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Fashioning streets

Fashioning Streets

Originally published in Press&Fold issue 0

 

Mistake #1: Don’t wear head-to-toe runway looks.

Mistake #2: Don’t pose for the cameras just to bail.

Mistake #3: Don’t be self-conscious—just be genuine.

Mistake #4: Don’t wear something that doesn’t work with your own style.

Mistake #5: Don’t resort to gimmicks.

Before the start of the New York Fashion Week in September 2017, Phil Oh offered some advice for the readers of Vogue on how to dress to walk on the street[1]. As a seasoned street style photographer, scouting photogenic members of the fashion elite coming in and out of catwalk shows through the lens of his camera, Oh knows what makes a good street style picture. Odd as his advice may seem to those of us not having to attend the twice-yearly circus that travels around some of the capitals of the western world, it is gospel for the fashion folk wishing to be captured for posterity as a record of stellar style. 

As an antidote to total head-to toe looks, tactics designed to capture the flashbulbs of catwalk photographers, as well as the performative nature of fashion shows where models take on roles as actors in projecting designers’ intentions as well as inspirations, and where authenticity is only a concern when it comes to the provenance of garments, bags and shoes, street style photography has increased in importance as the spectacle around fashion shows has grown during the last ten or so years. With roots in straight-up photography pioneered by art director and editor Terry Jones on the pages of i-D magazine in the early 1980’s as a way to challenge the lack of ‘authenticity’ in fashion images, street style photography exploded with the arrival of the internet and was aided by the availability of cheaper digital cameras capable of producing quality that competes with professionals. Fashion, that largely up until this point had trickled down from the elite, started creeping up from the street. Magazines, such as i-D, dedicated to street fashion, youth style and sub-cultures, challenged the dominance of upmarket fashion publications whilst designers, instead of referencing ideas merely shared by the cultural elite, begun to look to the street as a point of departure for their design process with notions of high and low becoming blurred.  

Yet, since Rhodes referenced punks by adding safety pins and a few holes to her garments, fashion has had a rose-tinted take on the concept of ‘street’. Anyone, who has ever come outside into the air, with their eyes open, will recognise that the idea put forward by fashion as manifested in street style photography or indeed designs that either represent or reference street styles, are drastically different to reality. In fashion, the street is a mythical place that represents authenticity, democracy and the space in which fashion, seen first on the catwalks, is validated. Now, in particular, fashion regularly shares its remediated version of the street as reality whilst attempting to construct it by offering new manifestations of dress designated to appear there.  

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The street as an imagined space has already been articulated in academic literature. In her research paper titled ‘The Myth of Street Style’ (2009) fashion scholar Sophie Woodward set out to dispel the simplified histories and theories surrounding this. Based on analysis harnessed from a mass-observation about everyday practices of dress conducted in the first half of the 2000’s amongst some of the young people in the British town of Nottingham, Woodward observed that street style is more nuanced and complex than what the term in academic discourses, media representation and popular culture imagination, has come to represent. Whilst online was already increasing its importance in disseminating styles, with some of the early street style blogs dating back to the time of Nottingham’s mass-observations, over the last ten years, it seems that the digital has had the most profound effect on the way in which fashion conceptualises this space.

In the pictures taken by Phil Oh and the likes, there are multiple contesting dynamics that render them problematic as representations of the street. Instead of depicting drab, slightly miserable people wearing uncoordinated outfits selected from wardrobes with layered, often illogical and highly unfashionable histories, in Vogue’s versions of the street, everyone is always happy (irritatingly so - even when it’s raining which it mostly isn’t in pictures like these), highly stylised, thought-through and coordinated (sometimes also uncoordinated in that very fashionably coordinated way, see: Medine et al.) and the garments look unusually un-old. The logic of dressing, of course, is different. Editors and buyers use dress to demonstrate their fashion relevance, power and taste. During the course of the ‘fashion month’ (that is, in fact, at least five weeks), they share a space (catwalk audience) and a purpose (sitting, watching catwalk shows) – and, in order to avoid fashion faux pas, no self respecting fashion person will appear in the same outfit more then once, whilst the more committed members change twice, perhaps even three times during the course of the day giving street style photographers plenty to shoot.

Wardrobes are mostly borrowed. Influencers, editors and other participants are lent clothes by designers craving for increased exposure. Often this coincides in their shows so that the attention is conveniently on the designer’s clothing, both on and off the catwalk as a way to illustrate how the sometimes fantastical creations can, in fact, be worn on the streets and in reality. Models also make a regular appearance in street style photographs, and, in contrast to their gloomy, otherworldly catwalk characters, seem jolly and next to normal. Their appearance in street style photography pre- and post-shows has even lead to the term ‘models-off-duty’, used to describe a highly desirable style that according to Vogue consists of leather jackets, mixing denim, sneakers, borrowed items from boys, a bit of colour and possibly even clashing prints[2].

We can acknowledge the fact that street style photography is always selective and space specific, and therefore not a ‘true’ representation of the actual streets. Yet, these highly concentrated and somewhat deceiving pictures on sites like Vogue.com enter the fashion lexicon as nuggets of reality to be copied, commodified and consumed. Retailers sell ‘models-off-duty’ looks, designers are inspired by the skewed documentation from the street in their hunt for authenticity and magazines themselves further mythologise the representation they helped to put forward in the first place in a pseudo-anthropological-style. For instance, in a recent article Fashion News Writer Emily Farra uses Vogue’s own street style coverage as a way to research and validate next spring’s ‘double-coat trend’. “In an age of street style mania and selfie culture, your coat isn’t only the first thing people see IRL(in real life); it’s the first thing they notice in a photograph, too—so it’d better be good!...Flipping through our recent street style coverage (we don’t just shoot at the “major” shows, but also in Moscow, Seoul, Tbilisi, and more!), we noticed that the most experimental dressers are already test-driving the trend.”[3] she informs. In an unexpected technological twist, the street that has been reduced to a mere image representing an object which is highlighted specifically, not by referring to the warming, tactile or sculptural qualities of this particular coat style, but by celebrating its ability to seduce viewers in flat 2-dimensional form, thus removing the function of the coat away from the street and, like a boomerang, back into digital realms. It’s only street style if it was photographed, Farra seems to suggest. 

