Op-Ed | What Happened to Street Style?

Today, the fashion that appears in “street style” imagery too closely resembles the constructs found on the catwalk and in magazine editorials, and no longer reflects true personal style, argues Max Berlinger.

Street style | Source: stylesnooperdan.com

NEW YORK, United States — Whatever happened to the “street” in street style? As interest in street style grows, there’s certainly no dearth of images featuring tony editors, buyers and other fashion insiders captured at the world’s major fashion weeks. But there’s a pointed lack of inspiration in these pictures. Too often, they reflect a highly merchandised construct that merely reiterates the seasonal themes dictated, top-down, from the industry to consumers, at the expense of true personal style. Sometimes, they are even part of a premeditated marketing plan.

When legendary street style photographer Bill Cunningham hunkers down on New York’s 57th Street and Fifth Avenue to document the passing parade, he aims to capture real people in their real clothing living their real lives, something closer to reportage than public relations. But during fashion week, where an increasing number of street style images are now captured, so-called street style stars are often seeded with (if not gifted) pieces from designers in the hopes that they will be shot in them, earning brands exposure. Indeed, many of these “street style” images are now so constructed that it feels like the only thing missing are the credits in the lower left-hand corner.

What’s more, for those aiming to land themselves on influential street style blogs, websites like The Cut are now able to pinpoint “street style bait” — items like Valentino’s rockstud footwear, Givenchy’s printed t-shirts, Fendi buggies, and almost anything from Céline — and provide a formula for how to attract street style photographers.

We once looked to the street for personal style and, indeed, new ways to interpret the onslaught of clothing and accessories presented on the catwalks. But is anything new being said when a street style star like Anna Dello Russo, editor-at-large and creative consultant for Vogue Japan, wears a head-to-toe look from Prada or Balmain? Can this really be construed as street style any longer? It certainly has nothing to do with the street and feels anything but personal.

To be frank, what we now call street style has stifled true style. While savvy readers have long known that the editorial content that appears in their favourite monthlies was influenced by advertisers, street style was once a space free from these kinds of transactional compromises. No longer.

What’s more, when street style stars actively court the camera — dressing to be photographed instead of dressing according to one’s own wishes — with carefully planned and executed ensembles, what we get is polish and poise with none of the instinctive and idiosyncratic gestures of true personal style. Ultimately, what we are left with is an awful lot on display, but not much to see.

Perhaps it’s a romantic idea, but I’d argue that true style, at its best, says something deep and intrinsic about the wearer. In contrast, the new wave of meticulously fabricated stars are all surface. There’s no denying that the surface is pretty. It may also reflect a strong visual persona. But is it genuine?

For me, the majority of street style images have become as glossy — and, ultimately, two-dimensional — as the fashion stories found in most fashion magazines.

Paradoxically, as the Internet provides instant access to everything, street style has lost its immediacy and vitality. We’re hypnotised by the material goods, but the indefinable characteristics of true style remain underrepresented. When was the last time you saw a street style image featuring someone who looked as though they just tossed on something they had hanging in their closet and it came together in an unexpected or surprising way that’s genuine and perhaps changed your eye a bit?

There was a time when the runways and magazines reflected a world of fantasy, and real life was, well, real life. Which didn’t mean that you had to dress like a bore, but you certainly didn’t borrow clothes from a showroom either.

Not long ago it was enough to be stylish and have a shrewd eye and a closet of well-chosen items. While street style used to represent the frontier of self-expression and do-it-yourself spirit. Now it looks as constructed as the runway.

But when the runways and the streets become one and the same, isn’t the industry just reflecting its own perfectly manufactured image back to itself? This is a dangerous place for fashion to be, as it’s in this mutual admiration that stagnation occurs.

