gabbana famously upset the runway’s feudal hierarchies when it sat Bryanboy, a Filipino blogger, just two seats away from Vogue’s Anna Wintour in the front row of the Milan spring-summer show.
Amber had always loved fashion; she had interned for a stylist in Los Angeles and for the fashion label Thakoon, in New York, when the company was so small that she doubled as its fit model, and she had sent many an unsuccessful email to Condé Nast fashion editors asking about internships. She’d been designing her own jewelry since high school, when she fulfilled Highland Park High’s required community service hours by designing necklaces—Gatsby-ish pearl-and-ribbon numbers among them—and donating them to a local crisis pregnancy center for its annual fundraiser. Later, while earning a degree in corporate communications and public affairs at Southern Methodist University, she’d worked long hours at a boutique in University Park called Studio Sebastian, chasing after new designers and creating pitch packets to persuade them to place their pieces with the store. After customers kept asking about the jewelry she was wearing, Sebastian himself invited her to sell her creations behind the counter.
The store became her life. A co-worker set her up with her nephew, who had graduated from Highland Park a year before Amber arrived. His name was Baxter Box. Though Amber was, in her words, “not in need of any dates” and initially ignored his calls, she changed her mind six months later. Amber’s father, an insurance agent at State Farm, had always encouraged her to run her own business. The jewelry line seemed to be her ticket. In the fall of 2009, mulling over her business ambitions, she found herself proudly laying out her pieces on Baxter’s bed for him to look at. “I was totally talking to a wall,” Amber recalled, “and then he saw the spreadsheet of all my sales and expenses. That’s when he started being more inquisitive. He was like, ‘Do you realize that you’re making much more money on your jewelry than your full-time job?’ ”
She didn’t consider blogging until a New Year’s Eve trip to Miami. It was “freakishly cold,” as Amber puts it, so the beach was out of the question, and they ended up just eating, drinking, and shopping. “I came out of a store and was like, ‘I want to tell you about this new designer I just discovered,’ ” Amber told me. “Baxter’s response, which was very much in character, was ‘You really need to start a blog so you can tell someone who cares.’ ”
So in 2010 she started Venzedits, where she posted pictures of herself in various outfits, hoping to promote her jewelry and offer her services as a personal shopper. But all too quickly she found the blog worked against her. After seeing a dress or a pair of shoes in one of her posts, prospective clients would go out and buy the item on their own. This didn’t frustrate her as much as it did Baxter, who was pursuing his MBA at SMU’s Cox School of Business and felt that she was working for free. After the blog had been up nearly eight months, the couple was sitting at a Starbucks on Knox Street when Baxter asked her how it would ever make money. He had recently learned, he told her, about affiliate marketing, the profit engine behind countless online services—everything from airfare discount websites like Priceline to the music app Shazam. Could she use a similar approach?
Affiliate marketing is almost as old as the Internet; it developed back in 1994 thanks to pornography sites, and it was implemented by Jeff Bezos at Amazon shortly afterward. Here’s how it works: Say you search for flights on Priceline. The hyperlinked airfare results aren’t just any old links. They’re affiliate links. The act of clicking one saves a Priceline cookie to your browser before sending you on to the airline’s website. If you buy the ticket, the airline website will see Priceline’s cookie and will pay Priceline a commission. Affiliate marketing companies like Commission Junction and Linkshare, which created these trackable links, were aimed at developers. A company called Skimlinks made them easier to implement, but it didn’t focus on the fashion market. Baxter, who had interned at a tech start-up in San Francisco, saw an opportunity. If they could make it easy for bloggers to integrate affiliate links to retailers into their posts, everyone involved stood to profit. Retailers could make more sales. Bloggers could earn commissions. And a company that facilitated the transaction and negotiated the commission could take part of the proceeds. After all, many prominent bloggers were already including retail links in their #OOTD (“outfit of the day”) posts anyway.
