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.
Shelcy and Christy Joseph might be the hardest-working women in influencing. At 27 and 24, respectively, the Haitian-raised, Brooklyn-based siblings each have day jobs in addition to creating content for their over 64K followers on @NYCxclothes and consulting for brands through their newly launched creative agency, NYCxStudio: Shelcy works full-time as an e-commerce writer for PopSugar, while Christy does social media part-time for Prabal Gurung.
What you see when you visit their joint Instagram page isn't your typical influencer fare. There's clearly a great amount of care and thoughtfulness put into every post — even if it's just an outfit pic or interiors shot, the lighting, the backdrop and the color coordination is always stunning. Plus, they'll often take the time to tell their followers what's going on in their lives and even to share business advice for other influencers.
In the wake of George Floyd's murder last year, the Josephs became vocal participants in the discussions about pay disparity in the influencer community that emerged, to the point where brands started coming to them for advice. So, in July, they launched NYCxStudio, in part out of a desire to help these companies find authentic ways to partner with creators of color.
The Josephs are as passionate about affecting change and fostering a more transparent, diverse influencer industry as they are about creating beautiful imagery and authentic content on social media. Below, we spoke more about that, the pressure from their Haitian parents to choose "traditional" careers, how they juggle all the work they do and their hopes for change. Read on for the highlights.
How did you end up in NYC?
Shelcy Joseph: We moved here 11 years ago. I studied neuroscience in college. Coming from a very traditional family, my parents were very focused on traditional careers, so anything to do with law, medicine... I wasn't quite encouraged to pursue more creative arts like writing and fashion, which I had interest in very early on. But then I came here and it totally changed my trajectory. I did study neuroscience, because I felt like it was a good balance between psychology — which is what I really wanted to study — and bio, to give my parents a little bit of satisfaction. I started working at a university doing both research and marketing. I was tweeting out whatever experiments they were doing and sharing the results with the audience, and I was just drawn to this Twitter world. That's how my interest in social media officially started. I went on to intern at different places; I did a short PR internship at Hearst magazines, and later Fresh & Co, to then officially begin our journey within fashion and influencer marketing and digital when we launched our blog in 2014.
Christy Joseph: Similarly for me, too, I left high school with a strong future in mind. I wanted to do business and to eventually work for a bank. When I started getting into my major, I was really drawn into entrepreneurship. I started taking some classes, and at the same time, Shelcy and I were new to New York City, so we just started seeing what our passions really were — community building, fashion. I started an internship at a skin-care company originally in operations, so it was very manual, and then eventually becoming the visual marketing coordinator and launching their native platform. From then, I started working with a lot of different brands on social media management. Right now, I'm working with Prabal Gurung on their social media, as well as doing @NYCxclothes and our newly launched agency.
SJ: We're running @NYCxclothes and NYCxStudio alongside side pursuits. I work full-time at PopSugar, and it does feed the work that we do, where we're constantly ahead of trends and new collections that are launching.
At what point did you decide to create @NYCxclothes together? What were your goals for it?
CJ: We originally started on YouTube. We were obsessed with making fashion videos and showing people all the different ways you can wear different items. Fast-forward a year or two, we had a brand reach out to us, to partner on promoting their jewelry. We thought, 'Huh, if we could have an Instagram page where we could actually have all these pictures somewhere, and hopefully have a story and turn it into a business...' That's really where the idea came from.
SJ: Early on, we were watching YouTubers and were drawn to the way that we had so much access to them. I think at the time [the brand reached out], we had 1,000 followers. We thought, 'If they can find value enough to offer us a six-month subscription to their jewelry box program, then let's see if other brands would be interested in that.' That's when we really started investing in our content. And I don't think it became a full-fledged business the way it is now until 2019 — that's when we registered the LLC. Before then, it was just building relationships, putting our content out there and figuring out our voice and what we want to stand for. We weren't doing it to become influencers. It was just an outlet and a way for us to share our story, of people who had just moved from Haiti to New York, and seeing if there was a community of people who were like us and loved to talk about fashion.
Can you tell me a little bit about your approach to creating content for Instagram? You have such a strong, beautiful aesthetic — the lighting's great, the background is great, the floral arrangements, the wine... It's all so perfect. How do you think about that?
SJ: I think we try to always walk that line of aspirational but also approachable. When we think about the pieces of content we create, we always want to paint this world where, traditionally, we never saw Black women represented in it. For example, last summer with cottagecore, it was something that we just naturally fell into... But then it became a bigger trend, where there was this whole conversation around the place that Black women have within cottagecore. It started occurring to us that our content was part of building a different narrative and breaking through stereotypes without necessarily outwardly saying it.
We share things that are happening in our lives, career lessons, things that we're learning. We always try to match it with some kind of visually-moving image or anything that could engage, spark joy or maybe give someone something to remember, hopefully. And to just build on this sense of community, because we never want to post content for the sake of it. Our aesthetic sort of comes over time. The editorial vision is something that, the more you go into it, you discover this whole community of creative photographers, artists, makeup artists, who can contribute to that vision.
