Despite their arresting aesthetic and quirky, historical back story, sunglasses start-up Westward Leaning has never had an official lookbook. At least, not in the sense of an editorial shoot involving models, a professional photographer, location scouting, and so forth. The company does offer a comprehensive photo montage, an unofficial lookbook of sorts, which has only ever been comprised of photos submitted by the brand’s fans, plus the occasional celebrity candid. For a brand whose glasses each represent a testament to a specific human achievement, be it reaching the moon or the Louisiana Purchase, representing itself online via a broad public touch makes a lot of sense.
“We’ve never hired a model or a professional photographer to shoot a lookbook,” the company’s co-founder and creative director, Robert Denning says, “we’ve always used customer photos on the site as the ‘lookbook’, and some are bloggers, others are art students, and the quality of photos — well, we might as well have hired a photographer.” The product photo collage page quickly became one of Westward Leaning’s most visited, probably due in part to those it featured, with Denning noting that “we get tons of people who are obsessed with showing their friends they’re on the look book, which is why it gets so much traffic.” The trouble, though, was that it was hard to collect every hashtagged and “@” photo off Instagram, let alone the rest of the brand’s social media interactions. Denning admitted that at the beginning, “our social media person had to check and screenshot the [Instagram] feed every half hour.”
But like everything else, there’s an app for that — or at least, there is now. Westward Leaning partnered with Olapic, as many bigger brands have recently done, to take make their feed of fan photos easily shoppable. Olapic specializes in collecting, linking, and curating a brand’s audience pictures to monetize them in an aesthetic way that doesn’t degrade the product. “It paid for itself in a month,” Denning says. With what amounted to a purpose-built solution ready to work with them, Westward Leaning will probably never need to shoot a so-called professional lookbook. Even though, as Denning says, “people thought we were crazy” not to originally have one.
From our perspective, Westward Leaning is at the front of a branded media zeitgeist shift. An expensive shoot becomes totally unnecessary when customers are already “messaging and emailing” empirically beautiful pictures of themselves wearing a label’s current season products. Even more important than the readily available, constant flow of new images, is the fact that by showcasing its products mainly on its customers, a brand deeply democratizes its image — “we don’t have to worry about people getting mad at us for using size zero models,” says Denning. He notes that the only way his company filters the photos they show is to look for pictures with good composition, which is reflected in the range of faces in the informal lookbook.
The customer-focused feed is also a direct route to a brand’s most valuable advocates, and subsequently does a lot to strengthen that relationship. “We update [the page] every week,” says Denning, “and then people get mad they’re not on it anymore.” Not a bad problem for a start-up to have.
With a slew of new looks on the way for the holidays, there should be a lot to check out — and shop — via the Westward Leaning “lookbook.” And speaking of the product itself, keep in mind that Westward Leaning just introduced polarized lenses, thanks to general audience demand. Combined with the unique materials and historical references, they wouldn’t make a bad gift for dad this holiday season…