A photography exhibition in collaboration with Dapper Dan Magazine.
THE POMO Gallery / Via Giuseppe Sirtori 6 — 20129 Milano
A photography exhibition in collaboration with Dapper Dan Magazine.
THE POMO Gallery / Via Giuseppe Sirtori 6 — 20129 Milano
In the visual world, Harry Peccinotti is the epitome of a Renaissance man. As an artist, graphic designer, art director and photographer, he created a distinctive style in the 1960s that feels as fresh as ever— and is as mimicked as ever—today. His work captures women’s bodies and faces in a graphic, almost abstract way that has earned him the nickname “Mr Close-Up”. Despite a career that has spanned the art direction of Vogue, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, the creation of iconic title sequences for films including Alfie and Chappaqua, the founding of the groundbreaking magazine Nova, the almost single-handed introduction of models of colour into the fashion mainstream, and photographic commissions from the Pirelli calendar to the Vietnam War, the London-born, Paris-based legend was a bit shy when Dapper Dan visited him at home.
Motwary: You were a school dropout at 14? How did you end up becoming a photographer?
Peccinotti: I wasn’t really a dropout. My school stopped. It was just after the [Second World] war and I got a job in a factory, in the design department. That was in 1950, or just before. At that time, the design department in a factory did everything: technical drawings, paintings, illustration, lettering, photography. Everything had to be learnt, which nowadays one can do very easily with the help of computers, but there was no Letraset or photo-setting then.
Motwary: Didn’t all of those technical elements require a certain skill to pull them together?
Peccinotti: The art teacher at school suggested that I was good at drawing, and when I was about to leave school, she said, “So what are you going to do?” Where I come from, there were not so many opportunities. She sent me to her husband, the creative director of Smiths Motor Accessories and a Royal Academician [artist-member of the Royal Academy of Arts]. He did beautiful watercolours, a bit like Terence Cuneo. So I went for an interview. He looked at my collection of drawings and said ok, and it started like that. I was like a dogsbody.
The commercial artists there were very good teachers so I learnt photography, hand lettering, technical drawing, illustration, how to make a pot of tea… a bit of everything, all by hand. It was an apprenticeship in graphic design. Art directors didn’t exist then. I did that for three or four years and then, around 1955, I became a musician for a bit.
Motwary: You also designed some album covers?
Peccinotti: Around 1954, I was playing music, as a trombonist and bassist, and I met a drummer who owned Esquire Records. They were the first to import modern jazz from America to London—Thelonious Monk, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker. So this drummer asked me to design record sleeves for him. But he was blind. He was called Carlo Krahmer, and was a very good drummer—in fact quite famous. His wife and her assistant, the writer and singer Kitty Grime, were in charge of the record covers, and they could see perfectly well. Just to drop names, Ralph Steadman and Diz Disley were also designing record sleeves for Esquire at that time.
Motwary: One of my favourite jazz musicians was also blind—Moondog.
Peccinotti: Of course, I remember him. He used to stand around on 6th Avenue, near Radio City [Music Hall], dressed as a Viking, reciting poetry and playing farout music. So, after that I got a job in an advertising agency and worked as an art director for quite a few years, and then moved into magazines. In the mid-’50s and early ’60s, designers became interested in magazine design, which was aiming at a younger audience.
Before this time, models were mostly over 20—there was no real market for teenagers as they had little money. If you look at issues of Vogue up until the early ’60s, there was nothing aiming at teenage girls, other than maybe a page for a debutante. But after that, teens had some money, so advertisers and magazines had to take notice.
Motwary: How did you end up focusing on erotic photography?
Peccinotti: I never purposely took erotic pictures. Of course, I liked women and photographed them, and my photos probably have some sexual interest, but they never set out to be erotic, just graphic.
Motwary: How would you describe the ’60s?
Peccinotti: I suppose it was breakdown time from all previous restrictions. It was like the Berlin Wall coming down. I was brought up with a very strict moral attitude towards sex, but the ’60s broke all the constraints. Freedom! There was a lot of innovation and excitement in the arts and music—anything seemed possible.
Motwary: Recently I had a conversation with one of your oldest friends, Hans Feurer, on the power of Nova magazine [in Dapper Dan 05]. Can you give me your take on it? What was Nova about?
Peccinotti: Nova started as an experiment. Can you really imagine I said that? It sounds very stupid. It came out in 1965. The thinking behind it came from the fact that there were no magazines at the time for intelligent women. All the magazines treated women like they were drudges and housewives, and focused on subjects like cooking and knitting. But the women’s liberation movement was strong at the time and there were a lot of good female writers. Nova’s aim was to talk about what women were really interested in: politics, careers, health, sex. George Newnes, a large press company, threw some money in, just to see if anyone was interested in a magazine like that, and so it started. The good thing about that was that we were left alone to do it. And it wasn’t a fashion magazine at all! In fact, there was no fashion in the first issues. I put the fashion in, not as fashion, but because the magazine was all words. I said, “We need to lighten it up a bit, even if it’s just 10 pages on different-coloured paper, or a Pantone chart or mad colourful pictures. You need something, when you flip through the magazine, to catch your eye.” So we said, “Ok, we’ll do a fashion thing, but it won’t have anything to do with advertising. We’ll do trend, street style.” You could do army clothes, home-made styles; you could do anything you liked.
Motwary: How different it is from magazines today?
Peccinotti: I think it was very different then, but less so now. 20 Times have changed and maybe there’s no necessity for a women’s magazine today. Back then, a lot of men read Nova, apparently.
Motwary: How difficult was it to find women to pose naked in the ’60s?
Peccinotti: It wasn’t that difficult. But also, I think the model-photographer relationship those days was much closer than it is now. I remember, [Terence] Donovan once told me, “When the model makes more money than the photographer, I will give up photography.”
I used to know the models; they were my friends. I used to have a drink with them and see them around Chelsea. Nowadays models fly in for 10 minutes and then fly out again. And no one has a studio today—back then, most photographers had their own. Girls would come for a cup of coffee; maybe they would ask you to take a few shots of them on the spot, for fun, and you would do it. There was a relationship. Models now are on a different level. Now I find it hard to be friends with the girls I shoot. Sometimes I take a picture of somebody and the only time I speak to them is on the set. Then it’s kiss-kiss and they’re gone.
Motwary: What do you find so fascinating about nudity? There’s something about your angle…
Peccinotti: Being a man, I am attracted to women, and I love women of all colours and shapes and sizes. I don’t have an attitude towards it apart from graphisme. Photographers who were or are also art directors seem to have a different eye, as we were trained through painting and art. I am much more influenced by painters.
Motwary: You are one of the few who shot the legendary Pirelli calendar not once but twice. How did that work out?
Peccinotti: I worked a lot with certain art directors, and one especially, Derek Birdsall, who was the original art director for Pirelli. He asked me to do it. At that time it was not a big-money thing—it was made very cheaply. In fact, I didn’t have an assistant, hairdresser or make-up artist. And for the one we shot in America, I didn’t have even a model!
We just used people on the beach. It was much more about the moment, which is very different from now. It was supposed to be sexually oriented, of course, but it had a different attitude. The first one we did was quite intellectual, really [1968; each photograph was an interpretation of a poem]. The second one  I stupidly suggested going to California, because I had been there two years before, working on a film. And said, “Oh, we’ll find girls. There are so many young surfers on the beach, we can just go and shoot it.” So I convinced them. But when we went, all the girls were on holiday, and the ones we found were only on the beach when they should have been at summer school. But we found a few and did it.
Motwary: Before that, you documented the Vietnam War, right? What was that like?
Peccinotti: I got there by chance. It was 1966. I was upset about the whole Vietnam thing, thinking it was a disaster, and one day I was sitting in the [Nova] office and suggested jokingly that I should go and see for myself. The next day the chief editor, Dennis Hackett, a super guy, said, “Ok, you wanna fly, off you go. We got it covered for you.” I think they made a deal with the Black Star photo agency for any action pictures I took. The object for me was to do a story on Medevac [medical evacuation of soldiers]. It was a bit stressful to say the least. The South Vietnamese soldiers often took their families along to their outpost. And after the Viet Cong would come, the Medevac people would go in and pick up the wounded. Very often they would bring back the wives and children too, and take them to the hospital, where they would take care of their wounded family members.
The idea was, since Nova was a women’s magazine, we wanted to show what was happening to the wives. It was really scary. I hadn’t thought it through properly before I went. It was hard.
Motwary: How were you feeling at the time?
Peccinotti: I was wrecked. The whole thing disgusted me. It only lasted for a month or so. I would never go to another war to photograph under any circumstances, that’s for sure.
Motwary: What was your childhood like? How did your parents see what you do?
Peccinotti: I was brought up in a working-class home in London. And they were not interested in the things I was doing. It was just a question of going to work, for someone my age. My education really started when I left school—then, luckily, everyone I came across was incredibly good and taught me everything, really, from what to eat to what to do.
Motwary: Who was the most important mentor or guide for you, then?
Peccinotti: The very first people I worked with, in the art department, had a design background and put me in touch with the Bauhaus, Dada and de Stijl. I became a Mondrian fanatic and used to go to Holland some weekends, when I was about 17, just to see the trees and lighthouses that he had painted in Zeeland. The first person who really educated me was Robin Jacques, who made wonderful Victorian-style illustrations with little dots. He was famous back then and used to do a lot of work for the Radio Times and the Folio Society. His sister was the actress Hattie Jacques. So I was introduced to their circle. We were working in the same room in the advertising agency and remained friends until he died a few years ago.
