Most of the time, a majority of people on Omotesando road in the middle of the day are not shoppers but photographers, ready to pounce on the next stylish girl with pink hair coming out of Wendy’s with an S-sized frosty. Somebody, however, has to supply the massive amounts of street snaps in Japan’s monthly fashion magazines. (PingMag has an interview with some of these photographers here.)
At first look, these impromptu style portraits seem to function as a way for editors to capture “what’s happening on the the streets” and pass it along to their readers. Youngsters can then compare their own style against the “standard” implied in the pictures or nick ideas for their own wardrobes from the most stylish.
The reality behind this media phenomenon, however, is not so clear-cut. I recently interviewed the managing editor at one of Japan’s longest-running and most prestigious male fashion magazines. The magazine ran a special feature on “snaps” for their May issue, and I asked him how they went about procuring the large number of images.
First, they ran an announcement in the back of the previous issue about where and when the street fashion shoots would be held in each of Japan’s major cities. This brought the magazine’s core readers out to the photographers, reducing the production team’s reliance on passers-by. Once shots came back to the editors, they selected photos based on the subject’s skill in appropriating and using the styles advocated in the magazine. By choosing specific styles from a pre-selected group, the editors were able to strengthen the validity of their own fashion message by demonstrating the prevalence of the magazine’s signature style out on “the streets” through this overwhelming and implicitly-objective photographic evidence.
I asked, are these fashion shots helpful to editors for discovering the next trends? In other words, do street snaps also function as a source of inspiration for fashion editors? No, it’s the opposite. Streets snaps allow editors to check to make sure that their wardrobe recipes end up being used by their target groups. For example, the magazine in question had been advocating wearing neckties with short-sleeve polo shirts for a year but had yet to see this combination out on the town. In the May street shots, however, kids had clearly adopted the style, and these photos helped ease fears in the editorial office that their message had not been in vain.
Obviously, a magazine like FRUiTS is a different animal — more interested in the artistry of fashion than facilitating the sales and consumption of it. (Last time I checked, FRUiTS did not offer brand names and prices next to the outfits like CUTiE.) Therefore, there is no real commercial agenda to guide the photographers and editors of FRUiTS into crafting photos towards a singular narrative. We should also understand that FRUiTS is not used in the same way as other fashion magazines. It is simply a collection of photos rather than a prescriptive magazine where readers demand a gentle voice of authority.
If editors from the mainstream fashion titles are selecting individual street shots with the intention of proving the widespread usage of their own advocated style, where does the bottom-up flow of tastes come into play in this process? Bottom-up implies that the elite and powerful will adopt and champion ideas from their “inferiors” and customers, but a majority of Japanese magazine editors do not go through the street snap production process with much room for inserting opinions, styles, and concepts that they do not already approve. At best, editors are using the photos to gauge the efficacy of their own message with reader tastes, but this involves consumers/readers saying “yes” or “no” to top-down styles rather than creating their own complex message and sending it up the food chain.
I do not mean to deny the existence of bottom-up taste flows in Japan — for example, the brands comprising the Tokyo Girls Collection are mostly designed by young women the same age as the consumers. But with the street snaps in the most widely-read fashion magazines, I find it hard to pronounce an equality of top-down and bottom-up flows once the real mechanics of the process have been illuminated.