This June will mark 10 years since Men.Style.com published Scott Schuman’s photos of Milan’s Spring 2007 menswear collections. It was then that the fashion industry began to obsess over street style. The Sartorialist, which Schuman called his blog, was almost the only person in the area, aside from a few brave upstarts like Yvan Rodic and Jak, Face Hunter’s Yvan Rodriguez, and Jil’s, Tommy To, and Street Peeper’s, Phil Oh. It wasn’t long before photographers began to throng the streets in search of images of editors, retailers and other influential people. Vogue.com contributor Trace Barnhill put it so well: “We’ve loved street fashion, we hated it and we loved to hate it. And we hated to love them.”
Street style has become a cottage industry. It generates hundreds of millions of clicks per month for sites like Vogue.com, provides content for old media and makes sales for fashion brands. The street style phenomenon has recently spawned a number of self-made celebrities, such as Gary Pepper Girl and The Blonde Salad. They are now producing street style selfies using their own in-house teams. They’re turning their blogs into online lifestyle magazines, and landing lucrative side jobs as brand ambassadors or designers.
I spoke with industry leaders to discuss the early days. The backlash of 2013-2013. The backlash to the backlash, and, in the era of Instagram and Snapchat, what street style’s next 10 years could look like.
The New York Times had been publishing Bill Cunningham’s street photographs for decades. But in 2006, Scott Schuman and his team represented a new breed street photographer using the online blog format.
THE SARTORIALIST’S SCOTT SCHUMAN: I still remember receiving the call from Men.Style.com back in June. “Do you want us to go to Milan?” Yes! This was my biggest break. My blog was started by a stay-at home dad and self-trained photographer. This was in a time where no one knew much about blogs. Because I didn’t have any money, a friend let me borrow $20,000 and I spent half the money on a camera and laptop, and the other half on clothes. If I wanted to be noticed, I needed to look like a photographer and an editor. It was necessary to confuse people.
FACE HUNTER’S YVANRODIC: September 2006 was my first Fashion Week. People were surprised that they could be photographed. It was something much simpler and there was less business surrounding it.
STREET PEPER’S PIL OH: My blog was started in 2006. I would wait patiently for someone to stop by Seven on Orchard Street, and then I would sit there waiting for them. I would go to Tokyo, spend eight hours in Shibuya at this consignment shop and take maybe fifteen photos. I had this point-and-shoot camera that was slender and easy to use. It was still quite innocent. An ad agency reached out to me by accident. Puma liked my blog. I was confused when they informed me the amount they would spend on the ad purchase. I didn’t bother to ask. When I received the check, which was $30,000, I thought: Oh my God, this could be a job!
TOMMYTON: I began shooting in February 2007. Scott is not the only one who attracted me to him. It was the Japanese who were so detail-oriented that it was me who drew me in. They know what they do with their notepads. From head to toe, you can see what your outfit is. This is what attracted me to them.
SHOICHI AOKI, founder of Tokyo’s Street, FRUiTS, and Tune magazines: Starting in the mid-’90s I decided to record street fashion as the art of humans, the same way music and painting are recorded. I don’t care who the subject is. I only care about how cool it looks. It must be documentary. It should be cool.
The new crew was determined to stand out from the rest by using their own shooting techniques. Although they often photographed the same people, their approaches to photography were very different.
SCHUMAN : I have never considered myself a photojournalist. I wanted to photograph in a romantic manner. I didn’t necessarily want to lie. If I didn’t like the light, I would move them.
TON: Scott glorified portrait street photography. All of my images were horizontal. People said, “What?” It was different because everything was cut tight and focused. It was the time of Nicholas Kirkwood and Rodarte shoes, everything was so sky high in terms of footwear. The accessories! It was an eye-opening experience to capture all of it.
OH: It’s great to have other people behind me or on the sides. These fashion shows take place in a city that is still thriving. People still go to Duane Reade. They also go to school. I love to gaze at tourists in the background. I value getting a unique picture more than the one everyone else has.
