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Fashion

How Instagram's Virtual Stylists Turned Outfit Ideas Into A Business

Fashion-focused collages go back to the late 2000s and Polyvore.

Having a personal stylist has often been considered a luxury for those with money to spend or red carpets to attend. But as creators started offering detailed outfit ideas on YouTube or quick-fire styling advice via TikTok, the demand for sartorial inspiration from the general public has never been more apparent. One scroll through Instagram can provide an endless feed of fashion tips, from how to style leather blazers to the latest "It" items or indie brand, and a particular niche is making waves (and money) on the social media platform for offering one-on-one style consultations: virtual stylists.

“I always get comments asking me if I own the pieces I post in my looks, and the answer is often no,” says 22-year-old Liv Macmunn, who runs @styledbylivm.

Virtual stylist accounts are easy to spot on Instagram. Unlike most “outfit inspo” accounts, which repost influencers wearing trendy looks, virtual stylists simply post collages of tops, bottoms, shoes, and accessories against a white backdrop. As a result, followers focus on whether or not the clothing item or full look fits their personal style rather than focusing on the influencer wearing the clothes. Plus, the virtual stylist doesn’t have to buy the clothes in order to post these outfits.

“I have loved luxury items since I was young,” says Macmunn, whose style inspirations are Hailey Bieber and Bella Hadid. “So I like to look at the outfits I create and motivate myself to one day be able to afford all the pieces I use.”

Macmunn’s virtual stylist account started out as a hobby. When she spotted clothing pieces she liked, she would find a plain image of the item online and use the app PicCollage to build outfits around the item. In April 2017, she began posting the outfits to Instagram, equipped with links to find every item. Now at more than 76,000 followers, Macmunn has done collaborations with brands like Pretty Little Thing and has styled outfits for influencers like James Charles.

“Him being serious about wanting to work with me was such a huge compliment,” says Macmunn.

After Charles liked some posts on @styledbylivm, the two began to DM about collaborating and Macmunn ultimately ended up styling a photoshoot for his clothing line, Sisters Apparel.

“This was by far my biggest challenge in my career, so I was honored he trusted me enough to do so,” says Macmunn. Since working with Charles, @styledbylivm has also gotten love from Tana Mongeau and Ming Lee Simmons, as well as a follow from Victoria’s Secret model Romee Strijd.

Though virtual stylists have only recently gained popularity as Instagram’s faceless fashion influencers, the popularity of outfit collages goes back to the late 2000s. Founded in 2007, the website Polyvore became a common space for fashion enthusiasts to create outfit collages and moodboards adhering to different aesthetics, from emo to prep. During the early 2010s, Polyvore outfit collages often popped up on alternative Tumblr accounts dedicated to promoting hipster or grunge fashion.

“I’ve been doing virtual styling for literally a decade,” says 23-year-old Anna Bevilacqua, who's behind the account @styledbybibby. “I started Polyvore in 2011, and it’s crazy to think that virtual styling is a part-time job for me.”

Growing up grunge in a small town outside Verona, Italy, Bevilacqua often couldn’t find clothes that fit her style in stores. She took to creating outfit collages on Polyvore, forming her dream closet online. She posted looks to Polyvore almost every day, a consistency that would lead to brand partnerships starting in 2016. When Polyvore was shut down in 2018 after being acquired by high-end fashion retailer Ssense, an estimated 20 million users lost the outfit collages and moodboards they’d created.

“I was kind of lost because I had built a community there,” says Bevilacqua. “I had built friendships. Polyvore was the place where I could share my work with people who had the same interests as me.”

Unable to find a site that compared to Polyvore, Bevilacqua created outfit collages using the app Urstyle and began posting them to Instagram in February 2019.

“I was so lucky because just one month after creating the account, I already had some posts going viral,” says Bevilacqua, who has since surpassed 100,000 followers.

Though @styledbybibby is known for helping followers style the latest trending pieces, Bevilacqua still likes to stick to her preferred grunge aesthetic. Like Macmunn, she creates outfits by pinpointing an item she’s seen on Pinterest and revolving a full look around it. After posting the outfit to Instagram, she will also post it on her blog, complete with affiliate links so followers can find and buy items. The process typically takes an hour and Bevilacqua tends to stick to items from stores she knows her younger following can afford, such as ASOS, Tiger Mist, and Nasty Gal. However, that hasn’t stopped big brands from approaching her for collaborations.

“One huge collab that I’ve done this year — and it’s actually crazy to say that out loud — is a collab with I.Am.Gia,” says Bevilacqua. The brand reached out to her to put together an outfit collage for its Vixion collection, a Y2K-inspired drop full of cutouts, mesh, and leather. “I was shocked when they contacted me. I couldn’t believe it.”

Virtual styling has also given young people economic opportunity during a pandemic that has thrown the personal styling industry for a loop. Both Macmunn and Bevilacqua say that through affiliate links and in-person or virtual styling inquiries, they are able to support themselves part-time. (Details on rates for sponsored posts weren’t shared but the numbers vary based on follower count. Some virtual stylists reported sponsorship rates can cost between $10 and $15 per post for those with 10,000 to 25,0000 followers. A stylist with 50,000 to 100,000 followers can charge up to $25 per post.) Bevilacqua’s virtual styling services involve creating outfit options for the client based on their personal style or an upcoming occasion. She says January 2021 was the month when she received the most inquiries ever.

For some virtual stylists, their accounts have even landed them jobs outside of Instagram. When Sierra Snowden was furloughed in the beginning of the pandemic, she created her virtual styling account, @sierrasstyling, to pass the time. By fall of 2020, GlamHive reached out to her to join its personal stylist collective, and Snowden now does in-person and virtual styling appointments. Using the GlamHive website, she creates moodboards for clients with links to clothing items that fit their budgets and styles, and consults with clients via Zoom.

“It sounds really cliché but this is my passion,” says Snowden. “I would like to grow my Glamhive while I’m growing my virtual styling account.”

With many clothing stores doing timed entries for customers, reducing hours, or shutting their doors indefinitely, navigating a career in personal styling has been an adjustment since the pandemic. Macmunn, who has also gotten in-person styling opportunities thanks to her virtual stylist account, has not done any IRL appointments since the pandemic.

“The thing is, all of the dressing rooms are closed,” says Snowden. “As a stylist, you’re supposed to go into the store ahead of time, pick out items for your client, and already have it prepped. So you just have to imagine what the client would look like in the clothes as best as you can.”

Nonetheless, the fact that virtual styling accounts have been seamlessly integrated into Instagram’s feed means stylists can more easily be connected to potential clients. Plus, those same clients may be more likely to consider a personal styling appointment if they’re impressed by their work.

“It’s not about just style and fashion,” says Snowden. “You’re also helping someone. You don’t know why this person is coming to you. You don’t know what their story is. Even a simple outfit or total makeover can totally change someone’s mood or their outlook.”