What is street style photography doing to street fashion? i-D speaks to the leading curb-side photographers about catching the moment.
“We help promote trends, we don’t make or break them,” replies Tommy Ton as the above statement echoes across the blogosphere. “It’s our responsibility to spot trends and glorify them, that’s the real selling point of our photos today.” On the pages of gleaming glossies the world over, Tommy’s kaleidoscope of snapshots and his eye for detail is as celebrated as it is sought-after. With Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist clearing the path and inspiring the current generation of street style photographers, Tommy of Jak & Jil fame and Phil Oh, better known as Street Peeper, and a growing number of contemporaries now lurk outside show venues everywhere from Paris’ Tuileries to New York’s Lincoln Center and beyond. The ascent of their blogs and demand for their seasonal postcards that are cherished all year round run parallel to the metamorphosis of their chosen pursuit. Given that our attention spans are diminishing by the day and our appetite for palatable nuggets grows, let’s carefully navigate the sprawling streets of the statement one step at a time.
Street style is a subject held close to the beating heart of i-D. In 1977, inspired by the honesty of August Sander’s social documentary portraits and Irving Penn’s Small Trades series, i-D founder Terry Jones commissioned British photographer Steve Johnston to photograph London punks head-to-toe against a plain white wall on the King’s Road. The Straight-Up was born and tribes made and shared. Initially intended for British Vogue, the resulting images were considered too revolutionary for the print institution and ended up in a book Jones was art-directing called Not Another Punk Book, published by Aurum Press. These straight-ups went on to form the basis of i-D. Documenting what was happening on the streets, they went beyond what people were wearing to what they were doing and how they were behaving. When you flick through back issues of i-D, they act as a social marker in time. Transporting us to the early London punk scene, through Leigh Bowery and the club kids, to street culture in Japan and beyond, these visuals are a vibrant time capsule that have lost none of their persuasive personality.
“Goth ninjas at Rick Owens, Lynn Yaeger-esque Comme des Garçons worshippers, the entire staff working the Thom Browne show in shrunken suits, bloggers in Topshop, print-lovers at Marni, All-American preppy looks outside Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger - it’s great to see people wear their passions.”
“I just like capturing moments,” Tommy Ton tells i-D. “If it’s a beautifully composed still moment amongst all the chaos, I feel like I’ve achieved something.” Taming the lions and conquering the trapeze of the fashion circus, his own blog and eponymous sections of leading fashion website Jak & Jil are packed with moments out of nothing. However, the circus is becoming ever more wild. There’s as much attention afforded to the street style scrum outside the shows as there is to the show themselves. The theatrics of the thoroughfare. Gone are the days that a focused few, determined disciples stalked the shows. The fight to capture the looks of the season is a more brutal one. The pervasive party now pounds the pavement and as the beat grows louder, even those involved begin to question the direction. “For the first few years of the blog I was more interested in just taking snaps that documented what the editors, stylists, bloggers and models were wearing but as more and more photographers showed up to do the same thing, the thrill became more about catching fun or interesting moments in between all the standing and posing,” adds Phil Oh. Reacting to competition and the demands of the industry, the focus of street style photography is continually shifting. “I don’t usually look for specific trends like I once did, but it is fun to see all the different fashion tribes at their corresponding shows,” Phil continues. “Goth ninjas at Rick Owens, Lynn Yaeger-esque Comme des Garçons worshippers, the entire staff working the Thom Browne show in shrunken suits, bloggers in Topshop, print-lovers at Marni, All-American preppy looks outside Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger - it’s great to see people wear their passions.”
Street style has moved from the dark recesses of cultural underbellies and into the glare of the fashion fanfare, from capturing misfits to those who have made it. As the spotlight shines on this hegemonic concept of street style photography, there are battles between aesthetics and commerce, inspiration and commercialisation. Are we reaching the crossroads of anthropological art and advertising admiration? Yes. Documenting the shoes and accessories of the season on the slender frames of the informed and the inspirational. Following the industry’s conveyor belt as it passes through the familiar capitals is proving more attractive than subculture searching and tribe trawling.
Fashion weeks were once a far-flung fantasy. Behind-the-scene and on-the-scene access was granted to a significant few. It was a world only for buyers and assembled journalists. Excitement was exclusive. Desire disciplined. The first sight that the masses have of collections has reduced from months to weeks to days to seconds. From seamless streaming to frantic Instagram uploads and Twitter chirping, everything is shared with the world in a moment. Any interested party can now walk through the long, secure and respected walls of fashion. There’s now an expectation of entry and an expectation to share. “In terms of glorifying trends, it’s not something that I purposefully set out to do, but our photos get used in trend stories in magazines and on blogs, so my work contributes to the spread of fashion trends indirectly,” reflects Phil. “Ultimately, I think street style blogs can help push trends in certain directions and expedite their spread. When I started Street Peeper I never imagined that our street style images would feature on the inspiration boards at designers’ studios. That’s so funny to me as well as being super flattering.”
"If you can’t wear an outrageous designer look, one that the editors loved on the runway, to a fashion show without getting sneered at by the same editors, then when or where can you?"
In last year’s Richard Press-directed documentary Bill Cunningham New York, Anna Wintour cooed, “We all get dressed for Bill.” The desire to dress for the camera is nothing new but what has changed is the volume of cameras being pulled out. Like any street-side entertainment, the show is attracting a growing audience that cannot be ignored. Eagle-eyed Suzy Menkes recently commented that the cauldron of crows of fashion weeks past have been overcome by an ostentation of preening and posing peacocks. It’s a sight that attracts additional colourful specimens to join the flock and one that is too appealing for the bird-fancying street style photographers to leave alone. “I’m not going to lie and I have to admit that most people now dress more knowing that they’re going to be photographed, but then there are also some who have made an effort to dress down,” begins Tommy before Phil takes over: “I know some people find the whole scene justifiably a bit ridiculous, but if you can’t wear an outrageous designer look, one that the editors loved on the runway, to a fashion show without getting sneered at by the same editors, then when or where can you?” It’s an interesting question. “Regardless, everyone is being photographed now,” says Tommy. “It’s the nature of street style outside the shows and in many ways it mirrors the changing landscape with the internet. We all increasingly use social media platforms like Instagram to promote our self-image.”
Rather than chase the tribes scattered across the globe, street style photographers have formed their own tribe. United by the industry, they now style-stalk as one, hunting in packs twice a year during the show season. Having watched them grow on the periphery, their world isn’t as easy as it looks. There is a constant struggle between boredom, weather and in-pack competition. From the cold, icy sidewalks of New York in February, the torrential downpours of London in September and the stifling heat of Milan and Paris in June and July, the new kids on the block have to endure long pauses out in indifferent weather. Only the fittest survive. Long episodes of nothingness interrupted with snapshots of frenzy. Each hoping of making that fashion kill, an image that majestically magnifies a seemingly insignificant moment in to a significant one, an image that excites insiders and outsiders alike.