The rise of the "attention economy"

Australian blogger, photographer and model Candice Lake.

Australian blogger, photographer and model Candice Lake. Photo: Getty images

It is a bright winter afternoon at London Fashion Week, and the entrance to Somerset House is lined with photographers. The cameras they are wielding vary from hulking SLRs to compact smartphones, but they have all come in search of the same thing: a photo of someone in an outrageous outfit, or better yet, a glimpse of a bona fide street style star.

Local fashion student Craig Field, 21, has been stopped for photographs since he arrived. A student at the London College of Fashion, Craig came to Somerset House “to see what people are wearing,” and his own outfit is attracting more attention than most.

Decked out in yellow lace-ups, jungle print leggings, an oversized Adidas jersey and a leather jacket, Craig’s piece de resistance – and the reason he is so irresistible to photographers – is his black, fringed cap, which covers his oversized, eighties style eyeglasses. “In London, people are so creative with the way they dress,” he tells me. “I think London is definitely the most creative of all the major fashion weeks.” Metres from where we are standing, a woman is circling the grounds in a spotted playsuit and a giant white cat’s head. Creative, indeed.

Russian street style star Miroslava Duma.

Russian street style star Miroslava Duma. Photo: Getty images

London may be the most avant-garde of the big four fashion weeks (that’s New York, London, Milan and Paris, for the uninitiated), but it is not the only one to have become as defined by what takes place outside the shows, as by the collections that are presented on the runways.


“In Milan, the street style is really lively but understated,” says fashion illustrator Danielle Meder, who sketched the New York runway shows for Women’s Wear Daily earlier this month, and has worked at each of the major fashion weeks. “In Paris, there is much more of a paparazzi feel. The superstars show up and everyone clusters around them like crazy. London and New York are a little more DIY.”

A mix of social media, digital photography, and reality TV culture have turned fashion professionals like Vogue Japan’s Anna Dello Russo, fashion retailer Moda Operandi’s Taylor Tomasi Hill, Wonderland Magazine’s Julia Sarr-Jamois and Vogue Australia fashion director Christine Centenera into international celebrities, whose images are sought out by photographers, sold for cash, and reproduced and emulated by fashion fans online, on websites such as Pinterest, Polyvore and Tumblr.

And while the scene at Somerset House isn’t all fringed caps and oversized cat’s heads, there is a uniformity of purpose to the pin-thin heels, oversized accessories, designer logo t-shirts, and bare legs in near-freezing temperatures. They are dressing for the camera, and for social media, where he or she with the most dramatic outfit – think Dello Russo’s fruit-shaped hats or Tomasi Hill’s cartoonishly large Comme de Garcon shorts – wins.

“Obviously there is an economy at work here, and it’s the attention economy,” Meder says. She refers to the concept of “visual hierarchy,” a term used by graphic designers to describe the human eye’s tendency to notice some objects – fluorescents, for example, of which there are plenty at Somerset House  – before others. “London Fashion week looks like Roger Rabbit’s Toontown because there are so many people competing in the visual hierarchy game. It becomes a competition to see who can be the brightest, the tallest, the most holographic.”

And being the brightest, the tallest, or the most holographic can lead to serious business opportunities. Last year, Dello Russo teamed up with fast fashion giant H&M with a collection of bold blue and gold accessories. Australia’s Centenera, meanwhile, has collaborated with rapper Kanye West on his fashion line. It’s a far cry from the black-clad, interchangeable fashion editors of the days of old.

But not everyone is impressed by the transformation. Suzy Menkes, an editor at the International Herald Tribune and one of the world’s most influential fashion critics, published an article this month titled ‘The Circus of Fashion,’ which critiqued the shift in media focus away from the shows and onto bloggers and editors, and an evolution of the dominant aesthetic away from the “understated chic” typified by (who else?) the French to the “look-at-me fashion” embodied by Dello Russo, brand consultant Michelle Harper, and Russian blogger Miroslava Duma.

“Today, the people outside fashion shows are more like peacocks than crows,” Menkes despaired. “They pose and preen, in their multipatterned dresses, spidery legs balanced on club-sandwich platform shoes, or in thigh-high boots under sculptured coats blooming with flat flowers.”

Menkes’ view was shared by several of the photographers I spoke with for this story, who spoke of “street style stars” who changed their outfits several times a day for maximum social media exposure, or who turned up to shows in the same gifted designer items (think the ubiquitous green Kenzo sweaters and t-shirts from last year’s Spring Summer shows) in the name of “individuality.”

 “You look at the photos from New York Fashion Week and you see those girls walking around in stilettos and not much else, during a snow storm,” says London photographer Michelle Bobb-Parris. “They’re dressing for the shot, knowing their images are probably going to be used to illustrate spring and summer stories.”

Journalist and photographer Jessica Klingelfuss is more blunt. “The point of fashion week is to see someone else’s designs, which they’ve put months into creating. Not to get attention for yourself.” Even Susie Lau, one of the bloggers mentioned in Menkes’ piece, admitted sheepishly in her online response, “We are all peacocking, however much we doth protest.”

But this is high fashion we are talking about. Peacocking is what it’s all about. Or to put it more kindly, when has fashion not been about make a statement through aesthetics?

“A lot of peacock types do come to fashion week wanting attention for themselves,” Meder acknowledges. “But why does Suzy Menkes have that poufy little hairdo? Why did [the deceased Italian fashion writer] Anna Piaggi dress like an antique shop had exploded all over her? It was okay for them to do it back then, but now that ordinary people want to do it, instead of just fashion insiders, it’s apparently a problem. I don’t buy that.”

Besides, Meder says, the designers are doing exactly the same thing. “The fall and winter collections this year have featured their fair share of grey and black, but there is so much colour happening in ways that never used to happen in the 1980s and 1990s. It used to be black in winter, and colour in summer. Now it’s colour all the time.” This emphasis on being visually arresting – of dressing your way to the top of the “visual hierarchy” - is filtering through to popular culture too, with performers such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Rita Ora as well known for their unique aesthetics as for their music.

And where do the street style superstars source their dramatic outfits from if not from the wares of the designers whose spotlight they are supposedly stealing?

Menkes is not wrong – modern fashion week is a human circus. But it is a circus that is making the industry it celebrates more accessible and exciting than it has been in some time. And given the choice because a circus and a flock of interchangeable “crows,” I’ll take a colourful, creative, over-the-top circus any time.