This time last year, Adam Katz Sinding was netting six figures photographing editors and influencers at fashion weeks. Now, he’s talking about delivering groceries to make ends meet.
“Standstill or stagnant would be a great descriptor [of 2020],” Katz Sinding said. “It’s the first time I’ve been in one place for more than four or five days in the last eight years.” In the era before the pandemic, the photographer, who made his name as a street-style shooter in the early 2010s, travelled 300 plus days a year to cover fashion’s rotating schedule of photogenic events. But the industry’s ongoing hiatus from in-person gatherings has also put a freeze on business for its supporting cast of photographers and influencers.
The industry was already struggling pre-pandemic. Hundreds of photographers now attend big shows, compared to as few as 25 when Katz Sinding first started in 2011, saturating the market and driving down rates. Many in the ecosystem who made a name shooting or posing for street-style images, make their money through commercial projects or brand partnerships. But the pandemic has amplified these existing tensions, raising fresh questions about the relevance and durability of the street style market.
Slow Return to a New Normal
No one expects things to return to the old days any time soon. The upcoming season of collections showing this month will be largely virtual. Fashion weeks are likely to remain mostly digital until successful and widespread vaccine distribution has lowered infection rates for good.
Events that have managed to go ahead in the last year have been smaller and strictly socially-distanced, eroding demand and rates for photographers. Some anticipate a long-tail of caution, even after real life events return, with brands and the public remaining wary of infection risk. “The repercussions if one person who went to that show had [Covid-19] and gave it to everybody else [...] that could bankrupt a company with the bad PR,” Katz Sinding said.
Even when shows are allowed once more, there is no guarantee they will serve the same function or attract the same audience as before. Many brands may choose to continue to show digitally or no longer feel compelled to participate in a costly and showy marketing exercise. Without the fashion show circuit, the whole street style ecosystem is at risk of extinction.
Covering fashion week is the core of my business... Now it feels like you’re losing all your connections.
“For me, covering fashion week is the core of my business, [and] it’s also a huge part of my network,” said seasoned street style photographer Søren Jepsen. “Now it feels like you’re losing all your connections slowly.”
The shake out is accelerating an already shifting power dynamic from photographers to influencers and brands, as the notion of street style continues its evolution from spontaneous on-the-ground shots in cities like Tokyo and New York to a well-worn marketing aesthetic.
The format’s rise over the last decade initially helped break down long-established and rigid barriers to entering fashion’s creative class. Anyone with a camera and an online presence could try their hand at shooting fashion and trading with brands. Fashionistas who got regularly snapped could break into the industry’s inner sanctum without pre-existing connections, and a whole generation of brands gained name recognition by partnering with these new faces.
But as the format became more and more commercialised, the pandemic has had the effect of cutting out the remaining element of organic creation.
Increasingly influencers are simply employed by brands to replicate the street style look, concentrating more power in the hands of the labels and their most successful ambassadors. While many photographers have seen work dry up during the pandemic, influencer and designer Jenny Walton said the number of branded social media opportunities she receives has increased over the last year. Walton, who has over 270,000 followers on Instagram, has collaborated with the likes of Prada, Miu Miu and Farfetch.
“If you look at the websites of the e-commerce sites, [you can] see how they still use street style imagery to illustrate their merchandise,” said Tamu McPherson, a content creator and founder of lifestyle website All The Pretty Birds, who first broke into the fashion industry in 2006 as a street style photographer. “I can’t imagine that changing so much because it really works.”
Just Part of the Fashion System
Street style’s success as a marketing agent means the aesthetic is unlikely to disappear, but its impact and influence as a style driver is fading. Once central to fashion coverage in publications like The Cut, Vogue and W Magazine, some editors feel that the genre has been losing its relevance for some time. And without editorial amplification, street style risks becoming little more than branded ads on social media platforms and e-commerce sites, narrowing the opportunities for new design talent to gain recognition.
“The commercialisation to me has actually taken away a lot of [street style’s] appeal,” said Laura Jordan, fashion features editor at Grazia UK, which has scaled back its street style coverage over the last year.
“Street style isn’t dead, but it was tired even before the pandemic,” said Jordan. “It’s been slow to catch up with the need for diverse talent, but it’s also completely commercialised [filled with] people who look like models dressed exclusively in luxury brands. I don’t understand how that’s any different from a catwalk.”