The Triangle’s fashion bloggers
by Mimi Montgomery
In The Age of the Smartphone, where social media and viral hits reign supreme, blogging has evolved from a solo, diary-like activity into a lucrative field that allows tech-savvy entrepreneurs to create their own online communities-slash-marketplaces, right from their own homes.
Here in the Triangle, style bloggers in particular have a growing toehold. A primarily female-dominated pool, these locals are showcasing their own takes on the fashion, beauty, decor, health, and lifestyle worlds, and contributing to the innovative spirit of the Triangle. This is “a place that just naturally fosters creativity,” says Molly Stillman, Still Being Molly blogger and founder of the Triangle Fashion, Beauty, Food, and Lifestyle Bloggers group (TriFABB), a community of 160 bloggers begun in 2012. The many startups, small businesses, and entrepreneurs’ groups that pepper RTP and downtown Raleigh and Durham make for fertile ground, she says.
The Triangle is also a place where female blogging entrepreneurs forge friendships and encourage each other. “It’s a really supportive community where a lot of people want to collaborate together, because when you win, I win,” says Meghan Grant of Holly Springs, the blogger behind I’m Fixin’ To and co-founder of the Raleigh Blog Society. “It’s good for both of us.”
With reaches near and far, these women are redefining what it means to be an entrepreneur in the 21st century. Their work may come with a steep learning curve and many late nights, but bringing a dose of style to the Triangle is what they love – and increasingly, it’s a real business, too.
Not just a hobby
Many of these local bloggers started their sites as sideline hobbies or creative outlets. Working in corporate jobs, they wanted an open space to share their stylish ideas and their writing. “When I was growing up, I used to change outfits like, three times a day, and I always used to have to put on a party dress,” says Angela Keeley-White of Raleigh, who works full-time for a financial planning and investment company and started her style blog Head to Toe Chic in 2011. So she decided to turn that passion into a side gig, writing posts filled with outfit inspirations, style tips, and eye-catching photography.
When Raleighite Shelby Vanhoy was rejected from dental school, she took a hard look at her passions and felt the need for more creativity in her life. “I was thinking, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’” she says. “I’ve always had an interest in photography, travel, style…” So in 2014, she bought a camera and starting her blog Pretty in the Pines, which led to her current job managing marketing for Bailey’s Fine Jewelry.
Keeley-White and Vanhoy are not alone. What started as an outside hobby for many of these women has quickly become a second career. When they leave full- and part-time jobs at the end of the day, they head home to another one, where they create editorial calendars, schedule and write posts, organize photo shoots, edit photo batches, monitor site traffic, respond to readers, and negotiate brand campaigns and sponsored posts.
“It comes across as so glamorous,” says Chapel Hill’s Lauren Steele of LC Steele. She’s talking about the stylish photography spreads and Instagram posts bloggers are known for. But for the Mississippi native who balances her blog with her job at a legal consulting business, it’s hard work, too. “You don’t see 90 percent of the time it took,” she says. “It is way more time-consuming than people give it credit for.” It’s her job, she says, to make it look easy.
Vanhoy agrees: “It’s like a 12-hour day, every day.” But it pays off: The popularity of these blogs is a testament to the consumer demand for the women’s content. “So far, it’s really been worth it,” she says. “The people you meet, the community you grow, the opportunities you get – it correlates with how hard you’re working.”
Brave new world
For a successful style blogger, business opportunities can be vast. With the advent of content monetization platforms such as LIKEtoKNOW.it, bloggers can share their outfit details via Instagram, where followers who have “liked” their post will receive an email complete with links to purchase each pictured item. For each piece purchased from a LIKEtoKNOW.it email, the blogger receives a commission.
Global companies have picked up on the wide reach of these digital influencers, as well. “As brands begin to trust the influence of bloggers and see the results, social media is becoming much more monetizable for the influencers,” says Jamie Meares, blogger behind the popular i suwannee and founder of Furbish Studio. “It’s created this Wild West effect on blogging – now you can actually make a business out of sharing the things that you love.” Triangle style bloggers are doing just that, negotiating paid contracts with brands to create sponsored product posts. These women have worked with national corporations such as Coca-Cola, J. Jill, Shopbop, Whole Foods, Anthropologie, Henri Bendel, Toyota, Target, Anne Taylor, and Rent the Runway, to name a few, as well as local companies like Cameron Village and The Fearrington House Inn.
