Social media is packed with self-styled fashionistas all over the world – and the UAE is no exception.
The Emirates has its share of talented, style-savvy women who decide to get active on Instagram and other social-media sites for a variety of reasons. For some it is a creative outlet, for others an absorbing hobby or even a fully-fledged business.
To find out more about the growing local scene, we talked to five young women showcasing the diversity of the UAE’s fashion blogging movement: Sameera Ahmed from Scotland (who has 47,200 followers on Instagram), Mariyah Gaspacho from the Philippines (33,900), Kat Lebrasse from Australia (20,600), Pakistani-Filipino Zareen Shah (1,312) and Jordanian Amal Salameh (22,500).
“I had a personal Instagram page and then started getting a lot of followers, with girls liking my outfits and asking where I bought them,” says Ahmed, who recently moved to Dubai from Scotland. She has been Instagramming her personal style for almost three years, with anecdotal stories accompanying each photo.
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But building and maintaining an online image is no easy feat.
“One blog post can consume days of preparation – from location scouting and styling outfits to editing images and putting together the concept of each post,” says Gaspacho, who has been blogging in Dubai since 2005 and places a heavy emphasis on the photography.
Lebrasse, a new mum in Dubai, often shows off her baby daughter in her posts, while Salameh, who lives in Abu Dhabi, shares lots of red-carpet snaps from glamorous events.
Some bloggers, such as Shah, who is also a make-up artist, target a niche audience. She started wearing the hijab in 2007 but struggled to find inspiration at fashion sites online.
“Right now, modest fashion is all the rage,” she says. “Seven years ago, it was not.”
After a year or so of looking for online platforms that catered to women like her, Shah decided to start a blog of her own.
“I use it to not only discuss fashion and styling ideas, but also to break stereotypes of the Muslim woman,” she says.
Flatlays (photos of outfits laid out artistically on the bed or floor), food and inspirational quotes are common on her Instagram page.
While fashion blogging has been around for years, personal websites are no longer the most popular option for bloggers. Social-media apps such as Instagram and Snapchat offer faster ways to share images and videos, and usually generate more views than traditional blog posts.
“These days my strongest platform is Instagram. It seems people are hungry for immediacy,” says Lebrasse, who updates her Instagram daily. She finds that it is useful in driving traffic to the blog.
However, given the vast range of popular social-media tools available, it is difficult to maintain a strong presence on all of them. Uploading video blogs on YouTube, posting images on Instagram, giving behind-the-scenes glimpses on Snapchat, broadcasting on Periscope, tweeting and updating an online blog – there are simply too many tasks for one person to handle each day.
“I don’t feel the need to get into every type of social media just for the sake of it,” says Ahmed who, like Lebrasse, uses Instagram to attract followers to her blog.
As the bloggers began to attract followers in the hundreds and then the thousands, regional fashion PR companies started to take notice, sending them samples and gifts in an attempt to persuade them to promote their clients’ brands. These range from make-up palettes to shoes and expensive designer handbags.
Until recently, when offered a gift by a designer the understanding was that if it was accepted, the blogger would promote it with no further incentive. Today, social media personalities can request a cash payment in addition to the gift, in return for an Instagram post featuring the product. Those with followers in the tens or hundreds of thousands can charge up to Dh10,000. For those with a following of more than a million users, compensation can rise to Dh20,000 for a single post.
“It’s the cheapest form of advertising for a company,” says Ahmed. “They don’t have to hire a model, photographer, stylist or hair and make-up artist – the blogger does all that for you. So if the blogger gets nothing in return, it’s not really fair.”
While many continue working full-time and do their blogging and social media in their spare time, some make a living from it.
“On a good month, my blog does financially support me,” says Lebrasse. “But the reality is you never truly know when the next paycheque is coming.”
Because blogging has become a business, it’s not always easy to tell whether a post is a genuine reflection of a personal possession, or a sponsored, paid-for post.
A photo might be captioned, “Love my dreamy new bag from Michael Kors,” but that doesn’t mean the blogger was not paid for it.
Though many bloggers claim to be transparent, rarely do they explicitly state that a product was a gift or that a post was paid for.
“I don’t think I have the need to state it clearly to my readers because at the end of the day, it’s already pretty obvious,” says Gaspacho.
Most bloggers do mention the company in the post, thanking them for the freebie. “It’s important to give credit to the brand for taking the time to choose to send you an item,” says Salameh.
