Taina Laaksonen:

The Voice of Fashion Bloggers at The Museum At The Fashion Institute Of Technology

My Mobius project began in Antwerp, in February 2015, at the Digital Fashion Futures Conference, where I met with Ms. Tamsen Young, the Digital Media & Strategic Initiatives Manager at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT). She was one of the keynote speakers in the conference arranged by the Mode Museum and the Europeana Project, and we became fast friends. The exhibition Tamsen and I then saw at the MoMu (Dries Van Noten’s Inspirations) brought together various artistic fields through an assemblage of historical, pictorial, ethnic, cinematic and geographic references. What an inspiring exhibition! We got an idea of creating another kind of layered experience for then still upcoming exhibition at MFIT, the Global Fashion Capitals. A digital layer could bring the voices of the streets into a museum exhibition. Who would have the access to the non-fashion-professional people in these cities and know the local street style? The bloggers. The subject of the digital layer was chosen.

The expanding field of blogging

The amount of fashion bloggers has proliferated since 2009, much the same way as the map of the fashion weeks has expanded. Fortunately, the study on fashion bloggers had already begun by the museum staff at MFIT, and Tamsen and I could focus on the street style bloggers. The blogosphere is an enormous area full of writers, photojournalists, historians and other fashion authors. The first challenge was to identify which bloggers to interview. The museum staff had already started investigating fashion bloggers while they designed the Global Fashion Capitals exhibition, so I could continue from there, lucky me. The second challenge was to engage the chosen bloggers.

My aim was to study the processes of layering museum exhibitions by digital tools. I worked on a publication project that was a collaboration with the disciplines of fashion research and digital media. The digital publication was part of the Global Fashion Capitals exhibition, therefore the creative process was very content driven and thematic and made in conjuction with the museum staff. The main outcome was the digital publication Global Fashion Bloggers, which enriched the exhibition experience in the fashion history gallery of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Description of it is on the page: http://www.fitnyc.edu/museum/exhibitions/global-fashion-capitals.php . The digital publication can be seen on the web site http://globalfashionbloggers.fit or downloaded as a pdf file: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B9MpAvR-akcQZ2l5SHQxZGVfclE/view?usp=sharing. The exhibition also presented a new element, a digital wall map, and there were a number of exhibition-related events, including a fashion show and a symposium.

The timeline of the publication process included the phases of preliminary study, curation of the interview questions for street style bloggers, investigation of the blogosphere in order to find interesting fashion bloggers, digital production process and the publication social media campaign with webanalytics. The first phase was the exploration of the scientific research on blogging and fashion bloggers. Blogging is a relatively new study area and blogs themselves are a quite recently discovered mode of investigating fashion. Fortunately we found excellent material: for example Fashion Theory had published numerous research papers on the theme.

The study scan was used as an information source to set the questions for the group of international fashion bloggers. We wanted to know for example how they had established themselves as fashion bloggers, how they focus their blogs, which kind of audiences they reach out for, how they see their role in the fashion mediascape, what kind of technology they use, how they measure success, and how the digital and physical practices of fashion feed one another.

The creative process continued with the interviews. The bloggers were interviewed by email, except for one who was interviewed on the phone. It would have been unlikely to reach out and get response from the most influential bloggers in the world without the support of a prestigious organization like MFIT. As a researcher affiliated with the museum, the possibility to engage with such a group of bloggers, gave me also the benefit of collecting data that would have been otherwise out of my reach. I managed to get a good “cut” of the blogosphere with the help of MFIT’s network: International fashion influencers like the Sartorialist, fashion media pioneers like Diane Pernet and creative scholars like Anna Battista, and young upcoming photojournalists and fashion writers.

In the gallery exhibition both established and emerging fachion cities were represented, including Paris, London, New York, Sydney, Mexico City, Seoul, Johannesburg, Istanbul and many others. Helsinki was also included into the electronic publication as an emerging fashion capital. Geographically the selection of the bloggers covered all other continents except Australia and Antarctica. We interviewed eleven bloggers: four male and seven female participants. The photos on the blogs and the answers from the bloggers form the core content of the publication. Bloggers participated in the project as ambassadors of their local visual culture who bring the voices of the streets to the exhibition audience.

The electronic publication was launched online during the run of the exhibition both online and in the gallery. We also wanted to engage fashion audiences, scholars, historians as well as street photographers to contribute in a digital manner or on the publication Pinterest page. MFIT’s social media strategy includes a variety of channels for example Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. The sizeable global group of MFIT’s social media followers offered me a rich source to measure how the publication found its audience. The museum staff shared their excellent insight on how to choose right channels when building campaigns and when engaging audiences.

