It was February of a lifetime ago. I was visiting Europe for Fashion Weeks. A friend DMed me asking: “Why do paparazzi take photos of you?”
It was so funny. Street style can be confusing for people who don’t care about fashion. Sometimes, it takes another person’s perspective to see how absurd something is. It’s alarming and confusing for the uninitiated to see the swarms oblivious to fashion shows blocking traffic to get the perfect shot of someone in a wild outfit as she walks down the street. It’s overwhelming, even for those who are well-informed.
It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when street style wasn’t as prevalent and pervasive in fashion. However, the New York Times had spent decades publishing Bill Cunningham’s work. This featured stylish New Yorkers going about everyday life, while street style, which was only available to fashion week attendees, was confined to a handful of pages in magazines. Thanks to the advent of online media, street style became a more popular genre. Street style was reborn thanks to the efforts of a handful bloggers, The Sartorialist, and Street Peeper. These bloggers created a niche online photographing people on the streets. Brands began to notice the most prominent street style bloggers by 2006. They flew them to fashion weeks around the globe to capture the glamourous and sometimes chaotic process of leaving and arriving at a show.
This is one of the most striking examples of how digital revolutionized old-school fashion media and the entire fashion industry. Access to once-exclusive events made it possible for outsiders to become stars and eclipse the old guard.
Dolce & Gabbana placed street style photographers at the top of the row in 2009 as a statement of appreciation for their work. Fashion media noticed. Magazines soon began to hire street-style photographers. They created slideshows and galleries featuring fashion’s most loved characters crossing the street, hailing taxis and fighting the elements with confused onlookers. In 2011, Phil Oh shot his first fashion week for Vogue, a gig he still has.
Street style was a part of the democratization in fashion. When bloggers and influencers were invited to shows, fashion month became more about the people who attended than the work being displayed. Personal style was more important than runway style. It felt abstract and editorial, and showcased on a single body type that was completely out of reach.
Street style was a positive phenomenon. This content allowed women to look more like runway models, but also gave them the opportunity to share their street style with others. This content allowed women who didn’t look like runway models (i.e., tall, thin and young) to be included in fashion month coverage. We were a part of this shift. In its early days, our street style was a part of an independent spirit that believed fashion should be accessible to everyone.
However, not everyone was happy with the changes. “Today’s people outside of fashion shows are more like peacocks rather than crows,” Suzy Menkes, fashion critic, famously complained in the NYT in 2013, in an article that criticized street style for turning editors into spectacles. Menkes reminisced about the 1990s when fashion editors wore all-black to shows like they were at a funeral. She also condemned the fact people were dressing up in order to be noticed and said that there was a distinction between style and just showing off. In a bizarrely out-of-touch question that clearly speaks to a generational divide, she asked: “If fashion is not for everyone, then is it fashion?”
The answer to that question, for a lot of people, was a resounding “YES!” In 2014, we published a NYT bestseller called Style Stalking “Get set to build your best ever wardrobe featuring the hardest-working looks from around the globe with us -the world’s leading style destination – as their editors break down the essentials of the everyday chic, straight from the street,” the synopsis reads on Amazon. Fashion was more accessible than ever before.
It was a common practice for editors to give photographers lists to shoot with, so that many cameras competed to capture the same shot of well-known influencers in different outfits. This was far from street style’s emphasis on originality. This means Menkes’ 2013 article was also more timely than street style enthusiasts would like it to be. It marked the end of street style. In an oral history of street style, photographer Phil Oh recalled to Vogue, “When the Suzy piece came out, the mood changed overnight. People were suddenly astonished at street style’s excessiveness. It’s all fake, so fabricated, so over.”
In 2013, I was a beauty assistant at an editorial, and attended my first fashion week. Street style photography was frightening for me as a young woman who knew very little about fashion. As I walked into a show, I said to a friend “Street fashion is terrible.” I was just passing a street style photographer and he looked at me. He then turned away and put his camera down.