Sitting at Starbucks, Amber could immediately envision the company. She decided it should be called rewardStyle, and while she was designing the logo on a napkin, Baxter used his iPhone to register the domain name. By February 2011, they had a test platform for the site. She reached out to a few blogger friends and asked them to try it out. “You don’t have to pay anything, you don’t have to sign any contracts, you just have to see if you start making money,” Amber said. One of the first users was Karen Blanchard, from Where Did U Get That (@karenbritchick, 14k), who immediately made money. She shared rewardStyle with Jenn Camp, of Le Fashion (@lefashion, 39k); Olsens Anonymous (@olsensanonymous, 66k); and a contributing editor at Who What Wear (@whowhatwear, 677k), a blog started by former staffers at Elle. Jenn shared it with Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine, who later shared it with Emily Weiss, of Into The Gloss (@IntoTheGloss, 162k). Before long, the number of those who wanted in was exploding. The more publishers Amber signs on, the more leverage she has to negotiate higher commissions with brands. If a blogger helps sell an item, she receives a commission of up to 20 percent (The average commission, rewardStyle said, is 13 percent. The company also receives its own commission from brands, though it will not disclose its rate). Karen then asked Amber to be compensated for her recommendations, and so began the referral program: if you recommend someone, rewardStyle pays you a percentage of its earnings off that person for a year.
Click here for the Blogger Field Guide.
Bloggers had long been creating content; now, remarkably, it was earning them cash. “She looked at a group of individuals who were easily exploited,” said Ruthie Friedlander, the deputy editor of Elle.com, “and said, ‘Let’s figure out how to make these people money.’ ”
Every morning Amber made a list of brands and publishers she wanted to recruit, and she sat in bed emailing people until lunch. One such blogger, for example, was Blair Eadie, of Atlantic-Pacific (@blaireadiebee, 479k). A director of accessories for Tory Burch and a former merchandiser at Gap, Blair’s #OOTD pictures received more than two million page views a month. When Amber finally got her on the phone, Blair was dubious; she didn’t think her readers came to her blog to shop. But Amber persisted, and the next day, Blair included a rewardStyle link when she posted a picture of herself wearing a striped ASOS Peter Pan dress. By the following morning, Amber said, thousands of Blair’s readers had clicked on the affiliate link sending them to ASOS, and 83 of them had bought her exact dress.
Amber had also met reality-star-in-the-making Courtney Kerr, lending her jewelry and helping her select up to eight outfits for her appearances on the Bravo TV series Most Eligible Dallas. Now, as filming wrapped, Amber urged Courtney to start a blog, telling her she had to “harness the celebrity that was about to happen.” But Courtney didn’t even own a computer; the night before the show’s premiere, in August 2011, she still hadn’t started anything. Amber took charge, staying up late designing a logo on PowerPoint while she watched a preview of the pilot, hitting pause to snap photographs of Courtney on TV. That very night Amber posted the pictures, cataloging the components of every outfit (with links, of course) on a blog she titled What Courtney Wore.
“I remember when I told my boyfriend and my mom that first month that I did more than ten thousand dollars in commission,” Courtney told me over drinks at a Dallas bar called the Rustic. “They were like, ‘I’m sorry, from your blog? But how?’ And I’m like, ‘From the clicking! From those clicks!’ ”
Soon enough Amber and Baxter had to hire an account manager. So that the new employee wouldn’t have to work from Amber’s bed, Baxter insisted that they rent a tiny studio space at Mockingbird Station, and in October he quit his job to devote himself to the company full-time. Affiliate marketing, it turned out, was more profitable than they’d imagined. One or 2 percent of readers who click on an affiliate link end up buying something, though only 3 percent of those individuals end up buying the exact item they clicked on initially. But bloggers earn a commission on a reader’s entire purchase, as long as the shopper doesn’t click on another affiliate link (a browser can hold only one cookie at a time, and it typically doesn’t expire for up to thirty days). The winner—that is, the blogger with the last affiliate link clicked before a reader checks out at a retailer’s site—takes all.