Hands-on work and virtual collaboration

The hands-on work together with the museum staff, university staff, bloggers, graphic designers, web programmers, social media managers, publication managers, exhibition curators, exhibition organizers, museum audience, the Finnish Cultural Institute, international fellow researchers, press office and FIT library staff was the most enriching experience during the whole process. Especially quick changes or so called pivot points forced us to innovate new features for the publication. These new ideas increased the expertise of an individual worker however experienced s/he might have been in the beginning. Peer-to-peer learning at its best!

Digital strategy implementation, modern curation procedure, community management and creative combination of digital and physical (gallery) content are essential for cultural organizations to engage audiences. Diversity means rich content but it also raises questions. The whole data collected during the interview process is interesting and useful. This data was brought together with the data from the museum audiences via web analytics. This combination is unique and highly valuable for my further academic studies on digital fashion and media.

Fashion has been historically feminized and therefore often regarded with condescension as often thought of as somewhat anti-intellectual. It seems like the younger internet natives are much more open-minded in terms of the scope of fashion writing. I like to pursue this change when lecturing about fashion blogging giving presentations for professional fashion designers. The publication offered me the chance to branch out as an author as well. Curation and virtual community management are needed to complete this kind of complex international project. In co-operation with MFIT’s highly professional team we managed to create beautiful and meaningful digital content and curate virtual organic content. Fellowship at MFIT gave me a chance to work with a truly global art community and with outstanding digital and creative resources.

The virtual collaboration with fashion bloggers and communities also explored the boundaries of engagement and authentic content. During the publication project I’ve been working on an innovative model for cultural crowd production in order to enlarge the use of collective intelligence and to increase the use of eCulture. The publication is launched in a fully responsive format so that it is reachable for all devices.

There is no set path for how to engage global fashion bloggers or fashion audiences. Together with MFIT I had a chance to create one possible working model. We now have a unique report about one specific period in this fast-changing world of fashion as a result of the research, virtual interaction, content provided by the local artists and authors worldwide, interactive curation process, web analytics and the feedback from the online publication. The story of the current state of an artform called fashion is told by the men and women who love fashion and have the vocation to report on fashion in their blogs to their audiences around the globe.

Learning about digital publishing

My primary aims in the project were to learn more about the creative process of digital publishing in the exhibition context, and to learn more about fashion blogging itself. I consider this well accomplished. In my opinion I gained a great deal of competence while in New York. I improved my professional language skills, I enriched my cultural knowledge and tolerance of course but also other international competences like productivity, resilience and curiosity. I consider these valuable assets in regards to what the future or working life and international competences could be perceived. Ubiquitous “hybrid learning” happens when time is limited and one makes instant decisions needed, based on the knowledge available at the moment in a team. My experiences during the Mobius fellowship also increased my motivation to study and work within the area of fashion. I see more clearly now that fashion is a modern, dynamic form of culture and business and it can find synergy in other sectors.

It was highly educational to see how academic knowledge was brought to public discussion by MFIT. For example, the museum director Valerie Steele has been a pioneer of popularizing fashion research. I also had the chance to participate in the social media campaign of the exhibition and the publication. This was an exclusive opportunity for me to measure and analyse the audience of a globally significant cultural organization. The design, production and implementation of the social media campaign was intriguing both as a an experience of a working process and as a learning opportunity. The quality and the amount of the data are unique and therefore offer me valuable possibilities for further studies on digital media and fashion culture.

I introduced my project for the the FIT’s Global Fashion Management Studies program and found several peers to talk with. In my speech I raised the question about how fashion blogging works in the modern cultural and commercial fashion scene. Sometimes the cultural influences have been seen trickling down from the elite, like for example Pierre Bourdieu has written. The fashion elite and the press have been seen almost as “fashion tyranny.” On the other hand, for example the punk movement and its cultural influences grew from the grassroot level and early fashion bloggers changed the game in a similar way when taking away part of the media power from the fashion critics. Their voice was not the industry’s voice nor did they see fashion through the lense of commerce. Nowadays the fashion industry tries to make fashion bloggers to serve the elite again.

My project continues after returning to Finland. I’m translating the publication into Finnish and constructing learning materials based on the interview data for Finnish fashion education. At the moment I’m also writing a book about fashion blogging and I keep on working on blogger research.