Women sharing excitement over shopping finds is hardly a new trend. I can’t even count the number of hours I’ve devoted to gushing over my friends’ purchases or displaying my own to them. It’s an adolescent rite of passage that continues well into adult years for many women. But what is a new trend as of about a year and a half ago is doing the same thing in front of a Web cam and an unseen online audience.
Female shoppers, usually those in their early twenties and younger, are increasingly posting their “fashion hauls” on YouTube for followers to enjoy. Some have garnered so much attention and so many admirers that they actually profit off these videos, which last anywhere from five minutes to an agonizing fifteen. (It goes by faster if you try to tally the number of “likes” and “sooo cutes” in a single video.) These privileged young women have ushered in a new model of advertising for companies and even more of a celebration of mass consumerism. That’s, like, totes messed up.
Do a “fashion haul” search on YouTube and you’ll get about 105,000 hits. To give you an idea of what they’re all about, here’s a video by a Blair Fowler, a young girl who’s become the face of fashion hauling thanks to her incredibly popular videos. In this video, she shares what’s in her purse. (Spoiler alert: two open packs of Bubblicious and a tampon holder.)
Believe it or not, 1,347,695 people watched that to date. Blair and her older sister Elle command the most video hits of any other fashion hauler on YouTube. They, perhaps more than anyone else, have helped turn this rather disturbing online phenomenon into a lucrative endeavor. Good Morning America profiled the Fowlers last year, as did various print publications like Seventeen and the LA Times. They’re both members of the YouTube Partner Program, offered to members who generate a lot of traffic and are therefore entitled to receive a percentage of advertising profits. They have a publicist and an agent to keep track of their endorsement deals, interviews, and public appearances, such as when both were invited to New York Fashion Week in 2010 as makeup artists for Minnie Mortimer. Far beyond a hobby, fashion hauling is a career for Blair and Elle; the former is actually home-schooled now to spend more time developing her “brand.”
The Fowlers dominate the market, but they’re by no means the only players in the fashion hauling world—nor are they the only ones sought after by major retail companies to shill their products. Because haulers are young, they don’t generally hit up Bloomingdales, Cartier, and the like. They opt for hip, affordable spots like Target, Sephora, and Forever 21. These companies then see these vloggers (video bloggers) as perfect advertising vessels. They already have a built-in audience that trusts their opinions. If Blair recommends a sparkly black top from Forever 21, her millions of fans (her YouTube channel has 106,913,371 total upload views) will seek it out. That’s why JC Penney invited six fashion haulers into their stores during the summer of 2010 and gave them gift cards to put toward shopping sprees. Of course, the catch was that they had to film the escapades and post them to their channels. Done and done. That’s also why Forever 21 is reportedly in talks with the Fowler sisters to film a series of videos for them. They can sit back and let the vloggers do their advertising for them, and then watch as impressionable teens flock to the mall to mimic their adulated peers.
I Shop, Therefore I Am
After watching more of these videos than I care to admit, it’s not hard to understand why they’re so popular among young women. The vloggers are pretty, most likely popular, and can spend their free time buying fun things—that’s a big draw for many teen girls out there. But while I don’t begrudge young girls their silly idealizations or their tendency to over-share and self-aggrandize, I find it disheartening that, in these rough economic times, we’re still hyper-focused on stuff. These young haulers are finding fame, some amount of fortune, and acceptance by defining themselves by what’s in their shopping bags. You could argue that they’re just doing what teenagers have always done, which is share their purchases with friends. But I don’t remember signing an endorsement deal with Charlotte Russe when I shopped there as a teen. It certainly didn’t earn me an interview with Diane Sawyer. I didn’t have a publicist, either.
What makes it all the more distressing is that, most of the time, the perpetrators and targets of these efforts are teens just barely entering adulthood. I’m sure they all have great heads on their shoulders, but the risk of manipulation runs high with factors like youth and naivety—and enterprising companies—in the mix. Some mom bloggers have jumped on the bandwagon as well, but the trend is still easily dominated by teens and young adults. Maybe that’s because the mom videos don’t always have the same feel? Watch this video and judge for yourself.
Clearly, the fashion haul video bridges some sort of connection between people. The opinions and positive affirmations you receive from your friends in real life after a shopping trip likely feel just as good coming from hundreds to thousands of commenters online. But to me, fashion hauling is yet another example of the infuriating (and kind of gross) way people get famous these days without actually doing anything noteworthy. What’s more, it adds more incentive to shop and spend beyond your means, and our society hardly needs an extra dose of that. Hopefully the fashion hauling craze will enjoy a quick death like so many other Internet trends out there—and here’s really hoping that happens before its fans get their next credit card bills.