What Rumi Neely Did Next

The Fashion Toast blogger has inspired hundreds of copycats that worship her specific flavor of West Coast style. Now, she’s using that influence to develop a self-funded fashion line.
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The Fashion Toast blogger has inspired hundreds of copycats that worship her specific flavor of West Coast style. Now, she’s using that influence to develop a self-funded fashion line.
Rumi Neely in Are You Am I's slip dress. Photo: Courtesy

Rumi Neely in Are You Am I's slip dress. Photo: Courtesy

Ever heard of an aglet? I’ve just stepped into a closed-off, wood-paneled room at Los Angeles’ Soho House, where Rumi Neely is schooling me on the term. It refers to the metal or plastic cap attached to the end of a cord. You can find them on a shoe’s lace or a jacket’s drawstring.

Or, in this case, dangling from the back of a silk camisole, which is a part of the Fashion Toast blogger’s just-launched clothing collection, called Are You Am I. The aglets on the white version are rose gold. The black version’s are gunmetal grey. For Neely’s achingly specific basics, the details were as important as the overall concept.

“I was getting more and more picky about the pieces I wanted, and thought, ‘Why am I not finding these seemingly achievable things?’” the 31-year-old tells me, proudly combing through her rack of made-in-Los Angeles samples. (Everything is manufactured here, too.) “These concepts materialized easily.”

Along with that silk camisole (retail price, $280), there is a deep-armhole tank ($90), an asymmetrical lambskin leather mini skirt ($380), and a raw-edge silk slip dress ($300), among other items. Neely plans to release new product on a rolling schedule in the vein of Everlane or Tamara Mellon, rather than seasonally. Are You Am I is currently sold via e-commerce, and at Los Angeles boutique Satine. Plans are in the works for a permanent SoHo storefront as well.

It’s become de rigueur for any popular blogger worth her followers to extend her digital brand into tangible product, either via a collaboration or a full-fledged collection. In November 2014, Into the Gloss’ Emily Weiss announced that she had raised $8.4 million in order to launch Glossier, her skincare and cosmetics line. In April 2014, Elin Kling introduced Totême, a minimalist range of separates that is sold at Net-a-Porter and The Line. That same month, Bag Snob founders Tina Craig and Kelly Cook debuted their very own accessories collection, Snob Essentials. And there are plenty more in the works.

While Neely’s move may not be so surprising, the Los Angeles-based blogger's path to this point was entirely unique. In many ways, Neely was the original model for the hundreds of personal style bloggers that came after her. While her contemporaries -- namely, Susanna Lau of Style Bubble and Bryan Grey Yambao, aka Bryan Boy -- developed significant, name-making followings in and outside of the industry, it was Neely who created the formula that stuck. Aspirational style + model looks + gorgeous photos = blogging gold.

Neely was raised in the Bay Area by a Japanese mother and an American father. Growing up, she developed a thrifting habit, spending hours scouring the racks at San Francisco charity shops. By the time she was an international studies major at UC San Diego, she had amassed quite the collection, and decided to open an eBay outpost. Nasty Gal may be the most famous of vintage e-tailers from that era, but there were hundreds of virtual storefronts like it in the mid-aughts. “My closet would be overflowing at all times,” Neely says. “The eBay thing came out of wanting to whittle that closet down to fit more weird stuff.”

To help sell the clothes, Neely had her then-boyfriend, Colin Sokol, photograph her in each look. Commenters would ask where she got her styling props, such as a pair of red pumps. The blog, launched at the end of 2007, spurred from those conversations.

Lau, who started her blog in 2006, was an early inspiration. But there was little else to reference, so Neely -- by design or not -- created her own genre. She became the laid back California girl who mixed high-and-low looks. The type who loves fashion, but isn’t a victim. She also used her model-esque stature to her advantage, posting photos of herself that mightn’t have been magazine-level quality, but certainly weren’t amateur. Early on, publications including Teen Vogue and Refinery29 featured her. By 2009, she was sitting front row at Fashion Week, and brands were eager to advertise on Fashion Toast, whether by gifting her product or sponsoring posts. The eBay store was gone by then, and she hired a modeling agency, Next, to negotiate deals with brands including Forever21 and Free People. She garnered a big following in Japan as well.

Yambao, whom she met front row at a BCBG fashion show, became a confidant. “What I love about Rumi is that…she's not a well-decorated Christmas tree,” he says. “She knows what works for her lifestyle, she knows exactly what she wants, she's allergic to trends and she's very specific.” What’s more, “she manages to keep a sense of mystery around her,” Yambao says. “Unlike other people, you won’t find her at every opening of an envelope.”

Those may be the qualities that pushed Neely forward, yet they are also why so many bloggers have often felt like her carbon copies. In person, Neely is shy. She understands that the work she does requires her to be a public figure, to welcome attention. Yet it’s obvious that it doesn’t come particularly natural to her. If she resented the Fashion Toast knockoffs that have come along -- some of which now have wider-reaching audiences than her own -- she’d never cop to it. “In terms of other bloggers that have come on the scene in the past few years, yeah, a lot of them tell me that they wouldn’t have started this if it wasn’t for me,” she says. “That’s such a crazy thing to hear. I never think about the far-reaching effects of some photo I took in 2008. But It’s cool. It’s the ultimate validation. And it’s a positive thing.”

Another look from Are You Am I. Photo: courtesy. 

Another look from Are You Am I. Photo: courtesy. 

Instead, Neely has chosen to focus on what’s next: building her brand beyond the virtual. Are You Am I is self-funded: her team includes a pattern maker and a technical designer, along with her assistant. “I felt like it was time to do something different,” she says. "To use my audience to show my very specific angle. Because this is self-funded, I’m not trying to make someone feel like this is going to be a good idea. I don’t have to prove anything.” Neely is the creative mastermind, as her current boyfriend and photographer, Christopher Dowson, is quick to point out. Dowson is in the room for much of our interview, although he only speaks occasionally. They are both weary of the way Neely’s relationships have been portrayed in the press -- including an article that ran on Fashionista about blogger boyfriends -- and it’s very clear that they want to make sure I don’t have the same intentions.

I don’t. Mostly because that story has been told. I’m here to learn about the clothes. What struck me about the collection was not the silhouettes or the color palette -- I’m not shocked by a black slip dress -- but the finishing. The covered buttons on the silk tap shorts and the camisole, the raw edges of the slip dress, those aglets. It was all more thoughtful than expected. The collection isn’t cheap, but it’s also not outrageously priced. It includes the sort of pieces that Neely’s followers -- and the other bloggers who idolize her -- would undoubtedly find appealing.

But will it sell?

So far, Neely has approached the collection the way she has approached most of her career. Slowly, but deliberately. By introducing a few products at a time, she’s building a base that will hopefully include perennial favorites that are less likely to be discounted. A triangle bra -- something her fans have asked for specifically -- is in the works, as are more festival-ready pieces to launch right before Coachella. While she’d like to be in a few great national retailers -- Shopbop and Net-a-Porter are targets -- she's "not in a rush." Instead, she’s focusing on creating pieces that she, as a professional whose biggest asset is her genuine connection with her audience, can stand behind. “At a certain point, you need to take that next step and make yourself uncomfortable again. It’s good to throw yourself into something new and be really intimidated by it,” Neely says. “It’s also a complete dream come true. If I want to wear something, I can see a sample in three weeks.”