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Much in the way that fashion aims to represent the streets, it often also wants to create it. As authenticity has become the most priced quality desired by both the consumers and the producers, streetwear has come to stand for a distinctive style in high–end fashion design vernacular that combines clothing semiotics of a specific idea of streets (with archetypes such as hoodies, sweatshirts, t-shirts and trainers) with triple-digit price tags.Instead of creatively referencing the streets much like Westwood or Rhodes (or John Galliano with his homeless inspired Dior Couture show presented in 2000), there are now a roster of designers who place the street at the heart of what they are doing, proclaiming themselves as embodiments of this space. Creating what they call ‘elevated streetwear’ based on aesthetics originated by kids on the streets and defined by sportswear and streetwear brands such as Champion, Supreme, Stussy and A Bathing Ape, fashion designers (note the job title used here) like Gosha Rubchinskiy, Kanye West’s art director Virgil Abloh with his label Off-White and Demna Gvasalia of Vetements-fame, who are all according to eulogise written my fashion critics ‘revolutionizing streetwear’, capitalise on the desirability of the look.  

Like the civic unrest that spilled onto the streets of Paris in May 1968, a sense of rebellion is an essential part of the approach adopted by this lot who attempt to challenge the aesthetics and structures of the fashion industry. “If you zoom out and look at fashion historically, first you had couture, then you had Yves Saint Laurent inventing the idea of ready-to-wear, and now we’re at the beginning of what I believe is the “streetwear” era of fashion—which is about doing it yourself, and logos, and irony,and satire. But it can also be chic, and refined, and elevated”[4]  Virgil Abloh recently self-mythologised in an interview for 032c magazine whilst un-ironically appointing himself as one of the leaders of this uprising. Never mind the revolutionary qualities. The very notion of newness in the approaches adapted by these designers is anything but radical.

In fact, like Duchamp’s ready-mades that initially shocked and titillated the art world, Abloh, Rubchinskiy and Gvasalia all use existing ideas (ready-mades) from the streetwear vernacular presented with astronomical art-world price tags, that in turn re-contextulaises their work back to the same luxury level they seek to distance themselves from. With the fear of being discovered as just another fashion brand seeking to capitalise on current trends, the streets, literally and metaphorically, remain a backdrop for patch-worked jeans, hoodies with extended sleeves and t-shirts with a bit of Cyrillic writing for authentication. Instead of opting to present his spring 2018 collection on the bourgeoisie catwalk, Demna Gvasalia photographed his Vetements collection in ordinary locations on the streets of Zurich, worn by ‘normal’ people. In a similar vein, Gosha Rubchinskiy is known for street-casting – referring to the practice of finding models from the street in order to achieve a youthful, diverse and more ‘authentic’ atmosphere for the fashion show - except his version of it is done via the digital streets of Instagram. 

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Streets have always been performative spaces. Writing in the early 1990’s about meeting points such as Camden, cultural theorist Angela McRobbie noted that the streets were a place ‘to see and be seen’[5]. With the arrival of digital technologies, this seeing and being seen, whilst still taking place on the streets, has found a megaphone in which it has been amplified. Not only can we observe selected street styles from across the globe from the comfort of our own homes, but we are also able to digitally share our styles with the global audiences. Much in the way that areas such as Camden are marked by the distinctive stylistic make up rooted in cultural and consumptive histories, online, one can join a global style tribe via hashtags with a promise of likes pouring in if you only wear an Instagram worthy ‘double-coat trend’ and some such things. Of course a version of ‘streetstyle from Abloh, Rubchinskiy or Gvasalia might also do the trick.

Yet, despite the exhaustive efforts by those with stakes on the streets, the fashion industry as a whole is incapable of truly capturing authenticity because of its reactive and responsive nature. In the hands of fashion that is ultimately about business, streets are always reduced to what Ted Polhemus refers to as a ‘fantastised imitation of the real thing’[6] however much you follow Phil Oh and his advice to ‘be genuine’

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Footnotes

[1] Ferra, E (2017) ‘5 Mistakes to Avoid Making at NYFW, According to Vogue’s Street Style Photographer Phil Oh’ in Vogue, published: 8.9.2017https://www.vogue.com/article/street-style-mistakes-to-avoid-at-fashion-week-vogue-photographer-phil-oh

[2] Okwodu, J (2016) ’10 Ways to Master Model Off-Duty Street Style’ in Vogue, published: 4.2.2016 https://www.vogue.com/article/10-model-street-style-rules

[3] Ferra, E (2017) ‘How Real Fashion Fans Are Already Wearing Spring 2018’s Double-Coat Trend’ in Vogue, published: 3.11.2018https://www.vogue.com/article/how-to-layer-coats-street-style-trend

[4] Bettridge, T (2017) ‘”Duchamp is my Lawer” Virgil Abloh’ in 032c, published: 22.9.2017 https://032c.com/virgil-abloh-duchamp

[5] McRobbie, A (1994) Post-modernism and Popular Culture, London: Routledge, p.137

[6] Polhemus, T (1994) Street Style: From Sidewalk to Catwalk, London: Thames & Hudson, p.12