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, Tommy Ton tells us how he went from working with the Holt Renfrew buying team to becoming one of the world's biggest street style photographers.
Tommy Ton is surprisingly soft-spoken. This, after all, is the man who basically created a genre of street style peacocks, headed up by the likes of Anna Dello Russo and Giovanna Battaglia — surely someone drawn to that kind of drama must enjoy a bit of the spotlight himself?
It turns out that, as with many street style photographers, that is not the case. In fact, Ton partially got into street style as a way to be more social while working with the buying team at Canada's Holt Renfrew.
"I'd been looking at these Japanese street style magazines, and I thought it'd be really interesting to try to do it in Toronto, because I'd always see stylish people at parties or on the street," he says. "It was just a great way for me to socialize and network with people, because I was really shy, and to find a common thread where we could talk about clothes and why they would put their clothes together in a certain way."
From Toronto, the fashion superfan would go on to photograph show-goers across the globe and build a name for himself along the way, nabbing the coveted job as Style.com's street style photographer and getting paid to do editorial and ad photo shoots. When Style.com website folded into what would become Vogue Runway, Ton embarked on his own again.
He tells us why he didn't follow the Style.com team to Vogue pastures, how he's seen street style change and what he envisions himself doing next — and why it might not necessarily involve fashion.
When were you first interested in fashion?
I was 13 at the time. I was kind of a comic book nerd, so I didn't really have much of an interest in fashion, but my sister, she liked fashion a lot. She plastered a lot of ads and runway images on her walls. She went away for a summer and she had asked me while she was away if I could record two fashion programs called "Fashion Television" and "Fashion File"; "Fashion File" was hosted by Tim Blanks and "Fashion Television" was Jeanne Beker.
I just was like, "Okay, sure, whatever. I'll do it for you." I was taping an episode of "Fashion Television," and normally I wouldn't have sat through and watched it, but I just did, and the episode that I was watching was about Tom Ford at the time when he was designing for Gucci, and it was Spring 1997. I was immediately seduced, because at the time it was all about that heroin chic look — the way that the models looked with their very raccoon, smoky eyes and the music, and the way they moved on the runway — and also the way he spoke about fashion.
I was seduced by him, because he spoke so passionately about fashion, and so I just knew at that moment, "Oh, this is a world that I want to be a part of." From that moment, I would ride my bike to the library — and this is really bad, but I was ripping out images from their magazines and then taking them home and making scrap books, and plastering these images onto my wall. I started sketching and I just thought, "Oh, I really love fashion and fashion design, and the way that these models look."
Why did you start shooting street style?
Before I even got there, I had worked in different aspects of the industry. When I was in high school, I interned for a designer; when I finished high school, I did that still, and then I worked in retail at this place called Holt Renfrew in Canada; I was interning at the buying office. I was curious about what I wanted to do in the industry, but I wasn't sure, so I was doing many things.
After a year, I got kind of bored doing it in Toronto, because at the time Toronto wasn't very exciting from a fashion standpoint. You could only photograph so many people wearing a ballgown to a gala. So in 2007, I decided to go to London and Paris thanks to my boss at the time, Lynda Latner, who ran this website called VintageCouture.com. I took this job because it gave me the opportunity to do this website that I created, which was called Jak & Jil at the time. She was like, "Oh, if you want to go to London and Paris, I'll let you go as a job bonus. No problem. You can go."
This was the time when Scott [Schuman] was becoming a little bit more popular with his work for Style.com. In London at the time, there was that whole new rave moment happening with Agyness Deyn becoming really popular, and House of Holland, and I thought that'd be really fun to just to try to capture that. I thought, someone loving clothes as much as I did, it would be a different perspective photographing people based on knowing what they wore and that kind of stuff.
February in 2007: That's when the whole spark in my mind started, thinking, "Oh, street style's going to be it. This is how I'm going to break into the industry," but it took several seasons to really find my footing in terms of how I wanted to approach things.
Why did you start Jak & Jil?
I started Jak & Jil because I wanted to photograph people in the street in Toronto, so I wanted to have some kind of a lifestyle website where I could feature not only just market pages that I created, but also photos of people and what they were wearing. I thought that was a little bit more relevant than runway imagery or what models were wearing in the pages of Vogue.
But the Jak & Jil that everyone came to know of, which was more of a blog, that took me four seasons, which is basically two years, to figure out how I wanted to showcase these photos I was taking into London and Paris. I thought a blog platform was a lot easier; I thought it'd be funnier to take more candid photos of people walking or talking on their phone — just little moments — and then I'd write some captions. Because of that, that's when there was a better reception to it. People started noticing much more quickly, and I noticed that there were people in the industry that were noticing.
