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Photo: Georgie Wileman/Getty
Photo: Georgie Wileman/Getty

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My Brief Career as a Street Style Star

For a little while in the early 2010s, I loved nothing more than getting snapped for the perusal of faceless internet strangers

There was that time in front of the Flatiron building, when a group of Korean creative types spotted me while on a mission for hot looks in Manhattan.

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Then there was that other time I was waiting at the barber and a photographer noticed my trying-way-too-hard hat. I ended up in New York magazine.

And that time I got snapped on the subway wearing Yohji Yamamoto hakama pants.

For a little while there, in the early 2010s, I was a street-style star.

Okay, "star" probably isn't the right word, but suffice to say that I got my photo taken more than the average dude out there, and I was a couple of standard deviations more obsessed with it than the average dude.

For almost as long as I can remember, I've been extremely keen about clothes. I think it's because, being the child of Vietnamese immigrants, I always wondered how I could blend in with the rest of the kids, who in my eyes had an aura so effortlessly cool I reasoned it must have come from their sneakers. I remember a massive part of my brain power from fifth through eighth grade went toward answering the question, "Where does everyone go to buy their shorts?" (Answer: Miller's Outpost.)

Everyone could judge, critique, curate, elaborate, examine, deconstruct, reconstruct, appropriate, and remix style, endlessly.

This preoccupation underwent permutations through high school, college, and post-college, coming and going like a bad cold. It probably would have ossified into a sense of style more appropriate for a twenty-something recent grad with an ax to grind on the pop-culture stone, something akin to the Zuckerburg Uniform, but with more neckwear. had it not been for one thing: the internet, and the emergence of the street-style blog.

In the beginning, I mostly saw street-style fashion photography in obscure texts and coffee-table books. Fruits documented tribes of young people dressed in clothing fit for the neo-apocalypse. VICE's Do's and Don'ts (god, remember that?) chronicled scenester misbehavior as much as personal style.

The internet changed that, putting the eye of the beholder onto the world wide web. Now, everyone was a street photographer, and everyone was a street style demi-god. Everyone could judge, critique, curate, elaborate, examine, deconstruct, reconstruct, appropriate, and remix style, endlessly. Personal street-style blogs exploded. The Old Men of men's street style —€” The Sartorialist, and A Continuous Lean — started up in the mid-aughts, and brought a masculine strain to style documentation that showed red-blooded males an open door into fashion.

I lived in the Bay Area at the time. I started my own fashion blog, but it meandered between being overly philosophical and just plain catty. I had a style that was a mix of Pink Polo Kanye and DIY Pee Wee. It was a fun, adventurous, almost innocent time for internet fashion. Then I moved to New York City.

I've never worked in fashion proper; the whole scene was always too intimidating for me. I worked for awhile at a menswear startup, but generally I stalked along street fashion's periphery, attending various low-level events, watching my Twitter-follower count climb to the low dozens, and hoping, still, to get my picture taken.

I stalked along street fashion's periphery, attending various low-level events, hoping to get my picture taken.

And it would happen. A stop on the street, perhaps a quick introduction. A few awkward snaps. Having your picture taken on a crowded New York street always draws the eyes of passersby. Sometimes you felt like a star, sometimes you felt like a total idiot. What boys play dress-up, after all? Afterwards you'd exchange information: Oh yes, I'm a writer, too, check out my blog and I'll check out yours. Then you'd wait until the photos were finally posted, maybe share it with your followers, send a quick thank you note, and the game would continue.

At some point though, the scene changed. First, there was Instagram, that photo-centric app that has been called the silver bullet of the style blog. No need to write anything up or create elaborate spreads when a simple 640 x 640 would do.

Brands also became wise to the whole thing. They took bloggers and photographers —€” sometimes for the large numbers of eyeballs they could reach, and sometimes for their genuine technical or creative prowess — and made them toe the dotted line. Blogging had gone corporate.

The pinnacle of my so-called street-fashion "career" was around 2012. Melodie Jeng, a street and fashion photographer, set up an appointment with me and snapped a few pictures in a park. She posted it, I liked it. The photo was eventually picked up in a "best of" weekly roundup by Complex Magazine.

But that was about it. In the coming years, a number of publications sounded the death knell of the personal style blog. Heavy hitters closed up shop and moved on to bigger things.

In the world of business-speak, it was a classic case of the first-mover advantage. That is, a number of blogs and personalities were the first to move into the mind-space of personal and street style, had acquired followers, filled social-media feeds, built up networks, provided what at the time was innovative content, and then decided to cash the fuck out. The helicopter was taking off, and now everyone who wasn't an early adopter was left to burn on the erupting volcano, languishing with low follower counts and fighting for creative scraps.

At some point, the bottom line became clear: I was out the game.

It was around this time that my own personal style changed. It's not that I had lost interest in fashion (I was still a bit of an obsessive), but I had gotten older. I had long-term personal and professional relationships that sort of aged me out of the demographic. The serotonin kick that my younger self got from making connections with faceless internet strangers didn't affect me anymore. Those receptors had long atrophied.

The bottom line was clear: I was out the game. I had hung up my bow ties and sprezzatura for Vans and graphic tees.

A few weeks ago, I went to a fashion week event near my apartment. It was Creature of Comfort's spring and summer 2016 show, and even in the frigid temperatures, a sizable line snaked around the block. While civilians bundled up in black puffy jackets, the fashion faithful took the opportunity to layer. A swarm of photographers, some themselves dressed quite smartly, coalesced and dispersed as VIPs arrived like a cloud of very hip gnats.

For a second, I remembered the thrill and disappointment of the street snap, the feeling of being an outsider desperate to be on the inside, of being a middle-school boy and just wanting to fit in during third period algebra.

I walked among the photographers like a ghost. I had on baggy, tiger-striped military pants from a surplus store, some Vans skate shoes, and a big, boxy puffer coat from Land's End. I had put together my outfit mainly for comfort (it was freezing, after all), but with some hat-tips to contemporary trends, those hidden runes of style that only an insider would discern. I was out of the game, but maybe someone would still take notice.

But that day the photographers were unimpressed, and aimed their lenses elsewhere.

When he's not looking for validation from strangers with cameras, Michael D. Nguyen is a writer and advertising guy living in New York City.


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