Margarita Muradova doesn’t look like the editor of a fashion magazine. In her shots on Lookbook.nu, she resembles the girl you’d fall in love with in a movie – glancing back over her shoulder at you, caught laughing to herself over something, lost in thought, her cloud of short curls blown back, exposing a dewy cheekbone. You can appreciate all this from more than one angle at a time: Muradova posts new shots every few days – in a lace tunic, a cheerleader outfit, a little silver dress, a slouchy pastel jacket – with a couple of poses for each look, but always showing the clothes from at least head to knees or neck to toes, according to the site’s rules. The effect is part old-school fashion shoot, part selfie. Muradova is Ukrainian and lives in Kiev. She says she has “decided consciously to keep posting and blogging” despite the unrest, “to have some space for myself.” Every morning after breakfast, she plans what to wear, “depending on my meetings and work,” Instagrams the outfit and gets on with the day. In Ukraine in early June, the remains of the Maidan protests were still very visible in central Kiev: a few hundred people camped out in Independence Square, blockades, checkpoints. Underneath the square itself, though, is a mall, built in 2001 after an earlier sit-in. Take the escalator down and you see no sign of damage or turmoil – just people shopping. It’s a confusing sight, appealing and awkward, odd
yet entirely logical: not unlike what you see when you first start browsing Lookbook.
Ukrainians, according to Muradova, like to shop everywhere from Zara, Mango and River Island to Massimo Dutti and Ferragamo. “I was born exactly the year of Ukraine’s independence,” the 23-year-old says, “so we basically grew up together and both formed and developed ourselves.” Lookbook, too, exudes a very 1990s feeling. Its basic aesthetic conjures the early days of the internet, as does its peculiar combination of utopian, gawky enthusiasm – a virtual playground of teens and 20-somethings from Kiev to Manila, sharing and comparing – and self-consciously slick fashion fantasy. It seems like a flashback to a time of lookbooks and go-sees, that insider code that every unwashed teen could be in on, and to mass daydreams of not getting out of bed for less than $10,000 a day. The pictures are often much more staged and commercial than you’d expect. Many include full fashion credits, and the poses and expressions offer a full grammar of model techniques, widened eyes and parted lips, jutting shoulders, arms lifted artfully above heads. The ads for the likes of American Apparel that flash up next to the site’s own content look much rawer, more knowingly amateurish: by contrast, some of the users’ photos appear to be trying too hard; they can’t help but seem eager and naïve.
In fact, Lookbook isn’t a 1990s survivor at all: it has only existed since 2008, when an art-history graduate, Yuri Lee, set it up with her engineer boyfriend Jason Su out of their San Francisco apartment (though you wouldn’t know that from the site, which keeps its creators nameless – “just a girl and a guy” who love “art, fashion and culture”, it says). They call it “a social experiment in style” and an “editorless fashion magazine”: a cunning splice of crowdsourcing ventures or aggregators like Digg and the street-style blogs that took off in the mid-2000s. Initially invitation-only, it is now a network of 1.6 million users, with millions more visitors trawling through. There are pointedly “shoppable” categorisations, and as well as filtering the “hot looks” by “hype and newness”, you can search by types of garment, styles, colour, pattern or brand. Like the bigger social-media sites, it has its own perky language: instead of friending or tweeting, Lookbookers “hype” and “fan” one another. (You hype a look, but fan a person.) Despite the grassroots concept, hierarchies emerge and strengthen just as they do on sites like Twitter: whose new looks are most prominently displayed depends on a special “reputation” algorithm – with more hypes you get more karma points, and average karma equals total karma divided by number of looks posted (so presumably you can’t afford to make too many fashion faux pas).
One of the popular boys on Lookbook, Kiko Cagayat, makes reference to the site’s 1990s aura with a post marked #tbt – but instead of an old self-portrait, it’s a recent shot of him wearing red flannel tartan over a white T-shirt emblazoned with a massive block-lettered “90’s.” Originally from the Philippines – he remembers Manila as a place where “it’s scorching hot and people are always around”, hanging out in the nearest mall – he moved to Japan with his parents in 2008. Despite “traffic, pollution, disaster and other inconveniences in life,” he says, “there’s still no place like home.” The shifting tone of social media, one minute confiding in a friend, the next addressing your fans, is offered up in visual form on Lookbook. And just as stars must now learn to do in their media training, Cagayat describes the story of his personal style as one of humble beginnings and transformation. “I didn’t grow up living in a fashionable world,” he says, and when he began to try things out, “I started like a real fashion victim. I experimented with everything from swag to class.” Japan, he says, “taught me how to dress,” but “I believe that fashion in the Philippines will emerge” thanks to young local designers and bloggers. His generation there, he says, “is finding its way to trends and it is because of Lookbook.nu.”