Nylon magazine did a little feature on me; this was in September 2008, when I launched the blog portion of Jak & Jil. Then within a month and a half to two months I got this email from Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, and they asked me to shoot their Spring/Summer 2009 campaign. This was literally the first time anyone had reached out about me doing anything really professional, so I was a bit overwhelmed. I thought, "This must be a joke, because I'm just only used to shooting street style on the street. How could I ever shoot a campaign for a retailer?"
But they just said, "We want you to do exactly what you've been doing," so I thought to myself, "Wow, I actually figured it out; I've done something right, and things will come into place." That was just the start of something.
When did you start to feel like your work was taking off?
I was contributing to some international magazines, like Elle Girl Korea, or Canadian publications like Fashion magazine or Flare magazine, but it wasn't until I got that message about the Lane Crawford campaign that I thought, 'Okay. Things are really looking up. The last photographer that had shot that campaign was Inez and Vinoodh, and now I'm shooting it.' From there, slowly, things followed. I'd be getting requests for licensing and I thought, 'Okay, so what I'm doing is very validating. We'll see where it goes.'
It wasn't until a year after that when I got a call to go into New York magazine to shoot for The Cut, and that was pretty amazing to get that request — but then I agreed to do it for them, and within the next day I get another message from Style.com, saying, "Oh, we'd like you to come and meet Nicole Phelps and Dirk Standen at Style.com. Would you be interested?"
I just thought, "Oh, my God. What's going to happen now?" I went and I met with Nicole and Dirk, and they told me that Scott Schuman had stepped down from shooting street style for them and they asked, "Would you like to possibly shoot for us and take his place, and do what it is that you've been doing?" I was a bit in shock, because I'd just said yes to The Cut, but I said to myself, "How could I possibly say no to Style.com?" It was a site that everyone looked at, and obviously, to me, since they launched in 2000 it was like a fashion bible.
I had to go back to NY Mag and tell them, "I'm sorry. I'm going to be working with another publication." They were a bit curious to see who I said yes to, and I was like, "I can't tell you who it was." Then, obviously, when the news broke out, they were like, "Okay, we understand why."
So September in 2009 is when things really started to take off, because I never was really invited to shows or anything. At the time that I got the job at Style.com, that's when the brands and the PR agencies started realizing they needed to embrace more digital media so I was being invited to shows; that season is when Dolce & Gabbana had reached out to myself, Scott and Garance [Doré] to come sit at their show. I never had been invited to a big show like that, but then also to be placed in the front row, that was quite overwhelming.
What were those early days of shooting street style like?
There was probably a minimum of 10 to 20 of us, but really scattered, so it never felt like what it is now where you arrive and it's quite a thing. It's a red carpet situation, but back then, you'd notice Bill Cunningham, you would see Scott, maybe one or two other photographers.
Then obviously there was quite a group of Japanese photographers because they had been doing it for so, so long; they'd been doing it for 20 plus years, and they were very dignified and very polite about doing it. Editors or stylists would have no problem stopping and having their photo taken. It was quite a thing, and for me it felt like I could always talk to someone and take their picture and ask them what they're wearing, or I would introduce myself. You could have a dialogue with someone. But then, obviously, me being very shy, I decided it's just much more interesting to capture someone in motion.
As the seasons go on, that's when people started realizing street style is a way to get into fashion, or it's another way of making money, so then they would just keep coming, and coming, and coming. Then, obviously, it grew into what it is now today, where it's quite influential in terms of not what people are wearing, but in terms of of how fashion is marketed.
How were you balancing doing editorial and ad work with the fashion calendar?
The great thing was when I was doing the street style thing I would be focused on that during the Fashion Week, so having Style.com as a platform and being able to showcase my work, I was very focused on that. I wasn't doing anything else during Fashion Weeks, but then that was for me, my version of doing editorials, because I was doing that, then in between the seasons, I would get requests to do editorials.
I was working at Harper's Bazaar, and then obviously I had commercial clients that were wanting to shoot street style based imagery for their brands, whether it was for Saks or Nordstrom or... I'm trying to remember another one. But, it was just everyone started realizing that street style was just more accessible and more alluring to the every day person as opposed to doing a more editorialized look.
How has social media changed how you approach your job?
I always like to say that I'm a product of social media, and without social media, I would not have the job that I have today. Whenever you take a picture or whenever you consider putting together a slide show, you think of it from the curatorial standpoint and how it's going to look on Instagram or whether or not it's going to get this many likes.
It's more calculated, which is kind of frustrating. Before, it was just so easy when I had a daily slide show doing fashion, but now there's so many things to factor and whether or not it's showcasing a bag properly, or you see the full look, or you think it's going to attract enough likes or something.
So, it's different than what it used to be. It's less organic now. Although, I still try to have the same approach about photographing things, because I'm putting together my book, and these images are more about being featured in the book than always being on my social media. I miss being a photographer that has more of an organic approach and trying to document what people are wearing now and how this is going to illustrate the landscape of what's on trend right now.
