It was September 2008 when a beautiful woman with shaggy brown and blonde hair sat next to model Erin Wasson front row at Alexander Wang. Who was that woman? And why was her every move being snapped by a handsome, burly man with a demeanor as carefree as the t-shirt and jeans he wore? Was he part of Getty, taking photos of the front row? And she: was she a celebutante, singer or actress?
They were neither: He was an amateur photographer and she was his girlfriend, a member of a small but quickly growing fashion blogging community online.
Together, they would become two of the most closely watched figures in fashion. Until, years later, they broke up, leaving one of them broken-hearted, and the other, a breakout star.
There is a golden rule in style blogging: you are nothing without your photographer. In the case of Rumi Neely, 31, it was clear that only when she decided to elevate the pictures on her blog, Fashion Toast, from selfies taken on low-quality cameras to beautifully shot editorials that she was able to go from small-time blogger to bona fide fashion star.
It was an idea that her then boyfriend, Colin Sokol, 33, brought up one day while he observed her taking photos of herself via a camera mounted on a tripod.
It was 2007 and Neely, a graduate of the University of California San Diego, was living in the quiet suburb of Mission Beach, Calif. She had set up an eBay store where she would sell vintage clothing she had picked up around town.
“It [consisted of] the best t-shirts and most perfect vintage Levi’s,” she recalled.
She’d post random entries like how she wears leggings, or outfits she recently purchased. She’d change into the looks, find a spot to shoot, set a timer, pose -- then, click!
“I was like, why don’t I just do it instead of you going through the trouble?” Sokol said. “I wasn’t a professional at all but the more I began shooting the more I became really good at it.”
So was born the beau-tographer, in which a man is fully employed by his girlfriend to be her full-time photographer. Some duties include: travel, editorial shots of outfits, daily location scouts, and consultations with the blog and business, among other tasks. While Neely, the muse, would gallivant around southern California in her outfits -- simple, chic and edgy -- Sokol would be her shadow, snapping her every move with a Canon 5D. They didn’t know it then, but they would be the creators of a new business model that others would emulate, one where the professional and personal -- and the lines between -- are blurred.
Among the top bloggers today, it is almost impossible to find a successful blog that does not have a boyfriend attached to the business: The Blonde Salad's Chiara Ferragni employs her now ex-lover/current manager, Riccardo Pozzoli, and her current boyfriend/photographer, Andrew Arthur; Song of Style's Aimee Song collaborates with her photographer/graphic artist beau, Wes Mason; Sincerely Jules's Julie Sarinana is managed by her boyfriend, Temoc Gonzalez.
"It works for these girls because who wouldn't want to be constantly told they are beautiful, have their egoes stroked, and have someone capture them in their best light?" said a blogger who wished to stay anonymous. "And for the boyfriends, they can tag along and travel the world while being with the girl of their dreams. It’s the best of both worlds."
To the rest of the world, these names are relatively obscure. But to the fashion universe, these bloggers are highly influential, mini-moguls and micro-celebrities in their own rights. They are of the fashion elite, those who are paid to wear clothing on their blogs. For instance, Rebecca Minkoff paid Neely $3,000 to model her denim line on the blogger's website, according to a source within the company.
Most of the top bloggers earn annual six-figure incomes, which excludes travel expenses when clients fly them out first class to exotic locales for various projects. A portion of the contract includes travel arrangements for their beau-tog as well.
“I once worked with Rumi on a project and she specifically said that her boyfriend needed to go,” said a fashion insider who would speak on the condition of anonymity. “I was like, why would anyone care that your boyfriend is coming other than you? They’re not paying him, they’re paying you. I refused to let him come.”
Though handlers may refuse these beau-togs to come along, bloggers insist that they do. Who else would capture their foreign adventures for their blogs?
“The thing about companies that they don’t understand is that Rumi and I were both partners in Fashion Toast,” Sokol said. “They needed me to be at fashion shows as well, or needed me to go on travel. There needed to be photos going along with the posts, so I don’t get where they think that’d come from other than her photographer.”
