We’ve interviewed stylists and editors and publicists and designers, but we’ve never entered the world of blogging, or even the internet for a Life With.
So welcome to the world of Who What Wear.
We know you love their site. We love their site. And I made it a priority to sit down with Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power while in LA at the end of July to learn how they left the world of print and moved onto the internet. And more importantly, how they ended up putting together one of the most successful fashion sites among the millions.
Inside, how they blew up, where they’re going and what the launch of their book means
How did you start? The basics: Where are you from?
H:I’m from San Diego, originally, and I went to college in LA.
Where’d you go?
H: USC. And then I graduated a semester early and moved to Australia and got an internship at Marie Claire and loved it. So I applied to grad school in New York and went to NYU. I’d studied British Literature in college and then got my masters in journalism.
H: I was hired by Elle a couple of weeks after I graduated. It was great timing, very fortuitous. I’d done a lot of internships: InStyle in LA and NY, Bazaar, San Diego Magazine and then Marie Claire in Sydney so that definitely helped. I started at Elle in the features department and worked there for a number of years before I decided to come out to LA and just write. I could see that as you moved higher up in magazines you’d end up doing more editing and less actual writing and you’re not able to go out on those wild and crazy stories, which are what I really love, so I decided to go freelance when I was twenty-five and move to LA. My first project was creating these two mini-magazines for Elle about Project Runway Season Two. The first thing I had to go to was the LA open call’s and that’s where I met Katherine, because Katherine was the west coast editor for Elle and ElleGirl and she and Tim Gunn were judging the open calls. So we met there.
Cool. Okay now your turn.
K: I’m originally from Orange Country. I grew up there and in LA. I didn’t go to college, I worked and got fantastic jobs, eventually as the west coast editor for Elle..
What kind of fantastic jobs?
K: I worked for a film producer, I worked for an art consultant; I was literally the youngest person to work at Touchstone that wasn’t an actor. And then I ended up getting a job at Bolthouse, which is a special events company you may know from The Hills. I was there for about four years; I was basically in charge of inviting celebrities to events and creating the guest list. I made a lot of connections through that and parlayed them into becoming the west coast editor for Elle and Elle Girl because I was brought on board for Elle Girl to book the covers and book all the celebrity stories. So from there I was immersed in the world of these tastemakers with great access to everything and I could report back to Elle about, you know, new stores, new hotels, the first person to eat at a restaurant or whatever. (And a lot of fashion too!)
I was gonna say did you always sort of have an interest in fashion?
K: I did. When I was at Bolthouse, I started their branding division. I had a lot of clothing and drink companies or music labels coming to me saying I want to put my product or my clothing in your venue at an event. Or can you help me get my clothing to these celebrities that are your friends or whatever it was so I was like, “Well, I will, but I’ll charge you for it.” So then I started working with fashion brands that way and I knew I really wanted to work on a teen magazine. I just contacted the two that I wanted to work for and ended up meeting with someone from Hachette. Elle was looking for someone at that point, and ElleGirl was also looking, so it just worked out and it was awesome. When they folded ElleGirl and put it online only, Hilary and I had become friends and we started to see the trend in magazines going out of business and websites becoming really important.
Entrance to the Who What Wear house
So when was that?
K: I guess that was 2006. It was the peak of Perez and the height of the weekly;s popularity that had been happening for about a year and a half at that point. Besides wanting to move into online, we also saw a void. You know, we would look at the weekly magazines just to see what everybody was wearing or go to Perez just to check out the outfits
I totally did that.
K: But we weren’t interested in the gossip (I mean, the gossip is fine)!
I mean isn’t that what everyone does with US Weekly? No one actually reads it.
H: If the picture’s taken tomorrow you won’t see it in Vogue or Elle or wherever for three months. So now, you’d see them online immediately and be like “Oh who makes that bag?” Or, “Look at how she’s wearing this put together,” but no one was really addressing the fashion, celebrity fashion, in that of-the- moment way.
So, how did you guys do it? Were you still at Elle at this point?
K: No, we both left. Hillary moved back out here to go freelance..
The Who What Wear book
Were you freelancing, too?
