When Lyn Slater launched her style website, Accidental Icon, in 2014, it was because she was, in her words, "having trouble finding a fashion blog or magazine that offered an urban, modern, intellectual aesthetic but also spoke to women who live what I call 'interesting but ordinary lives' in cities."
Since then, Slater, a professor at Fordham University's Graduate School of Social Service, has carved out a meaningful and unique niche for herself in a now over-saturated space of both influencers and influencer-hopefuls. First, anyone who comes across her Instagram or blog will notice her contemporary and eclectic style heavily influenced by Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo. Then, one might recognise the way she talks about fashion — she doesn't just discuss clothes, but politics, society, and what it's like to be a woman. That's what it takes for us to really fall for an influencer: style with real substance. And that's exactly what you get.
The best part about Slater, though, is that she tells it like it is. And truthfully, she's sick of being followed, interviewed, and highlighted only because of her age (yes, she's 65, and no, it doesn't matter). It's othering in the same way singling out someone based on their sexual orientation, race, weight, or anything else is (but more on that later). If anything, she's proof you really find Instagram fame at any point of your life (like a few of our favourites: Linda Rodin, Grece Ghanem, and Sophie Fontanel) — and she's got the wisdom, intellect, authenticity, and doesn't-give-a-damn confidence the influencer space so desperately needs more of.
Ahead of Fashion Month, R29's senior fashion market editor Alyssa Coscarelli (an influencer in her own right) caught up with Slater to talk Instagram in 2018, the longevity of influencing as a career, and how to stay relevant in an ever-saturated landscape.
Alyssa Coscarelli: I met a 12-year-old the other day who wants to be a blogger when she grows up, and that kind of blew my mind. So many young people today aspire to be influencers and look to people like you as the example. Tell us the story of how you became the "Accidental Icon" and how your blog got its start.
Lyn Slater: "I get many DMs from 13-to-14-year-olds who want to do what I'm doing. I'm a professor, but I've also always worked with different kinds of creatives and learned creative skills. That was always my sensibility. But I started feeling very constrained in academia in terms of how I could write and how I could present. At that same point (it was about six or seven years ago), I started taking courses at some of local [New York City] fashion schools. In every class I took, people would say, 'Ugh, you have such a good style, why don't you start a blog?'
"I approached it like a researcher and looked at all the blogs that were out there; they all started to blend into each other and look the same, so I decided to do everything that was the opposite. My photographer is my life partner, Calvin, and really for the first eight months of the blog or so we only shot in black and white. I was very fortunate that I got noticed so quickly.
"The popular story out there on the web is that I was accidentally discovered at fashion week — my friend came to meet me for lunch and there were all these photographers taking my picture, and she said, 'You're an accidental icon.' And that's how I got the name."
I often say I hate describing my style because it changes so often, but you seem to have really defined yours. How did you land on the look you have now?
"I would actually say that my style is also evolving and experimental. It's really dependent on two things: 1) What's going on in the world that I'm living in at any given moment, and 2) What particular aspects of myself am I experimenting with at that time? As a professor, I know people don't want lectures or rhetoric. I find I can engage a much more diverse audience through my visuals."
I am who I am in my digital world, and I am who I am in my real world. There's not a real distinction between the two.
What advice do you have for people sliding into your DMs who want advice on how to build a platform of their own?
"Two things I always tell them are: 1) Do whatever work you need to be really okay about being yourself. 2) Do not get attached to numbers. Focus more on the content you're creating. How can you take that skirt that everyone else is wearing and put it into the world in a really unique way? Be authentic."
How does your interest in fashion overlap with your career in academia?
"What gives me a lot of energy and inspiration on the academic side is my relationship with my students. As a professor of social welfare I've been dealing with inclusion, diversity, human rights, social justice, fair wages, and sustainability, but in a way that's not as engaging to people. [My blog] enables me to put out a picture that allows me to engage in conversation and allows me to support initiatives I believe in and help them raise money. I've done a number of sponsored posts related to campaigns about changing narratives in society, about sustainability, about women's empowerment. I've been able to generate money for amazing not-for-profits that are the boots on the ground doing the work. I have much more of a reach and impact in this world regarding issues I've cared about for a long time than I do in academia right now. I am who I am in my digital world, and I am who I am in my real world. There's not a real distinction between the two. My values and my work that I've done my whole life are in my bones."
What are the not-so-great parts of being an influencer, and what do you think about the term "influencer" as a whole?
"Based on my experience and literally thousands of comments and e-mails, I have been able to influence culture. I've been able to begin to change peoples' perceptions about what it might mean to be older, what it might mean to be a woman. I am very much, and always have been, an anti-authority, social-category-buster.
