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The past 10 years have seen the internet drastically change many different spheres and industries, not the least of these being the expanse that is broadly referred to as “fashion” or “style.” Styleforum.net was developed in 2002 by Fok-Yan Leung and his business partner Jeremy Jackson out of a desire to fill an untapped niche within the menswear market at the time. Fast forward a decade later and Styleforum remains one of the forerunners within the often overly saturated and under-qualified forums landscape that provides a venue for global users to carry on a discourse about all things style. And yet, co-founder Fok-Yan Leung and the team behind Styleforum are not resting on their laurels, rather the team is decidedly pushing the envelope of traditional digital platform culture in an attempt to create inroads towards the development of its offline readership and audience. HYPEBEAST recently sat down with Leung for an insightful conversation surrounding the early development of Styleforum, his thoughts on the current state of menswear, as well as the future goals of his progressive site.
Can you introduce yourself and what you do?
I am Fok-Yan Leung, one of the two owners, and the manager, of Styleforum.net. All my tasks are focused around two central things — to keep our community happy and engaged, and to produce content that is relevant for our audience. We are a pretty small organization, so I essentially do everything and anything that needs to be done from coordinating editorial content and organizing events to looking at new marketing projects. I’m especially proud of our new blog. Currently, I’m working hard with our team to develop our first ever lookbook/buying guide and coordinating our 10-year anniversary celebration in San Francisco on May 4-5. You guys are all invited!
When did the idea for Styleforum come about?
Styleforum was actually created by my partner, Jeremy Jackson, 10 years ago in reaction to the GQ forums which are not great now and which were a complete mess in 2002. I guess that the business school description for this would be that we saw an under-served niche within the market and we decided to got cater to it about a month later. At the time, I was working on my PhD thesis, which is a great time to get distracted. The idea was to have a place where guys who loved clothing, whether it was suits and ties or sneakers and jeans, could talk about their hobby and exchange information. The “social” aspect of the forum that distinguishes it from a lot of other forums, and I think, makes it fun, came about naturally. I’ve been a clothing junkie since at least grade four, when I visited Hong Kong for the first time with my father. I was obsessed with getting Polo gear; but even I want to talk about other things sometimes. So, we just created new sub-forums within Styleforum when it became clear that there was a critical mass of readers who wanted to discuss other, non-fashion/style (those terms are contentious, so I use both) subjects.
What are your monthly traffic numbers like? What has the % growth been like?
Right now, we have over 1 million unique viewers (it’s about 1.05 million right now) and over 10 million page views per month. We partnered with Huddler, a company in San Francisco that has a really good vision of the future of interest communities. For example, last year our traffic went up 85% since July when we converted to the new format. The lines keep on going up and to the right, and have done so pretty consistently since 2006, when we actually started tracking things. There are still a lot of things to learn and a lot of early mistakes to fix on the platform, but one great thing about working with an outfit like Huddler is that we’ve been able to really have an influence on their direction.
What was the internet’s media landscape upon Styleforum’s creation vs. now?
A lot happens in 10 years. Man, I think that we ran into a spot of luck, in that social media was really still nascent and embryonic, even in 2002. There was a lot of room in which interest communities like ours could grow and develop. We were also lucky to have a stellar core group of posters, many of whom are still with us today! These early experiences helped us to figure out the potential for the “social” aspects of interest communities intuitively. We started all of this before Facebook was around. I was actually at Harvard when Facebook started in 2004. I think that it would be a lot harder to start a successful discussion forum today. People seem to be spending a lot more time online, but not only do mainstream social sites like Facebook and Twitter monopolize much of this time, other media occupies so much of people’s time as well. The internet is also crowded with a ridiculous number of websites, forums, blogs, Tumblrs, etc., all competing for your attention. That said, interest forums have more and more relevance. You aren’t going to discuss your jeans collection with your grandmother, so that leaves out Facebook. I suppose that you could start a Facebook group or whatever, but how many of your “real life” friends really want to talk about your jeans? I have just read in Mashable that only 14% of people use social media to connect with people with similar interests. This is a huge space which interest communities have just barely begun to explore. The closest social media there is to an interest community is Twitter, and it’s way too disjointed for people to really connect to one another. I know tons of people from Styleforum and other forums, like superfuture and HYPEBEAST, who have become friends in real life. Yet, I don’t know too many people who are really connected through Twitter.
