Famous Bajans – Neil Alvin
Welcome to the section of the blog dedicated to famous names that you may not have associated with Barbados or been aware they were Bajan or of Bajan descent.
Interview with Neil Alvin, creator of Black Girls Killing It
Did you know that the immensely popular website, Black Girls Killing It (BGKI) was started by Barbadian, Neil Alvin? BGKI is a global platform for Black fashionistas. Women from around the world post pictures of their snazzy attire, showcasing their unique sartorial aesthetic. With hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, not to mention the masses that flock to the website, BGKI is definitely making its mark on the fashion blogosphere.
Congratulations on creating a blog with such an international reach. What prompted you to launch it and when was it created?
Black Girls Killing It, BGKI, has existed since 2011 but I have actually been blogging since 2010. The website was initially called Neil Alvin.com. And it all started from my love of reading. I was always reading all sorts of random material, including online magazines. I didn’t really know anything about fashion but I loved reading.
One day, I came across an article called 50 top fashion bloggers. I read it, pondered it while doing other stuff around the house then went back to the article. The way it was presented allowed me to see all 50 thumbnails simultaneously… and I realized that not one of them was black. None. I thought to myself it simply wasn’t possible that there wasn’t one black blogger among them. If you travel the world you will see so many beautiful, fashionable black girls… there couldn’t not be one! So I decided I was going start my own website and only post pictures of black models. I didn’t know about blogging. I just knew about black superstars like Halle Berry, Naomi Campbell. So I created NeilAlvin.com and every day I searched online for pictures of famous black models and posted them.
Gradually, a small online community of 400 fans grew and became curious about the person behind the blog. They wanted to know where I was from, what I did on weekends, what I did during the summer… things like that. Whenever a question was asked, I’d post the answer publicly so any others with the same queries could see the response. And these responses generated comments.
At that moment, it hit me that no one would be looking for Neil Alvin and that I’d need to create a brand around the website. I got my 400 fans to help with choosing a name and eventually Black Girls Killing It came into being. And just by registering the new name and creating a logo, the number of followers jumped from 400 to 4,000 in one month.
Interesting. So the blog didn’t spring from a real interest in fashion?
No, not really. To be honest, I wouldn’t say that I am overly interested in fashion per se, I just like looking at photos. My mother collected magazines, so there were always lots lying around – Essence, Ebony, Cosmopolitan, etc. Between the ages of 12 and 14, I read lots of magazines, so it really was my love of reading that made me aware of fashion. But I don’t know the fashion industry.
What have been your biggest BGKI-related challenges up to now?
My biggest challenges come from the fact that I am based in Barbados. A lot of opportunities come my way – I receive lots of invitations, which I initially turned down. But two years ago, I started using them as an opportunity to get other people involved. For example, I’d get invited to London Fashion Week or Milan Fashion Week, so I started running competitions on the website and offering fans the opportunity to win and attend the Fashion Weeks.
Being based in Barbados has also had financial implications in terms of receiving payments from the US. I am somewhat penalised because I don’t have a US bank account. Another challenge comes from not being able to physically go out and knock on doors to meet the power brokers. I have to try to get someone’s attention by email when they are already being bombarded by thousands of emails.
Well, given what you’ve just said, do you sometimes feel outside the fashion loop since you are based in Barbados, which isn’t a major player in the fashion world (Rihanna notwithstanding)? Or does this internet age mean that physical location is not as important, fashion-wise?
Yes and no. I am not disadvantaged by the Internet. Everybody has the same equal opportunity to get out there and get exposure for their product. It’s amazing – you can go from obscurity to superstardom in a day, just because something has gone viral. But I’m disadvantaged in terms of networking, and in terms of advertising, which brings in revenue. For example, bloggers’ networks hold conferences, none of which take place in Barbados. Most of the head offices of the big ad agencies are in major metropolitan cities, not Barbados. It just makes it that much harder to connect with the right people when operating from Barbados.
Are there any advantages to being in Barbados at all?
Yes. Barbados’ reputation as a desirable, exotic location has led some bloggers and fans to make contact. As I’ve mentioned before, some were interested in learning more about me as well as the island. In fact, I’ve even hosted some of them. So, I’ve decided to harness the power of social media to promote Barbados to the wider world. So the plan going forward in 2016 is to fly bloggers in for a couple of days and do interviews in Barbados instead of online as I previously did. You can imagine that if a fashion blogger, who has hundreds of thousands of followers on the various social media, announces a trip to Barbados, it would immediately generate enormous interest among those followers. That way I will generate buzz both for BGKI and Barbados.
Where are most of your followers based? Any posters from Barbados?
In terms of any one country, most of my followers are in the US, about 60%. Those numbers were higher, but my popularity is growing on the African continent. So, when you add up the numbers from the various African countries, they actually exceed the number of US followers. My biggest national markets are the US (New York, Los Angeles, Miami), the UK (London) and France (Paris). But when you add followers from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Zimbabwe, they exceed the US numbers. I have a few Bajan followers, they account for around 2%, but they almost never post pictures.
You mentioned France, so how have the French responded to the blog?
I actually noticed the French when I saw posts on the blog that were not in English and became curious. I didn’t really have a following in France during the first two years. Then the numbers jumped to between four and five thousand followers within a three-month period. I’m still not sure exactly what generated the sudden interest… maybe it’s because the French in general and Parisians in particular are just interested in fashion. Paris is one of the cities I visited when I did a European tour promoting the website and it went well.
Where do you get pictures and are they edited before posting?
Girls send me photos. After initially posting pictures myself, I decided to add a submit feature on the website so girls could send me pictures. After working fulltime at my day job, it was just too tiring to go home and sit for another four hours looking for pictures of well-known models. It was 3 weeks before a picture was submitted. You can imagine how excited I was to get the first one… and obviously it has snowballed since.
And yes, I edit them before publishing after making my selection from the photos sent. I do this to ensure they meet certain standards. This has actually given me the opportunity to work with foreign photographers and magazines, primarily in LA and New York.
Barbadian superstar Rihanna is universally acknowledged as a style icon (at the time of writing, she had been just been officially recognised as the world’s most marketable celebrity). Do you think she is exerting any influence on Bajan girls style-wise?
Rihanna is undeniably a global fashion icon and Bajan girls definitely pay attention to her fashion choices and mimic some of them. A few years ago when Rihanna was in her red-hair phase, Bajan girls sported red hair for about two years.
Are Bajan girls killing it?
I’ve actually never really thought about this in relation to Bajan girls. To me, killing it encompasses confidence as well as trendy looks. I have observed that style has improved in Barbados over a period of time. I like to think that I helped with that. Girls are now on-trend. Before there was a time lapse – a trend would emerge in January, but may not be seen in Barbados until September. I know this happens because I meet store owners when I attend events in Barbados; it seems they consult the website to see what girls overseas are wearing and use that as gauge of what to sell on the local market. By way of example, when a photo is posted, there is engagement on the part of my followers – they indicate their preference for one look over another with ‘likes’. Local storeowners then have tangible proof of popular international trends and that influences their purchases… and these are seen on the streets of Barbados.
Which are your favourite female fashion trends?
I like to see girls in buttoned-down shirts. If a girl can wear a buttoned-down shirt and trousers and still look stylish, to me that takes more effort than just wearing a figure-hugging dress. It requires more creativity and thought to wear loose clothing stylishly. I also like mix and match look.
Describe your style
I love standing out from the crowd. I love denim, structured looks, military style, buttoned-down shirts… and I prioritise comfort.
What’s next? What do you want to achieve?
I would like to take the brand to other countries, set up physical stores. Right now, I have an online marketplace where people sell their goods, but I’d like to transform that into a physical store. Here is how I earn revenue: since I have a buying public, stores approach me to sell their advertising to that public – Macy’s, J C Penny, Forever 21, they all advertise on the BGKI website. I created the marketplace so that my followers could just go to one hub where they could access the various shops and deals. It’s called Shop BGKI and is basically an online mall. So what I’d like to do is have a physical version of that. It could serve as a platform for local creators to get their products known abroad via BGKI stores.
I’m also looking to get into the carnival market. Every year, over 50 carnivals are held worldwide. Again, this could be a way to promote local talent by having local designers create carnival type attire that could then be showcased in a BGKI section in carnival bands. This is something that could be transferred to different carnivals around the world. So, I’ll begin in 2016 with a BGKI section in one of the big bands on Kadooment Day (carnival). I’ll see how that goes. If it works maybe I could take it to Trinidad or Brazil or Notting Hill. This move could really expand my brand. Right now, it is known only to people who are online and want to shop. But there are lots more people online who have never heard of BGKI.
What do you think has been key to the blog’s success?
I think it’s because when girls visit the site, they see people they could actually encounter on the street, as opposed to magazines where they see celebrities. I think that’s why it continues to grow. I regularly get messages and emails from girls telling me how the blog has given them confidence… helped them realise that they are not alone when it comes to dressing in a particular way, that they are not “weird and freaky. It’s like a little community that supports each other… there are no negative comments on pictures.
You’ve obviously found a niche that was lacking, any plans to extend to other demographic segments?
I do plan to expand and actually, I have registered Asian Girls Killing It and World Girls Killing It. As it grows, you’ve got to think ahead. There will be some brands and company that will not want to partner explicitly with Black Girls Killing It. You want to keep your options open. It’s something that could easily be expanded to other markets, like Asia, then it could easily be World Girls Killing It… any girl that’s fashionable and confident.
Thanks to the management of Limegrove Lifestyle Centre for allowing us to use their premises.
Photographic coverage provided by Stephen R. Smith of Pro Photo Studio/Photo Dynamics Inc.
Rédaction et traduction du blog réalisées par AAA Translation Services. Pour la version française voir ici.