A fashion blog leads to the Paris runway

Savvy new designers are using online stores, social networking sites and other do-it-yourself tactics to break into the fashion business.

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By Tina Peng, CNNMoney.com contributing writer

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Rumi Neely used her blog to launch a thriving design career.
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- One of the newest designers for surf and skate label RVCA doesn't have a design degree, many fashion internships on her resume or even a wealth of sewing experience. What she does have is a little unconventional: a Web site, featuring pictures of her daily outfits, that happens to draw more than a million hits a month.

For a few years now, fashion bloggers have drawn legions of devoted readers to their sites simply by posting regular examples of how they style their clothes. Now they're starting to leverage that popularity into lucrative careers -- and a gateway into the industry.

Rumi Neely launched fashiontoast.com in late 2007 after visitors to her eBay (EBAY, Fortune 500) vintage store wouldn't stop asking what shoes she was wearing in her pictures. A year and change later, she gets 35,000 hits a day and hundreds of comments per post.

Her notoriety has helped the store -- recent pieces have sold for upward of $200 -- but has also led to more: as the Internet took notice of her blog, designers and industry heavyweights did, too.

Neely was invited for a private tour of the American Apparel (APP) factory, then to New York Fashion Week in fall 2008 to see Alexander Wang's show and model Erin Wasson's line for RVCA.

Then, in December, she got an email from Esteban Cortazar, the designer for Emanel Ungaro, "just to say hi, and saying that he loved my blog and he found it really inspiring," she said. "I was just completely stunned that someone in that kind of position was reading my blog."

That culminated in a March trip to Paris and a front-row seat to the Ungaro show, in a dress from the line that Cortazar personally fitted for her.

Neely, who lives in San Diego and majored in political science, has designed a dress and a tank top for RVCA, modeled for the line's fall look book and ad campaign and signed with NEXT Model Management. She's thinking about a career in styling, she said.

Other bloggers are also using their sites to launch their own careers: a few are writing books, and in January three popular posters to fashion community chictopia.com were selected to style themselves and model in an American Apparel Internet ad campaign.

Six months after New York-based Alexandra Sinderbrand began posting to cheapJAP.com, a producer contacted her about filming a television show.

The show will mirror her site's philosophy, teaching girls used to living off their parents' credit cards to shop creatively at thrift stores. A production company is currently editing the raw footage into network pitches, Sinderbrand said. She's working on a book proposal and eventually wants to expand her blog into a brand, complete with a brick-and-mortar resale boutique.

Sinderbrand had worked in fashion public relations and tried to break into the magazine industry, but "I always wanted to write -- and make money from it," she said.

And bloggers aren't the only ones capitalizing on the strength of their sartorial personalities.

The recession had already set in when designer Francesca Sloan moved to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia last summer, leaving behind her boutique and moving her business online-only. She opened a store on etsy.com but worried about how she'd draw new customers without a storefront or steady stream of local press.

Then she began sending her jodhpurs and jumpsuits to bloggers like Seaofshoes.com's Jane Aldridge, a Texas teenager who counts Kanye West among her fans and is working on her own shoe line.

"I didn't know what was going to happen with the economy, so it was just something where I had to think about risk and what kind of loss I was going to take a risk with," Sloan explained. "So I thought, what female does not want free clothing?"

The bloggers, in turn, featured her items on their sites, and sales exploded: Sloan sold 600 pieces in the next five weeks, compared to 120 in the five months preceding, and has been approached by stores across America who spotted her items on the blogs and are looking to carry her line, she said.

"It's crazy how much power these girls have," Sloan said. "My friend is a jewelry designer, and she will spend thousands of dollars on an ad, and her ads won't hit like this."

Some bloggers don't plan to turn their fame into long-term careers: Amherst senior Melissa Atmadja, one of the chictopia posters featured in American Apparel's campaign, said she'll be a featured blogger on a new fashion community but still plans to apply to medical school.

For Rumi Neely, what looks to be a bright future in fashion will owe much to fashiontoast's success.

"I think a lot of industry people are actually reading blogs to get ideas of what's going on with real people out there -- that's probably the best way to do that kind of market research," she said. "Even commercial companies have e-mailed me, and I've had different proposals about how we can work together." To top of page

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