Sokol said that the profits were split in half unless one was booked for a individual gig.
A plus-one may be manageable, but a plus-two? Ferragni, of The Blonde Salad, is notorious for bringing both beau-tog, Arthur, and manager, Pozzoli, around the world with her.
At a stop in New York for this past season’s fashion week, Ferragni attended events with both in tow, like a party she hosted at the Backbar for a shoe collaboration between her site, The Blonde Salad, and shoe brand Steve Madden.
“They’re all sweethearts, they really are,” said a source close to the bloggers. “But it is quite awkward to watch them all in a taxi cab. Chiara’s in the middle sandwiched between her ex and manager on her left, and her boyfriend and photographer to her right. It gets tricky.”
Ferragni did not respond to Fashionista's request for an interview. Her handlers at Next Model Management, where she is signed, also refused her participation.
Ferragni and Pozzoli’s relationship was high profile enough to warrant a public release that announced their relationship was over. In the course of her career on The Blonde Salad, which launched in October 2009, the two were rarely seen apart. Ferragni was far from shy in promoting Pozzoli, who became her sidekick on her Instagram.
But in May of 2013 -- after six years of dating, graduating law school together in Milan and raising their pooch, Lady Matilda -- Ferragni posted a photo on her Instagram account that they had decided to part ways.
“It’s amazing how some people will always play a big role in your life,” she wrote on her Instagram @chiaraferragni. “Ricky and I are not in a relationship anymore but we still work together and we’re as close as ever. Don’t worry about us, you’ll keep seeing us together.”
Insiders say the relationship simply fizzled out and there were no hard feelings. Ferragni quickly moved on to Arthur, a California-based photographer, whom she met while on a shoot for the site WhoWhatWear early in 2013. Sparks flew immediately. In the next few months he would be fully employed as her new beau-tographer, traveling the world by her side. Indeed, the two went everywhere together during fashion week, Arthur even sharing front row seats with Ferragni at a few shows including En Noir.
“A lot of boyfriends, their job is to be the photographer. The difference for me is that my boyfriend never quit his [regular] job,” said Song about her other half, Mason, who used to frequently photograph her for Song of Style. “I never felt like I was making him work. We wouldn’t argue and bicker like others; we try to make it fun. It's so funny that blogging became work, you know?”
Song -- who has an Instagram following of 1.26 million -- has been dating Mason for the past five years. Her blog receives tens of thousands of page views per day. Up until last year, Mason was her full-time photographer. Mason has since left that post and is focusing on a brain game app, called Kick App, which he co-founded six months ago . “The reason why we’re together is because we love each other so much,” Song said. “I don’t treat him like he’s my employee or worker. I never once did pay my boyfriend like the other girls do. He’s never asked me because he takes my photos because he loves me.”
Song said she is hardly ever in Los Angeles, her home base, for more than six days at a time, which perturbs her managers.
Her latest travels were to South Africa where she and her sister, Dani, were invited by the country’s tourism board. With so much work and travel, maintaining any relationship has undoubtedly been difficult, she admitted, because of her tight schedule.
“We would see each other once a month, and literally in the past few months maybe even just an hour. Like literally, I’d go to the airport to see him for an hour,” she explained.
But there are many ways, she said, that they keep in touch.
“We've been together for five years; there are many ways,” she said. “We sext. Sext through Snapchat, FaceTime. We can phone sex too.”
Distance wasn’t an issue for Neely and Sokol, rather the opposite: being too close.
“With the whole boyfriend as photographer thing, he's always with you and he’s someone that's going to be around when you're wearing that outfit when you come across a location that's ideal to take pictures,” Neely said.
“I think that it can be tricky territory though. Everyone is different and I think that people who can figure out how to work together and maintain a healthy relationship are awesome. It's a little bit healthier to have some separation for me. A separation of church and state is what [my friend] Bryan[boy] always tells me to have.”
