Farrah Butt meets the women behind Who What Wear, the style website changing the face of fashion.
Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power might just be the most exciting things to have happened to fashion in years. Their style website, Who What Wear
, has followers in every corner of the globe. Jessica Alba is a fan. So too is super-stylist Rachel Zoe. Nicole Richie loves them so much she dropped by their offices last year to guest edit the site.
But hang on a minute… how did two women, now 30-something, with zero web experience between them, not only manage to create an online fashion juggernaut (with spin-off books, shoes and a web-TV style series), but also become fashion’s latest and quite possibly friendliest “It” girls?
“It’s true,” says Power. “We didn’t know anything abut the web. We knew content and what people wanted to read – and to this day it’s still our strong suit. But you know, when we first started I’m sure there were people who said, ‘Sure, you’re going to make a website when you barely know how to email?’ Thankfully, we proved them otherwise.”
Online fashion portals are big business. You could once count on two hands the number offering interactive style content; there are now thousands. Style.com, Net-A-Porter.com, and every single one of your favourite fashion magazines (including this one) all have an online component. It’s essential.
It helps that fashion is suited to the internet: online videos help us see clothes from a vivid, dynamic angle. You can study the drape of a dress or the weight of a coat, or get a free preview on how the world’s best models actually walk in four-inch cage heels.
We’ve become spoilt for choice and there’s no going back. Though we’ve swiftly adapted to fashion’s online presence, we still crave the high-concept shoots and thought-provoking articles that only a magazine can offer.
The two worlds can converge – and Who What Wear (WWW) exists at that serendipitous meeting point.
Both Power and Kerr worked at US Elle
magazine – Kerr as associate lifestyle editor in New York, Power as the West Coast editor. They know how magazines work. They appreciate that every girl dreams of the Valentino dress on the catwalk, but also know that most of us would appreciate the J.Crew version for a tenth of the price.
They recognise that these are still tough economic times for many people, so voilà: a DIY corner where readers can actually learn how to make their own clothes and accessories. (A sample option: Chanel-inspired disco earrings made from fishing line, superglue and ribbon clamps.)
They’re also smart enough to know that a generous sprinkling of celebrity is a must. The duo spend hours deciding which stars wear which trends best, then post the pictures online for readers to ogle, while their regular “What Was She Wearing?”
feature, which has rightfully earned itself a cult following, is a genius little service that helps readers track down exactly what certain celebrities were wearing off-duty. All of this nifty information is presented in a tone free from the usual fashion froideur and condescension. In short, it’s a winner.
“Hillary and I had been friends for over a year when we first had the idea,” says Power, who is originally from California’s Orange County. “Hachette, the publishing company that owns Elle
, wanted to turn Elle Girl
, where I was working at the time, into a website. We were like, ‘Why would they want to do that?’ But then we started to notice it happening everywhere. Lots of US magazines started to close and the trend, it seemed, was to move online.”
In the summer of 2006, Elle Girl
, then a largely profitable magazine, closed down to the shock of many. It moved its presence online, followed by popular titles such as Teen People
and Nick Jr
, whose publishing companies also felt the move to a net-only presence was simply a timely necessity.
“We knew it was the right direction to go in, but we had no online experience,” says Kerr, a San Diego native. “If I’m honest, we had no idea what we were doing, but in a way, I think if we did know, we would have been petrified.”
To mixed reactions (“I don’t think our parents understand what we do to this day,” laughs Kerr), they jacked in their day jobs. They had little savings and no backers. Their first day was spent brainstorming ideas at Hillary’s apartment. They knew they needed help on the technical side, but with no salaries for themselves, they couldn’t afford staff.
“So Katherine taught herself Photoshop [a picture editing program] and we also worked with a computer programmer to make the back end of the website. We made sure it was incredibly civilian-friendly so that we could upload everything ourselves. We wanted it to be about as complicated as uploading pictures onto Facebook. We knew we could do that!”
They now have a staff of 12 and dozens of fashion-savvy interns milling around their all-white, glass-encased LA office, but for the first two years, it was just them. Ask what kind of schedule they maintained and Kerr trills “27 hours a day!” They did everything – from the marketing, promotions and publicity to solving technical problems and answering readers’ questions. “We still actually answer all our readers’ questions,” she admits, shrugging off suggestions that they could parcel out the duties to an assistant. “Often you know the answer off the top of your head, so it’s easier.”