K: No, I basically went right from Elle into this. So I think, I can’t remember what date it folded, but we started working on this August of 2006. We knew we wanted something really clean looking, very simple and easy to use. And we came up with story titles like Beauty Board, Trend Report, Time Out Corner etc. The first step was to really brainstorm what kind of information we wanted to share. And then of course to tie runway to celebrity.
H: And also how to make it accessible. At least for me, though I came up in the fashion magazine world, I found it really intimidating, and I think a lot of women do. I thought it was important to really create something that people would be inspired by and then break it down and make it accessible so that they both understood and felt like they could participate – even if they weren’t necessarily a sample size. We wanted it to be sort of funny and not so serious. Fashion magazines are so often talking down to women and like assuming they’d leave the house with two different color shoes on if left to their own devices, or conversely it’s so insider-y that you feel excluded, so we wanted something that was not those things.
K: And Hillary’s a brilliant writer, she does the majority of the writing on the site and so the voice we chose was that of the fashion forward friend that everyone wants. You know the person that you go to and say, “Okay I have this coming up, what should I wear?” Or, “Do you know where Mary Kate Olsen got those shoes she was wearing last night?” That sort of friend that everyone wishes they had.
Did you guys work on building that voice? Or did it just sort of naturally come out?
H: I think it just kind of came out.
K: It’s just how we talk. It’s not a blog. We were sure of that from the beginning, that we didn’t want to speak to people in such a personal way about our thoughts and feelings. Everything is thoroughly reported, it’s more of news. I think we figured that out very quickly, and Hillary, coming from a professional journalism background, it’s very important that we fact check everything and that everything was totally thought through and researched, so the friendly voice balances that out.
How much time passed between the idea to the first day?
H: August to October, so not very long, we got a programmer involved, because we didn’t know about business, and we knew nothing about the internet.
Did you get a financial backer? Did you just do your own thing?
H: No, we started it ourselves.
Do you know Photoshop or stuff like that?
H: Katharine taught me Photoshop.
K: I really taught myself Photoshop! Then we found a programmer that’s been with us since the very beginning, who was able to create a content management system that’s for dummies (it’s for us!)
So the site officially launched in October 06?
H: Yes. And then in November, we sent it to about two hundred of our closest friends and family, some of my editor friends, Katherine’s friends, everyone, our small contact list.
Small, but major?
Yeah, I guess, editors and celebrities and all of that but it was really small but that was it and we have over a hundred thousand subscribers now and we’ve never spent any money on marketing, or advertising. It’s all just been literally word of mouth.
That’s what’s so crazy about online…
H: Which is nice, we didn’t really know what we were doing and we’d only thought about it in terms of the newsletter, like Daily Candy, but it’s amazing because we have these hundred thousand subscribers who get the daily story delivered to them, but then we also have a ton of people who just go to the website. It’s been a learning experience.
K: And you know, our message throughout was always if we didn’t have anything nice to say we wouldn’t say anything. So you’ll never see anyone shown in a negative light
H: We love snark, but there’s a place for it.
You guys don’t have any!
H: There’s a place for it and…
I have plenty.
H: And I enjoy reading it! But we just decided that this would be our point of view and our point of view would be positive. And from that we had a lot of celebrities reading and supporting us just because we didn’t ever show them in a bad way. Plus , they’re curious too. They want to know what everyone else is wearing.
So after the launch, when did you notice you were really expanding and needed a house full of interns?
H: We’ve always been intern-powered.
Yeah, so are we. Interns are the best.
H: Katherine had a ton of internships, I obviously had a ton of internships – I think they’re so incredibly important and interns have always been integral to our sort of viral marketing.
And then advertisers start calling. Did you know how to deal with that?
K: Not at all.
H: We had to Google what an RFP was.
Who What Wear Trend Report
It’s totally separate on our site, we don’t deal with ads at all.
H: That’s the thing, it’s very church and the state: advertising and editorial. But we had to figure it all out; we handled it until just a year ago.
And you brought someone on to do it?
K: Yeah, but all the advertising was inbound. It was crazy…
H: We didn’t even know what we wanted. We were just proud that we could upload the stories and then create and transfer it to the newsletter. The day I learned how to make things italic, that was very exciting.
There is so much to learn online and there’s something invaluable about having to learn it yourself.
