In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
It's one thing for an influencer to grow their audience; it's another thing entirely for an influencer to engage an audience that follows them throughout major life milestones and trusts their word. That's exactly the kind of audience Chriselle Lim — Korean-American fashion stylist, lifestyle and beauty blogger and digital influencer — has cultivated.
Lim, who helms the popular blog The Chriselle Factor and has amassed roughly 2.5 million followers across YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, has recently broadened her business by launching her branded content studio, CINC studios, in October with Lauren Fong, who serves as the president of her parent company, Chriselle Inc.
The 32-year-old has a range of industry experience that's contributed to her success thus far. With a merchandise and marketing degree from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, Lim had plans of becoming a buyer — until she took math classes in college and realized that wasn't quite the path for her. After some work in public relations and a number of odd jobs, she finally found her passion in styling. She worked as an assistant while building her own portfolio, and then earned her "big first job in fashion" as the fashion editor at GENLUX magazine.
"That's when digital all started happening," she says.
But the digital space at the time, she notes, was saturated with young girls talking about fast fashion and cat videos. In 2010, she recognized a gap in existing content and decided to launch her own YouTube channel with an elevated brand aesthetic and the goal of helping inspire women internationally with the confidence to feel beautiful. Now, with more than 740,000 subscribers, she ranks among the top industry experts on the platform.
"I was at the right place at the right time, and it just really took off," she explains. "I realized after building the channel that what I really loved more than fashion was production. I loved creating elevated content and storytelling within that content."
The Chriselle Factor has picked up substantial traction since its launch in 2011, too. Lim is just one of just three influencers to have blogs that broke into the top 20 referral drivers to leading e-commerce destinations. Her posts and links from the blog alone have yielded 6.9 million impressions for Revolve this year, and she regularly sends 15,000 to 20,000 clicks per link to beauty products from brands like La Prairie, Caudalie and Malin + Goetz.
We caught up with Lim to learn more about how she took YouTube by storm before the rest of the world could ever predict its longevity or impact and how her business has since transcended from virtual spaces to a brick-and-mortar studio space in downtown Los Angeles.
How did your background as a stylist help serve as a springboard to launch your fashion and beauty blogging and vlogging career?
I think because I came from more of a professional background, my outlook was always as a teacher. I want to teach my followers something versus saying, 'This is what I'm wearing.' When I first started, it was about letting me teach them about how to do this in fashion, or how to make it in fashion, or how to become a stylist, or how to get that job you want with the outfit you're wearing.
Tell me about launching The Chriselle Factor in Dec. 2011 — what was the inspiration behind it?
The channel came first, and The Chriselle Factor came after that because I realized that elevated video content takes some time to create. It's not like we could dish out videos every day, whereas the turnaround is a lot faster for the content we create in editorial, although that takes time, as well. So as I grew my audience, it was like feeding the beast a bit. The more you feed [your audience], the more they want. And this was back before I had a team, so I realized I needed another platform, and that's how The Chriselle Factor launched. That was more of day-to-day outfits and has evolved into more of a lifestyle site now that I'm a professional but also a mother.
What were the vlogging and blogging landscapes like in 2010/2011 when you first got started, and how have you witnessed the industry change over the years?
Back then, it was purely out of just for the love it; there was no money it. It was just because I wanted to share my knowledge and hopefully impact and help some people out there… My mom thought I was crazy; she didn't really understand why I wanted to quit my salaried job to pursue my not-paying YouTube channel. It sounded absurd.
In five years, a lot happened. [It's] as though it's been 50 years. The landscape completely changed, and it's more like mainstream media; people consume digital content just as they would consume TV five or seven years ago… Now there is money and a business opportunity, which is amazing because there's more of a steady path if you want to make this your career.
What were and are your major challenges in creating fashion and beauty content, then and now?
The challenges back then were definitely the lack of resources. I didn't have the resources; I didn't have the money. It was just about being creative and teaching myself. I don't have an editor, so how can I edit? I'll have to teach myself or maybe convince a friend who's done it in the past if I take her out for lunch… The challenge now is, because I have a team of 10 people, how do I maintain being a good business owner, a boss and entrepreneur, yet be creative at the same time? I have to wear a lot more hats now than I did back then.
