Pop Couture - New York Times Magazine
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
Published: December 19, 2008
Sometimes the Web is most satisfying when it confirms a cliché from the world offline.
I’m thinking of the captivating street-style photoblogs, which display snapshots of chic pedestrians in cities around the world. Such blogs exist for Tel Aviv, Stockholm, Moscow, Sydney, Seoul, Berlin, Dublin, London — you name it. Survey them one morning over coffee, and you’ll feel like a boulevardier of the whole world, breezing past one stunning creature after another, free to cruelly assess or dumbly gaze — at supreme leisure and invulnerable to reciprocal scrutiny.
What can be learned from a global anthology of fantastic-looking people? First off, you might find that looking at people on city streets is almost a perfect allegory of Web-browsing. Tellingly, the major Chinese search engine, Baidu, takes its name from an ancient poem about the search for (what the portal’s FAQ calls) “a retreating beauty amid chaotic glamour.” Anyone encountering the bedlam of the Web seeks a resting place, even — at times — a literal or figurative embrace. The suspense of that exploration is mirrored in the story you find on the street-style blogs: the search for a quiet connection with beauty in a metropolis of strangers.
But what specifically do the photoblogs teach about fashion? The novelty of Aladdin pants, the sweetness of dove gray, bits and pieces of style — gestalts, vibes — the same vague revelations you might discover while walking in the Harajuku neighborhood in Tokyo or the French Quarter in New Orleans. Dozens of street-style blogs for Muslim women show inventive ways to wear a hijab and eye makeup. Some stylish people on the blogs look chipper and resourceful (Tokyo); some look pampered (Cape Town). Others appear proud (Stockholm), playful (Austin), radiant (Copenhagen), easygoing (Nairobi), celebratory (Buenos Aires), ferocious (London). The street-style blogs palpably lift the mood: human beings in their natural habitats and chosen adornments seem suddenly ingenious, unpredictable and above all beautiful.
That feeling mounts at the best sites — Face Hunter, Style-Arena, Stockholm Street Style — and peaks with a glance at The Sartorialist, the bellwether American site that turned this kind of cruising-photoblogging into an art form. Fathered by Scott Schuman, a onetime employee of the men’s clothing enterprise Chess King who (though he detoured through a career in high fashion) never lost his eye for the sharp-dressed Everyman, The Sartorialist features not just handsome people but also handsome photographs. The site’s generous, near-gilded portraits are especially pleasing when contrasted with stock rage-filled fashion spreads in glossy magazines. Schuman’s images have no edge; they’re all creamy center.
On an average day at The Sartorialist you might catch two students, she with a pink bow at her neck and he in a shrunken flannel shirt, loitering not far from a humorous-looking bearded man in a military-band jacket, who himself preens not far from a row of sophisticated winter women in dark stockings, heels, furs and vividly colored August-weight dresses.
Indeed, the street-style blogs of the world are so trippingly delightful and spontaneous that, while you forget your cares in your moneyless world tour, you may also forget all societal gravity and natural laws and snob hierarchies — until. Hold up. At Garance Doré, a French blog named after its proprietress, you hit a hard truth, the immovable cliché of style: Paris. The Web came, the European Union, Tokyo style, war, Sarkozy, the crash of global markets. And still everyone dresses better in Paris.
At least, I mean, they look sublime at the house of Garance Doré. Raised by a high-stepping mother who wore Mugler and Alaïa, Doré is a fashion illustrator who in 2006 became “a little frustrated with the commissions I had, and in particular by the lack of contact with the readers” (as her freshly translated bio puts it). She closed the audience gap with a blog — as so many do; at first, it showed sketches and captions and now features photos of people she encounters. You know, just people, regular people, like an ethereal redheaded It Girl outside a Karl Lagerfeld show, or the sultry French model Valentine Fillol Cordier at the Palais Royal.
A friend of mine won’t look at Garance Doré because he says it fills him with longing he can’t bear. I feel nearly the same way, though I don’t stay away; I’m pleasurably overwhelmed. Somehow Garance Doré gives viewers the sense that they are in the urban splendor too, or could be, or should be — strolling or sauntering, rather than linking and clicking. And at this moment in cultural history, when the allure of Europe and Paris and the sumptuous, leisurely life is assumed to have faded, we’re not on guard against it. Garance Doré should come with a caution.
With their scarves and coats in muted colors, steady gazes and rosebud mouths, the figures who pause at Garance Doré seem somehow sainted. Unlike Schuman, Doré publishes photos of faces alone (often set above full-body shots), so her focus is less on silhouette and proportion and more on expression and complexion. While Schuman’s camera is curious, Doré’s is smitten. Her figures glow under her attention. They’re nearly aflame.
As a rule, the street-style blogs don’t take many ads. They’re not advertorial, either. I haven’t seen any that systematically caption their photos with information about brands, labels, prices. And if you think you might try to replicate one of the looks, you’re thrown back on your wits and your own wardrobe: the sites don’t suggest places to shop. A proposed “shopping guide” that was forever “premiering soon” on The Sartorialist seems to be stalled.
On the other hand, in this time of a downturn in traditional media that’s said to be both “cyclical and secular” — meaning that there’s a recession on and that the businesses are fundamentally changing and moving online — the street-style blogs suggest a new way of displaying fashion and, down the road, monetizing fashion reporting. Vogue’s Style File blog at Style.com, which features celebrities and breaking fashion news, rarely draws a single comment. By contrast, a Garance Doré post of an unnamed woman in houndstooth and stripes drew 78 comments, in French and English. Sartorialist posts regularly draw more than a hundred. People return to these sites, and stay a long time. In the fashion frame of mind, some viewers would no doubt click on ads for e-tailers that might sell them clothes, jewelry, accessories and cosmetics.
It’s also worth noting that if it’s the styles of New York and Paris that play the best online, nothing in the taste of the times should be all that confounding to people who know the rules of traditional fashion. Although of course even the great Garance Doré — who seems to me to be the guardian of all style — can get confused. Recently, Doré reported that she came across a stunning young woman with “une allure incroyable” in black eyeliner and a vintage blue puffer coat. Doré speculated that she might be from an exotic land, perhaps where grog is drunk. (At times, the French fashion world seems to be intoxicated by Scandinavian beauty and style.)
Though Doré addressed her in English, the alluring woman was entirely French, called Marianne (“Comme la République Française,” the woman added helpfully). It turned out that she was Doré’s neighbor in Paris. A stylish Parisienne? Quelle surprise.
I'm so happy to see Garance Dore getting the attention her work deserves. She is one of the few blogs I look at every day for inspiration.