Outside the J.Crew fashion show yesterday, well-known bloggers, seasoned fashion editors, and various It girls walked down a narrow passageway on Washington Street, pretending to ignore the telescopic lenses photographing their street style looks.
They coolly glanced at their phones and avoided eye contact.
Only a few smiled generously as they paraded down the narrow passageway. Most feigned insouciance, as though they hadn’t put on especially chic outfits that morning hoping they’d end up on a street style blog the next day.
When someone vaguely recognizable turned up, the photographers scrambled to position themselves for a winning shot.
But they invariably ended up huddled together, somewhat counterintuitively, to snap variations of the same photo: former Lucky editor-in-chief Eva Chen in chunky heels, boyfriend jeans, and a tiny white tee; lifestyle blogger Athena Calderone in a Marni shift dress and white Alexander McQueen sneakers; and fashion consultant and street style star Yasmin Sewell with an Egyptian-esque necklace worn over a sleeveless gray turtleneck.
Ten years ago, when street style first went mainstream with Scott Schuman, aka The Sartorialist, snapping portraits of random, stylish people outside the shows, there were no street style stars. And there were only a handful of photographers in the game, each with their own unique approach to documenting street fashion.
Today, there are more photographers outside the shows than there are inside. The stylish people that Schuman first photographed 10 years ago—Giovanna Battaglia and Anna Dello Russo, who were both little-known fashion editors at L’Uomo Italia and Vogue Italia—have long since become famous fashion plates. And we’ve long since reached a street style tipping point.
Some would argue that the tipping point has veered toward parody. Indeed, during London Fashion Week last year, Hannah Evans at Vice dressed up in the most absurd-looking outfits she could pull together on a $16-a-day budget and easily convinced an undiscerning audience of street style bloggers that she herself was a fashion blogger.
Another tipping point came in 2013 when, as Suzy Menkes wrote in T Magazine, there was a growing consensus fashion weeks had become a “celebrity circus of people who are famous for being famous”—that the street style blogs that once captured stylish people at their most natural had been overrun by peacocking, calculating bloggers hoping to be featured on those street style blogs.
Menkes criticized bloggers who remained mum about accepting free beauty products and handbags from designers, even as they showed them off.
But once the culture of “gifting” was out in the open, getting free swag became a status symbol for these bloggers. Instead of lying about accepting free gifts, some insisted their designer duds were gifts when in fact they’d purchased them on their own.
Leandra Medine, who runs the popular street style blog “Man Repeller,” wrote a response blaming the “forebears of blogging”—herself included. “We never should have accepted gifts in the first place,” she wrote, calling for “serious change” in the blogging landscape. “How can we really assume that we will cull the respect we think we deserve if we don’t even respect our own brands?”
At the same time, Medine argued that Menkes was wrong to write about bloggers as though they were indistinguishable. Some are surely more talented than others, but she believed the cream would always rise above the crop.
Scott Schuman echoed that sentiment outside J.Crew yesterday.
“I think people get the audience they deserve, so if they’re lazy and are just shooting the same girls, the big girls, they’ll get an audience that likes lazy fashion,” he told The Daily Beast, adding that he was mystified by the street style photographers who all line up to get the same shot. He said his most popular pictures on The Sartorialist—the ones that get the most clicks—are those of unknown girls.
Schuman said he has always strived to convey a sense of mystery in his photographs, and that it took a while for his earlier subjects, including Anna Dello Russo and Giovanna Battaglia, to be comfortable having their photographs taken. Now, many of the unknown girls he photographs, particularly those he shoots during fashion weeks in New York, ask to be tagged on his site. “They don’t want mystery,” he said. “They want everyone to know who they are.”
Schuman has always taken portraits, but he makes even more of an effort now to capture his subjects in a way that seems removed from the chaos of Fashion Week.
Other big-name street style photographers like Tommy Ton do the opposite. “He does a great job of capturing the mood of what it’s like to be at Fashion Week with these wide shots that show people running around in the background,” Schuman said.
Schuman and Ton are among the first wave of street-style photographers who have become their own brands. After gaining a following on his blog Jak & Jill, Ton was hired to shoot for GQ and Style.com. (Ton replaced Schuman at Style.com, which recently merged editorially with Vogue.com and will relaunch as an e-commerce site this fall.)
Ton has sold the rights to Jak & Jill and recently launched an eponymous website, where he’s been posting his street style images and other coverage of the Spring/Summer 2016 shows. And Schuman, who has already published two Sartorialist books, has another one coming out in October, The Sartorial X, which is more of a departure from his traditional fashion-y photographs.
For his latest book, Schuman fled wealthy metropolises for countries like Peru, Bhutan, and India, where he photographed a man digging coal on the edge of Varanassi, wearing black jeans and a black tee shirt (“he was so beautiful”) and found the “cool girl” in Mumbai.
“Street style for me has never been about who the person is,” he told me. "My intention has always been to inspire creative people with images that make you dream.”
He admitted that street style feels more contrived today than it did 10 years ago, but said people dressing up for shows with the sole intention of being noticed or recognized is hardly new. (Schuman ran a men’s fashion showroom before launching his site, and has been attending shows since 1999.)
“In the past it was stylists getting dressed up to show magazine editors they had great style in the hope that they’d get jobs,” he said. “Now it’s bloggers showing off their mediocre style to brands hoping the brands will want to dress them.”
One of the less inexperienced photographers outside J.Crew made a similar observation.
“As in every cultural scene, everything starts to get homogenous at one point,” said Soyon Jun, a junior at Columbia University who posts her photos on CargoCollective.com, a “personal publishing platform,” according to the site. “We’re appealing more to the masses than to people who are genuinely interested in style and aesthetics,” she told me, citing a quote from The Devil Wears Prada. “To be really clichéd, it’s like when [Meryl Streep] turns around and says, ‘Everyone wants to be us.’ Everyone wants to be the person on the style blog, and the photographers don’t want you to be you. They want you to be someone you aspire to be.”
There’s no question that street style bloggers have revolutionized the fashion industry, and Schuman doesn’t think the bubble will burst anytime soon. But he sees a bigger revolution taking place inside the shows.
Indeed, one of the biggest shows at NYFW this season, Givenchy, gave away 2,000 tickets to the public.
“If you have the whole public involved and it really becomes an event, the smaller designers won’t be able to compete with the big ones,” he said. “I think that’s going to change the game more than street style has.”
Meanwhile, 86-year-old Bill Cunningham, who was photographing fashion in the streets decades before Schuman and Ton, has little interest in how it has evolved over the years.
“I couldn’t care less,” he grumped at Alexander Wang’s show last week, waving away my questions. “That was then and this is now.”
He had waved me away earlier, too, (“not now!”) when he was snapping photos of Lady Gaga, and other fashionably late attendees near the show’s entrance.
The next few years will likely see a growing mob of street style photographers outside the shows. Perhaps the shows themselves will become such big events that the street style bloggers will be sectioned off from the red carpet like paparazzi.
So long as the OGs like Bill Cunningham keep their heads down, there’s no reason why anyone with a camera shouldn’t push and claw their way through to get a good shot—even if it’s no different from the photo taken by the guy next to him.