Monday, April 8, 2013


It's popular in Europe and America, but not so much in South Africa...

For decades, the catwalk has been where the world looks to for fashion trends but with the rise of photo blogging a few years ago the streets of the world’s biggest cities have become an integral part of telling the fashion story. The men and women behind the lenses are the storytellers. They are known as street style bloggers. Their subject: no longer just skinny models and big name designers; it’s the ordinary man on the street whether they are dressed in Chanel or cheap finds from city bargain bins.
You may be familiar with names like Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist blog, his girlfriend and sometimes business partner Garance Dore and Tommy Ton of Locally names like Michelle Oberholzer, Malibongwe Tyilo and Trevor Stuurman come to mind as does Ed Suter who last year released a book titled ‘Sharp Sharp’, chronicling his street style adventures through the streets of the country’s biggest cities.
In the Western world- specifically the world’s fashion capital like New York, London, Milan and Paris- where the street style photography culture has become a phenomenon, magazine editors who were previously unknown to the rest of the world have become cyber celebrities often posing to have their pictures taken before they enter the fashion week show venues. This has given rise to a trend known as peacocking, where individuals dress up specifically to get shot by popular street style bloggers. But while some revel in it some are increasingly expressing fatigue. It has become what New York Times fashion editor Suzy Menkes refers to as ‘The Fashion Circus’.
‘It’s empowering in a funny way. But it’s empowering in the same way that reality TV is empowering. It makes monsters; it doesn’t make Gods,’ fashion critic Tim Blanks says of street style blogging. Blanks is the main commentator in a documentary recently shot by Garage Magazine and titled ‘Take My Picture’. It provides rare insight into what happens outside fashion week venues in the world’s fashion capitals. Fashion editors can be seen, at times, posing but more often than not taking cues from the photographers who are screaming ‘Walk this way. Stand right there!’ among other things as they aim for the perfect shot. Others can be seen walking as fast as they can trying to get away from the glare of hundreds of photographers, but how can you when there’s so many of them surrounding you from all angles?
‘Watching the hysteria of all these people,’ Blanks laments, ‘I just (think) someone is gonna get run over, someone will be trampled.’
He adds that there was a time when he found the street style blogging kind of appealing; ‘I thought it was charming. I thought for so many different kinds of people to be so enthusiastic about fashion is good for the industry. This season I thought “oh, enough!”’
In South Africa, despite the fact that almost everyone you meet at fashion week calls themselves a blogger, street style photography is not as much of a phenomenon. Events will come and go but when one googles for street style from the blogs few results come up. Yes, the cameras are there clicking away but one is always left wondering where these pictures are being published. Even when certain blogs do publish pictures one is left thinking; ‘Is this it?’
One editor who will remain anonymous for the purposes of this article once said to me browsing through these blogs often feels like browsing through a retail catalogue. When the famed Sartorialist Scott Schuman payed a visit to the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa last year the excitement over his attendance soon turned to disappointment when the fashion set realised that he wasn’t exactly filling up his blog with posts from the front rows of the African fashion spectacle. When Women’s Wear Daily told him that local fashion lovers were complaining about his apparent lack of interest in them he replied; “I’ve only met a few people here that I’ve maybe wanted to take pictures of. Johannesburg reminds me of a lot of cities, like Moscow, Buenos Aires and in Poland, places that had some kind of political or economic difficulty, or they were a communist country for a long time...A lot of the women here are very beautiful, very perfect in every way, but it lacks a certain amount of charm."
These words set twitter timelines abuzz and left many feeling insulted. How dare he say that when we break our backs trying to put our best feet forward? But could there be some truth to what he was saying? Do South Africans just lack charm when it comes to style? Is this why good blogs that are documenting South African street style are hard to come by?
Local bloggers disagree.
“South Africans definitely do not lack style,” says Michelle Oberholzer when I pose these questions to her. Oberholzer is based in Cape Town and her blog is seen by many as one of the few real street style blogs in the country. There aren’t many, like her, who literally stand for hours on the streets scouting for that special something in ordinary people walking the city streets. “The word charm is but one way to describe style. There is also simple, classic, contrasting, understated, eccentric and many others,” she adds.