CJ: I think between 2016 and 2018 were really the time for us to work on the content and experiment with different photographers and different types of clothing.
SJ: And that same vision is now translating to NYCxStudio, where we want anything, from the colors to the font, to create an emotion of some sort.
When and how did NYCxStudio come to be?
SJ: We officially launched in early July, and it grew organically from conversations we were having with different brand partners. Before working at PopSugar, I was working at an influencer marketing agency, coordinating campaigns for brands like American Eagle, Primark and Sephora. I have been able to really learn the ins and outs of the industry and see areas where I felt like there's still more that can be done. And unfortunately, the events that happened with George Floyd's passing, it opened many people's eyes. And it kind of had this ripple effect on the influencer industry. We were already having conversations about pay disparity. In the Black community that we're a part of, there's a sense that Black creators are underpaid and that they don't receive the same treatment as other influencers, whether it's being gifted [instead of paid] or being given very unfavorable contract terms, tokenism... Behind the scenes, we were speaking to our brand partners and asking them, 'What are you doing?' With some, [the solution] was forming a diversity council. With others, it was coming up with more authentic campaigns that didn't necessarily fit diverse creators into a box. So they were asking us what we were thinking, what we were seeing, what examples were of brands that are doing well. But we really saw that there was this need for...
CJ: ...an education.
SJ: Especially as it pertains to how to approach different groups within influencer marketing, because I think, until now, brands were just scratching the surface of what they can do and the ways they can authentically tap into communities. With some, we workshop, where we talk about the state of the industry and how brands can be better allies in the future — or how it doesn't have to be the statement they put out or this person that they hire, and how they can, over a certain period of time, build on the initiatives [they started]. These conversations kept going, and we've had the pleasure to work with Cos and then with Rails on some of the initiatives. We felt like we introduced them to [influencers] they've never considered before but were very much on-brand. It was interesting to see how well the audience reacted to that, because it really felt like there was this need for representation. It doesn't have to be a cliché like, 'I'm Black and proud, I am brown and proud.' It was just very much, 'exploring New York and the businesses that speak to me' for Rails; for Cos it was, 'I'm a social media manager from the Philippines, I'm a queer woman, and no one ever asked me about my story.' That's how we approach it.
How do you split duties, if at all? Does one of you handle more of one aspect of the business, maybe the other one another aspect?
CJ: We both have our strong suits. I'm basically the creative at NYCxStudio and @NYCxclothes. I manage the accounts and I also come up with the creative concepts — casting influencers, thinking of campaign details and all of that.
SJ: The storytelling aspect of it. Even just figuring out the aesthetics of the photos that we take and creating the moodboards for different clients, that's more Chris. I do a lot more of the external work. I do a lot of the writing and the pitching, using my background in the influencer agency world. And I do a lot of the new business, setting up conversations and seeing what brands may need right now. Chris is execution, and I'm more strategy.
You also both have so many different jobs. How do you manage it all?
SJ: Because I work full-time, I found that we really have to put together a structure, develop a system that would work for me. I only started at PopSugar about seven months ago, but before this, we hired an assistant, someone who would help with a lot of the execution and coordinating.
CJ: The operations.
SJ: Chris, because she does freelance, she has more flexibility to reply to some of the day-to-day emails. We meet every morning and lay out what we have to do for the rest of the day. We figure out who's best able to do it and from that point on, we see where we can plug in our intern to help us with some of those other responsibilities. As time goes on, we will likely be growing our team, depending on how quickly we can find someone who can help us with more of the creative/graphic design side and events side, to continue to expand the brand beyond what we're able to do so far.
CJ: We also work with a lot of other freelancers. We worked with someone to do our website and also someone to create our logos. It takes teamwork.
On the @NYCxclothes side, how do you decide if a brand is right for you to work with?
SJ: We want to check that the brand isn't outwardly problematic. I think especially in light of everything that happened in June, we've become even more selective with our partners. We want to make sure that a brand is really trying, and the way we gauge that is by having frank conversations. I think the more transparent a brand is willing to be, the more open and receptive they are to feedback and trying to change. That has taken on a new meaning since June, that aspect of accountability — asking a brand, 'Truly, where are you? Who else is in this program?' These are all questions that we ask now because we want to make sure that a brand isn't just using us to get a pass.
CJ: I think number two would be style alignment — if we can see ourselves in their clothing, if there's also an alignment in terms of aesthetics.
SJ: For example, something like vitamins isn't something that currently we're taking, so to go tomorrow or next week and promote that wouldn't be authentic to us. If we're drawn to it, then we'll consider it; if we're not and it doesn't make sense, then our audience will call us out, because we've established that kind of relationship with them.
Of course, there always has to be a budget consideration — how much are they asking for, what is the budget like, is it at least decent enough to cover all our costs and give us enough to create a margin. There are times when I think brands will ask for so much and offer very little, and we've been very surprised actually that it's not always a small brand. We've also moved away from the one-off to continuing to have recurring check-ins with brands, which is why we've been able to have longer-term partnerships that have fueled the business on the influencer side.
You have been vocal about Black creators not always getting the same level of offers as others in the space. Have you noticed real improvements there, or do you think there's still a long way to go?