Before the two officially separated in June of 2012, they were making strides. Sokol shot a few campaigns with Neely as the subject. Both shot a promotional video for Ralph Lauren. Neely soon became a front row fixture at high-profile shows. After front row at Alexander Wang, other fashion houses came calling -- from London, Paris, Milan and Tokyo.
So when an announcement was made by The Cut of the separation -- with Neely confirming to the site that the split happened “a while ago” -- it was nothing short of a shock to the fashion blogging community.
“You know what? Rumi and I got into an argument about that,” Sokol recalled. “I didn't like that at all. I actually hadn't talked to her in a couple of months and then I called her and was like, why did you do this? Why didn't you warn me that you weren't going to do this but you did? I don't know, I think she did that because she was starting to date somebody else.”
Sokol attributed the relationship’s demise to a number of factors, but ultimately that they did not have enough time together.
“I really enjoyed photography and enjoyed running the blog with her. But things were getting too stressful. The amount of time it takes to run that is life-encompassing. It is her life. I had a take a step back and when I did, there wasn’t much time for us anymore.”
On his Instagram, Sokol repeatedly alleged that Neely had cheated on him.
Today, Neely has moved on to dating a new man named Christopher Dowson, a British graduate of Durham University who works in finance. Neely said the two met in Paris.
“He does travel with me and it makes it a less difficult,” she said. “He's not in the industry. He's self-employed. He has freedom to do whatever he wants.”
Sokol has moved on as well, and is working a 9-5 job in San Diego as an engineer, though he admitted it isn't a career path he necessarily enjoys.
“It’s not built into me,” he said. “Even before the blog I was a lot more nomadic than someone who stays in one place. The part I loved the most about the blog was going to new cities and meeting new people.”
Though Sokol has put his glamorous lifestyle in the past, he does have an itch to get back into it.
“If another blogger came up to me and was like, hey, I'd love to hire you as a photographer I'd probably do it. But not if [Neely] asked me to. That complicates things.” As for his love life -- it’s on hold.
“I’ve dated, but I’m still single,” he said. “My goal isn’t to meet someone these days. I know [Neely is] dating but I haven’t met the right person. For me, the way that I met her was, I don’t know, it was intense.”
He recalled a story from 10 years ago. It was in 2003 on a Tuesday or Thursday. He and his co-worker were out at a bar for happy hour drinks. The bar was crowded and loud, as these local spots often are. When the two decided to leave is when Sokol spotted someone through the window.
It was a young woman -- wavy, dark locks, fair skin and petite -- waiting in the serpentine line at the popular venue.
“We can’t leave this place until this girl comes inside,” he said to his friend.
“Okay, man, but we have work early tomorrow,” his friend replied.
Thirty minutes passed. Then forty-five. The woman was nowhere to be found.
The two stepped out and just as they were about to leave she was standing there, even more beautiful close up, surrounded by five guys.
“It’s now or never,” his friend said, glaring at him.
That was the moment where he approached her, nervously, taking caution to the wind.
“Excuse me, are you with any of these guys?” he asked, feeling sheepish about his pickup line.
“No,” she replied.
“I would like to get to know you but I’m on my way out so I can get your number?”
The two would go on that date and then spend every day with each other until 2012.
“That’s the kind of intensity I’m still looking for,” Sokol explained. “The kind me and Rumi had.”
Neely, on the other hand, seems to have moved on, happier than ever. And she’s hardly shy in expressing her elation these days on Instagram where she frequently posts photos of Dowson. In one, they share an intimate kiss. In another, they hold hands, walking down a Malibu beach next to crashing waves, the sun setting beautifully in the background. It’s romantic, idyllic, manufactured.
“Almost time to go home,” she wrote innocently, as if feigning that even time wasn’t in her control. Because in her world, everything goes according to plan.
Note: This article was corrected to reflect that Neely attended the University of California San Diego, not the University of San Diego.