He introduced me to many people and things: Francis Bacon, John Le Mesurier, Samuel Beckett and so on. He suggested things to read, plays to see, music to listen to. He was really like my private tutor until the end of his life.
Motwary: After so many years, what does photography still do for you?
Peccinotti: I suppose it’s my method of expression. When I take a picture, the picture tells me what to do. It reveals itself. It’s sort of self-teaching. The enthusiasm starts as I look through the viewfinder. It’s always been the same. Even now, when I walk down the street, pictures call out to me. I carry a digital camera asa notebook—I’d like to know more about digital cameras. Every now and then I’m bullied professionally to use them. But I think there is something missing in digital. I have nothing in my hands when I’ve finished.
Romeo Gigli is utterly charming and undeniably Italian, yet also, at times, a solitary nomad. He is one of the very few European fashion innovators who turned the late 1980s and early ’90s upside down with subtle shapes that defied the aggressive angles of the time, and ambitiously eclectic collections whose mysterious origins and destinations prefigured the global influences that have now become standard. It was hard to find Gigli, as he swore distance and silence from the media after an acrimonious takeover and the subsequent breakdown of his company in the mid-’90s, and an ensuing dispute over the copyright to his own name that continues to this day. Yet his recent capsule collections for Joyce, the eminent Hong Kong- based group led by his old friend Joyce Ma, who, as a buyer for her eponymous boutique, bought his very first collection in 1985, are undoubtedly a success. It is proof that the romantic creator has a soul of steel.
Photography by Vassilis Karidis
MOTWARY: Mr Gigli, it is with great pleasure that I am finally speaking to you. You know we’ve wanted to do this interview for a long time.
GIGLI: Yes. The last time I did a full collection was 2003, so it’s a long time ago. I was a victim of fraud, you know… I guess everybody knows.
MOTWARY: Joyce helped us to reach you. You have a very close relationship with her company?
GIGLI: Yes! Joyce bought my collections from the very beginning, 1985 or ’86. Only a few years after that, she decided to open a [Romeo Gigli stand-alone] shop in Hong Kong. She was a very big client for me, someone I consider very important to this day. Our collaborations stopped around 1998, when a big part of my company was sold, so the quality of my clothes stopped being the same. Then, three years ago, Joyce celebrated its 40th anniversary and I was contacted by the Milan office to contribute some pieces from my archives for a travelling exhibition that would go to Beijing, Hong Kong, Paris…
A few months later, I received another call informing me that everybody was looking for me, everybody loved my clothes, and that it’s very current again what I used to do, and they proposed that I design a capsule collection for them.
MOTWARY: You just presented your summer collection in collaboration with them. What is it about?
GIGLI: [Laughs] I find it difficult to explain my collections, to be honest. Usually when I design for men, I try to keep my eyes and ears open and investigate how man has evolved. I try to underline the deco- ration of fabrics through design. In my work you can always see brocade, lace, English embroidery on the jacket; colours like midnight blue, dark pink, black and olive green. There is a lot of darkness in this collection, except for a few white shirts.
MOTWARY: You are a well-travelled man who appreciates different cultures and the weight of history. How does history serve the future, in your opinion?
GIGLI: We cannot survive without our history. Without the past, it is like you put a person in a black box with no emotion, no oxygen, no ambition and no hope. Whether it is in art, fashion or anything else, history is important. A designer can only survive and underline the present if he reads the past.
GIGLI: My own history is strange because I grew up in a very particular family. My father was an antiquarian book dealer and my mother, Alfa, a contessa. My education was classic and the right thing to do at the time was to follow the profession of my father. It was by accident at the age of 18 that I decided to travel the world, more or less for 10 years. Of course it was a cultural shock for me. I knew about other cultures, though not in a deep way.
From that moment I started to mix my own culture with others, with what I was experiencing. It was like a visual melting pot of emotions. Everything for me is about emotion: when I work or think about fashion, a movie, the theatre, art, it is a colossus of feelings, you know? It’s difficult to explain. I will try. In the 1990s I did a lot of collections that were inspired by and dedicated to other cultures. One was the Persian collection [1993 womenswear] and it was about colours and decorations from Persian history, though with a twist.
For example, I had my fabrics cut in an English manner and I included references from the 1970s, and my models wore glasses in precious-stone shades. But in each collection, there was so much work after the maiden idea and research that it was hard to recognise the very first concept behind it. I did turbans from English striped fabric and the girls came out in Dr. Martens boots. This is the way my travels are reflected in my work.
MOTWARY: So are you fond of the global aesthetic, the way fashion has evolved to become a sort of common language? The scene is so different now.
GIGLI: Fashion is not art, though sometimes it might seem that way. We need to be a bit more secretive. Back in the 1990s there was a feeling of expectation. Everybody was looking for something different.
MOTWARY: There was the power of surprise.
GIGLI: Of course! And different visions! Today everybody follows the same history. But fashion used to be about how things were translated. The force of fashion today is quite boring. People need different pieces, not only in fashion, in all forms of creating a product. A product must help one underline his personality.
My 15-year-old daughter likes to wear some of my pieces and my wife has an enormous collection of my archival works… Although my little girl wears sports shoes, leggings and sweatshirts—it is difficult for her to find pieces that she really likes. There are so many things and shops for her to choose from, tacky ones to the highest boutiques, but she is still not happy.
MOTWARY: But it might be a bit difficult for her, since she was born into a family in which fashion plays such an intense role in everyday life!
GIGLI: She would like something special, you know. A few days ago, she had a friend over for dinner and they were saying, “We don’t want to wear what is available in shops. Everything is so shiny and tacky. We wouldn’t mind wearing something that even looks like a uniform, but it needs to have a character.” I found it amazing how these young girls think.
MOTWARY: Could this be a motivation for you to consider designing a collection for young people?
GIGLI: But I did this for many years; maybe you are too young to know. My G Gigli, which was launched in 1991. My partner was [the Italian company] Stefanel and it was a collection for girls and boys. A very successful one. I used to show it in Milan mixed with my men’s collection. I worked with cottons and wools. It is very difficult to think of new projects right now. All I had I sold, just to be able to survive with my family.
MOTWARY: It seems that all the important designers are doomed to trouble. I am reading the auto- biography of Diane von Furstenberg and it is amazing what this woman had to go through to keep her business alive.
GIGLI: Our times are really hard! A few years ago, I went to Paris as I was thinking to relaunch my collection. And I went to see [president of the French fashion industry’s governing body, the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt à Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode] Didier Grumbach and I asked whether there was a chance for me to come back. His response was very flattering: “Mr. Gigli, I don’t know what happened to you in Italy, but your name for us in France is as important as Coco Chanel and Dior.” [Laughs]
MOTWARY: On a personal level, I became a fan of your work during my early teenage years, back in the 1990s, and I followed what you were doing until the early years of 2000. And then there was a gap. What happened?
GIGLI: How old are you? Perhaps you remember my last performances? My lawyers suggested that I stop working for three or four years because my name was involved in a court case, a fraud case with Ittierre Holdings, which was the same group as Gianfranco Ferré. I tried to come back right after, but everyone was showing me the shoulder.
MOTWARY: I spent maybe half a day watching your older collections, full shows on YouTube, and it made me very emotional. And amazed by how your soundtracks were mixed: Arabic music with Greek, Indian with Spanish, African with American jazz, Algerian with Turkish. I found it magnificent.
GIGLI: The music was a very important fact of all of my presentations. I always worked alone. The way I worked with the music was exactly the way I did with my clothes. Everything was about emotion. I would lock myself in the studio listening to the tracks for two or three days, and then with the music team we would put together a collage of emotional journeys. Organising a show always appealed to me like a movie script.
MOTWARY: Your collections have always had a strong focus on textiles, textures and weaves. Is it a result of collaborations with Italian artisans?
GIGLI: No, all my embroideries were made in India because they had the knowledge of different techniques—French, English, etc. At the time I was working with a very good company who under- stood my work exactly. I would send samples and it was a much easier collaboration with them than with Italy. Also the cost! When, for example, I did coats that were fully embroidered, they were really expensive to make in India, but the work would have cost double in Europe.
MOTWARY: You must know the fashion industry considers you one of the most important designers in its modern history. Why do you think that is?
GIGLI: Strange question, this one, and I’m afraid I cannot give you the answer. I am a very simple man, though I may not seem like it. I spend a lot of time reading and watching films, like a curious kid. Every time I start a project, whether fashion or not, I put myself outside myself and try to see things as an observer before I start to work. When I design a collection, I want to see many women associating themselves with it, not just one. When I work on the men’s, it is easier somehow. Man is an attitude.
MOTWARY: How has the current fashion scene changed?
GIGLI: Fashion used to be about dreaming. Designers worked in a different way—there was less pressure, I think. And there was a variety of silhouettes. Now everyone seems to walk in the same direction. There are more impositions. Designers worry more about what the magazines say about their work than if it sells. In my time, I was my own stylist for my collections, and more or less everybody was like this. Today designers hire others.
MOTWARY: Where do you come from?
GIGLI: I grew up in Faenza. Later I moved to Florence and studied architecture, though I only finished the first year. After a family accident, my family disappeared [Gigli’s parents died when he was 18] and I decided to travel around the world.
MOTWARY: As a young man, was there a particular point at which you started to get ambitious?
GIGLI: It was my attitude, I think. I was spending a lot of time alone, with no friends, because my family was overprotective and all the friends I had—one or two—I would see once or twice a year. In this isolation, I found ways to entertain myself by studying, reading, walking in the park dreaming, and translating everything through my fantasies. And this is how I am even today. When I decided to get involved in this business, it was a truly great time for fashion. I got carried away by its fantasy becoming reality, and vice versa.
