Is fashion paying enough attention to YouTube?

Inanna Sarkis, Hannah Stocking, and Lele Pons
(Max Knight / WWD)

Nearly 13 years ago, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim launched a web site that would flip the zeitgeist on its head. YouTube, home to viral videos and the vloggers that make them, is one of the most powerful players in the digital sphere today, and it’s just getting started.

In its short history, the channel has given birth to sensations like Justin Bieber, opened the door for beauty vloggers to stake their claim in the industry, and rendered former pop-culture staples like MTV’s “TRL” irrelevant by giving artists a platform to share their music videos directly with their fans. YouTube now boasts 1.5 billion monthly users, placing it below Facebook, which has 2 billion, and above Instagram, which has 700 million. Fashion, beauty and media brands seem focused more than ever on Instagram, where the next big influencer — and subsequent brand bait — supposedly lies in wait. But should they be paying more attention to YouTube?

Founded in 2011 by brothers John and Sam Shahidi, Shots Studios is a hotbed for YouTube personalities. The production studio, record label and talent management hybrid is like the Buzzfeed of YouTube, and has viral video-making down to a science. In the age of the digital consumer, whose average attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish, Shots Studios prides itself on making videos that young viewers can’t stop watching.

It does, of course, help that Bieber’s name is attached. The singer was an early investor and even invited Rudy Mancuso, one of Shots’ clients, to open for him on his “Purpose” world tour. In addition to Mancuso, Shots’ client list includes Swedish DJ Alesso, Brazilian singer Anitta, Palestinian-American comedian Anwar Jibawi, Venezuelan-Italian comedian Lele Pons, model Hannah Stocking and actress Inanna Sarkis. Not already familiar with these names? Their digital followings show that millions already are.

Lele Pons

Lele Pons
Lele Pons Max Knight / WWD

Stats: 7.9 million followers on YouTube, 21.9 million on Instagram, 1.7 million on Twitter

At just 21 years old, Lele Pons has cultivated a massive YouTube presence that has allowed her to venture into areas like beauty and music. With titles such as “Super Scary Sleepover” and “Training to be a Latina,” her short-story-style videos are comedic, high-energy and theatrical. The most-watched clip on her channel, “Super Mario Run,” has 57 million views.

“I measure success depending on the brands that come to you, the opportunities that you get, also the feedback that you get from people,” Pons says. “Obviously, the numbers and engagement are good, but as a person, it’s who you are on the Internet.”

Like most of Shots’ clients, Pons started out on the now-defunct Vine posting six-second videos. Her demographic is nine- to 24-year-olds, a wide range that she and Shots aim to serve responsibly. “We don’t curse at Shots Studios and we send a very positive message,” she explains. “The message that you’re portraying, that’s what drives the type of people that follow you. That’s why we have to be extra careful.”

Her video-making process goes as follows: Shots calls to set up a meeting. She and the team brainstorm ideas, but only after they’ve gotten her to focus. “I get distracted by everything. It takes a process of two hours for me to calm down, but the thing is it’s not hard for me to come up with an idea,” she says.

It typically takes her 20 minutes to come up with a concept and from there, she rounds up her friends for the shoot and Shots provides crew members. Filming takes around five or six hours and editing can take up to two days.

Once the video is live, Pons doesn’t look at stats. “Instagram I do, YouTube I don’t. YouTube’s more like a piece of art that I have and if you like it, you like it and if you don’t, you don’t. I like it.”

Last year, she was named a Cover Girl ambassador. She walked the runway at fashion week and is parlaying her digital success into a music career. She guest-starred in former Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello’s video for “Havana” (417.4 million views) and stars in the alternate visuals for Anitta and J Balvin’s “Downtown” (142.7 million views). She and Shots are working on her first album, a blend of Spanish and hip-hop sounds.

“Camila Cabello did an amazing job with ‘Havana,’” Pons says. “It’s Spanish, but it’s English. I want to also get all my Spanish, Hispanic following involved because I’m Latina — they expect me to do something like that as well.”

When asked whether she thinks fashion brands should be paying more attention to YouTubers, Pons says, “It depends who. I think they should be because we are becoming the next type of celebrities in this generation. They should pay be paying attention to that even if they like it or not — it’s different, it’s changing. I think it would be good for them, too. It would benefit them.”

Hannah Stocking

Hannah Stocking
Hannah Stocking Max Knight / WWD

Stats: 2.3 million followers on YouTube, 10.8 million on Instagram, 223,000 on Twitter

Hannah Stocking began her Internet career on Vine. She started her YouTube channel a year ago, when she signed to Shots, and focuses on educational videos geared towards nine to 24-year-olds. Pre-YouTube, she conducted research on embryonic stem cells. She holds two college degrees, one in biology and one in chemistry.

“I measure my success online mainly when people tell me they haven’t laughed that hard in a while or if my shows help them get through a bad day or a certain bad time in their life,” she says. She also uses data, gauging how well the video has done after the 24-hour mark, as well as how many followers or subscribers she gained that day.

It typically takes her three days to conceive, shoot and edit a video, and her goal is to make them informational, relatable and entertaining. “I try to incorporate [the topic] in very relatable concepts, whether it’s a school or a doctor or relationship style,” she says. “I try to integrate it throughout the video so it’s not information after information, like a lecture almost — it’ll never be that. But I still make it into a skit and have friends involved and we’re all having so much fun. I also try not to use big words. I try to explain it in the most easy way possible.”

Like Pons, Stocking, who partnered with Aéropostale last year, believes brands should be paying attention to YouTubers because of their wide reach. “It could actually be really beneficial to the fashion industry and help them target a different demographic as well,” she says.

Inanna Sarkis

Inanna Sarkis
Inanna Sarkis Max Knight / WWD

Stats: 2.1 million on Youtube, 7 million on Instagram, 115,000 on Twitter

For Inanna Sarkis, the goal is film and YouTube is the perfect mode of getting there. The Toronto native — whose “online age” is 24 — signed to Shots a year ago. She, too, started out on Vine, but refocused her efforts toward Facebook and Instagram after Vine shut down. Her videos are short-film-style, with an average length of five minutes.

“The reason I got into digital was for more opportunities in the acting world and it’s proven to work,” she says. Last year, she partnered with WWE on a character, and she, along with Hannah Stocking, was in Tyler Perry’s “Boo 2! A Madea Halloween.”

Sarkis’ fan base is 13- to 24-year-olds, which proves difficult at times. “My goal is to be in action. I love Marvel, ‘Wonder Woman,’ that kind of stuff, so it’s hard when you’re on a digital platform to not be too far out because you don’t want to do something that someone’s gonna get offended by,” she explains. “The Internet is so sensitive. You have to watch every little thing you do because it can get completely blown out of line.…It will ruin your life in one day and then after, like, ‘OK, we’re moving on.'”

Pons and Stocking typically post once a week, but Sarkis is on a bi-weekly schedule. “I really don’t want to rush my videos. I want to keep the quality of them and I feel like if I do it every week I might diminish that, but at the same time, I do want to figure out a way to create something that’s more simple for the in-between,” she says. Sarkis and Shots are working on creating either a show or film together.

Sarkis is open to working with fashion brands, but she’s wary of those that might partner with YouTubers just for their followings. “No offense, but there’s so many YouTubers and digital influencers that are using their platforms just to launch any kind of brand,” she says. “That’s one thing I don’t want to do. I hate seeing T-shirts and hats and it’s the same thing where it’s just one little graphic on it. That’s their style, but I also don’t like when I see things get watered down. There’s a lot of amazing people that [brands] can work with, but don’t just work with them because of their following. Work with them because you like their style and you think that they would offer something.”

All three emphasize that they create friendly environments for their followers via Shots Studios’ no-cursing policy and a focus on content that is safe, entertaining and positive. They declined to comment on the controversy earlier this year when YouTuber Logan Paul shocked the Internet by posting a video from Japan’s Aokigahara forest that included footage of an apparent suicide victim. The video was taken down, and Paul apologized publicly and has since pledged to donate $1 million to suicide prevention resources.

Still, the incident sparked conversations about YouTubers and the responsibility they have to provide content that is safe and appropriate for their followers — especially if, like Paul, who made $12.5 million last year according to Forbes, they profit from their channels.

It’s common nowadays to see influencers of the Insta-famous variety selling their own merch, appearing in campaigns and collaborating with large brands. And with the upcoming generation spending the majority of their time on YouTube, it’s likely that YouTube stars will start doing all of the above, too — if they aren’t already.

The beauty industry is attuned to the James Charles and Jaclyn Hills of the YouTube world, and the music industry is keen on finding the next Justin Bieber or Charlie Puth. Perhaps YouTube stars will soon be the fresh faces in fashion.

Inanna Sarkis, Hannah Stocking, and Lele Pons
Inanna Sarkis, Hannah Stocking and Lele Pons Max Knight / WWD