If you've even a passing interest in fashion and an Instagram account, you know Scott Schuman's work — you simply might not know that you know.
Schuman has been photographing well-dressed people the world-over as The Sartorialist since 2005. Beginning its life as a photo-heavy fashion blog, The Sartorialist quickly took on a new life with the birth of Instagram, which exposed Schuman's work to a new cadre of followers. His photography has been featured GQ, Vogue Italia, Vogue Paris, and Interview, and resides in the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum's permanent collections.
In addition to his producing his striking street photography, Schuman has collaborated with brands like Kiehl's, Coach, Nespresso, DKNY Jeans, Gant, OVS, Crate & Barrel, and Absolut and Burberry on campaigns. His first book, published by Penguin in 2009, has sold over 100,000 copies and been translated into multiple languages. He's since released two more books with Penguin and a fourth, The Sartorialist India, with Taschen.
Schuman's latest work deviates slightly from his previous titles: The Sartorialist: Man is half-coffee table tome of beautiful street photography, and half-style guide. Utilizing his extensive knowledge of menswear, Schuman takes the reader on a journey through the sartorial universe, offering advice on fit, fabrics, materials, and — most importantly — how to dress like yourself.
We were able to speak with Schuman about the new book, his views on streetwear, the effects the pandemic has had on the menswear scene, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the impetus and inspiration for your interest in fashion and clothing?
A lot of it came from sports — I grew up playing football and baseball and basketball and all that stuff. When you listen to athletes, they love talking about their new stereo they bought (back when they had stereos) and cars and clothing, and slowly I started listening to that and starting noticing that stuff. And they'd say, 'Oh, that guy looks really GQ' or whatever. I was a very good athlete when I was young because I was much more developed than a lot of the other guys, but I started to age out of that — they started to get much bigger than I was when I was around 9th grade. So I thought it would be much easier on me physically if I got into fashion instead of continuing with sports, and so it kind of started with that.
I just found on eBay — I remember the first GQ magazine that I bought in 1983, and I remember the first article that kind of piqued my interest about Milan. Because everybody knows about Paris and London and all these places, and here was this article about Milan, this place I didn't really know anything about and it just seemed so wonderful and mysterious. And I think that really informs not only my ideas about fashion but also how I shoot. When I was growing up, with most of these photographs I wasn't that interested in reading the captions and I kind of made up my own stories. The more historical ones didn't have a lot of information on who these people were, so I think that was really kind of the beginning of it.
Growing up in the Midwest, it wasn't easy to get the information — it was more of a hunt. Things seemed so far away and romantic and interesting, so I think that was big. Unlike my kids, who grew up in New York — when they were kids, we went to Italy and stuff, and when I was a kid, I got to go to King's Island in Cincinnati, that was it. So I think there's something I really appreciate about mystery and the romance of these far-off places I couldn't imagine. And I think it's a lot like how I shoot — I don't really put the people's names, I don't really put a lot of information because I like that mystery.
Did you begin shooting on film or did you start on an early DSLR?
I had an SLR but it was film. Actually, the very first camera I got was just a little point-and-shoot. A friend of mine who was a photographer — he was sort of a friend of a friend — gave me a little film point-and-shoot camera when I had my first daughter in 1999. So I learned by taking pictures of her when we'd go out to the playground and all that stuff. I loved getting the film back and looking at the images and I wanted to get better at it. I really love her and so I wanted to make great photographs of that time. And growing up looking at magazines, I already had an idea of what a good image looked like. Subconsciously, I think I knew what a good image should look like.
So I started looking at other books, trying to figure out how they made their images better. I had this Steve McCurry book very early on and I just loved that idea of going out and taking pictures of people, how he framed it, the little angles. Bruce Webber was another one who I think really showed a lot of joy in his photographs. So it was really just looking at the images and figuring out little things, like how they're using light. And I didn't have anyone to ask, so I just constantly taught myself. And I think because I didn't have anyone teaching me, and I didn't have anything to prove or any goal of where to go, I was able to come up with my own eye and my own visual because I took a little bit from McCurry, Webber, Levitt. So that cross between photojournalism and fashion photography was how I was able to make my own street shots. My street shots don't look like Bill Cunningham, they don't look like Amy Arbus. I think those things really helped create a different eye for me.
People without a formal education in something often seem to take a little from here, a little from there, and come up with their own unique style.
