What should a 33-year-old postpartum woman wear to her cousin’s 21st birthday party in New York City?
How should a 44-year-old mother of three balance comfort with Eras-Tour-appropriate glitter when she goes to see Taylor Swift?
What’s the right makeup brand for a typically barefaced 39-year-old who wants to look dewy in five minutes?
These are the sorts of questions that fashion and beauty editors at women’s magazines would answer in millions of monthly mailings. For decades, brands and advertisers coveted a mention from experts in the likes of Glamour and InStyle. That world has been blown apart by social media, which sent the majority of those publications online (if they survived at all) and elevated influencers and vloggers over editors.
But some women, still craving careful curation, want fashion, beauty and lifestyle recommendations beyond the glossy aesthetic of Instagram and TikTok. They’re finding them through Facebook groups and Substack newsletters — in many cases, started by former journalists.
The questions above, for example, are typical queries in “Gee Thanks, Just Bought It!,” a shopping community of roughly 18,000 strangers on Facebook, who are eager to share recommendations.
The group, whose members fondly refer to themselves as Geezers, is made up of fans of Caroline Moss, who was formerly an editor at Business Insider and a producer at BuzzFeed. She has run a consumer recommendation podcast, newsletter and Instagram under the “Gee Thanks, Just Bought It!” title since 2019. (The name is a reference to a lyric in “7 Rings,” the pop star Ariana Grande’s paean to consumerism.) The exchanges on Facebook often inspire and feed off Ms. Moss’s endorsements, she said, and the group has become its own unique destination, largely for women in their 30s and 40s looking to make a purchase.
“I’ve built an influencing community, but I don’t consider myself to be the influencer,” said Ms. Moss, 35, who lives in Los Angeles. “I’m not showing you beautiful Reels of me waking up and yawning and splashing water on my face. If you want to buy something, you’re coming to me.”
A range of other newsletters and podcasts started by former journalists and magazine editors have cultivated a similar appeal. Becky Malinsky, a former fashion editor at The Wall Street Journal, has amassed more than 25,000 subscribers to her weekly newsletter, “5 Things You Should Buy,” since she started it just over a year ago, according to Substack. Kim France, the founding editor of Lucky magazine, has a Substack and co-hosts a podcast for women over 40, which has a corresponding Facebook group.
Elizabeth Holmes, a former retail reporter at The Journal, has also become a source for shopping links — surprising even herself at times — through her Instagram and newsletter, “So Many Thoughts,” which largely focuses on the British royal family. The women say that these endeavors have earned them full-time salaries comparable to, or exceeding, what they earned in traditional journalism roles.
Their advice drives big spending. Ms. Moss has left some entrepreneurs gobsmacked by the sales resulting from her seal of approval. Ms. Malinsky, who was an early user of the viral Uniqlo round mini shoulder bag, said she contributed to its rise and that she helped cause a pair of Tory Burch pants to sell out online.
Both are making money from affiliate links, in which a person or outlet receives a small commission from purchases driven by their recommendations. Years ago, this type of partnership could leave readers skeptical, but affiliate links have become a common fixture online, especially for women’s magazines. (Wirecutter, a product review site owned by The New York Times, is built on affiliate revenue.)
Ms. Holmes, who lives in Los Angeles, mostly earns money through paid subscriptions to her newsletter ($5 per month), but she has dabbled in affiliate links, incorporating personal style suggestions into her newsletter and her Instagram. She has also collaborated with companies like the swimwear brand Summersalt and the women’s wear brand M.M. LaFleur.
When Kate Middleton wore a Suzannah London dress in different colors to various events, it prompted Ms. Holmes to ask readers what clothing items they had in multiples. She received more than 300 answers. In her newsletter, she compiled the responses in a spreadsheet and featured a dozen products that had been suggested by more than one person. (The Anthropologie ‘Somerset’ Dress! The Madewell Whisper Tank!) Comments poured in: “I just bought my first Nap Dress off of this list!”
“People loved that because it was a bunch of testimonials of stuff people try and wear and use and buy,” Ms. Holmes, 43, said. “My audience is women in their 30s and 40s like me, and in some ways, we were the tail-end of the glossy magazine shopping trend, and we definitely experienced the Instagram-influencer beautiful photos.” Now, she said, there’s more of a “community aspect” to consumer recommendations and an interest in what normal people are wearing.
For some, these communities are a salve for the sheer amount of stuff for sale online, targeted to them in feeds fueled by algorithms. These women want a review of a review and the truth behind a flawless Instagram picture — has a real person actually tried that face roller? Has anyone else been targeted by ads for that particular eyeliner?
As Ms. Moss put it: “So many of the amazing things about the internet are also all of the bad things about the internet when it comes to needing to make a meaningful purchase.”
Ms. Malinsky, who started her career at the now-defunct Lucky magazine in 2007 and worked at Glamour and GQ before joining The Journal, tells her newsletter subscribers: “I scroll so you don’t have to.” She sends crisp missives that you can count on one hand: five white T-shirts, five dresses for “extreme heat” or five tips for entertaining on Thanksgiving, with casual photos of herself wearing the clothes she’s endorsing.
