Has Street Style Jumped The Shark?

Let's be honest — for people who really love fashion, "dressing for ourselves" is rarely the only M.O. We put together outfits, deck ourselves in the season's best accessories, and try out new trends because it's fun to share our enthusiasm for fashion with those that appreciate it.
Street style has taken that core idea — swapping, sharing, and engaging in conversation about that joy of dressing with other people — and made it something we can all be a part of, while eating breakfast in our pajamas. Starting with Bill Cunningham and ending with up-and-coming bloggers with their own point-and-shoot cameras, street style is an incredibly viral, incredibly instant, incredibly addictive facet of fashion that's changed lots of the ways in which fashion gets made and consumed.
But, with everyone getting in on the street-style game, is it special anymore? Is it real anymore? We take a look at the brief history of street style and investigate whether the medium is getting stale or if it still has legs.
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In The Beginning

Many people cite Bill Cunningham as the first democratic street-style photographer. Starting in 1978 in the NYT, he snapped candid photographs of people on the street and found trends among them. Old and young, thin and fat, tall and short, rich and poor… his subjects were as diverse as the city he shot them in, and truly representative of the fashions of the time (even if the people in his photos wouldn't be considered particularly fashionable). More photojournalist than portraitist, Cunningham's work was incredibly important in documenting the oeuvre of a time.

Concurrently, photographers like Jamel Shabazz and Shosuke Ishizu were capturing hip-hop style in the mid-'70s and Ivy League style in the mid-'60s, photographing their subjects in both posed and candid shots that let tribes of individuals showcase trends like Cazal eyeglasses and varsity jackets.

Photographed by Tracy Wang
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The Sartorialist Starts A Trend

The birth of The Sartorialist is a piece of fashion lore, with Scott Schuman starting his NYC-based menswear-style blog after he closed his fashion showroom. Armed with a digital camera and some free time, he started taking photos of the dapper dudes in the city — some off the cuff, some posed, but all in the outfits they happened to be wearing that day.

Then...the blog grew. He got a better camera. He started photographing aggressively outside of places where he knew fashionable ladies and gents would be. And suddenly, his blog became the hottest bookmark on the Internet, and the place where people went to get authentic, aspirational outfit inspiration worn by real people.

Photographed by Tracy Wang
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"Hello, I'm A Street Style Photographer"

As the on-the-street style of photographer became more popular, advertisers started to get in on it, too. Karen Robinovitz of Digital Brand Architects, who represents bloggers like The Glamourai and Bag Snob says, "There is an organic authenticity to street style, a rawness that appeals. It's not perfectly glossy and Photoshopped, so it feels real and truthful."

With a new demand for people with the skills to make real people look like models, a new sector of the industry developed. Nowadays, being a street-style photographer isn't just a hobby — it can be a lucrative, full career. Says Phil Oh, who's been shooting street style for six years, "I make a living partially from advertising on my blog [Street Peeper], taking commissioned photos for Vogue.com, licensing pictures to other publications, and shooting campaigns and other special projects."

Photographed by Michelle Christina Larsen
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The Explosion

…and with the demand came the supply. The number of street-style photographers has recently exploded, ranging from photographers for top-level publications to new bloggers taking photos with their parents' point-and-shoots.

Phil Oh describes the typical scene outside of a bigger NYFW show: "So there's me, Tommy, Bill, Scott, Garance, Nam, Geraldine, Hanneli, Eddie, Vanessa, Candice, Jason, Guerre, Rei, Tamu, Yvan, Joris, his Canadian friend, Kristin, Vicky, the Irish one who gives me cigarettes, the Korean boy who got mugged in Milan, Stylesight, Adam, Koo, Wataru, the other Japanese guy, creepy modelizer, old creepy modelizer, older creepier modelizer, modelizer with the terrifying teeth, Marcy, Shini, Yu, long-hair Vogue Nippon guy, Lee, tiny Japanese lady, other tiny Japanese lady, and the other other tiny Japanese lady. These are just the ones I can name off the top of my head."

Says Mark Iantosca (who also shoots for Refinery29), "Even on normal days when I am just shooting around New York, I run into other street-style photographers." With all the photographers out there, competition for a good shot that no one else has gets fierce.

Photo: Courtesy of Laura Neilson
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Staged Style

With all the photographers present at fashion events, there's a good chance that if you're dressed even half decently, you'll get photographed. And, of course, if you're rocking some street-style bait, the chances are much higher (think ombre hair, a Céline bag, a sheer mullet skirt…).

The prevalence of street-style photogs has also led to rampant "peacocking," especially during fashion week. "As street style has gotten more popular, there are definitely more people hanging around Fashion Week dressed up — like bloggers and fashion students who are not attending but want to be photographed and seen. Often people will be standing outside a Fashion Show, already posed, waiting to be photographed." Even The Sartorialist hosts get-togethers where guests get dressed up for lunch and get treated to a private photo session that eventually ends up on the blog. Is that style from the street? No, not technically. But it sure makes for a pretty picture.
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More Money, More Problems

As brands wise up to street style and realize how much seeing a certain piece worn well makes people want to go out and shop for it, the game of "gifting" has been elevated to a new level. Says Robinovitz, "In the traditional world, celebrities have always been gifted by brands as it is considered product placement and good for a brand's exposure to be on the backs of tastemakers. If a brand wants a definite guarantee, that may turn into a collaboration with shared content which may require compensation."

As street-style stars become more influential (at least to fashion fans) than celebrities, how they acquired the pieces they own becomes important. If 50% of an outfit didn't come from the wearer's own pockets, is it valid to say that 50% of her style isn't her own?

Photographed by Tracy Wang
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The Future?

With all of this in mind, we don't think it's a stretch to say that street style is going to become even more commodified in the future. Just as Twitter, personal style blogs, and even fashion in general have become more ad-driven, commercialized, and — arguably — more accessible and international — so too will street style.

"We are seeing it evolve in the mobile space with Pose, Snapette, etc. It would be smart for brands to have scannable clothing so that when you see someone on the street, you can scan the top and find it right there or one like it if it's from a few seasons ago," says Karen.

Besides new technologies that'll allow people to shop, curate, and share, will the actual way street style is shot change? Even on The Sartorialist, Schuman is starting to revert back to the Bill Cunningham model and is taking photos of real people off the street who don't have magazine bylines, a 24-inch waist, or a villa in Spain. Though the outfits aren't nearly as blockbuster, there's a certain honesty about them that makes it attractive in a different way… but is going back to the roots enough to keep street style vibrant?

Photographed by Mark Iantosca