Originally published on MYSA.
How do the professionals capture the behind-the-catwalk excitement and madness of Fashion Week? We spoke with photographer Simbarashe Cha to find out. Simbarashe opens up on Fashion Week, his fashion blog Lord Ashbury, and his career in one of the world’s most competitive industries. From working 9 to 5 as an insurance claims manager to becoming one of New York’s most preeminent fashion photographers, Simbarashe now spends his days shooting behind the scenes for brands like Carolina Herrera and Lacoste. From behind the desk five days a week to behind the scenes every season, Simbarashe Cha discovered not just his passion, but also that with a little grit, he could gain access to the coveted world of haute couture.
New York Fashion Week’s Evolution
When Simbarashe started a few years ago, Fashion Week was still reserved for industry insiders. With the rise of Instagram, Fashion Week became more accessible and mainstream.
Some people in the industry were not very happy about this change: “As [Fashion Week] became really popular, there was this immediate backlash with all the long-time media and trade people who were kind of like, ‘All these people were showing up and they really know nothing about the etiquette of the fashion world.” As a behind-the-scenes photographer, Simbarashe captures the authentic moments of the characters playing out in the staged annual affair.
Behind-the-Scenes at Lacoste, New York Fashion Week Spring 2016. “Of course, I shoot Lacoste a lot.. but that’s because I’m a genuine fan of that house.” – Simbarashe
New York Fashion Week Spring 2016
This year, Fashion Week is moving away from Lincoln Center and moving downtown with many designers selecting various private venues. One of Simbarashe’s favorites: “I really loved that Carolina Herrera had her show at the Frick. It’s a legendary venue and well known for its restrictions involving photos and a strict no-children policy. It was the most beautiful presentation you could imagine.”
Carolina Herrera chose the Frick Collection’s courtyard, which matches the designers sophisticated, feminine appeal. Penelope Cruz and Anna Wintour were in attendance.
This year, Simbarashe took a new approach: “Every season I set out to cover the fashion week calendar in a different and unique way. This season, I’m making a radical change to the way I shoot. The 85mm Zeiss that has really come to define almost all of my work over the past 3 years has been semi-retired in favor of a 35mm. This has forced me to completely ditch the way that I’m used to shooting. With a 35mm, everything is wider, so to make my subjects more compelling, I have to get close, sometimes extremely close to take the right kind of photo. It’s awkward, both for me and the person I’m shooting. But so far I love it; because I’ve never shot this way before, and it forces me to think outside the box, especially when I use it on the runway.
Before Lord Ashbury
Working for a camera retailer in Brooklyn, Simbarashe spent his days mediating customer claims for those who had bought their cameras online. After three years there, he started to feel restless: “I had a job and it was just a job. I didn’t like that it was just a job and I wanted to do something else with my life.”
One day while seated at his desk, it hit him: “I know everything about every camera on the market, but I don’t own a camera. Why don’t I own a camera? I should get a camera.”
Harry’s First Wand
In August 2011,a visit from Sony reps to his office offered Simbarashe the opportunity to try out their newest line of cameras. “It was like Harry Potter’s first wand. The photos came out exactly the way I wanted them to look,” Simbarashe describes his first experience with the Sony. He has shot with the brand ever since.
Following that experience, he has been one of the few photographers to shoot with a Sony. On March 11th 2011, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake hit near Japan causing a tsunami, flooding Sony’s camera factories. Sony ran out of stock for months. “When I went to that first Fashion Week, I was the only person there with a Sony camera and was probably the only person there with a Sony camera for two to three years,” Simbarashe explained. Today, the Sony’s A7 is one of the most popular cameras for consumers, but Simbarashe is one of the few professionals using the brand.
Taking to the Streets
Now that Simbarashe knew he wanted to become a fashion photographer, he didn’t let his day job get in the way. After working a long week as managing claims, he’d set out across New York after work and all day Saturday and Sunday, at least 6 days a week, seeking portrait candidates.
Finding the right person isn’t just about fashion, it’s about the subject’s inner confidence: “[Outside of Fashion Week] I look for people who seem to have a good, positive energy about them… For me, their energy comes first and what they’re wearing comes second. They just really stand out in a way that speaks to me. Even if they’re not the most fashionable person in the world, it doesn’t mean I can’t take their portrait.”
Hitting Hard Times
Committed to his passion, in November 2013, Simbarashe left his position and worked full-time as a fashion street photographer: “I was updating the blog 3 times a day, so 21 different portraits a week.”
By February 2013, during his second full year touring fashion weeks all over the world, all out of his own pocket, the industry began transitioning. Instead of buying specific images from various photographers, the industry began hiring one photographer, commissioning them to shoot all the content for the entire season.
At this time, street fashion was booming. Magazines sought street photographers to commission. Unfortunately, Simbarashe was never one of those photographers:
“I was paying my way through fashion weeks and it was costing me a lot of money. I said to myself, ‘I really love doing this, but if I want to keep doing this, I need to find another way because I’m going to go broke doing these international sites.”
Moment of Clarity
Simbarashe had a particularly depressing season. On site in Paris, in a crowd of photographers snapping pictures of a model on the street, he had an epiphany. “I remember looking around and everyone was shooting. I stopped and said to myself, ‘Alright, what am I doing here. What is everyone else doing here, and how can I not be doing that?’
When Simbarashe had first started shooting, he wanted to be a documentary photographer, acting as the behind-the-scenes house photographer for a famous musician, but street fashion photography had led him in a different direction. Still, the spirit of his inspiration remained the same – if he couldn’t capture backstage moments at a concert, the flurry of activity behind the catwalk provided the next best subject.
Establishing a Niche
Simbarashe explained his sudden success: “I saw Adam Katz Sinding’s backstage shots and thought, ‘No one else [was] doing that – let me just ask designers if I can come backstage and shoot’. From there, all the other opportunities opened up. It first came in the form of weddings – I came home and people said, ‘These photos are amazing. Can you shoot our wedding and make it look like this?”
“Then brands started taking me more seriously when they saw me getting [this] level of access. There are some brands that I have a really good relationship with. The documentary style in the way that I shoot is probably the basis for everything I am doing.”
Today, Simbarashe has an extensive portfolio of brands with whom he works regularly. His main client is Carolina Herrera for whom he shoots social content, such as Instagram, year round. During Fashion Week, he also works with Lacoste, Valentino, Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry, and the Italian magazine Grazia, to name just a few.
It wasn’t until 2014, a year into working full-time and four years from shooting with his first Sony, that Simbarashe broke even financially. Now, established within the industry, he has a routine: “The way that my schedule works, I shoot fashion primarily from the start of the fall Fashion Week, which is the second week of September all the way through the conclusion of spring Fashion Week in early March. From September to March, it’s pretty much all fashion and in the summer, I’ll shoot weddings here and there. Now, I spend more of my time on these other mediums than street fashion, but I still shoot just as much outside as inside. Other than Lord Ashbury, I also have a formal portfolio site.”
All those days shooting on the streets of New York paid off: “ I have spent so many hours outside shooting people, in different lighting, every single type of weather from 8 degrees to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Because I’ve shot in just about every element, I am at a point it’s not completely automatic, but it’s close. It’s from so much repetition. It’s become second nature at this point.”
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