Lessons from a men’s street style photographer
Giuseppe Santamaria went to his first fashion week in 2011, in New York, as a guest of Tumblr.
The micro-blogging platform had invited him, along with 20 other up-and-coming bloggers from around the world, to cover the catwalks and meet backstage with some of the country’s most esteemed designers.
But it was the street style that captivated him most — the unofficial primping and posing happening among the “menswear enthusiasts” outside.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a ‘fashion guy’,” Mr Santamaria, 31, said.
“But I loved observing that world, taking it in.”
A year earlier, Mr Santamaria, who studied advertising and graphic design in Toronto, Canada, had moved to Australia and begun a blog called Men In This Town, on which he shared photographs of the stylish men he’d snapped on Sydney’s busy, trendy streets.
Of course, this was a time before Instagram was “a thing” — when men’s fashion was still figuring out how to harness the internet.
Menswear around the world seemed to be entering “a new era”; the traditional gender lines of fashion were beginning to blur, and Australian men, Mr Santamaria noticed, were sitting up.
“Photographing so many different guys, I realised there were so many ways to be a man, ways of dressing as a man — whether you’re gay or straight,” he says.
“The stereotypes [for example, that men who like clothes must be gay] were not there anymore. There wasn’t just one defined look, and I wanted to explore that.”
Mr Santamaria returned from his “crazy fashion week opportunity” in the States with scores of new followers and a camera full of confident, modish men: blokes in sweet cowboy boots and blush-coloured blazers, dudes in dungarees and Doc Martins, impeccably groomed guys in polka-dot silk scarves and horn-rimmed spectacles. Men who loved clothes.
Since then, he’s taken thousands of photos of men’s street style, in cities all over the world, along the way publishing two books (including one documenting women’s street style), dozens of magazines and opening a retail store-slash-creative space in Sydney.
Now, he’s releasing a third book, Alone In A Crowd, a thick catalogue of the pictures he took between 2014 and 2016 whilst in Tokyo, Toronto, New York, London, Paris, Florence, Melbourne and Sydney.
Mostly, Mr Santamaria says, he just wants to get other men excited about style: “It’s for younger guys who are looking for inspiration, and to see how other guys around the world are dressing.”
Here, Mr Santamaria chats to ABC News about what makes a good street style photographer, how Australian fashion weeks are letting men down, and why Melbourne men are bigger style risk-takers than Sydney’s.
You started shooting men’s street style in 2010 after moving to Sydney from Toronto. Australian women, you said, had never been afraid to experiment with fashion but until then, men hadn’t. What do you think was the catalyst for Aussie men embracing fashion?
I think it was largely to do with the internet — it gave guys an opportunity to see what fashion was doing in other places around the world, and not necessarily in the magazine form, where it’s editorial, not real life.
It really opened everyone’s eyes to the fact that there are different ways for men to dress.
Australian men’s fashion has always been inspired by London, and old British heritage. But it never really translated here because the weather is completely different to the UK.
So people just end up resorting to shorts, a T-shirt and thongs — which is the comfortable Australian outfit everyone loves.
But the internet has made it easier for people to see how, for example, Europeans dress to cope with the weather, but also to express themselves.
How has Australian men’s style changed since 2010?
I noticed a real shift in 2010, when blogs and social media were really starting to take off. The most obvious trend was that hipster trend — that throwback to older-style dressing.
We were seeing lots of button-down shirts and things like that; learning how to wear a suit in Australia was a big thing. Beards and moustaches — grooming — became a big deal too, and it was something different on the street, so I just thought it would be an amazing thing to document.
How does Australian men’s style compare with that of men in other cities around the world?
I think styles are very similar overall — the trends are all the same, it’s just that certain cities execute them differently.
For example, London is very fashion-conscious; it has a lot of fashion ‘fans’ and you see a lot of higher-end looks. In New York, it’s a little more relaxed, more ‘street’.
And the Japanese do style in a very particular way — their attention to detail is amazing, they really go full-on for a look.
Tokyo is my favourite place to shoot — there is someone to photograph around every corner — partly because there are so many people living there.
You still see all that in Australia, but there’s a smaller population here so fashion is on a smaller scale.
How does men’s style differ between Sydney and Melbourne?
There’s a more obvious difference between Sydney and Melbourne. I think Melbourne is a lot more experimental, more artsy — its arts culture is reflected in the people who live there, and how they express themselves. They take more risks.
Whereas in Sydney, you see more of the trends.
There’s currently a huge focus in fashion and mainstream media on how fashion is becoming more gender neutral — the traditional gender lines of fashion are blurring.
I have noticed that with women especially. When I started creating my women’s blog, I thought men could easily wear some of the outfits I was seeing on women — there was definitely that blurred line.
I think women were naturally embracing men’s fashion, because they tend to be more experimental. But it’s happening more and more now: I was in New York in February and I saw a lot more men wearing feminine clothes.
One guy I saw was wearing a lace shirt and lace hat — it was quite beautiful and feminine, but it was still very New York ‘street style’ and had a masculine touch to it.
