On a freezing night in New York, Olivia Palermo sashays into the fashionable Vietnamese restaurant Indochine. Her husband Johannes Huebl follows a few steps behind, allowing photographers to snap the perfect solo shot of her. She wears a fuzzy Haute Hippie vest, knee-high Christian Louboutin boots, and a bohemian dress the color of merlot, which she designed for Nordstrom’s in-house line called Chelsea28. The dinner, held on the first night of New York Fashion Week in February, was thrown in honor of Palermo’s collaboration with the retailer, a collection she describes as “tailored and sporty-chic, with a little color.”
Palermo is not a designer — at least that’s not her full-time job. Her Wikipedia page calls her an “American socialite” by way of the New York charity circuit, followed by a role in the MTV reality television show “The City.” Yet Nordstrom is paying her what is likely a significant sum to design the capsule line. Why choose Palermo when there are hordes of up-and-coming designers who would eagerly work with the nationwide retailer? Because Palermo has a captive audience, one that wants to dress just like her — and is willing to pay for it.
Palermo is representative of a growing class of young women taking advantage of their social standing, turning followers into customers, “likes” into dollar signs and their names into bona-fide companies. Call it the business of being an It Girl.
But what, exactly, is an It Girl today? The term has been thrown around for almost a century, but in recent decades has come to describe the type of women who sit front-row at fashion week, appear on event tip sheets and get photographed by Billy Farrell.
There are numerous forms of It these days: It models such as Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss, who dominate the headlines; bloggers like Man Repeller or The Blonde Salad with impressive social media followings, or reality TV stars who are It for baring all — think the Kardashians. But the origins of the term were more linked to women like Palermo — social gadabouts — and today they are out to make a buck off of their It-ness. In the modern world, they’ve all but replaced the Ladies Who Lunch in terms of social currency, thanks in part to the power of personal branding.
In some sense, it is brands that started the monetization process — tapping into influencers and social media instead of traditional advertising to tout their wares, or to up their cool factor. Take the proliferation of female DJs — Alexa Chung, Hannah Bronfman, Harley Viera-Newton, Chelsea Leyland and Atlanta de Cadenet Taylor among them. “Before, [brands] would have these smelly dudes with vinyl records come and do their party,” says one industry public relations rep. “And then they thought, ‘oh, we can get more bang for our buck if we can get some of these girls to wear a pretty dress and DJ. They have social media followings and they hang out with cool people and our stuff can be seen on them.’ [Brands] just wised up.”
In doing so, they created a new career path. Bronfman and Leyland get paid $5,000 for an appearance — more when they’re DJing or contractually Instagramming. De Cadenet Taylor rakes in $4,000 a gig, according to industry sources. “Brands are going to hire you if they know that you’re an addition to a tip sheet that’s automatically going to generate Vogue coverage. Plus [it helps] if you’re a cute girl and you can wear the clothes,” says Sydney Reising, chief executive officer of her own p.r. firm. She adds, “You have to pay girls, this is the modern-day business. Brands that refuse to accept it, I’m like, ‘you guys need to adapt.'”
The impressive thing about Palermo is how long she’s been playing the game. Before working with Nordstrom, she collaborated with the nail polish company Ciaté, the shoe designer Aquazzura and the accessories e-commerce site BaubleBar. “I just kind of have to like
the brand and what they’re doing,” Palermo says at the Indochine dinner, speaking about how she decides what to take on. “I think in time, I will do my own thing. With the collaborations, it’s all been a learning experience.”
There is more of a strategy behind those decisions than Palermo lets on. In fact, entire branches of agencies navigate this new business model. “We start with trying to pinpoint the brand,” says Jennifer Powell at Next Models, who manages the “social media talent” and the “influencers” for the agency, including Viera-Newton, Chung, Langley Fox Hemingway and Sofía Sanchez de Betak. Powell started with bloggers, Fashiontoast’s Rumi Neely specifically, who was charging as much as $3,000 for dedicated posts in 2014, according to earlier WWD reports. “We created rates based on what we know that the clients were paying for model rates,” Powell says. “That’s how it burst the monetization of these girls. As additional social media platforms were added on over the years, with Instagram and Twitter and so forth, then we would create rates around that, too…because the advertising value was going up.”
