Farewell, My Lovely Polaroid

Polaroid’s February announcement that it would discontinue its famous film—phasing it out of distribution by sometime in 2009—has fashionistas totally freaked out.

Though famously obsessed with the Next Big Thing, the industry has long relied on the company’s signature camera, a gee-whiz technology of yesteryear that is decidedly not uploadable, Flickr-friendly or mega-pixeled. Designers use the cameras to produce runway shows and photo shoots, and buyers use them to tangibly inventory garments they may purchase; editors keep hundreds of the film cartridges on hand to do everything from cast models to manage the overwhelming flow of clothes in and out of their closets.

And to many of them, the new-fangled digital cameras are not satisfactory replacements. “It’s the only option, I guess, but it’s sad,” said Heather Summerville, senior associate fashion editor at Lucky magazine, which uses up to 350 Polaroids in the production of each issue.

Why? Because, she said, the Polaroid, outmoded as it may be, is just better than its digital counterpart. The Lucky fashion department has long Polaroided every garment that comes into their offices and used the pictures’ iconic white border to write details about the item. No such writing room on digital prints, unless you monkey around for hours with the formatting.

That’s not the only time issue: Polaroid is replacing its instant film with a mobile photo printer, and while it is small and fast, Ms. Summerville is not thrilled by the idea of having to schlep a printer around, or take precious minutes to sync her camera to a printer. Neither is Monica Schweiger, a stylist who burned through $200 worth of instant film during the most recent Fashion week in Los Angeles. “I’m screwed,” she sad. “I’ve used digital on shoots before, and it’s a pain and time-consuming.”

Such vehement devotion to a technology that is the photographic analog to the eight-track may sound odd. But as with much related to retail, it’s not merely practical; it’s emotional, too.

For instance, during shoots in the city, Ms. Summerville couriers test-Polaroids back to the Lucky offices for approval from top editors, even though the technology to send those images over the Interweb has existed since, oh, about 2000. “For whatever reason, we just tend to trust Polaroids more than digital pictures,” she said.

Scott Sternberg, designer of the men’s wear line Band of Outsiders, is particularly fanatic about the Polaroid; in addition to its customary uses, the camera is part of the brand’s identity, he said.

Mr. Sternberg has used his 1980s-era Polaroid SLR 680 SE for all of Band’s ad campaigns and look books—campaigns he shoots himself—since the beginning of his business, and he says the low-tech, nostalgic quality of the film pairs well with his boyish and unadorned clothes.

“I love the shared editorial process with Polaroid,” the designer said. “You get this randomness, this ability to capture unhappy mistakes. With digital there’s so much opportunity to manipulate the image that it could skew that process.”

Ah, Polaroid’s gritty realism versus digital’s Photoshoppable artifice! When cast in these terms, the loss now facing Polaroid’s practitioners seems to take on almost moral dimensions. “They show imperfections,” Ms. Schweiger said of the old-school snaps. “It’s photographing real life as close as possible.” And indeed: What would a casting be like without a stack of shake-it pics showing models’ chiseled, makeup-less faces, punctuated by the occasional zit?

At least Mr. Sternberg has his memories; he has Polaroided many of the friends, buyers and stylists who visit his showroom and tacked the images to a wall. But he’s bracing himself to enter the digital age. “You can’t resist change,” he said.

And the cloud hanging over Ms. Schweiger’s inevitable purchase of the portable printer has a silver lining. “I’m going to need a bigger bag,” she said. Farewell, My Lovely Polaroid