In June it was announced that the much-revered J. Crew CEO Millard “Mickey” Drexler would be stepping down from his position at the fashion brand. While that news in and of itself was certainly noteworthy — J. Crew's sales had suffered over the past few years, and earlier this year, creative director Jenna Lyons left the company, indicating the brand needed to shake things up — it was Drexler’s replacement that raised eyebrows in the industry. James Brett, the president of the furniture retailer West Elm and relative fashion outsider, would be taking over in a corporate about-face no one saw coming.
Or did they?
Perhaps this high-profile changing of the guard is just the most visible manifestation of a trend that’s been incubating in certain circles — notably among social media influencers. There, focusing on fashion is increasingly less desirable than casting a large net and committing to the more nebulous, broader “lifestyle” market; be it home decor, food, travel, parenting, or wellness, lifestyle has replaced the hyper-specific categorical markets that web personalities tried to corner earlier in their careers. Today, you may have noticed that many of your favorite social media stars are posting recipes they love, or chronicling a home renovation project — and that’s no accident.
It makes sense that after a certain point it was no longer enough to share the contents of your closet; in 2017, that’s a crowded market, and whether you unbox one-of-a-kind couture or steals from TJ Maxx, we, as an internet culture, have ridden that wave to the point on no return. Now, everything from the food you eat, to the couch you’re sitting on, to your summer vacation, to the diapers you swaddle your children in, can be turned into a grand promotion for Living the Good Life™. Savvy or scary? You decide.
“I feel like six, seven years ago, talent stayed in their lane,” says Reesa Lake, a partner and SVP at the influencer agency Digital Brand Architects. But Lake notes that as these web entrepreneurs grew up, the brands they built around their own lives needed to reflect that. “There’s definitely been a shift, a move toward lifestyle content,” she says. “I think that layers in with how their lives have evolved.”
Lake gives the example of Helena Glazer Hodne of Brooklyn Blonde, who touts 460K Instagram followers. “She used to be all fashion but then she started talking about beauty and skincare because that was something that was important to her," she says. "Then she bought a new home, so she started to do interiors and how she is redesigning her home and her space. And as she became a mom she started to layer in topics that were related to pregnancy and raising a family.”
As Web 1.0 celebrities grew up, the fashion market became more saturated and was quickly co-opted by marketers, making it a less desirable space to be embedded within. Plus, why limit yourself? As influencers saw that they could live their lives as content — streamed on Snapchat or Instagram stories, a reality show in the palm of your hand — the business opportunities became endless.
There may be another reason for this shift, and that’s the new generation of consumers and their habits. “This ties into the wider shift in Millennials opting for experiences over stuff,” says Sarah Owen, senior editor, digital media & marketing at the trend forecasting firm WGSN. “When it comes to social media bragging, the youth have a new social currency — culture and lifestyle,” she explains. “We see this demographic invest in the experiential, and the ultimate bragging rights are in the wellness, travel, and lifestyle sectors. Posting a photo of a designer handbag is no longer associated with the changing notion of luxury. What is considered to be a luxury today is time and travel, it’s wellness and well-cultured individuals. That’s the new currency.”
In some ways, this holistic idea of lifestyle — that the indicators of wealth are not just outward totems like clothing and accessories — can be traced back to September 2008 when Gwyneth Paltrow launched Goop, then just a newsletter that trafficked in New Age-y services and advice. Looking back, Paltrow was prescient in her ability to see that luxury could be applied to a person’s environment and interior wellbeing — that the good life isn’t just quantified by what one owns, but by how one exists and interacts with the world around them.
Since then, Goop has become a standalone site with an e-commerce component; most recently, it branched out into events like the Goop Summit, which just took place in June. It sells high-end apparel and accessories, wellness treatments, and not to mention its own in-house label of vitamins, cosmetics, and fashion.
“The way we define lifestyle is pretty simple: What’s relevant to our lives, today,” says Elise Lohnen, head of content at Goop. To hear her tell it, this move to lifestyle isn’t just marketing mumbo jumbo, it’s the acknowledgement, thanks to the multitudinous voices allowed to be heard via the internet, that people aren’t marketing types, and that in every woman’s life there are multitudes, sometimes conflicting ones. “The reality is that, like a majority of women, we are multi-faceted, complex, and surprising even to ourselves, and we’re interested in a huge range of things, whether it’s the Louisiana Museum, orgasm equality, a really great pantsuit, or the best YA books for a tween niece. We are capable of considering all of those things at once. Ultimately, I think that’s what we do best — represent that we can be many things, simultaneously. Bad cooks, good cooks, sexual, maternal, feminine, tough in business, interested in fashion, cultural, empathetic.” Perhaps that sounds like the mantra of longstanding women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan? Then it shouldn’t be a surprise that Goop has gone into business with Conde Nast and is releasing a print magazine this fall.
