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Each runway season, designers are asked what inspired their latest collections. The answers are always outrageous (Hollywood Eskimo! The Wizard of Oz!), but they only tell part of the story. Inevitably, it's how the cool kids are dressing in such fashion-forward cities as New York, Tokyo and London. What real people are wearing is more predictive of trends than anything concocted in the design studios of Paris or Milan.

But if you live in, say, New Minas, not New York, how do you stay in the style game? The answer is on the Web (of course): streetwear blogs. From Toronto to Zurich, dozens of websites are visually chronicling the style choices of real people, enabling an instant look at the trends in Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro -- allowing even the geographically challenged to work the trends before they go mainstream. And threatening the fashion hierarchy in the process.

One of the most popular is Face Hunter (facehunter.blogspot.com; tag line "eye candy for the style hungry"), created by 29-year-old Parisian Yvan Rodic. After receiving a pocket camera as a Christmas gift two years ago, he started snapping photos of "strangers with inspiring faces" at parties and posting them online.

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"I like the idea of finding out the personal creativity of people beyond the global trends," he says. While the site features its share of doe-eyed Parisian ingenues, Rodic's tastes run the gamut from club kids in Marie Antoinette costume to women and men in graffiti-print spandex leggings.

How does he decide who merits a photo? "People I shoot have to be innovative or elegant, or having an outfit that fits perfectly to their personality. For some reason it has to be inspiring for me. I'm just following my instinct."

Sonja Andic, who takes pictures for Toronto Street Fashion (torontostreetfashion.com) has similar criteria. "It's a certain thing that's very hard to describe. When I see someone who looks worthy, I get this gut feeling. It's like, wow, they've got it. It's this sort of knowing."

Her definition of street fashion includes "customization, mixing designer and vintage, blending different eras into one outfit, colour clashes." In short, taking a risk. "Are they being irreverent?" she asks. Leopard-print socks, skinny ties and Madonna-esque fingerless lace gloves have all caught her eye recently.

For 21-year-old Vancouverite Craig Long, who publishes the Commodified (thecommodified.blogspot.com), the act of posting people's photos isn't just about how they put together an ensemble. The Simon Fraser communications student says his blog "not only feeds my interest in fashion, but also my interest in consumerism and promotional culture. Which is probably why I called it The Commodified instead of, like, 'Street Looks.' "

Long says visitors to street-style sites are "responding to the fact that they're being overwhelmed with corporate messages, this whole air-brushed beauty. People are looking for a thing that is less set in an agenda, but more about the individual's personality."

Of course, those message-pushing corporations are taking notice. The websites of British and Australian Vogue both feature a Street Chic section, with photos of trendy girls-about-town. Style.com has twice enlisted Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist (thesartorialist.blogspot.com) to photograph fashion week showgoers in New York, Milan and Paris.

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Retail types are bookmarking these sites, too. Jason Morikawa is a womenswear buyer for Holt Renfrew's World Design Lab, which houses the high-end store's most cutting-edge designers (available at the flagship Toronto location and coming this spring to Montreal and Vancouver). He says he logs on to street-style sites "religiously."

Morikawa acknowledges that streetwear has an impact on buying decisions. "We like to see how our clients wear merchandise. It's good to see how people interpret what comes down from the mainstream fashion runway."

Retailers such as Holt's are smart to pay attention, says Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University. "This is the era of rapid change, of fickleness. One size doesn't fit all. It's much more about variety and doing things differently," he says. "It's going to become more difficult for retailers to stay in touch and cater to these needs. This is why the Gap's hurting these days. You can't stock up on singular looks."

As the Internet accelerates the speed at which trends are disseminated to the masses, the traditional fashion hierarchy is becoming democratized. "Before, people were inspiring designers, and then magazines were featuring people's clothes, and finally people were inspired by magazines," Rodic says. "Now the process is more horizontal. People are inspiring people."

Several new social networking sites will facilitate the process. London-based Iqons (iqons.com) launched last month and aims to have the same impact on fashion as MySpace did on music. Its members can not only interact with one another, but also with designers such as Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano, who plan to join the site for a month each. Similar forums include Share Your Look (shareyourlook.com) and Shoutfit (shoutfit.com), which launched in January.

Andic sees this, along with online video feeds, as the next big thing for street-fashion followers. "People will become tired of just looking at photos of street trends. They'll want to see movement, hear voices, read a profile. They might want to be able to MSN that person in Japan or Moscow. The Web gets progressively more and more interactive as time goes on."

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Clearly, the ability to see and connect with other people is good news for trend hounds, as well as those of us who hate being told no polka dots or prairie skirts because they're out of style. If that cool chick in Barcelona is rocking them, why can't we?

"Fashion hasn't been a top-down process for a long time," Middleton says. But "you've still got what's in, what's out. That will weaken because of this. It will bless, or make legitimate, a much greater diversity of fashion. That's the future."

Streets of the world

Streetwear sites

Paris

Face Hunter: facehunter.blogspot.com

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New York

The Sartorialist: thesartorialist.blogspot.com

Toronto

Toronto Street Fashion: http://www.torontostreetfashion.com

Vancouver

The Commodified: thecommodified.blogspot.com

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Helsinki

Hel Looks: http://www.hel-looks.com

London

The Style Scout: stylescout.blogspot.com

Fashion social networking sites

Iqons: http://www.iqons.com

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Shoutfit: http://www.shoutfit.com

Share Your Look: http://www.shareyourlook.com

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