PARIS, France — “It was the summer of 1997 and I was 13 years old,” recalls Tommy Ton, now 27, describing the moment when a self-professed comic book nerd from the suburbs of Toronto first became interested in fashion. “My sister asked me to record Fashion Television and all of a sudden Tom Ford comes on and talks about women, and his idea of sex. He was so eloquent in his choice of words. It was love at first sight.”
From that moment, Mr. Ton embarked on what has been described as a something of a fairytale, becoming the world's most influential street style fashion photographer today. But achieving such success is rarely that simple — or easy.
More than just a skilled photographer with a good eye and encyclopedic knowledge of fashion, Ton has proven himself to be a savvy digital operator with a potent mixture of ambition, work ethic and strategic thinking that has enabled him to discover and hone in on his special talent. His humility throughout it all has endeared him not only to the stylish women he has made famous, but also to fellow fashion bloggers and his growing list of paying clients.
Yes, Tommy Ton is building a business, and he’s proud of it.
At first, Mr. Ton says he simply became infatuated with fashion. “I’d bike to the library, tear out ad campaigns, and make collages of Gucci and Versace,” he explains over dinner during Paris Fashion Week. At age 15, he interned with the Toronto designer Wayne Clark and then in the women’s accessories department of Holt Renfrew, Canada’s leading luxury department store.
From the beginning, Ton has been a fervent but charming networker, not afraid to approach and build relationships with the industry’s top players. “I made an effort so Barbara Atkin knew who I was,” he says, referring to the Holt Renfrew’s highly-respected fashion director. This ultimately landed him a gig in the store’s buying office, furthering his understanding of the fashion business, but still not quite sating his fashion appetite.
“I was there in the Summer of 2004 when web magazines first started popping up,” he says. Ton started taking classes in digital photography and met with friends who did graphic design, before deciding to start Jak & Jil, which was initially conceived in 2005 as a lifestyle website focused on the product and people in Toronto.
“Then my guardian angel came along,” says Ton, referring to Lynda Latner, proprietor of vintagecouture.com. “She hired me because she saw my site and thought I could help her.”
In 2007 when Latner offered to send Ton to Europe to attend the shows in London and Paris, he had his first opportunity to experiment with street photography during fashion week, a trend which was just beginning to take off due to the pioneering work of Scott Schuman and Garance Doré.
“My first show in Paris was Balmain. I had no idea what Balmain was at the time, or what it was going to be, but all the girls were in that that show, like Daria, Irina, and Anja, and they played the Cure on the soundtrack. As soon as that show was done, it was raining outside…and I was dancing in the rain. I just felt so uplifted. I could not believe what fashion could do for you,” recalls Ton nostalgically. “To have that moment in Paris, at your very first show…it was magical.”
Using his “Canadian connections,” Ton also managed to get into Chanel, YSL, Dries van Noten and Rick Owens that first season. But in all the excitement, Ton says he didn’t know who or what to shoot. “I just shot what I thought was visually amazing. I didn’t know who Emmanuelle Alt was, or Kate Lanphear or even Anna Dello Russo.”
Almost immediately after this first trip, the Canadian fashion media took note of Ton’s photography, beginning with Flare magazine editor Lisa Tant. “Because of that trip, I got a page in Flare which gave me a validated reason to go back,” he says.
By 2008 Ton was already seeking a way to stand out from the growing hordes of photographers outside the shows who were mostly aping Schuman’s photographic style. “I thought, ‘I’m so tired of taking head-to-toe shots. No one can touch Scott at those photos — he is the king.’ I wanted my photos to stand out. That’s when I stated taking the candid shots.”
Ton’s landscape-style images focused in on the little details that caught his well-trained fashion eye — a towering Louboutin stiletto here, a pop of colour there on his favourite subjects as they walked into the shows. He rarely asked them to pose. Ton was developing a photographic style that that has now become instantly recognisable as his own, capturing the raw energy and excitement of fashion week. Fellow blogger Tavi Gevinson later remarked, “You always know what a Tommy Ton photograph looks like.”
He re-purposed Jak and Jil into a blog, and started posting two or three of his new style of photographs each day. This caught the attention of influential bloggers like Susanna Lau of Style Bubble and Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast, who helped to spread the word.
Two and half months later, Ton received an email from the head of marketing at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, asking him to shoot their Spring/Summer 2009 campaign.
“I said yes, but I didn’t even know what my worth was,” says Ton. “After talking to my business friends in the industry, I threw a figure at Lane Crawford. It was a bit too much, but we negotiated, and I was proud of myself because I was able to get an amount that I was satisfied with and which they were willing to pay.”
