When Michelle Li first moved to New York City to study at Parsons, she often felt out of place among other fashion students.
"I was so lonely," she says, in an email. "All of the other fashion/art students kind of morphed into the people that wore head-to-toe black and smoked cigs outside of our dorms, and that just never really resonated with me."
But at some point during her freshman year, Li found Man Repeller, the blog that Leandra Medine (now Leandra Medine Cohen) had started just a few years before. Unlike many of the students Li was surrounded by, Medine Cohen didn't seem to think loving fashion meant taking it or herself too seriously. Her colorful, quirky ensembles and intelligently funny writing gave Li "a sense of belonging in the city and hope that there is a place that I would fit in," she says.
Soon, Li was trying to mimic Medine Cohen's approach to writing and styling as she sought to refine her own voice. By senior year, Li says, part of her motivation to keep working hard was the thought of someday landing a job at Man Repeller, which had expanded from a personal blog into a full-blown media platform.
"Man Repeller helped me every step of the way navigating through the fashion industry and with my personal growth through college," Li says. "I was heavily influenced by it and I like who I am now, so I feel grateful for MR."
Li has since come into her own as a fashion and beauty editor at Teen Vogue who also moonlights as a model. And she's not the only young fashion professional who experienced Man Repeller as a force that shaped her ambitions, personal style and voice: Tess Garcia, now an e-commerce writer at Meredith, describes Man Repeller as the only site she used to check daily besides social media, and recalls dreaming constantly about working there someday; Frances Solá-Santiago, a freelance writer and editor-in-chief at Emperifollá, says Medine Cohen inspired her to move to New York from Puerto Rico to start a journalism career.
Man Repeller's appeal extended beyond industry professionals, too. Torunn Kim, a mother of three in California, says Man Repeller gave her "such a good feeling in college when I had been told since I was 11 that my style/hair/fashion lewks were 'not what boys are into.'" Hannah Degn, who works at a non-profit in Washington D.C., says she followed individual staff writers on Man Repeller so closely that she once cast each of her friends as a different staff writer and had them dress as that person for a week. U.K. reader Amber Boydell succinctly captured the thing about Man Repeller that inspired this kind of enthusiasm: "It made me feel seen," she says, "and I haven't found anywhere online like that since."
Which is why the news that the site was shutting down, announced last week, impacted so many.
In some ways, it was a slow fade. Medine Cohen announced that she was stepping back from leadership of the site in June, as Man Repeller faced criticism for its lack of diverse perspectives and what many readers felt was an inadequate response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Then came a rebrand, in which the site was redesigned and renamed Repeller, dropping the "Man" entirely. Then, in October, the death knell: Medine Cohen confirmed reports that the site would shutter with a short, five-sentence note.
Followers had mixed responses to the closure. Some were just plain sad. Take Grace Avery and Siân Samuel, a fashion student and recent fashion graduate in Australia and the U.K., respectively: The duo started an Instagram account called @oldmanrepeller (in the tradition of accounts like @oldceline) on a whim when they learned the site was rebranding, with a goal to "archive and celebrate the outfits from the early days of Man Repeller," they tell Fashionista via email. It's clear that they're not alone in their nostalgia — the account has already amassed 22,600 followers in just over a month, and is growing by the hundreds every day.
Others, like Texas-based Reza Cristián, are sad about the closing because of what it might symbolize about the state of media. Cristián says Medine Cohen's example is part of what inspired her to start Sustain, a sustainability-focused publication. Now, she's left wondering what Repeller's shuttering means for platforms like her own.
But others seem to feel less sentimental than frustrated with the way things went down at the end of the Man Repeller saga.
In comparison with the heartfelt, lengthy farewell essay published by Tavi Gevinson when Rookie closed (Gevinson was another blogger who rose through the ranks around the same time as Medine Cohen and who also turned her personal blog into a multi-contributor publication), Medine Cohen's short farewell read to some as flippant about the fate of her employees and readers.
"I think it's shitty. Leandra will be fine, of course, but what about her entire staff?" asked Eloise Tutterow, a New York-based former reader who works in fashion product development, via Instagram. "It feels lazy. No time to attempt this rebrand. It's as though she threw her hands up because of the scandal and just wanted to move on."
Still others feel unresolved about the inclusivity issues raised this summer. Of the dozens of Instagram DMs Fashionista received regarding people's feelings about Repeller closing, a remarkable number of them said something about Repeller boiling down to a site for "skinny rich white ladies." For all the ways that Repeller's leadership promised to change for the better, says Rocío Garrido Rus, a Swede-based fashion copywriter, the subtle racial and class privilege that pervaded the site couldn't just be willed away.
"Privilege is hard to edit out of a piece," she notes.
But it wouldn't be quite fair to chalk the demise of Man Repeller up to a simple matter of being cancelled. It seems like many of the readers most concerned with Man Repeller's problems were also those who had loved it most and longest. Muna Ikedionwu, a brand strategist in New York and a longtime reader, responded to the news of Repeller closing with both an "I'm incredibly sad" and "good riddance." Though she felt "uniquely understood by them as a smart, intellectual lover of shoes and lipstick," she also noted that she'd been one of the followers who "sparked ravaging debates in the comments section and evoked public apologies from MR writers years ago due to their racist, exclusionary, single-vision content." It's hard for her to be unambiguously sad or happy about about the site closing, and she's not alone.
Ultimately, it was a sense of inclusion that ended up being both the thing that catapulted Man Repeller to stardom, and the thing that broke it. Medine Cohen's intelligent, comedic approach to fashion made so many women feel welcome to participate in fashion who hadn't felt welcome before. But without much real diversity of race, socioeconomic status or body type, that sense of welcome seemed to stop short of including anyone from a background that didn't align with Medine Cohen's.
It would be easy to take for granted, in 2020, the things that made Medine Cohen and Man Repeller so unusual in 2010. But the truth is that both helped pave the way for the fashion industry we know today, both by pushing the boundaries of what fashion writing and styling could be and by inspiring a significant cadre of younger talent that's still shaping the trajectory of the future.
"For all the wrongs Man Repeller did, it gave a whole generation of women a platform to understand that loving fashion does not make you dumb," says Solá-Santiago. "It does feel like the end of an era, but perhaps that's a good thing? I hope more spaces like Man Repeller continue to emerge with more diverse, relatable voices that make other young girls — like I was once — understand the power of fashion."