Ms. Malinsky, 39, said she was eager to provide the sort of journalism for an audience that had been largely lost by women’s magazines over the course of her career. She had left The Journal to start a styling business inspired by questions she was fielding from readers about what to wear after the pandemic. She now helps around 30 public-facing people to outfit them for work, she said, and that research helps fuel her newsletter.
Ms. Malinsky’s audience “sweet spot” is 25- to 50-year-olds, she said, adding, “It’s definitely filling that void, especially for an older millennial who is not going to be on TikTok and is looking for a bit of authority and a place to go and enjoy that’s not just tap-click-tap-click.”
Barnes & Noble’s website recently displayed 19 “women’s interest” print magazines; a snapshot from 2015 showed it carried 61 such magazines back then. Lucky, the magazine that pioneered shopping content at Condé Nast, ceased publication in 2015. InStyle and Allure announced last year that they would stop printing regularly, while Glamour, Self and Marie Claire stopped before that. Together, these decisions took millions of women’s magazines out of circulation. Many remain online, but they’re smaller and less influential.
Women’s magazines did and still do provide more journalism than just fashion, beauty and lifestyle advice, but this sort of content was bread-and-butter for so many.
“Women’s magazines, both editorially and from a product perspective, were victims of technology and of us changing,” said Lisa Pecot-Hébert, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. “The monthly cycle, the way people interact with media, the at-my-fingertips-I-want-information-right-now — all of those things unfortunately led to women’s magazines not being the go-to.”
Ms. Pecot-Hébert said that these sites from former journalists had the stamp of traditional media. “Even the Instagram posts they have or the things on the websites, they’re clickable headlines,” she said.
Ms. Moss, Ms. Holmes and Ms. Malinsky rank among the top 10 fashion and beauty newsletters on Substack, a category whose subscribers have grown by 80 percent in the past year, the company said.
It’s worth noting that the majority of the top fashion and beauty newsletters are run by white women who seem to cater to an audience that can, of course, afford to spend money — echoing some of the main criticisms of women’s magazines for many years. But Ms. Moss said communities like her Facebook group drew together women from many backgrounds, including those who had felt excluded from women’s magazines when they were growing up.
Ms. Moss first started recommending products for fun on Twitter and a podcast. She helped make some products go viral — there was a moment in 2019 when it felt like every chronically online young woman working in media bought a Revlon One-Step Volumizer hair tool that she loved — but she learned that turning the business of recommendations into a full-time job required serious strategy. She leaned on what she knew from digital media to figure out shopping trends and what her followers were looking for. And she cultivated the private Facebook group, which she still moderates.
Ms. Moss recalled working at Business Insider when stories about HBO’s “Game of Thrones” would perennially top site traffic charts, prompting additional articles about the series.
“You want to feed the beast, that’s the whole point,” Ms. Moss said. “It’s a way of listening to what the people who are giving you their time and attention are telling you what they want and what they want more of.”
It’s perhaps a testament to the power of Ms. Moss’s recommendations that her approval has even driven sales of perfume, an exceptionally hard product to sell without a sample or in-person wrist dab. When Alana Davidov, the creator of the boutique fragrance brand Maya, first received a request from Ms. Moss for a discount code for her followers, she was going into labor with her first child and wasn’t quite sure who Ms. Moss was. But she seemed “lovely” and had been a genuine fan of her perfume, Ms. Davidov said.
“I was in the hospital and texted her, ‘Here’s a promo code to share with your followers,’” she said. “She generated thousands of dollars in sales instantly. Meanwhile, I’ve had influencers with a few million followers get paid tons of money to post and they generated, 10, 20, 30 sales.”
Ms. France, who pioneered the Lucky shopping magazine, said that she never looked at magazines anymore. But she marveled at the feedback she receives on her newsletter and podcast, where a simple makeup recommendation can spark a conversation elsewhere.
“I talk on the podcast about this Jones Road foundation that I love, and then women go to our Facebook page for the podcast and start talking about the foundation among themselves — ‘I find it kind of grainy, it’s a little sheer for me’ — when did that ever happen with magazines?” she said.
Ms. Holmes said she had been flattered but taken aback by the consistency with which people ask her for links to what she’s wearing when she posts on Instagram — even when the timing is odd.
Earlier this year, she uploaded a somber video, tied to International Women’s Day, in which she urged women to visit their doctors for annual checkups. She discussed her own nervousness around skin checks, especially after she was diagnosed with skin cancer in the past, which has since been treated. The clip had nothing to do with fashion, she said, but before she knew it: “Someone DMs me and they’re like, link to your top?”
“I was like, OK, people want links, and they’re always looking at what you’re wearing,” she said.
Sapna Maheshwari is a business reporter covering TikTok and emerging media companies. Previously she reported on retail and advertising. Contact her at [email protected]. More about Sapna Maheshwari
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