Kim Russell, like many other Black creators working in fashion, has had an unconventional path to gaining visibility in the fashion world.
If you have any remote interest in fashion — in addition to being "very online," as they say — it's possible that you've encountered @TheKimbino via retweet or during a casual scroll on Instagram. Russell has become one of the most-discussed digital archivists on social media, known for her razor-sharp analysis and quick wit and quickly ascending to being one of the most visible and influential accounts on TikTok and Instagram. This work has even granted her some unique opportunities: She's been featured in various fashion magazines, she writes a style column for The Face and is followed by some high-profile names. (Kim Kardashian tweeted a birthday message to Russell last year.)
The popularity of archival accounts reflects a really "zeitgeisty" moment in fashion where vintage is king and spotting a reference is a form of cultural currency. Accounts like Russell's have turned archives into open access platforms that allow fans to engage with images or garments that previously required a more rigorous search to accurately ID a piece. Her work is a starting point for anyone who wants to explore vintage, but still leaves room for the audience to engage with the content on their terms.
"I think it does well because I've made fashion education and entertainment quick, easy and accessible to have," she says. "You can also get involved in my pages by interacting with others who are like-minded. It just started by putting down your thoughts or opinion on a piece of weird fashion history."
Russell was born in Cape Town, South Africa, but relocated to Sydney, Australia at age six before landing in Perth, where she currently resides. While Perth isn’t known to be a fashion city — or for even having a fashion "scene" — she realizes in conversation that her early interest in fashion was sparked by her mother's own craftiness.
"She would always tell me that she had Barbie dolls that she tailored outfits for. I never realized until very recently that that's probably where I got my sense of wanting to know more about fashion," she says. "She always had me and my sister in the best outfits — to this day, she helps me. She's got a great eye for it."
In 2015, Russell enrolled in a two-year program at South Metropolitan Tafe to study fashion business — the same year her internet journey would begin. She didn't finish, but she credits it with teaching her about trend forecasting and how to engage with fashion history.
"One of my favorite lecturers showed us the 'Highland Rape' collection by Alexander McQueen, and I was like, 'Okay, I think she knows what she's talking about,'" she says.
At the same time, Russell was building a following at Polyvore, a now-defunct digital platform (it was acquired and shut down by Ssense in 2018) that allowed users to create mood boards or "sets" within the interests of fashion, beauty and interior design. "I was seeing all these girls making sets that were blowing up on Instagram, and I was like, 'That's super easy. I can do that,'" she says. "And then I just did it. I might have had a thousand followers or something like that at the time, but people were coming to my page."
Fast-forward two years, and Russell lost interest in the platform. She craved something more, something that she was truly interested in, and wanted to express that to her growing audience. She was honing in on a deeper interest in fashion.
"It would've been like 2016, 2017 that I was like, 'I'm done with this. I don't really like doing it. It's the same thing over and over," she says. "I didn't wanna just do Polyvore anymore, and I wanted people to follow me for what I'm interested in now and what I'm really interested in. It wasn't just like I wanna create sets and that's it." While she was building an audience on Polyvore, she was simultaneously introducing that audience to her Instagram, where she formally began her archive; from there, she expanded into the Twittersphere, where she's in constant conversation about her findings, random fashion history tidbits and the state of the industry.
When asked to define the role of the archivist in the fashion landscape, Russell claims that she "kind of just fell into it." Her process is spontaneous and unorganized — a journey of endless scrolling through the bottomless pages of Getty Images, Tumblr and runway collections that in turn, yield an impressive engagement among the online fashion community. "I go through hundreds of thousands of images, and because I've gone through thousands of collections and looked at them over and over again, I can identify something and put that piece of history on my page," she says.
And people are paying attention.
"I started to notice my posts going viral when other journalists or writers would share or retweet them," she says, highlighting Evan Ross Katz, who profiled her in Paper last January, as an early follower. "This was around the start of 2018, and I started gaining more followers from posting about what I loved."
As her following has grown (her twitter account currently sits at around 35K; Instagram, 125K) she's had to discern what images work and don't work, whether to keep the audience in mind or post something that personally resonates with her. Luckily, she and her followers are typically on par with what they like. In the early days of her account, though, she would post more "niche" fashion images, something like Calvin Klein getting pied in the face — "weird and wonderful" things, as she describes them, but possibly alienating to the average viewer might not recognize Calvin Klein, the person, versus a photo of a well-known celebrity wearing Calvin Klein, the brand.
"Well, I think I've done it for so long now that I know what my audience likes, what might be funny or what they might think is unusual," she says. "I know a Robin Williams post is gonna do well. I know a 'Euphoria' post is gonna do well. But a lot of people follow me because I love Alexander McQueen or Tom Ford. Whoever it is, I know what they're gonna like."
She caught the attention of another famous Kim — Kardashian — by the way, when she posted about a shoot in LOVE Magazine that featured the reality star/mogul in an array of Prada Spring 2015 looks, with archived Prada pieces weaved throughout. Through the process of retweets, it ended up on Kardashian's timeline, which resulted in a follow from the style star. The occasional DM exchange between the two eventually led to a literal meeting of the minds out in Los Angeles, but whatever could have come of that was cut short by the pandemic, work visa hurdles and travel restrictions. Russell has to remain tight-lipped about the brief stint in Kardashian's world for reasons, but remains hopeful that it won't be her last encounter.
While Russell does have career aspirations beyond maintaining virality on the internet, it's all contingent on the loosening of Covid-19 restrictions and the opening of borders. Rather than pigeon-holing herself into a singular role in fashion, she wants to be active in a variety of things that could serve as extensions of her brand.
"I want to work and do photo shoots and magazines and stuff like that. I want to make that a goal of mine, but I also want to do whatever I want," she says. "I think I would like to style someone here and there, but not on a permanent basis, because it's harder than people know. But yeah, I just wanna do a lot."