LE 21EME’S ADAM KATZ SENTING: I am able to get closer to my subjects than most other photographers. I have less negative space than other photographers. That’s because I am more sensitive to the environment. Tommy has a longer lens than I do. My lens is fixed focus and I don’t zoom. The frame is determined by where my feet are.
It’s difficult to recall, with all the cameramen around, that street style in its early days was a lonely, isolating job.
OH: Tommy taught me a lot of fashion. There was very little we had in common, other than what we were doing. He was a fashion obsessed fervent. I knew Moschino because it was mentioned in Biggie Smalls’ song “I put hos on NY onto DKNY.” Miami DC prefers Versace.” Tommy was like, “You don’t know who Nicolas Ghesquiere is?” “No. Are they both rappers?
Street style was first popularized because of its relatability.
TON: That’s what I believe is why street fashion exploded. Everyone loves beautiful models. But when there is a personality behind them, the look really comes to life.
In September 2009, Dolce & Gabbana put Scott Schuman and Tommy Ton, Garance Dore, Bryanboy (aka Bryan Grey Yamboo) in front row at the Spring 2010 show.
Garance Dore: We were not trying take over the space of others. We were only interested in expressing our views. Dolce was quite proud of it.
SCHUMAN: They set these computers up in front of us. We were all like, “They’re trying show they’re hip, and they’re onto the what’s going on.” But we don’t download from our computers while a show is being produced. I had to ask them to not put the computers in front us for the D&G [later that week].
TON: Style.com’s first season was shot when the Dolce was in full swing. Fashion was becoming more democratic. Fashion wasn’t exclusive. It became more inclusive after that.
It is much more affordable to buy street style pictures than to create a shoot to illustrate a particular trend.
Although it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment street style took off, we would place it between 2009 when Tommy Ton joined Style.com and Suzy Menkes’s New York Times report on the phenomenon in 2013.
OH: I don’t mind other photographers even though there are over 1,000 of them. This means that there is a business. There is income. If there weren’t wannabes, it would mean that there wasn’t any income. This means that we could still do this job for nothing. It’s an after-effect of success.
SCHUMAN: It’s a metaphor for the sports world. Only a handful of people have been able to make consistent money out of all those who were not involved in the shows. They love fashion. They would have never gone to Anna Dello Russo to talk to them before, as it felt very insular. They can now pick up a camera to go and talk to their hero. These young fashion professionals consider ADR to be the Michael Jordan of their world. It’s easy to share images nowadays, but there are so many poor images.
SINDING: Everyone is shocked at how many photographers are out there. It’s a way to get me working. It would have been boring if it were easy like it used to be. Now I have to be faster, more efficient, and take on more risks, such as running through traffic.
In 2013, the International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes wrote a buzzy piece for The New York Times about the “circus of street style.”
TON: I didn’t have a reaction. I just thought, “I’m going to keep doing what my doing.” Suzy is not a subject to be photographed. She’s a woman who is respected for her talent and not her image. It is easy to see street style as a way to market yourself and it can be difficult to understand why Suzy is so popular.
OH: It hurt. Industry people would give me the side eye early on. It was a great feeling to be able to walk in the doors of the fashion industry once street style was accepted. There will be a backlash, just like with all good things. The mood was instantly changed when the Suzy piece appeared. People were suddenly like “Oh no, street fashion has become too much. It’s all fake. It’s over, my God.”
However, the backlash was brief-lived. Street style has thrived since Menkes’s article. This was helped and encouraged by the emergence of Instagram. It creates a chaotic, sometimes violent, and often crowded scene outside of the shows. The photos aren’t very good. The exposure is off, and the cropping is a bit strange. I’m not sure who they are choosing to shoot. All the hullabaloo.
OH: Many of the newer people have a list of people they want to meet. The vast majority of them don’t care about fashion or have no interest. They treat it all like a videogame, not respecting others’ space and knocking people out of their way. “You, background! Move!” They yelled at Angelica Cheung (the editor-in-chief of Chinese Vogue).