You didn't transition to Vogue with the Style.com team; why go back on your own?
I was actually really considering it. It was coming to negotiations that I was to come over to Vogue.com, but then it just didn't feel right knowing that the team moving on wasn't going to be the same; Dirk was not going to be there, and Tim Blanks was not going to move on. Also, I had spent so much time devoted to Style.com, because it would take a good four to five months out of my year.
Then I considered my friend, Phil Oh, who was also shooting for Vogue.com. I don't think it would have been fair if the two of us were shooting street style at the same time for Vogue.com.
From a personal and strategic move, I felt like, for me knowing what was ahead, it just made more sense to work for myself. I thought I would have had a lot more free time working for myself, but then things just started getting a lot busier, because with social media everybody started wanting more content, right?
As your career progressed, you became more well-known yourself. Did that ever impact your job?
No, not really. As nice as it is to be recognized, and when people tell you how much they love your work and that they want to be photographed, you just focus more on doing the job and not being affected by it. Up until this year, I still was living most of the time in Canada and Toronto; I didn't really want to be so deep in the industry where I was living in New York and living and breathing this lifestyle.
I always treated it as a job and never thought of it as something more than that. I was only a photographer; I didn't really think of myself as anything bigger than that. It's nice that people recognize you for what you do, but it doesn't go anything more than that.
How has street style changed since you started?
There are still people that are very visible and still around. Those are the people that are still doing their jobs and they're not there to be photographed, but you still see them, like Emmanuelle Alt and Anna Dello Russo, or even Anna Wintour. But I think for me, from someone who's been documenting, I think it's interesting to see how they've evolved.
I've also noticed there were a lot of women that were some of my favorites, but then they've decided either they didn't want to work in fashion, or they don't want to go to fashion shows, because the idea of a fashion show is no longer really just going to see a designer's work. It's about being seen and photographed and how this is going to play out on social media. It's more calculated, and I feel like it's not as fun anymore for a lot of women that go to fashion shows, because there's just so much thought put into it, unless you're fully secure with yourself and you know you're there to do a job.
But just the fact that designers now are reaching out to people to dress them, to come to the shows, and to promote product, or someone just may be not going to a show and they just walk by and they just want to be photographed — it's kind of crazy. It's not as organic as it used to be. It's not just going to a fashion show; it's basically a red carpet situation, or a digital red carpet situation.
Has that changed the type of work you envision yourself doing in the future?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm not the only one that moans and complains that we're so tired of street style, but at the same time, you can never bite the hand that feeds you. I still love doing it to a certain extent, because it's really exciting to see how people wear clothes that I think is stunning or thrilling, and seeing someone for the first time that you're just so intrigued by.
I still love that aspect of being able to travel, meet people and see new people, but at the same time, for someone like me who started off as a fashion enthusiast, there are obviously different things that I've wanted to do, whether it's consulting or even maybe working in interiors. You can only focus so much on what's new on the runway for so many years, right? I notice that it is growing within the industry where people are getting a little bit tired of fashion because it's not as challenging and thrilling as it used to be.
What is your ultimate goal for yourself?
I think the ultimate goal for me is just to continue. I still think I'm very privileged and lucky that I'm able to work in the industry, because I came in from an outsider perspective. Obviously, I worked hard to some extent, but I didn't take a traditional route where I interned at a magazine and then moved my way up. I was lucky that social media and blogging brought me in, so I was easily embraced. I would love to be able to not just be shooting street style; I am lucky that I get to shoot, whether it's a campaign or an editorial, but sometimes I don't want to be taking pictures all the time.
I've been recently working in consulting, which is really nice. Then, I don't know, it's one of those things; fashion can only be so much of your life. It can't consume you. I feel like when we were younger, fashion was everything, and I think once you reach a certain age you realize fashion isn't everything, and you can only own so many clothes.
I'm in an interesting point in my life right now where I want to reevaluate how much of this is going to take up my year, and then the rest of the year what else do I want to do. I'm one of those people who unfortunately has to travel all the time for the fashion weeks, and I do menswear and womenswear, so it takes up a great chunk of the year. It does take a great toll on your personal life when you can't be at home and have a normal life, when you're constantly packing up and moving.
The sad thing is, I'm actually busier than I used to be because of what street style's opened for me. The masses and commercial brands are only just really embracing it right now. I do some work with Michael Kors, and the shoots that I do are all very street style focused. That's what appeals to a lot of people because it's not an overly editorialized image.
Everyone who's on social media, a form of taking your selfies is also taking a street style photo of yourself. The fact that it's still a very popular way of creatively expressing yourself is kind of mind boggling.
It's also funny how so many people have said, "The death of street style's coming, it's going to be over." — and I thought that, too. I would have thought three or four years ago I would have been out of a job, but there are still people that are intrigued by it.