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.
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