Max Berlinger is a writer based in New York.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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  1. Thank You Max for talking about the current street style dilemma as it is!!!
    I have my street style blog since 2009 and I have always been focusing on real people on the street and their personality. Thats what I am interested in. I sometimes cover from Fashion Weeks too, but avoid all the common “big dressers” and focus on the genuine…I try at least :) http://annebernecker.wordpress.com

    Anne Bernecker from London, London, United Kingdom
  2. Thank You Max for talking about the current street style dilemma! I have my street style blog since 2009 and I have always been focusing on real people on the street and their personality. Thats what I am interested in. I sometimes cover from Fashion Weeks too, but avoid all the common “big dressers” and focus on the genuine…I try at least :) http://annebernecker.wordpress.com

    Anne Bernecker from London, London, United Kingdom
  3. This article sums up one of the major reasons I started my own Australian street style blog (Keishikibi); a distaste at some blogs supposedly showing “street” style, when in fact, there isn’t anything “street” about what’s on those blogs.

    Myles Keishikibi from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  4. As a street style photographer, I think this article is mostly on point, except to say that there are two major caveats contributing to this issue: 1) major fashion publications are pushing for street “fashion” over style, and 2) since these are the images that pay, photographers are more or less forced to work in this direction if they want to compete. When I first started my blog, I would unilaterally reject the “2 dimensional” concept stated in this piece, but it’s now a landscape where getting work and being respected means joining the fashion week circuit, shooting Anna Dello Russo and identifying all of her pieces from head to toe. The meta factor of street style now rules, and will probably continue to do so now that labels have a direct influence on the real estate value of their labels being shown in Conde Nast publications.

    Simbarashe Cha from New York, NY, United States
  5. Very eloquently written and observational piece, and regrettably, deeply sad.

    As someone who has ‘grown up’ in the theatre of fashion in a funny kind of way (I went to my first show – Burberry Prorsum in Milan – at 15 when I won a competition, then blogged for several years and now I’m 24 and still working in the industry in Paris), I watched how democratic participation and opportunity for a younger generation was suddenly opened in the industry, and then quickly squashed.

    I truly feel like the attitude to street style plays a big part in that. Bloggers (aka younger and poorer) commentators shook things up a bit when they started turning up to shows wearing creative ensembles that stood out against the industry uniform of sleek cuts and designer labels. Then there was a backlash because the ‘bloggers’ were diverting attention away from the ‘real’ industry, but rather than the old guard practising what they preached, many industry members started competing with the younger crowd to beat them at their own game. And it’s back to the sleek designer labels. Essentially, the industry’s trade show month is now as nepotistic in its aesthetics as it ever was. We are back where we started.

    But can style and fashion ever walk hand in hand? I would agree not. I wonder why we expect true individual, creative style to come out of the circus of fashion weeks at all? The street style photographers themselves have been led dangerously astray into the deep dark woods by the industry, and away from the places they used to scout for style: central Milan on a summer’s afternoon, Brick Lane on a Sunday, Greenwich Village in NYC. Complaining about the ubiquitous presence of LVMH brands on fashion-week goers is the absolute proof that in our quest for more and more ‘stylish’ images, we cannot see the wood for the trees. Ari Seth Cohen’s project ‘Advanced Style’ and other blogs like his, should encourage us to return to a more curious and innocent way of seeking out real style.

    Otherwise, as Berlinger warns, we run the great risk of total stagnation.

    Imogen Roy from Aubervilliers, Île-de-France, France
  6. I mostly agree with the points made here. If the street style lenses keep pointing more and more exclusively at an industry involved-fashion-week-crowed we will loose what makes this category so valuable. To me the magic of street style is that it focuses on the creativity, personality and self expression of an individual. It is where fashion is the closest to being a social phenomenon rather then just a giant industry. Fashion is made and promoted by professionals who get to be creative and express their visions but how do all the other people make sense of the trends and elements they are offered? How do they get creative with the items in their closet morning after morning? If street style is supposed to keep an element of authenticity it has to also keep looking at those who are not necessarily trained in fashion or involved in the business. It has to also show us those who don’t have access to new pieces from catwalks and luxury boutiques. Of course there is something every inspiring in the way famous stylists and trend setters dress. Their approach to styling is oftentimes more daring, more creative, more avant-gard then the majority of looks we see on the streets. I don’t want to miss, to be able to see how they dress but the truth is that they represent a slim part of society and one which i very closely attached to the industry. The talent of the street style photographer should involve the ability to find and see style in the street not only in front of fashion shows. I want to see more of those who dress unique and over the top, because thats their style or their mood and not because they know that they will get photographed. But I also have to say that I do still see a lof of such ‘real’ style on the sreetstyle blog that I follow. My favotite is Helsinki based http://www.hel-looks.com/. And For those of you who want to combine selling some of their unwanted fashion items by expressing their personal style, I invite you to try http://refash.net

