The Tumblr Generation of the Rise of Fashion
First row (left to right): Ethan James Green (photographer and director), Martine Gutierrez (artist), Peter Goldberg (archivist), Christopher Barnard (writer), Marcus Cuffie (stylist), Fernando Cerezo (artist), Stevie Triano (office worker) and Marcs Goldberg ( artistic director). Last row: Iris Diane Palma (artist), Chuy Medina (studio director and photographer), Dara Allen (fashion director and model), Devan Díaz (writer), Sonny Molina (hairdresser) and Cruz Valdez (photographer).
Photo: Cruz Valdez
The Tumblr fashion kids came to New York, as fashion lovers often do, from the less fashionable provinces: San Jose and Grand Rapids and Baltimore and Orange County and Jersey Shore. Growing up far from industry enclaves, they were obsessed with Balenciaga advertisements and Vogue Italy scans online, following the zeal of strangers, and found their like-minded fanatics to befriend. A decade later, they’re all living in New York, and they’re still friends. They socialize together and party together, and now, after moving from outside digital to inside the industry, they work together too. “The first time I met all the dolls, it was clear, it was a tight bunch of ride-or-dies,” says artist Martine Gutierrez, who met her crew in the city following of one Candy magazine shoot in 2016 and quickly fell into it.
They’ve come a long way since they were on Tumblr, the image-centric blogging platform, in the 2010s as fashion-obsessed teenagers. Perfectly mastering technology, controlling their own means of producing, distributing and promoting images: the girls of the Factory without needing a Warhol, the Halstonettes if they dispensed with Halston, the children of unholy love of Cleveland (Pat, not Ohio) and Vreeland. They internalized Polly Mellen raving about “the weightlessness, the pompom, the puff” fake furs in Unzipped and Donatella Versace making marble-mouthed statements in a vogue video interview (“What are you reading right now?” “Magazines!”). They live to be behind the camera and in front of it.
Without fashion school – in some cases, without even completing high school, let alone college – they trained in the chapter and verse of the industry, its history and archives as well as its lingua franca. Their styles were cooked in Tumblr’s mix-and-match, an infinitely referential crucible, and the most dedicated could spend five or six hours a day on the platform, posting and commenting. “After midnight, it was time to be out there,” says Devan Díaz, a writer who moved to New York from Tennessee at 18 and started her Tumblr in 2009. “If you go to bed really late, you can see the European crowd waking up.”
“If I didn’t have Tumblr, I never would have gotten into fashion,” says Marcus Cuffie, a stylist whose Tumblr, Dustulator (the name of a favorite Rick Owens collection), launched in 2011, has become a reference for many other bloggers. . “I wouldn’t have known how to access it.”
“I think we wanted to know why we liked the things we liked,” says Hari Nef, who moved to New York from Massachusetts to attend Columbia and joined Tumblr in the summer of 2011, just before he arrived. “We wanted to draw a line through the past to understand where it came from. Together we were able to thread that needle and thread it. It was about information, and it was about discovery – discovery that you couldn’t achieve without the community. Reblogs and comments led to chats and calls, and gradually a circle coalesced.
All research has paid off. Nef has interned at fashion hotspots like VFiles, though now she’s better known as an actress; she spent this spring filming Barbie film. (She deleted her Tumblr before the release of her first film in 2018.) Cuffie now dresses for Harper’s Bazaar, Dizzy, and a bag of independent magazines. Cruz Valdez, who became Cuffie’s partner and now collaborator, is a photographer who shoots for Marc Jacobs, Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty, and Eckhaus Latta. “These children to know things,” says Mel Ottenberg, editor-in-chief of Interview, who hired one of them, Dara Allen, known professionally as Dara (Tumblr born 2011), to be the magazine’s fashion director in February. “They really need to study.”
For young millennials and all of Gen Z, making friends online is simply how you make friends. But eventually this crew realized, you have to meet in real life if you want to do anything. Their Tumblr buddies were their support system, and they flocked to the town in formation to live, work, and play together. “I always wanted to come to New York, but I don’t think I would have,” Allen says. But goaded by fellow Californians Valdez and entertainer Iris Diane Palma, she bought a ticket with them (in tears) and moved for a flop to Bushwick. (Stevie Triano, another Tumblr friend, and Cuffie picked up the keys and met them the day they arrived.) Valdez, who went to photography school, got her first shots in their shared apartment in Brooklyn with a transparent backdrop attached by a belt. to their futon with Allen, who appeared in two Marc Jacobs shows before finally signing with a modeling agency, as a subject.
In New York, they met other Tumblrites, including Nef and Cuffie. “I really felt like we were all meant to get together,” Nef told me. “Word manifest was very popular at that time. And that’s what we felt like we were doing. Obsession alone wasn’t enough for me, Dara, Cruz, Marcus, Devan or any of us. It would just have been a waste for us to do anything but use up all those hours we spent watching, listening, writing and sharing and not trying to do anything with them.
They found themselves friends with model-turned-photographer Ethan James Green, and the circle grew. Green was a more laid back Tumblr user whose track career was cataloged on Tumblr – most comprehensively by Allen on his blog. His photography career had stalled until, inspired by his mentor David Armstrong, he began photographing black and white portraits of friends and future friends, including all of the people pictured here, many of whom are presented in his first book, Young New York. “All these great fashion people I’d been hanging out with for years were suddenly like, ‘Oh!‘ – it sparked something,” Green says. “People started asking me to do my photos. And because I was able to really create my world, I didn’t have to compromise. These days he shoots for vogue and OLouis Vuitton campaigns, and has just closed his first personal exhibition at Fotografiska.
Now they are part of the next generation of fashion and landing big jobs. Green often works with Allen. Allen often works with Valdez. Valdez often works with Cuffie, who is also his partner. Their friends attend the shootings or style or build the sets. Their work adorns Soho billboards for Calvin Klein; they are booked by Bottega Veneta and Alexander McQueen. The line between work and life can be blurred. They don’t work exclusively together, but they understand each other better when they do. “We all see it for each other. Our Grindr profile would say, “Muse 4 Muse,” says Gutierrez. “I constantly bring friends on projects, especially when there’s a budget.”
“There is of course a common language,” says Marcs Goldberg, art director who designs sets for photo shoots. “It’s kind of like a sibling relationship, where it can be very intense and extreme, but in the end, it’s exactly how it should be.”
They flourished individually and collectively, making room for themselves and their tastes. Many of them have transitioned from their first encounters on Tumblr or have adopted non-binary identities. “It opened up so many possibilities,” Valdez told me. “We all had such an instinct for something,” Allen says. “I think I’ve realized that it really becomes easier to go with your instincts – and your friends.” This year, she worked with Green on an ad campaign for Walmart. “Think of someone in Central America seeing style from their perspective, it’s really crazy,” says Green proudly.
To hear them say it, their work is no longer so different from their fit photos on Tumblr. “I think it was all about building and refining,” says Valdez. “When I think about my older work, it’s not like it was that drastically different, it’s just more about how I was able to articulate what I wanted to say and how to say it.” “That was me on Tumblr,” Allen shouted as he struck a pose for the camera, twisting his wrists outward and clutching his hands to his waist, a tall little teapot. Now their Tumblrs have mostly fallen – although a few still post privately or occasionally – and the platform itself has lost its former glory. The next generation gathers elsewhere.
But if their support has diminished, the message has not diminished. What would they do on their last day on earth? Probably that, they said, posing for this portrait. There is no “cheese” here. “Everyone says ‘pussy,'” Valdez said before the shutter went off. “Cat!” they all bellowed happily.