"Influence has two definitions: One is the commerce, which is, are you influencing people to buy something? The other is, are you influencing your culture? To me, that's the sphere I like to stay in. I don't think they're mutually exclusive, but I approach my 'influencing' as a profession, which means I have ethics and values. [Influencing] has the potential to change the world if we balance the two sides of it. It's kind of like the balance between art and commerce. It's the balance between commerce and social change."
For sure, I've actually taken on projects only to feel kind of crappy about them afterwards. You have to hold yourself to a standard, and realise you don't have to say yes to every project that comes in.
"Right, and that's why my advice is to take some time to really know who you are and who you want to be in this world. That will help you assess and evaluate what's coming in, which is the hardest part of it all. It's very seductive when people want to work with you, and it can be very hard to say no. What I've found over my life is that there are a lot of ways society tries to control you, and the biggest way is through fear. So you have all these fears that if you say no, you'll never get another offer. But if your 'no' is coming from a place of self-worth and self-value, it's going to end up making more people want you, not less."
I am never written about in the press except with other over-50 Instagram stars. To me, that's society saying: 'Stay in your lane.'
What are your thoughts about the future of influencing as a job? Is it sustainable? Where do you see it going in the next five to 10 years?
"It's hard to predict anything beyond the next six months because technology is always changing everything. Just when you master some new Instagram thing, some other new Instagram thing comes along. I think the best approach for me, because I'm always monitoring our culture and that helps me to anticipate a little bit, is staying in the moment.
"If influencers continue to not have ethics and values and just put out the same kind of content, it will go away. But I think there will be people who, because of their creativity, because of their ability to stay in the moment and be a fast responder, will continue to be successful. Consumers are in control right now and the digital world is here to stay, so you better figure it out."
Speaking of making it last, how do you stand out in a saturated market?
"Like any other profession, there will be millions of people who try to do it, but there is some talent and creativity and intuition that’s involved. The people who will rise to the top are the ones who are constantly developing themselves.
"Someone I admire is Margaret Zhang because she was a lawyer, became an influencer, then decided she wanted to do photography and film and music and fashion at the same time. You get to watch her develop as a person and a creative, and for me that’s fascinating. And that's what I like to share with my followers. I’m having adventures and putting myself out there. I had no connection to fashion at all when I started, but because of my approach, I've been able to engage with a lot of people who find that refreshing. It's like anything else in the world and in history: Interesting, artistic, new, and fresh content is going to engage."
"Someone once said to me, 'You're still aspirational, which is what fashion must be, but you're also accessible.' That's another one of those lines an influencer has to hit: That you're inspiring people, but you're also real."
Guess what? You’re gonna get old. It’s inevitable.
On a lighter note, if you ask me, hair makes the look. How do you land on your haircuts? They suit you so well!
"Just like clothing, hair is performative. The two factors are knowing who you are and what you want to convey (and having a hairstylist who knows what kind of hairstyle is really going to suit you). My hair is always integral to my look, and a big part of it is letting my hair be grey.
" People make so many assumptions because you have grey hair. One thing that's made me angry is that, even though I am an influencer who has been as successful as many younger influencers in terms of reach and popularity, I am never written about in the press except with other over-50 Instagram stars. To me, that's society saying: 'Stay in your lane.' It makes me feel like I’m being relegated to a senior living community when I would never live in a senior living community. When you’re putting me with somebody like Baddie Winkle simply because I have grey hair, you’re fetishising me. And I don’t like it."
For sure. It goes back to all the inclusion conversations we're having in fashion these days.
"I think age is the thing that most people are afraid of. But guess what? You’re gonna get old. It’s inevitable. The best thing you can do is manage your stress levels and keep your body healthy. Then you will look as good as you can look no matter what age you are.
"What I hope I’m doing is offering an alternative to these stereotypes. You can be 63, a professor who has nothing to do with fashion, and you can start something new and become very successful. You can constantly reinvent yourself. Don't stress, be in the moment, enjoy your life."
With that said, how do you feel about fashion and getting dressed at this phase of your life?
"I think it's pretty consistent. [Fashion] is a tool for me. It's how I convey myself to the world and, especially now, I've become even more thoughtful about it. You have to be when you’re creating content for a fashion blog and Instagram. But most of it is really still intuitive. It's very organic.
"Rei Kawakubo, in her first store, did not have mirrors. She had a reason for that: She wanted people to take a moment and feel how the clothes felt on their body, and if they felt real and authentic and comfortable on their body. That's sort of how I do it. In a way, it's like sculpting — using clothing as materials to create something."
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