In theater and film, mise-en-scène refers to the ways stage design, props, and the placement of other actors drive the visual profile of a production. The idea that the items physically surrounding a scene are just as crucial to the plot as the actions themselves is central to the creative decisions of many visual artists, including online content creators.
While it is certainly possible to post, tag, and be done with it, some influencers in the lifestyle and fashion spaces make a point to create a continuous story through their grid. When compiled together in Instagram’s 3-item row layout, these curated images can look very much like one long photo series. We chatted with three creators about what that story actually is.
Shelcy, Christy & The Unbraiding Appointment Series (NYCxClothes)
In the bio for Shelcy and Christy Joseph‘s Instagram, they introduce themselves as “sisters with a knack for telling stories and building community.” The concise description teases a multiplatform lifestyle brand spanning photography, video, writing, and events. Through each of these verticals, they explore the bounds of narrative memoir while highlighting the clothes that costume the phases of their lives.
The sisters moved from Haiti to New York City in 2010 after the tragic earthquake and once settled, decided to document their journey as recent immigrants and fashion lovers. Fashion is often dismissed as superficial, but they understood the significance of the culture it generates. Centralizing style on their platform allowed Shelcy and Christy to approach other topics, and find people who shared their experiences.
“We realized early on that images were the [best] way to establish our first connection with people,” Shelcy tells ESSENCE.com over a Zoom call. “And so, we started investing more into the image-making aspects of what we do, showing not just the wardrobe, but also the styling, and thinking more about weaving in a story of New York City and even just like elements that remind us of our background,” she also said.
Posting their looks is only one piece of the puzzle. They use their captions, photo locations, and meticulous framing to set a scene with each post. The sisters accomplish their storytelling, in large part, through the details outside of the clothes themselves.
After over thirteen years of developing as creators, producing work for their website, Instagram, and now TikTok, they are exploring auteurship with the same thoughtfulness as they are influencing. Earlier this year, the sisters released a video and photo series exploring the psychology of Black women’s intimacy through haircare. It was a nostalgic imagining of how it feels to have a sister help you take out your braids. Christy, who creative directed the project, cites the imagery of Black directors like Spike Lee as her inspiration for the project.
“Last year, I really started thinking of my directorial work more seriously. I started taking classes and really went back to my calling, which was just digital storytelling and using cinema, using some techniques to kind of convey a very personal narrative,” Christy noted.
Reflecting on memories of unbraiding her grandmother’s hair, Christy wanted to translate the nostalgic feeling of being among Black women and bonding over intimate conversations. The project was an exploration of the nostalgic matter that informs many Black women’s connectivity, as well as the imagery that reflects our closest-held safe spaces. For NYCxClothes, this meant creating a set that reminded viewers of home and framing the images in a way that translated that feeling of closeness onto a screen.
“In terms of the set, I’ve watched a lot of Spike Lee films and I’ve always been inspired by the technique. I love the movie-making magic,” Christy says. “Sometimes I feel like day-to-day life happens in one way but then when you put the camera on and when you put your film, there’s a bit of magic about thinking about the set, thinking about the outfits and marrying real-life scenarios, but also elevating it by thinking about the story a little.”
NYCxClothes applies this birds-eye image-making method in all of their lifestyle content, considering the who, what, and where in addition to the focal fashion element. Their take on mise-en-scène is largely film-informed, keeping in mind how everything within a frame of film is arranged. From the set and prop design to the lighting and even to how the sisters are blocked throughout a scene, their work is an exercise in telling a continual story through photo composition.
It is no secret that the arts, media, and entertainment spaces often intersect. Many people professionally occupy multiple spaces at a time, and as the capabilities of visual storytelling on social media continue to evolve, online creators have the ability to converge styles to tell their stories.
Communicative Image Creation for Style Influencers
There’s been an evolution in the way we capture images, particularly in the age of fast fashion. Slower and longer-form content creation challenges the hyperconsumption of imagery and materials by forcing audiences to consider a well-rounded depiction of the clothing. NYCxClothes, for instance, is definitely a lifestyle and fashion blog, but the focus is often on everything surrounding the brands. The designers featured are accentuated by the narrative the sisters invite you to follow.
For Christy and Shelcy, repeating themes follow identity, their Haitian heritage, and their experience as immigrants in New York City. In order to promote not only products but also the lifestyle and the concepts behind the collections they share, they create a series of micro-editorials (some are spontaneous style reviews while others are branded projects) that involve greater technical refinement, and higher production investment. The girls alternate on who handles their production and editing. Sometimes they outsource, but on most occasions, they’re filling all roles themselves. In combination with their informed perspective on the evolution of fashion influencing, they create a brand of style content that is aware of it and knows where it sits in the industry sphere. They discuss these ideas on the written side of their blog, addressing conversations on sustainability, the material composition of your clothes, and what it means to be a mindful consumer.
An increasing number of content creators are adopting longer-form narrative influencing strategies to address the deeper topics surrounding the psychology of fashion. Creator and model, Simi Muhumuza, who goes by Simi Moonlight across all platforms, has built up an expansive following over the years through her thoughtful posts that highlight her signature style alongside her personal development arc. For her, fashion is deeply personal and as her style has evolved, so has her ability to speak on the themes that inform the clothes she gravitates towards, such as existing in a larger body or the historical context of rotating trends. She may reference these topics in her captions, then explain in more detail on her TikTok, usually conjoining her words with the thought-out visual profile of her page. For Simi, the vibrant color palette seen throughout her feed has become a large part of her brand identity. She also maintains a certain visual continuity by being selective about her shooting locations
“I think about more of how the environment that’s already there can be a part of the story, rather than like seeking out an environment because I think I feel like it that really does help me a lot in terms of just truly like seeing the beauty in everything you know like finding beauty in everything,” Simi shared via a video call.
The normalcy of everyday life is a shared canvas for Shelcy, Christy, and Simi, even when their platforms differ aesthetically. The New York City subway has proven to be an equally effective background as a predesigned set. The informal and accessible exterior can ground the work, allowing the creators to personalize their content by communicating what was going on in their real-life world when they took their photos. Simi often takes a more spontaneous approach to writing her captions and selecting her photo settings, going with what comes to mind in the moment. However, she does not sacrifice the depth that informs the context of her content.
“I do think that the aesthetic alone is not going to be enough anymore because there’s got to be something that makes someone want to attach to you, and like feel safe with you. And I just think that those expectations are going to keep growing as we kind of move through this turbulent time,” Muhumuza said.
Content creation will continue to cycle through new operative eras, evolving from old-school blogging to TikTok-inspired mini-vignettes then back again to meticulously planned photo series formats. The abundance of short-lived trends forces many influencers to rapidly pivot from one popular style to another. However, the creators invested in the continuous depiction of self-reflection might circumvent these demands and maintain a niche through which they can thoughtfully share the products and brands they work with. Their power is in their personal context, something NYCxClothes and Simi Moonlight have tapped into.
Narrative-based content creation is not only a more perceiving authentic take on influencing, it is a good business practice that retains viewers’ attention in an often saturated market. By following this path, Simi, Christy, Shelcy, and others can distinguish themselves as auteurs in addition to content creators, aligning with the arts and editorial spaces that also share the mission of digital image-making. When all parties are similarly subject to the whims of the algorithm, it turns out it helps to lean into authenticity.