Lyn Slater – Not your typical influencer

Photo: Colin Lom

If you spot Lyn Slater on Instagram, you can’t help but like her photos and hit the follow button. The ‘accidental icon’ from New York has meanwhile amassed more than 660k followers and is effortlessly taking Instagram’s fashion scene by storm – quite simply because she is the influencer we need right now. We spoke to her about her work as a professor of social work, how she maintains a creative balance and the future of her account.

This Interview is from J’N’C N °77

How would you introduce yourself?
Oh, that’s an interesting question… I guess I would say that I am a cultural influencer, a professor and a content creator, as well as being a partner, mother, grandmother, sister and daughter.

When you say professor, what kind?
I’ve actually just retired after 20 years in academia, my last graduation was yesterday. I am a professor of social work and my area has been the intersection of social work in the law, so I’ve also worked with our law school, as well as the school of social work.

That’s quite contrary to fashion…
No, not really. And I’ll tell you why, because I’ve been able to retire early from being a professor, I can do the Accidental Icon thing full time. And I’ve been dealing with all of the issues that fashion is now taking on, such as inclusion, sustainability, human rights, fair labour, for the last 45 years. They’re not new to me. So I can offer experience to the conversation. I have worked in the court system, where many decisions have been made on appearance. People don’t like to think that fashion has a lot of power. But clothes express status and class, and people make a lot of judgements based on what you wear.

Do you, as an influencer, feel like you have the advantage of using that power?
I think my success as an influencer, when you compare me to other influencers who are at the same level as me and who are not just older women putting up pictures on Instagram, but people who have a very large following, who are monetising at a pretty high degree, I think that shows you the power of it – because I’m not your typical influencer. So I think one of the reasons I’ve been successful is that people are really looking for different models of what it means to be someone who is engaged in fashion. Through that platform I have been able to challenge people’s perception of what it means to be older. And I find it interesting that my largest group of followers is in the 25 to 35 age bracket.

“I don’t follow rules like ‘this is the lipstick colour you should wear at a certain age’ because who cares!”

But how did it all start in the first place? Was it, like your username suggests, an accident?
I have two masters and a PhD and I’ve always been engaged in academic institutions – whether studying my own degrees or teaching. I think I was able to absorb and transform a lot of the very challenging, upsetting, unfair discriminatory things I was witnessing happening to people I was working with because I was always pursuing creative paths to prevent my work experience from harming me emotionally or physically. I was always writing, taking workshops in filmmaking, jewellery making or some other way that I could transform some of the horror of my everyday work experience into something that might be more beautiful and creative, and for me, kind of life saving.

Photo: Michael Paniccia

When did you take a turn into fashion?
I reached this place in academia where it was really getting bureaucratised and very controlling. I didn’t feel that it was absorbing technology, social media and other ways that we could get our research and our ideas out and it’s still very much like: you’re publishing a journal and 200 people are going to read it. So I basically started taking courses at the FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) fashion school in obscure things like ‘How to open a vintage store’. I was the oldest student in every class, but students and professors were telling me I have such great style and should start a blog. Other people would tell me the same in stores I was shopping at or they’d stop me on the street. So I started to look out for blogs for older women. And I didn’t really see anything that felt like me. I am more urban, I don’t follow rules like ‘this is the lipstick colour you should wear at a certain age’ because who cares, you know?! (laughing) So I just decided to make pictures and write. I had no agenda. I just thought I’m going to do this and see what happens.

It sounds like you just did your own thing.
Yes, it was very organic, and I think so different from what anyone else was doing that it attracted attention. Fairly quickly. Like about nine months in. I wanted to get away from text and be thinking more about how I use visuals to tell stories.

A lot of people doubt the authenticity of posts nowadays because the whole thing has become very planned, curated and business-driven. Has the development had a negative impact on your work?
Yes, it’s been a challenge for me because you do need to make money – and it should be okay for us to do that. If you’re really creative, you’ll try to do it in a way that isn’t so different from what you usually do. I work with brands that allow me creative direction. I try to think: if I represent this brand, will my followers find it odd? So I have this bottom line that I’m not going to promote anything I wouldn’t wear or use in my everyday life. If I stick to that, then I’m hoping I’ll be okay. But in terms of engagement I do notice that my followers really like my non-sponsored content.

“What is not shown on Instagram is process.”

Do you think your age plays a big role in your success?
I don’t talk about age at all. Everybody else does in relation to me but I don’t. I’m just a woman living in a city and going about her everyday life, using fashion to make it more exciting. But when people ask me about age I say: “Look at my photos.” I’m performing my age. And at the age of 65 we are not ready to go away. If I remain healthy, I have another 20 years to contribute. And I think some of my popularity comes from showing people that you can have a life at 65. I started this project when I was 61 years old – leading to a life that is nothing like the one I lived before.

Photo: Michael Paniccia

Now that you’ve filled that gap, is there anything you’re still missing on Instagram?
Well, I have this pattern in my life, every five years I start getting a little bit bored with what I’ve been doing and I need a new challenge. My blog and my Instagram are going to be five years old this September and I have this feeling that I need to do something new. So I’ve been really looking at Instagram and thinking beyond what this platform can offer me other than a way to make money. How can I bring it back to being inspirational? But at the same time, I do have to generate income, which as I’ve mentioned before, is fair because I work hard. So I’ve been thinking about using Instagram TV and Instagram Stories for behind-the-scenes projects with emerging designers. A series where I go into their spaces, where we can see their materials, their process, what’s behind the final product and what they’re trying to do. I think that can be inspiring because what is not shown on Instagram is process. Things are moving so fast now that I feel like taking a moment to stop and hear about process is an important thing to do right now.

Speaking of process, if you’d have to give your younger self style advice, what would it be?
I guess I would say: enjoy, have fun and experiment more with things that you might not think you would like.

And if you could finish the sentence: Instagram gave me the opportunity to…
…change a conversation.

Thank you very much, Lyn.