“Every city has something unique to offer. I think that in general it is also easier to perceive 'style' when someone is wearing lots of layers and accessories like people do in the northern hemisphere. In a country like ours, where it is hot nine months of the year, layered and accessorised dressing is not always possible. Like everything else in a developing country our sense of fashion and style is developing and growing along with everything else and I find that very exciting.”
“I'm not sure what he was looking for. In my view there is more than enough charm at Fashion Week,” says Malibongwe Tyilo, “ I know for a fact there's a lot of charming and edgy street style that comes out of fashion week and I think a lot of it represents the place we're at as a creative community; there's a lot of friction, a lot of contradictions, one just needs to keep an open mind. I also think sometimes when Euro or American foreigners visit our country they have preconceived notions of what they'll find in ‘Africa’, so they struggle to see us for what we are.”
Although Malibongwe is often categorised alongside the likes of Oberholzer as a street style blogger he doesn’t see himself as being one. “My blog focuses much more on events,” he says. “Yes I do focus on the clothes people are wearing at the events but I wouldn't call it street style as what they are wearing is defined by the event they are attending. Plus I also focus on capturing the vibe of the event.”
As to why he doesn’t conform to the street style categorisation, Tyilo explains; “Actual street style is a bit hard to find. To be fair, we're a fairly conservative nation, so whilst you might find the occasional ‘out there’ kind of person, the streets are generally a lot more about blending in than standing out. I wish there were more people pushing the boundaries.”
He adds that he looks for individuals who take risks. “I like a bit of danger. Something that could have gone completely wrong but got saved by the wearer’s sense of style. Although sometimes I'm just after a beautiful outfit that looks fresh, or worn is worn in a fresh way.”
Elle Magazine’s street style reporter Trevor Stuurman says he also looks out for the risk takers. “Fashion is art and art is entertainment.,” he says. “I always look out for individuals with outfits that have powerful elements of design. For example beautiful balance and clashing contrasts of textures. When an outfit is well put together it all has to tell a narrative and that is what I look out for - beautiful fashion stories on the street.”
On finding these stories, Stuurman admits that it often proves difficult. “It is challenging. South African street style culture is still very young (and) not everyone is open to being stopped for a quick stylish snap.”
He also cites South Africa’s lack of a functional public transportation system as a probable contributor to the difficulties of finding stylish people on the streets everyday. “A large number of stylish people do not walk or use public transport therefore making it tough to spot people on a day to day basis.”
Perhaps this is where Tyilo’s portraits of people at art exhibitions, Friday night jamborees in bars and nightclubs and other social gatherings comes in. Style exists in all kinds of places and it certainly isn’t exclusive to the confines of the fashion industry. Street style and social style photography blogs (if one can call it that) prove this. To borrow from Stuurman; a style democracy is what it’s about.

- This article was originally published in the Sunday Independent on April 7, 2013

1 comment:

Angelique0801 said...

Great article but I definitely agree with Scott Schuman about the lack of charm in our country. Some people wear weird clothes to Fashion Week just to stand our and be noticed but it's not really who they are.

Yes Fashion is an art but much like art it should be something you are passionate about. Nowadays everyone is wearing Vintage because it's become a trend but it's not who they really are.

You have to wear the clothes and not let it wear you and that's where we lack in charm and fenesse. Daring to be different is often clashing with being stylish. You can be dressed in a black bag but to me what matters is how you style it.

Everyone in our country likes to follow trends but no one really has the guts to try something new. We have some bloggers endorsing international designer labels but yet we have awesome local talented designers that doesn't get given the time of day, but once the designer gains some international exposure then everyone wants a piece of the pie.

I have roamed the streets of Cape Town & I've seen many woman dressed impeccably, so to those saying that there's not really people taking risks they are not looking hard enough.