Before long, traditional publishers wanted in on the action. In April 2012, after Amber was invited to speak at a Lucky Fabb bloggers conference, a representative from the investment group for Condé Nast asked for a private meeting. Soon Amber had signed up Vogue, Teen Vogue, and Glamour as clients. Elle UK used a rewardStyle link in a three-hundred-word blog post on Rihanna’s collection for River Island and earned an estimated $33,500. “You’ll be hard-pressed to find a blogger—and even now a publisher—who doesn’t use rewardStyle,” Friedlander told me. “What Amber has created is really powerful, and she almost has a monopoly on the industry.”
A COUPLE OF MONTHS after rSTheCon, on a muggy Thursday in June, Amber retrieved me from the frosted-glass waiting room of her new headquarters, just south of Highland Park, and gave me a tap-tap hug. Her black-and-white Proenza Schouler minidress had the structural angles of an envelope, and her legs looked endless as she stood six feet one in her cream-colored Zara strappy-sandal heels. She punched a code into a keypad, then whisked me through to the inner sanctum, where thirty or so shiny-haired women—account consultants and marketing reps, all apparently impervious to the humidity—were working in two airy rooms. All but 3 people in the 87-person company are under thirty. Amber asked if I would care for a beverage and took me to the kitchen, which was stocked with Frappuccinos, Cokes, and—her breakfast of choice—Diet Dr Pepper.
“This was kind of a cool piece for us,” Amber said, pointing at an amateurish painting. Back when she and Baxter had rented their first office, he had budgeted only $800 for furnishings, so Amber had painted their logo on an old canvas. The e at the end looked a little vulnerable. Now it appeared to be the only personal touch in the headquarters.
Folks in tech often like to refer to themselves as “disrupters” with a dose of self-satisfaction, and Amber is prone to this too. (“One of the great things about you guys in this room,” she’d said during rSTheCon, “is that you’re all under thirty. We’re the disrupters.”) But even more disruptive than the company’s youth is its location. “I grew up in Manhattan, so I’m pretty snobby,” Friedlander told me. “You wouldn’t assume that someone from Dallas with fiery red hair and big lashes would be the brains behind something so huge.” Michael Harper, the co-founder of Into The Gloss, agreed. “They positioned themselves very quickly with the cream-of-the-crop fashion, and they weren’t in New York or Paris. Now they have an office in London, but they’re bringing fashion people to Dallas.”
These roots, in fact, may very well be one of rewardStyle’s key advantages. Texas does not have the complicated Nexus laws that twelve states have passed, requiring retailers to pay taxes on their affiliate commissions. And while being based in Dallas can make hiring the necessary web developers for a start-up more difficult, it also, thankfully, makes it more difficult for competitors to then poach them. “We had to overcome a lot of obstacles not being in Silicon Valley,” Baxter said. “But we thought Dallas had the right ingredients, and we wanted to make this a tech hub.”
Meanwhile, by offering entrée to a rarefied community—rewardStyle boasts that it is invitation-only and reviews up to one hundred blogger applications a day—Amber has created a kind of clique. While rewardStyle’s main rivals, affiliate marketing giants Skimlinks and VigLink, work with more brands and more publishers, there’s no contest when it comes to fashion. “I’ve never even heard of the others,” said Aimee Song. Austin lifestyle blogger Camille Styles (@camillestyles, 31k) was initially wary of affiliate marketing but was won over by Amber’s intelligence. When asked whether she considered other affiliate companies, she said, “I haven’t because my experience with the rewardStyle team has been so positive from the beginning.”
And though rewardStyle likes to tout its high-end, industry-acclaimed publishers, like Into The Gloss and Man Repeller—which have their own staff writers, ad sales staff, accountants, and developers and whose business models are not primarily dependent on affiliate links—its real impact is on smaller bloggers, enabling them to earn money with links while they build their audience. “I wouldn’t be blogging if it wasn’t for rewardStyle,” said A Dash of Details’s Ali Bronska (@adashofdetails, 2k), who earns between $200 and $500 per month. She’d been wait-listed to attend the conference, yet her blog, with less than one percent of the traffic of a traditional magazine website’s, can be more than 75 times as powerful at driving sales.
