Catching up with Tommy Ton, Street Style Photography Legend
Catching up with Tommy Ton, Street Style Photography Legend
- Words Lawrence Schlossman
- Date May 8, 2017
For the past couple of months, I've been lucky enough to catch up with street style photography legend, friend of Grailed and newly-minted Brooklyn resident Tommy Ton over email. For most of you guys, Tommy needs no introduction as his reputation as one of the great fashion documentarians of our time more than proceeds him. In honor of his own 10 year anniversary of hitting the streets and snapping real outfits worn by real people, I thought it as good of an opportunity as any to not only share our thoughtful and honest conversation with the Grailed community, but turn the lens back onto the man himself to see what he's been wearing lately as part of our ongoing "In Medias Res" series.
Photography by Chris Fenimore.
You're currently celebrating your 10 year anniversary of hitting the streets outside of the shows, snapping away and more or less helping create the genre of photography we know today as "street style." What kind of emotions are you feeling today as you look back on your career thus far?
I'm either feeling "why the fuck am I torturing myself doing this over and over again?" or "god, I love this so much I could not imagine myself doing anything else." So it's sad to juggle between these two emotions because that's the reality of this career, but once I'm rested and away from all the chaos, I feel more of the latter.
Is that "torture" as you put it, that fatigue, part of the reason you haven't published your street style on Vogue or GQ in recent seasons? Obviously, you're still at every fashion week and have your own site and Instagram, but I was wondering if you could share the motivations behind your seemingly lower profile?
By "torture," I mean spending long hours and days standing around and running from location to location across each city I'm in. It doesn't sound like it's a big deal, but it can be incredibly physically and mentally exhausting after you've been accumulating loss of sleep and not eating frequently. But there's a belittling aspect to this job that makes you feel like you're doing a job that's beneath the very people you're photographing and it doesn't always sit well with me, especially when it turns into a chaotic circus.
So back to your question, the reason why my street style isn't published on GQ and Vogue is because my contract with GQ ended almost two years ago and I chose not to work with Vogue after Style.com folded because I didn't want to repeat what I was doing at Style.com for Vogue.com because I felt it wasn't right and I wanted to take some time to reevaluate how I wanted to move forward. I understand I haven't used my website as a platform to publish the photos you see me taking at the shows immediately, but I didn't anticipate how busy I would be going solo and working more freelance. It would seem I've gone lower profile, but that's because I don't publicize all the additional work I've been doing behind the scenes working with certain brands and designers. I'm very lucky to have established incredible personal and professional relationships with Dries Van Noten, Louis Vuitton, Proenza Schouler, J.W. Anderson/Loewe, etc. I still commit to doing street style every day and at some point, I will find a balance with social media and the old format so that everyone can see the images I'm taking but I'm only one person and I can do so much before feeling so drained and trying to conserve my energy to working, again and again, each day. On a professional and strategic level, when Style.com folded and my GQ contract ended, I wanted to be smarter and leverage my relationships and just basically work less and earn more. I didn't always want to be slaving away and depending on what people were wearing. I wanted to be in more control. At the end of the day, it's always about the clothes and I wanted to focus more on that. It's definitely worked out better for me that way. I may not be seen as the man on the street everyone got so excited to be photographed by and I'm fine with that. There are plenty of others doing that and it took some time to get over that.
As you move into this second act of your career that's more "controlled" and easier on you both mentally and physically, what are you looking to accomplish on both a professional and personal level? To your fans who flock to your social media, you've clearly taken an interest—seemingly more so than ever before at least on a surface level—in backstage photography, capturing these beautiful, intimate moments models have in their clothes that you simply can't get on the runway. Since for you it's "always about the clothes" as you put it, what excites you about this format that maybe one doesn't get with street style, even though what always made your pictures best in class was a similar ability to capture similar intimate moments?
On a professional level, I would like to continue challenging myself and carving out possibly a new narrative in my work. I didn't necessarily pursue a career in photography when I first became interested in fashion. Photography kind of was a line bypass for me and my passion and love for fashion is what kind of separates my work from my colleagues and what I hold close to my heart.
On a personal level, I just want to make sure I'm always having fun and enjoying what I'm doing. That's always important. It can be creatively frustrating not having the right amount of time to pause and work on something I want to put all my energy on, but I'm not going to complain if I just have to keep working. Everyone has bills to pay. Being backstage is kind of a nice break from shooting street style and just being part of another chaotic part of a fashion show. It is about clothes and being able to have models all done up, styled and dressed up by the best of the best. It gives you an opportunity to take photos that can be both editorially and commercially appealing. So much effort goes into one short fashion show, so it would only make sense I'd want to help and try to capture more candid intimate moments that help showcase the clothes. I also realized a while ago that I had access to certain shows and it just made sense to take advantage of that. I'm lucky to know certain PRs and designers who are very kind to me, so it would be a waste if I didn't relish in that.