Also back then, it was all about creating really amazing content, which is still important to us, but now it's more about being organic and making my followers feel like they're part of my life. People now respond more to authenticity and organic content. After I became a mom, it kind of allowed me to show a different part of myself and be more vulnerable in real-life situations. I just started to allow them into a really special part of my life, and I think that it developed my relationships with my followers — it's been really good in terms of building loyalty and evolving with my followers because a lot of them are around my age and started following me when I was in college, so we're all kind of always going through the same life experiences, if not about to be.
In many of your videos, you're super candid about your own insecurities. But you also ask your readers for advice, which is unique for vloggers who are usually the ones offering tips to their audiences. How do you think this kind of engagement has helped you grow that audience?
It's like any other relationship. It's really important to view your followers as real people. So many times creators, including myself, feel like we’re just talking to a camera or talking to a computer. But there are real people who are consuming the content.
One good example is just this past weekend I was in Seattle when I ran into a follower. She's an older lady, probably in her 50s, and she was crying. She said, "I cry with you; I laugh with you; I'm there with you." I started crying, as well, because it was just such a good reminder that the content we create speaks to real humans. I think it's something I forget sometimes. Remembering that I'm talking to humans who are going through similar situations, asking them what they think, asking them open-ended questions and having more of a dialogue with them makes it feel as though they are a part of this journey with me. And it's not just strategy; I genuinely want to get their advice and thoughts.
In one video, "Divorce, Sex & My Relationship Reveal," you note that commenters will often write #goals, #couplegoals and you actually say, "Sorry to break it to you guys; it's not perfect." Could you tell me a little bit about the ways your behind-the-scenes life might differ from what we do see on the screen?
It was really after I became a mom. I've been open about this: I had a bit of postpartum depression without even realizing until I got out of it. I can't blame it all on social media, but a big part of it has to do with my expectations from what I saw online of what motherhood would be like, and it not living up to those standards. I realized, someone needs to have a voice about what real motherhood is and what real life is after motherhood, what real marriage is and what happens to real relationships. I struggled looking for that kind of content online, and I built my brand to make it look very luxurious and glamorous, so it kind of was the opposite of what I stood for.
But people were really touched when I came out and said my relationship is not perfect. So many women opened up to me about hard times in their marriages, postpartum depression, how they didn't feel beautiful and so many issues. I realized I need to be more real; I need to be more authentic for my followers. I think when given the platform and the followers, I have the responsibility to tell my followers how it really is.
Can you talk to me more about the business side of things and how you've managed to actually monetize The Chriselle Factor?
Brand partnerships and sponsorships are a big part of the business. We work a lot with beauty brands, fashion brands and lifestyle brands. We're really picky with brands we work with because, in this day and age, followers can see past if you're actually using the product or not. So we really work only with brands that we believe in, that I actually use and test out… [My followers] know that I don't talk about products, especially with skin care, unless I've been using them for a while. I think it's because of the fact that I'm honest and not afraid to say if something didn't work, or if it's worth their money or not that they trust me at this point — especially in my Instagram stories; that's where they actually get my real, raw reviews.
Another big part of business now is our studio, CINC studio, which is purely our production company. We're using our production studio and team to create visual content and assets for brands — whether it be a beauty, lifestyle or fashion brand. So we really split our time between the two.
Can you tell me a bit more about CINC studio?
The official launch, as in we came out with it in public, was in October. But we've always had a production studio — it's just something we never really focused on because of our overload of work and the capacity of jobs we could take on… People would hire me as talent and that would come with my production people who work full time for Chriselle, Inc. A lot of times, they'd ask if they could hire my videographer or photographer to do this or that for them because they like what we've done… That's when we were like, okay, people are in need of content and they're in need of these assets, because no one really understands the digital landscape like we do, especially when it comes to video creation. It just organically came about.
Right now, we have one big office but we're opening up a studio in downtown Los Angeles where we can host our clients to come in and be on set with us. It's going to be a really amazing creative space, and we're super excited about that.
Aside from the opening of a production space, what else can we look out for?
I can't really say, but we're working with one of my absolute favorite brands for fashion week, and it's a very luxury brand. I think because I have these relationships with brands I work with on my site, they just trust me and my vision… I wish I could say more, but I can't. I'm so excited about it and have a hard time sleeping!
This interview has been edited for clarity.