For brands, those analytics are invaluable. Saks Fifth Avenue, for instance, “takes their affiliate business with rewardStyle very, very, very seriously,” a former employee told me. Nordstrom has built out an entire team at its headquarters, in Seattle, to work with rewardStyle, and when asked how long bloggers had been a part of their marketing strategy, a Nordstrom representative at rSTheCon said, “Basically since the existence of rewardStyle.”
Because brands kept asking rewardStyle for collaboration recommendations, Amber and Baxter started an agency service in 2012 to pair brands with bloggers based on analytics. Want a blogger that converts well with $100 items? How about someone who can amp up your edginess? Or reach Mormon shoppers around Salt Lake City? In April 2012 rewardStyle opened an office in London to serve its burgeoning clientele in the UK, Germany, Russia, and Sweden. And it did not stop there. Last fall, when it had become clear that audiences were engaging less with blogs and more with Instagram accounts—which don’t support links—Amber and Baxter scheduled a trip to Marfa with the express mission of cracking Instagram. They had to innovate, they realized, or become obsolete. The couple returned with the concept for LIKEtoKNOW.it, a service that sends an email to its registered users when they like a photo on Instagram. The email contains sleek, clickable thumbnail images of the clothes (which are affiliate-linked, of course). RewardStyle’s team of developers, nearly thirty total at this point, built the app in a matter of months and officially launched it in March 2014. On May 28 Vogue announced to its two million Instagram followers that its Instagram was now shoppable through LIKEtoKNOW.it. A day later, stories sprang up about the service in places like the Huffington Post, the Daily Mail, and Women’s Wear Daily.
It was a huge coup for rewardStyle and a bold move for Vogue; essentially the magazine was asking its audience to register with rewardStyle’s independent app. More than 24,000 users liked Vogue’s first Instagram post using LIKEtoKNOW.it, which was of a woman wearing two silk Steven Alan scarves braided together as a belt. And as the number of LIKEtoKNOW.it users surpassed one million, it was rumored that Elle and Vanity Fair would soon follow suit. Though some wondered if this kind of partnership would put bloggers out of business, Amber was unconcerned. So far, she told me, no traditional publication has made rewardStyle’s list of the top 25 earners. “It depends how they use it,” she said. And so far, that’s not been very much.
That she is the president of a fashion empire doesn’t appear to faze Amber very much either—though it’s hard to say, since her carefully curated image doesn’t allow for any signs of anxiety. Back at rewardStyle headquarters, we made our way to her all-white office, where the only decoration was a $65 Carpe Diem candle, one of the many that had been doled out for free at the conference. Amber’s hair, always perfect in pictures, was today in a messy topknot. It was the color of bright-red rust, a color you have to dress around—just as Amber does, essentially restricting her palette to black, white, gray, and the primary trifecta: red, yellow, and blue. “I’ve built my whole wardrobe around having red hair, so I actually don’t think I’ll ever let it go back.” Back because, though it’s her signature look, it isn’t natural. She dyes it herself every three weeks.
“For the first six months of rewardStyle, I had long, straight, blond hair, and I looked like a Highland Park cheerleader. And I realized there were a million blond girls with blogs and I wanted to differentiate myself.” (Incidentally, that seems to be the way other members of the Dallas fashion elite, including Sea of Shoe’s Jane Aldridge and stylist Taylor Tomasi Hill, have chosen to differentiate themselves too.)
Of course, even in a field that trades on imagery, running a start-up inevitably takes a visible toll. Amber’s fingernails, she pointed out, were “totally foul,” though they didn’t seem bad. “I just don’t make time for those sorts of things—the sit-and-do-nothing things,” she said. “I don’t dry my hair before I come into work.” She hadn’t seen Baxter since the day before, even though they work in the same office and, as of the weekend after the conference, were newlyweds.
Yes, even their wedding had had to be crammed into their schedules. In March, after Amber had spent a month at the London office, traveling for meetings in seven countries, she’d arrived home on a Sunday, gone straight to work on Monday, and then, after leaving the office at five and arriving at Baxter’s, he proposed amid rose petals in his all-white living room before they went to meet her family for dinner at eight. They were planning to travel to Cabo at the end of April for a work trip in which they treated the top five bloggers to an all-expense-paid getaway. Baxter suggested they tack their wedding onto the trip’s end. It would be a small affair (“no new friends”) on the side of a hill overlooking the ocean.
