With fashion week events taking place throughout the month in New York City, London, Milan and Paris, February has quickly become known as “fashion month” among fashion aficionados. And, this past month, as the throngs of models, editors, buyers, celebrities and fashion insiders made the month-long global trek, so did the street-style photographers.
While most photographers are focusing their lenses on the catwalk, street-style photographers document the everyday looks of “ordinary” people on city streets throughout the world. In recent years, street-style photographers have become some of the most prominent voices within the international fashion industry. But are they welcome in this once-exclusive industry? And what are the broader implications of this type of “citizen journalist” democratizing the media?
For an expert perspective on this phenomenon, we checked in with Brent Luvaas, PhD, an assistant professor of anthropology in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, whose research and teaching interests include visual and socio-cultural anthropology; the global circulation of fashion, music and aesthetics; and street fashion and street-style blogging. He is the author of DIY Style: Fashion, Music, and Global Digital Cultures (Berg, 2012) and is currently working on a book with Bloomsbury Publishers about street-style bloggers.
In an effort to make sense of street-style blogging as a social and cultural phenomenon, Luvaas also started his own street-style blog, www.urbanfieldnotes.com, in which he documents style on the streets of Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere as a means of understanding just what it is that bloggers and photographers do.
How are street-style bloggers transforming the fashion industry?
If you’d asked me this question a few years ago, I would probably have given the same hackneyed response most tech journalists give whenever they’re asked about any new Internet trend, that street-style bloggers have helped democratize the fashion industry. And a few years back, it may very well have been true. Bloggers like Liisa Jokinen of Hel Looks (hel-looks.com), Javi Obando and Flora Grzetic of On the Corner (onthecorner.blogspot.com) and Yvan Rodic of Facehunter (facehunter.org) have helped put a variety of cities, once far outside the purview of the industry, onto the fashion map. Street-style blogs have become marketing showcases for a number of emergent creative cities. They have also provided an alternative entryway into a once famously closed-door industry. A few dozen amateur photographers draw millions of regular readers to their websites, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of the industry, and countering the glossy editorial images of fashion magazines with the everyday looks of “real” people on “real” city streets throughout the world.
But as street-style photography has ballooned in popularity, it has also become an established – though frequently resented – part of the fashion industry. Many of the big-name bloggers now sell their images to major fashion publications and websites. Many others aspire to do so. Working on increasingly tight publication schedules and struggling to meet the demands of their editors and expectations of their readers, they shoot their images primarily at fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris, rather than scouring the streets for days on end for those rare individuals who stand out in the crowd. As a result, a new type of street-style photography has come to dominate the genre, one we probably should call “street fashion” photography or perhaps even “off-runway photography.” Industry insiders now often complain about how crowded the sidewalks outside runway shows have become, with dozens of amateur and freelance photographers playing Bill Cunningham and vying to get the best image possible of those editors, buyers and models, who have been elevated in recent years to the level of “street-style stars.” The sidewalks outside runway shows have become catwalks themselves. Perhaps the single-largest influence street-style bloggers have had on the fashion industry, then, is in adding a whole new level of spectacle to an already image-obsessed industry.
You have your own street-style blog, urbanfieldnotes.com. What do you mean when you say your blog is an “experiment in open-source ethnography”? What have you learned about street-style bloggers as an anthropologist?
My blog is a real-time repository of my photos and field notes as I carry out this project. Street-style bloggers and blog readers can – and do – comment on my thoughts and theories as they unfold, participating in the process of knowledge-production in ways that are closed off within most ethnographic work.
From doing the blog, I have learned an enormous amount about the conventions of street-style photography, the equipment bloggers need to get their shots, the terms of sponsorship deals bloggers sign with advertisers and the lived practical experience of being out on the streets doing street-style photography. But perhaps the single-most illuminating realization that has come out of this project is that what street-style bloggers do – i.e., go out on the streets and document what people are wearing at a given moment in time – is just not that different from what I do as a cultural anthropologist. Street-style bloggers – at least at their best – are amateur anthropologists of fashion, representing through images those irreducible complexities that make up sartorial expression today. They give a face to globalization and economic change and show what it looks like for a city to reinvent itself as a creative center. Many of the bloggers I have spoken with explain what they do in almost exactly these terms. This is citizen science of style.
How do new media complicate the way creative labor happens in the cultural industries of today?
One of the biggest impacts new media have had on how creative labor happens today is that they make it possible for a far greater number of people to contribute content to the cultural industries, whether through photos, videos, music or whatever. The tools of media production are far more widely distributed than they ever have been. This is the democratic potential of new media that has been hyped ad nauseam in the popular press.
But democratization is not all good news. In the fields of street-style and fashion photography, for instance, online fashion magazines now have such a plethora of professional-quality images to choose from, they barely need to pay anything to attain them. In fact, many amateur photographers are willing to give away their photos for free, in exchange for name-recognition and increased traffic to their websites. As a consequence, professional photographers have taken a significant hit to their paychecks. Why pay for content, after all, when you can get it for free? There may be far more avenues for photographers to get their work out there than there ever have been, but making a living as a photographer has never been more difficult. Increasingly, the cultural industries depend on volunteer labor. And volunteer labor, by definition, is labor that doesn’t pay.
What are some of the broader social and cultural impacts of such “digital democratization”?
We are seeing a level of participation in cultural production unlike at any previous era in modern times. These days, if you aren’t a writer, designer, filmmaker or musician, then you’re a blogger, a YouTube video-maker or an inveterate Instagrammer. Nearly everyone wants to be recognized as a creative person. But not everyone can make their living as a creative person.
In the case of street-style blogging, the biggest name bloggers – like Scott Schuman (thesartorialist.com) and Tommy Ton (jakandjil.com) – have attracted millions of readers, and in doing so, made names for themselves in the fashion industry. After years of doing battle in the street-style trenches, they have now secured sponsorship deals for a variety of brands and contracts from major magazines. But it is an open question as to whether or not such a thing is possible for the next generation of street-style bloggers.
Today there are just too many bloggers out there, crowding the sidewalks outside fashion shows, clogging the bandwidth of Internet providers the world over. It takes far more to get attention today, and as such, young people – street-style bloggers included – are continually upping the ante of online self-promotion. Digital democratization makes us all into our own PR agencies.