It’s well-known that about eight out of 10 start-up companies fail in the first three years. Then consider the fact that Power and Kerr launched the website in 2006, not long before the global financial crisis tightened its grip on the world and shook its foundations. Weren’t they scared? “We didn’t consider failing,” says Kerr. Instead, they got lucky. Unlike most websites, which can take months and often years to accrue money through advertising sales (the main source of income), WWW had financial support within the first month. (This may in part have something to do with the way in which the site operates – its unofficial policy is: “If we don’t have something nice to say, we don’t say anything at all.”)
“This was never meant to be a hobby,” explains Power, who with her up-to-the-minute style is the Carrie to Kerr’s more classic, tailored Charlotte. “It was always a business from the very beginning. We came from a print background where you had to follow rules. We didn’t see why it had to be any different with WWW.”
It was a sensible move. At a time when an unprecedented number of gossip blogs and websites were being discredited and even sued, the duo kept their noses clean. “We’ve always done everything by the book,” says Kerr. “It takes longer but it’s better. We licence all our photos and we not only call round the publicists and stylists to check what a celebrity is wearing, but we check with the store as well so that what we produce is never a guess, but actual information.”
The website encompasses fashion trends and beauty stories, as well as a series of online web videos (Power and Kerr do their own “Who What Wear Style Series,” while staffers hit the street to find out what real women are wearing). But it’s the “What Was She Wearing?” segment that really hurled them into the stratosphere.
The premise is simple: spot a celebrity wearing something you love? Then email the girls, who will not only track down the exact piece but also find you a cheap, high-street version when they can. At the time of the madison
interview, everyone was lusting over a cerulean-blue dress that Kate Bosworth had worn to a Golden Globes afterparty
. WWW unearthed its provenance with just a few phone calls. The responsible party? Burberry.
There are certain celebrities who always attract more reader attention than others, and the Kerr and Power can rattle off this list without blinking: Kate Moss (“naturally”), Alexa Chung, Rachel Bilson (they “love everything she wears”) and of course, Nicole Richie, who, they tell madison
, was a fan from day one. “She’s been a great supporter of ours,” they explain. Last year she was their first guest editor (followed by Lauren Conrad, Leighton Meester, Jessica Alba and Rachel Zoe – not a shabby collection) and she has also written the foreword to their new book.
Celebrities supporting websites? That seems like a misnomer, I explain. Power responds: “I think they like us because we always put them in a positive light. We focus on their style, not their personal lives. We will retouch someone if we think they can look a little bit better and we have had celebrities email us saying they don’t like a certain picture of themselves, so we’ll pull it and put up another one instead.”
“I’ve followed WWW since the beginning of the site,” says celebrity stylist Logan Horne, whose clients include Meester and model Jessica Stam. “I originally started checking it out because they were doing features on a lot of my friends in LA with great style. I loved the idea of finding these young people online with exceptional, authentic style and showcasing that in a simple entry. The women at WWW are up-to-date with what is happening on every runway and offer alternative finds at a fraction of the cost for the girl who lives and breathes fashion.”
Presently, 450,000 worldwide subscribers receive WWW’s daily newsletter; Kerr says that should grow to one million by the end of the year. What’s more, they achieve 2.5 million website page views each month. Let’s put that into context: The Sartorialist, one of the world’s most established fashion blogs, has 1.3 million views each month, while Fashionair, the fashion website dreamed up by former Spice Girl manager Simon Fuller, received just 32,000 monthly page views. (It closed less than a year after its launch in 2009.)
WWW has just launched a range of budget-friendly shoes, which retail for $39.95, and they’ve now released their second book, What To Wear, Where
, a how-to handbook that helps readers figure out what to wear on any occasion. Many of the outfits take their cues from the girls’ own wardrobes, Power’s lithe, long-legged frame serving as the perfect foil to Kerr’s dreamy 1950s curves.
Now that they’ve conquered the web, what’s next? They’ve been approached about making a reality TV show, but insist it’s something they’re “just not interested in”.
Power is busy planning her June wedding. But, she giggles, they do have one item on their bucket list. What they would like, they confess, is to “hang out” with Oprah. “After all,” asks Kerr, “who doesn’t want to have an empire?”