You’re also seeing a lot more guys wearing skirts and kilts and even dresses — kimonos, too. Trends like these are probably very ‘high fashion’ and you won’t see the average guy wearing them, but you’re increasingly seeing them at fashion weeks, so I think that will probably translate to the mainstream.
What criteria do you consider when looking for subjects to photograph?
The only thing I am looking for is confidence.
If someone is out there wearing something that they want to wear, and they don’t care what anyone thinks of it, that’s pulling off style.
It has nothing to do with the clothes. They’re expressing who they are inside, and doing it for them, not anyone else.
Do you always ask permission before photographing men on the street? Is it ever awkward?
That was how street style photography was being done when I first started my blog. But [asking for permission] didn’t really feel natural to me.
I take more to the style of documentary photography — standing where I can get the best shot and taking a photo of someone in their natural element, in the moment, and trying not to get their reaction.
Bill Cunningham [the legendary New York Times fashion photographer, who died in 2016] is a good example of that kind of style.
He is a great hero of mine, the way he approached his work, the way he was able to capture people in a raw moment — while obviously trying to be very complimentary about it, and get a really great photo.
I’ve only ever once been shooed away — kind of a, ‘What are you doing?’ type of reaction. And that was from an older person who maybe didn’t understand what I was doing.
If someone truly doesn’t want to have their photo taken, they’ll let you know, and you just delete it.
What makes a good street style photographer?
It’s about always being ready, having your camera always on. I literally always have my camera — an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II — attached to my hand, because you never know when that moment is going to happen.
It’s exciting, but it’s stressful at the same time.
Also the closer you are to your subject the better, but you shouldn’t be so close that you’re seen, and disturb the moment. You have to be in the background — that’s kind of what the title of my book talks to: the idea that you’re ‘Alone In A Crowd’.
How would you describe your own style?
People have said that I have a certain look, but I feel like I’m always experimenting.
Tokyo and Japan had such a huge impact on me when I first visited — I would love to just spend a year there capturing as much as I could. The people are so amazing, the culture is beautiful. And the clothes, I absolutely adore them.
The style of the Japanese man is very denim-oriented, a little baggy and relaxed. It’s a mixture of Scandi, European and Americana, and that’s what I love about it. They also use beautiful cuts of fabric, but done in a different, modern way. I guess that is what I am attracted to when I buy my own clothing.
Apart from Bill Cunningham, who or what else inspires your work?
A lot of those older photographers from the ’50s, even earlier. Saul Leiter is one of my favourites — he was based in New York and Europe, where he did documentary street photography. It wasn’t necessarily street style, but I love the way he captured that moment in time.
Back then, Leiter’s photos probably looked like nothing special, but when you look at them 20 or 30 years later you see that he captured a kind of beauty that was so of that time.
That’s what I hope for my photos. Right now, to some people they may look very average — in fact, I’ve received criticism for that exact reason. But I hope in the future you’ll see that my work captured this particular moment in time, like a capsule.
Fashion weeks, at least those in Australia, are notoriously female-focused. How do Australian fashion festivals — VAMFF in Melbourne and MBFWA in Sydney — cater to men?
Some aspects of them do — for example, they always have their men’s show, but they could obviously do more. The industry itself could push more students and young designers to create for men, to champion an interest in menswear — hopefully that will change soon.
[The extent to which a fashion festival will promote menswear] also has to do with the size of the country. Still, I think there will always be a place for men’s fashion, and there are a few [local] brands doing great things here.
Patrick Johnson is a prime example of someone who caters to men, doing something so beautiful, so Australian, and not necessarily too artsy, and it works for the mainstream.
What item of clothing should every Australian man own?
I get asked that question a lot! I don’t think there is something that every guy should own. Do whatever feels right for you — there are no rules. The internet has just grown into this place of lists and rules, but that’s so ridiculous.
I think that if you like it, do it. If it makes you happy, then that’s all that matters.
What’s the biggest fashion faux pas a man can make?
Not experiment. Don’t stick with only one style, or refuse to try a particular style. Just have fun with fashion, and don’t be afraid to try new things.
Do you think a lot of men are “afraid” of fashion?
I think so. It goes back to old stereotypes, of people thinking men who like fashion are gay or whatever, which is just ridiculous.
I think many Australians probably have that old mentality — that blokiness. But that’s a huge generalisation; a lot of guys I’m meeting aren’t like that at all.
You said Instagram can be a great place to discover new style icons and communities, but do you think there’s almost a specific Instagram “look”? So instead of inspiring individuality and experimentation, Instagram might be encouraging homogeneity?
Absolutely, that is a huge thing — it’s the majority of what Instagram is, in the end. But you do find those gems that stand out, and that [culture of sameness] makes them more obvious.
Sure, get inspiration from Instagram, but make it your own, give it your own personal spin.
So everyone on Instagram wears white all the time, but if you’re not the kind of person who wears white, don’t try and do it. It’s so boring!
What’s the difference between fashion and style?
I think style is about the personal — you can’t duplicate it, whereas fashion can be duplicated — it’s pieces anyone can buy.
Style is the curation of fashion, and the way you use it to express yourself. That’s hopefully what makes everyone special in the end: their personalities come out through their style.
That’s why I think it’s so important to find your own style, and not just wear whatever you see on mannequins in a store.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.