By Amee Blanchette Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
It looked like Christmas morning in Chelsea Lankford's Minneapolis brownstone, but it was just another Saturday.
The 23-year-old tore into a pile of boxes, made a mountain of tissue paper and neatly stacked the contents. She was quick, efficient, as if opening presents filled with clothes were her job.
In a way, it is.
Lankford is the creator and star of the popular personal fashion blog Zipped (www.zipped blog.com). Her blog, which features daily posts of what she's wearing, attracts more than 50,000 page views a month. It has led to collaborations with local boutiques and national brands such as Vans, Madewell and Minnetonka Moccasins.
It has also turned Lankford into a small-time public figure, not a comfortable position for this self-described introvert.
"I've gotten all of these opportunities just because I started this website," Lankford said. "People sometimes recognize me on the street, it's just weird."
With a dedicated online audience, including 42,000 Instagram followers (@truelane), Lankford is one of the leading voices in the Twin Cities' small but growing style-blogger scene.
Through their outfit-of-the-day posts, independent style bloggers like Lankford are becoming bona fide trendsetters in the fashion and advertising industries. Brands are quick to capitalize on this phenomenon, said Madeline Johnson, a project manager at Minneapolis branding firm Style Architects.
"Bloggers are the innovators and early adapters for style," Johnson said. "They set the trends or are the first to try them, which is a great opportunity for brands to position their products."
The tower of packages inside Lankford's apartment revealed kitty cat accessories from Katy Perry's jewelry collection, an Isaac Mizrahi laptop case from Best Buy, plus coats, jeans and five pairs of shoes.
Total cost to her? Zero. This is only one perk. More recently, she's been getting a paycheck for featuring certain brands on her blog and Instagram.
Lankford has a day job, but with every post and Instagram, this part-time role is becoming a bigger part of her daily life.
Lankford looks like she's living a perfectly curated dream (free clothes, good food, a seemingly endless social calendar), all in exchange for digitally documenting her every moment, outfit, thought and meal.
Yet Lankford says she's an ordinary girl who has struggled with insecurities about self-image. But you'd never guess it by the 2,100 Instagram photos Lankford has posted of herself over the past few years.
"There's so much safety behind the computer screen," she said. "I like the idea of being in control of my image. You can say so much about yourself with your clothes."
On and offline, she tries to balance the aspirational with the achievable. She features outfits that most people can put together themselves (no Louboutin shoes or Birkin handbags). For her followers, that seems to be the appeal.
"It's nice to get inspiration from a local style blogger rather than turning to celebrities, where there are unrealistic expectations financially and body-wise," said longtime follower Sara Mahan.
Most style bloggers aren't runway models. Neither is Lankford. She's petite, with a look that is classic and casual, she's more comfortable in a pair of Vans than stilettos. No ruffles, sparkles or dresses. Instead she has 30 pairs of denim and a sneaker obsession, her color palette is primarily black, white and gray. Her hair is thick, wavy and just messy enough, like what you see in a shampoo commercial.
Lankford's daily photo shoots take place wherever she is (the streets of downtown Minneapolis, her favorite restaurants, her giant "marshmallow" bed), and they capture whatever she's doing (drinking coffee, air-popping popcorn for a "Gilmore Girls" Netflix marathon, having tea with blogger friends). Some are shot with her smartphone, others by her sister/photographer.
"I plan all of my activities around good lighting and pretty food," Lankford said.
She supports herself with a full-time position at a major financial institution. She goes to Fashion Week in New York, but pays her own way. She has never had a boyfriend. She has never even been on a date.
"I'm perfectly happy on my own," Lankford said. "Why ruin that?"
Not everyone in the fashion world has been welcoming to style bloggers. Some call them attention seekers. Simon Collins, the dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons, recently shared his biting thoughts on www.openingceremony.us: "These people congregate around places where they think fashion is happening, then desperately posture and grimace in the hope of being photographed, usually by each other."
Lankford admits the nature of style blogging can seem vain. "People only show the prettiest parts of their lives online, but I don't think it's superficial so much as it is cultivating your image," she said.
For Lankford, her blog's purpose is simple: "It's not just to make people think I'm super awesome," she said. "It's to give others inspiration for their wardrobe."
When Lankford started Zipped in 2010, she was blogging into a void. There were no comments, likes or e-mails.
That changed rather quickly. As she posted more, the fans came and the freebies followed. She recently began charging advertisers a nominal fee in addition to the products she gets for free.
"I didn't even know I could charge people for my work," Lankford said. "I started this as a creative outlet and never considered it could be anything more than that."
Lankford grew up an hour north of Seattle, the middle of three sisters. Like other girls, she gushed over the glossy images in Teen Vogue and Seventeen. Lankford's mother urged her to start a style blog after she graduated from high school.
"She was consumed with fashion and shopping online," said mom Wanda Lankford. "I just felt like she had what it took." Lankford followed her older sister to Minnesota for college. After a year, she decided school wasn't for her and got a 9-to-5 office job. She spent all her free time blogging.
"What people don't realize is that blogging is actually hard work," said fellow Minneapolis blogger Davee Ek. "You always have to be your own writer, art director, producer, publicist, photographer, accountant _ (the same) roles that come with owning your own business.'
Through affiliate links on her blog, social media posts and appearances, Lankford brings in $500 a month. Most bloggers make less than $1,000 a year, according to industry reports. Only 11 percent make more than $30,000 a year.
Most of the comments Lankford gets are glowing, but she's no stranger to the downside of sharing your life on the Web. Lankford once found herself the topic of conversation on Get Off My Internets, an online community that tears down popular bloggers. "It was horrible," she said.
Commenters accused Lankford of being boring, standoffish and hair-obsessed, which she admits was, in some ways, true (the hair part).
"My hair was my security blanket," she said. "I felt like it was the only thing that made me special."
Last year, Lankford got the guts to chop off 12 inches, she cried for two days. Her first haircut photo on Instagram received 126 comments. Most were positive, but there was also a "Why, darling?" and "Ohhhhh noooooo."
With time, she's become thick-skinned and unapologetic.
"I'm not going to be everyone's cup of tea," she said. "If you think (I'm) boring, it's simple, don't follow me."
After sorting through 10 boxes of clothing and accessories in her apartment, Lankford pulled together an outfit from the day's haul. She picked a black-and-white checkered jacket, gray denim pants and a T-shirt with the words "Hola Baby!" on the front. She added a few curls to her already tousled hair and checked her reflection in her small bathroom mirror, she might be the only style blogger who doesn't own a full-length mirror.
With her sister, she stepped outside for a quick photo shoot.