Yeah. When I was in school I loved Armani — he was like my design hero. (This was way back in the '80s.) And I wanted to be a designer, but just like a photographer trying to learn how to be a photographer, I was way too influenced. Everything I did I could look at and say, 'Well, that's just Armani.' I knew I wasn't creating anything new and different, and I didn't want to do that — I wanted to do something important in fashion. I didn't know what it was, and I didn't feel particularly creative in that way. And I think without having that goal, and just kind of playing around with it, that gave me a chance, like you were saying, to do something different. Because I wasn't trained in photography — I just kind of stumbled around until I found my own way. My own visual.
So now we fast-forward some years, and Instagram comes out. Obviously it's had a wonderful effect on your career, but do you sense any adverse effects upon street photography? Has it made street photography too accessible, in a sense? Or commercialized?
I think it was great that [Instagram] made more people want to pick up a camera. Even just from the blog [The Sartorialist] people were really going out and shooting, getting involved and going to shows and all of that — I think there was a lot of energy with fashion, which was great. I really appreciated that, and I think that was a great thing for fashion, that people didn't want to just sit back. They really wanted to go to the shows, and I think it was a great way for people to meet their heroes. If you had a camera, you could walk up to Anna Dello Russo and talk to her, or designers, or stylists you really liked.
So that was more in the blog days. But you still had to download a photograph, you still had to do a bunch of stuff, whereas when the phones got better it got so much quicker, that I think the quality of the images has gone down a bit. And I think the thing that's tricky is when I started shooting, if I went to Pitti Uomo, I was one of the only people shooting, and I was their only conduit to these guys, say. And I was able to shoot them in a way that I thought looked best for them — I kind of protected them and tried to show them in the best light, because nobody really knew who they were and I wanted to keep that romance of these guys' style and all that.
When Instagram launched, everybody decided 'Oh, I love all this attention, I love all the comments and all that stuff, so I'm going to open my own Instagram.' So all these guys I was shooting, kind of molding this really wonderful, mysterious visual with them, it all just went away. They started doing their own stuff, and I think they didn't really understand that with Instagram more than a blog — in a blog you had to post a lot, especially if you were making any money from ads, you had to post a lot more, because it was based on clicks and page views and all that. With Instagram, it's different — you don't have to post so much, you can be more mysterious. I post much less now that I did when I had a blog.
And so these guys, I think a lot of them don't really understand that, so they post a lot. And sometimes the stuff looks good and sometimes it doesn't, and it kind of kills a lot of the mystery. And same thing with a lot of the photographers — they get paid on how many shots they do, how many shots they turn in. So once these guys get kind of well known, they're taking a picture of 'X Guy,' and not trying to take a picture of a guy with great style. Because 'That's a picture of so-and-so, and I can sell that — it doesn't matter how he looks.' But nobody looks great everyday, and so it was really kind of killing the mystery, but to them it was just a photograph, and a photograph they can sell. So there were too many images.
And when you look online at magazines, who's editing these things [the photographs]? I know from speaking to other photographer — they [the editors] want 50 or 60 images a day, but when you go to a fashion event, that doesn't mean there are going to be 50 or 60 people who look great. So I think both with the websites and with Instagram, it's that need for more that's really killing it, and the lack of editing. It's not even necessarily that the photographs look good or bad, it's just a lack of editing.
You've traveled extensively to photograph fashion and menswear, and your last book took you to India. How did that country become such a source of fascination for you?
I had done three books. I love doing books, but I didn't want to do a fourth one that was just going to be the same thing. The first three books, I really traveled all over the world and showed the compare and contrast between different places. So for the fourth book, I wanted to do something that focused on one place, and kind of compare and contrast within one place. And there were three options — three places that I thought still have such a wide variety in the way people live: India, Africa, or South America. Where you have people who in every way look just as cool and have just as great fashion as in New York or Milan or Paris, but that also lead a very simple life.
And I was also getting a chance to go out and shoot like Steve McCurry and Cartier-Bresson and challenge myself to shoot in a different way, to see things in a different way and to make my catalog more diverse. I guess maybe I talked to Steve a little bit. I've gotten to know Steve and so I asked him his point of view. He said that because I hadn't really shot that in-depth in any one particular place, he said India was the safest place, if you were gonna do a big study like that. So that sounded good, and it was also kind of far away. Africa still has a lot of European influence because it's so close, but India is totally different.
