With The Sartorialist, I just get a slightly dowdy, snooty feeling rather than a zingy, lively one. I dislike the “bossy butler” tone:
“Just about the only ‘must have’ item for a true Sartorialist is a good set of shoes trees for ALL of their shoes.”
Okay, the shoe trees post did reveal the more farcical extremes of Schuman’s GQ-allied school of “gentlemanly dress,” but Momus is not a lone dissenter. I constantly hear little grumbles about The Sartorialist. Most can be attributed to the expected knee-jerk backlash from Schuman’s commendable DIY success in an extremely snobby field. But the one thing I hear over and over from people generally sympathetic to Schuman’s site: the men and women featured on The Sartorialist appear at first glance to be “people on the street” but they are all models or work in the fashion industry. Schuman very rarely includes names with his portraits, so identity is always a bit vague. But in those rare times when you actually know the person in the shot, the spontaneous display of great fashion sense loses most of its magic.
For example, here is a portrait entitled “The Coolest Professor Ever, Paris.” With no additional information, most readers may assume that the model is indeed a professor who happens to have excellent taste in clothing. In actually, however, this is Hirofumi Kurino — Executive Creative Director of select shop chain United Arrows and one of the most powerful figures in the Japanese fashion market (so says my anonymous comment). This extratextual knowledge does not nullify Kurino’s magnanimous fashion sense but surely explains it. And with enlightenment dies our fantasy of ideal academic sartorialism. Without names and titles, The Sartorialist imagines a beautiful world filled with beautiful people. This makes for great entertainment, but bad social documentation.
But what is “street photography”? The appeal has always been rooted in a vaguely-democratic, worms-eye-view rejection of fashion elitism. Instead of inhuman models styled by stylists, posing in sound-stages to push the latest industry trends, street photography shows real fashion on real people. No styling, no photo-retouching. The beautiful fantasy of street photography is that there is no fantasy.
In the past, however, I have complained that Japanese magazines often twist and contort and edit street photography to visually illustrate a mass fashion reality conforming perfectly to industry wishes. A coworker recently pointed out to me that most of the “girls on the streets” in magazines like CanCam and ViVi are paid models, recruited at colleges, whose outfits and bags come from their model agencies rather than their bedrooms.
Magazines like FRUiTS and Street, however, are often championed as “real street photography,” and I concur that the commercial motive for “editing” reality is much weaker with these titles. Magazine founder and photographer Aoki Shoichi started his work wanting to demonstrate the “real” fashion excitement outside of magazine spreads. He has greatly succeeded and changed fashion for the better, but we still have to ask the same question: who are the people in the photographs? For the most part, the narrative framing of Japanese street photography leads us to believe they are “everyday kids.” And this adds to the power of their fashion as true grassroots style and democratic creativity.
For this reason, I find the new Japanese fashion photo blog Style from Tokyo incredibly illuminating. Photographer Rei Shito used to work for the STREET/FRUiTS/TUNE empire (and has been shot ten-thousand times for The Sartorialist). She has recently been making a name for herself with a trend-spotting photo column for Japanese fashion newspaper Senken Shimbun, which may have the craziest prose style I have seen in a trade publication. Her personal blog Style from Tokyo continues the now standard street photography methodology of stopping trendy youngsters on the streets, but her insider knowledge of the fashion community gives us a wider window into this particular style culture. Shito tells us who is who.
Some examples, all [sic]:
What you will soon notice about Harajuku’s best dressers is that almost everyone on the blog is a hairdresser, fashion store clerk, stylist, musician, or model. In other words, they are all fashion professionals. Their job requires and rewards creative dress. Professionals can be expected to dress “better” and more creatively than amateurs, and Style from Tokyo unintentionally makes this very clear.
Tokyo has the world’s most concentrated and largest fashion market, and therefore, has more fashion professionals than anywhere else. And Japanese workers tend to take their jobs much more seriously than other places and embrace the proper uniform to a degree unseen in the West. (Some may argue that being a “store clerk” is not being part of the fashion elite, but I would argue that the celebrity and legitimacy as taste makers bestowed on these employees by magazines makes them junior officers of the fashion army, rather than a distinct group between customers and designers. They are clearly on the “right” side of the divide and are treated by consumers as such.)
The sheer amount of fashion pros makes the Japanese urban environment much more visually interesting. But “the street” still possesses the political weight of being primarily a “site of amateurs” — the binary opposite to ateliers, runways, showrooms, magazine editorial offices, and all the other “elitist” locations where fashion is created. Shito’s blog and other street photography sites are commendable for featuring a lot of young, stylish “random individuals” who otherwise have no way to communicate their style to readers in a legitimized framework, but ironically, when mixed in with a majority of professionals, the amateurs merely situate the professionals into the “street” background. Amateurs are window-dressing for what is very much a professional game.
just as corporations and bastions of economic power tend to hold great influence upon political democracy, professionals and professional manipulation tend to set the tone for fashion democracy as well. Fashion professionals are not “ringers” and extrication from street photography would be just as much as a lie. (They use the same streets for shopping and travel.) But instead of just viewing the visual products of their effort — photo spreads, store displays, advertisements — now the professionals themselves serve as our inspiration, couched in an “everyday folk” atmosphere. So, is the internet making global fashion more democratic or are those behind the scenes just finally getting the chance to turn the cameras 180˚?