Do blogs and forums share any particular discourse or relationship?
Blogs are more in transmission mode. Forums are more interactive. Simplistically, I’d say that a lot of blog content is discussed on the forums, and that in turn, things that are discussed in forums are fodder for blogs. I think that the better blogs have great content, but commenting on a blog is sort of like addressing the keynote speaker at a convention, or raising your hand to ask a question or making a point in a classroom setting. Blogs are terrific for information and daily doses of your hobby, but interest communities are where the discussion and the deeper connections are. A forum discussion is more like chatting in a loud, fun dive bar, which is how we’ve characterized Styleforum for a long time. Some forums are more like hanging out in someone’s kitchen, which is pretty cool too.
How would you define the average Styleforum user?
Styleforum probably has the broadest user base in the world of men’s style/fashion forums. The only thing I can say about the average user is that he is a guy who is fairly affluent and buys a lot of stuff online. There are younger guys and older guys, and you’d think that the older guys would be interested in suits and more conservative clothing — be professionals. Also, you might think that the younger guys would be the “creative class” of people or students, interested in more fashion-forward stuff. But I’ve been continually and consistently surprised by what people do, where people live, and their individual interests. Style-wise, we have guys who are exclusively interested in bespoke suits and shoes, guys who are into artisan denim, and guys who are into fashion brands. I’m a weird amalgam of all three. Not sure how well that’s working out for me.
While many online platforms have realized that a singular revenue stream through just ads will eventually max out, has Styleforum explored other options as well?
We have thought about a lot of other revenue streams. We have a pretty dynamic buying and trading section that we will improve and expand on. We have advantages over a giant like eBay because we have a focused audience, and because we are privately owned. We don’t have to squeeze the last drop of money from our users to make shareholders happy. We can actually do things that are good for the community in the long run. We’ve also thought a lot about syndicating blogs, this would help bloggers as well as the forum. Just think about it. Right now, you start a blog and you can read all of the SEO recommendations in the world, use Twitter and Facebook to promote your blog, but ultimately, a blog is a voice crying out in the wilderness. Guys like Jesse and Derek at Putthison (check out their fashion week coverage starring David Hill – hysterical), Simon at PermanentStyle, and Lawrence of SartoriallyInclined are great at getting their message out. There is also, The Sartorialist and Michael Williams’ A Continuous Lean, but these guys are in the minority. There are some great blogs out there that just can’t seem to reach a readership. If the content from your blog is featured on Styleforum, you automatically have a potential audience of over a million readers. That’s huge. There are other ideas in the pipeline, but these are the most obvious areas in which we can expand. (Shameless plug ahead) We are trying out something new – bringing our presence offline. We are having a vendor showcase on May 5 at the W Hotel San Francisco, where you will be able to get a pair of the most excellent Carmina cordovan boots, a custom suit, as well as the potential for custom-made jeans and a Jack/knife. Anyone who can walk, roll or crawl, should come.
With all the talk of social media helping expand presence, can any of this be applied to a forum?
Haha. Um. Well, we had a few thousand Facebook friends before they closed down our Facebook account because “Styleforum Net is not a real person.” That was the email that those dudes sent me. We started a new one, but we have just over 40 followers right now. I probably need to update it, get more likes, etc. As far as Twitter goes, I’m more comfortable with it, probably because it feels more like a forum. I’m not sure how successful it is though in actually expanding Styleforum’s reach or making Styleforum more of a presence. I mainly use it to talk to people I already know either in real life or through the forum, to publicize our blog or to jot down random thoughts. My Editor-in-Chief, Pete Anderson, laughs at my Twitter newbieness regularly. A lot of forum owners with whom I’ve talked seem to be obsessed with social media, driving clicks, etc. This is all good and well, but the primary source of new traffic to most discussion forums are organic searches.
For online entities, creating an offline existence is often something of importance. How does this factor into Styleforum’s strategy?
Offline? Man, I jumped the gun on that one. Well, in addition to our showcase, which I hope will show the world that is not connected 24/7 to the internet that Styleforum is a good place to meet cool people and to discuss great clothing and accessories, we go to trade shows regularly. It’s good to actually see clothes, meet designers, meet forum members, and let people know that there are actually people behind the forum curtain.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of creating Styleforum?
It’s great to be able to do something you love for a living. I’m not gonna lie to you –- there are a lot of moving parts, and I’m tired a lot of the time — but it’s fun. I get to talk about clothes all day, really be on the frontlines of emerging media, and “research” by shopping for stuff. It’s incredibly rewarding to see people enjoying themselves in an environment that we’ve tried to make foster to the best of our ability. And when someone tells you that they really like this blog post, or that thread, or that they have been able to build a business by selling to the forum audience, that feels great.
What are some of the difficulties/headaches you deal with on a day-to-day basis?
The vast majority of our posters and readers are great, but occasionally, you get people who get all up in arms because they got censured or banned from the forum for being disruptive, saying “Hey, why didn’t I get a warning?” What is that all about? You knew you were being a douchebag, and now you’re complaining that you didn’t get a warning? Then I often get a response “Hey man, it’s just the internet, chill out.” Well, you are the one emailing me begging to get unbanned. I guess that there are always the belligerent drunks at the bar.
The front page of Styleforum incorporates an editorial element unlike most forums. What was the reasoning behind this move?
We saw that we had a unique opportunity to put out high-quality editorial content and we wanted something that we have decent access to. We saw it as an opportunity to contribute content to the community that is pretty difficult to find elsewhere. I’m not sure I can be more articulate about it than that. Essentially, Jeremy and I thought “this would be excellent,” — we found a great Editor-in-Chief who is really committed to putting out top flight content, and we did it.
What are your thoughts on the current outlook on menswear?
There are times when menswear really experiences a paradigm shift –- when RTW suits became available, when denim became acceptable casual wear, when “Made in Italy” became something desirable. There are smaller paradigm shifts as well – Giorgio Armani’s introduction of soft, drapey suiting to the world, premium denim allowing a cottage industry to thrive, the internet allowing regular people to really explore regional differences and regional trends in real time. I think that we are in the middle of this last shift. I think that the global influence of the internet has been great for menswear. I can’t imagine regular guys in Madison, Wisconsin, fiending for White Mountaineering or looking all over for a Mismo bag back when Styleforum was born. The one thing I worry about currently is the homogenization of the marketplace. Sometimes, the showrooms and trade shows and their PR firms do too good of a job.
Do you feel the influence on men’s style differs greatly from that of women (i.e. celebrity-driven fashion)?
Well, yes and no. So, let me start by making two generalizations. The first is that there are only so many themes for men’s clothing. Maybe some day we’ll be all wearing man skirts, or Captain Kirk uniforms. I’m not sure when that will be, but until then, we are going to have influences from tailoring, work wear, militaria, sports gear, and there are only small changes from season to season. The second generalization is that men seem to find a style that works for them, and they play around that, for life. So, if a celebrity dresses in a way that exemplifies how a guy sees himself dressing, at his very best, then yes, they can definitely have an impact. I don’t think that guys are — in general, as open to experimentation as women seem to be, so celebrity fashion is probably less of a factor.
Any last words?
If you’ll let me, I’d like to plug our 10th anniversary celebration again. Come to our vendor showcase on May 5 at the W Hotel San Francisco. See some awesome clothes. Buy some awesome clothes. Have a drink and a bite. Chill out. We’d love to meet you all. Oh, and thanks, HYPEBEAST.