Fashion Week street style: If you aren’t photographed, were you really there?

September 12, 2012

She wore a full-length, mustard-yellow floral skirt, a leather corset, a polka-dot peasant blouse and a necklace of heavy amber beads the size of lemons. If the outfit on the girl posing outside Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week didn’t make it clear enough, her spinning like a whirling dervish to unfurl her skirt did: She was determined to be photographed.

Judging from the scene outside the tents, desperation is in for spring. It doesn’t matter if you get a ticket to a show — a much greater prize is being photographed by one of the hundreds of “street style” photographers who descend upon Lincoln Center and the Meatpacking District with gear ranging from expensive DSLR cameras to iPhones with Instagram. It’s even better if the lens you find yourself staring down is that of a top-flight street-style photographer, such as the New York Times’s Bill Cunningham or the Sartorialist’s Scott Schuman. But any blog will do, and the would-be models loiter on the Lincoln Center plaza, swanning about for each other and, ideally, the cameras.

If you go to Fashion Week and no one takes your picture, were you ever really there?

This is the existential question that hovers over the periphery of Fashion Week, where there are no front-row seats, backstage passes or gift bags of expensive designer goodies. Instead, there’s a lot of hope: That you’ll slip past the standing-room-only line, that you’ll get an invitation to the after-party and that someone, anyone, will take your picture.

Street style has been documented in newspapers and magazines for decades, and on blogs for the most recent one. For some photographers, it has become an entire career; for some subjects, it’s been a path to modeling and stylist opportunities, not to mention a major ego boost. But only recently has it become a competitive sport with Fashion Week as the street-style Super Bowl.

Photographers lie in wait outside the tents, but true celebrity guests always sneak in through a back entrance. They’re guaranteed to be photographed in their front-row seats, and the last thing they need is another camera in their faces. The photographers get the picture of the occasional Somebody — such as fashion blogger Leandra Medine (“The Man Repeller”) or Martha Stewart, who walked inconspicuously through the front entrance for the Zac Posen show — but usually it’s amateur photographers snapping amateur fashionistas.

That’s not the case near Milk Studios in the Meatpacking District, though, where some of the most avant-garde shows take place. There, the uninvited and the amateurs playing dress-up are out of their weight class — it’s where the pros go to see and be seen. After the Derek Lam show, Anna Dello Russo, the editor at large for Vogue Japan, walks down a street in a gray shift dress and a bird-cage-veil fascinator, and the professional street-style photographers descend upon her in a mob. The Sartorialist leads the pack, with the photographers attracting more photographers. Anyone watching would have thought Dello Russo was a movie star being stalked by paparazzi. She obliges, posing politely on the street: “How about here?”

At the top of the street-style hierarchy sits the 83-year-old Cunningham, whose recent documentary has made him somewhat of a Fashion Week celebrity sighting, as well. That’s why when he swoops in on a bicycle minutes later to snap a woman in a white suit with applique flames, she looks pleased with herself — breaking the unofficial street-style rule of looking profoundly bored. When he tires of her in a few minutes and moves on to some motorcyclists on the street, her disappointment is palpable.

Most of the people at Fashion Week fall into one of two style categories: manicured loveliness or carefully cultivated quirkiness. The former come from money — the people wearing the designers they came to see — while the latter are more artful but still adhere to a formula: clashing patterns, hair in any color of the rainbow, attitude.

That cultivated quirkiness is often the opposite of the photography taking place inside the shows, which are a celebration of human flawlessness: Models, all legs, with perfect hair, cheekbones, waists and perfectly symmetrical faces. At Jill Stuart’s show, the models were chosen to be so similar that they are interchangeable: straight brown center-parted hair and vaguely Slavic white faces stepping straight-backed down the runway, eyes focused on nothing.

But outside the Lincoln Center tents, it’s perfect flaws that are admired. There is conformity here, too, but it manifests itself in the way people present themselves as being different. Traditionally pretty girls attract photographers, too, but it’s the men in skirts and high heels — or, better yet, a red cape and a mask made of dyed-green human hair — who get the real attention. It’s the women wearing mismatched shoes or overly matched accessories and makeup: blue pants, blue gloves and blue lipstick. It’s the popularity of Skrillex hair, a half-long, half-shaved look popularized by the eponymous DJ, or the girl with marijuana leaves printed on her shirt, bearing the slogan “Weed be good together.” It’s the man, already standing well over six feet, who is unafraid to wear teeny white shorts and six-inch platforms.

It’s Barry Yoko, who wears a set of Mickey Mouse ears every day. “I work at a plastic surgery clinic, and I asked the doctor if I could implant them, and he said, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Yoko says.

Most of all, it’s the girl in the Frida Kahlo floral bouquet headband who was in the center of a crowd of photographers not only because she is stunningly beautiful but also because she was in an electric wheelchair. Certainly none would admit it, but did they consider it an accessory? Would she have been photographed as much without it?

Making it official

I went to Fashion Week, but it didn’t become official until I, too, was stopped by a street-style photographer.

Walking out of the tents with a co-worker Sunday, a photographer from Getty Images stops me and brusquely instructs me to stand against the wall. I am wearing red cropped pants, a white blouse, and a spearmint blazer — an outfit chosen to blend in and be anonymous, which is not something one would usually say about a spearmint blazer, but so it goes at Fashion Week.

“Hold her water bottle and her magazine,” he instructs my co-worker, who is forced off to the side. “Hold the bag lower,” he says to me. “Turn your feet in profile.”

As an unwitting and rather flustered model, I am terrible. Other street-style subjects have perfected the aloof eyebrow-arch or the look-into-the-distance half-smile, but I make a face that is somewhere between terrified and confused.

He asks me to tell him where everything I’m wearing is from, and my cheeks get as red as my pants. I have a fancy, patent-leather Kate Spade purse — it was a gift — but everything else was bought in a mall, and no single item cost more than $50.

“The jacket?”

“I’m so embarrassed. It’s from Nordstrom.” I omit the fact that it’s from the Juniors section.

“That’s okay. The shirt?”

“I’m so embarrassed . . . . ” And before I have to admit to him that it’s from H&M, he fills in the blank for me.

“If you don’t know, we can just say it’s vintage. The pants?”

Oh God. The worst part. “They’re from the Gap.”

With that, he turned on his heels to find another fashionable subject. And that’s how I lied, by omission, to a fellow journalist. The encounter made me wonder how many other street-style subjects had “vintage” clothing, too.

The next day, an anonymous photographer took my photo as I walked down the steps. Don’t look, don’t smile. By that time, I had figured it out.

Practice makes perfect

The spinning woman stood outside Lincoln Center for more than an hour, basking in the attention of the street-style photographers who surrounded her. Most of the fashion folk were on their way into the tents, invitations in hand, pretending to ignore the flashes, lenses and attention, but she didn’t seem to have anywhere to go or any idea that you’re supposed to act blase when people like your outfit. Someone in the crowd of photographers asked her to twirl again.

“My heels are tall, so it’s not easy,” she said, and executed several flawless spins. Yeah, right. It seems like she’s been practicing.

More from Fashion Week:

Beauty looks from Alexander Wang

Behind the scenes updates from Fashion Week

The scene at New York Fashion Week

Runway photos from New York Fashion Week

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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