“It’s about having the right team, and it’s a lot about positioning,” Reising says. “And making sure you’re not over [doing it], even if it’s a lot of money, you have to be carefully curating it.” As in, choosing what to say “yes” to. “I like to think of it more like a strategic curation,” Reising continues. “So do some of the money gigs, but also do some of the cool stuff and don’t do some of the money gigs. It’s about keeping it authentic.”
Keeping it authentic — or at least appearing to — is the key to making this business work. Take Chung, the It Brit with 2.1 million Instagram followers, a new fashion app called Villoid and a book, aptly titled “It.” “She doesn’t support brands she doesn’t believe in, she doesn’t wear clothing she doesn’t like,” explains Anthony Kendal, who started his own communications agency but worked closely with Chung when he was at Mytheresa.com. “She has integrity and I think that integrity and that intelligence is how she’s made herself into a proper brand. She’s managed it extremely well. She also crosses so many boundaries — she can be very high-fashion, but also people on a mass level are really interested in what she’s doing as well. That globalization of a person is quite particular to Alexa.”
And the fastest way to lose your audience? When it seems like you’re only in it for the money. In the early Aughts, Palermo had a well-documented rival: Tinsley Mortimer. Both were chronicled heavily by the web site Socialiterank.com, attended the right parties and were featured on Page Six. But while Palermo parlayed that image into money-making ventures, Mortimer was all but chased out of New York.
“I didn’t set out to become a brand…being a colorful Southern girl in a sea of black in New York, I think that caught me a little bit of notice, but it wasn’t intentional,” Mortimer says. “Patrick McMullan started to photograph me a lot. When I saw that, I did go out to more events and looked the way I was supposed to look and got photographed more because I was leveraging that into a business.”
She became a beauty ambassador for Dior and designed handbags and clothing with the Japanese company Samantha Thavasa. But the messaging didn’t work. She was too ubiquitous, too ambitious, too hungry for attention. And then came the reality show “High Society,” which Slate called “a hideously deformed Edith Wharton story.”
“I wasn’t too happy with the outcome of it, just because I had completely lost control of what my image was,” she says. “I felt like I was drowning a little bit and I had to keep my head above water just to fight for me to be me.” Needless to say, she lost the fight, separated from her husband, Topper Mortimer, and fled to Palm Beach, Fla., where she’s still Page Six bait. “Socialite Tinsley Mortimer arrested for trespassing,” read a headline just last month, after she was reportedly found crying and screaming outside the home of her ex-boyfriend, Alexander Fanjul.
But perhaps the problem was that Mortimer was just ahead of her time. “[People] are doing their own little reality TV on Instagram,” she says. “Everyone is doing it. I mean, I got so much flack for it at the beginning but now it’s completely normal.”
There is still a lot of flack that surrounds the It Girl moniker and a tendency to dismiss anyone with those qualities as a viable career woman. In fact, no one interviewed for this article wanted that title attached to them.
“Chloë Sevigny was called [an It Girl] and it annoyed the s–t out of her,” says one p.r. rep. “It annoys everybody because it implies that you don’t do anything.” Having multiple gigs and projects only seems to perpetuate this idea.
“People have a hard time if you do more than one thing well,” continues the p.r. rep. “People get suspicious and are, like, ‘well what does she do?'”
“I do find that there is a lot of sexism involved,” Viera-Newton says. “Often when a woman has multiple interests or skills the It Girl label is thrown on her, which unfortunately can have a ‘talentless’ connotation. Whereas a multihyphenate man is almost always taken seriously and celebrated for his individual talents.”
It’s difficult to describe Viera-Newton — or any of the other “don’t-call-me-an-It-Girls.” She’s a DJ, but she’s not just a DJ; a model, but not just a model. She’s collaborated with Diane von Furstenberg, but she’s not a designer. She shows up to a lot of fashion shows and parties. There are a lot of pictures of her out there. What is someone supposed to call her other than an It Girl?
“I’d rather just be called a DJ than an It Girl/DJ,” Leyland says. “It Girl has always signified somebody that is of the moment, meaning it’s quite fleeting. It doesn’t feel like it’s got much substance to it. I also remember when I was younger thinking an It Girl was someone like Paris Hilton. It was someone who came from a lot of money and didn’t have to make any money for themselves.”
Yet make money they did. Hilton is still plugging away after all these years. Though she doesn’t capture the spotlight much these days, her business empire rolls on as she, too, has turned herself into a DJ, fashion designer and perfumer. This is a marked difference in today’s generation of professional partygoers, versus the previous ones — whether they come from money or not, it seems they’re all jumping at the business opportunities.
Lauren Remington Platt, for example, was just a gun heiress before she launched her beauty venture, Vênsette. Bronfman, daughter of businessman (and former chief executive officer of Warner Music Group) Edgar Bronfman Jr., presumably had plenty of funds to start her web site, HBFit, or her app, Beautified. As did Lauren Santo Domingo — wife of Andrés Santo Domingo, the youngest son of Colombian business magnate Julio Mario Santo Domingo — who started the luxury e-commerce site Moda Operandi.
“I’m old enough to have known pretty well Pat Buckley and Nan Kempner and all those fashionable ladies in New York who weren’t expected to work, their husbands made the money or they inherited money,” says Bob Colacello, the former Interview editor and prolific social writer. “There wasn’t this pressure to have a career for a woman of that generation.”
Cornelia Guest, daughter of the grande dame of society women, C.Z., and herself a combination of debutante and It Girl since she was 16, also points to women joining the workplace as a cause of this societal shift. “In my mother’s day, it was very charity-driven. Women didn’t work, it was all about the family, taking care of the husband, and keeping house,” she says, calling out von Furstenberg and Carolina Herrera as “mavericks” for the It Girl-to-business transition. (Guest herself has a faux fur line and a burgeoning acting career.)
The idea of It has been around for decades, going back to Clara Bow, who starred in the Paramount Studios film “It” in 1927. In Guest’s 1986 memoir, “The Debutante’s Guide to Life,” she wrote, “If you have enough money and a good name, you could do anything.” The difference now is that you don’t need either. “Now it’s diluted; there are so many people doing it,” Guest says.
The new It Girls represent a democratized high society, in a sense. You don’t have to be born with that silver spoon to be invited to all the parties — you just need an appropriately filtered Instagram photo. “Whoever has the most followers has the most power,” says Sanchez de Betak, adding ominously, “and they all need to sell.”
Beyond appearances and DJing — and before starting your own business, like Remington Platt or Santo Domingo — there are a number of ways to turn a following into cold, hard cash. Collaborations are one easy way, particularly because brands are so eager. “We learned really early on the importance of celebrity and implicit endorsements from tastemakers through their Instagram or just by wearing it or being photographed in it,” says Robert Denning, the founder and creative director of the Los Angeles sunglass company Westward Leaning.
It was Palermo who reached out to him to collaborate, though, and not the other way around (see: business savvy). “She was driving so many sales for us,” Denning continues. “So I thought, [she’s] as good as anyone at helping me decide what customers are going to like.”
“For us, we wanted to find a collaborator who had both a commercial and a cool appeal,” says Samuel Ku, creative director of AG Jeans, which launched a successful collaboration with Chung in 2014. “As soon as we launched, there were a couple of web sites that sold out of the product in a matter of 15 minutes,” he says.
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Chung received a combined up-front fee and a revenue share deal for her work with AG Jeans. Palermo gets a cut of whatever sales she’s referring directly from her own web site to Westward Learning. When Fox Hemingway collaborated with the e-commerce line Everlane, she received a 10 percent fee.
Meanwhile, new apps have sprung up solely to cash in on influencer appeal. Net-a-porter’s social network, The Net Set, for example, has a roster of women including Poppy Delevingne and Natalie Joos to “curate the products and content they love…as well as contribute their own imagery to create a personal edit of what they are loving right now,” according to Sarah Watson, vice president of social commerce for The Net-a-porter Group. Though Watson says they work “all for the love of fashion,” when pressed for information on payment, public relations manager Christine Kapp notes, “We have individual agreements with each of our Style Council members, tailored specifically for each person.”
Along with budgetary benefits, it’s also valuable for visibility reasons to be christened a tastemaker by a company as large and globally reaching as Net-a-porter.
Another commissions-based app, Liketoknow.it, has been used by the likes of Bronfman and Sanchez de Betak — it frequently pops up in their Instagram captions. Part of the company RewardStyle, Liketoknow.it allows users to tag items in their social media posts, be it clothing, beauty or furniture brands. If their tags drive a sale, they receive a 7 to 20 percent commission, depending on the company. It’s a hefty fee — average affiliate commissions hover around 3 percent — but RewardStyle vets incoming applications and those accepted are called “premium influencers” by the sales team. In case one was wondering about the power of said influencers, since launching in June 2014, Liketoknow.it has driven north of $60 million in sales.
Which is all to say there is legitimate money to be made — and why shouldn’t she make it if she can? Especially while she still can. Because the It Girl thing has a shelf life.
In von Furstenberg’s 2014 book, “The Woman I Wanted to Be,” she describes her life with her first husband Egon von Furstenberg:
“…[we] were the It couple in town. Our youth, our looks and our means put us on every invitation list and in social columns. On any given night, we went out to at least one cocktail party, a dinner, sometimes a ball, and always a stop at some gay bar at the end of the night….Life was fast, to say the least, too fast, finally, for me.”
“I’m getting burned out already,” says Sanchez de Betak, who works as an art director, contributes to Condé Nast Traveler, has a biweekly column in an Argentinian newspaper, consults for Starwood hotels and is working on a book. “But that just makes you more selective, which I think is necessary in this business. You cannot just sell yourself to everyone who comes knocking. Obviously there’s a lot of money out there that you could get all the time, but it doesn’t drive my career. I think that gives you leverage and makes you more substantial. You last longer. I’d rather last longer and make less.”
Joos agrees. “Last year or two years ago I would go to everything. Because for me, it was a new thing and people were inviting me everywhere and I was like, ‘oh this is awesome’. So I went to everything and built these contacts and now I can sort of relax and be more picky about what I go to,” she says. For Joos, the perils of “fun-employment” have proved that enough is enough — at the time of this interview, she planned to move to Los Angeles and write a book. “I’m 40 years old, I’ve come to this point where I’m like, you know what? It’s time to get serious. You’re a woman now, stop playing,” she says.
Even Chung has taken a step back, bowing out of Coachella this year after a decade. “I went for about 10 years, which really ages me,” she told WWD during an event in California for Villoid. “It’s a wonderful festival. Last year, queuing for a taxi for three hours was like the final nail in the coffin for me.”
Leyland already has a plan to transition out of the party circuit — she’s starting a charity to benefit epilepsy research, a disease both she and her sister suffer from. “I’m asked often about what face cream I use on an airplane, or what’s on my wish list for next season. I really struggle with answering those kinds of things because I feel like it gives off this persona, which isn’t really true to myself, and I’d much rather be talking about something that means more to me,” she says. “I want to be able to use all of the relationships I’ve created that perhaps don’t feel like they have that much substance and turn them into something that does have substance.”
The fact that so many have their eye on life after It Girl-dom perhaps proves it is a fleeting endeavor — one to cash in on and then move on. But move on to what?
When e-mailing Bronfman’s rep for participation in this story, he declined, explaining, “We have been focusing on aligning her more with the celeb/talent world versus the New York/influencer world with the projects she has in the works as we are really looking to take that next step.”
If the It Girl has replaced Ladies Who Lunch, is celebrity the next frontier for these women?
“This thing called ‘celebrity’ has overshadowed, overwhelmed society in the media,” Colacello says.
“I worked for Andy Warhol and he predicted everything when he said in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. This obsession with fame, fame at all costs, it’s why Donald Trump is doing so well. Fame has become the highest value, more than achievement, more than money even, in a funny way.”
“But if everybody’s promoting themselves and everybody has two million hits or followers… it’s like if everybody’s famous then nobody’s famous. All of these selfies, where are they going to go? Where are they all going to end up?”