Columns on fashion, culture and ideas

Art & Culture / An Intellectual Fashion

Scott Schuman

Every two weeks, contributors from all fields of contemporary creativity and thought answer questions about the status of fashion in culture, and choose the pictures to illustrate their words

Photography by Scott Schuman
Photography by Scott Schuman

The latest subject in Donatien Grau's An Intellectual Fashion column, Scott Schuman is the founder and editor of the iconic fashion blog The Sartorialist which he set up in 2005. He achieved considerable influence with his photographs taken in the streets...

Scott Schuman is the founder and editor of the iconic fashion blog The Sartorialist which he set up in 2005. He achieved considerable influence with his photographs taken in the streets, a selection of which was published as a book by Penguin in 2009. Aside from his work for The Sartorialist, Schuman has contributed to advertising campaigns for brands including Burberry and Gap.

How would you connect fashion to elegance?
Elegance is a certain gracefulness. Garance [Doré, Schuman's partner and fellow blogger] and I were recently talking about the most elegant people we’ve met and she mentioned a couple of names. I said, "You know, it’s interesting, I knew of all those people. And I don’t know if we could call all of them fashionable or stylish". But what they all had in common was that they all had good manners. They were very graceful, very well-mannered, very polite. A lot of these things are what actually most people see as elegance. Elegance really expresses itself through one’s actions.

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
Wasn’t it Chanel who once said "people who don’t know history are bound to repeat it"? I love costume history and fashion history. It’s fascinating, especially for someone like me, that does a blog. It has such an interaction with a wider audience that doesn’t necessarily read fashion magazines. My pictures say something about the style, about fashion. But they’re also just portraits, they’re nice photographs. A lot of people will say "wow it’s crazy, nobody could dress like that outside of New York". But people did dress like that in the 1500s, during the Renaissance. You can see that through fashion history. It gives us context.

Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did it?
Now, more than ever, fashion is becoming a two way conversation. Before, it was mainly expressed through fashion magazine, through photography. Now, with the internet, a fashion photograph that is on my blog, or anyone’s blog, can be commented on by anyone. It creates a two way conversation, on style, on fashion, that is much more open than it has ever been.

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
Maybe not so much fashion as style: it has a political role in the sense that social implications go with the way you are dressed. No political candidate would dress in Rick Owens. That doesn’t say "political power and stability" to most people. They are dressed in the wardrobe that says "political power, political stability". These people are not really expressing who they are through fashion. They’re actually hiding it in the idea of what political power should look like.

"Fashion doesn’t have anything to do with intellectual, unless you’re a designer and you have the intellect to put together different inspirations"

How would you relate the concept of "fashion" to the one of "style"?
I’ve thought about this a lot. Fashion and style are like the wheels of a clock. Fashion runs more quickly. And like in a clock, the smaller wheel makes the larger work. So many people like to say "style is eternal, but fashion is right now". What you have to do is fashion history and see that, even in men’s wear, a navy blazer from 1970 looks totally different from a navy blazer from 2010. Although most people say that fashion is going faster and faster, yet, my book from three years ago, continues to sell very well; to inspire people. Fashion’s cycle may have spinned up, but the way people want to change their look simply hasn’t.

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality ?
To me, the question would be more about "style" than "fashion". Fashion doesn’t have anything to do with intellectual, unless you’re a designer and you have the intellect to put together different inspirations. Someone like Dries van Noten really puts together separate ideas, from different cultures, different concepts. Style relates more directly to  the intellect: everyone uses his or her style to fit in the social group they want to be part of. Nobody dresses different from what they want to be. When guys wear football clothes, they want to look like the regular guy, they don’t want to express the same thing as when they wear ties and jackets. The expectations are different. Their style is different. They use their intellect to find how to fit in.

You take pictures of people on the street. What is the reason behind it ?
It’s two-fold: first, as I love fashion, fashion magazines, runway shows, going on the street was not to replace magazines and runway shows, it was more of a supplement. The book of inspirations comes somewhere between the runway and what is on the street. It is easy for me to find magazines and runway shows that I like, but very difficult to find on the street shots that I find inspiring. So I did it myself. And when I started, people thought that "on the street" meant the craziest looks, people with mohawks, etc. I don’t dress crazy, just slightly better than average. So I decided to shoot people that were much more subtle in their style, just as strong, just as good, but more subtle. And at the same time I was falling in love with photography. My father was a photographer, producer, and he worked in a studio. But I love the spontaneity of shooting in the street, the challenge of using this context. The street furnitures mean something of the time they are from.

The impact of blogs, and the importance of street photography, seems to indicate that fashion is becoming somehow democratic. Do you believe in that ?
The medium now is so inexpensive: it’s so cheap to do a magazine, to take photographs. So it means that more people can produce it, and that people have more choice. They can choose who they want to listen to. I don’t think that the rise of the Internet has hurt Condé Nast, but now, instead of three voices on fashion, it’s like television: there are the big majors, and many other channels to choose from. So people want one international channel, like a Vogue, a Harper’s Bazaar, and something local, that relates to who they are. There’s more of it, and people can select. They want something good.

In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing American Vogue editor-at-large Hamish Bowles.

Newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates