Last week, near London’s South Embankment, Scott Schuman spotted a young woman dressed in a red-and-black check jacket, black tights and socks, denim shorts and lace-up shoes. “She looked great,” he says. “Her hair looked great, there was a physical, healthy persona about her.” He asked if he could photograph her for his blog, The Sartorialist. She said yes. “She almost fell over she was so happy,” he says.
Of course she was. Anyone with a passing interest in fashion knows the 41-year-old New Yorker is the world’s pre-eminent style blogger, so influential that the fashion industry, rebounding from years of status label whoring, now routinely looks to his elegant, engrossing real-life images for inspiration. There’s more than a touch of irony here, in that Schuman couldn’t give a tinker’s damn about showcasing labels or designers. He launched thesartorialist.blogspot.com in 2005 to display photos of people in the street whose style inspired him. The fact they don’t look like they belong in a magazine was the point: “I’d see guys who I thought looked really cool but didn’t reflect what I was seeing in the magazines, particularly old-school Italian and really tailored guys,” he says.
Schuman is a democratic Beau Brummel, digitally capturing young and old, rich and poor, male and female: an elderly dandy in Harlem is accorded the same respect as a Parisian gamine who mixes H&M with vintage. His eye was honed by marketing for high-end designers and then running his own showroom, which he closed in 2001. He’s drawn to the romance of formality, which is why he loves shooting in Milan, a place that’s “just old-school enough.” Yet he remains open: “If you’re looking for something, you’re going to miss something else,” he says.
Basing a blog on his passion has paved the way to a lucrative second career. Dirk Standen, editor-in-chief of Condé Nast’s Style.com, the online home of Vogue and W, hired Schuman in 2006 to cover the scene around European fashion weeks. “Scott elevates street photography to a higher level,” he says. “He doesn’t just snap people, he directs them; he’s really aware of lighting, the way they’re standing, the background. That professionalism sets him apart.” His work also appears regularly in GQ and Esquire. Last year, Time named him “one of the top 100 design influences.” This fall, Penguin UK is publishing 500 images from the blog in a paperback and, fittingly, a hardcover “bespoke” edition.
Tracking the site, which had 2.8 million hits in February, is a daily obsession for industry insiders. Commenters are devotees, offering fevered opinions about the merits of mixing stripes with plaid, the provenance of a particular scarf, and how to identify Italians by the lengths of their ties. It’s a plugged-in crowd. Hours after the photo of the woman in the check jacket, labelled “Buffalo Girl, London,” went up, she was identified as Torontonian Sarah Nichol Prickett.
Schuman, an affable, articulate fellow, is shrewdly aware he’s building his own brand. He shys from the “street style photographer” label with its tinge of adolescent faddishness. “It’s more that I shoot real-life situations but in a very romantic way,” he says, speaking from London where he’s covering its fashion week. “I think that’s why a lot of people in the business are inspired by it.” Reporting on trends holds no interest for him. “This isn’t a shopping site,” he says. “I’m not trying to sell product, I’m trying to take pictures that make people dream and be inspired and maybe look at their wardrobe a different way. That’s why I don’t talk about brands.”
But brands trying to sell product are lining up to talk to him. DKNY Jeans hired him to shoot its spring-summer 2009 campaign. Hans Dorsinville, the creative director at ad agency Laird + Partners, says the client approved the models, but Schuman was given carte blanche for styling and set-up. “We were careful not to interfere with that sense of authenticity,” says Dorsinville, evidently missing the contradiction.
In London, Schuman met with Burberry, which also wants to forge an alliance. “I think they realize that there aren’t a lot of things in any kind of media that still feel real, that still feel genuine and sincere,” says the dapper blogger who’s off for a fitting at London’s legendary tailor Anderson & Sheppard. Don’t expect a photo. Schuman used to shoot himself when the site was smaller: “Now it feels too self-conscious, too much about me. The Sartorialist’s bigger than me now.”