Scott Schuman, better known to the rest of the world as “The Sartorialist”, possesses the kind of self-made success story we so rarely see in fashion anymore. Intelligent and witty, with a mind that is constantly roving, wondering, and exploring, Schuman is the kind of person who is quick to answer your question with a question of his own. His ceaseless exploration of the human condition, especially as it relates to fashion and design, is at the heart of his extraordinary photos. Having spent the better part of a decade documenting street style, and in many ways pioneering street style photography (or at the very least, elevating it to a sort of art form), Schuman started to notice a divide in the way we think about fashion. We assume that fashion only exists in the major fashion capitals, but he is quick to argue that it can be found in the most unconventional places, like the dirt-paved streets of Varanasi, India, or the glittering metropolis of Dubai, which led him to the publication of his third, most recent book, “The Sartorialist X.”
In Savoir Flair’s interview with Schuman, you’ll discover everything from his take on selfie culture to his personal insight on the difference between men and women.
What’s it like being “The Sartorialist”?
I don’t really think about it. Everyday you’ve got to keep doing it because you don’t get much of a pass, or I try not to take much of a pass or surf too much on my name. At the end of the day, “The Sartorialist” is my desire to communicate, to do good work.
How has your work changed over the years?
In the beginning it was tough to be out looking for street style shots. I like doing it, but there’s so much pressure to be coming up with stuff everyday. In order to build an audience you’ve got to keep giving them content everyday. So, I’m really happy that Instagram has come along. With Instagram, I’ve been able to tweak who I’m speaking to, to have a very design-driven audience. That means I can shoot, not just street style, but an interior, a cool carpet, a thing that I see in a palazzo in Italy. It’s even allowed me to make the street style shots even better and communicate better on all things related to design.
How do people react when they see you in public? Do they ask you you to take their picture? Or to take a picture of you? Or is it a mixture of both reactions?
You know, I was in Sydney — we had just finished shooting there — and I went to a middle-of-nowhere Starbucks, and this girl, she recognized me. The look on her face was so shocked! She said, “Oh, it’s you! I’m your biggest fan!” and she asked to take a picture of me. It’s great when you hear you have a real impact on people, but the impact isn’t even me, it’s pictures I’ve taken of someone else. But really, it’s a little bit of both. People ask me to take their picture and vice versa, but all of that brings its own pressure.
What do you think of the selfie culture that we live in now?
When I started out, selfies weren’t so popular, and, I don’t know, I don’t really get it. Selfies have always been a thing, in a way. You know Van Gogh and Rembrandt were painting portraits of themselves a long time ago. But I don’t understand the drive to do it, or at least, I don’t understand why people do so many of them.
I don’t consider myself very beautiful. If I considered myself very beautiful, maybe I would do more selfies? But there’s a difference with someone like me, who’s almost 48, and someone who’s grown up in that. My youngest is 13, and to her, it’s just a normal part of life. She’s already really good at it! I was just sitting at the pool earlier today and saw a girl about her age and she really knew all the angles, and felt totally not self-conscious about it. For a long time, people were saying the internet was going to isolate us, but I think the selfie culture proves people really want to connect. “Here I am. Who are you? Let’s communicate.”
For a long time, people were saying the internet was going to isolate us, but I think the selfie culture proves people really want to connect.
Warhol said everyone wants to be famous for 15 minutes, but no one knew how to achieve that at the time. Now people can. And that whole Kardashian thing doesn’t help. To me, the Kardashians are just famous for being famous. They have no real talent or skill.
I’ve read that you quit your job to be a stay-at-home dad, which also freed up some extra time for you to start photographing the streets. Can you take me through the beginning of “The Sartorialist”?
Actually I didn’t quit my job. I had a showroom in New York City that specialized in young designer collections, but after 9/11 the economy collapsed. No new designers were emerging, stores weren’t paying their bills… so, I closed the showroom. While I was figuring out what to do in the meantime, our nanny left, and I wasn’t working so I started watching the kids, and I loved watching the kids. You know… the only downside to all of this is that I don’t get to be with them as much as I want. I taught myself photography taking pictures of them, and after a while, I started looking at my pictures and wondering how to make them better. I loved photography, but I never found anything I really wanted to shoot until I had my kids.
For the first year, I had to work hard to make enough money to keep doing the blog thing. Within six months, the press had noticed me, so I thought, ‘Is this a thing? Can I really make a living doing this?’ I remember really having to fight to make it a job. It’s been a crazy ride. It took off like a rocket.
Was there a moment that really proved to you that you were on the right track?
My dad, when he was alive, was very good at playing devil’s advocate. When I started doing this, he asked would ask about it, saying, ‘What’s this blog thing that’s taking up all your time now?’ He had his own business and he knew what it was like to build your own business. So, I showed him a couple of emails from people that I didn’t know that were saying, ‘Your photos mean so much to me,’ and other really nice things. Because when you’re doing marketing, you can’t tell people to like something. They have to like it on their own. So when you start getting these kinds of unsolicited responses from people all over the world… you just don’t see this kind of reaction and then something good doesn’t come from it. My big moment was having my dad see this, understand it, support me, and tell me to keep going.
After that, my concern was maintaining goodwill with the audience, and not selling that relationship out, but still figure out how to make a living.
What’s it like being able to see real-time reactions to your work?
It’s great. It’s totally addictive. I consider myself a photographer, but unlike photographers in the past who take an image and put it up on the wall and let other people have their individual interpretation of it, I get to put mine up and then have a real interaction with the people viewing it. What I think is really fascinating is seeing people from many cultures react to my photos, because they do so in so many different ways.
What I think is really fascinating is seeing people from many cultures react to my photos, because they do so in so many different ways.
For instance, I can’t remember how many times in the past, when I’d take a picture of someone wearing vintage clothes, so many people just didn’t understand the concept of vintage. They’d say, ‘Why would you wear old clothes?’ See, I love that interaction.
When I was a stay-at-home dad, I would listen to sports talk radio, and one of my “a-ha!” moments was when I realized a blog is like sports talk radio. The host has his show and he says his points about sports, and then guys call in and they have a fun argument. Similarly, I put a picture up and then let people comment and then we could have a conversation. What I realize is that women don’t like to argue. Women don’t call into sports talk radio. So I really had to figure out — and I still don’t know if I’ve done this very well — how to communicate about fashion that was a back and forth with the audience. I still haven’t gotten the blog quite where I want it to be. I would love if my blog was the kind of place where, let’s say when Galliano goes crazy, we have a big huge discussion like, ‘who should be the best replacement at Dior. Hermès, they just got rid of Gaultier, who should be the replacement? I think Dries Van Noten, no I think so-and-so…’. That’s the one part of the blog I wish I could have been better with. More audience interaction. More thoughtful conversation about fashion.
Why do you think the audience never went that direction?
You know…I was with Garance [Doré] for a long time, and she is a great women’s blogger because she understands that women want to be friends, especially with other women that they watch, and my audience is mostly women.
A thing I just realized the other day, and have been thinking about a lot since, is all my heroes, like Bruce Webber, for example? I don’t want to be friends with him. I want to see how he shoots, I want to understand his work, I want to have a nice conversation with him, maybe have a dinner, but I don’t want to be his best friend.
You want to absorb him by osmosis.
[Laughs] Yes! I’d like to see everything he’s doing, and then make myself better from that.
What makes a good picture? The outfit? The person wearing it?
I think a good photograph is in thirds. So, it’s one third lighting. In the right light, someone in a so-so outfit could look great. The other two thirds are the outfit and the person. The shots that make it onto the blog, or in my books, have all three things working.
Why did you choose unconventional cities, including Dubai, for your new book “The Sartorialist X”?
Well, you know, this book is the book I always wanted to make. That’s why the second book is called “Closer”, because I could feel myself getting closer to what this third book finally is. I always saw my work as a real mix of cultures and people. I wanted you to turn the page and not know where you were going to be or what you were going to see on the next page. I wanted to challenge people.
I wanted you to turn the page and not know where you were going to be or what you were going to see on the next page. I wanted to challenge people.
The first book had the typical fashion people, which was cool and I had fun shooting it, but it was kind of just one thing, repeated. I didn’t have enough money — when I started I didn’t have any money at all — so it took me a while to save the money to send myself to where I really wanted to go. With this third book, I wanted to challenge people to see fashion outside of just Paris, London, and Milan on the runway. I want people to see fashion in Dubai, and then jump to a great shot on the street in Peru. I hope it opens people’s eyes to global fashion culture, outside of the runway, and I hope people become interested in other cultures because of it.