While some may argue that this deceives readers, Lebrasse says a “thank you” to the brand in the caption is transparent enough.
She also points out the importance of only highlighting brands that appeal to her.
“I never post anything that I don’t truly like myself, nor does the fact that I have been gifted something guarantee a post about it,” she says.
Shah agrees: “It’s very important as a blogger that you represent your thoughts and experiences, regardless of whether you received a freebie or not.”
Ahmed also isn’t explicit in her captions about the source of the products, but says it is obvious if something was sent to her for free.
“Followers aren’t stupid,” she says. “People are very clued in now, they know how it works. I feel like when something like ‘this post is sponsored’ is written, it becomes too corporate and takes away from the fun. But then again, it is a business for some girls.”
That doesn’t mean she will blog about just anything. A company recently offered to send her a waist-trainer – a corset-style slimming contraption like the ones many celebrities are using – if she would post about it. Ahmed has the slim figure of a model, so as much as she might have wanted to try it out, it put her in a bit of an ethical conundrum. “I have to take some responsibility – 40,000 people follow me and most of them are young girls,” she says. “If they see a skinny girl wearing a waist trainer, then what kind of impression does that make?”
Ahmed replied to the company with a polite email explaining why it wouldn’t be an appropriate for her to feature their product.
“You have to draw the line somewhere,” she says.
Pressure to look perfect
While Ahmed rejected the waist trainer, other bloggers around the world are eagerly accepting them and posting selfies of themselves wearing the waist-cinching mechanism made popular by the Kardashian sisters.
Weight-loss products, lip-fillers and dieting regimens are all popular topics among bloggers, and as more and more women join the blogosphere, the pressure to maintain a flawless image builds, too.
“All of a sudden, everyone wants to be a blogger and wants to be ‘Instafamous’ – I hate that term – and people are getting really carried away with making everything look perfect,” says Ahmed.
While bloggers often post glamorous – and filtered – pictures of themselves on Instagram, Snapchat gives them an opportunity to share snippets of their real, normal, everyday lives.
“I think it’s important to show your followers what you are actually wearing on a daily basis, rather than keeping it only for event appearances,” says Salameh.
Even though the pressure to maintain social-media accounts might be tiresome at times, it can be addictive. Lebrasse tries to take a break while travelling, but even then, finds it difficult to stay away.
“Travel posts do very well for me so I find myself ‘on the clock’, so to speak, even then,” she says.
Often, especially in the Middle East, the bloggers with the most followers are the ones who own the most designer items.
The latest Chanel shoes, Dior bag and brand-name bracelets all prove popular on Instagram. But in itself, this doesn’t make for a good blogger.
“Dressed head-to-toe in luxury designerwear doesn’t make you fashion-savvy,” says Shah. “I don’t feel that there are enough bloggers showcasing originality or street-style without breaking the bank.”
Ahmed says that in the UK, most style bloggers, and even celebrities, wear high-street brands such as Topshop and New Look – but in the UAE, there’s a clear emphasis on designer labels on blogs and social media.
Whether their outfits are from Forever 21 or Harvey Nichols, bloggers with large followings are often treated like celebrities and approached by followers in public.
Ahmed says she appreciates when they take the time out to say hello, but sometimes finds it weird when they ask to take a photo of her.
“Sometimes people are really nice and sometimes it’s just awkward, but I try to just chat away to them anyway,” she says.
Salameh has been stopped in a car park by girls wanting selfies, while Lebrasse’s followers sometimes recognise her baby daughter before spotting her.
“I still find it quite surreal but it’s so gratifying and heart-warming to know that what I am doing reaches people enough for them to want to come and speak to me,” she says.
The first time Gaspacho was recognised in public was by a lady at the checkout in a store.
“It freaked me out because you don’t really realise you’re opening yourself up publicly,” she says.
Some may argue that the point of creating an online image, posting photos of yourself and interacting on social media is to gain fame. Critics, meanwhile, view fashion blogging as an egotistical wormhole, propagating lavish shopping splurges and self-centered imagery, while those who aren’t yet caught up with the social-media frenzy find it hard to accept that blogging can be an occupation.
Whatever your view, it is clear that these young women are passionate and serious about the work that they do – and a handful of posts flaunting your best blow-dry won’t win you a spot among them.
“The ability to distinguish between the real bloggers who work hard to produce quality curated content from people who just randomly post selfies is a big issue, ” says Gaspacho.