So I loved being able to focus on this new place — I didn't know very much about it, so it was going to be a great learning experience for me. And I wasn't 100 percent sure I'd be able to do it the way I wanted to do it because I wanted to shoot tribal, I also wanted to shoot very simple, and also kind of high-end — people who live a kind of very dramatic lifestyle because India's such a growing economy. And I looked for books that had done something like that and was very happy that I didn't find one, one that showed not only a very simple way of life but also the growing youth culture and the growing middle class.
So I started shooting for probably two years. Whenever I had a little free time, I'd go there and go into a city and spent time shooting, in Mumbai, and then a small village, and then somewhere else. So it took a while for me to prove to myself that I was going to be able to make the mix that I wanted. So once it started going the way that I wanted, I started selling the book. I didn't even show anyone any of that work, and I didn't even put it on Instagram, which is tricky because when you have an audience — I don't have to post all the time, but you wanna be giving them an idea of what you're doing and showing them new images. But I kind of wanted to keep this under wraps. So that was another level of trickiness.
But it was just fascinating going through these places. I do a lot of studying — what region have I not been to yet, what's going to look different. I didn't want to do just a bunch of tribal, or a bunch of young kids, so I really tried to shoot a lot of different things. So I did sports, I did music festivals, I went surfing, I went to tiny little villages. So it was really great — it was a really great challenge, and I always loved those times when I would go from Paris Fashion Week in March, staying at a very chic hotel to the next day when I'm in the middle of India, not really close to any big cities, and it's totally different. I really loved that contrast, to be in two such different things, and to have to communicate in such a different way. In Paris a lot of people know me, but in India, the way you interact with people's totally different. So it was really a fun challenge.
The new book is a great mashup of your images as well as a style guide for the modern man. Did you sense a hole in the market amongst menswear literature for something like this?
I knew there were a lot of guides out there, but they seemed like they were always very traditional. It was always very 'suited,' it was always kind of putting down fashion in a way. And I just didn't feel that there was one that kind of married fashion and style and treated both equally respectfully. With all my books, I think I always try to treat all the styles with equal respect. And they're only really interesting when you're comparing and contrasting, but you're doing it in such a way that one can tell you respect both ways.
I just hadn't seen a book like that. It's the same thing I did with the India book, with any of the other ones — I have to kind of go out and prove to myself that there's nothing quite like that, and that there's a reason to do the book. So I thought it would be great to do a book that shows innate style and classic style, but then push that right up against hardcore fashion. And also to have illustrations, because I still think fit is very important.
For someone like me — I'm 53 — I've gotten to the point where I just want things to look nice. I don't necessarily need to be fashionable, but I just want to look nice, and that's about fit. And I do think you can wear fashionable clothes and try to make them fit and look good on you. I think the tricky part for a lot of fashion people is they think, 'Oh, so-and-so designed that, I shouldn't touch it, I shouldn't do anything to it — I should just wear it the way they designed it.' And it doesn't necessarily make them look great. They look fashionable, but it doesn't necessarily look great on them.
So I think with this book I tried to help guys take back the power and say, 'I can be fashionable and look great.' I probably spent like a year and a half on that book, which overlapped between the India book and the menswear book. But a lot of it was looking at books that have already come out and deciding, 'That doesn't seem relevant anymore,' 'I don't think I need to go deeply into this...' And so I think doing more about sustainability, and how to wash and dry your clothes, how to hem a pair of pants, how to sew a button on. I really tried to think about a guy who's coming out of college, starting to make his money, and wants to look nice but also wants to be a little fashionable, and also be sustainable. So those were all kind of the ideas behind doing that book.
There's a great quote in your book to the effect that someone wearing a $5,000 suit that doesn't fit will never look as good as someone in a $500 suit that fits well. That being said, do you feel there's a lower price limit to a quality suit? How should a younger guy who's just coming into the workforce, say, approach this?
It's a lot of little things. You can spend almost any amount. Right now, I think I'm wearing all Uniqlo. Uniqlo does great dress shirts, they do great knitwear, they do great casual wear. Their jackets and stuff aren't that great. But if you spend a little extra — and I think the problem a lot of guys have, as well as women, is that they don't want to spend that much on tailors, and to have things altered. That's why I did this whole thing (in the book) about 'respect for the alterist.' Because if you're willing to pay for it, you can actually make it look very good.