H: Exactly, we were just figuring it out as we were going which made it go so much faster. Plus, it’s really important to be internet and web savvy in this day and age. The dot com side of magazines used to be like the red headed stepchild, and now it’s one of their booming businesses in terms of advertisers.
How did you decide to do the Who What Wear TV series?
K: At that point we’d gotten a few investors and one was in the internet video business. We’d always wanted to branch out into other mediums and he was able to help us make a pilot and explain how all of that works. So we shot our first pilot at H&M! We have it down now; we just finished this back to school special and we have it down to a science and we can shoot like six episodes in two days, but it took a lot to try and figure it out.
Shoes in the closet
What was the biggest challenge?
H: It used to take us a week to do one! Doing it all ourselves in the beginning, when it was we did our own makeup and hair and styled ourselves and pulled the outfits and wrote the script and dressed the set and then had to return everything and did the credits and the music and the editing. I mean, it was a lot to do in itself and then of course we’d lose the whole workday. We had some lovely interns, but now that we’re a little more sophisticated we have a whole team in place to help with each individual thing which makes the quality better and keeps us far less stressed in general. It’s still very hands-on.
Is it weird to be on camera?
H: Katherine’s a natural, like brilliant, natural..
K: I’d done a lot of stuff for Elle, so I felt comfortable with it, and Hillary was so nervous, but she comes off so well.
You both do!
K: Hillary, honestly, you are so good. You are so warm and nice, which I’m like the opposite. She’s like overly nice and sunny and I’m just like the opposite so it’s a good balance but, now do you feel very comfortable doing it?
H: More so, it’s just like, there’s that vanity side of it that you have to sort of ignore because it’s like, “Oh God terrible camera angle,” or whatever and that part is hard. Being judged on your looks is hard.
No one really knew what I looked like for awhile, and it was a lot nicer that way.
H: It’s hard, because you read the comments, and…
But your commenters are sweet.
H: Not all, oh no, I’m very anti-censorship so I let all, let the comments ride..
So do we, until they’re like “Die!”
K: For the first time we’re having comments on our videos, for this back to school one, so we’ll see how that goes.
H: It’s definitely been a learning experience. You know, when we started they were scripted. I’d write a script but I’m awful at memorizing so it was terrible. Now we just wing it, which is much better.
So what was the goal of the TV segments?
H: Our problem is that we have too many ideas and too many things that we like and want to show, so there’s always all of this information that we have that we can’t really address and so with WhoWhatWearTV we wanted to be able to sort of address style situations as well as trends as well as whatever doing runway to real way all of that stuff. Beauty and hair, all of that stuff, you can write about something, but sometimes it’s just so much to see it, or to like to see how to wrap a scarf, you need the visual.
Try and give me an idea of what you do on a day?
H: Well, assuming that we’re not in production for the web series, Katherine’s not shooting an editorial, I’m not writing the book…with whatever, just a regular work day?
Interns hard at work
K: Well, I’ll tell you what we’re doing today. So I started at like eight o’clock, at home, editing through our August editorial images, because we do original fashion editorials every month now. I went through all of the images and narrowed them down to the best, sent them to the retoucher to prepare them for the site. And then I watched the first episode of our back to school special to give my final notes on the edit.
Are you still at home or are you here now?
Still at home at this point. I spent a little time trying to find appropriate music for the series and then I had to speak with Bloomingdales about another upcoming special they’re doing to lock in the schedule. Then I rushed here and answered a couple of emails and now I’m with you, and then when I finish I will probably go look at another edit of the show, help the graphic person with the What Was She Wearing Alexa Chung art and our September fashion story.
You guys are doing one a month?
K: Yeah, September’s obviously the big fall fashion story, so we’re inviting four of our favorite fashion bloggers to be the models to star in our editorial.
H: It’s going to be so fantastic.
K: So we talked to them today to lock in the date and everything. Then I have to go back to Bloomingdale’s with some more information about their special and it just keeps going!
H: I do. Katherine is the creative director and I’m the editorial director, so we’re in each other’s business all day long, bouncing ideas off of each other, looking at things, editing things, editing each other’s work, whatever it is. But primarily, Katherine deals with anything visual I deal with written, that’s kind of an easy way to…
K: She dealt with the book more. I deal more with the videos and TV.
H: So, it’s like, with me, you know, we don’t have a copy editor, we don’t have a fact checker. Up until May of last year, I wrote every story that’s on the site and uploaded all of them. Now I have Kate, my assistant, who’s an amazing writer and taken on a lot of the writing for the site.
Are your assistants interns?
H: No, we have, it’s Meeka, our COO, Shayna, our director of ad sales who lives in New York, me and Katherine, Christian, who does our graphics and arts and layouts, Kate who is primarily edit with me, and Liza, who works with Katherine, and those are all full time.
Is that, eight?
H: I think that’s seven.
K: And then we have a bunch of freelance people and we have a bunch of interns.
How far in advance do you plan your stories?
H: Oh I think we – I’ll show you, we have four months mapped out.
Jewelry in the closet
Oh my God!
H: Yes, but that said, not everything is spoken for. There are always blanks and things move around, now we have about forty stories that are repeating so we sort of slot them in. We might not know what the Go Buy Now is for September, because we’ll change our minds ten times before then, but we know that Shop the Closet always comes on the first Friday or the fashion story comes on the first day of the month. We have very specific stories that we cover…we do a Model Off Duty every month, Girl of the Moment etc. so we have all of these stories planned. And then we also have pieces that come up at the last minute – the trend reports, the accessory reports, all that stuff how they wear, and yet, we’re constantly shifting things around because we really do research and report the stories and we call in product and shoot it, so sometimes, like, the person that we’re interviewing hasn’t gotten us something so it’s like moving something around. Nicole’s [Chavez] story, she was so incredibly on top of it and so lovely and has such great taste that it made it incredibly easy for us to do a stylist pics with her and that story got moved up by a week. We always have an idea of what’s happening, but things change.
You guys go to Fashion Week, but the site is so current and Fashion Week is so far ahead?
K: Yeah, well we obviously don’t have the same lead time, but we go to see what the trends are going to be.
H: And we cover what people wear to Fashion Week at the time, so we always do a What They Wore…It’s nice because then we do a sort of backstage, like the models, because we’ve always been interested in that sort of model off duty style. That Alexander Wang phrase that just keeps on going…
K: This year, this season, we’ll have our book launch there.
That’s really exciting!
H: Yeah, we’re going to have a cocktail party and then a book signing at Charlotte Ronson’s store.
That’ll be so much fun. Tell me about the book, how’d that come about?
H: Oh, well let me grab it. We have our first couple of copies and it’s amazing. Our literary editor found us maybe six months after the site went up; she approached us and asked if were were interested in turning the website into a book. She really liked the tone, and we were approached by a lot of people but we just loved her hustle and everything her agency touches turns into a giant mass explosion which is sort of what we were looking for. We’re not elitists! We want everybody to buy it!
It looks great!
H: Thank you. It’s sort of just a lot of our content, but a little more evergreen. We talk about inspiration, since that’s really the point of Who What Wear. Then there’s also a chapter is about great styles for every body, and then we talk about how to look like your celebrity doppleganger, but still look like yourself. And we have different girls trying different trends so if someone has your body type you can see how they’re wearing harem pants and what’ working and then you, too can wear the right harem pants.
K: So basically by the time you’re done reading you’ll know how to do these specific things.
H: And then in the back, one of the last chapters is called What to Wear Where, so we picked like twenty style situations and created an outfit for each one. Then we styled it on a model and wrote a blurb about what you should be looking for and what you should be looking out for. It’s one of those things…when you don’t live with roommates or your friends anymore there’s that moment when you’re getting ready for whether it’s a job interview or a date or a high school reunion and you’re trying on outfits and you’re like what am I supposed to wear to this? You want someone to bounce outfit ideas off of and we wanted the book to stand in for that. So you’re not lost!
It’s really exciting. Congratulations.
Fashion books are usually so serious and formal and we just wanted to make it accessible, so you can just throw it in your bag.
Are you guys getting excited for Fashion Week?
H: Yeah, I think it’ll be nice, we’ve got the parties and we’ve got a really great staff in place so then hopefully it won’t be so…Sometimes it can be really hectic for us because we’ll go to shows all day or we’ll try and shoot some episodes (which was like the worst idea). It turned out ok, but it was awful. And then we’re just…
Their September editorial
Like psychopaths? My friend had a flip cam last season and she started recording us in New York and then through London and Paris and by the end I was like a cracked out zombie.
