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A Decade in Digital: Scott Schuman Hopes His Work Transcends Fashion

The photographer behind "The Sartorialist" weighs in on the current state of street style.
Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist. Photo: Courtesy

Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist. Photo: Courtesy

This year, Fashionista turned 10, and we celebrated by looking back at how we started. Now, we're chatting with the people in the industry who were right alongside us forging the path for fashion on the internet in our series, "A Decade in Digital." Today, Scott Schuman tells us how he went from photographing editors at fashion week to documenting the world.

Scott Schuman knows you might think he's a little bit of a curmudgeon.

"I was just listening to a podcast with Anthony Bourdain, and he was talking about how he got himself in trouble talking a little bit about [other chefs], and that he was kind of the grumpy one; I kind of really related to that," he says with a chuckle.

It's a reputation Schuman earned while street style was hitting a fever pitch in the early 2010s, when not only the people in the photographs but also the people taking them became the fodder for industry scrutiny. People were eager to consume stories about Schuman and his then-girlfriend, fellow fashion photographer Garance Doré, or to snark on his occasionally brutally honest comments — "Yeah, Fashionista was one of them," he points out to me, grinning. (He's right, we were. Nostra culpa!)

These days, Schuman is happy to be back out of the limelight. There's a reason he's known more as "The Sartorialist" than he is just "Scott"; he started the blog to document the cool people he was seeing on the street, not to garner himself fame or attention. But his style of photography was so novel in 2005 that the website took off almost immediately, and Schuman was soon traveling the globe to document the fashion flock. It's hard to remember now that street style stars crowd every front row and party line, but Schuman and his ilk were responsible for capturing a moment of the fashion zeitgeist — one that may now be firmly in the past.

"Nobody knew who [these editors] were; it was because of the way I shot them, and they created that romance," he says. "The only thing that killed it is so many people who were not good and didn't see the romance taking bad pictures of people."

The Sartorialist may have firmly established Schuman as the natural heir to beloved street-style photographer Bill Cunningham's hard-to-fill bike seat, but he isn't resting on his fashionable laurels. He's most excited about an upcoming book of photographs he took while on trips to India; Schuman brings an iPad to his interview and spends several minutes excitedly flicking through the portraits he took there. He has stories for all of the subjects, remembers where they worked or what they were doing or where they were from, and he hopes to convey those stories through the photos.

"That's what I hope people see; the fashion part, to me, is almost like a costume that a costume designer would have in a movie. It helps tell you a little bit about who they are," he says. "To me, it's not the end; I'm just very, very good at that, because my background is that."

Schuman may have mellowed, but thankfully, he hasn't lost his refreshing candor. We asked him about everything from working in those early days of the internet to why he thinks street style is still such a controversial topic.

What first interested you about fashion?

I grew up like a typical Indiana boy; I loved football and baseball, basketball, all that stuff. Somehow, I picked up a GQ one time — I must have been in sixth grade or seventh grade — and I just became more interested in that than sports. I think I had a better chance at being in it, and that world seemed so mysterious.

I would look at the guys in some of those early ads — Armani and Perry Ellis and the brands that were hot at that time — and I'd think, I recognize that that's a suit, but this guy's wearing it like he's going to the gym; he looks so comfortable in it. My dad never looks that comfortable in a suit. Where is this place? I don't know any women that look like that. It was so ... I want to say almost other-worldly, because it was so totally different than suburban Indiana at that time.

Angela Ahrendts, who lived down the street from us, she ended up running Burberry and now she's at Apple. I think there's something about being in the Midwest and the lack of romance that makes that world seem very interesting. 

What made you want to start shooting street style?

I knew I had a good point of view in fashion. I had been in fashion for a while; my showroom was all women's, I knew menswear pretty well, and I was happy doing that until 9/11 happened. Business shut down, stores weren't paying their bills, no brands were opening. A little before then, in '99, I had my older daughter, and I had never picked up a camera until then; I knew a lot about the history of photography but I never found anything I wanted to shoot until I had [my daughters].

I was doing that for fun, and I had started going out, taking a couple of classes and shooting in the South Street Fish Market, and shooting around the city a little bit when I had my time off from raising them. I was a stay-at-home dad at that time. 

Blogs were free at that time, and if I shot what I liked about fashion, it wouldn't cost me anything, and if it works, it works. I thought of that name, The Sartorialist, and I thought it was abstract enough and mysterious enough; it didn't have my name on it, so if it went horribly, nobody would make fun of me.

I think I had a very different eye than Bill Cunningham — not better or worse, just different. Bill didn't shoot men that much. So I shot men — not like the fashion model boys, but these Italian fabric reps that I would see here in New York, and guys that I thought had style, and then I used my 15 years of experience in women's and shot women the way I knew cool girls like women's style. 

It just took off. I started in September 2005, and by April, I was getting a call from and GQ and Esquire. They were all apparently following it and liked the point of view, and there was nothing else in that space.

What do think you were doing that was so appealing to and GQ?

I think it was just literally a different eye than Bill Cunningham. I was shooting more downtown, Bill was shooting uptown; there's a lot more people in dress suits and things like that uptown while I was shooting more cool kids and guys and girls. Bill liked fashion, and he liked the really dramatic. It was that typical thing of what street style was; Amy Arbus did it a little bit and some other people did it a little bit, but they always seemed to have this idea of "Oh, I'm gonna show them what the people in Iowa aren't seeing. I'm gonna really shock them with this stuff." Where mine was more, "You can wear this in Iowa, this guy just looks great." That's what really stuck out: It's just good fashion worn by different people of all different ages. 

What were those early days of shooting outside fashion week like for you?

I used it to my advantage that there wasn't all these other people; Tommy [Ton] wasn't there and Bill wasn't there, and all these other people. When I had the showroom, almost everybody that was in my showroom was showing at fashion week, so I'd been to shows for a long time, but more backstage helping them put those shows together.

I knew what it was like; I knew what that environment was like, and I knew the photographers were on this side and the editors were this side and they never mixed. I looked like an editor, but shot like a photographer and wasn't shooting the runway but was shooting the people outside, so really quickly — especially in menswear, because it's such a small group of people — people started saying, "Who's that guy? Why is he taking these pictures, he looks like an editor?" Conversations came up very naturally; I talked like an editor. Then they started seeing these pictures on, and they'd say, "Oh yeah, that's that guy." That made it take off pretty quick.

Then it was me being aggressive, saying, "I can do women's." It was guys wanting me to shoot men's, but I kept having to point out to and those guys, you know, my background is women, let me do women's. Then that September I went back for for women's [fashion week].

When did you know The Sartorialist was really taking off?

Every month, the numbers went up. I didn't really know the specifics on, but they seemed very happy, and there was a woman there, Candy Pratts Price, who's very tough; she was very tricky. At one point after the end of the first season or so, she said, "People were really happy seeing themselves on the site." She was very nice, and I was really surprised by that.

But more than that — having had my own business, knowing how hard it is to get people to be interested or accept something — I was getting these emails from literally all around the world saying how much those photographs meant to them. There was a point where I had to sit down and talk with my dad, because he was like, "So, what do you do? What is this thing that's taking up all your time now?" And all I had to do — because he was in sales and marketing, he was a writer — was show him these emails, and he went, "Alright, yup, you're right."

I wasn't a kid; I had run my own business. I knew I would figure out how to make it work when money started coming, or offers started coming, but what I had to focus on was just making good content.

When did you start getting approached to do professional campaigns or editorials?

Quickly. I don't remember the exact dates, but in late 2006, British Elle let me do my first editorial — which freaked me out, because I never dreamed about being a fashion photographer, and I really struggled with that for a while in the beginning. So that came pretty quick, but then right after that, I shot a DKNY ad campaign. I remember showing up to the set that day, and I had never assisted anyone, I had only done one editorial. I show up to the set to do the DKNY ad campaign and I asked the guy, "Well who else has got their photography shoot here?" — because there was a whole street full of trucks and vans and stuff — and he goes, "That's all for you."

I had to really muster a lot of strength after shooting the first couple of things; there were too many people around, hair and make-up and all this detail. I said, "Once the hair and make-up is done, I've got to take the models and walk around the building. I can't have you guys all around because it's freaking me out." And they were very accommodating. It worked and I did two seasons, and they were very happy. 

But all that stuff just flooded right out of the gate and did not stop for like, eight years. It was really tough; you have to constantly be updating the blog because that's your support, you have to try out these new opportunities, travel. I mean, it was great, but I think back there now and I think, how did I get all that done?

I just worked a lot, I took advantage of everything I could. Then I had Italian Vogue and Paris Vogue come to me, and I shot a couple things for them. But I didn't really enjoy it, because I wasn't getting the feedback, I wasn't getting to share it right away.

Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist. Photo: Courtesy

Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist. Photo: Courtesy

After a while, street style photographers became figures in the fashion industry who people wanted to talk about. What was it like to have the spotlight on yourself?

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That sucked. My site was not about me, my site was about shooting other people. It was a really difficult time because I didn't want that. I'm sure you're talking about Garance [Doré]; we didn't support that. We took advantage of the situations we were given, we never played that kind of "celebrity" thing. Everyone was very nice; I mean, there were uncomfortable times when people wrote about us, which was either true or maybe not always true or spun in a way to get clicks and things like that.

The whole idea was just to go out and take pictures — and to be honest, I think that's one of the reasons that the site continues to be very strong, because it's not about me. I think a lot of times, when they're personality-driven, no matter how much you love that personality, you get tired of it after a while; you've heard their point of view. 

How did your work evolve as more people became interested in street style?

It was really tricky but I still get along great with Tommy and Phil [Oh] and Susie [Lau]; I think we all have a very professional relationship. It was more tight in the beginning, because everyone was trying to figure out how we were gonna keep this going.

It's a very nice generation 1.0 and there's a lot of respect there, giving each other rides or helping each other out whenever we can. I think that first generation respected each other because we all felt like we were there for no other reason than just the fact that we really loved fashion. 

But yeah, the rest of it was tricky. I had to adjust the way I was shooting. When I was first there, I had time; everyone was hanging out before the shows, so I could take someone, put them where I wanted, get the light I wanted, shoot. When more people were asking for their time, I either had to say, "This is not fair, why are all these people showing up?" or adjust the way I was shooting. It was much easier to adjust the way I shot. The good part was that the more people came around, the less self-conscious I felt; when there were a lot more people shooting, it made it easier for me to kind of quietly go around. That part I welcomed a little bit, because I don't really like feeling like people are looking at me.

What did it mean to win the CFDA Award with Garance in 2012?

That was great, and a total, total shock. It was really magical, and a super great accomplishment that they recognized both of us. I think we were the first digital people [to be honored by the CFDA] and it really said something about them recognizing, "We can't fight this anymore. We have to accept that group and figure out how to work with them."

A lot of people try and make a major moment out of that Dolce & Gabbana putting us in the front row, but we had already been in the front row and it was such an obvious PR ploy that I don't think of that as being one of the first moments. But the CFDA was a big thing.

How has social media changed how you approach your job?

The phone has gotten much better, so I can shoot and share more quickly. It also allows you also to post more or less often. With the blog, you could see from the numbers, the traffic was bigger on Monday from 9:00 in the morning because people would come check out stuff and then it went down. You could see the flow, so you knew where to put your best content. Instagram, it's so international that it's hard to tell — and now you can even tell by time because they place it [by algorithm]. That actually has made my life easier. 

I also challenge myself to shoot more than just street style, so I do a lot more interiors, I talk up the different things that I'm interested in, travel stuff. 

It's also learning how to be a good communicator, to share something while you're still able to keep the really, really good content for what you want it for — this book. But I think that's the biggest change with Instagram, is it challenged me to expand what I shoot and become a more 'in the moment' storyteller.

From your perspective, how has street style changed since you started shooting?

One point that a lot of people forget is, influencers, they took the spot of a lot of the stylists. People that aren't going to the show now are some of the most fashionable people — that's the stylists. But they were going to the shows really dressed well because they were trying to get jobs from the magazines. That was like their living portfolio, because they wanted the people in the magazines to say, "Who is that? She's got great style." 

I think how it's changed is that more people came and were getting dressed up, and I was really never that interested in them because the style didn't seem that sincere. I remember that famous article that Suzy Menkes wrote before — "we were just a bunch of crows dressed in black going to the shows and it was just us." Well, it kind of feels like that again. I think it's so ridiculous that people who supposedly love fashion... I had a stylist, a very, very big-time stylist one time and I was being shot for something said, "Well, you know, really the most fashionable people just wear a navy cashmere T-shirt and khakis." And this was a big, big-time stylist and I wanted to say, "Really?" But I think that a lot of people, they're too cool.

We don't have enough people to look at and feel inspired. When I started, there was this idea that fashion was this little bubble, and everyone was on the outside. I don't think there is any romance about being a fashion editor anymore; they know it's a tough job. They know so much about it now that we need some of that [fantasy]. I think that's what people aren't seeing; they're feeling the insincerity of it. They're feeling the weight of these editors calling up their friends at the brands, their PR friends, "Oh can you give me this outfit, can you give me this, give me that?"