With his reputation spreading, Ton’s confidence began to grow. “During the Fall/Winter 2009 season, people started to know who I was. Scott [Schuman] actually knew my work. I was officially blogging and shooting for Lane Crawford at the same time. That was the season I knew what I was doing, and I knew what I wanted to shoot. It was the beginning of something.”
Another important shift came the following season in Milan, when Ton was seated in Dolce & Gabbana’s front row, alongside Doré, Schuman and Bryanboy, an image that was plastered in the fashion media around the world, signalling the arrival of fashion bloggers. “That was a huge moment. It was all due to Anna Dello Russo. She was the one who told Domenico and Stefano: ‘These are the people who are changing things.’”
From then on, the front row tickets came in fast and furious. Everyone wanted Ton to shoot at their shows, knowing his images would be seen by thousands of fashion enthusiasts and influencers around the world. The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and others came calling. “They were emailing to buy photos,” he says.
Ton went from ultimate fashion outsider to insider almost overnight.
But the real turning point came a few weeks earlier when Style.com’s editor-in-chief Dirk Standen asked Ton to step into the formidable shoes of Scott Schuman, whose own photography career had gone stratospheric, in no small part due to the platform given to him by Style.com. Schuman had decided to leave Style.com to focus on other projects, and Ton now had the most high-profile streetstyle photography gig in the business.
“Being associated with Style.com is a huge deal for me. It’s what everyone looks at every day. People go to Style.com like you brush your teeth in the morning. It’s something you just do,” enthuses Ton.
By now, the time had come for Ton to seek professional representation. An introduction to elite agency The Collective Shift—which also represents top fashion photographers Inez and Vinoodh and super-stylist Melanie Ward—instantly felt like the right fit. Ton also signed on Trunk Archive to act as his image licensing agency, removing the burden of negotiating image rights and contracts on his own and dramatically increasing what he could earn from selling his images to the likes of American Vogue, Elle UK, and Vogue Nippon.
“Before, I was underselling myself, getting about $50-100 per image." Today, Ton reports that he can earn from as little as $100 up to $2000. “The the thing I’ve learned is that you have to really consider whether it’s a one page image or a ½ page image or ¼ page image. It’s a really big deal when it’s one image over two pages in Grazia for example, whereas if it’s ⅛ of a page in Vogue, it is much less. I’m lucky to have Trunk Archive to deal with all that now.”
But image licensing only makes up about 30 percent of the revenue he earns. The remaining 70 percent comes from a variety of projects, including his gigs for Style.com, GQ.com, but also for retailers and brands such as Topshop, Selfridges, Sergio Rossi and Saks 5th Avenue.
Ton says he has made an intentional decision not to have advertising on his site. “It’s an association with your brand. I didn’t want my blog to be associated with any type of branding,” he explains.
But would he ever take pay for editorial placement on Jak & Jil itself? “Yes,” he says matter-of-factly. “But that requires a discussion between my agent, my client and me. The thing about the development of the Tommy Ton brand and the Jak & Jil brand is that everything is strategically selected and carefully monitored. We have to see potential growth in it, and understand what’s in it for us.”
When pressed on the criteria he uses for this kind of paid content, so as not to alienate his audience, he pauses to think. “It’s definitely gut instinct. It just has to be of the moment and relevant for the time.” His readers shouldn’t be able to tell the difference, he says, because the images he creates would be the kind he would post anyway. The standards are the same, and the images are just as powerful.
All the same, Tommy Ton also realizes this is his moment and it may not last forever. "I don't even know if I will be able to earn the money I do now in a few years. I don't know if I will be relevant or not. I am just lucky that people want to associate with me and their brand right now."
And what about all that competition from the hundreds of streetstyle bloggers outside the shows? “You always have to stay on top of your game, and the only way to do that now is to have exclusive content,” he asserts. Recently, Ton has been invited to shoot behind-the-scenes at the Proenza Schouler studio and the Victoria’s Secret fashion show.
“I’m not making any money from it, but it gives me access no one else would have. I take a lot of pride in that. I am so, so happy I am invited to do these things," he says, recalling that 13 year old kid watching Tom Ford on TV back in Toronto. "In some ways I still feel like an outsider, even though I am acknowledged by these designers. I am still in awe of what is going on.”
Imran Amed is founder and editor of The Business of Fashion
The Business of Blogging is a new series on the rarely discussed business side of fashion blogging. Previous articles are listed below: