Leigh Lezark by Adam Katz Sinding (www.le-21eme.com)
One early evening this January I was walking to a Thom Browne show in New York’s West Chelsea neighborhood, chatting with the Italian fashion journalist Angelo Flaccavento, when a commotion broke out right in front of us.
We were forced to slow down as Michelle Harper, a street style bait known for nothing in particular except wearing outré outfits at fashion shows, sprung seemingly out of nowhere, decked out in the latest Browne couture-like outfit, street style photographers pouncing on her like wildcats on prey. Harper’s outfit, with carefully constructed white cotton spikes, did not allow for a jacket and even though I was freezing in my down parka she braved the cold so she could be photographed. As she teetered on her high heels on a narrow and icy sidewalk the photographers fought for space. One slipped and almost fell. Another risked getting hit by a car.
The excitement on both of the faces of the photographers and their subject was palpable. Flaccavento, no stranger to being photographed, rolled his eyes and murmured something in Italian.
Street style photography is not a new phenomenon, but until a few years ago it did not take fashion’s center stage. Last year it reached a certain apogee when a New York Times article by the esteemed fashion critic Suzy Menkes describing the vapid circus around fashion shows sent seismic waves through the fashion world. The piece was uncharacteristically stern for the usually mild Menkes. In it she contrasted the good old pre-Internet days when people who went to see fashion shows were by-and-large fashion professionals. Fast-forward to today and the front row picture has drastically changed.
This resentment on part of fashion professionals is understandable. After all, when they are at a fashion show they are technically working. Michelle Harper is probably not. What used to be a simple walk to the show venue’s door has become a spectacle of stylistic one-upmanship accompanied by the level of self-consciousness typically associated with a high school prom. “Some photographers are so rude and invasive, you just wish they were not there and getting into a show did not turn into an impromptu red carpet extravaganza,” Flaccavento told me.
Menkes blamed the ubiquitous street style photographers for fueling the scene where people, many of whom have no business being at a fashion show anyway, now dress solely in hope of being photographed. Needless to say, the crazier the outfit, the better the chance of having your picture taken. Last summer during the men’s fashion shows in Paris one kid consistently showed up with a face painted like an African mask. This winter it was a middle-aged man with shaved legs and a miniskirt.
The fashion media quickly split up into two camps over Menkes’s article and sent a flurry of their own commentary. Predictably, the veterans, such as Tim Blanks, featured in a Garage Magazine video, also said that he was fed up with peacocking for the street style bloggers. So was Derek Blasberg of Harper’s Bazaar. The arrivistes were obviously against Menkes, asserting their rights to wear whatever the hell they want. I asked Menkes about the article when I ran into her a few days later and she said that she had nothing against bloggers per se, but was more turned off by the pageantry surrounding the shows, which she found vulgar.
The blogger battle has raged on ever since. Last fall the New York Fashion Week organizers announced that they will bar as many bloggers and hangers on from the shows as possible. They did not have much success.
But what is really the problem here and who is to blame after all? Why do we get a negative knee-jerk reaction when we see photographers swarming over someone in front of a fashion show? One problem is that the essence of street style has been betrayed. Street style, popularized by the likes of Bill Cunningham in New York and FRUiTS magazine in Tokyo, is just that, people photographed on the street wearing whatever they chose as they went about their day. Street style used to be an unmediated experience.
Today, however, it feels increasingly staged, and therefore fake. Undoubtedly, many people dress in hope of being photographed. I hear stories of kids going to hang out in front of a fashion show with no hope of getting in, just to have their picture taken. Still worse, some ask friends to take their photo in front of a fashion show and then post it on Instagram as if a prominent street style blogger had taken their photo. Fakery is distasteful, and so we cringe the way we cringe at any poseur. Anna Dello Russo can wear several outfits during the day, but they amount to nothing but a series of empty gestures, fashion junk food.
Another problem is that, increasingly, the people who are photographed by street style bloggers are not people on the street who are interested in style but models, celebrities, and socialites who, in Menkes’s words, are “famous for being famous.” This is not good because it narrows down the pool of potential subjects. No wonder many bloggers’ Instagram accounts look the same during fashion weeks.
And the fact that fashion brands have caught on and now give free clothes to certain “street style” stars exacerbates the feeling that the whole thing is phony. Earlier this year one enterprising company at Pitti Uomo, the menswear trade-show in Florence, sent their employees out to shove their bags into the hands of anyone photogenic. Snap, and you are on Instagram with the brand’s hash tag. It’s the cheapest form of marketing.
I asked Adam Katz Sinding, the prominent street style photographer, whose tag line for his site, www.le-21eme.com is “This is NOT a street style blog,” about his experience on the street. “I completely agree that a large percentage of the people outside the shows are there for the sole purpose of self-promotion,” he said. “However, I feel that there are still quite a few amazing individuals, who are able to dress and express themselves in a way which exudes confidence. These are the people I look for. I also shoot the ‘peacocks’ as it is a part of the cross-section of the environment, and I feel it needs to be documented.”
Street style photographers themselves are now becoming street style stars. Things really get meta when the street style bloggers start photographing each other in front of the fashion shows.
Still, to put the blame squarely on the bloggers shoulders is unfair. A lot of their work, especially during fashion shows, is commissioned by powerful fashion publications. Street style photographers are by and large young kids who are in the process of making a name for themself by taking pictures. When you have been standing on a corner for a couple of years taking photos of random people and all of a sudden Vogue wants to hire you – who would say no? So, they become hired guns and follow the editors’ lead. I know bloggers who have gotten photo assignments specific to the point of absurdity, leaving them no creative freedom. Bloggers, then, do not always control what viewers get to see.
At the end of the day the reality is quite simple – there is a huge audience out there that just wants to peek into somebody else’s closet. Bloggers tap into and satisfy the masses’ primal desire to ogle and judge, greatly facilitated by the Internet, no different from weekly entertainment magazines and TMZ. They are simply the latest incarnation of that ancient Roman adage “give them bread and circuses.” If we want to blame someone for the circus, perhaps we should take a closer look at ourselves.
(The original version of this article appeared in Them magazine)