MOTWARY: Was becoming a fashion designer a plan for you?
GIGLI: I think in a way it just happened. As a kid, when I was five or six years old, my parents used to take me to the tailor for pants, shirts and jackets, so I grew up in this environment. As an adult, I bought fabrics from everywhere and took them to the tailor and created things. This is how I work with men. Like myself. You know I am not a very tall man—I am around 1.77 metres. When I made clothes for myself, I always tried to make myself seem taller, longer. The pants were tight most of the time; jackets always came with a vest.
Back then, it was my own personal style that opened the first doors for me. Times were different, of course. [The designer] Piero Dimitri asked me to do a menswear collection and I thought it was a great opportunity. Immediately I started to learn everything about fashion, beyond the costume history that I was aware of already.
MOTWARY: Why didn’t you stay in New York?
GIGLI: I stayed for a few months, but I wanted to return to Italy, since other companies were already asking me to work for them. Working in different companies helped me to understand the business. At the time, Italy was very important in the fashion industry.
MOTWARY: But you chose to show your work in Paris in the 1990s. Why?
GIGLI: Because Paris was, and is, the place for fashion. Italy has good manufacturers, but the heart belongs to France. Let me tell you a true story. When I was dreaming of having a show in Paris, back in the ’80s, I had my space [in Milan], at Corso Como 10, and I always presented my collection on the Sunday during Fashion Week—two shows, one at 9am and one at noon, because the space could only accommodate 400 guests.
Back then, there were only three days of fashion in Milan and it was really short. I always chose Sunday because MaxMara showed in the afternoon as well and, of course, all the press would be in town. This happened for four or five seasons, but one year I asked the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana to save the day for me, and they said that it was now full, and impossible for me to have Sundays any more. I was not happy with this, so I faxed a letter to the Fédération Française and they immediately responded that I was more than welcome to show my collection in Paris. [Laughs]
MOTWARY: Your appreciation for other designers is legendary. I know that you used to mix other designers with your own collections in your boutique.
GIGLI: When I had my shop on Corso Como, I started to collect other designers. I even had the first John Galliano collection. And the fourth Margiela collection, and Sybilla, and Issey Miyake even, who is a very close friend of mine… Jean Paul Gaultier… I used to buy their pieces and I put together panels of my clothes mixed with theirs. Every time I was interviewed after a show, I would say, “Maybe I don’t want to see women on the street dress exactly as in a fashion show. What I want is [for them] to mix pieces, making collages of surfaces and qualities with freedom. It is the only way to build a personality.”
Even when I first started, I wanted to created pieces that were out of time, that you could wear for years and years, and with other designers’ works.
MOTWARY: Today’s fashion scene is quite vibrant. I think you already have successors—Haider Ackermann and Damir Doma seem relevant.
GIGLI: I do follow Ackermann’s work and sometimes I see a sense of my flair, but what is my flair, really? Who knows. Maybe I see a connection in the colours or the way he presents his clothes… I don’t know. If my work was strong enough to inspire others, then I’m happy. What else is there to say?
MOTWARY: Androgyny is one of the main characteristics of your work, especially in your women’s collections. How do you see women? Why do you so often dress them in male outlines?
GIGLI: What matters to me most, in women, is their sensuality and fragility. Every time, I try to bring these two qualities out. What most fascinates me is when I see a woman wearing her man’s clothes. This is the reason I often dressed them in such a way.
MOTWARY: Have you ever written a love letter?
GIGLI: I suppose, yes, I’m 62! [Laughs] I wrote a few letters in my life. If you ask me tomorrow what I tell you today, it will be impossible for me to remember. It all comes from inside me, very spontaneous and honest. It’s a matter of the moment. I am a true romantic. Even in my work, in the 1980s, my advertising was a male silhouette with poetry under it.
MOTWARY: What is your ultimate goal in life?
GIGLI: My biggest goals have been achieved. I met my wife and I have a wonderful daughter. I don’t want anything more.
MOTWARY: What is your verdict on fashion, after all these years of serving it?
GIGLI: When I work, I feel alive. This is what has always mattered to me. A few years ago, I saw Alessandra Ferri, the legendary dancer who was a good friend of mine. I passed her on the streets of Milan with her two daughters and she said something that made me happy: “Romeo, I still have all your clothes, and when I want to feel happy, I wear them.” Fashion can make people happy: this is my verdict.
Interview originally published in Dapper Dan magazine’s seventh issue, March 2013. Photography by Vassilis Karidis. All clothes Romeo Gigli; Fashion by Nicholas Georgiou; Masks by Pascal Humbert; Modelled by Nicholas Georgiou. Special thanks to JOYCE
All images © DAPPER DAN MAGAZINE. Read full notice
Stephen Jones may be England’s most beloved milliner; he is certainly its most radical, and its most playful. In the late 1970s, he famously at- tended Central Saint Martins by day and the Blitz club by night, where his extraordinary self-made hats attracted the attention of New Romantic royalty including Boy George, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, as well as future fashion legends Isabella Blow and Jean-Paul Gaultier. The year after Jones graduated, Blitz owner Steve Strange offered him backing to open a millinery shop under his own name, and the rest is history.
Jones is now entering his fourth decade of endlessly inventive collaborations with Gaultier, John Galliano, Thierry Mugler, Comme des Garçons, Vivienne Westwood and more, which he produces alongside biannual collections for men and women under his own name, and a seemingly inexhaustible flow of one-off designs for modern icons such as Grace Jones, Björk, Beyoncé, Kylie and Princess Diana.
Jones: It was really completely by chance. When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut, not a milliner. I went to Saint Martins and my tailoring teacher said, “You’ve got to prove yourself, because otherwise you’re going to fail in the first year,” so I became an intern at a couture house in London, as a tailor’s apprentice. But what happened was that I changed their millinery approach, and I guess that’s how I got into millinery. Really, millinery chose me. I was doing women’s fashion at Saint Martins but what everybody wanted from me was my hats, not my clothes. Everybody said, “Your clothes are OK but your hats are amazing!” And that was 33 years ago.
Motwary: In your opinion, what makes a great hat?
Jones: God knows! For me, I think it has to have an element of fantasy to it, or the person who wears it must feel some kind of fantasy. It doesn’t matter whether it is a big thing you do for a fashion show or whether it’s a baseball cap. It has to turn you into somebody. It applies whether you are young or old, a man or a woman—it’s got to have some magic to it.
Motwary: What about a great milliner?
Jones: Someone who is a complete masochist! I think you have to really love it because it’s really tough to do. In a way it’s more difficult than being a dress designer, although in another way it’s easier, in terms of competition. The amount of time and trouble that goes into making a hat is often more than it takes to make a dress. So financially and in business terms, it is really difficult.
Also, if you are a milliner you always work in a team—you have the designer, the make-up artist and the hairstylist. You have to be a good co-worker and a good listener. If you are a “grand diva”… but you should ask my staff. They would probably say that I’m not a diva, I’m a nightmare.
Motwary: Why have you succeeded, do you think?
Jones: Thanks to a good sex life and God! (Laughs) Really, all the people around me wanted me to succeed. It’s difficult, almost impossible, to do something by yourself. Your friends and family help you to become your dream. Some of the people along the way who helped me out were [Vanity Fair fashion director] Michael Roberts; the Browns boutique in London, who bought Galliano’s first collection— Mrs Browns really helped me—Thierry Mugler; John Galliano; all these people.
But there is no magic formula. People say, “I want to be a successful milliner,” and they look at Philip Treacy or at me. We do it for different reasons and in different ways and we became successful for very different things. Have fun and try to make great hats first, and then you might be a success. I think I have good genes as well.
When I was a teenager I hated everything about my parents’ experiences. I didn’t hate them, you know, but I wanted to create my own life. I remember being totally horrified at the age of 14, when my mother told me I reminded her of my father. I thought, “Shit, now everything is lost.” You know, at 14 everyone wants to be fabulous. Eventually what you learn is that the genetic thing is stronger than anything else. So the most important ingredient for success is to pick your parents very carefully!
Jones: I’m not interested in protecting it, frankly. In a way, I am given that talent, or whatever it is, and it is my privilege to be able to share it with people. When I am copied it feels fantastic. I did a hat for Jil Sander this summer, a little beanie hat with a veil on it, and lots of people from Anna Dello Russo to Bryanboy wore it every day for six months. There are even websites now on how to make your own Stephen Jones for Jil Sander for $5 instead of the $500 it costs in the shop. I think it is the most fantastic thing ever – it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. When someone says, “They stole my silhouette” or “That’s my idea”… I mean, shut up and move on!
Motwary: Do the next thing to be talked about, right?
Jones: Yes, do the next thing. This is what’s the most fantastic thing about this business. The memory of fashion is so short—it only lasts six months—so you have to move on and do the next thing. But it’s funny how everybody is so protective. I remember what Malcolm McLaren once said on the radio, that what people forget is that the vocabulary of fashion nowadays is extremely small. Which is so true! Is it a big story whether someone is doing pink or red? I mean, how stupid is that, in the real world? So for designers, they feel they have to carve out some area of design, and protect that area, because so many people want to come in and take it. I don’t think like that. I don’t need protection.
Motwary: How do you manage to create so much, for both your own clients and the designers you collaborate with?
