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The pieces are Neely’s representation of her perfect closet, of the things she would have ideally worn on FashionToast, the personal style blog that she launched way back in 2008. It's an extremely targeted product offering for a clothing startup that is barely a year old (think itty bitty lace bralettes for $120, silky, strappy camisoles for $180, and a croc-embossed leather miniskirt for $500), but then again, most startups don't launch with a built-in following of hundreds of thousands of women already willing to throw down their dollars to mimic the founder's slinky, undone style.
In person, the attention to detail on each piece is startling. The camisole's tiny button coverings were hand-stitched individually and the straps swing free in the back, the ends dipped in rose gold finishes. Most of the dresses are marked by a V-cut so deep that you’ll need a miracle to get through the day without unintentionally flashing a stranger. That is, if you go braless (the preferred way that nearly every piece is styled on Neely’s Instagram feed).
While these design and production anomalies might be seen as barriers to profit for a start-up that’s barely a year old, Neely’s line is also entirely self-funded. She has no board of investors to answer to, no one watching over her shoulder to make sure quarterly goals are met, and no one to tell her to stop Instagramming that leather choker before it's even up for sale on the site. She’s dabbled in capsule collections for other brands in the past — a jewelry collection for Dannijo and a retail partnership with Revolve in 2010, a couple of pieces for RVCA in 2009 — but when it came to developing her own line, Neely eschewed partnerships and poured her own resources into building out AYAI.
I’d like to know how that’s working out for her, but getting ahold of Neely is not as easy as her Instagram documentation of endless coffee shop meetups and AYAI modeling would make it seem. On a Tuesday afternoon, midway through a scorching mid-October week in LA (where AYAI is based), Neely’s assistant emails to say that an in-person interview won’t be possible as Neely is very busy throughout the next few weeks. I’m demoted to a 20-minute window for a phone call scheduled on the following Tuesday.
I end up wheedling my way into an office visit without Neely present; instead, her boyfriend and partner in the business, Chris Dowson, walks me through the line in AYAI’s downtown LA office. He gamely answers all of the questions I intended to direct to Neely, but when I start to jot down notes, he stops me. Neely is the only one permitted to speak on the record for the brand.
AYAI is a bit of a full circle moment for Neely, who got her start with an eBay shop called Treasure Chest Vintage. She reworked and sold thrifted clothing (around the same time that Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal was just getting started on eBay), then FashionToast exploded. She was famous before anyone knew what to do with bloggers, back when they were criticized for attending fashion shows in a world that existed before Instagram and Snapchat were invented.
Over the next eight years, Neely constructed and expanded her brand while the competition in the field rose exponentially. She starred in campaigns for Free People, Forever 21, and Hugo Boss, and signed a modeling contract with Next Management which still stands today. By the time AYAI had launched, Neely had witnessed every twist and turn in the dramatic saga known as the rise of personal style blogging.
"For a while they were kind of seen as outsiders, folks that are just kind of reporting on fashion but they weren’t journalists," says Kamiu Lee, the vice president of business development for Bloglovin’, a blogging platform that hosts over 700,000 bloggers and counts 7 million users in its fanbase. "They weren’t fully taken seriously as a real medium of marketing for some time. I think in the last couple of years you have seen that. Brands and agencies are increasingly devoting budgets to influencer marketing and content marketing."
"Brands and agencies are increasingly devoting budgets to influencer marketing and content marketing."
Most well-known bloggers have branched out into retail in some form, usually with a collaboration or partnership with popular retailers or designers. Garance Dore partnered with Kate Spade on a line of accessories, The Blonde Salad’s Chiara Ferragni collaborated on a shoe line for Steve Madden, We Wore What’s Danielle Bernstein released a jewelry collab with Topshop, Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine has collaborated with Nina Ricci, Superga, BaubleBar, Veda, and Outdoor Voices, among others.
"Working with a retailer, you get so many perks," Lee says. "You get built-in distribution, and they’ve optimized everything. They already have a built-in audience coming to their site every day, and it’s great promotional value to the blogger. But of course, the trade off there for the blogger is that you probably make less money per item sold, and you may have to compromise on certain things like pricing of a product or product selection or even design."
With a self-funded line like AYAI, there are no restraints, but that too comes with its own set of risks. "Your own line is certainly a bigger undertaking," Lee explains. "You need to think about sourcing materials, figuring out production, payments, logistics, shipping, and these are all things that may not be normally in the skill set of a fashion blogger. They’re really the creative person, the person that drives the branding and the promotion of a product. So these are all pieces that they would need to figure out or hire folks to figure out."
Neely isn’t the only one who has made the leap, though: Swedish blogger Elin Klingcollaborated with H&M and Guess before branching out with her own line, Toteme, in April 2014. Like Neely, Kling launched the line with the help of her then-boyfriend, now husband Karl Lindman, and she purposefully didn’t market the line to the masses but rather sold it through her own e-commerce shop, Net-A-Porter, and The Apartment, an upscale SoHo boutique. "I don't really care about good style if it's not worn on a cool woman," Kling told the Wall Street Journal at the time. "I'd rather create a world than a trend."
