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How street style lost its cred (and a look at five who are still getting it right)

Can anyone become a street-style celeb these days? This was the question that Vice magazine writer Hannah Ewens set out to answer recently when she attended London Fashion Week wearing a series of outfits snagged from thrift stores, flea markets and even garbage heaps. Her goal: to attract the attention of the hundreds of street-style photographers who have, in recent years, become as essential to the fashion week ecosystems as pouting models and Kanye West. On day one, Ewens wrapped her tiny frame in a piece of fuzzy pink and purple fabric, cinched it with a soccer-mom-style fanny pack and yanked a single men’s argyle sock halfway up her left thigh. She completed the look by perching a baby-blue tuque on her head and tying a broken alarm clock around her neck. The ensemble was intentionally ridiculous, but that didn’t stop the flashbulbs from popping. One observer said that he recognized her bag as vintage Vivienne Westwood (it was not), while multiple people simply had to know where she found her amaaaaay-zing statement necklace.

Inherent in Ewens’s cheeky experiment is a sentiment that has been percolating through the fashion community: that street style, which took off as a legitimate antidote to contrived runway shows and super-polished magazine spreads, has jumped the proverbial shark, having morphed, like indie rock and other vestiges of coffee-house culture, from a once-subversive subset into a mainstream, parody-worthy universe in its own right. Attend any hot-ticket runway show and you are sure to witness “the circus,” which is the industry’s preferred term for the traffic jam of attention-hogs, swag-hags and wannabes who loiter outside the main event like moths around a flashbulb. The authenticity gap can also be seen in the back-scratchy relationships between brands and bloggers. Even the term “street style” has started to feel a bit off – contemporary street style is as truly of “the street” as current-day JLo identifies with “the block.”

Stefania Yarhi, a Toronto-based photographer, first began documenting fashion-week street style five years ago in New York. “I think I was probably one of about 15 photographers waiting outside [the runway shows],” she recalls of the scene back then. This past February in Paris, by contrast, she could barely elbow her way into the fray, she notes. “I’d guess there were about 1,000 people – 200 of them photographers – outside of the Chanel show at 8:30 in the morning!” As the crowds have expanded, Yarhi says, the ethos has also changed. “Street style doesn’t exist in the form it used to. It’s no longer a social discussion – it’s a red carpet. It’s about self-promotion and dressing to get your picture taken.”

The street-style phenomenon began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the New York Times photojournalist Bill Cunningham, an outsider who zipped around the Big Apple on his bicycle, began photographing fashion in its most authentic, unfiltered form. While some of his subjects were bona fide style mavens, most were just regular people expressing themselves through their clothes. “I don’t decide anything,” Cunningham says in the 2008 documentary about his career, Bill Cunningham New York. “I let the street speak to me.”

Phase two of the phenomenon started in the mid-aughts, when Scott Schuman began shooting well-dressed men and women and posting the images to his blog, The Sartorialist. A couple of years in, Schuman realized that the finest specimens of street style weren’t the big-name designers or recognizable Hollywood types who had long dominated coverage of fashion weeks, but the unheralded, behind-the-scenes tastemakers – the editors, buyers, assistants, students – who pulled together cutting-edge outfits with apparent ease. The Sartorialist, Tommy Ton’s Jak & Jil and the many copycat blogs that followed them subsequently turned this herd of industry insiders – including Carine Roitfeld, Taylor Tomasi Hill, Caroline Issa and Kate Lanphear – into quasi-celebrities. Soon the sidewalk hosted the hot party everyone wanted to attend.

No one leveraged the new reality quite like Anna Dello Russo, Vogue Japan’s editor-at-large and high priestess of the street-style peacocks. Dello Russo found fame by wearing dramatic, fresh-off-the-runway looks and making outfit changes between shows, providing as many photo ops as possible. Her wardrobe – a haute-couture hybrid of Carmen Miranda, Rainbow Brite and Cruella De Vil – epitomizes the type of look-at-me excess that captivates photographers and draws sneers from more “serious” fashion types. By 2012 H&M asked Dello Russo to create a capsule collection, an honour that had previously been restricted to household names such as Madonna, Victoria Beckham and Karl Lagerfeld.

Since then, street-style stardom has become a dependable career launchpad. “A lot of people use their popularity in that realm as a starting point for other projects,” Stephanie Mark, co-founder of The Coveteur website, explains, citing Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad blog (she recently launched her own shoe line) and Russian It girl Miroslava Duma (her lifestyle website Buro 24/7 is the GOOP of the East and she has almost double Gwyneth Paltrow’s Instagram following). There are now talent agencies devoted to establishing partnerships between the top fashion influencers and major brands. Labels such as Burberry, Coach and Zegna have also hired street-style photographers to give their promotional material that totally non-promotional look.

Cue the inevitable send-ups. The Sarcastialist, for instance, is a popular Twitter feed run by an anonymous Brit; it annotates street-style images with mundane descriptions about going to the shops, factory work and boiled-ham dinners. Over the summer, the online magazine The Bold Italic featured a funny shoot titled Real Street Style, which showcased a series of actual street objects (a fire hydrant, a traffic pylon, a cigarette butt) dressed up in hipster clothing. Meanwhile, a fresh army of photographers is trying to effectively take back the pavement, reverting to documentary-style shooting and to subjects who fall outside what has become the norm: tall, young, ultra-thin. (This latest effort, led by the French-American shutterbug David Luraschi, even has a new name: peep style.)

Recently, though, a different sort of backlash was on display during this fall’s round of fashion weeks, where many former peacocks looked more like pigeons in various shades of grey, baggy jeans, baseball caps and Stan Smith running shoes. (Even Dello Russo wore sneakers, albeit bejewelled ones by Chanel.) The new style is partly a way for fashion editors and other insiders to distinguish themselves from the aforementioned circus folk. Viewing this pared-down aesthetic as a less studied approach to dressing, however, would be a mistake, says Connie Wang, style director of Refinery29, who notes that there’s a certain amount of inner-circle snobbery to it. “It’s just a little bit more nuanced now,” she says. “The people who know about these things know that the plain grey sweater is from The Row and costs $1,000.”

Wang, who helped select the images for Refinery29’s new book Street Stalking, says that the idea of “purity” in the fashion world is a phony one in the first place. “If you’re putting a lot of thought into what you’re wearing, you’re dressing for consumption,” whether by the people at your dinner party, your 700,000 Instagram followers or the fashion-week paparazzi.

As for the whole issue of authenticity, Wang would rather focus on what looks great. “It’s fashion,” she says. “Everyone’s copying something.”

Real sidewalk sirens

In a sea of posers, these five street-style originals are still worth watching – Isabel Slone

Tamu McPherson

Photographer and blogger, All the Pretty Birds

When every fashion plate tends to have a “uniform,” Milan’s Tamu McPherson stands out because she lacks a signature style. One day she’ll wear an Audrey-Hepburn-style cocktail dress and the next it’ll be relaxed jeans. The 37-year-old working mother is one of the few street-style photographers who has become a source of fascination in front of the camera as well as behind it.

Preetma Singh

Market director, Nylon Magazine

New York-based Preetma Singh, who hails from Markham, Ont., is used to breaking the mould. The green-haired editor worked as a corporate lawyer before giving it up to intern at style website Refinery29. Singh, whose unconventional style is a ladylike version of nineties grunge, pairs fuzzy mohair jackets with tea-length skirts and high-end handbags. She also plays drums in the punk band Vomitface.

Sama and Haya Abu Khadra

Students and clothing buyers

These wild-maned Palestinian twins made their fashion-week debut in Paris at the tender age of 14, scouting clothes for their mother’s Saudi-based luxury boutique, The Art of Living. Now 21 and attending the University of Southern California, the Abu Khadras sport understated duffel coats, oatmeal-coloured pullovers and black boots that let their corkscrew curls shine as their most important accessory.

Michelle Harper

Brand consultant and entrepreneur With her theatrical Olivier Theyskens ball gowns and couture fascinators, Michelle Harper’s eccentric style harks back to the glory days of the late Isabella Blow. Married to Jenny Shimizu (a model and ex of Angelina Jolie), the New Yorker rocks swishy feminine dresses, red lips and jet-black hair that evoke Snow White, if the princess came from outer space.

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