There have been many threads to the conversation of how the fashion industry has been reacting to the Covid-19 pandemic globally. There are the economic ramifications, the event cancelations, the individual donations to fighting the disease. There are the retail closures. There's the uncertainty around future business. We've seen brands pitch in their manufacturing capabilities to help when they can. And as the day-to-day realities of many continue to shift, those with a platform have used it to bring attention to public health efforts, while also creating an online community for those who are self-isolated at home.
Chiara Ferragni — one of the biggest fashion influencers globally, with almost 19 million followers on Instagram — has been posting about life in lockdown in Italy, stressing the importance of social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, as well as her outfits. (She and husband Fedez also launched a fundraising campaign for Italian hospitals.) All the Pretty Birds's Tamu McPherson, who is also based in Milan, wrote about the experience for Grazia UK and the Telegraph, while continuing to share fashion and beauty posts on her feeds.
As the disease continues to spread globally and more uncertainty about what happens after, an almost existential question looms over many content creators in the industry — influencers, yes, but also editors and writers (those at Fashionista HQ included): Should we even be talking about fashion and beauty right now? It's something that has come up in conversation online (you know, with more people opting to stay inside). Some with larger followings have taken it to their feeds and Instagram Stories, weighing what's appropriate, what isn't and what the best way forward is.
Speaking with some U.S.-based influencers, a few common themes emerge — like how there's apprehension to post at first, that talking about anything that's not related to the ongoing public health crisis would come across as insensitive. What many concede, though, is that their followers still want the content that brought them there in the first place.
"People want a distraction. They want something that feels like a sense of normalcy right now," says Nicolette Mason. "But for me, it's finding a balance between being able to provide a little bit of an escape but also still being realistic about the situation — and that, no, fashion is not the most important thing to be discussing right now. Just having a little bit more nuance in those conversations, overall."
Where Did U Get That's Karen Blanchard says the output remains the same, but the tone has, understandably, changed. "This is my full-time job. I post content for a living. [Now] when I do, for example, a sponsored post, I will tweak whatever was agreed with with a client in terms of the original a caption so it sounds more appropriate, less insensitive. The same approach I take also with any sort of posts — organic, non-sponsored material. I'll even defer certain content that I perhaps would have in the past posted, because it just seems wrong. For example, I bought something which is a pretty big purchase — it's a luxury item — but I'm not going to post that right now because it just doesn't feel right. Whereas, say, a month ago I would have done it."
Depending on the platform, Blanchard is able to be "much more deliberate" and reactive with the content she creates. On Instagram Stories, for example, "I'm addressing head-on the fact that I'm working from home. I know you lot are working from home or are at home, so we're in this together." That means she'll style and showcase dressier "work from home" outfits for her followers, or host Instagram Live conversations with special guests, the latter being a content format she hadn't really done before.
"As long as you post with a sense of sensitivity and you address what's going on and and that you're here to provide [content]," Blanchard continues. "Because I do know I've had followers who said to me, 'I'm so glad you're still doing your YouTube videos. Keep up with the posts. Keep doing the stories.' It feels like they actually do want this."
Grace Atwood, who runs the blog The Stripe and co-hosts the Bad on Paper podcast with Becca Freeman, tells Fashionista that she's maintained an open line of communication with her audience, and that they've asked her to continue with the content she'd normally post about, like sales and beauty products. "It's trying to balance that but also be sensitive, because I think it gets very scary, what's going on," she says. That translates to posting an interactive game on Instagram Stories followed by resources on how to help those in need right now, for example. "I've been trying to balance honesty and rawness in how I'm handling it with fun distractions… I can't ignore what's going on in the world. It's terrifying."
For Kelly Augustine, it's been important "to be realistic about what's going on" with her audience — "really address how I'm feeling and try to relate to people in that way, because we're all going through the same thing."
Sometimes, that means taking a social media break, like Augustine did when she felt she needed a few days off Instagram. "I let my audience know, like, 'Listen, I'm going to take a break and I'll come back to you guys when I can. But I'm freaking out right now and I just need a second.'" By the time she came back, she was greeted by encouraging messages appreciating her honesty.
Augustine them asked her followers what content they wanted from her. "They said they don't want to talk about coronavirus because they're being inundated from all sides with it. So for me, it has been [about] engaging with them on a more personal level," she says. That includes hosting a virtual watch party for "Hitch," and finding other ways that allow her and her followers "to just come together."
As influencers navigate these uncharted waters, they've found that transparency, even more than usual, has been helpful.
"I've told my audience, I do have some sponsored content that I still need to post and that's not me being insensitive, it's just that I have a contractual obligation — and the reality of my situation is that I'm an independent contractor and a lot of my work is being canceled or postponed indefinitely. I do need to have some kind of income coming in to weather this storm, as well," Mason explains.
Mason says she's in a privileged position, having a safety net that she can fall back on. But many freelancers, as many influencers are, and small business owners might not. Even still, she's losing paychecks — from contracts and negotiations that have been put on hold indefinitely, to strategy and consulting work that might not be compensated. "I'm not in a panic mode because like I said, I do have savings and I feel very, very lucky and privileged in that sense. But a lot of my peers don't."
By Atwood's estimate, around 60% of the paid projects she had lined up for the month of March have been postponed. "It's really scary because I still have all of the same expenses — I pay an SEO agency, I pay my developer a monthly retainer, I pay my assistant, I pay for my web hosting and a countless amount of other things. So I need to continue earning money," she explains. When it comes to posting sponsored content, "there's a way to be sensitive about it."
Now, "if I see an influencer posting an ad, I’m commenting and liking [it]," Atwood explains. "I'm encouraging it because I know it can be jarring. I think there's a way to do it gracefully. Warning your audience is very important, and saying, 'Hey, I'm just so grateful to, for example, Sephora for honoring their partnership with me this month because this is going to allow me to pay my rent when everything else gets canceled.'"
That transparency applies to conversations with brands as well. Augustine says she's been checking in with her brand partners, as they all try to navigate the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, as well as communicating the realities of what content looks like in this environment. "[We let] them know that we're still here and we're still producing content, but we want to be sensitive to what's going on. It's going to be a lot of selfies. It's still going to be content, but it's going to be different," she says.
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With their platforms, influencers are also able to shine a light on organizations that are doing work to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and help those who have been affected by it. Plus, they're also to bring attention to communities that have been hit harder than most.
"I've been posting a lot of resources for donating and helping — volunteer opportunities, mutual aid networks, different funds that have been created to support domestic workers and people who work in the service industries," says Mason. "I have gotten a lot of messages from people who are not necessarily even active followers, but just being really, really grateful that I'm using my platform in this way because it affects them more, it affects their partner or their sibling or their parents. Right now, that feels really good and important to me, more so than content creation. It's leveraging my platform to share resources to help people who are going to really be hurt by this."
As someone with a platform, Mason sees her responsibility as two-fold: "It's always recognizing the privileges that I have and not centering myself in the situation. This is not going to hurt at all in the same way it'll hurt other people. The other is recognizing that I do have a platform and I do have the ability to help people. There are things that I can do that can tangibly and actually help other people. I want to remain vigilant about that, even as my work life is shifting and dwindling, there's still a lot of things that I can do that will be helpful in supporting my communities. That is much more important to me right now."