Jones: It can be crazy. Marc Jacobs, Comme des Garçons, Jil Sander, Walter Van Beirendonck… People often ask me, “How do you do it?” Imagine you are going to a party, and lots of people are standing in a room. You would have a different sort of conversation with every person, right? Naturally, with each of them you share a different experience. In a way, the hats I do for individual clients are like individual conversations. I will never have the same discussion I am having with you that I’d have, let’s say, with Hamish Bowles. I am not saying we are not all interested in a similar thing, but it’s different. The hats are sort of an extension of that relationship.
Motwary: Is it difficult to maintain so many relationships?
Jones: With private customers, some I’ve known for a long time. For example, Dita Von Teese, I work on her stage shows, and we are friends; Kylie Minogue; even people who are not famous, I become friends with. I tend not to go so deep as with designer clients, because there aren’t enough hours in the day. Even though I really like working with individual clients, the girls in my shop hate it, because a client will come in and I’ll say, “Of course you can have pale pink with blue stripes on it!” and the girl behind me is saying, “No, no, and certainly not with that frown.”
Motwary: After 30 years, what keeps things fresh for you?
Jones:It’s just that thing of creation. I love to keep a note- book in my bag and every day I do some sketches in it. There is always a creative need, something that takes creativity out of me as well as me offering it.
Motwary: Is there is a methodology or philosophical frame- work within which you work?
Jones: Yeah—what’s a good hat? My philosophy is that whatever I do is about trying to make fantasy come true. I try to always be open-minded and inclusive. One of the things about fashion that is not very nice is saying, “I have power over you, and I am right and you are wrong, because I have this season’s Prada shoe and you are wearing a shoe from five years ago.” I have always had a problem with that. Fashion has always been about personal expression through appearance for me. It is crucially important. So my philosophy about what I do with hats is to allow people to express themselves, or express the person they want to be.
Motwary: Is there a hierarchy with your hats, or do you treat each design with the same care?
Jones: No, I don’t treat each hat with the same care. Things work better from being worked on, sometimes, and developed in a very calm way, fitting after fitting. But the best work, actually, is completely spontaneous—don’t think about it too much even if it’s your first idea. You have to secure the energy of it.
Motwary: Is fashion a necessity or an excuse?
Jones: Fashion is absolutely a necessity. As RuPaul said, “We are all born naked; the rest is drag.”
Motwary: Do hat people have anything in common?
Jones: They are all crazy fuckers!
Motwary: I’m going to use that, I like it!
Jones: Well, they all are. Everybody who works with me is crazy. But it’s great; I love it. Other people could live in suburbia and have 2.2 children, but most of the people around me do not have that. If I create some kind of world where people can feel comfort- able, that’s a blessing.
Motwary: Has the meaning of hat-wearing changed these days?
Jones: Completely. It used to be about etiquette; doing the right thing in the right way. Today it’s still a bit about etiquette, but it’s also about fun, or creating a particular look, or just enjoying your appearance.
Motwary: Who do you consider the greatest hat designers in history?
Jones: My favourite was [Elsa] Schiaparelli and the shoe hat that she designed for Dali. She was a dress designer, not a milliner, but she was a fantastic hat designer. There was also this French milliner, Lilly Daché, who worked during the 1940s and ’50s in New York. She made these hats that had real American glamour to them. Where European work was more controlled, she really had that Hollywood excitement going on in her hats. She was extraordinary. Nowadays, Philip Treacy is incredible, Noel Stewart… Vivienne Westwood is a good hat designer as well. John Galliano of course.
Motwary: During my intern days at Galliano in 2004-05, I had the pleasure of seeing you at work. The two things that really made an impression on me were your politeness and the fact that you were a good listener. What has this business taught you?
Jones: Oh God, everything! That I am very lucky to be one of the very few who can combine my life with my work. Also I’ve learnt that people don’t always do the right thing. And I have learnt to forgive… There is one particular person, Shirley [Hex], who was actually the lady who taught me how to make hats. Frankly, if she was a miner I would have been a miner as well. She was one of those incredible teachers who really took me off to another planet. It was Shirley and me who introduced John Galliano to [his longtime right-hand man at Dior, the late] Steven Robinson. I met Steven when he was 16, at a college where Shirley had asked me to go, to judge a competition that was all wacky hats. And there was one particular hat, which was discreet and neurotic, and I gave it the first prize, and the person who had created it was Steven Robinson. Part of this prize was being an intern with John Galliano. I was very fond of Steven. I mean he was crazy and used to get on my nerves but, my God, he got me to do some of my best work.
Motwary: What sorts of references in art inform your creative process?
Jones:Certainly art is very important. Looking at paint- ings is an important part of my creative process. I am working on the spring/summer 2013 collections and they’re actually based on artists’ colonies, whether the colony is in Britain, where all the European artists went during World War II, or in Laguna Beach, California, where all the American Impressionists went… Next summer is strongly about art movements. And surrealism, of course, as the art of hat-making is surreal anyway. [Balances a Coca-Cola can on his head.] You can put anything on your head!
Dear iDEALS, I wasn’t sure how the legendary, legendarily private photographer Hans Feurer would react to my call. But he answered with a friendly tone. It seems he was ready to talk, maybe for the first time in a while.
Motwary: Mr Feurer, thank you for your kind participation in Dapper Dan’s 5th issue. You see it was very hard for us to find more information than the usual available on Wikipedia and some links spread on Google about you. Thanks to your agent it became possible to reach you...
Feurer: You see the reason is because I have a bit of a phobia with anything that is virtual, computers and synthetics and I try to keep away since I can see that humanity has totally jumped into virtual reality to forget and ignore what happens to our planet in reality. I keep all that away from me so that my ideas are fresh and not influenced by the synthetic, the virtual … I have to use the computer though to choose my photos. I also work with a numerical camera I read emails rather than sending them. I don’t have a website and I don’t work like everybody else.
Motwary: Your agent informed me you were in the States working on some projects. What are they about?
Feurer: I am really an artisan mercenary. At the moment I do a lot of editorials, for French Vogue-I just did a story for Vogue Nippon and Vogue China as well; I have been spending a month between the Bahamas and Miami doing a lot of different stories
Motwary: How did everything start for you really? How did a Swiss end up working for the biggest English, French and American fashion publications?
Feurer: (laughs) I have quite a history. I was born in a relatively poor family in Switzerland and my parents divorced when I was very young and I had to look after my two younger brothers as we were in great difficulties. I was doing all sorts of jobs to find the money and pay for my Zurich-based Art-school. Then I became a graphic designer and illustrator and left Switzerland for Paris, I was around 20 years old at the time and got a job at an advertising agency as an assistant Art-Director, which quickly changed to Art Director.
I then moved to London where I had a fast career in that field, I became Art Director of the Telegraph magazine and after Creative Director for a big agency.
During all this time, I was doing pictures for myself, the same as I would do drawings. Photography was part of the visual experience and around 1966 I decided my life needed a change, so I bought a Land Rover and shipped myself to South Africa from where I spent almost two years travelling through Africa, sleeping by the fire most of the nights whilst having a lot of adventures.
Motwary: I assume you were taking pictures also?
Feurer: No, I wasn’t! I was just living the experience, the magical moments. At one point I decided that the most exiting thing to do would be to become a fashion photographer, especially for all the beautiful women it involved. When I came back to England I spent the rest of the money-after I sold the Land Rover- hiring studios and experimenting with “Light”, making myself a portfolio, which was around the end of 1967- and I was very quickly successful. People liked a lot what I did and I took off like a rocket.
Don’t forget it was “swinging London” and at the time everything was possible and everyone was open to new ideas and I immediately worked with the best magazines; most of all NOVA magazine. It was an extraordinary publication you know. The art-director who actually created it, Harry Peccinotti, was a good friend of mine and I worked pretty closely with him right from the beginning.
Feurer: To me there’s no difference because I approach it in the same way. When I started as a photographer I thought about “what is FASHION”, what does it mean?” and I discovered that it was a need, for women especially - and for men I guess as well though not so much at that time- to project their dreams or to become somebody else, to become whomever they wished to be. And I imagined that when a woman dresses herself a little bit like a prostitute, in a very promiscuous way, is very different than if she dresses herself like a nun. So you can project a different personality through clothes and I guess it’s almost similar to the carnival: if one plays a role for a certain time, one becomes it. I got very interested in trying to discover the dreams behind certain styles of fashion.
Whenever I do a fashion story I try to understand what the dream is behind and project that, maybe in an exaggerated, but convincing way.
I want the pictures to be completely believable almost like if they were out of National Geographic. The other thing about my photography is that I never use any tricks. At the beginning I did some experiments with filters and so on but quickly abandoned that. My pictures are always “un-polluted”. I don’t use filters, I don’t use reflectors, I almost don’t retouch the pictures and if I do its in a very minimal way. Even now that I work electronically I avoid the possibilities that the computer would give me. I want the pictures to look very real and the people in it to be living beings with a breathing, sensual skin instead of plastic.
Feurer: It hasn’t evolved, it’s the same! It’s the dreams that changed, people and culture is changing. But me, I still do the same. I still do dream projections; I photograph women, who live outside a certain lifestyle in a very convincing way.
Some of my photos from the 70’s seem to be timeless whilst others show fashion, which is very typical for the time they were shot.
Motwary: And why do you think its still considered as relevant?
Feurer: I have no idea! (Laughs)
Motwary: Nova magazine is certainly one of the strongest samples of visionary fashion, even almost 40 years later. You were one of the reasons people still refer to it. What are the facts about Nova that put it in such a position?
Feurer: Nova was a very honest and uncompromising magazine with a lot of journalistic integrity. In those days there was not such a strong influence yet from the advertisers.
For example, a story I did for Nova back then, I photographed a naked woman lying down with a baby rubbing some cream on her back and the article was about Johnson’s baby oil, which was a very cheap product that everybody knows and you can buy everywhere and doesn’t cost much; and the point was to show that Johnsons was as effective as an expensive luxury product that costs maybe a 100 times more. As result all the big cosmetic brands removed their advertisements from Nova. Keeping this as an example along with a few other similar moves, Nova was left with almost no advertisers and had to close down.
Motwary: Do you feel there is a greater impact compared to then from advertisers on the content of magazines, as we know them today?
Feurer: Totally!! All magazines are dominated by the advertisers; even the big magazines have most of their pages pre-decided.
Motwary: What are your fondest memories from your collaboration with Caroline Baker and the rest of the team: Helmut Newton, Harry Peccinotti etc?
Feurer: Harry Peccinotti is a friend. I just saw him now in New York at this big gathering of the Pirelli calendar people. You know I did one of those in 1972.
Motwary: Yes I’m going to ask you about it.
Feurer: So, yes Harry of course was one of the pioneers and he was there too as he did one of the first Pirelli calendars. Of course then comes Caroline Baker whom I still regard as one of the most talented fashion editors and the most creative I have ever come across. She was an unbelievable visionary.
Once we had this idea of dressing all the girls in Surplus army clothes and that created a very strong trend. Before you didn’t see any women walking around in army jackets or pants and all of a sudden you saw them all over and it lasted for many years. In those days you could really inspire people whereas today most fashion magazines are really in the service of the advertisers. Caroline then decided to change direction. Now she works as the Fashion Director for the Sunday Mirror magazine. I would have wished that she would be part of the big fashion magazines. She does belong there as she has influenced a lot of other Fashion Editors, even today. Over the last 10-15 years many photographers have copied stories that we have done together for Nova.
This is why I finally decided to do a book. Although there are too many photography books out there not worth the paper they are printed on. I decided to do the book as a reference of where all these ideas come from. The book is now in its final stages. I was very lucky to have probably the best-living Art+Creative director, Fabien Baron, to do the layout and probably Rizzoli with SCHIRMER/MOSEL will publish it, though it is not confirmed yet as we are still negotiating. Possible publishing date: Spring 2013
Motwary: Why were the 70’s so sexual you think? Why is your work so erotic?
Feurer: Well you have to see it in the context of all the movements that happened back then. It’s a long story that started already with the beatniks in the 1950’s already, then the 60’s flower power and the hippies…the whole society was breaking up. The world was throwing old stuff away and started rethinking everything. So the 60’s and the early 70’s were the years in which everything was possible and this slowly got suffocated in the 1980’s by the total materialism and the “money money money” ideal. It’s really a phenomenon what happened in the 60’s and 70’s.
My work can be erotic sometimes, as you say, though it depends what it is for. I would say sensual, at least is more correct, though erotic is special. What I do is project human beings that smell, are warm and alive. I try to photograph women that are dressed in a certain way, as I said before. I give them a scenario on what to do and then I photograph it almost like I would photograph it for a culture magazine. For me what is the most important in the first place is to show a free woman who’s scared of nothing, a woman who has her own will and who is not just an object of desire. Amazons, warrior women, free women not in the service of men. So, sensuality comes along naturally.
Motwary: Also, allow me to say that many photographers today, especially when photographing women, tend to get inspired from photographers’ works as were presented between the late 1960’s until the early 1980’s. Why not the 90’s for example?
Feurer: Well, the 90’s were not very creative, at least not as creative as the previous decades. That’s why people tend to get inspired by what was done in the 60’s and 70’s since there is a lack of new ideas. Everything is now repetition of what has been done back then. It is rare that one of them brings something new, which of course is natural, thinking of how the fashion business works now. Sadly, it’s the age of Lady Gaga…
Feurer: Its not so much photographers that inspire me(laughs). It goes back to philosophers like Lao Tse, Chuang Tse, Nietzsche, Darwin, Taoism, some Sufis, Omar Khayamm, Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt, Kant, Schopenhauer so many people have inspired me.
Of course when I was Art Director I worked a lot with Helmut Newton and other photographers and it was a good experience but I don’t think this has influenced so much my photography. What I do is very simple and very pure. No tricks really, what you see is what you get.
Feurer: Well if you do something good why repeat it? Of course if they asked me again now, after so many years, I would probably think about it. Again for the Pirelli calendar I was trying to project dreams and I approached it differently from what others did before and after and this is just my way of doing things. For me beauty is interesting only if there is a disturbing element present because that will give the measure for what is really beautiful at the end.
For example when you have certain faces that are completely overworked on the computer they are in a way beautiful but they are cold and stay completely on the surface. One has to wonder what makes certain things touching or what makes them so special to be remembered.
If lets say, you look through a magazine carefully and then you put it away. Then you try to think what you remember about it, whether anything has touched you or stimulated you and unfortunately, these days there is not much to remember. If there’s indeed something that you remember it means that the magazine is worth to be given some attention. And probably one should wonder why it stayed in the memory instead of something else.
I am always thinking in these terms. Certain images touch you and certain others don’t. Search the why, what makes them different. Ugliness sometimes has to go hand in hand with beauty in order for beauty to be present. Does it sound complicated?
Motwary: No not at all, I wonder then do you see any reflection of your childhood in what you do?
Feurer: No, not really. Of course all my experiences are reflected in it. I was a very observant child since I was very small. I remember when I was a baby in the pram, I must have been very very young, and the sun was coming in though the window on the pram’s little veil and a little fly was buzzing zzzzzzzzz, going through the light.
I was always watching to see what was going on and I guess that’s why today I do pictures in a certain way.
Motwary: So this is why you use the tele-lens, as you said you are observant and the lens in a way gives access to distance..
Feurer: Philosophically I am a Zen-Buddhist and I have the tendency to simplify and eliminate so at the end it is only the essence that stays. The telephoto lens allows me to crystallize things and to leave things out and keep what’s behind only, like the scent of a perfume, an atmosphere. I can totally concentrate on what matters and what is important to me and this is the reason the tele works so well for me.
The photos were breathtaking! What was the real concept; do you have any memories from that collaboration?
Feurer: It wasn’t really a concept but I understood what Kenzo was trying to do. Kenzo was the first designer who really showed and expressed love for all kinds of ethnic clothing, the way African women dressed, Indians, Chinese and so on. He brought all these wonderful materials from the corners of the world, integrated it. You mustn’t forget that this was also on top of the whole hippy period that was hype in the 60’s and 70’s, where this tendency had already started to become visible. A lot of these alternative people were wearing clothes from Afghanistan, American natives, Navaho etc.
All this was part of the hippie’s way of dressing. Kenzo was integrating this into fashion and this was what I loved the most about him and his work, as it was exactly what appealed to my sense of beauty and aesthetic. So, when Kenzo asked me to do pictures for him he gave me “carte blance”, he said, “you can do what you want!” and I had absolutely no obligation, nothing! Also, there was no art-director so I asked Francoise Ha Van, now a filmmaker, who was a very talented Vietnamese stylist.
She went and gathered all the clothes and personal collection of scarves and accessories from Kenzo, we chose some interesting models and went away to Morocco - or wherever we went-and we did the pictures. I decided to do some dream images featuring women from around the world and we created a dream story, a fairy tale like 1001 nights but in a modern way.
Motwary: You are a very private person, people do not really know a lot about your personal life. How can someone like you be so successful in such a field (fashion) or even work with a team of people each time?
Feurer: By keeping away from things and refusing. You think you can’t be a photographer without working with the Internet and all that? Well I do work with that too but I keep it minimal. Photography is more a “by the away” thing you know, I’m more like an adventurer. During my travels I rarely take pictures. I look and experience only. I have other interests like collecting African art, I am extremely fond of fishing and I have been fishing in all the seas of the world, in most lakes and rivers of Africa. Even during periods when I worked a lot, I tried not to spend more that 1/3 of the year on photography. The rest 2/3s of the time I prefer spend on other adventures.
Motwary: Do you mind if I ask what is your routine at home. Which country do you consider as your home anyway?
Feurer: I live in a little village in Switzerland, about 40 minutes away from Zurich, on the edge of the village right by the forest in the nature for more than ten years now. People don’t really know what I am doing here and they leave me in peace. I managed to buy a little factory there and I have a big loft and a lot of spare space for all my stuff. Though I am always going someplace, I always come back. It’s like an eagle nest. I like being home, listening to music and plan my next steps.
Motwary: What kinds of music do you like Mr Feurer?
Feurer: I like a lot of ethnic music: African, Indian, Chinese. Classical, Modern Jazz. The only kind that doesn’t interest me at all is POP music and what is considered as trendy by the masses. I listen to Reggae, Blues, Rock n’Roll …
Motwary: Lets go back to your photography. You have chosen to work with super telephoto lenses…
Feurer: Not only, I have done a lot with wide angle in the old days. Indeed recently though I have been mostly using the tele.
Hans Feurer, portrait by Filep Motwary. Paris 2012
Motwary: Wouldn’t you agree that the tele-lense could be limiting at points.. No?
Feurer: No, why?
Motwary: Because of the distance lets say..
Feurer It’s the person I’m interested in and not what is around. I am trying to reflect this individual in a very intimate way.
Motwary: What made you adopt this photographic approach?
Feurer: Zen Buddhism… Making things simple and leaving away what needs to be gone until you have only the essence present.
Motwary: One of the peculiarities that comes to my head is the fact that you shoot far away from your subjects. How do you direct the models while you shoot? How many takes do you do for each shot until you get it right?
