Q&A: Tommy Ton on the rise of streetwear, gender-fluid fashion, and graphic tees

Updated on September 20 2017

Tommy Ton is a name familiar to all fashion pundits. And sitting right across us, between a marble meeting table set in the plush millennial pink lounge of Shanghai’s Plaza 66 luxury mall, was the storied street style photographer. Flying in from New York — and missing Raf Simons’ Calvin Klein show — Ton was in China’s largest metropolis as a guest for the grand unveiling of the revamped mall.

So was a bevy of high-flyers the likes of the Grammy award-winning singer Alicia Keys, who belted three of her chart-toppers for the 3,000-strong crowd at the opening night’s mega bash, and renowned art photographer David LaChapelle, who snapped highlights of the festivities that spread out throughout the massive 290,000-square-metre shopping emporium. It was apparent the no-holds-barred gala was an attempt to tip the scales of China’s declining luxury retail market to Plaza 66’s favour.

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A Ton-lensed street style shot from Copenhagen Fashion Week. (Photo: Tommy Ton)

“The keyword is ‘exclusivity’,” Ton remarked. “For the Chinese customer, I think that is crucial.” His words rang true: The mall claims to exclusively carry 66 special items (yes, a nod to its moniker) from labels such as Loewe, Bottega Veneta, and Chopard. Aside from his well-trained fashion eye, Ton is also well-versed in the business aspect of the industry. The Oakville native once landed a gig in the buying office of Holt Renfrew, Canada’s leading luxury department store, before embarking on a photography journey with his former fashion blog Jak & Jil.

His big break came when Hong Kong-based department store chain Lane Crawford tapped on his expertise to capture the store’s Spring/Summer 2009 campaign — landing on billboards to glossies. The photographer was further propelled into fashion stardom when Style.com and GQ.com got him to cover fashion month’s street style. Recently, he started his own website, tommyton.com, which features an impressive archive of 15,000 images, gathered from a decade of zealous shooting.

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Tommy Ton. (Photo: Brandon Shigeta)

Here in Shanghai with us, the hallowed photographer gave the low-down on everything fashion: From what it means to be a fashion victim to the irresistible lustre of streetwear — as seen through his lens.

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Here we are in Shanghai for Plaza 66’s reopening. Amidst the global decline of luxury retail, what do you think is needed to boost it?

I think it’s important that what you’re buying into is one-of-a-kind and unique. The problem with social media is when a brand or product is overly exposed, it loses its lustre. There’s definitely room for improvement. Some brands need to offer more tailor-made or bespoke services that are unique to consumers — because sometimes we might like something, but we want to add our personal imprint.

Given that you’re a photographer who gets to see trends unfolding on the streets, what’s your take on current key trends?

I see streetwear is really making an impact on the industry. It’s kind of funny, because we work in fashion, we love creativity — and how now we can embrace a graphic t-shirt, it’s just surprising.

It’s really interesting to see how fashion’s cultural landscape has changed from,”Oh no, not streetwear!” to Louis Vuitton collaborating with Supreme. The stigma has changed. People are willing to embrace the high and low. A friend of mine — who’s very blonde and very American — loves wearing Valentino. So last season when I saw her wear a Supreme t-shirt, I was like, “Oh my God. What’s happening?” That’s what has become of the market: Streetwear is considered luxury now to both a 20-year-old and a 40-year-old. The fact that a t-shirt with a red box logo that costs only $10 to make can cost $500 online, that’s really crazy.

tommy ton street style graphic t shirt
Graphic tees are the thing of the moment. (Photo: Tommy Ton)

Why is streetwear so appealing?

It’s more about what it represents, it’s more about making a statement, and I hate the word “trendy” — but at the moment, it is. When you buy something from an Italian or French brand, you expect craftsmanship — so the fact that you’re spending $600 on a t-shirt begs the question, “Why?”

So I think that’s where fashion is. It’s all about options. But when brands are charging so much for a graphic T-shirt, it drives people to want to be more educated. People are frustrated with consumer pricing, and they’re reconsidering what they’re buying.

