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image: Le21eme.com
image: Le21eme.com

Recent fashion months have brought about an initiative amongst street style photographers. Called #NoFreePhotos, the hashtag is being used by some of the fashion industry’s most sought-after fashion month photographers, who claim that influencers are posting their copyright-protected street style photos on social media in order to fulfill their obligations to the brands and retailers that are paying them to drive traffic and induce sales (by wearing their garments and accessories) to and from the bi-annual runway shows.

The photographers behind the movement have stated that their efforts are not just directed at influencers. Instead, they hope their unionization and catchy hashtag will help shed light on a larger issue within fashion’s ecosystem – one that is being facilitated by the industry’s biggest brands, which are, essentially, causing many street style photographers and their subjects – the street style stars/influencers – to work for free.

This is, in part, because brands are not specifically allocating funds for influencers’ usage of street style photographers’ photos in furtherance of partnership/endorsement deals, even though they are being used in a commercial capacity.

This raises some interesting points as to the imbalance that is inherent in the fashion industry (and other industries, as well, of course), namely in terms of how most of its established purveyors of garments and accessories contract with those within fashion’s ecosystem.

An Influencer or An Intern?

Not too long ago, unpaid interns came out in droves to call foul on the industry and its pervasive use of unpaid internships, which according to no shortage of these class action lawsuits, was being done in order to avoid paying entry level employees. Aside from some of the small brands that were on the receiving end of lawsuits, the vast majority of the defendants were sizable industry entities.

Conde Nast, which owns Vogue, W, Allure, Glamour, Vanity Fair, and GQ, amongst other publications, was one of the first companies to be sued. Lawsuits against BurberryGucciCalvin KleinMarc JacobsOscar de la RentaCoach, Tommy Hilfiger, Fendi, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan, among others, were also filed.

The common thread in all of these lawsuits? Claims that the fashion industry and its participants routinely and “systematically” take advantage of interns, “misclassifying entry level employees as interns to avoid paying them minimum wage.”

The buzz regarding unpaid internships has died down quite a bit since the initial flurry of litigation roughly five years ago, but another potential form of the fashion establishment collectively taking advantage of those within its ranks seems to have come to light as a result of the #NoFreePhotos movement.

Not What it Seems in the Photos

While influencers have been none too pleased with what they must likely see as the latest in a string of attacks against them (you may recall scathing treatment by way of a handful of Vogue editors last year, for example), there is, nonetheless, some common ground: Both influencers and photographers are actually getting the short end of the stick here, so to speak. And coming out on top? The industry’s biggest fashion houses.

As BryanBoy – one of the influencers who has spoken out in light of the #NoFreePhotos initiative – stated, “The notion that many influencers are being ‘disproportionately’ paid by brands [which is what the photographers’ press release alleges] to wear clothes [to fashion shows] is quite laughable.”

As it turns out, not all of the industry’s well-known influencers land deals like those being boasted by Chiara Ferragni or Aimee Song, the latter of which inked one of the largest beauty deals for a blogger to date in April. Laura Mercier is said to be paying Song upwards of $500,000 to be an ambassador for the brand. Ferragni, who brings in millions per year for her work, reportedly landed a $300,000 to be the face of Amazon Fashion for one season in Europe last year. 

While these deals are the ones that routinely make headlines, these women do not represent the norm for most influencers. In fact, as BryanBoy told The Cut, “I don’t get paid to wear clothes at a show. No one gets paid to wear clothes; most people don’t even get paid to attend to the show. It’s really about establishing relationships with the brands and playing your cards right.”

In a lengthy Instagram post, BryanBoy elaborated: “Do these photographers know how absolutely CHEAP and I mean CHEAP many of the brands are? They have budget to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a printed page on a magazine that only a handful of people read at the hair salon. But they clearly don’t have budget to spend on people online and they feel they shouldn’t be compensated.”

He went on to state, “A lot of the girls I know are NOT being paid to wear clothes. Many spend money to go back and forth for ‘fittings,’ borrow samples and are often dressed by brands to be in their ‘good graces.’ Some even dress them and plonk them on second or third row. All for free! And influencers are happy to do all that shit to develop a (usually disposable) ‘relationship’ with brands who are more than happy to move on to the next girl with even more followers.”

And it seems that this has been the status quo for some time now. Bryan’s comments are in line with those he made back in 2014, when he told Fashionista, “Fashion Month is a huge business expense for me. The notion that bloggers are being flown left and right, all expenses paid, by brands during fashion week is simply not true for everyone.”

So, if influencers are dressed by brands to attend their shows and other events during the bi-annual fashion weeks and are almost certainly getting snapped by the street style photographers all the while – either for those photographers’ own websites or for big-name publications, such as Vogue and W, which maintain regularly-updated fashion week street style galleries – but are not paid to do so, then why do it?

Well, to position themselves to one day be paid to do so. 

Bryanboy told The Cut that influencers provide free press for brands (by wearing and posting photos of their clothing and/or accessories) “to establish a good relationship with them.” As The Cut writes, “It gets your foot in the door, and hopefully results in paying gigs down the line. So, even if influencers are not profiting directly from street style photos, they are potentially gaining from them in the long run.”

However, promoting or endorsing a brand – for free – certainly does not guarantee that a lucrative partnership deal will come into fruition. More often than not, deals between a brand and an influencer consist of a gifted bag (in exchange for x number of Instagram posts), a Maserati ride (as long as you properly tag the brand!), or maybe a trip, none of which can be used to pay rent. (Note: This is something models, many of whom are paid in “trade” – aka are “paid” by way of garments and accessories (a common practice in New York) – have spoken out about in the past).

Interestingly enough, this is not unlike how street style photographers operate, as well – often footing the bill for their own travel/accommodation costs – in hope of landing lucrative deals with brands or publications as a result. 

As street style photographer Adam Katz Sinding told the New York Times, “These partnerships [between brands and influencers] drive millions of dollars’ worth of sales and hinge on our work, yet few photographers ever get paid for their service and that just isn’t right. An occasional tag is not enough and it doesn’t pay the bills.”

Regardless of whether a season of freebie photos of and Instagram posts by an influencer leads to a paying partnership, the brand at issue gains a fair amount of free marketing thanks to the influencer at play without having to sacrifice much (shelling out a few dozen free bags to influencers is not much of a loss for Fendi).

It is also worth considering the fact that there is an endless stream of individuals willing to post brand-promoting imagery online for little more than a free bag, making it so that brands do not really have to pay. As BryanBoy told the Times, “As long as newer people come into the game willing to work for nothing to get their foot in the door, and legacy brands and titles gain from that status quo, this is a situation that will keep perpetuating itself.”

There may not be any interns explicitly in the mix here (although it is likely there are many floating around). But it is rather difficult to ignore how much this feels like yet another example of the fashion machine taking advantage of those that are situated further down on the totem pole.