Street Snaps: Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

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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.

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

8 Responses

  1. brr Says:

    The approach of this editor and his likes makes me sad! The popularity of overseas streetsnap editorials in Japanese magazines should prove that people are yearning to be exposed to styles outside the influence of the JP magazine authorities. Ah well, mass fashion has always been part of the commercial cycle and the continuance of the mimicry of trends passed on by the top is crucial for the fashion biz.Thank god for the internet though, no longer mags are the sole advocates of style!(aren’t the sales dropping anyway?)

  2. marxy Says:

    I definitely don’t want to say that all “street snaps” are somehow inherently top-down. Net photos and FRUiTS clearly are about looking at the streets as they are. That brand of editorial is not altering much of the raw message. Magazines, on the other hand, are commercial ventures with profit motives, and they are using street snaps features with that motive in mind.

    I should also reiterate that this editor did not see this technique are particularly dastardly, and I don’t think there are evil motives. It’s just part of the way the system works.

  3. alin Says:

    nee, why are you making all these weird extreme binaries. first of all you still seem to be fighting the cold war, long finished here i’d have thought. then surely street and fruits have their own top-bottom agenda while the extreme example you’re looking at, whatever it may be, would surely have redeeming features.
    taking into consideration the continuum between the two poles your very own point might come across clearer, if, however, less somewhat dramatic .

  4. Chuck F Says:

    Well this would explain why Tune is the only men’s fashion magazine that could be said to be geared towards younger folks in Japan that dosen’t bore me compleatly. At least Cutie and Keira have some type of variety going on in them, bloody the men’s fashion magazine every single person looks almost excatly the same.

    Weirdly Fruits seems to have it’s own agenda too one which I’m not sure of, Tokyo Graffiti’s street snap section and Fruits seem to differ in Graffiti has a ton more used vintige clothing going on/ less focused on Charisma staff(I did some minor resarch on this and it scares me that I can generally recognize more then half the people in a fruits issue, whereas in tokyo graffiti not so much.) One time Yuya Nara was in the thing(Tune) bloody 3 out of 5 months, along with an apperence in fruits during thoese 5 months at a LV Party.

  5. randomblogger Says:

    It’s been a long time since I read Fruits, but from my memory, they did write the brand names of the products off to the side. The big differences were that: 1) They didn’t write the prices, 2) They were perfectly happy writing “home-made”, “hand-me-down from sister”, “don’t know”, and 3) They were perfectly happy taking pictures of people who had little or no brand clothing. From what I can tell, they basically put the brands there so that, if you looked at Fruits and saw something you really wanted, you’d know where to look. Or, conversely, so you wouldn’t drag yourself through every store in town vainly looking for something which was actually something the person in the snap had made themselves.

  6. Mulboyne Says:

    I’m sure your story is true but I don’t think it captures the whole story. Photography is a major hobby in Japan so I’m fairly certain that street photography predates magazines including it as part of their fashion layouts. It’s possible they started using it in the way you describe but it is more likely that the team sent out to fulfil such a commission eventually found it easier to bring in a few ringers and the self-reinforcing loop you describe became the norm.

    But what about the readers who replied to the magazine’s appeal? Are they really dumb agents of the magazine or are they not perfectly aware of the game? If they want to get into the magazine then they probably wear what they think the magazine prefers. I’m not sure that means they always slavishly follow the magazine’s lead. If the Urawa Reds called a fashion shoot then you’d be more likely to get featured if you wear the team colours but it doesn’t mean you’d then go on to wear a football shirt on a date.

  7. alin Says:

    to partake in your sentiment here i have to admit a certain dissapointment in 2000 when after being quite inpressed by Nick Wapplington’s sub-culture pic-epic ‘Safety in Numbers’ http://www.amazon.com/Safety-Numbers-Nick-Waplington/dp/1861540965/ref=pd_bbs_sr_5/102-1435001-8418565?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1181171700&sr=8-5 I realized that not only was the whole thing paid for and set up by Dazed&Confuzed mag but wherever Nick would go there’d be hoards of subculturists already waiting for him.

  8. marxy Says:

    “But what about the readers who replied to the magazine’s appeal? Are they really dumb agents of the magazine or are they not perfectly aware of the game?”

    I think it’s the same with advertorial – some readers notice and don’t care, some don’t even notice. Readers have shown over the years that they want authoritarian manuals, and they expect brands will directly sell to them. There is, however, no real public debate in Japan about the EFFECTS of this collusion between the media and brands or meta-commentary on this practice within any sort of public media space that the consumers themselves use (maybe on 2-ch, but they seem too busy figuring out which bad Japanese are really secretly Korean).

    “I did some minor resarch on this and it scares me that I can generally recognize more then half the people in a fruits issue, whereas in tokyo graffiti not so much.)”

    This is interesting because you are suggesting that the “creativity” implied on the streets in FRUiTS is really just coming from an elite core of street fashion innovators.