TON: It has become more stressful. It was the reason I injured my ankle this season. It was all fine at first, but everyone now worries about safety. Sometimes the cars driving by are reckless and some photographers have complete disregard for pedestrians or traffic.
DORE: It’s a red carpet system these days. You have one person who poses, and there are 100 other photographers taking the exact same shot. It’s definitely not the way I started and it’s not what I enjoy doing.
OH: I’m quite friendly. I smile and wave. I know this all can be aggressive. It is a shame that industry people must go through the hoops of photographers. I don’t know why men and strangers judge me. Let’s just say that I try to make it more positive.
It is true that many street style photographers are men and the photographed persons are women.
STYLE FROM TOKYO’S REI SHITO: I have found that people are more open to sharing a moment with me when they’re a woman. They are more comfortable with me and seem less intimidated.
DORE: Although I don’t think about the fact I’m a female, street style has always been personal to me. I would be approached by women. It was easy to make friends and continue to do so for many years. It probably brought me some good luck moments. People were open to playing along with me. They believed that I would present their best self.
SHITO: Other photographers want to photograph the most famous people at shows. I, however, focus my shooting on fashion and people with unique auras or moods. This is why I like to shoot many people. This is how I distinguish myself from other photographers.
Here are the rules for engagement
TON: The funniest rule I have is to avoid us at all cost. It is not desirable for a girl to pose for everyone and stop. We’ll do everything we can to get her photo.
The top sources of street style inspiration were editors in chief and fashion director at the time. It may now be models.
OH: Models are easier to photograph than ever before. However, agencies have made it easy for them to use social media to promote their careers. They are certainly styled quite a bit. They could have done a better job. It’s why I appreciate rare models like Hanne Gaby [Odiele] and Caroline Brasch Nielsen. She returned this season to do a few shows. She’s always been one the coolest.
SCHUMAN: I like real women. Not that models aren’t real, but some models have great style. It’s not difficult, but it is a little bit. She is 6’3″ and super thin. I don’t shoot celebrities very often. It’s not a mystery to me.
OH: I am guilty of having favorites. I’m sure that Gio [Battaglia], ADR, Susie [Lau, also known as Susie Bubble], Sofia [Sanchez]- will be there even when they don’t have anything, they still look great. It’s obvious that I am drawn to color and fun things. But, it’s just my personal reaction. It can be either “Aha!”, or “Nah!”
TON: I am fascinated by the Milanese woman. I love that Marni and Prada woman, the twisted intellectual whose sense of style is very individual. Junior editors have heard me tell them to stop borrowing clothes and start wearing your own clothes. That’s how we fell in love with each other.
The most popular subjects are mostly women, just as photographers tend to be mostly male. The menswear shows can be a busy time for street fashion. They will arrive on bikes. They will arrive together. They will all arrive in a group and wear suits. It’s not just street style that has turned some insiders off.
RODIC: Although it took some time for brands to embrace the fact that people will be photographed, they have finally done so. It was natural for brands to invest as much effort in guests as models as street style blogs. They now trade outfits for front row. It can feel a waste to be outside Fashion Week. While it’s great to be in the city, you shouldn’t necessarily be shooting outside of Fashion Week. It’s no longer fashion to wear head-to-toe clothes.
TON: It makes me happy to photograph straight-off-the-runway clothes and accessories, but it gets to a point where it’s a bit excessive and you know something has been organized by a brand. It’s easy to filter out so much of it.
SINDING: Some girls go to Rick Owens and they wear Rick Owens. And then they go to Valentino and they’re wearing Valentino. It’s almost like “Who are they supposed to be?” It’s not Halloween. You can’t be both a Rick Owens and Valentino girl. They’re completely different women.
DORE: The audience is losing faith in influencers. They are smart, educated, and can recognize when advertising is occurring. In the early days street style, there was no branding. It was beautiful. Street style blogs used to have a slogan that said, “Finally no hidden advertising!” This sentiment has long since disappeared and it moved really quickly.