    Milena Leszkowicz from Germany
  7. I remember a lot of discussion around this topic a few seasons back in relation to all the fashion “peacocking” surrounding fashion week. Since then the looks have definitely toned down. While the majority of looks are overly manufactured for true street style, they are still more translatable that the drama expected on the runway. I enjoy the content as another editorial point of view, and I think that it is hard to ignore the contributions “street style” has made to the industry by increasing awareness and consumption among the general public. However, I am also grateful to the photographers that are still capturing real inspiration from the streets, since we do not all want to be wearing the same Chanel Boy Bag crossbody over a chunky turtleneck and distressed boyfriend jeans. =o)

    Karyn Garske from United States
  8. AMEN! The Runway Shows Literally Moved Straight To Sidewalks So Out With “StreetStyle,” Hello “Staged Style!” THANK GOD FOR BILL CUNNINGHAM he’ the only one that has saved it!

    sarah perpich from Washington, DC, United States
  9. soooo goood!!!!! thanks for putting it out there Max!!


    Madeleine Groven Holth from Sandvika, Akershus, Norway
  10. Great Post Max.
    It is my impression that individuality is easier suppressed then our basic instinct of a pack animal. Industries will take advantage of that-its more efficient to serve a crowd. I hate the trend but when it happens in healthcare it is much more disturbing.

    Agassi Nakhapetian from New York, NY, United States
  11. while one can easily concede that the street style phenomenon does not have that initial spark of excitement it did some years ago, it still provides an essential bridge between the out-and-out world of fantasy and creativity experienced on the catwalks and editorial pages and the real life experience of the average fashion consumer when purchasing that luxury item. for over a decade, the world of high fashion has served as a facade for luxury conglomerates to sell not couture ensembles or pret-a-porter confections but handbags, footwear, cosmetics, and other accessible appurtenances. yes, anna dello russo stands out because she dons runway looks head-to-toe, but the genius — at least, among her adherents — comes in how she accessorizes those looks. it’s the prada coat that very few can afford with the moschino bag that several can. and for the others, the same principle applies: perhaps an up-an-comer (or a desperate attention-seeker) can only afford vintage and/or mass market ensemble, but it’s the way they mix those things with the (yes, gifted) high end accessories that keep them relevant. sure, we still enjoy seeing our top models contorting into interesting poses in our favorite magazine or look book, but some times it’s seeing how shala monroque wears a boot or kyle anderson sports a pair of jeans that brings those runway aesthetics into an accessible place. as social media continues to demystify the world of the one percent (surprise: they’re not sitting around silencio in floor-length ball gowns and they’re not stalking through knightsbridge in crystal-encrusted face masks), it’s up to many of these peacocks to show the rest of the world how to make fashion a reality.

    Christopher Lee from Saint Petersburg, FL, United States
  12. Max, this was a great article with insights I myself have felt and seen that you articulated so well. This is why my street style blog focuses on men, since I feel they are the ultimate dressers of put-it-on-and-go style. The fashion world is great, but editors outside of tents is not street style, but rather professionals being captured at work functions. Men are wonderful to capture on the streets because I get the sense that they are not so interested in fashion and trends as opposed to just looking their best, which to me is refreshing.


