What does it take to be a fashion influencer?

What does it take to be a fashion influencer?


Text: Andrea Sim

Interview: Jolene Khor

Image: Instagram | @nellielim,

Mae Tan, Nellie Lim and Savina Chai get real about life as an Instagram personality

The rise of social media has seen everyone and anyone raring to go with their opinions on the business of influence. On one side, naysayers — who attribute it to little more than posting "pretty" photos — are quick to dismiss it as a bonafide career. On the other, those who covet the role and, perhaps, the perceived prestige of walking in the shoes (literally and figuratively) of their favourite Intagrammers. We, the ones with the questions, exist somewhere in the middle. Is being an influencer a real job? How sustainable is it? Is Instagram over-saturated, and hence do we really need more influencers? 

In interest of hearing it straight from the horse's mouth, we invite three well-known Singapore Instagram personalities to share their thoughts on the above and more. Mae Tan — brains behind Surrender and Christian Dada, as well as Off-White's brick-and-mortar in Singapore — aka @marxmae, Savina Chai — creative director of local label Eight Slate plus business of fashion lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic — aka @savinachaiyj, and Nellie Lim aka @nellielim, sound off, no holds barred. 

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Read some of the highlights below. 

We're so used to seeing images that are posed and perfected, it's easy for us to think for example, "That's so posed — she's definitely not eating those pancakes." How important is authenticity as a fashion influencer? 
Mae: I don't buy pancakes and not eat them. [Laughs] 
Savina: I don't eat pancakes, but I have pancakes in my photos — that I admit. I get somebody who's with me to finish it! Or we share food.
Nellie: I think all of us are quite tech savvy and we've become very discerning with what's an ad and what's not. It is difficult to find that balance of who you are as a person, and [not become] what they call a sellout. If you're promoting a fashion brand and you go, "Quote my name for 10% off". Do you actually speak like that in real life? You don't! So that's when people start to get a bit annoyed that you're doing ads... they start to feel a little cheated. 

Like there's a salesperson in the app.
Nellie: Yes! They want to follow you because of your personality or your lifestyle — not for promotions. So I think that there has to be a balance. First, that the brands you work with fit really well with your lifestyle and you as a person, and secondly, make sure you retain the voice that you have and who you are.
Savina: It's really a daily challenge for us. We have advertisers, and we need to bridge the gap between making content that fits our style, feels true to us, and at the same time appeals to our audience. That's always a challenge — to always come up with new ways to sell advertisements to our audience. 

What do you think people want to see more of — and, less of — on Instagram?
Mae: More skin! 
Savina: I mean, that works for certain people.
[All laugh] 
Mae: I swear it really works. And also, I like to post photos without my face in them... people do not like it! I get really angry because I think they're not appreciating the photo [laughs]... the artistic point of it. As people who create creative content, I think sometimes this really frustrates us because as much as the photo has a certain sort of style and [reflects] our personality, they don't connect with it. I [post] what I think is a really nice photo and no one agrees. But, if I post one with my full body, face, and a cup of coffee, everyone loves it. I'm like, guys c'mon! I think that's just what the Internet culture is like, and it is hard finding that balance — it's really what we've all been trying to do, especially if we like to create "interesting" content.

What do you think about having a career solely built on an Instagram handle? Savina and Mae, Instagram is not really your core business as you guys do other stuff, but what are your thoughts on the sustainability of an Instagram career?
Savina: Doing this full time is very tricky. I respect Nellie because she does it full time and does it well. For me, I'm always selling this lifestyle that everything is picture perfect, but in reality, it's different. I try very hard to pick up other skills from other businesses I do on the side, and also always work on my professional skills and resume.
Mae: I totally agree. As much as Instagram is doing us good right now, you might get tired of it after awhile; especially as you get older. We're all still quite young but you know, when you're in your 30s or 40s and you have your other businesses sorted and have everything going on for you, would you still want to spend time trying to get approval from other people; trying to get them to like what you do?

Thoughts Nellie? Your Instagram handle is your sole career — what do you think is going to be the next step for you?
Nellie: This is a question I get asked all the time because I think I'm one of the few [Instagrammers] in Singapore who [treats this as their] core business, and I don't do anything else. It wasn't an easy decision. I came from a digital advertising background and I do know how businesses work, how brands work, how advertisers should be and so on. But three years into it I thought to myself: "If I don't try this, [being an Instagrammer], I'd never know." When you quit a "proper career" to pursue something like this, people find it very uncomfortable. It's a very uncomfortable decision to make. I knew I was going to work very, very hard at it and that it was going to work. I see so much potential in this market because we are at a day and age where we're so obsessed with consuming content in our free time. It's not an industry that will die out soon, and it will be sustainable if you make it so. People that tell me that they tried it and it didn't work, my question always is: Do you have a three year plan? Do you have a five year plan? I have a business plan. [When I quit my job] I was very, very clear with the steps I was going to take to get to where I am today. 

Read more stories in our Career Special