There was a time when seeing what someone else wore and how they wore it was interesting. Stylish people, going about their day, captured by an eagle-eyed photographer who appreciated their standout look. It was unique, and it was inspirational. But then 'street style' came along. That is, not the style of a person who happens to be on the street, but the orchestrated influencer images we are Insta-inundated with today. And it all became a little bit the same. Girl crossing road in gazelle-like fashion, directional shoes on her feet and sloppy sleeves spilling from her wrists.
"There’s a huge gap between emulating [street style photography pioneer] Bill Cunningham and what’s happening now," says Gio Staiano, a seasoned photographer of the shows, who works with The New York Times and Nowfashion.com, among others. "Bill was chasing people down the street who had style and somehow they mixed things up. Sometimes he did a piece based on colour or the similarities of what people wore; that was interesting."
It was, essentially, authentic: that woman would actually be crossing the road; that man was waiting outside a restaurant for a friend, or was on the phone to someone; that person was going to the supermarket. Instead of the many pre-posed images we see now. Come fashion week, it’s not unfamiliar to see someone be asked to walk down the street again and again to create the shot. Capturing candid moments of real-life dressing was originally what it was all about. The Japanese street style book, Fruits, for example, which at the turn of the millennium captured a decade of Tokyo’s style.
But now that’s all changed. "Social media has had a huge impact. Globalisation leaves for less individualism," observes street style photographer Dvora, who has shot regularly for Vogue.co.uk in the past. It’s an astute observation. How many street style images do you see on your social media feed that depict not only the same genre of outfit (either polished, put-together and pristine, or loud and overly layered) but the same stance, the same everything?
So much so that you can now go on the likes of ASOS to find its favourite 'stealable' outfits from "The Best Street-Style Looks of 2018". You can visit a fashion website and see any number of articles showing you how to copy a particular genre of 'street style' look. Even fashion editorials and brands, for a time, repeatedly used this supposed 'real-life' lens as a template for their own shoots and campaigns. When designer Riccardo Tisci was at Givenchy, he often shot on the streets of New York, and there was a recent trend in catwalk casting for using 'real' people. Full looks (a whole outfit direct from a catwalk collection), once reserved for the pages of fashion editorial, became a mode of 'street style'.
When did street style – supposedly underpinned and defined by a celebration of personal and individual style cultivation – become generic enough that it fit into so many trend boxes, its participants rounded up like sartorial sheep?
"As print circulations have gone down, that is when the change has come in," says Phillip Bodenham, director of the PR agency Spring London. It was circa 2013 that there seemed to be a boom in the phenomenon. In a piece for The New York Times entitled "The Circus of Fashion", fashion critic Suzy Menkes described the peacockery in which fashion experienced a role reversal from catwalk to sidewalk. What was once a closed-off fashion arena for insiders, members of the press and buyers, suddenly opened up. It was in the wake of a digital media revolution and the cult of self. Street style, thanks to the likes of The Sartorialist and Tommy Ton, had taken off and the idea of 'real-life clothes', whether they were or not, reached peak dressing. Everyone knew who Anna Dello Russo was, not necessarily because of what she did but because of what she wore – feathers and ballgowns, out anywhere, at any time of the day.
"It’s hard to differentiate between personal style and style to impress. I get that the [fashion] crowd is dressing for an occasion – and often in fascinating and admirable combinations – but it’s simply not the source of inspiration for my day-to-day style anymore," says Ema Janackova, 25, a freelance events project manager. Meanwhile, Kalisha Quinlan, 20, a PR and communications assistant, prefers to take her inspiration from music, subcultures, film and TV. "A lot of street style is played safe and just reinforces existing trends," she says.
There comes the irony that what started out as great and original outfits, daring or aspirational, has begun to dwindle because it became a profitable opportunity: for self-promotion, for shopping the look, for over-saturation and homogenisation.
"There is a genuine difference between the stylish and the showoffs," wrote Menkes in her piece, noting this to be the issue at the time. The issue now is: are we tired of it?
"I think it’s unavoidable to take some inspiration from Instagram these days," says Quinlan, "but it's so clear what's genuine and what's 'influencer marketing'. I’m always put off if people seem overly sponsored." And it’s not hard to identify which brands or designs are going to be a hit with the street-style set: usually bright and colourful, statement-y with a bell or a whistle that lends itself to transient novelty. All of which seems to go against the landscape in fashion right now, which is one of personality, diversity, individuality, creativity and all the things that 'real' means, or used to mean.
From Gucci’s all-inclusive eclectic dress-up philosophy under the helm of Alessandro Michele to London wunderkind Charles Jeffrey Loverboy and his filter-free collections celebrating his crew of club kids; Christopher Bailey’s final Burberry collection last season which put a spotlight on LGBTQ+ communities; and even, oddly, Balenciaga (whose puffer jackets and ugly trainers have become ubiquitous on the street style scene).
In her review of the latest Balenciaga collection, pre-fall 2018, Vogue Runway fashion critic Sarah Mower made this point: "Well, just a thought, but are the boring tweed pantsuits the most interesting thing in this Balenciaga collection?" She didn’t mean it as a slight, but because "there’s a distinct emotional gravitational pull towards non-messy design going on. Uncomplicated, well-cut stuff that looks good again." It’s true – and Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy has been (successfully) at it too.
Why does it feel right? Because it feels real! It is real! You do wear a pantsuit/trousersuit to work, not a boudoir slip and towering platforms, or sleeves that get stuck in doors and a shirt that ties too many ways.
And in ending her review by saying, "Perhaps it’s time for boring to be interesting again," one can’t help but feel perhaps she just answered this question too: Do we really want to dress like street style stars anymore? Fashion week is but a month away.