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As Fashion Week migrates from New York and London to Paris and Milan, it’s not just retail buyers, magazine editors and Hollywood elite who are flocking from show to show. Front rows are now flooded with the not-so-famous but oh-so-familiar faces of fashion bloggers, who sometimes wield more industry influence in their smartphones than some old-fashioned editorialists do on their entire masthead.
“No one anticipated fashion welcoming the general public with open arms — it is such an exclusive, tight-knit community that’s hard to even feel welcome,” Tommy Ton, street-style photographer and creator of the popular fashion photo blog Jak & Jil, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We expect fashion to change all the time, but the pacing has just gotten so rapid, and social media has democratized fashion. Everything is accessible; anyone is capable of being more influential than the [people] that they look up to. It’s just such a fascinating culture, the phenomenon we’re seeing right now.”
Filmmaker Christina Voros captures the street-style photography phenomenon in the new documentary short Chasing Tommy Ton, commissioned by Tribeca Enterprises and DailyCandy and set to premiere at the duo’s two-day Fashion in Film multiplatform festival on Sep. 19, which proceeds a day of stylish screenings and panels at Tribeca Cinemas that celebrate Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin and fashion icon Iris Apfel, among others.
“People think Fashion Week is all parties and hanging out with movie stars — no!” says Voros, who often collaborates on film projects with James Franco, including the fashion documentary The Director: An Evolution in Three Acts about Gucci’s creative director, Frida Giannini. Her latest short shadows Ton as he searches for candid, immersive shots of fashion industry appreciators — and all the work that goes into that newly competitive process, including editing for hours in hotel rooms, running around during New York Fashion Week and recharging away from fashion capitals to maintain self-inspiration. The film also includes Ton’s reflections on the space, which has become increasingly crowded and less honest.
What was Voros most surprised to learn? “The life of a fashion street-style photographer or fashion blogger, in many ways, is not about the glamour we associate with fashion.”
THR spoke with Voros ahead of her movie’s premiere about selecting a subject for a fashion documentary, how she brought life to photography in film and what she found most surprising about the tireless, trending trade.
Why did you and Tribeca choose to follow Tommy Ton for this documentary?
When I shot The Director, I was immersed in the fashion world for a long period of time, but from the inside. I wasn’t that familiar with the world on the outside looking in. So when I started diving into the world of fashion blogging and street style, I was familiar with the website Jak & Jil peripherally, and I was so struck by the eye not just behind the photographs, but the site itself. It’s a sleek, graphic, distilled essence of gesture, motion and attitude. Those images really spoke to me, but I didn’t really know anything about Tommy. It’s funny — he takes a picture and he hopes he can capture the way someone smells, the way the air feels or the way the light falls. That’s what grabbed me about his photographs in the first place, which is what drew me to him as a possible subject. Moreover, because I knew the work first before the person, it was an interesting puzzle for me to discover who the person behind these images was.
It may shock many that a documentary on fashion blogging doesn’t follow a street-style blogger who poses in self-portraits.
I guess that’s probably, if I’m honest, the not-so-subtle effects of personal bias. I’m a director but also a cinematographer, so I’m always looking at images and composition, and searching for these distilled moments in my own work. I don’t think I was aware of it at the time, but his work just spoke to me, so I was interested in having a deeper understanding of who this person was as an artist. But that probably comes from a place of being someone who watches and waits for the right moment myself, so it was very interesting to be able to be a fly on the wall in someone else’s — albeit very different — experience of a similar process.
You employ cool techniques in the film to make his photos come to life cinematically.
[That’s] one of the scary things about doing a film piece on someone whose life and work exists very much on the Internet. How do you take two-dimensional images and take them into a film world that doesn’t feel like it’s stale, or that the elements of motion are missing? In hearing how Tommy Ton talks about his work — how he likes to take pictures where people feel like they can be immersed in that image — I started looking for ways [to show his pictures] that wasn’t just a slow zoom and the image slowly becoming larger on the screen. That triggered in my head the need to search for another way for someone to feel like they were falling into the picture.
A couple of the images in the beginning that look like stop-motion are things he had played with on his own website as animated GIFs. Even on his page, they had the feeling of a pop-up book. These flat images suddenly jump out at you.
I worked with a wonderful animator named Mark Koenov — he’s done a bunch of projects with me in the past — for the animation on the stills you see at the end. Some people refer to it as the Ken Burns effect — I think that’s the insider term because Ken Burns used similar variations in some of his documentaries because he uses a lot of photographs. But it’s really just an after-effect animation of the photo where you take each layer of the photograph, separate them, enlarge them as you need to, move them and change them.
What was a struggle of making a fashion short, especially after a slew of features?
The hardest thing was trying to imagine who my audience was, because there’s so much inside knowledge in fashion. Fashion is something that’s very easily oversimplified by people who don’t really understand it. And yet, on the inside of that world, it’s incredibly complicated; there are all these trends, identities, textures and approaches to the styling, photographing and making of the clothes. There’s so much that ended up not being in the film — interactions between Tommy and other photographers, bloggers, fashion editors. But when you’ve got only 10 minutes to tell a story, you need to figure out how much you can put in that will not bore an insider but will not totally confuse an outsider. It’s trying to find the moments that made sense and were interesting, whether you’d been in fashion for the last 20 years or you had no idea what street style was.
What was something you learned in following Tommy that really surprised you about the street-style photography space?
I didn’t realize how many people are out there trying to become the next Jak & Jil or the next Sartorialist, how massive this surge of people are who are trying to develop their own online identities. How can you set yourself apart now in this sea of street-style or personal fashion blogs? What makes someone stand out? Where are all these people coming from, and what are they saying that’s new? … Ultimately, you can wake up in the morning and Instagram your outfit everyday, but unless you’re saying something or reaching an audience, it doesn’t matter.
The thing that seems to separate people who succeed and the people who fail are two things: a genuine talent to see the world through a lens that somehow heightens things, or they’re just tirelessly hardworking in terms of being so determined that this is what they want to do — not because they think they’re going to become famous, and not because they think they’re going to get free trips or free clothes or so many likes on Instagram, but because they’re really passionate about the art that is behind the commerce. That’s something that became clear to me in watching how Tommy works. His life is exhausting — he’s on the road 10 months of the year! People think Fashion Week is all parties and hanging out with movie stars — no! He goes to shows during the day and, if something’s really important, at night, but otherwise, he’s by himself in his hotel room, working for six hours every night after shooting a whole day, trying to find that perfect image, because he has this audience he knows he owes it to. The life of a fashion street-style photographer or fashion blogger, in many ways, is not about the glamour we associate with fashion. The ones who really make it are the ones who are willing to put in the effort and treat it with a tremendous amount of diligence and hard work.
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