Street style photographer Tommy Ton on luxury retail, the rise of street wear, and fashion victims
We're in the concrete jungle where dreams are made of. No, not New York, but Shanghai — arguably the Eastern equivalent to the Empire State. Well, at least Alicia Keys thinks so. Dressed in a white T-shirt tucked into wide-cut and lantern-red trousers, the 15-time Grammy winner is tinkling on a piano set up in the main auditorium of Plaza 66 in Shanghai — surrounded by over 2000 VIP guests and media invited for the re-opening of the newly refurbished luxury mall — belting out a revised version of her chart-topping track: "Now, we're in Shanghai. These streets will make you feel brand new. Big lights will inspire you..." The crowd absolutely loves it.
No expense has been spared on the celebration party for Plaza 66. With an astute appreciation for the power of association, a suite of international guests have been flown into Shanghai for the event: In addition to Keys, there's art photographer, David LaChapelle; master chocolatier, Pierre Marcolini; celebrity chef, Michael White; Singapore's very own artistic patissier, Janice Wong; and iconic street style photographer, Tommy Ton. (Did you know that Tommy Ton's images were one of the reasons why I left my career in law for fashion? #TrueStory)
Seated in one of the meeting rooms of the VIP lounge in Plaza 66 — created by design savant, Ilse Crawford (also in attendance), replete with millennial pink carpet and a perilously chic metallic-gold coffee table — I speak to Ton about the allure of street wear, the need for bespoke services in retail, and how to avoid being a fashion victim.
"That's what makes a fashion victim — when you have to be wearing all the new stuff now"
Hey Tommy, it's great to see you.
Hey, it's so nice to see a familiar face at these events.
Did you just fly in from New York?
Yes I did, and I'll be going back after this for fashion week.
You must have missed the first day of New York Fashion Week...
Oh, it's only Calvin Klein. It's fine. [Laughs]
So we're here for the re-launch of Plaza 66, but with retail struggling globally, what do you think luxury retail needs from a consumer point of view?
I think the key word is exclusivity. I think it's important that what you're buying into is one-of-a-kind. I think the problem with social media is that a brand or product is overexposed and it loses its lustre. For the Chinese customer I think that is crucial — buying into something unique. I see that a lot brands make products exclusive to cities or particular malls, like Plaza 66, but I think there's room for improvement. What's the word they use on Savile Row for custom made?
Yup, that's it. I think brands could offer more bespoke services. Because sometimes you might like something, but you want to add more of your personal input.
Looking both at street style and on the runway, what do you think are the key trends now?
Oh my gawd [laughs].
Trend forecast now! [Laughs]
Oh my gosh. What is the biggest trend? Hmmm... I don't have a problem with it, but I still see street wear making an impact on the industry. We work in fashion, and we love creativity, but it's so surprising that we are so receptive of the graphic T-shirt. I think that will still carry on. It's so interesting that people that normally wear Valentino or carry a Hermès bag are now wearing Supreme!
Yes, street wear is everywhere!
That is so interesting to see how our cultural landscape has changed from, "Oh no no no, not street wear", to now seeing Louis Vuitton collaborating with Supreme. People are really mixing the high and low. To me that's more high and low fashion than wearing H&M with Balenciaga — which has been done. I have this friend who is very blonde, very American, who always wears Valentino, but just this last season I saw her wearing a Supreme box logo T-shirt, and I was like, "Oh my god!" [Laughs]
I know what you mean...
Street wear is considered luxury now to a 20-year old and a 40-year old. The fact that a T-shirt with a red box logo only costs, I don't know, 10 dollars to make? But you go online and it costs over 500 dollars.
Yes, it's totally crazy.
You mention this mix of luxury and street wear. It's interesting because there's no savoir-faire in creating a T-shirt as compared to a beautiful dress from Dior, but they are still charging these exorbitant prices. What do you think is the allure of street wear? Is it what it represents rather than how it was made?
Yeah, if anything it's what it represents. I hate the word, but it's trendy. That's a sad thing because when you buy something from an Italian or French brand, you expect craftsmanship. So when you're spending 600 dollars on a T-shirt, you're kind of like, why? I think it's interesting to see where fashion is right now. It's all about options. But when brands are charging so much for a graphic T-shirt, it also makes people want to be more educated. Because when people are frustrated by consumer pricing, it makes them consider what they're really buying and investing into. It's an interesting question.
You started street style photography back in 2007. Looking back at your career so far, what thoughts or emotions come to mind?
Exhaustion. [Laughs] But I'm still excited. If I wasn't excited, I wouldn't be still doing this job. I'm very lucky that I get to do this job because I get to travel, I'm here in Shanghai now for Plaza 66, and I get to meet the people that I look up to; like the designers. So yeah, I'm still very happy and very grateful, but at the same time, hungry for change and to be challenged. Nowadays, in addition to street photography, I'm also consulting with brands and working on special projects.
What do you think about the explosion of street style photographers at the shows now? Does it frustrate you?
Yes and no. If there weren't a lot of photographers, it means that what I'm doing is boring. So the fact I've done something that is interesting to other people, and makes people want to be part of fashion, then it's a good thing. Does it make my job more difficult? Yes. But anytime something is really popular, people will want to join the party. Sometimes you just have to relax and enjoy it for what it is now, rather than think of it as competition or stress.
With online retailing and the digital age that we live in...
Wow! That's quite a ring [laughs]. Sorry, I was just distracted by your [Dior Rose des Vents] ring...
[Laughs] Yes, I love my jewellery and ring stacks. Anyway, everyone has been talking about the pace of fashion recently. Do you think it's going too fast?
Oh yeah, definitely. I do miss the days where, like in 1997, when I first started becoming interested in fashion, I used to wait for the newspaper and would read a paragraph about, for example, the new Gucci collection, and become excited. But today, I'm watching the Calvin Klein collection in New York streamed to me in Shanghai via the Internet. I guess that's what it is now. But it's sad that we've lost that sense of mystery. And with this whole buy-now-see-now... what is it?
See-now-buy-now. It's kind of sad, because the whole point of collections coming out six months later is that it builds that sense of excitement, you think: When it arrives, I'm going to go out and buy it! It's going to look good with this and also with this...
But the fact that you can now buy it right away and wear it the next day, it's kind of like, okay what's next. It takes away the sense of excitement and anticipation — which is what fashion is about: Wanting and waiting for something. I don't think that see-now-buy-now strategy worked so well for the designers, and I think that's a good thing; because we can now go back to waiting for collections again.
I'm sure when designers put out a collection, they're always asked by us, the media: What's next? But they've just invested so much time in this one collection. The industry doesn't really give the clothes time to breathe — you might love or hate the collection now, but your opinion might change in six months time when it hits the stores. The collection might take on a new personality then.
Well, I always tell people: Why don't you go back and try to find something that you wanted from the past? Something that you wanted when you were 18 or 19, but never bought because you couldn't afford it or whatever. Go back and find that Prada jacket from 2004...
That's such a good idea!
There are just so many clothes in the world. And when you love fashion, you have memories of pieces and you think, "I wish I bought that Céline coat" — but, guess what, you can! Rather than focus on what's new all the time, go back and buy something from the past, and it's going to be 90 percent off.
Yup, and you're going to be different...
I just feel like that has more of a personal impact — when you find something that you wanted in the past but didn't pursue. It's kind of like dating you know...
Like going back to your ex? [Laughs]
Seriously. It's makes more of an impact than just buying something now just because everyone wants it. When you see someone wear everything new, and at the same time, it loses that sense of excitement. When I do order clothes the day after the shows, I won't wear it straight away. I'll leave it in my wardrobe for a year or two and then wear it, because it's more interesting to see how you'll mix it with different clothes from different seasons. That's what makes a fashion victim — when you have to be wearing all the new stuff now.
So interesting. Related to that, are there people who inspire your personal style? How do you get dressed in the morning?
Yeah, absolutely. I always relook at things, because I will look at someone I've photographed and go, "Oh I would never have thought of wearing it like that." There have been times when you've worn something and I'm like, "Oh, that's interesting..."
[Laughs] Probably in a bad way...
No, no. Because that's the interesting thing about seeing clothes in the everyday — it's not on a model. Of course, yes, clothes look good on a model, but when you see someone that has an interesting sense of style, it gives you new perspectives on wearing things. For example, my friend Eugene Tong — he is such a basic person — but there are so many times when I'll be having dinner with him and I'll be like, "Oh, I need your shoes." I never would have thought I would want those shoes, but it's just the way he wears it. That's the thing about editors or stylists; they have a sense of confidence in the way they dress. And that's why, for me, it's such a pleasure to take photos of these people because they love wearing clothes — and the clothes aren't wearing them; they are wearing the clothes.
Any favourite labels at the moment?
I still and will always love Prada. For some reason, I find myself always buying shirts from the 2014 season. Currently, I'm also loving Issey Miyake. If I could fit into Céline, I would buy clothes from Céline. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Surely you could with some of the oversized pieces?
I could actually. I'm excited to see how fashion is so gender fluid now. Especially in Asia. It's exciting to see men, like [publisher of Manifesto magazine] Jonathan Yee, wear Céline — and I'm like, "Ugh. If he can wear that, then I can wear that." [Laughs] Obviously I love to wear Dries. I'm lucky to have a working relationship with Dries. And I also love Acne [Studios]. I used to travel with so much luggage, but I'm like, no one is taking my picture, so why should I care? So I'm a lot more comfortable in the way that I dress now. I suppose the one brand that I always wear is Nike.
Looking towards the upcoming fashion month, what do you want to capture on the streets?
I don't know. I like to be surprised. That's the fun part about fashion month — you never know what you're going to see. If I knew, then I think that would be very boring.
Check back every Monday for another @MusingMutley column from Norman Tan, Editor-in-Chief of Buro 24/7 Singapore. Read more columns from @MusingMutley.
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