As someone who is such an enthusiast for this stuff and gets the rare and unique opportunity to experience it all up close and personal, who or what in the fashion industry right now gets you particularly excited and inspired?
I think still from day 1 until now, I get most excited and inspired by those moments that truly genuine and authentic when you connect with something or someone. It could be how someone has put something together and worn it in their own way or it could just be the way a fabric drapes on a coat or dress. Being inspired is such a rarity and a treat nowadays that when it happens it feels so much more special. Maybe I'm bombarded by so much visually it's hard to feel that connection. I do have a very good vault of memories stored in my head, so those special moments still stand out vividly. Do I feel as excited about fashion today as I did 15 years ago? Probably not, but if I were to highlight anyone today that continues to inspire me, it would the designers who have a singular vision. I will always love what Phoebe Philo does at Celine and J.W Anderson for his own brand and for Loewe. I like people who don't box themselves in and find inspiration in only clothes. I still get excited when I reminisce about watching those VHS tapes I had of Helmut Lang and Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga. Brilliant ideas and design will never be forgotten.
Also speaking clothes wise for myself, it's hard to say I buy from one designer only each season. Of course, I collect Dries and Lemaire each season and adapt that into my wardrobe, but I find it really thrilling when I can think back and buy some of those grails I wanted when I couldn't afford it. I tend to buy now, wear later a lot of the time. I hate wearing clothes that are in season. It's too predictable.
Do you consider yourself a serious fashion collector or archivist? What's your closet look like these days?
I think I'm more of a serious fashion collector. If I was a hardcore archivist, I'd properly have all my clothes labeled, sealed and stored in a facility. But I just love buying clothes, even women's too, that I find interesting and have an emotional connection with. I've been lucky to have scored some pieces that I couldn't afford way back when but could now. I love buying now and wearing later. Everything doesn't have to be of the moment. I have a lot of Dries Van Noten from over the years of working with him, so I'm always wearing something from Dries. I live in my Chimala jeans and Nike Flyknit trainers (1st generation). It's sad how often I wear out my Flyknits. I continue to have a nice foundation of basics from Acne, Our Legacy, Lemaire. I've collected a lot of Prada Hawaiian shirts, which I'm excited to wear this summer. I've bought a lot of crazy, rare items from Japanese and European designers, but the sad thing is there's just not enough time to wear all of it. I think you learn how to edit once you acquired so much stuff and you start to realize it's just better to invest in what you think you're going to wear all the time. The items I'm wearing in heavy rotation are just all cozy sweaters and sweatshirts and jeans.
Where are some of your favorite places to shop? Not to be completely self-serving, but I've got to imagine Grailed plays a role, however big or small, in helping you track down some of this stuff.
I've definitely found myself buying less in person and more and more online in recent years. There's something about the thrill of the hunt I really enjoy, which is why sites like The Real Real and Grailed have helped me find so many great steals and rare gems. I hate to say it but paying full price retail is kind of ridiculous unless something is truly special and produced in small quantities. A lot of the more recent items I've added to my wardrobe have come from Grailed. Most recently, I was able to find a pair of tweed Dries Van Noten trousers I've wanted for seven years on Grailed and the instant I saw them available, I had to snatch them up. It's because of Grailed that I truly do believe some things aren't meant to belong in your wardrobe until later on at a certain time. It's wardrobe destiny. I also love going to Japan for the pure enjoyment of second-hand shopping and window shopping as well. It's truly a remarkable retail experience and the options are endless.
What are some personal grails that you're still searching for? If there was ever an opportunity to throw up the proverbial Bat Signal to the community, it's now...
At the top of my list, is an MP Massimo Piombo shawl collar alpaca window pane coat. I keep kicking myself for not jumping at the opportunity to buy it. It's the chicest coat. I wouldn't mind owning some more Hawaiian printed shirts and jackets from Prada S/S 14. Also, the luggage from the collection would be great to collect too. If anyone has any of the following please let me know:
-A pair of navy boucle knit Maison Margiela shorts
-Acne Peele sweater in the confetti colorway
-Anything from Raf Simons' first collection for Jil Sander
-An oversized car coat from YSL designed by Stefano Pilati
-Anything from Zegna Couture designed by Stefano Pilati