Similarly, Emily Schuman of Cupcakes & Cashmere launched a mainstream clothing line over the summer through Nordstrom and Shopbop which started selling out immediately, and a home line is forthcoming through Bed Bath and Beyond. (Schuman, through her manager, declined to participate in this article unless the story was solely focused on her line.) Rachel Parcell of Pink Peonies launched a jewelry line earlier this year but it has already gone on an indefinite hiatus.
Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad has seen demonstrable success from her shoe line, The Chiara Ferragni Collection. In September 2014, WWD reported that 70% of Ferragni’s $8 million in revenue came from the shoe line, which hadn’t even debuted in the US at the time. Earlier this year, the Harvard Business Review conducted a case study on Ferragni and her successful brand, marking the first time HBR had ever profiled a blogger.
"The ways that there are to monetize blogs has certainly expanded over the last ten years that I’ve been working in this space," says Elisa Camahort Page, the co-founder of BlogHer and chief community officer for SheKnows Media. "You can make money on your blog, and I think that’s what most people think of when they think of bloggers making money. That’s advertising, sponsorship, whether it’s pay-per-click advertising like Google ads or whether it’s CPM (cost per thousand impressions) advertising like we do with our network, but you’re making money from the actual traffic on the blog. And it’s a numbers game. The bigger you are, the more money you can make. But also, it’s super volatile."
Page says that the rise of social platforms has contributed to adding revenue streams that aren’t directly tied to the blogger’s website, but something else grew as well: the concept of making money because of a blogger’s name recognition. "Your blog created a platform for you, it’s what made you known, it’s what built you a following — a passionate following — and when you launch a new project, [followers] want it," she explains. "They want to be a part of it."
The concept is clearly demonstrated in Neely’s line, where tiny slip dresses and tinier shirts can sell just fine because of the fandom that she has cultivated. Her 654,000 Instagram followers are quick to sprinkle plenty of sparkling heart emojis on all of Neely’s posts where she’s wearing AYAI, along with breathless exclamations of "Gorgeous!" and "I can’t deal with how perfect you are."
After AYAI’s initial launch, the blog itself transitioned from purely an account of Neely’s favorite things to a marketing vehicle for AYAI in the same way that any start-up’s founder proudly reps their merchandise at any and all times. There were only eleven posts out of seventy published on FashionToast in the past year that didn't feature AYAI or sponsored brands, but you have to dig long and hard to find any commenters that are complaining about the transition. Negative reviews of AYAI are mostly relegated to places beyond Neely’s reach, like Revolve’s website, where 12 AYAI pieces are stocked. "Did not like at all," reads a review of the Effy romper. Another customer left a disappointing review of the Lish shirt: "The sheerness, neckline, and drape is perfectly on point, but the shirt is just way too oversized. The width makes it look way too sloppy and masculine."
"When I think of the solar system of blogs and social platforms and all the options, the blog is still kind of the sun in the solar system that people can always come back to to feel that personal connection," Camahort Page says. "And when you want somebody to buy something from you, to spend money with you? I think it’s more of an expectation now from consumers that they know who they’re spending their money with and for a blogger, the blog is still the place where they come and they are known. And that’s what builds the trust, that’s what builds the following, that’s what makes them so passionate."
"I've always had a very specific and instinctual relationship with putting clothes on my body."
Two hours before our scheduled 20-minute phone interview, Neely cancels through her assistant. I beg to either reschedule for later in the week or use quotes from Dowson, stressing that he seems quite qualified to talk about the line. Neely finally jumps into the conversation, explaining that she’s been sick lately and asks if I could write the piece without any quotes at all. When that doesn’t fly, her assistant suggests sending over his interview so Neely can approve his words beforehand.
This is obviously sliding downhill, so I grudgingly offer up a Gchat interview which Neely accepts a week later. Finally, a clear opportunity to sort this all out — why stay self-funded? How does that work? Does she still consider herself a blogger? Where does she see this going?
We start easy, talking about the initial decision to launch the line on her own. "I've always had a very specific and instinctual relationship with putting clothes on my body," she reasons via chat. "Being so picky, you just start wishing that certain things existed and that's where it started to feel like I had ideas that could be realized."
I press onward towards funding questions, commenting that the business clearly seemed structured to give her total control over every part of the process. "It was all that mattered to me which is why i [sic] didn't seek outside investment," she explains. "Looking at something that you've built on trusting yourself and seeing it grow is a feeling like no other."
I ask if the blog funds the business, but she decides that this has gotten weird and we aren’t going there. I retreat back to familiar territory, asking a price-related question that she’s already answered on "Ask Rumi," a section on her site that reads like an endlessly cheery Reddit AMA session. Afterwards, I test the waters on a question about how she balances all the demands between blogging and designing, and if she still identifies as a blogger.
"Sorry erika i'm out of time!" she types in response. "Thanks so much for putting this together i'm excited to see it!"