H: Yeah, trying to shoot while we were there was awful because we were trying to run to the site at the same time.
This evolution, from a site to a newsletter to TV to book, was that always the plan?
K: Yes! We always wanted to turn this into a full blown magazine, and I guess those are all steps toward that.
H: Plus, no one’s really doing that online, original fashion editorials.
K: And again, we had so many, so much great fashion and so many great clothes, it was just another way to sort of promote more fashion.
H: Because you can shop everything that is in the story, which is my favorite part.
So to turn into a full blown magazine, what else do you need?
K: Well next we’re going to start shooting celebrities so we’ll have celebrity interviews and you know fashion stories with young upcoming celebrities. We’ll probably increase our daily content and have a lot more beauty content, basically just expanding upon what we already have.
H: We have a lot of tech advances in the works too
H: It’ll be more about how the site functions, making it easier to shop.
K: It’ll always have that very crisp clean easy to navigate home page, but in adding more features obviously we have to make some changes.
I always wish you guys did more each day. I’m always check back too, like in the hopes that maybe there’s something else, even though I know there’s not.
H: Well that’s lovely to hear!
It’s just really fun to look at.
H: Thank you. We feel like we exist in a vacuum so it’s nice to hear that.
Exactly. All you hear all day are your commenters who aren’t always positive. That’s the best thing about Fashion Week, getting feedback from your peers and those you look up to, because no one ever leaves a comment saying, “This is so great, I really enjoy reading this.”
H: One of my first jobs at Elle was editing the letters to the editor page and I very quickly realized that people are not compelled to comment or write in because they’re happy. It’s because they’re angry, so you know when a large percentage of the incoming mail was negative I knew it didn’t reflect anything about the magazine, the magazine’s amazing! Just like, you know when we get negative comments, we take that in stride, you listen to what people are asking for, but at the same time you have to take it with a grain of salt, or a salt shaker, in certain cases, because at the end of the day there a certain people who are compelled to write…
Why, when there are a bajillion fashion blogs, do you think you’ve been so successful?
K: I think it’s the voice, the look and the access. The readers don’t just know what what celebrities are wearing, they find inspiration and I think that’s a big one.
H: I think also, we have a very distinct point of view and I think a lot of times with main stream media things get watered down they have to cover a certain group of people or a specific brand because of their advertisers which in turn waters down the point of view. It’s like they’re strictly news and that’s so inclusive that you don’t get that very specific point of view. We’re essentially an indie mag with the freedom to really make it personal. It’s our point of view and we get to show the people who we love and who we don’t, just by not showing them.
You guys definitely have an easily identifiable style.
H: I think people trust us, because we’re consistent. Plus, it’s ours, so of course I think this… it’s beautiful, I think that…and we spend a tremendous amount of time sourcing photographs finding the best angle and the best way to put things together. Katherine has such an incredible aesthetic and I think that she’s imparted that on the site and that’s what people really respond to.
K: But I think our background helps – the fact that we came from regular magazines – and the celebrity endorsements along the way have obviously helped.
H: Yeah, celebrities have been really kind about participating and doing insiders picks or guess editors and…I also think it helps that. For example, we’ve been covering Alexa Chung forever, long before she got her MTV show, so now when American press is looking to find more information on her we have so much to offer. I mean she did insider pics for us ages ago and we’ve been sort of tracking her this whole time which gives us a certain validity or gravitas if you will.
It’s a kind of proof that you know what you’re talking about.
H: At the end of the day though, we really kind of write it and put it together and create it for ourselves, so we have to like it. We’re very proud of it and we really enjoy it. I mean we really love this stuff and I think people know that, as opposed to just like you know the job, the grind, this is our baby, we’ve put so much of our money, our time, blood sweet and tears into it. And I think, I hope, that’s apparent.
H: It’s been an incredible experience, I mean, I’ve never worked this hard in my entire life and I was no slouch in the work department before.
Would you ever go back to print?
K: I would never do anything that wasn’t my own. The thing is, we have so many other plans for the Who What Wear brand, so this is really just the beginning.
It’s a lot for the beginning.
H: I know! But it’s just the beginning!