Or, buy vintage. One of my favorite photographs from the third book was a kid in South Africa who would just go buy vintage suits and then take them to the tailor and have them really recut, because he was such a slim guy. And maybe they didn't look perfect on him, but the guy looked great because he was so happy with them. There was something about his pride in wearing them that made it so charming. But I think you can buy something at almost any price now and make it look pretty good.
The onset of COVID-19 (and working from home) seems to have coincided neatly with a slide into ever more casual menswear. Have you noticed an exacerbation of this trend because of the virus?
I think it's a natural evolution — I just think it was sped up a little bit with the virus. Already, doing the research for the men's book, one thing you learn right away is that sports has always been the catalyst that changed the way men dressed. So whether it was way back with horse riding, or golf, and now it's basketball and football — now guys are into those kind of fabrications, shorts and stuff like that — so I'm not that surprised that we continue to get more casual, because a tuxedo is just a more casual version of a more formal dress, of a long jacket with tails.
So we're always getting more casual, we're always being influenced by sports. But I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. I think the thing that we're missing right now, the thing that makes it seem a little jarring, is that when you would wear a suit or something a little bit more tailored, maybe you had a beautiful wool jacket in a plaid with a cotton striped shirt and a silk dotted tie with great flannel pants. So that outfit had a lot of texture, and it had a lot of pattern — it was something to look at. Guys who dressed really great, it was a chance for them to really show their artistry, how they put together those combinations of stripe and pattern and plaid and all that, and I thought it was really beautiful. That's one thing I've always appreciated when I'm shooting.
But with sportswear, if you go into a Nike, if you go into a lot of these places, the clothes right now are so solid. This makes it really boring for the most part — when was the last time you saw a beautiful plaid hoodie? There's no reason that a hoodie can't be plaid, there's not reason that sweatpants can't be plaid, or a t-shirt. When you think back to the '70s, there was a lot of knitwear — it was very, very big, but it was always these beautiful colors and patterns and all of this. I think it's gonna be fine if we get to the point where we're wearing more casual clothes and things like that, but I think the designers and the audience have to catch up, to say 'Even though I'm wearing sweatpants, I still want to have the fun and the artistry of working with different textures and colors and patterns and all of that.' So I think the market is just a little behind, and not giving us things to make it look more interesting.
Now when a guy walks in wearing a pair of grey or black sweatpants, they're not that beautiful, they're just sweatpants. But imagine if they started doing it more in stretch wool, or they were striped, or they were plaid, or whatever. There used to be in the '80s a fabric, wool crepe, like a flannel but it had more texture to it. So if you did that with a stretch in a sweatpant and then a cashmere hoodie, and a knit shirt — which feels like t-shirt, just in the shape of a shirt — that would have all the comfort, it would have all the texture and the color... maybe you wear a scarf. (I have a thing in the book about bandanas, kind of to replace the tie.) So I think there's definitely ways of doing all the things that we used to do, to have all the beauty that we used to have, in this new silhouette with these new fabrications — just now, I think the market has to catch up to that.
Maybe the pandemic got ahead of them. All the pants I buy now have some kind of stretch, whether they're stretch pants or it's wool with a bit of stretch, I want that. And so now hopefully the mills are starting to see, ok, they still want beautiful flannels and things like that, but we've got to give it a little bit of stretch, or do the waistband in a way that's more comfortable and has more stretch. So I don't think of any of it as bad. I think we haven't found the person yet who has shown us how to dress in this new way.
Every era has had their one or two designers who've showed their vision, and I don't think we've got anyone yet who has shown us how to dress in this mix of tailored and streetwear, but that's the fun of fashion, that's why you still got to fashion week. There was a day when Thom Browne had his first show, and everyone saw it and went, 'Oh my God, that's gonna be the look of the next ten years.' I think we're just waiting on whoever this next person is to show us how to dress in this new way that's exciting and modern.
Do you think we've come far enough to where what you're describing — this elevated form of casual wear — has permeated the zeitgeist enough that it's acceptable on, say, a Zoom call?
One of the phrases I used in the book, I talked about how when something looks considered, it always looks better. What looks sloppy is when it looks like you didn't even pay any attention — you didn't consider what you were wearing, you just threw something on. In the book I've got one double-spread of two guys wearing hoodies, and they look great. One's wearing a hoodie with a fedora and an overcoat. Any piece that you wear can look great, but you have to consider it. So if you're gonna do a Zoom call and you want to wear a hoodie, and it's a beautiful teal color, and you've got a beautiful yellow t-shirt underneath and maybe a neckerchief or something that kind of ties all the colors together, I think the person on the other side says, 'That person looks casual, but they also look considered. They've really put thought into this and had a bit of fun with it.'
Everyone wants to talk about nonchalance —'Oh, that guy's just so elegant, he just kind of threw it on! It's so effortless!' But of course there's effort. All those guys who look great put a lot of effort into it, or they put a lot of effort into shopping for it, and then when they get dressed, because they've shopped so well, it just all goes together and looks great. But I think as long as you look considered, you can definitely do a Zoom call in that.
I guess it's more akin to sprezzatura — it's like the consideration is going on behind the scenes, but it seems effortless.
Yeah. Nike, for instance — one thing they're just starting to get good at is giving us more interesting color combinations. So now once in a while they'll do a delivery and it's like a really beautiful, interesting shade of yellow or whatever, and I think that's what's gonna save sportswear, because right now so much of it is just very sports-driven colors. I would love to photograph guys on the street who are wearing streetwear in really beautiful color combinations and stuff like that — I'm totally open to it, I just don't see it.
And I think that's what's gonna make guys look really great in the future. It's why I do think that there's a space for a designer to come along and figure out that niche right between casual and dress that has all the beautiful elements of what tailoring used to be in terms of mixing those patterns and textures with the casualness of streetwear. I think it's potentially gonna look great in the future — we're just in that in-between moment.
You spoke a bit about your inspiration in the beginnings of your career — about Armani ads, pages in GQ, etc. Can you speak to who inspires you today with respect to fashion and menswear?
You know I've actually been going back and looking at these old Armani pieces and stuff — I don't really wear much of it now, but a lot of the old Armani from '86, '87, '88, looks so good. The pants are a little bit more fluid, they used softer fabrics, they're higher on the waist. They look comfortable. Whereas you get someone like Celine and the clothes are so slim, and so skinny, that you might look great, but you're not very comfortable. Whereas I could totally imagine sitting around the house in double-pleated Armani pants, with beautiful shirts that had more volume to them, with big double-patch pockets on the front, and it was much more casual, and there was much more pattern, there was more color combination, there was more texture. So for me, I'm finding a lot of inspiration in those old Armani ads just now, lately since I've been here.
But also people, and these little Italian brands I feel very inspired by. Prada, I'm always very inspired by. I think she does a great combination of bourgeois and very kind of modern, technical fabrics, things like that. Valentino, Pierpaolo [Piccioli, their creative director] — that's one of the reasons I asked him to do the intro to the book. I think he's just on fire — what he's doing for men's, women's is just so good. The color combinations, the way he's mixing inspirations and influences. For me, I think he's probably the best men's designer right now.
In the past I think Dries [van Noten] has always been really important — for me personally I think it's been a little bumpy lately. But yeah — I think those are the ones who are probably the most inspiring to me right now.
What's on the horizon for you? What's next?
For right now, no books. There was a 3-year period where I knew I had two books I had to get done and every day I'd think, oh no, I have to get these done. So I'm very happy right now not having any books to deal with, just going out and shooting. As soon as the pandemic is over and loosens up a little bit, I want to start traveling a bit. Maybe not focus on one particular area, but maybe mix it up a little bit more, maybe go explore the U.S. a little bit. Earlier today I was looking at The New York Times trying to figure out what areas would be interesting that aren't having big surges again. Right now it looks like I might not be able to travel at all until maybe Pitti Uomo or something like that.
But I don't know. I don't think many people know what the future holds. Right now I'm still going out and shooting. It's much harder because there's fewer people out now, it's much harder because it's hard to communicate when you're wearing a mask. It's hard for them to hear you, it's hard for them to pick up on your body language and feel comfortable with you. And they don't necessarily want strangers walking up to them. So I still go out and shoot but I think everything's just kind of in a holding pattern right now.
When things start to loosen up, I'm hoping I can do a little bit in Africa. I'd like to do more in the U.S., I'd like to do a couple places in South America. But right now is just kind of a research time.