Street style used to be fun. In the early days of The Sartorialist -- granddaddy of street style blogs -- photographer Scott Schuman snapped natty New York City pedestrians as he found them, on the grounds of a perfectly tied scarf, a breathtaking print, or some certain sartorial instinct.
Today, the ones getting Instagrammed (by countless spawn of Schuman) are hardly paragons of effortless style. Street fashion has become a cold-blooded industry made up of people determined to be in the right place in the right clothes at the right time, often dressed head to toe in borrowed togs from a designer who gets free advertising. Calculation is so common, Tim Blanks, editor-at-large of Style.com, recently likened the business of street style to reality TV. Both, he argued "make monsters.”
A girl in Tokyo. ©2014 James Bent.
Increasingly these monsters are visible beyond the pavement outside Fashion Week shows. James Bent, a Singapore-based photographer who identifies with first-wave street style philosophy, has documented stylish citizens in Asia's largest cities since 2010. Over the years, he says, his level of discernment has changed along with the mood. Even in cities like Taipei, Tokyo, and Seoul, where street style blogs are a relatively new concept, “it’s getting difficult to walk around without seeing people who expect to be photographed,” he says.
Frankie, in Taipei. ©2014 James Bent.
Speaking to HuffPost by phone, Bent described consciously avoiding models or "fashion people" to discover subjects with what he calls that "special thing." This alchemical quality lives inside a “normal person who’s somehow special, because they’ve done something to themselves, something interesting, regardless of what kind of physique they were born with, or the look in their face.”
Lin Xiu Wei, in Taipei. ©2014 James Bent.
Finn Tsai, in Taipei. ©2014 James Bent.
Bent, whose portraits will enjoy a wide release this month in a book titled Asian Street Fashion, has always been interested in character. An amateur writer, he began shooting in Singapore with the thought that he might find visually interesting subjects to build fictional short stories around -- maybe a punk, or a dresser so exquisite she radiates a life tightly wound. As he journeyed deeper into the hobby and further across the continent, he swapped his writerly ambitions for a more anthropological role. In Tokyo, he found women who dress with the spirit of young girls, in skirts and pigtails. Hong Kong revealed a “mish-mash” of styles, which he puts down to the city’s varied history. Seoul is his favorite location to shoot in: “sexy” and mature, with clean lines and heavy fabrics.
Choi Haeln and Hyun, in Seoul. ©2014 James Bent.
Chuckle, in Taipei. ©2014 James Bent.
Plastic surgery is notoriously popular in many of these cities, particularly Seoul and Tokyo. “You see it everywhere,” Bent says. “The advertisements are all over the train stations, and people are just walking around with their faces bandaged up.” He admits to seeking out people with “natural” faces, where that "specialness" seems to have protected them from the sense that something deep inside must be changed.
Chie, in Osaka. ©2014 James Bent.
But the monsters are encroaching. Brent says he'd love to take his camera into the parts of the continent as yet untouched by street style insanity, "all the way across to Europe, all the -stan countries. They're technically part of west Asia," he says hopefully. "I look at all that and think, I would love to cover it."
Seung Hun Lee, in Seoul. ©2014 James Bent.