CJ: Personally, I think it's not necessarily improving, but there's more accountability. There's a lot of Facebook groups where influencers of color are able to trade information and keep each other accountable in terms of rates and how much they're getting paid. There's a lot of groups on Instagram who opened up that conversation and try to keep these brands accountable.
SJ: There's more openness in the way that it's talked about now. Money used to be this taboo thing, but it feels more typical now to approach someone and say, 'Hey, I saw you worked with this brand, how much did they pay you? Because this is what they're offering me.' And accounts like @InfluencerPayGap — the awareness around it is a little higher. But I don't yet know if it's translating on the brand side, and I don't know that it's always to do with race. I think some brands truly don't know how to value influencer marketing sometimes. You have these arbitrary rules where some brands will say, 'We'll only pay people who have 500k,' and that's an example of how you don't get to diversify your cast, because there aren't as many diverse people who have this amount of followers. This is why on the agency side, we felt compelled to offer this kind of assistance to brands, to make them see the benefits of working with influencers. It's not just, 'We put in this amount and you get ten times back' — it's much more of a relationship-building process. Call-out culture, as much as it instills fear in some people, has made it easier to confront uncomfortable conversations.
Right, they can't get away with things the way that they used to.
SJ: Yeah. I think at times, some brands will get called out and their response will be to block and delete comments, versus having a more open conversation and acknowledging it.
What would you say has been maybe the biggest challenge you've faced so far in building your businesses as creators and consultants?
SJ: On the consulting side, it's still that education. Many of the campaigns that we were doing were about scale and chasing scale at all times — getting as many influencers in as possible and trying to pay as little as possible. Often I find that those campaigns weren't moving the needle. We were getting tons of impressions, but personally I don't think it's the best way to spend a brand's budget. Versus when people have done smaller, more targeted, more curated campaigns, with, say, ten or twenty influencers and really took the time to negotiate rates that felt fair for both parties, that's when the best work came, from both sides. The relationships were collaborative, with both brands that we've worked with, the influencers have gone on to work with the brand on other projects or they're part of the brand ambassador relationship.
On the creator side, it's still brands valuing the work itself. I still don't know that the concept of pricing and truly valuing the work is one that has fully registered in people's brains. But luckily, those are maybe 20% percent of the cases. We generally find great middle ground.
What would you say has been the most rewarding part or moment so far in your careers?
CJ: I think for me, personally, was when we partnered with Cos to create this multi-layer campaign highlighting these influencers and seeing the audience reaction to these stories being told... how when you take your time with a campaign and actually hire individuals who are really telling a story, who are really passionate about what they're doing, and giving them a bigger platform like Cos, that was the most rewarding moment for me, in terms of NYCxStudio.
What's next? What are you focusing on right now, and what goals do you have for the next few years?
CJ: I really want scale for us. I want NYCxStudio to become this fully-fledged, oiled machine where we're working with a lot of different brands who are actually wanting to make change and work with a lot of influencers who are going about influencing in an authentic way.
SJ: I think also ushering in an era of more transparency and more positive relationship-building between brands and creators. We've always had good relationships with all our brand partners. We know the people we work with personally... I don't see a lot of that translating in terms of the influencer campaigns. It often feels very transactional. And so, big picture, I think we become a bigger part of that change.
More immediate, we do have a physical space for it, as well, which is a studio that we rent out to creators. We want to be a one-stop shop where brands can receive advice but also shoot, should they choose to. We want to turn it into this space for total creativity — whether it's a brand wanting to shoot a product or an influencer wanting to shoot a campaign or us wanting to bring people together.
On the agency side, I think we're moving more in a direction of the socially-conscious influencing: one that's more accountable, one that's more honest, one that doesn't shy away from politics, one that's more opinionated. I would personally like to see more clients take interest in that kind of work and start to make that a bigger part of other campaigns.
What advice would you give to a young person who admires you and wants to follow in your footsteps as a content creator/influencer?
CJ: For me, it's really putting in the work. Nowadays on social media, it seems that everything is done so easily. You can go viral in one second and then next you're living in L.A. in a mansion. But I think really putting in the work — and it can be late nights, it can be working on the weekends, it can be just anything where you put your mind to it. Carving out that time to truly focus and achieve your dreams, that's the number one tip for me. Another one is having support: If I didn't have Shelcy, I don't know... having someone to hold you accountable and to bounce ideas off of, having friends, having a group of individuals that can lift you up, I think that's really important.
SJ: To build on that, I would say to develop a voice and an area of expertise. To figure out what it is you're really passionate about. Is it fashion that meets at the intersection of culture or justice? Is it conscious fashion? Try to really hone in on what it is that you're passionate about, because it does feel like we're in an era of experts, but it doesn't go far enough.
The second thing I'd say is to always cultivate relationships. It's the fuel that keeps all of it going. It's what keeps us excited to keep working. And ultimately your reputation precedes you, so be kind and care about people.
CJ: It doesn't have to be done in a, 'I need something from you, so I'll keep you around' [way]; it just has to be the way you would treat any friend. It has to feel organic.