The business of street style has long been a murky one. Who's being paid, for wearing what, by whom, remain shady little secrets for many in the industry. "If Zanita Whittington said yes to every deal that came her way, she could earn as much as $100,000 for a single New York Fashion Week," read a profile about a well-known style blogger and influencer on the US style website Refinery29 this month. The piece went on to describe how some influencers now claim tens of thousands of dollars for a single sponsored post.
Now, the street-style industry that has evolved in recent years has been thrown into tumult by the very people who helped create the influencers in the first place. An unofficial "union" of 30 photographers who cover fashion-related events around the world have banded together to prevent the re-use of their images by influencers without full accreditation and - ideally - compensation.
The group, who wish to remain anonymous but can be identified easily on Instagram via their use of the hashtag #NoFreePhotos, have a collective following of more than three million. And they've had enough. Their aim: to call out the uncredited or unauthorised re-use of their copyright-protected photos by bloggers and influencers fulfilling their responsibilities to brands.
"The group will no longer tag or credit these influencers and will replace their tag/credit with an agreed-on hashtag: #NoFreePhotos," read a statement released last week. "In the case that a brand/influencer/blogger uses the photos without receiving the proper license and securing compensation for the photographer, a standard message will be sent to the party infringing on the photographer's intellectual property rights."
It seems only reasonable that photographers might take issue with their images being used for commercial gain. But the business of street style operates on many subtle levels, and lines of attrition have been quickly drawn. Many influencers have since insisted they never accept payment to wear clothes, and resent being identified as such. Furthermore, photographers are often beneficiaries of brand largesse themselves: paid to provide images of product as they see it on the street.
Then there's the issue of privacy. As the volume of street-style photographers continues to swell outside the shows, one might argue the photographers have themselves become a social menace. Does anyone have the right to chase someone down the street in pursuit of a picture? What of those who don't "ask" to be photographed. Is this an infringement of one's human rights? It's all very complicated.
The release insists: "We intend no malice with this action, the group simply wishes to no longer be viewed as a passive entity in the equation of this industry" But the decision has been divisive within the tight-knit community who work around the shows.
"Of course, I agree that photographers need to be compensated for their work when brands and influencers use their photos for commercial/marketing purposes, that's not even debatable," says Phil Oh, known as @thestreetpeeper, who shoots street style for US Vogue online, and who is not part of the group. "It just lacks a bit of finesse to rally behind a slogan that can just as easily be turned on the street-style photographer who has built a massive career and social media following by taking free pictures of models, influencers and fashion insiders."
Dan Roberts, who runs a street-style blog called Threadslike, and has shot for a number of editorial titles, has been frustrated that the group's anonymity "lumps all of us photographers into one". He adds: "I think it puts an unnecessary divide between us. Those who choose not to be a part of it are vilified by those within the group as unsupportive. It's not that these photographers don't agree necessarily, it's more that the way it's being handled feels dividing between both photographers and subjects."
Adam Katz Sinding, who runs the blog site Le 21ème and covers the shows for W magazine, has adopted the hashtag, although he does not speak for the group. Does he worry that the street-style industry may end up - you know - shooting itself in the foot?
"For me, it's not about the money," he insisted on Sunday afternoon, in Milan, while picking up images outside the Dolce & Gabbana show. "It's more about making the business of street style more transparent. It's been too opaque for too long. I hope this makes everything a bit more honest." And if they get remunerated, presumably, even better. He would have stayed to answer, but someone caught his eye.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.