Feurer: Models can be convincing actresses. I talk to them beforehand about what I have in mind, about who she should become. Sometimes I take pictures of models posing but on the whole If they come to life and “be somebody”. Walk, run or jump or whatever and then I document what she projects from distance.
Motwary: You rarely photograph men, why?
Feurer: Yes, I am not so interested in men’s fashion. If I could photograph a man who is really a wild guy or a true adventurer, then its something else and I would like it. Within the modern human race it’s the women who are the brilliant and colourful, impersonators and performers. The men are doers, more uniform Though I did a story I quite like for a magazine in Germany where I photographed a wild guy.
Motwary: Will any men be included in your book?
Feurer: I don’t think so.
Motwary: Do you let your subjects view what you are doing when you're shooting them?
Feurer: Yes, it’s possible. In the older days, I used to always send little postcard pictures of the shoot to the models and the rest of the crew. These days, I try if it is possible time wise. If I manage to choose the pictures while we are still on set, I let them see what we have done. But it is not always possible.
Motwary: Also, you tend to shoot on location; personally I am not aware of many studio works carrying your signature. Why on location, how do you find these places?
Feurer: …and with daylight or available light. I like the reality of things and I like to see the light of our sun on a face and the reflections of the blue sky in the shadows. Or even grey skies or the feeling of raindrops on the skin.
Motwary: Being someone who is used to work in print, do you feel any threat from online media?
Feurer: I never spend any thoughts on that.
Motwary: What is your relationship to technology?
Feurer: It’s a bad one. I refuse any computers, Internets and virtuality. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I follow only necessary steps like emails and so on… choosing my pictures but that’s all. For example I have a handy with no number.
Nobody can call me though I don’t mind to call myself. I don’t want to be disturbed while I work and I use an answering service to call back when I am available.
Motwary: I recently read somewhere a quote saying that your style of photographs became relevant once more since certain bloggers started photographing street fashion some years ago. Do you agree? Are you a blog reader yourself?
Feurer: My photography is the same as when I first started in the late 60’s. In those days there were no bloggers around.
Motwary: You always sketch out each image before you actually shoot it. You never want to be spontaneous while on set?
Feurer: Yes, when I think of ideas I make little drawings because I come from there and I draw fairly well. These drawings help me put together what I want to do. Usually I have a little piece of paper in my pocket with little sketches and every now and then I take it out and say, “lets try this or that”.
Feurer: I sometimes do but I always like to work on a concept, an idea. I don’t just go and shoot without knowing where I am going. It’s like hunting. You would have a hunter that goes and shoots everything that moves from little birds to cows. I’m not like that. I am very precise in what I want to do.
Also, I am very conscious of the light and shadow and I always try to get a genuine reflection of this planet on the faces I photograph. I like reality.
Feurer: Always, every time I start a series of pictures I am afraid of failure. I think this time its gonna be terrible and banal and boring and totally false. I’m shit-frightened every time (laughs)
Motwary: Are you never tempted to break your own boundaries?
Feurer: I am not into tricks. I do the simplest kind of photography and I like it like that.
Motwary: Are there any goals you still want to achieve, and if yes what are they?
Feurer: No, not in particular. You know I see that the world is moving towards it’s self-destruction and its happening in an accelerated way. I see that everybody now lives happily within virtuality, in front of his or her computers and that’s naïve, ridiculous and stupid.
Motwary: Your future plans?
Feurer: The book of course and a number of different stories I just did for French Vogue, with whom I am very happy to work with but, that’s another story.
Interview originally published in Dapper Dan, Issue 05, February 2012. Thank you André Werther
Interview originally published in Dapper Dan, Issue 05, February 2012. Special thanks to Joakim Andreasson.
Dapper Dan has waited two long years for this conversation to take place. The visionary independent designer whose work most definitively embodies the 1990s, Helmut Lang was considered an artist long before he decided to become one. His work as a fashion designer is still relevant, though it’s been almost seven years since he left it to focus on sculpture instead. The designer who refined an era now intrigues us with a new spectrum.
Arm strAp, Séance de Travail, spring/summer 03, photo hL-Art
Motwary: You have shredded several hundred of your archival clothes in order to recycle them into an art piece. Are you severing your bonds with the fashion world?
Lang: The intention was not to sever my bonds with the fashion world, no. Actually, between 2009 and 2010, I donated a large volume of my fashion work to the most important fashion, design and contemporary- art collections worldwide, in order to give back to fashion and culture at large.
After a fire in the building where our studio in New York is located, which could have destroyed the rest of the archive, and after going through the pieces for months to see what condition they’re in, I became intrigued by the idea of destroying the remaining 6,000 pieces myself and using them as raw material for my art.
I wanted to dedicate my time to creating something new, following the idea that the past is never static, but undergoes continual metamorphosis and transformation. It was a cathartic experience to accelerate that process and make it my own. After all, the fight against entropy and decay is always going to be a losing battle, so I thought, why not make of that destructive energy something new. In the autobiographical sense, the material of artists’ lives has always been the subject of their art. The only difference here is the public’s level of identification and investment in that material.
I think the story has changed because the human body is not the centre of attention any more. It is more the human condition that is taking centre stage. I became interested in working with forms and materials that were not restricted by the human body and its needs.
Motwary: Although it has been several years since you moved from one medium to another, the fashion industry still considers you one of the most important designers in its modern history. Why do you think that is?
Lang: It is really not about my opinion, but rather the collective verdict of the fashion industry. It would be hypocritical to say that it makes me feel bad. I am proud that I was able to formulate a body of work that is still contemporary and influential.
While I was working in fashion, I read everything that was said about me, until I stopped in 2005, but I think I never fully realised the impact of my work until I stepped back and saw its continuing influence on the fashion world.
Motwary: Do you follow the evolution of fashion nowadays?
Lang: I do, but not as a priority. I follow all important developments and contributions to culture and humanity at large.
Motwary: Do you feel any responsibility to those who idolised your clothes and cannot find them any more?
Lang: I don’t think it is a question of responsibility. It is a question of appreciation for the past and, for me, the excitement and evolution of something new. I feel fortunate that I’m able to work in art now, and able to contribute to the cultural landscape as I did before with fashion.
Motwary: Is there a complete archive of your work anywhere?
Lang: The archive, in its near entirety, is kept in digital form. I recently donated my visual archive to MAK in Vienna, which encompasses all graphics, images, Séance de Travail videos, press material, advertising campaigns, architecture and so on. They will develop a virtual database of my work that includes all silhouettes and locations of the pieces, which are in museums around the world. MAK will also create a dedicated space where, on request, students or other interested parties can study my work.
Motwary: Often, the way critics interpret one’s work has little to do with the creator’s own viewpoint. How would you describe your art?
Lang: I am not so much into interpreting or analysing my work, as I don’t want to impose my own thoughts. I think it really depends on who looks at the artwork.
Every person will form their own opinion and have their own experience and emotions, which is part of what makes art interesting. I just do what I feel is part of me, as I did with fashion. Time has to pass in order for a collective opinion to be developed.
Motwary: How did the desire arise to create beyond the boundaries of fashion? Was it about the corporate fashion industry, or a personal choice?
Lang: It was more a premonition of a changing world. Also, I did not want to stay in fashion until my death. My instinct was to contribute on a different level and within a different set of circumstances. Fashion is extremely complex in its requirements, and if these requirements change substantially, one possibility is to be brave enough to question the expected and re-evaluate personal needs. I don’t think many people walk away from fashion—it is very addictive.
Motwary: How can someone who loved fashion so intensely abandon it?
Lang: Thirty years in fashion is a pretty good run. I did some art projects while working in fashion and I was always interested in pursuing them full time, before it was too late.
Motwary: Was it difficult for you to detach your heart from the company you once owned?
Lang: Once I made the decision, it was not difficult.
Motwary: How have Paris and, later, New York shaped your personality, your likes and dislikes, your character, after you left Austria as a not-so-happy young person?
Lang: Paris is really the place where I have been the most, for private and professional reasons. I travelled for nearly 20 years between Vienna and Paris, and later between New York and Paris, and I also lived there for two full years, and it really became my second home. I still feel very attached to the place and all the people I know there.
Paris has profoundly shaped me into the man that I am today. New York probably did this later, in a similar but very different way, as I was much more mature and experienced, and I also arrived in New York already well known and successful in my profession. I decided to move to New York in late 1997, when I relocated and established my company headquarters there and also got my apartment in the city and place on Long Island.
I felt less driven to look around for a “better” place to be—it seemed that I had found the place that worked for me. I had also found my perfect relationship at the time, and it seemed right to pay the same attention to my private happiness as to my professional life, and to start to create a home. In a way, I had never desired that before.
Motwary: Do you feel you have achieved a harmonious state of mind?
Lang: Yes, I do. Definitely.
Motwary: What is your ultimate goal in life?
Lang: I always want to be my best and I never expect it to be easy along the way. In that sense, it does not matter what I do. I think I apply this approach to everything.
Motwary: What are your aesthetic obsessions?
Lang: I like when things are in the right context within their surroundings, and I like them a little bit off at the same time.
Motwary: After many years of intense exposure, you have managed to retain an enigmatic personality. Have you never been tempted to succumb to the cult of celebrity?
Lang: I think you answered the question yourself. It was a personal choice. I don’t like fame to get out of control, so that you are not able to live the life you want to live.
Motwary: I wanted to ask about your late friend, Louise Bourgeois. I have read that you think of her every day.