Lookbook seems to amplify the contradictory longing to stand out and fit in that characterises youthful fashion and is inevitably dramatised on all social media. Although there’s no “down-voting” – just as Facebook has no “hate” button – the FAQs encourage users to “enhance or reinvent your look through inspiration and feedback”: all the comments and rankings engineer a kind of herd curation. Roger Mbee’s feed displays a pretty consistent personal style – he’s partial to hats and dramatic, draping shapes. His older sister apparently taught him how to dress when they were teenagers growing up in Hauts-de-Seine, in the Paris suburbs. “Everyone I meet every day influences my style,” he says. “It could be about a colour, the way he wears his jeans, the way she smiles, because above all for me, style is an attitude.” Still, he describes his own look in distinctive terms, as “a mix of a homeless person, a punk vision of Vivienne Westwood during the 1970s and a Prince of Persia!” While 20-year-old Mbee is a blogger already at work on his own collection, Cagayat makes his living in a processed-food company, where he has to wear “the same old boring clothes” all day long.
Lookbook is a strange confection of fashion bloggers and the like who use it to market and self-promote, and those for whom it’s essentially Facebook, only a lot more hassle. The divide is most noticeable among the slightly older users, many of whom seem adept at fitting their selfie modelling campaigns around their full-time jobs. There is Priscila Diniz, a 27-year-old Brazilian with Twiggyish lips and a shaved head courtesy of a disastrous platinum dye job, who started consoling herself with Lookbook after her company went bankrupt. Now a blogger and photo retoucher, she spends hours on the site each day, and appears in a dizzying array of guises thanks to her collection of wigs. On the other hand, Irina Lakicevic, a 26-year-old Serbian now based in Bergen, Norway, leads a double life as a fashion blogger and dentist. “I know many people would find it perplexing that their dentist takes outfit photos and shares them on social media. I keep those two life spheres apart as much as I can.” She chose dentistry because “I do have a remarkable interest in bodies and bodily fluids. And then there is the economic aspect. How is a gal supposed to pay for her Louis Vuitton or Céline?” She wakes at 6.30am for a shift at the surgery, then spends several hours shooting outfits and preparing posts. Lookbook allows the professional woman to remain the glamorous misfit she felt like in her teens; part of the pleasure is in belonging to an online tribe cultish enough to be posting and hyping all the time, while being extremely conspicuous in your everyday environment. “Norway is very known for uniform dressing – it is like a secret code,” says Lakicevic. “Everybody wears Converse, cut-offs, same jackets, same scarves. So my laced-up Aquazzuras or that Stella McCartney dropped-waist dress or the Céline mermaid skirt from last season are considered strikingly odd, and people do stare.”
One of the uncanny effects of Lookbook is the small regional details it reveals amid fashion’s general globalising drive. Queen Horsfall (real name Diana) lives in Virginia with her German husband, who takes most of the shots for her, but she is originally from Petropavl, in northern Kazakhstan. She remembers how avidly women there follow the same trends as they do elsewhere, except that “heels are the most important part of your outfit, since they’re worn to work, on dates, to school or college, for travel, clubbing, etc. I used to wear heels everywhere, but living abroad changed my mind about heels.” Others find that the specificities of where they come from are precisely what gives them broad appeal in Lookbook’s mini-cosmos: it’s not surprising that Elle-May, a 20-year-old, long-haired, lithe-limbed beauty, has an enormous following, but part of that must stem from her surroundings. Her hometown of Coolum, on Australia’s Sunshine Coast, where a surfer aesthetic dominates, sets off her own very different style – she takes cues from period films, especially those set in the “1600s-1800s – something about the modesty and detail draws me in” – while also lending her pictures a certain beachy, carefree charm.
Lookbook has helped make Elle-May a full-time photographer and stylist – like some of the others, she mentions in passing the brand sponsorships that come with popularity on the site. But not everyone has her air of ease. At 22, Seattle-based Ashley Joncas is already positioning herself as a sleepless, self-sustaining powerhouse – she seems to have three or four full-time gigs, in graphic design, photography, postproduction, brand consulting and who knows what else. “I don’t have the luxury of spending my weekdays being a blogger,” she says. “Learning and contributing to the creative world, all while dressing like a total bad-ass and being your own person, is living the American dream to me.” From a small, picturesque town in New Hampshire, she knew “from a young age I was a city girl. As I grew up I worked harder and harder to be talented enough to leave.” Her hometown had “little sprinkles of fashion-forward people, but most dressed in a North Face jacket with their Juicy sweatpants squished into their Ugg boots. I actually assumed it was a fad in just my area to dress like you’re going to sleep – but it was the same in Boston and a slightly higher level of frump in LA. What I have realised is that wherever you go, people aren’t going to be decked out like the photos you see on Lookbook. They exist, but they’re hidden in the daily shuffle.”
She is relentlessly self-made in terms of taste and even physical shape. After “surviving 12 years of strict Catholic-school dress codes” and obesity, which left her unable to buy anything off the rack until her mid-teens, Joncas has “embraced the raw canvas of a body I’ve been given and have worked on, and have tried to utilise it in the most artistic way possible.” As a Lookbooker, Joncas is something of a case in point. Like the site itself, she has no interest in feigning effortlessness. She toils over her shots – it takes four days from concept to final blog – but at the same time, she’s all bravado. “I’m a self-timer ninja,” she says. “It’s all about what you can make happen in eight seconds.”