That turned out to be a not uncommon experience for me, even when I had titles like fashion director and editor-in-chief. It wasn’t just me. Many industry friends who I spoke to about the story said that street style was “awful and disgusting” when I mentioned it. It will always feel like rejection when someone looks at you down and then turns their back. It’s business.
Street style stars often wear borrowed clothes to fashion week. Some do this because they are getting paid, while others do it because it increases the chances of them being photographed. It is a great marketing strategy to have street style stars dressed by the brands at the shows. This not only increases street style opportunities and spreads images of the product to more places but also creates a public loyalty between the brand person and the brand. Full disclosure: I borrow clothes. Street style has taken on a strange new dimension. Street style used to be all about personal style. Now it’s all about brand relationships. Money. There is a lot of it.
And where there’s lots of money involved, there’s always going to be an underlying, complicated power structure. Because, while street style does indeed act as an ongoing reclamation of personal style, street style photographers and the editors who select which photos to run all act as gatekeepers, making street style feel like an insider’s club for popular people only.
The vibe is very middle-school at its best. Street style perpetuates the racism and fatphobia that have long been rampant in the industry. In 2018, Lindsay Peoples Wagner (now the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue) published a story on The Cut headlined, “Street Style Is Killing Itself With Its Narrow Focus On Thin White Women.” Of The Cut’s 300 street style pictures that season, she counted 29 men and women who were not white. She wrote, “This season, the lack of inclusion in street-style photos was so blatant that it felt cruel.”
Perhaps street style’s greatest killer can be summarized in one word: Instagram. Street style stars began to share images from magazines slideshows as a way to show their influence. As magazines became more popular and social media tools more accessible, street style galleries started to appear. Trends that were specifically tailored to Instagram emerged: bold and graphic prints and statement coats. The more loud an item is, the more it will look on Instagram and the greater chance it will be photographed.
Others fashion enthusiasts who may not have been photographed began to copy the street style aesthetic on Instagram. They posted their own clothes directly to their accounts, and not waiting for a famous photographer to take a photo. The influencer photography started to look much like street style photography, with cobblestone streets and golden hour light, with or without a fashion show.
So while digital magazine-driven street style photography upended the hierarchy of runway photography, Instagram culture stepped in to upend that. With the power to create and curate their own images at their fingertips – images that would compete in personal feeds right above and below images from magazines – people soon realized that they didn’t have to wait for a pro to document their look.
One year ago, Vogue published a timeline of street style trends from the 2010s onward. It concludes: “We are only halfway through 2019, but so far 2019 is ‘peak’ all: peak maximalism and peak influencer, peak celebrities, even peak minimalism as reaction to all that.” “The streets of 2019 have more variety and diversity than ever before. let’s hope 2020 can keep the good vibes going.” Which, oof. .
Fashion month as we know it is over. The world is changing. Many runway shows have begun to turn to the internet for live streaming. This allows them to recreate the feeling of a fashion show. Street style is often overlooked, but it is vitally important. What happens to street fashion in digital seasons? Is this the next iteration?
Tyler McCall, editor-in-chief at Fashionionista, told me that showgoers have continued to borrow clothes from brands to get their pictures taken during the quarantine era. It’s just a little different.
Although it might not look the same, that could be a good thing. Self-documenting your style is more powerful than allowing street stylists to judge whether it is worth wearing. Literally, you have the power to showcase your style by simply taking a selfie and sharing it. It is not necessary to rely on street photographers to judge it worthy. And influencer culture, the epitome of the aforementioned spirit, was already eclipsing the days of editors dictating trends (though, the question of who influences us post-pandemic lingers). This season’s shift away from street style to screen fashion – even though we didn’t have much say in it – is a sign of the end of the “circus era” of fashion week. It also marks the beginning of a new era that places personal style ahead of marketing strategies and peacocking. Even if the style is happening on the couch.