Lang: Louise was all or nothing. Intense, warm, embracing and straightforward. All qualities I treasure. There was nobody like her.
heLmut LAng Spine, 2011, rubber, steeL And pAint, 24x24x62 inches, photo hL-Art
Motwary: You embarked on some lasting, even legendary collaborations whilst working in fashion, with Jenny Holzer, Melanie Ward, Juergen Teller… are you still in touch with them?
Lang: Yes, most of them. With some of them, I am even closer than before.
Motwary: Do you have the same kinds of friends in art?
Lang: Yes. Some of them I’ve known for a long time; others are more recent.
Motwary: If life moves in a series of cycles, will there be another cycle for you after art?
Lang: At the moment I cannot imagine that there will be another cycle, so to speak. Also, we live in an environment where, increasingly, people don’t just do one thing, but work across creative disciplines in a more open capacity.
Motwary: What is art about, then?
Lang: It is something the critics and the public are discussing and interpreting constantly, and that is how it should be.
In Dapper Dan’s FIFTH issue, The media theorist Mc Kenzie Wark dissects the everyday life and glorious times of the Situationists; the visionary designer-turned artist Helmut Lang talks about his past and future; Eric Isaacson, co-owner of the iconic label Mississippi Records, insists that “it’s still amateur hour round here”; the artist AA Bronson sits down with pirates, Indians, shamans, Nazis, demons and Joseph Beuys; We also visit the international street-collage gangster Michael Anderson; the charismatic frontman Ben Wallers; the quintessential American in Milano, Edward Buchanan; the engimatic designer Junya Watanabe;
While the writer Angelo Flaccavento muses on presence and absence; and t he legendary fashion photographer Hans Feurer talks to Filep Motw ary. Dapper Dan 05 is already out in Europe , and will soon be available worldwide at selected newsstands, bookstores and fashion boutiques. Follow this link for stockist details.
Dear iDEALS, Paolo Roversi is the past and the future in one. He never set out to be a fashion photographer, though he is one of the most referenced in the world. His is the great paradigm of signature; of identity. He is the only photographer who truly owns his colour palette. The young man who left Italy to conquer, by chance, la mode Parisienne has become the inspirational story of our times. Despite his precision and constancy over 47 years of photography, he continues to surprise. His sweet voice salutes me on the phone; my heart beats faster when I ask my first question for Dapper Dan's issue 04…
Exclusive self-Portrait for Dapper Dan © Paolo Roversi
All the rest image selections, are magazine scans.
Motwary: Mr Roversi, why do you think photography has been such an interesting art form for so many years?
Roversi: I think photography is such a fantastic medium. When it was first introduced in the 19th century, the first important thing about it was that it became a vehicle for presenting reality. Paintings and sculptures were just representations, no? Photography is exactly a mirror; it reflects the form identically to what it really is. I think this is the magic about it. For me it’s something more, though. It’s a revelation and many other things.
Motwary: You have insisted on working with a Polaroid camera since the ’80s. How did this obsession start?
Roversi: As soon as I discovered this type of film I was enchanted by it. Even now I still feel this way and I cannot justify the reason. You know how you fall in love with something—maybe it was the colour, the contrast. It became my palette immediately. I also started to work with this camera for its size, the 8×10 format. Taking pictures one by one is a slow procedure. I found my way through this camera— how to work. It was the ideal way to express myself. By now, I know it very well. It has become a part of my skin; my blood.
Roversi: No, no. I am not against any new techniques. I work with Polaroid, but I also work with film, photo booths and plastic cameras, even. I have no complex about trying new things because at the end of the day, we are talking about new techniques. Everything is about the light. I wouldn’t mind if there was no more Polaroid, because I can always find a new way to tell my story.
Roversi: [laughs] I don’t know if it is interesting! I hope it is, at least for somebody. I think my photography is honest—it’s a reflection of who I am, what I feel. By using the senses, I try to be a bit more personal; to show a piece of me in my work.
Motwary: With your older work, the passage of time makes it look more current than when it was first published. How do you look at your past photographs?
Roversi: They are part of my life, my photographic life. I do go back to them, but not because I don’t want to live in the present. Every time, I hope that my next picture will be the best one, that tomorrow I will take another one and another one. But when I look at my old work I am touched, because I have memories attached to each one, and the feelings come out again. Sometimes I even see them in a new way, more exciting than when I shot them. When I take a picture I am always surprised, and this makes me happy, because the result is always different from what I expected.
Motwary: So, in a way, you seek advice from the “old” you about how to be the “new” you.
Roversi: Yes, exactly. Sometimes I find things I didn’t notice when I first took the picture.
Motwary: How do you always manage to photograph the most exquisite garments in the market, and how does couture help you create your images?
Roversi: I always say that the designer is the composer of the music, and the photographer plays the instrument—is the interpreter of the piece. I am the player and the designers are the composers, and it’s very important for me to have this music in front of me, playing it the way I like it, and within it, to create this certain kind of woman or man.
The dream of couture is very important in what I do. Some designers, like Yohji, Margiela, Galliano, they inspire me so much. They all showed me a different way, a suggestion, full of feeling, another perspective with which to look at a woman or a man and how to portray them. You know, my favorite fashion picture is always a portrait of a woman, but with such beautiful dresses, the idea of the portrait is always changing. Thanks to them, I have a different point of view.
Motwary: Your models, there’s always something very honest about them.
Roversi: I work in a very simple way with them. When I discover them, I always try to find something that touches me in their faces, if there is a deep exchange and a little mystery about them. They make me dream: through them, everything becomes exiting. I am very seduced by the strange beauty they offer and the question of whether I can touch or not, whether I can discover or not. The truth is, I like to be lost when I look at them.
Motwary: I would like to ask about Nevio Natali. It was in his studio that it all started for you.
Roversi: That was a long time ago. But still in my heart. Although Nevio was a commercial photographer, he was the one who showed everything to me. As you know, I never went to photography school. He taught me all the basics at his studio: the speed, the use of film, the lenses, how and when to focus—everything. And it’s very important, as technique alone is not enough to express oneself in this language.
Motwary: Why would an Italian choose Paris as his base?
Roversi: It was by chance, honestly, but I guess I can say the same of most of the things in my photographic life. Many of my pictures happen by chance. And it was by chance that I met this other photographer in Italy, who asked me, “Hey Paolo, why don’t you come to Paris?” So I came. When I arrived, fashion did not interest me at all. It was in Paris that I discovered fashion, through some friends of mine who were working in the business. Then I discovered the magazines and the great fashion photographers: Avedon, Penn, Newton, Bourdin. I was immediately carried away by all this wonderful work of theirs, and by the magazines, their creativity, their elegance. Of course, I was seduced by Paris too!
Motwary: Has your view of the city changed over the years? Do you ever intend to depart?
Roversi: No, I don’t think so, though every time I go to Italy I ask myself, “Why do I live in Paris?” Because I love my birthplace.
Motwary: Your family is there, no?
Roversi: Yes, and it feels like my country, you know? Italy is the home of the language I can express myself with the best, my food, my sky, my clouds, my wind and my fog. Because where I lived as a child used to be very foggy in the wintertime.
Motwary: Are your origins reflected in your photographs?
Roversi: Very much! Sometimes critics see this influence and I go, “Wow,” because I see it too. Within them I carry my childhood, and things like the Byzantine mosaics from Ravenna, or a painting of a Madonna as it was placed in my mother’s house, even the hair, this kind of thick texture. But really, I don’t want to analyze this too much. I like things to be left unexplained.
Roversi: This is a good question! But I think I would keep it as it is. Motwary: When is the moment a man or a woman looks most beautiful? Roversi: When they are in love. Or, even better, when they make love.
Roversi: No, I do not compromise, because we work together. Fashion photography is a result of teamwork and I always try to keep the energy and the creativity, the style and everything that the stylist creates, and to enrich the story with anything anyone in the team can bring to it. I don’t want to direct too much or be too powerful. So it’s a question of keeping it together and analyzing it in order to get a good picture that will satisfy us all… that we all have the same dream.
Motwary: Why do you work mostly with women? Is it intentional, or simply a matter of commission?
Roversi: It’s a matter of commission, since I work mostly with women’s magazines rather than men’s. There are many more men’s magazines now than when I started. Maybe there was L’Uomo Vogue back then, though I’m not sure…
Motwary: How different is it for you to express yourself through moving images rather than photography?
Roversi: Sometimes it is different, sometimes not. I think that photography and film are very close, though in film I find it difficult to keep it relevant to my photography. It all depends on the story, the script. I have not done so many films yet—they are so few compared to my photographic work.
Motwary: What about social media—do you think the industry is shifting from the print to the web, from the time- less to the ephemeral?
Roversi: This is already happening anyway, so even if I say yes or no, it’s better or worse, it wouldn’t change anything. Anybody can see how things are moving right now. Of course I was educated to see a photo-graph as an object rather than an image, not just a Polaroid floating on some computer screen. One can smell and touch, worship and frame a photograph; put it on a wall, on a table, in your pocket. Things have become much more ephemeral these days. Things appear and disappear on the screen of an iPhone or a computer, and see you later! I really miss the family album and the pictures you put in a wallet. Now every- body has a screen. One of my favorite memories of my father was the picture of us, his children, in his wallet. I’m nostalgic.
Roversi: This is good! I think it is how this business works. Fashion is moving every month, and the same goes for fashion photography. The worst thing for someone in fashion is to be called a ”has-been”. All these people bring new, fresh things in. It’s not a question of quality any more. It’s about new energies, new ideas.
