The Innovators: Tumblr Fashion Director Rich Tong

The fashion world is enamored with micro-blogging platform Tumblr -- with everyone from Prabal Gurung to Vogue to Kate Spade using it to engage their audience. Fashion-focused Tumblrs are one of the fastest growing segments on the platform -- ranging from personal style blogs to street style blogs to insider blogs and everything in between. We talked with Tumblr’s fashion director Rich Tong about his role at the growing company and how the rise of social media is impacting the fashion world.

How did you become the fashion director of Tumblr?
I went to Cornell to study architecture. I always thought that was what I wanted to do -- my plan throughout school was always to be an architect. I did all of my internships at architecture firms. My first job out of college was doing store design for Coach. Nine months after starting, I quit to start my own company with a friend of mine, Weardrobe, a fashion community where people were able to put photos up of what they wore everyday. Working on that start-up was a hugely educational experience. We moved out to San Francisco, got a lot of guidance and were able to build the company. After two years, we were approached by with an acquisition offer. We didn’t really know what the future was going to be, the offer was great, so we took our exit. 
It was a great opportunity to take a step back and to see what else I wanted to do. I met David Karp [Tumblr’s founder and CEO] during that time and we always kept in touch. I worked on a conference for Weardrobe where I brought 20 bloggers to New York, which he was aware of. He was really interested in the fashion community. He made me an offer to lead that effort to grow Tumblr’s fashion community. It was definitely an offer I couldn’t refuse: He was really willing to provide the funding and the manpower needed to build the community. That was seven months ago [three years into Tumblr's history]. Since, Tumblr has had a $30 million infusion from Sequoia Capital and has continued to focus on creative communities like fashion. We have been scaling up ever since. 
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I am in the middle of gearing up for fashion week. I have just been going through hundreds and hundreds of blog submissions trying to understand different voices. Ultimately, we’ll invite a selection to fashion week. It’s a really interesting experience. I have been emailing and Skyping with all of these bloggers, getting a glimpse at their personalities. Getting to interact with some of our foreign bloggers is more than entertaining. 
Each day is different. Today I had lunch with Imran Amed from Business of Fashion, I stopped by Prabal Gurung’s studio and met with [public relations firm] KCD to see what they are planning for fashion week. There is no typical day.
How closely do you work with fashion brands and magazines that have Tumblrs? 
There are varying degrees on how closely we work with brands. With Oscar de la Renta, I made a point to walk through Erika [Bearman, Director of Communications for Oscar de la Renta], better known as OscarPRGirl, to help her develop her point of view -- talked her through what to post, showed her how to take photos of herself and made sure that she had a theme that she was happy with. It’s definitely a relationship for us that is very beneficial. 
What are some of the biggest mistakes that fashion brands make when they jump into social media? 
Tumblr, Twitter, these things work best when there is one person behind them with their own point of view. When a whole company is involved, it’s always a disaster. 
How was Tumblr able to take off in the fashion community? 
As far as magazines, when I started there was just Vogue and Elle on Tumblr. Now, there is WWD, Glamour, and so many others. As far as fashion brands, when I started there was maybe Ann Taylor, and we have added Oscar de la Renta, Prabal Gurung, Jason Wu, Kate Spade. I think it definitely exploded when a handful of top brands joined. It certainly didn’t hurt to have Vogue join us early on. 
What feedback have you gotten from fashion brands on why they like Tumblr? 
I have heard mixed things. Erika from Oscar de la Renta has found that her Tumblr audience is more engaged that her Facebook audience. She livestreamed their last fashion week show on both platforms and got 20,000 more views on Tumblr, which is fairly significant. DknyPRGirl has been able to get more feedback and increase her reach with yet another audience. Stefano Gabbana has a personal Tumblr where he is able to share his personal life, which has been very successful for him. Nicola Formichetti, Thierry Mugler’s Creative Director and Lady Gaga’s stylist, really uses Tumblr to look for inspiration and puts what he finds to use in his work.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had since joining Tumblr? 
Credibility. Only because a lot of the fashion industry hadn’t heard of Tumblr when I started. And also because they didn’t know who I was. People that were forward-thinking really got it, though. 
How has the proliferation of fashion brands and magazines using social media changed the landscape? 
I think it has become just as critical as mailing lists were ten years ago. Many companies were obsessed with capturing their customers’ emails and contact information. Now it is about collecting followers on Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter. It’s a different strategy, but it really comes down to staying in touch and connecting with the customer.  
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