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How Street Style Changed the Frontier of Fashion Photography

A few weeks ago, Marie Claire editor Taylor Tomasi Hill ran into an old friend outside a fashion show in Lincoln Center. They both stopped to catch up, but were interrupted by a man who tapped the friend on the arm. “Excuse me,” he said, “but do you mind stepping aside for a moment while I take her picture?” He was pointing to Tomasi Hill. Nonplussed, the friend backed away, and a swarm of photographers quickly closed in.

Tomasi Hill is a member of a new, elite class of fashion celebrities whose pictures (and shoes and bags and outfits) are fanatically snapped outside of fashion shows and events by street style photographers. Images of these fashion insiders — models, stylists, buyers, and editors — going about their glamorous lives are now so sought after that they’ve created an entirely new category of fashion photography. These photographs, seemingly casual and snapped on the fly, now appear regularly on retail websites, blogs, and in ad campaigns and print magazines to demonstrate how “normal” people incorporate certain looks into their everyday outfits. What was formerly the realm of professional, meticulously staged fashion shoots has had to make way for a new medium of informal, more natural-looking images of real people going about their real business — and looking great while they do it.

Street style photography wasn’t always this way. When it first began — originally with Bill Cunningham’s “On the Street” section in the New York Times, and later with bloggers like The Sartorialist’s Scott Schumann — it was hailed as a democratized platform where anyone with an original look, regardless of age, weight, or income, could be celebrated for dressing themselves with creativity and panache. It was grassroots fashion, devoid of perfectly coiffed models, brand status, and editorial contrivances. You could dress yourself up in the morning and dream of having someone on the street ask to take your picture. Many of these street style photographers still exist, particularly in far-flung places like Helsinki or Mexico City, where the fashion industry isn’t quite so pronounced as it is in Paris or New York. Most of these local photographers don’t support themselves with their efforts, and see it as a creative outlet rather than a commercial pursuit.

But meanwhile, a select few street style photographers have gained traction in fashion’s inner fold, and their subjects have also shifted from pedestrians to street style celebrities like Tomasi Hill, Elle’s Kate Lanphear, Japanese Vogue’s Anna Dello Russo, and other people who dress themselves meticulously but also have ready access to gorgeous clothes. What has emerged is almost like a partnership between the street style photographers and their subjects; while these fashion-loving subjects have always dressed themselves well, their newfound celebrity gives them added caché. They attend fashion events, well aware that they’ll be photographed, some even getting their hair and makeup done beforehand and borrowing new outfits from designer labels, which sets them even further apart from the nicely dressed Jane Doe on the sidewalk. Their efforts in turn benefit the photographers because the more chic-looking and popular their subjects become, the more money they’ll be able to command should a magazine, website, or retailer want to use their images.

One could argue that “original style” isn’t what attracts photographers anymore; rather, it has evolved into street style stars wearing different versions of their signature looks, perpetuating their own fame. Meanwhile, those hoping to break into the upper echelons of fashion celebrity do their utmost to copy them. A recent opinion piece by GQ’s Will Welch lamented the blatant peacocking that goes on at fashion shows nowadays, with people dressing up in over-the-top outfits in hopes that they’ll become the photographers’ next darling. It’s true that a certain part of it feels unnatural — an awkward, nonchalant dance between lurking photographers and overdressed showgoers who amble along and hope for flashbulbs — but what really isn’t, in fashion?

There’s much more to say about street style, which is why, starting this week, we’re exploring the subject with a number of features (including a video that shows what life is like on the other side of the lens). For now, click ahead to see a slideshow of street style’s current major stars, including standbys like Giovanna Battaglia and Shala Monroque, as well as newer faces like Yasmin Sewell and Stephanie LaCava.

Alex Rees contributed reporting for the slideshow.

Photo: Jack Riccobono

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