With the increasingly breakneck speed of digital and e-commerce, do you think fashion is moving too fast?

Oh, definitely. I do miss the days when I first became interested in fashion in 1997. I would pick up the newspaper, read a paragraph about the new Gucci collection — and that alone could bring me pure excitement. Now, it’s like, this morning, I was live-streaming the Calvin Klein show. It’s instant. And this whole see-now-buy-now system, it’s sad because the whole point of collections coming out six months in advance is to build that sense of excitement and mystery. You think to yourself, “When it comes, I’ll buy it.” But the fact that you can now buy it right away and wear it the next day, it’s kind of like, “Okay, next!” It takes away the anticipation, when that’s what fashion is all about.

Which means designers are always asked about what’s next in the pipeline, and consumers have to find ways to keep up with fast-moving trends.

I always ask people to just go back and try to find something they’ve never bought before; something they wanted when they were 18 or 19. I mean, go find that Prada coat you wanted from 2004. There are just so many clothes in the world. And when you love fashion, you have memories of pieces and you think,”I wish I bought that Céline coat” — and you can. Rather than focusing on what’s new all the time, just revisit the pieces you wanted a few years back. Plus, hey, it’s gonna be 90 percent off. Scoring something that you wanted but didn’t pursue in the past, has a more personal impact. It’s kind of like dating.

Rekindling old flames, you mean?

Sort of. I have these really great moments where I saw something that I couldn’t afford back in the day, and finally getting that piece now has more meaning than getting it instantly. That’s why when I do order something the day after the show, I’m like, I’m not gonna wear it now. I’m gonna leave it in my closet for another year or two. That’s more interesting when you can mix your clothes from different seasons. When you have to be wearing all the new stuff right off the runway, that’s what makes a fashion victim.

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Fashion victims? (Photo: Tommy Ton)

You’ve been doing street style photography for a decade. Looking back, what thoughts or emotions come to mind?

Exhaustion. I’m still excited, because if I wasn’t excited, I won’t be doing this job. I’m very grateful, because I get to travel, meet the people I look up to, and work with [some of the best] designers. I’m still very happy and thankful — but at the same time, I’m hungry for change and to be challenged.

What inspires your style of dressing? Do the people you shoot inspire you in any way?

Yes, I always relook at things. I’ll look at some shots and go, ”Oh, I would never have thought of wearing it like that.” Because that’s the interesting thing about seeing clothes in the everyday. It’s not on a model and yes, clothes do look better on models — but when you see someone that has a new sense of style, it’s refreshing.

You know my friend, Eugene Tong [fashion consultant and former style director of men’s magazine Details], he usually wears basics. But there are so many times where I’ll have dinner with him and I’d think, ”Oh, I need those shoes.” I never thought I’d consider those shoes — but that’s the thing with editors or stylists, they have a sense of confidence. That’s why for me, it’s such a pleasure to take pictures of these people, because they love wearing clothes. The clothes aren’t wearing them.

What are your current go-to labels?

I always wear Prada. For some reason, I keep buying the same shirts from one season in 2014. Quite recently, I’ve taken a liking to Issey Miyake. And if I could fit into Céline, I would love to.

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Yoyo Cao at Paris Fashion Week, as captured by Ton. (Photo: Tommy Ton)

You totally could. Are there any other specific labels you often wear, or would love to wear?

I could actually. I’m excited to see how fashion is now very genderfluid, especially in Asia. It’s nice to see, like Jonathan Yee [founder and fashion director of fashion magazine Manifesto], wearing Céline and I’m like, ”Ugh. If he can wear that, I can wear that.” And obviously, I’d love to wear Dries Van Noten, Acne Studios, and Marni.

I used to travel with so much luggage, but no one has ever taken my pictures, so why should I care? So I’m a lot more comfortable in the way that I dress. I guess the brand that I wear the most is Nike.

Fashion month has kicked off; what do you look forward to capturing on the streets?

I don’t know. I like to be surprised. That’s the fun part about fashion. You never know what you’re going to see. If I knew, that’d be very boring.

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