It doesn't really affect me, because I still shoot the way I want to shoot in fashion week since I shoot basically every day, but you can feel the buzz is not like what it was at the very height. But by the same token, I don't think people will ever be tired of the street style. People love it because they love seeing different kinds of people. Magazines are one thing, but street style, if it's done well, is a whole other thing. 

For me it's always more abstract, it's not about the person. It took me probably three seasons to learn Anna Dello Russo's name.... Look at the color combinations, look at the pattern mixing, look at the proportions. And if you're looking at that — what I look at — then street style is always fun and cool.

Why do you think street style is still such a controversial topic?

I'm going to be honest with you, I think there's a lot of jealousy. There's some really good people who've been in the business for a long time who felt like they were doing it the right way, that they were climbing the ladder the right way, and all of a sudden these people were sitting in front of them. And in a lot of ways I see it. 

The fact that the brands just grabbed all of these girls and guys and put their clothes on and put them in the front row, they're kind of the new celebrities. I think a lot of people who feel that they deserve to be there are kind of jealous and don't really feel they deserve to be there — and a lot of them don't. It's not their fault! They're young girls and guys; it's such a tricky thing. I can see why they do it — why not do it? If you're cute and you can get all this stuff, why not do it? And these are the same people that the magazines are full of; the magazines are still paying photographers to go take their pictures and put them in the magazine. So I think there's a jealousy but also an acceptance that these are people we need to cover. 

But by the same token, [the digital world] was so open in the beginning; I don't know why these people in the magazine world didn't bite the bullet and say, "I'm gonna take a chance and I'm going to jump from magazines to this world with my good point of view, with my ability to write," and they'd win. But I can't think of any of them. Right? So I think it's jealousy with a little bit of like, "Uh, shit, I should have done that." 

Why do you still update the website?

Why not? It's not hard to do, I've got the content. Because it's so international, there are countries where, they're not so on their phones the way we are. They're still looking at the internet. It's easy to do and I'm proud of it. There's a great archive there. 

But you see it even on Instagram, comments are down everywhere. I think people were so happy to have a voice, and now they're feeling the exhaustion of liking and commenting on stuff. I mean, they can't even write things anymore — it's just emojis. But I'm really proud of the blog that we built, it doesn't cost us anything to keep updating and I love shooting.

The thing I think about my work all the time is, how do I keep doing this for the next 30 years? I want to have a catalog of images, that I can look back at 40 years of images. I've done 10ish years. But I want to keep going till I'm 88. It's just what I do.

What does The Sartorialist mean to you?

It gave me a chance to be an artist and a photographer. I was just riding my bike over here and I thought, I can't believe this is my job. I get to ride my bike around to shoots, or go around the world. What it means to me is more than just fashion week. 

One of the best things that's happened lately is I've started to become pretty good friends with Steve McCurry, the famous National Geographic photographer who shot the Afghan girl. When I started teaching myself photography, I looked at his books and his photographs, and thought, "This guy's got the best job ever." And I figured out how to make my job like that. I just found out I'm going to be part of an exhibit the Getty Museum is having — I think in 2018, I don't know the exact dates — on the history of fashion photography. 

What I think is going to be special about [the book on India] is that you see a lot of what people think typical India is, but you're also gonna see... young girls and guys who would be just as cool in Paris or Milan, but they live in Delhi or Mumbai or Chennai or Kolkata. To me, it's just the perfect evolution of my work. 

What is your ultimate goal for The Sartorialist?

I would love to have a catalog of images shot all over the world, that is obviously from my eye. One of the things I got from Bruce Weber, he has a great way of shooting top models with the same level of respect, dignity and passion that he does his neighbor in Montana that's a farmer. Hopefully, it's a really strong portrait of somebody that makes you more interested in them. If I can do that for the next 30 years, that's what will make me more proud than anything else. I'd like to make a little bit of money so I can live nice and keep doing that. All the rest of it doesn't really matter. All the things that I do now in terms of jobs and things like that, are used to fund that. 

I always thought I'd like to have a huge book full of images, but I keep thinking 30 years from now, there might not be any books; I might have to adjust what that thing is going to be. I hope some people find my photographs in the future and even though it's shot 100 years ago, they think, "I still feel that person. I feel what it must be like to be that person. What was it like to live in that time, in that place?" I hope that's what people think more than just the fashion. I hope it makes them curious about the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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