Using their social clout as an advertising platform makes sense: Each of these women have followers by the many-thousands. “People now understand the value of bringing eyeballs to the page,” says Steele. “I’ve watched social media become so much more integrated in everything. If you have 200,000 followers, you can look at a company and say, ‘Hey, I can basically fill a football stadium for you. How much is that worth?’”
Apparently a lot. “It’s a legit career,” says Durham-based Amy Loochtan of Coffee Beans and Bobby Pins. “People are flabbergasted by that … Some people think blogging is just taking some pictures of your outfit, putting them online; but it is so much more than that.”
Of course, with the meteoric rise of outlets like Instagram and Snapchat, content is moving more toward the social media side, and anyone with an iPhone can try to become a blogger. That can put pressure on longtime bloggers to keep content fresh and readership levels up. After all, that’s where the money is – brands want to work with sites that consistently post original material and reach the widest demographic possible. “Now you have to be out there on all social media channels and keep up with the latest trends,” says Keeley-White.
There’s also a fine line between the virtual and actual worlds, especially when personal style is the focus of a business. After a while, life can seem like just a series of potential Instagram posts. “That’s one of the biggest things that bloggers struggle with – missing out on life because of social media,” says Loochtan. “It’s a hard balance to know when to unplug.”
Along with separating the personal from private, local style bloggers say they work hard to strike the right chord between stylish escapism and relatability. Because most have longtime readers who feel a virtual kinship to them, they want to maintain those relationships with the relatable voice of an old girlfriend. So in addition to the glamour, local bloggers are also careful to include affordable fashion and DIY projects that appeal to the everyday woman.
“I try to be real with my readers,” says Grant. “The style posts are really pretty and they do really well, (but) if you’re behind the scenes with me on a shoot, I don’t take myself seriously … For me, it is really fun.”
Bringing it home
While these women may work with global companies and have followers across the world, they’re committed to using their brands to promote North Carolina, too. Keeping it local is just part of their spin on things: Many stage photo shoots at local spots like the Boylan Bridge, American Tobacco Campus, and the Leslie-Alford-Mims house; they showcase pieces from local boutiques and clothing lines; they partner with nearby restaurants and businesses; and they provide travel guides to N.C. destinations.
Vanhoy recently partnered with the Outer Banks for a sponsored, weeklong trip along the coast, documenting her vacation on social media and her blog, and Grant started a blog travel series on eastern North Carolina, focusing on places to eat, shop, and visit while passing through. “People get stuck in the bubble of the Triangle,” she says. “It’s sad to see towns that were thriving when I was little become ghost towns.” It’s her way of using her online presence to benefit the local places she loves.
Like her peers, Grant has come to realize that a significant online presence can be a powerful tool, both in terms of business opportunities and simply creating a brand that people love.
“Life can be complicated and it can be so cluttered,” says Steele. “I just like to keep things as simple, classic, and elegant as I possibly can.” It’s a lot of work to make things look so good, but it’s worth it, says Loochtan. “You make time for what you love.”
“Big sweaters and ponchos layered over a thin turtleneck, booties, and changing up accessories and shoes for fall colors.”
–Shelby Vanhoy, Pretty in the Pines
“(It’s) cowboy boots, riding boots, lots of dresses and skirts. I would not be caught dead in a T-shirt and jeans at a football game. That is where you step out and you show up.”
–Meghan Grant, I’m Fixin’ To
“(I’m) all about layering with blazers and military jackets. And of course, ankle boots. And fun scarves … a bunch of light layers.”
–Angela Keeley-White, Head to Toe Chic
“Leather jackets, over-the knee-boots, and blanket scarves … (they’re) an affordable and chic way to make a statement with an outfit, plus they are really warm.”
-Lauren Steele, LC Steele
“A good bootie, black blazer, (and a) really great pair of jeans. If you feel good in it, you’re going to look good.”
–Amy Loochtan, Coffee Beans and Bobby Pins