In 2019, street style is ubiquitous. Thanks to Instagram, everyone and their pearl barrette can be a somebody on the streets during fashion month. And while the democracy of fashion is no bad thing, the sartorial style we're exposed to now is much more diluted than it once was. In the mid-noughties there were a small handful of street style photographers that really brought the documentation of fashion into the 21st century. Of course, there was the legendary Bill Cunningham, speeding around New York on his bike in his signature blue French worker jacket, but a slew of new photographers took a markedly different approach to shooting the stylish women they spotted.
One of the most influential of his time is Tommy Ton, who departed from the format of shooting women's whole head-to-toe looks as popularised by Asian blogs, and instead focused on the smaller details that made their outfits so fascinating. Taking photographs that were altogether more candid, the Canadian undoubtedly shaped the way we view and consume fashion and personal style, both via his site Jak & Jil (now his eponymous site, which hosts upwards of 15,000 of his images) and in the coveted post of Style.com's street style photographer.
But when Style.com folded in 2015 and was reinvented as Vogue Runway, Ton decided to go his own way, and while continuing to shoot the women that sparked his interest, he also took to the other side of the lens and moved towards the design studio. Ton joined forces with Andrea Tsao and Matthew Breen, founders of Deveaux, a move-on label from the now-defunct New York-based menswear store Carson Street Clothiers. Appointed creative director of the brand in 2017, Ton, together with Tsao and Breen, have created unisex collections that real people want to wear. Reinventing classic shapes - think boxy jackets and poplin shirts - with luxurious fabrics and bold colour palettes, Deveaux has the quiet confidence of a brand that knows its audience.
Deveaux staged its first catwalk show in February at New York Fashion Month, which saw models of all ages (including an 82-year-old man) and ethnicities serenely walking among each other, embracing and exchanging smiles to the soundtrack of the Her soundtrack, played by Henri Scars Struck on piano. In short: this wasn't your average catwalk experience. All eyes were on Ton (as they always are when someone without formal training tries their hand at design), but with the dust having settled, we sat down with the softly-spoken industry powerhouse to discuss what led him to where he is today.
Hi Tommy! This story is well-known, but can you tell me about the moment with your sister and Tom Ford that was the catalyst for the beginning of your career?
So, when I was 13, before I had discovered fashion, I was a comic book nerd and my sister was super interested in fashion. Once, in the summer of ‘97, she asked me to record Fashion Television with Jeanne Becker - it was a Canadian thing - every Saturday whilst she was away. At first I was like, “urgh, fine I’ll do it for you.” So I did it, and usually I wouldn’t sit through the whole thing but this one time, I was recording an episode for her and was sitting there watching the Gucci AW96 show - Tom Ford's 'heroine chic' collection - and I was just amazed at how the models looked, all smoky, smudged eyes, wet hair, and the way that they sauntered down the catwalk I was like, “wow, what is this?!” Then he came on the screen, and the way he spoke very eloquently and passionately about the collection and how he felt that women and men should look, I just thought to myself, “oh, I have to be part of this world.”
So, that was my introduction, and from that point onwards I just became obsessed with fashion. I used to ride my bike to the library and bring a pair of scissors and cut out all these clippings - I owe a lot of money to the public library! But, by doing that I was able to collage a lot of books together and put these images on my wall.
You founded Jak & Jil as a lifestyle blog in 2005 - how did that evolve into purely street style?
Initially Jak & Jil was a lifestyle website in Toronto where I was really trying to create my own mini magazine where there would be photos of events and of people on the street, and I would do my own market pages where I would borrow items from stores and then I would photograph them. But, then I became really bored doing this after a few years because it’s a really small community. While I was doing this I was also working in retail at a store called Holt Renfew which is owned by the Westons who also own Selfridges. So, having the experience I had working in retail, I was able to understand that it wasn’t the right fit for me, but I still wanted to be part of fashion in a more interactive way, so I found another job where I was working with this e-commerce site called VintageCouture.com and the founder was very supportive of me having these aspirations of wanting to create a website and shoot street style. In 2007 she said, “Oh, if you want to fly to London or Paris, I can fly you there as a bonus,” which was perfect because this was where everything was happening.
In London at the time it was when the Nu-Rave thing was happening with Carri Munden's Cassette Playa, Henry Holland, and BoomBox in the East End. To me that was so exciting, so I went over there and took photos of Agyness Deyn at the club before flying over to Paris - that’s when it really clicked in my mind that I had to do this every season; standing outside the shows and seeing all these people dress the way they were, I just thought: this is like being on safari watching all these beautiful people. But this was right at the beginning, before it became a huge deal, and it obviously escalated from there. But I knew from that moment that this was my way of being part of the industry - by taking pictures.
For you, what was the "I've made it" moment?
It was definitely when Style.com came knocking on my door. It took two years to really find a rhythm of how I wanted to shoot because initially I was just stopping people and asking them to take their photo. My shyness became my strength, though, and I started taking pictures of people without permission, that was when I was able to capture them more in motion. When I started taking pictures like that, people like Nicole Phelps and the Style.com team reached out to me because Scott Schulman left them at the time. To have that opportunity was a huge turning point, because I had been looking at Style.com since I was a teenager: it was basically the bible for us before Vogue.com took over.
You’ve been shooting street style for so long, and it has changed hugely…
Yes it has...
What are your thoughts on the evolution of it? Is there any authenticity left?
There are people I still enjoy photographing who dress for themselves and that won’t change outfits for every show. I do understand why people do change, because they are getting paid by the brands to wear outfits to their show. That’s where it doesn’t feel authentic, and it feels like it’s become a huge marketing exercise where everything is so calculated and yes, it is free publicity for the brands, but for me just the thrill of seeing someone for the first time...those moments don’t happen very often. It’s a media storm outside the shows now - everyone who has a camera can come and take pictures, which is great, but for someone who is not used to having their picture taken, it’s a bit overwhelming having a large gentlemen taking your picture - who knows what he’s doing with it, right? It’s a very invasive experience now for someone who is just going to do their job, which ultimately is to attend a fashion show.