Lohnen says that the wellness content performs particularly well on their site, but also where wellness overlaps with beauty and food. “Our readers are very interested in taking autonomy over their health and driving changes in their daily routine that can have a big impact on how they feel,” she says.
“When you’re talking about a product, they don’t just want a review of the product, they want to see it in your life, they want to see it integrated,” says Chriselle Lim, of The Chriselle Factor. “Instead of showing off my outfit of the day, I’ll say: I bought this because I can wear this ten times, in different ways. I’ll show them how I wore it to work or a date. Yes, it’s still fashion, but it has evolved into how it fits into my life.”
Lim started her online career around eight years ago focusing on fashion-centric YouTube videos (she currently has more than 723K subscribers to her channel). Since then, Lim has had a baby and now runs a team of 10, including editorial and sales, and those aspects of her life are, naturally, part of the content she creates.
Lim says that her audience is especially interested in personal moments that oftentimes aren’t about any product, like when her daughter or husband make cameos on the site. For long-time followers, that peek behind the scenes is interesting. “They grew up with my family, they’re part of my family,” she says. For many followers, people like Chriselle aren’t just “brands,” they’re trusted advisors who talk about the frustrations of balancing a life and career and they’re favorite zoodle recipes, and those things can go hand-in-hand. For example, in addition to motherhood content, high-end fashion performs well for her, something a consultant she hired recently noted is an interesting mix. “But you should embrace the unique things about your brand,” she says.
But influencers aren’t the only ones waking up to these changes. In addition to J. Crew, which is looking outside the traditional fashion realm for new corporate hires to lead the way, Owen notes that the brand Free People is broadening its purview. “For example, FP Escapes is a program that allows shoppers to buy an organized trip with the brand that includes things such as raw food workshops or surf lessons,” she says. “They know the consumer landscape is changing and they’re adapting to it. The brand also launched a new Beauty & Wellness tab where it sells things like Amethyst crystals and magnesium oil, tapping into this shift that prioritizes wellness as the most important priority for young people. We expect to see more and more products following suit as they realize the important of making bigger, lateral shifts to keep top of mind for shoppers.”
While some bemoan the new climate where influencers dictate trends in a trickle-up economy, this move hints that the social media bubble is far from bursting. “I think it’s going to get much more granular in the elements that create this lifestyle,” Lake says. “The boundaries of fashion, beauty, home, food, they’re much more blurred than they were in past.”
Today, influencers are the conduit through which brands reach audiences — the ones they can’t through the pages of Vogue or Elle — and Lake sees audiences more engaged than ever. “I would say, unless they’re in a really specific niche, everything will start to tell the story of lifestyle: who this person is, what are they wearing, where are they traveling, who their friends are, what airline are they flying on, what card do they use to make purchases. That’s what the audience wants, they want to know everything — where someone gets their hair done, what they buy at Whole Foods, what’s in their diaper bag.”
Recently, Lake notes, big brands that've been more traditionally minded have shown openness to partnering not only with influencers, but with those who may, on first appearance, seem outside their target audience. “The brands we work with, they’re looking for diversity in the brands that they work with. They want diversity in terms of the audience they’re reaching.”
Owen agrees. “I actually expect to see an increase in influencers in the social impact sphere; influencers that stand for something bigger and more encompassing than just an individual’s pursuit of living a perfect life,” Owen says. “Think climate change advocates, zero-waste influencers, and gender equality ambassadors.” Owen gives Lauren Singer of Trash Is For Tossers and Elizabeth Farrell, who goes by the pseudonym Glacier Girl as examples.
“I think that’s probably the most palpable shift in the way people consume content,” Loehnen says, explaining that personal narratives perform well on their site. And the personal essay — long a mainstay of journalism, and now being adapted to a social media landscape where everything from a Facebook update to an Instagram story, in its way, endures.
“People are moving away from just wanting things,” she says. “Instead, they also want trips, treatments, sessions, and incredible meals — all those things that remind you of how wonderful it is to be alive.”