Lulu Chang, the “it” girl of the San Francisco fashion-blogging scene, is packing up her MacBook Pro, her Panasonic Lumix camera, her Chloe boots, and her kick-ass attitude and hightailing it to New York. This should surprise absolutely nobody, except that the first time I interview her—while she’s ransacking my closet for a potential post on wearing men’s clothes—she insists that “living purposely outside the industry” has made her who she is. “San Francisco is calm,” she tells me. “You feel free to be whatever you want.”
But that was late 2010. A few weeks later, she blogs, “A lot of people have asked why I’ve decided to move. Well, it’s not so much that I’m so in love with New York. It’s just that I can’t be in San Francisco any longer…I’ve stopped growing.” She’s over the fashion scene: “I remember when people not brands determined what items would become the ‘it’ items. And what trends would become worthy of following. These days, whenever I see a girl with the latest Acne shoes or Alexander Wang anything, I’m like…who the fuck cares? I already knew that was supposed to be cool.” And the party scene: “Basically, a bunch of pseudo interesting looking people decide to throw a party on the roof. No one cares what you do because no one is doing anything interesting themselves. Everyone is your best friend. You get wasted. And then you talk about it the next morning like it was something. It’s kind of fun for about two months. But then you start to realize that you’re just reliving the same scene from a movie, over and over again.**ETA: Sorry, I was drunk when I wrote this.”
But the real reason she’s leaving is that she has big ambitions: bestselling books, a Ghost World–like movie, long-term industry impact as a global brand. “More than anything, I want my ideas to reach mainstream success,” she says. “Reach is a powerful thing.”
For a 26-year-old born and raised in Foster City (she still lives near unglamorous SFO, she reluctantly admits, and drives the former family car: “Please don’t mention the minivan!”), Chang has a reach that’s already pretty astonishing. Hailed by Teen Vogue as “one of San Francisco’s biggest fashion talents,” she averages 6,000 to 8,000 readers a day, or 200,000 to 250,000 unique impressions a month, with fans as far away as Singapore. They love her looks (winsome, with an edge); her style (“I get a lot of questions regarding what I wear out at night. As you can see, it’s pretty much what I wear during the day. But you’d be surprised how much attention you get dressed as Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in Secretary”); and especially her blogging voice (catty, inquisitive, surly, incisive, fashion forward, and ultimately irresistible).
“These past few days, every time I meet someone new, they’re like a friend’s ex boyfriend’s brother. Or friends of friends who turn out to be the hot lesbian chicks you saw at Smiths’ night at Milk Bar that one time. But they’re not really lesbian. They’re just hot...and they used to be friends with the girl who was all over the guy you were hanging out with. But they stopped being friends because they found out the girl was stealing clothes from their store behind their back. And you stopped hanging out with the guy because he was a douche who wouldn’t give you back your Helmut Lang bracelet. Something like that.”
The fact that someone like Chang has attracted any kind of audience is, of course, the real story. Once upon a time, making fashion statements was the divine right of glossy magazine editors enthroned high above Manhattan. The career path for an aspiring fashionista was very Devil Wears Prada: tedious entry-level jobs assisting tyrannical Condé Nasties until she rose to become one herself. Then came Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and WordPress, and the shift they have ushered in—erasing the divide between expert and amateur, editor and consumer—is profound. Now bloggers sit in the front row at Fashion Week with Anna Wintour and the latest starlet (and occasionally bump other editors to row two). They preview collections for leading retailers and do marketing campaigns for top brands. Marc Jacobs named his BB bag for blogger Bryanboy, aka Bryan Grey-Yambao; Sassy creator Jane Pratt is teaming up with 14-year-old blogging prodigy Tavi Gevinson on a new publication.
Chang’s own career ladder shows how mixed up blogging, fashion, and retail have gotten. A political science and English major at UC Berkeley, she graduated in 2006 and parlayed an internship at local style bible Surface into a job at the San Francisco–based startup Chictopia.com, where she started a blog—everybodyisugly.com—that quickly took on a life of its own. Chang went solo with Lulu and Your Mom in 2009, filling it with witty trend reports (for spring, the look is “Kate Moss at a backyard BBQ”), random musings on her current obsessions (“Noboyoshi Araki flower porn, Weird Asian girls”), and a certain amount of self-mocking angst, like her explanation of why she dyed her hair flaming red: “This hair makes me feel fifteen years old. Maybe this is a good thing. I’m kind of craving a time when things were simple. I guess I’m just getting old. Oh well, at least my hair is getting younger.”
Blogs, Chang understands, are cults of personality. “I think people want to make fashion more relevant to them,” she says. “And the easiest way to do that is to associate it with a sense of personal taste. The music I listen to, the books I read, the art I like, even the way I talk…it creates a complete package, a real lifestyle. If you read a traditional commercial magazine, you don’t know where that advice is coming from—as opposed to me: You’re relating to me as a real person, and my opinions might matter more.”
And to many readers, her opinions are far more relevant than Vogue’s. “At most, you can only put out a magazine once a month. It can only go so fast. But increasingly, everyone wants to see what they should be wearing right now,” Chang says. “With so much access, most people have a much more direct relationship to a saturated high-fashion market. But they also want to be more discerning. Now you have a fast-fashion chain putting out a version of the entire line of a high-end label like Céline before it even comes out. And people want to know how they should filter. They turn to blogs for affirmation.”
So do the retailers. Chang’s advertisers include U.K.-based Net-a-Porter.com and Italian online clothing mart Yoox.com. During the last round of New York fashion shows, luxury brand Coach flew her out for a sneak peek at its spring collection. Fast-fashion giant H&M, which just launched its first collection designed by a blogger (Sweden’s Elin Kling), asked Chang to endorse a charity auction of its lucrative Lanvin-designed line.
The irony, of course, is that with her move to New York, Chang is affirming not the power of blogs but the power of print editors. As an aspiring stylist, she wants the big magazines to take notice; as a writer, she fantasizes about the New York Times bestseller list. In a way, blogs are nothing more than a calling card, a résumé. “To be perfectly honest, a lot of bloggers are just B-list celebrities, and they’re being put front row for marketing purposes,” she says. “I don’t like the idea of fashion being dictated by people who essentially have no experience in anything except talking about themselves. Influence should also come from knowledge. And a sense of trust you build with your audience.”
It’s an attitude that’s floating in the fashion ether. Designer Tom Ford, who is back in the women’s fashion game with a new spring collection, chose to show only to long-lead press, banning both web and daily coverage. Chang herself nurtures a healthy skepticism toward this age of user-generated content: “I agree with what Michael Eisner recently told the Wall Street Journal. He said it’s still not a total democracy in media. It’s still about human beings coming together and deciding what is and isn’t interesting.”
The question is whether Chang can maintain her outsider status, point of view, and voice in New York, and whether she’ll still sound distinctive among the flocks of fashion bloggers. But it’s a risk Chang is willing to take. To ring in the New Year, she chose a quote from Apple’s Steve Jobs that sums up why she’s taking flight: “What we think we are is just a collection of likes and dislikes, habits, patterns. That is why it’s hard doing interviews and being visible: As you are growing and changing, the more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you that it thinks you are, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to go, ‘Bye. I have to go. I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.’ And they go and hibernate somewhere. Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently.”
Franklin Melendez is a San Francisco contributing writer.