Do you have a stand-out moment from the past ten years?
The Kanye West moment was interesting. I had taken this photo in 2009 and he didn’t know who I was at the time, but this photo turned in to a South Park episode called ‘Fishsticks.’ The photo was a very animated image and then the show mocked it by turning it into an episode. I didn’t take this photo to intentionally make fun of them, I just thought it was a very interesting caricature of him and his friends - [Off-White's] Virgil Abloh was in the photo, too, and the way that they were posing was just really interesting. It wasn’t until two years later when he was watching my work on Style.com that he told Anna Dello Russo that he wanted to meet me because he was a huge fan of my work. She took me running through a traffic jam in Paris and we were looking through car windows and we finally find him. He was just like, “Hey! I’m a huge fan of your work!” Then two days later I was celebrating my birthday with Christine Centenera and she’s told Kanye that she was with me, and he replied, “I’m coming!” So, yeah, that was definitely a moment that made me go “wow...”
So how did you decide to move on into the design sphere?
I mean, I've been doing this for 12 years and I always had design in the back of my mind, but the circumstances had to be right. I had been friends with Andrea and Matt when they founded the brand in 2016 and I was watching their progress and how the brand had evolved, and in 2017 I had seen that they wanted to take the brand to another level and enter the women’s market and I thought to myself, “Why don’t I just offer myself voluntarily and see if they would be willing to welcome me on to the brand as a consultant?” And they welcomed me with open arms! I just thought, here’s a way to channel my creative energy in another way, and if it doesn’t work out then at least I tried - but thankfully it’s still working!
You've been viewing women through the lens for the past decade - how has that perspective shaped Deveaux?
I think the obvious way is in understanding what flatters and makes a woman feel comfortable. Having the time to be able to interact and listen to these different types of women - they’re quite a rare breed of women, those who work in fashion, because they’re a little bit more sure of what they want - but also speaking to women of different backgrounds and ages and understanding what makes sense in their life, and being able to apply that. Just listening to things they say, like: “Oh, I’ve been looking for the perfect pink striped shirt, but then it has to fit this way”, or, “I like that dress where it falls just off the shoulder." I think that with designers, the experience that they lack is being able to see things in person and understand how their clothes react on a certain body; it’s one thing to have a trunk show and meet your consumers, but it’s another to really be out there in the trenches and understand how it works. Like, does a triple-pleat trouser make sense? If it does, then how would it fit on the bottom? Does it have to be tapered? Does it have to be flared?
What does it look like when you're walking around the city? When you're sitting down at your desk?
Yeah exactly. Or does it make sense to make it in a crinkle nylon? Or does it make sense to do it in a cotton twill? Little things like that.
There's always a watchful eye on those who choose to move across the sub-sectors of the industry. What have you learned from going from one form of art to another?
The most obvious thing is that it is a lot of hard work and it’s not as easy as you think it’s going to be. You can be a little bit cocky thinking that as soon as you transition everyone will think that you’re doing a brilliant thing or that it’s a given that what you do is going to be great, but you definitely start from scratch. You can only really rely on your own thoughts and not think that someone’s opinion is going to uplift you or bring you down. You have to focus on what you think - your instinctive point of view.
One of the things that Deveaux is being championed for is the diversity of age, ethnicity and gender in your campaigns and shows. It feels really effortless rather than contrived which is refreshing.
Thank you! It is very reflective of the kind of man and woman that I want to photograph, people of different characters who bring a certain confidence and ease to what they’re wearing. In order to make the clothes much more special we think about who our customer is, and the models that we show those on have to reflect our customers. Realistically, do we envision a 16 or 17-year-old wearing these clothes in real life? No, and as much as I enjoy a model like Kaia Gerber wear the clothes, I think that if we’re going to be a brand about luxurious, simple, investment clothing, we need to cast models that are actually going to represent our customer.
How did you find the models, were they street-cast?
Some of them were street-cast, some of them I follow on Instagram, some of them are people we worked with. One of the men, which we didn’t realise until after the show, is the host at that Standard Grill in New York. It’s kind of interesting to find out that a lot of these men and women that are modelling now, in their day-to-day life they’re a custom tea maker, or they’re a yoga teacher, or they’re a set designer and modelling has just been a side thing for them or something that they never expected to do in their life.
We're really honoured that all of them would want to be part of our presentation. During rehearsal they said that we had made them shine and I had to tell myself not to get emotional, but they were getting emotional...
That with the piano music...I bet everyone was on the verge of tears!
There were some tears for sure - I was aiming for tears! I wanted a bit of an emotional moment because fashion shows happen so quickly and there are so many that happen over the month, but if we were to create a moment that mattered, there had to be a moment that made people care…
What I absolutely adore about the clothes is that there aren’t many details that feel gendered or age-specific; the daughter, for example, was wearing bits her dad could also wear. Is that purposeful?
When we design, for instance our outerwear and knitwear, we don’t think of a single gender, we just think of the piece, then during our buying appointments we’ll let it sit on the hanger. If the womenswear buyer loves it then we’ll make sure that we will market it to both genders. And then, obviously for technical purposes, when it goes in to production, we will fit it a bit differently. When you’re shopping with your husband or boyfriend, a woman nudges their other half to buy something, but in this case it's because then she can be the one to wear it too. There was a moment in the show where a man he took off his coat and he put it on his wife's shoulders. That was emotional, but it makes sense because that fit works on her too.