    David Edralin from United States
  13. Thank for writing this Max… Besides Billy C for the NY Times, you forgot Ronnie Andren who does the “Do’s + Dont’s” street style for Glamour magazine, that’s me… I have been shooting exactly what real people have been wearing for 20 years. It seems as if the bloggers have a force that has changed how magazines want to show street style for ratings and advertisers… and I think it’s boring and somewhat jaded… it’s exactly what you have described. I feel it’s creative in one way but also very amateurish…. A few bloggers found out that I not only did the “Do’s” for Glamour but the “Dont’s” as well. They asked me how could I do that… I remind them that the Do’s and Dont’s of Glamour was truly the first magazine to ever do Street Style, 70 plus years ago and still going strong. I feel there has to be a balance in life and fashion is just one of them… the good along with the bad. You have to be yourself, find what makes you, you. I started Street Sophisticator (www.streetsophisticator.com) because you can see people’s sophistication as they walk. I never ask anyone if I can take their image… I think people are really beautiful looking when they have no idea they are being photographed… they have a true sophistication about them…. thanks for writing this article. -RA

    Ronnie Andren from Brooklyn, NY, United States
  14. This could be why the Sartorialist quit photographing for Style.com. His blog is still authentically street style.

    Makgati Molebatsi from South Africa
  15. Recommend @THE_LINE_UP on Instagram. I was completely bored with streetstyle until I came across this one. Terrific portraits of young, urban NewYorkers. Inspiring!

    Jennifer Radway from Toronto, ON, Canada
  16. Well written and much needed discussion.
    It’s sad that streetstyle is so predictable and more of the same attention grabbing circus these days. I wish photographers stayed true to the spirit and highlighted new faces…unknown faces that put their own spin on fashion in real life.

    Rathna Sharad from Bremerton, WA, United States
  17. Thank you for the article and much needed discussion.
    I really wish photographers/media would stop contributing to this circus and showcase new faces…unknown faces experimenting with fashion in real life.

    Rathna Sharad from Bremerton, WA, United States
  18. Thank you for the interesting analysis. Maybe we should change the description of street style. If as you suggest (and I agree) “street style used to represent the frontier of self-expression and do-it-yourself spirit”, then the type of images that are chosen to represent street style are representing ‘street style’ and no longer true style (in de description you gave of true style as “true style, at its best, says something deep and intrinsic about the wearer”).

    Street style should probably be described as a style in it’s own, a style that has actually not much to see with a true style let alone with what we actually see on the street, but it is a constructed style closely related with what we see on the runway and presented in lookbooks.

    Maybe we rather look at photo series featuring on websites such as Exactitudes if we want to see true style than glancing at pictures of street style stars on fashion blogs or in fashion magazines.

    klaartje genbrugge from Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
  19. clearly, fashion industry promo saw the opp, took it and overtook it. such is marketing, such is the ever-present style conundrum where the new and unique is only that for the blink of an eye….presto, soon either everyone is doing it or a few are cashing in, and we have nothing more than a walking talking commercial on an asphalt runway.
    kimann schultz
    fashion arts society, IMA

    kimann schultz from Indianapolis, IN, United States
  20. I was reading up on street style and came across this article because my friend just recently launched a new street style fashion site. She was talking about this very thing on how street style has morphed into a production of sorts and that she created her site to bring back the roots of street style. She’s got photographers all over the US – big and small cities and even one in London (one of my favorites of the bunch!) to photograph real people with style. Her main site is here: http://StreetStyleEdition.com/

    Cindy Yan from Fishers, IN, United States
  21. 100% agreed! it’s turned into a rather dirty business now, yes fashion is superficial but this has gone too far IMO, a lot of fashion students nowadays have got the mindset of boasting their profile and buying fans online to become a hugely ‘followed’ blogger, hoping they’ll be endorsed by luxury brands, getting freebies and attending shows. ok so let the teens and early 20s learn, but it’s very irresponsible for industry insiders to promote such ‘culture’.

    Sindy Liu from London, London, United Kingdom
  22. I wrote an article about street style last year after I went to paris fashion week

    kim misizk from Belgium