Amber had looked at wedding dresses on her iPhone during panels at South by Southwest and in between a Pinterest Barbecue and a cocktail party with Nasty Gal president Sophia Amoruso. But she ended up designing one herself, a dress that required sixty hours of manual labor to burn a flower pattern into silk. After the final event of rSTheCon, Amber rushed over to a dress fitting, only to find that her gown still needed work. With an hour to pack before leaving for the airport, Amber broke down in tears; she arrived in Cabo without a casual white dress for the wedding’s all-white after-party. Still, amid the stress, Amber stayed true to form: the ceremony was branded, hashtagged #TheBoxKnot, and accented with “A&B” napkins and swizzle sticks and cornhole sacks. She posted an image to Instagram: she was leading Baxter across the lawn, her lips painted to match her rust-red hair.
WHEN BLOGGERS upended the power structures of the fashion world, it was because readers were looking for slightly more-realistic models and fresher, more-accessible outfit ideas. RewardStyle succeeded in large part because of Amber’s keen understanding of this desire for authenticity. “Amber is like a Southern mom, because she’s so friendly,” Aimee Song told me. “She’s never too in-your-face pushing a product. I think maybe that has something to do with growing up in Dallas. I love that she’s keeping it organic and authentic instead of moving to somewhere else.”
And yet, as affiliate marketing expands, the line between editorial and advertising is quickly growing blurred. The average person, for example, does not know that by clicking around on a favorite blog, she is creating commissions or that her clicks might in turn influence what a blogger chooses to spotlight. “If you’re talking about consumers, I don’t think anyone realizes that it’s happening,” said Teen Vogue’s features editor Jessica Pels, standing on the Astroturf at the Kate Spade cocktail party.
That raises some ethical questions. According to the Federal Trade Commission, bloggers are supposed to disclose that they’re making money off the links, but many don’t. And when Vogue announced its shoppable Instagrams, the fact that the magazine would earn a commission was not necessarily transparent. “Hypothetically, is the consumer going to understand, ‘Well, they’re providing a link, so of course they’re getting a cut’?” said Mary Engle, the FTC’s director of advertising practices. “It certainly raises issues on the editorial side.”
The FTC has taken action against several companies that were promoting their products through blogger “brand evangelists.” In February 2013, for example, the FTC sent a closing letter, essentially a warning, to Nordstrom Rack after the company hosted a “TweetUp” preview of a new store opening in Boise, Idaho; bloggers were given $50 gift certificates for attending and tweeting about it. The offense was that Nordstrom Rack didn’t tell bloggers to disclose that they were getting gifts. RewardStyle—perhaps unwittingly—may make similar breaches easy. When asked about disclosure, Amber said, “Since it is varied by state, we link out to the most updated rules and laws and just say that it’s really up to the publisher to maintain.”
The real casualty of affiliate marketing, however, may not be ethics at all but the very authenticity that rewardStyle built itself on. Now that the blog market is saturated, smaller bloggers covet brand collaborations as a credential. Ali Bronska, for instance, explained to me that she would love to work with Kate Spade. “Brand partnership validates you. It says you’re legit.” Amber, for her part, encourages her publishers to blog about the brands that they want to work with so that they pop up on the brands’ analytics bar. When one popular rewardStyle blogger became so successful featuring outfits under $100 that she was suddenly able to incorporate more-expensive clothing, Amber quickly intervened. “All of a sudden, her earnings are going down with us,” Amber recalled. “So we had to say, ‘You’re not converting whenever you show the Tibi or the McQueen or whatever else, because your reader is only spending a hundred dollars or less online at any given time. You got rich, but your readers didn’t.’ ”
Still, for now, the business model is exhilarating and empowering, and almost no one is complaining. In 2013, after Courtney Kerr (@thecourtneykerr, 214k) made a splash with What Courtney Wore, Bravo aired an eight-episode reality show called Courtney Loves Dallas, a spin-off premised on her career as a blogger (complete with segments on a balloon-bubble-bath photo shoot and Courtney’s blowout fight with her best friend over a Botox birthday gift). During the run of the show, last December and January, her blog garnered two million page views a month and she earned a commission of close to six figures. “I’ve been in the top ten bloggers for rewardStyle every month since then, and if one month I wasn’t in it, I’d probably cry,” Courtney told me. When asked how much she makes each month, she said, “More than some people’s starting salary.”
