The evolution of street style, which took off as a legitimate antidote to contrived runway shows and super-polished magazine spreads, has jumped the proverbial shark, having morphed into a parody-worthy universe in its own right. Attend any hot-ticket runway show and you are sure to witness “the circus,” which is the industry’s preferred term for the traffic jam of attention-hogs, swag-hags and wannabes who loiter outside the main event like moths around a flashbulb. The authenticity gap can also be seen in the back-scratchy relationships between brands and bloggers.
The street-style phenomenon began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the New York Times photojournalist Bill Cunningham, an outsider who zipped around the Big Apple on his bicycle, began photographing fashion in its most authentic, unfiltered form.
Phase two of the phenomenon started in the mid-aughts, when Scott Schuman began shooting well-dressed men and women and posting the images to his blog, The Sartorialist. A couple of years in, Schuman realized that the finest specimens of street style weren’t the big-name designers or recognizable Hollywood types who had long dominated coverage of fashion weeks, but the unheralded, behind-the-scenes tastemakers – the editors, buyers, assistants, students – who pulled together cutting-edge outfits with apparent ease. The Sartorialist, Tommy Ton’s Jak & Jil and the many copycat blogs that followed them subsequently turned this herd of industry insiders – including Carine Roitfeld, Taylor Tomasi Hill, Caroline Issa and Kate Lanphear – into quasi-celebrities. Soon the sidewalk hosted the hot party everyone wanted to attend.
No one leveraged the new reality quite like Anna Dello Russo, Vogue Japan’s editor-at-large and high priestess of the street-style peacocks. Dello Russo found fame by wearing dramatic, fresh-off-the-runway looks and making outfit changes between shows, providing as many photo ops as possible. Her wardrobe – a haute-couture hybrid of Carmen Miranda, Rainbow Brite and Cruella De Vil – epitomizes the type of look-at-me excess that captivates photographers and draws sneers from more “serious” fashion types. By 2012 H&M asked Dello Russo to create a capsule collection, an honour that had previously been restricted to household names such as Madonna, Victoria Beckham and Karl Lagerfeld.
Since then, street-style stardom has become a dependable career launchpad. “A lot of people use their popularity in that realm as a starting point for other projects,” Stephanie Mark, co-founder of The Coveteur website, explains, citing Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad blog (she recently launched her own shoe line) and Russian It girl Miroslava Duma (her lifestyle website Buro 24/7 is the GOOP of the East and she has almost double Gwyneth Paltrow’s Instagram following). There are now talent agencies devoted to establishing partnerships between the top fashion influencers and major brands. Labels such as Burberry, Coach and Zegna have also hired street-style photographers to give their promotional material that totally non-promotional look.
Cue the inevitable send-ups. The Sarcastialist, for instance, is a popular Twitter feed run by an anonymous Brit; it annotates street-style images with mundane descriptions about going to the shops, factory work and boiled-ham dinners. Over the summer, the online magazine The Bold Italic featured a funny shoot titled Real Street Style, which showcased a series of actual street objects (a fire hydrant, a traffic pylon, a cigarette butt) dressed up in hipster clothing. Meanwhile, a fresh army of photographers is trying to effectively take back the pavement, reverting to documentary-style shooting and to subjects who fall outside what has become the norm: tall, young, ultra-thin. (This latest effort, led by the French-American shutterbug David Luraschi, even has a new name: peep style.)
Recently, though, a different sort of backlash was on display during this fall’s round of fashion weeks, where many former peacocks looked more like pigeons in various shades of grey, baggy jeans, baseball caps and Stan Smith running shoes. (Even Dello Russo wore sneakers, albeit bejewelled ones by Chanel.) The new style is partly a way for fashion editors and other insiders to distinguish themselves from the aforementioned circus folk. Viewing this pared-down aesthetic as a less studied approach to dressing, however, would be a mistake, says Connie Wang, style director of Refinery29, who notes that there’s a certain amount of inner-circle snobbery to it. “It’s just a little bit more nuanced now,” she says. “The people who know about these things know that the plain grey sweater is from The Row and costs $1,000.”
Wang, who helped select the images for Refinery29’s new book Street Stalking, says that the idea of “purity” in the fashion world is a phony one in the first place. “If you’re putting a lot of thought into what you’re wearing, you’re dressing for consumption,” whether by the people at your dinner party, your 700,000 Instagram followers or the fashion-week paparazzi.
As for the whole issue of authenticity, Wang would rather focus on what looks great. “It’s fashion,” she says. “Everyone’s copying something.”
* COURTNEY SHEA - Special to The Globe and Mail. This article was initially published in November 2014.