When I first looked up This is Not a Fashion Story by Danielle Bernstein, I had high hopes. It was billed as a tell-all of a breakout star of the fashion industry in the era of Instagram and each review I found was glowing. Now, I have read several great books by women in the fashion industry who found success in the blogosphere and turned it into a profitable business, like Garance Doré’s Love X Style X Life. I was expecting how-to advice from the WeWoreWhat creator mixed in with endearing stories about dealing with sudden success at such a young age. However, this book lacks any self-analysis that goes below the surface, a core component of the best memoirs. The micro- and macro-composition of the written content was not complex. It read more like the journal entries of a teenager than the memoir of a multimillion dollar entrepreneur, a phrase she never tired of using.
To begin with, the simplistic nature of the tone and style of writing limited the reader’s ability to connect with Bernstein emotionally. The elementary content exhibits the impact that the over-saturated yet superficial nature of Instagram has had on many new writers; there are 27 “lessons” detailing supposed life advice, yet only 228 pages to the book. Some are only two pages—hardly enough space to impart impactful wisdom through an engaging personal anecdote. The central theme of each chapter is summed up as a vaguely inspiring Instagram caption at the beginning of the chapter. The nature of the actual content within each section makes sense given the author’s extensive background in Instagram captioning, but draws unwanted attention to her lack of experience in literature or creative writing.
The personal stories are often difficult to relate to, particularly for anyone who has not grown up in New York City. For example, her account of the A train from Long Island to Manhattan as a drunk 16 year-old looking to go clubbing seemed to be ripped from episodes of Gossip Girl, which only added to the out-of-touch tone carried through the book. Using colloquial terms like “bitch work,” she attempts to comment on what she sees as the declining interest in working hard in millennials and Gen Z. However, this commentary overlooks the fact that what she might identify as a reticence to do this work is really an unwillingness to put up with poor or coercive work practices that the capitalist system thrives off of. Her tone suggests: I sucked it up for a couple years and now I’m a millionaire so if you worked as hard as me, you could be here too. It ignores the fallacy within our present economy that hard work equals positive results, which has been disproven one hundred fold in recent times. The fashion industry is replete with well-known complexities that she, as an insider, should be able to speak about with authority, but she is unsuccessful in doing so, instead leaving readers with uninspired conclusions.
I was disappointed that Bernstein’s story lacks a serious dialogue about professional adversity in her life, something that would be helpful for budding influencers seeking to replicate her success. When she recounts her path to dropping out of the Fashion Institute of Technology, Bernstein attempts to recognize her privilege by stating that she could only do so with the financial help of her father (the COO of a large company). Not only that, but she also recounts early internships that were sent her way thanks to family connections. She credits these internships with giving her access to people like her ex-boyfriend Michael who would take her to events and dinners where she networked. As she tells it, her hard work and extroversion should be credited with getting her where she is today, but having read her condensed life story in three hours, the huge leg up she had as a teenager and the absence of hurdles seem to deserve most of it.
The only story Bernstein shares that I would grant deals with adversity in the fashion and production industry is about her failed shoe line, Archive Shoes. However, she spends most of her time explaining why she saw no personal profit from the venture rather than suggesting how young entrepreneurs can avoid her mistakes. There’s little exploration of the impact it had on her as a person being mistreated by a friend and supposed business partner. It came off as a public relations explanation to customers that had been ripped off by the products her name was connected to so as to absolve her involvement with the shoe producers. This story also sets readers up to be confused later on in the book when she attempts to explain the success of her overall business post-Archive Shoes. She insists the shoe line went downhill because her partner began manufacturing the goods in China, thus degrading their quality. Yet when she began selling overalls, she admits that they chose to make them in Asia because of the low production costs in Asian countries like Vietnam and China. It struck me as odd that she would be in full support of a business decision she had disparaged someone else for taking years before. Does producing goods in China lead to lower quality or not? Is it only okay when she has full control over the choice, which she spends many pages making clear is essential to her?
Shockingly, Ms. Bernstein does not even expand on her personal struggles in an industry notorious for its obsession with image in this supposed tell-all about her. The self-promotion of her past and present brands was poorly concealed with attempts to explain that she has struggled; mentions of her life coach are littered in the later chapters and she dedicates one paragraph to referencing the toxicity that comes with posting pictures of yourself each day for people to freely criticize. But here again is an example of her avoidance of the nitty gritty of the industry she works in. Fashion has been used to promote unattainable beauty standards. It has routinely shut out the plus sized and non-white voices and bodies. Instagram has been proven to worsen the body image of those who use it frequently. Yet, rather than have a real conversation about the personal struggle she has likely gone through as a high frequency user of the platform creating content centered on selling the clothes on her body in each shot, she briefly mentions how she can get obsessed with editing photos and now works with health and wellness coach Melissa to “have a different perspective when it comes to working out and eating well.” We never learn what that perspective is nor do we learn how she struggled with Melissa to get to that point. As someone who has an eating disorder and body dysmorphia, I can confidently say that changing your perspective on food and exercise takes more effort than a weekly session with a health and wellness coach. This is the content we expect from a true tell-all.
At this point I wondered, what is the point of this book if there is little professional or personal adversity to overcome? Shouldn’t it at least attempt at a critical analysis of her success to help others who would like to pursue a similar career? That, at least, would have made the exhaustive chapters about her past brand partnerships, current partnerships (that readers will hopefully be encouraged to support after finishing), and the numerous collections she has designed with specialty brands stomachable. For someone who claims the title entrepreneur before influencer, cold hard numbers and monetary amounts were noticeably absent through most of the book. Yes, she did inform the reader that she gets paid at least 10K per post now and yes, I now know how much product she sold for a bikini collection in a given year. But I was left wondering what her rent was for that two bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village that she could somehow afford at 21 without a roommate. Or the hourly rate of her life coach she can’t live without? Without these contextual amounts, how is any reader able to understand the feasibility of a lifestyle like the one she has constructed for themselves? In a time when the middle class has been shrinking and inequality between those living in urban areas is widening, her stories of being whisked off to SoHo House by a 21 year-old beau at 17 smack of a privilege that surely cannot exist for the regular person, even if they do live in NYC.
This memoir (if you can call it that given she is only 27) comes off as a vanity project meant to plug her projects with brands and her new “tech company” if we stretch the definition of tech company. For someone who claims to make her living off of willingly sharing herself with her followers, her own tell-all is guarded about the person behind the screen. Sure, there are stories about bad dates and relationships that dragged on too long, but there’s little raw or compelling emotion or concrete advice. By the end, it becomes clear that even this book in your hands is part of her business strategy, and that you have been used.