“I can appreciate how well things have been going for the past year,” she continued, “because what I made in December was more than my annual salary three years out of college. I know what it’s like to be a bargain-basement girl. I know what it’s like to be blue collar. So I wonder, if bloggers, when they’re twenty-three—I’ll use Rach Parcell, from Pink Peonies [@pinkpeonies, 186k], as an example—are making this much now, what are they going to be making when they’re my age, in nine years? And all from playing dress-up in our closets. It’s kind of narcissistic if you think about it.”
It is interesting—and perhaps inevitable—that as rewardStyle grows, the company has nevertheless begun to veer away from its upstart, scrappy roots to vie for a new, even more sophisticated image. Longtime brand partner Kate Spade, for example, has apparently lost some of its luster. “Kate Spade is one of our top affiliates, but it’s really not that special,” said Kaetlin Andrews, the public relations manager for rewardStyle, when I asked her if I could interview someone from Kate Spade before the conference. “You’re going to see a lot of growth in the top tier over the next six months—Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton. Next year, we’re going to have lots of collaborations and partnerships that completely trump Kate Spade. Which is not to knock them—we love them and they do well for us.”
Amber, as usual, is likely on to something. At the culminating party for rSTheCon, held at the Saint Ann Restaurant and Bar, I ran into a senior fashion editor for a major magazine who confirmed that Amber’s instincts were spot-on. The event was sponsored by THEOUTNET.COM, Net-a-Porter’s sale site, in celebration of its fifth birthday, and beyond the dessert offerings by the door—mini key lime pies, cannoli, brownie bites—stood a fallowing fajita station. The editor, nursing a drink, looked around at the bloggers in attendance and let out a laugh. “You know,” she said, “if anyone from the New York fashion world were here right now, they’d take one look around and say, ‘What a bunch of basic bitches.’ ”
And so Amber continues to work, continues to curate, continues to refine her image. At the rewardStyle headquarters, she walked me through a suite full of construction; the company was doubling its Dallas office space. A worker was half hidden in the ceiling, and Amber, in her heels, carefully sidestepped some nails on the unfinished concrete floor. Baxter, in the meantime, was holed away downstairs with the developers and two out-of-towners, preparing for a huge new launch.
“My old friends wonder why I don’t respond immediately to them. They don’t understand,” Amber said. “I literally sent a screenshot to someone the other day of my phone, and there’s one hundred and seven unread text messages, over thirty thousand unread emails.” She jogged the photo up on her iPhone and slid it across the table toward me. Then, because she was late to an afternoon meeting, she escorted me out past the conference room, where a new wave of hires was watching a PowerPoint presentation on the site design of NewYorker.com.
Later I would learn that she and Baxter were working on an updated app that would provide LIKEtoKNOW.it users with the kind of powerful analytics that had made rewardStyle links so successful. But I wouldn’t get to ask Amber about it, because she was too busy, as I soon discovered on my own iPhone. There was Amber, in a headpiece, toasting her twenty-seventh birthday in Oaxaca with Baxter, Julie Sariñana , and Sariñana’s photographer boyfriend (@temocgee, 14k). There was Amber, on a flight to San Francisco (“On a rocketship with @baxterbox // #SF”). There was Amber wearing a $1,000 LUBLU dress on the streets of Dallas. There was Amber glamping with designer Cynthia Vincent (@cynthiavincent, 16k) on the California coast. There was Amber, just as she wanted to be seen, on Instagram.
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