Monday, April 25, 2011

The Sartorialist: Scott Schuman's Role in the Democratization of Fashion

By Anne Grant

In the fashion industry, the authoritative norm has long favored the regime and rule of designers and glossy magazine editors. However, over the past decade, the industry has shifted increasingly toward a web-based medium. The fashion blogosphere, wherein anyone with an internet connection has a voice, represents a mounting subculture primed to challenge the traditional modes of fashion media and mediation. Susie Khamis and Alex Munt posit that “influence and reach is no longer tied to top-level titles like Vogue, or earned through years of assistance and editing . . . Rather, (fashion bloggers) make their mark with voices that seem fresh and autonomous” (2-3).

In short, the upsurge in number and influence of fashion bloggers has disrupted the hierarchy as previously seen in the fashion industry and, subsequently, revolutionized fashion media. In an act of self-preservation, the old regime has co-opted these new media strategies in an attempt to uphold its authority.

Scott Schuman’s online photographic project, The Sartorialist, provides an example of the way in which such blogs have broadened the modes by which fashion is captured and conveyed. At the same time, this particular blog indicates a fusion with traditional fashion hierarchies and norms. Launched in September 2005, Schuman started The Sartorialist “simply to share photographs of people on the street that I thought looked great.”

In the six years since his blog’s inception, Schuman has made a niche for himself in the gray area between photojournalism and fashion photography. As a blogger, Schuman has the ability to post images free from the filters of the traditional fashion system (e.g. editors, stylists, publicists, etc.). For example, his image “Not giving up, NYC” (August 2009)—which features a homeless man donning accessories in matching hues of blue—illustrates an image of beauty, style and fashion that are outside the bounds of industry—such a photograph would never appear in the pages of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar.

Not giving up, NYC (August 2009)

Despite his efforts to remain autonomous to the industry, Schuman has been criticized for reinforcing the traditional fashion system. He has received commissions from numerous publications, he has appeared in ads for Gap, he has published a book, and he is regularly cited as a source of inspiration by prominent fashion designers. Consequently, the amateur photographer’s status as an “outsider” has undoubtedly been compromised.

In reality, the majority of Schuman’s posts do not depict ordinary people; he has been photographing fashion insiders since the blog’s launch in 2005. Additionally, his work revolves around the collections, capturing images of the before and after outside tents housing glitzy runway shows. At the end of the day, it is Schuman’s judgment and discerning eye that reign supreme. He takes on the role of photographer, stylist and fashion editor and, thus, condenses the perspective to one that suits his particular tastes and preferences. As a result, Schuman’s subjects become a mere expression of his perception of what fashion should be. In this sense, The Sartorialist is not a manifestation of an alternative fashion press, but, rather, imitates the normative modes of fashion journalism.

Young Girls of Williamsburg Run with the Marathoners (December 2005)

This photograph indicates the autonomy Schuman experiences as a blogger. He is free to play with the ambiguities between photojournalism and fashion photography. This image tilts toward the former rather than the latter.

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