“Yesterday I was in Bali and I was up super early to go to this local market. It wasn’t the cleanest looking: meat, chicken and fish were out all over the place on these tiled tables covered in blood,” he says. “I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t have worn my Birkenstocks but everyone else is in sandals. But I got some really great shots that morning so I went back … it was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time because I got great, great shots.”
For all the travel, high fashion and luxury in his life, that’s what it’s all about for Schuman: the perfect photograph.
“The hard part is continuing to challenge yourself and take chances and move forward,” he admits. “It would be easy to just go to Paris and those places but that’s when it gets boring, that’s when it feels like work. You actually do want to go to that little market in Bali.”
While Schuman often dreams of escaping to Ecuador (it’s on his must-visit list), thousands of style bloggers clamour to get to Paris. Starting The Sartorialist in 2005 had a profound influence on the blogosphere and the fashion industry, introducing the concept of the street fashion blog while simultaneously spawning a generation of imitators and democratising the insular world of fashion. Almost a decade later, for better or worse, bloggers are feted by PRs and designers, sitting front row alongside magazine editors.
“People were always interested in looking at real people on the street, going into a shopping centre and watching everyone walk by. I just shone a light on it in a way we hadn’t seen before … it opened people’s eyes up to the real beauty that’s around them,” he says, insisting that, just as cinema learned to co-exist with the VCR, fashion blogs won’t usurp traditional media. “One doesn’t replace the other. In a perfect world it’s great to still be inspired by these great fashion editorials in these really romantic, exotic places and also see things from the street,” he explains.
Schuman himself has worked for Vogue Italia, Vogue Paris, GQ and Interview; he collaborates with global fashion brands like Burberry and Gap; the Bali stopover happened en route to Australia, as a judge for the 2013/14 International Woolmark Prize (IWP), where he crowned Christopher Esber regional finalist.
Before The Sartorialist, Schuman promoted and sold the work of young designers for 15 years and he sees his role with the IWP as much about mentoring as passing judgment.
“When I had a showroom I’d help these designers try to figure out how to articulate who they are, what’s unique about them,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I agreed to do this. For me the real interesting thing is to get to work with these young designers and see and talk with them and challenge them.”
His advice to the eight finalists?
“A lot of people confuse ‘new’ with ‘good’,” he says. “I don’t want to try out new things, I just want to look nice...I don’t need to see three sleeves on my jacket, I don’t need a new crazy thing.”
Drawing parallels with his own work, Schuman points out that while he didn’t invent street style photography, he brought a unique perspective. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but bring your own life experiences and interests—figure out how to translate that.”
And that’s what he believes is missing from many style blogs today. “It just feels like these small town people who want to act like they’re New York editors as opposed to capturing the reality of what their experience is … you just have to have that vision.”
Harnessing a vision and being discerning with it is something Schuman has always been adept at—often to the chagrin of his subjects.
“I’m very selfish in the shots I want to take. If I’m not feeling it, I just don’t do it,” he says. “I shot [Vogue Japan editor-at-large] Anna Dello Russo a lot in the beginning but then there were times I didn’t shoot her. It makes it awkward but you also earn respect. Other guys take photos of everyone every day, there’s no edit and they don’t have the balls to say ‘no’. Maybe I’m just not in the mood, maybe the light is not right, maybe I don’t like what you’re wearing. But I don’t let them make me feel bad about not doing it … trust me I’ll shoot you when it’s right.”
So primp and preen as much as you like—peacocking, Schuman calls it—but it won’t make him remove his lens cap: quite the opposite. “If I feel like they’re doing it on purpose, it makes me feel self conscious,” he says. Besides, it’s about that perfect shot. “They always stand in some place that’s not good light. I’d find the best light so any photographer who’s half smart can’t not take that shot.”
Another deterrent to unwanted attention is Schuman’s reputation as a prickly character, although it’s less his mood that’s the problem, more his eyesight.
“People don’t mess with me at shows because I look pissed off most times,” he says of his habit of squinting when not wearing glasses. “I think I have a bad reputation. Everyone thinks I’m pretty grumpy—which I might be. I’m okay with that. I don’t need people to be my friend I just need to take my photographs.”
From farming to fashion, the dapper designer has forged a life in style