Rise Of the Real People

Scott Schuman is prowling SoHo, camera over his shoulder, looking for subjects for his photo blog of street fashion. He spots a promising model: a girl with long, shiny hair, wearing high heels midday on a Saturday—two signs, he says, of a fashionista. But ultimately he decides her look is "a little too Nordstrom." Instead, he shoots a bearded man wearing a brown puffer coat that cinches at the waist. The image, when posted on Schuman's blog, The Sartorialist, draws more than 70 comments about the coat: a good response, but hardly unusual—a single photo on the site can attract posts from hundreds of fashion-savvy commenters, who hotly debate the length of a jacket cuff or the fold of a pocket square.

Schuman is part of a growing group of bloggers posting pictures of fashion as worn by real people around the world. (Schuman needn't be too worried about the competition: he has a monthly page in GQ and two book deals in the works, and last week's opening of a show of images from his blog drew a line down the block.) Bloggers say their sites (Street Peeper, Last Night's Party, Fashionista and Stylesight, to name a few) are both creating and responding to interest in street fashion. "The Look Book," a collection of photographs of fashion-conscious New Yorkers originally published in New York Magazine, came out last September, and one of its subjects is already a star: André J., a bearded cross-dresser, graced the November cover of French Vogue. Merlin Bronques, who posts photos of trendy clubgoers on his blog, Last Night's Party, has shot his friends for ads for Ben Sherman and Converse. Now real people are even strutting the catwalk—the swimwear company Lycra plucked 20 women of all shapes and sizes off the beach to model their suits at last year's Miami Swim Fashion Week.

Fashion-industry folks say the trend of using real people to sell clothes attests to a fatigue with skinny, expressionless models in ads and on runways. As proof, they point to the negative publicity surrounding the painfully thin models at last spring's Fashion Week. "I definitely think there's some backlash amongst people who see fashion shows, then read stories about how the models have to smoke themselves to death and only drink lemon water for six weeks," says Simon Rogers, head of Ugly New York, a casting agency for "real"-looking models. "People would like to see somebody up there who reflects how people on the street really look." (The TV show "Ugly Betty" echoed this sentiment in a recent episode where Betty staged an "alternative" fashion show with nonprofessional models.) Now, with New York's Fall 2008 Fashion Week arriving this week, fashion watchers say we may begin to see subtle indications of the trend on the runway: the models will still be thin and gorgeous, but they may look more like thin, gorgeous versions of real people than like stereotypical models. "In the '80s and '90s, models were expected to look glamorous and clean, like Niki Taylor and Christy Turlington," says Faran Krentcil, former editor of Fashionista. "Now people want girls wearing concert T shirts and jeans they've patched themselves—girls who have an appeal that goes beyond how pretty they are." In other words, the demand is for models who exude personal style, whether they're wearing their own ratty duds or haute couture.

Much of this interest in real-looking models is driven by the Internet, which has democratized the once rarefied world of high fashion. "Fashion shows used to be for a very small number of people, very exclusive," says "Look Book" editor Amy Larocca. "Now you can see them an hour later on the Internet. Everyone can be involved." Larocca also links the increased accessibility of fashion to the number of high-end designers creating affordable lines for mass-market stores, such as Isaac Mizrahi's collection for Target, as well as reality shows such as "Project Runway."

Clothing companies are responding to the trend by seeking real people who look at home in the clothes being sold. "With the photos for Ben Sherman, I put the clothes on friends I knew who already wore Ben Sherman," says photo-blogger Bronques. It helps, of course, that Bronques happens to have some pretty great-looking friends. "The most successful brands know how to fuse what's happening on the street with their product," says Krentcil. "But if you don't look good in clothes, you're not going to sell them." And herein lies the sticking point: even designers who would embrace real models on runways face obstacles. Designers typically can make their clothes for the shows in only one or two sizes, negating the possibility of showing them on a range of body types. Rogers of Ugly New York says he's had inquiries about his models for Fashion Week but had no confirmed bookings yet.

Still, there's no denying that change is in the air. While Ben Sherman won't be showing at fashion week, Dana Dynamite, VP of marketing, says the brand is enthusiastic about using real models on catwalks in the future. Response to the ads, she says, has made her a believer: "People on blogs are saying we're so much cooler now that we did this."