SCHUMAN: What I really miss is the cool stylists who used go there. The blog girls who are dressed by the brands took their seats. Today, street style photos are as likely to influence design as runway pictures. Souvenir jackets? Tommy and I used to take photos of them. They are now being sold by brands for $3,000 and $4,000. Instagram has revolutionized street style, just like other industries. I’m not a native user of either. They are now a promotion tool in Japan, but they could have other meanings. Printing images will be likened to Hermes’ harnesses. They will be made by people, but only by special orders. Snapchat and Instagram are Hermes’s scarves and bags, they’re the money-makers.
DORE: Instagram revolutionized the world because an editor no longer had to wait for us take a picture and show their outfits. The fashion crowd started the story.
THE BLONDE SHALAD’S CHIARA FERRAGNI: Fashion has become much more democratic due to the influence of social media. We can now all express our ideas of beauty and taste.
TON: This was my first season with Instagram. I realized that websites are not as effective as Instagram.
The Blonde Salad is a phenomenon
SCHUMAN Her style has inspired a whole new generation of Italian girls. “Holy shit! She’s just doing this, look at her. I want to be like her.”
TON: I was wrong to predict how certain people would be able leverage their image into huge empires. The Blonde Salad and Gary Pepper Girl are now huge global brands. Although they were smart enough to make use of their Insta-fame through the shows, I don’t think they are style icons. We would have tried harder if we knew that this would happen in 2007 or 2008. You could have picked Taylor Tomasi, or any of the junior editors, and said, “You don’t have to follow this path. You can style your editorials and make yourself the stars.” The Blonde Salad will soon be designing for Iceberg or other major brands, I am telling you.
FERRAGNI: 2015 was a turning moment for me. Forbes named me one of the 30 Under 30 Most Influential Persons. I was featured on 27 fashion magazines’ covers. Harvard also made The Blonde Salad their case study for their MBA program.
They are busy diversifying their lives as the first wave street style photographers nears the 10-year mark.
SCHUMAN: It has changed my life. I have the SutorMantellassi shoe thing and I’m currently designing a premium denim line with Roy Rogers.
TON: I was asked to shoot a Coachella campaign for a donut company. I don’t want the role of being the guy who shoots random street style campaigns, no matter how old I get. That’s probably why I started shooting backstage. I want to be more focused on the clothes.
RODIC: About a year ago, I began to use Snapchat. Everyone was so curious about it that I decided to become the Snapchat agency. A Little Nation is both an advertising agency and a production company devoted to Snapchat. We assist brands in creating custom strategies. Although I have been a photographer, blogger, and author, it was in some ways something very soft. The new venture is more ambitious in terms of business.
Schuman’s first love is street style. People lost their minds. “That’s so disgusting. How can you walk through the town like that?” I would love to know the flip-flop from 1520. We can’t even see what ordinary people think of [Jacques Henri] Lartigues photos. It’s great that we can appreciate the photos in a modern setting. But, they will also tell a great story 100 years later.
It’s one thing to look 100 years into the future, but what about today?
SINDING: A forest is made up of millions of deer, but only one pack of wolves. The wolves are eating well, making more wolves and then there’s no deer anymore. The wolves eventually die and the deer return. We have ruined the balance. Many photogs are selling themselves short. There will be no more money once that happens. This means that all people who want to make money will be gone, but those of us who enjoy doing it will stay, and the balance will return.
RODIC: Street style was something I felt very special when it first started. It’s now a profession that employs 500 people. Because Fashion Week is the most lucrative, street style is predominantly Fashion Week. There’s more money to make from shooting Fashion Week attendees, so that’s what will be the main focus for the future. Scott, and hopefully many others, will invest in street photography and continue Fashion Week style. That is what I see as a return to. Being a pioneer, it feels like I must go beyond Fashion Weeks. Expression is not limited to shows. I’m attending Vuela Project, a well-being festival in Ecuador. I’m just trying to surprise people.