Sharon Socol: Fashion’s ‘Outsider’ Photographer

Photo: Sharon Socol

Sharon Socol, the photographer behind the new book, Plus One: An Outsider’s Photographic Journey Into the World of Fashion, has been capturing black-and-white snapshots of the fashion world and its elite for over eight years. With a trusty 35mm Leica M4 in hand, she’s documented hectic backstage scenes of models getting dressed for shows, designers at parties caught in choice moments of pure revelry, and fashion editors out in the wild.

But Socol’s entry into the high-fashion world wasn’t as conventional as her subjects. Her ticket was through her husband, Howard Socol, from the moment he was tapped to be CEO of Barneys in 2001. During his eight-year reign as head of the luxury department store, Sharon entered the world by his side as his “plus one.” “We were both initially very cautious because of what we expected,” Socol told the Cut. “But the people in fashion are all just great, regular, intuitive, talented people who also just happen to be talented in fashion. We were both pleasantly surprised.” With her camera by her side, Socol initially tiptoed into the scene, and then transformed from a self-described “fashion outsider” to an absolute insider. “I found that when a person has a camera, they own that frame,” Socol explained. “The instant they click that photo, they can put anything they want into it. I used that to help me feel comfortable in an unfamiliar place, whether that was backstage at a show or at a party where I didn’t know anyone.”

On Tuesday, Socol’s friends, including Simon Doonan, Diane von Furstenberg, and Narciso Rodriguez, will gather at Barneys New York to celebrate the launch of her book of photographs. The Cut spoke to the photographer about her transformation from “outsider” to “insider,” her unending love for black and white, and her nickname that was coined by Doonan: “the Margaret Mead of fashion.”

When was the first time you went to an event with a camera in hand?
It was back in 2002, I remember being at the Marc Jacobs show. I was feeling, observing, watching before and after the show, but I realized then that I loved the atmosphere, the people around me. I could see where my camera could capture it all.

Simon Doonan refers to you as the “Margaret Mead of fashion.” You started off unfamiliar with the faces in the fashion world, but by the end, did you feel like you were part of it? 
It’s funny because he mentioned that and I tried to process that, and interestingly enough, it’s almost like being an anthropologist. I went out to observe fashion and record it. I still consider myself an outsider because I don’t follow fashion. I like to dress nice, look nice, but I don’t follow trends, it’s not me. And yet, when I do become familiar with something, you become familiar with whose clothes you can wear that make you feel good. The insider portion came because I also made so many friends, designers, executives through Howard, through contacts.

Your husband, Howard, was formerly the CEO of Barneys. How much of an influence did he have on your taste for fashion? 
[Laughs.] Oh, when I married Howard, 45 years ago, he was still finishing a degree at Ohio State, and going to the army. He then went on to teach accounting and then he took a job at Burdines in 1969. He took a job in retailing, and he was actually a furniture buyer. Then he matriculated very well and rapidly at Burdines (now Macy’s), in twelve years. So, we didn’t know he was going to go into fashion at all until it happened, but I had a little taste of [the scene] with Burdines. Oscar de la Renta had an event and I wore a Donna Karan bodysuit with turtleneck and cut-out shoulder because I thought I was pushing myself a little further — even though the event was for Oscar de la Renta, but what did I know? So I put on the Donna Karan top, which was not Oscar, but not only am I there in it, but there’s someone wearing a copy of it. And then someone else was there and we looked very alike. Howard has a good saying: You can’t have commerce without being cool, and you have to be cool to be Barneys.

You mentioned that you were intimidated by the fashion world at first. How so?
It has to do again with how someone gets self-awareness, the inside coming out on the outside and presenting itself. That was intimidating to me, and I didn’t know where I would find common ground. But then, you see, [fashion people] have issues with marriage, kids, they’d rather be doing [this or] that, and you find you’re able to forge a relationship.

Do you always shoot in black and white?

I shot black and white for over twenty five years before I tried color. My color shooting was in the 2000’s when I took some color classes. So the timing of the color experience and realization that black and white is how I really see, were years apart. The thing about black and white is that I started taking community college classes and auditing classes that were black-and-white-oriented. I said to myself, okay, let’s shoot in color, but I looked back at my color photos and I realized I really see in black and white. It’s definitely my vision.

What’s been one thing that’s surprised you about the fashion industry?
If you’re a musician or a writer, you can produce something and then you can take years to produce something else. You work on it, whatever it takes. Fashion needs to be creative the second the last dress walks off the runway. And then you think about the creation, design, what fabric are you going to interpret it in, it’s just an enormous challenge. It’s just a real sense of creativity without a break, and the creative capabilities never cease to amaze me.