Roversi: Of course I am not going to compare Testino to Newton—each of them has his own vision and approach. Indeed, things have become easier with all these new cameras and technology. The quality too. But this is part of the times we are in. If you compare the way Balenciaga or Dior made a dress back then to how it’s done now, you can see that nothing is the same. It’s not about the flash, it’s what our times demand to see. Everything is faster now. You know, Guy Bourdin could take three or four days on 10 pages or even more. Now Testino or Richardson has one day for 20 pages. So yes, times have changed.
Motwary: How do you see the future of photography?
Roversi: I don’t have a crystal ball in front of me. [pauses] I’ll go upstairs, take the next picture and I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you tomorrow.
**Interview originally published in Dapper Dan, Issue 04, October 2011. Special thanks to Stella Roversi
Balancing a nostalgic sensibility with radical modernism, Kris Van Assche has created a distinctive, refined world of nonchalant elegance. His latest show for Dior Homme, for autumn/winter 2011/12, offered a strict outline for the modern man who wants to dress in fluid forms.
Boys strolled down the catwalk in wide-brimmed hats and drapey cloaks, chandeliers and fireplaces in the background. The Belgian-born designer graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp and moved to Paris in 1998, where he worked with Hedi Slimane at Yves Saint Laurent and then Dior Homme. His own label was first introduced in 2005; two years later, he was appointed artistic director at Dior Homme...
Motwary: Hello Kris, how does this phone call find you?
Van Assche: I’m good, thank you.
Motwary: How would you describe the Dior Homme man for autumn/winter 2011/12?
Van Assche: I have been at Dior for four years now, and I had to struggle with this heritage, and how to present a new “story” for Dior. I concluded that it is not so much about the silhouette or certain details. It is much more about the artisanship, the way the clothes are made. This is the real heritage of the house. The atelier and its expertise was more of an inspiration than just the means to execute a design. Before, a designer would just go to the atelier with a drawing and expect them to make it. Now, I go with a drawing, but I ask them to make the best out of it and really include their opinion as part of the creative process.
I see a return to what we might call “essential”, and I think this is also what has changed since the crisis. Fashion, for me, was never about extravaganzas. I don’t really like clothes that only impress on the catwalk. Now I feel increasingly at ease with just concentrating on what I see as essential, the quality and the way clothes drape on the body. So, yes, there is a form of simplicity, and it goes together with the idea of using only a few colours—whatever really seems necessary. People have said that it’s quite strict, religious even, and it makes me laugh, because frankly it has nothing to do with that. It’s about the perfection of the clothes, getting the shoulders right, seeing how it fits perfectly on the body. It has more to do with precision than strictness. But I guess that’s where my Belgian roots come out—I hear it all the time!
Motwary: That contradicts something you once said in another interview—that you don’t have a sense of humor.
Van Assche: [laughs] I don’t know. I am quite serious about what I do, but I hope there’s some humour in me.
Motwary: Is the collection a reflection of the economic down- turn that is still haunting us? How do you respond creatively to a crisis like that?
Van Assche: There is no definition of how one should react to the crisis—any crisis. One could be tempted to work on more classical lines that should be easy to sell. But maybe people wouldn’t buy them because customers are looking for more exceptional pieces instead. There is no manual here. Personally, my reaction to the crisis was to try to define myself.
Motwary: Is there any tension between the idea and the execution, in terms of the time that separates them?
Van Assche: Oh yes! It is the big frustration of my job. First, you have this initial idea and ideal image of how the clothes are going to look on the catwalk, the show itself, the models. Then you have a thousand technical things that alter all of the above: putting on the zippers, the buttons, choosing the fabrics… There is a lot of detail that alters the dreamy vision you have in mind at first. I always say that developing a collection is five months of struggle not to lose the initial idea. There is even the possibility of things going wrong two days before the show. You have the pieces you like, and they look exactly as you had them in mind, and then you need to find the right boy to fit the jacket. The wrong choice of model can be fatal for a look.
Motwary: How do you find the right boy?
Van Assche: It’s really very difficult. Truly, I spend a lot of time doing the casting. Every time I have this specific type I am looking for. For my own label I have 25 models, so for Dior I use 40 or 45—it’s a lot. There are always 15 who are good and three I really like and see as perfect for the concept. I always wish I could clone those three.
Motwary: Who is the Dior man?
Van Assche: There is not one type of man, and certainly there is a difference between Dior Homme and my own label. For Kris Van Assche I become the client—I make clothes that I want to wear myself, things that are very close to my personal tastes. At Dior, I have a more spherical point of view, in order to satisfy the diversity of their clients. We have the younger customers, who tend to choose pieces that are much more crazy than anything I would wear, but there is also the traditional type who wishes for a tailored suit, a politician or a businessman, maybe. In order to make the perfect suit, I always push myself to get inspired by the challenge and bring out more tailored pieces, like a tailored jacked worn inside out.
Motwary: What’s the balance between refining the signature of the house and doing something new each season? Or lets say, how high is the pressure to do something completely new every time?
Van Assche: At Dior the pressure is huge! Dior Homme had its own success even before I arrived, and it was my task to define a new story, a new outline.
Motwary: Although it haunted you in the wrong way, in the beginning...
Van Assche: Yes. When someone is asked to take over a house, it is usually because it’s already dead or slowly dying. That would have been easy—all I would have had to do is throw everything in the garbage and start over. The previous Dior Homme was such a cliché; the downmarket brands were copying it. Dior had to remain a leading brand and move towards a new phase. I saw it as a great challenge to create a story for such an important house, never mind the pressure. Commercially and financially, it’s a big business and no mistakes are allowed. There are a lot of people working for Dior. I was very aware of all that and I think that together we worked it out. Now that I’ve found this new silhouette that I am very comfortable with, I don’t necessarily change it every season. I redefine it, making everything more evolved, but staying loyal to what I started eight seasons ago: luxury, comfort and exquisite craftsmanship.
Motwary: Do you consider yourself lucky?
Van Assche: [laughs] Of course I am lucky to be able to do this job. I am lucky to have my own label too—it’s very hard for a young designer these days. A lot of people would probably like to be where I am, but I worked very hard, for many years, to be where I am today—since I was 18 years old and still at the Academy. I don’t see time just flying by; my life is completely devoted to what I do. So yes, I am lucky, but nothing fell into my hands either.
Motwary: How do you balance your role as creative director of Dior Homme with running your own label? And how do you balance it all with a personal life?
Van Assche: Obviously it took me some time to find a balance, but the good thing about it is that both labels are in Paris. It’s only a 20-minute drive from one office to the other. What I do is spend two or three days at one or the other, wherever I need to be the most at the time. It allows me to work constantly with both my teams, and I’m very proud of all of them because they know how to continue what they are doing even if I am not there.
The teams are really strong; they allow me to be flexible. Right now a three-week holiday sounds like a good idea, especially after the shows, but the truth is that I cannot take it because I will definitely regret it for the whole next season. A few days off do just fine. I’m also aware of the fact that I’m the very first step of the whole process. If I am late, the whole chain will be late: the design process, the making, the price-tagging, the deliveries, the sales.
Motwary: Christian Dior never created anything for men. Do you translate the history of the house of Dior into a masculine vision, or is it purely your own ideas for Dior Homme?
Van Assche: The Dior atelier is about craftsmanship. This is a very important point to make, since not many menswear labels work in such a way. In Dior the customer can find quality and creativity, all in one piece of clothing. Of course I spend a lot of time going through the archives of Monsieur Dior, but I don’t really relate to it, or to couture as it was back then. There is a great deal of respect for beauty and M Dior’s view of modernity, and that certain kind of elegance, which comes naturally to me. Today, Dior Homme is about what I think his message would be for the man of today.
Motwary: In what way can one still make a statement with fashion today? For example, in the 1980s and ’90s, Katherine Hamnett’s slogan T-shirts literally conveyed a message. A printed sentence on a shirt doesn’t really mean the same thing any more.
Van Assche: It has become much more subtle and much more difficult. I don’t really know how people go about it, but personally I feel clothes should underline one’s personality and not the other way around. When you have a lot of choice, it becomes difficult to pick. Some people choose certain labels because they want to express though them a certain power. Others go for a total look, which conveys the message of the designer, not the wearer. I prefer to see people mix and match to achieve something that really represents them.
I don’t like logos, never did, and I’m happy that the trend is almost off the map.
Motwary: What is the meaning of fashion now?
Van Assche: Fashion is totally necessary, even if it’s considered superficial by some. Life is tough for everybody. We constantly work, are stressed, are in a rush to get things done—so all the simple things that embellish everyday life have become really impor- tant. Fashion is one of the things that can make a dull day seem beautiful. Clothes make you feel nice. No one can deny that.
Motwary: Are you following the rise of the fashion bloggers, or the fashion film mania?
Van Assche: I’m obliged to follow them, although I try not to feel victimised by it. The fashion bloggers are often the first to know the news, but also the first to spread false rumours. I follow them from a healthy distance. There are some very talented and inter- esting ones, but they are only a few. There is a lot of rubbish on the net. Fashion films are something I quite like, as a matter of fact. I feel that fashion should always be in touch with new technologies. I’ve been doing these videos with the Belgian photographer Willy Vanderperre for Dior.
I’m very proud because through them, I can show the clothes with movement and music, from different angles, and so on. It’s another way of expanding the message.
Motwary: How do you see the future of fashion? And what about young designers who are truly talented but have no financial support?
Van Assche: I have no worries for the future of this business. It’s always been, and will forever be, a tough place to work, but it will also remain active forever. Clothes are the only way for a person to complete his personality. As for the creative youth, I can only speak for myself. As a young designer, I had to find investors who believed in my work and helped me to push it further, and I think this is still the way it works for others.
I would advise young people to start by working in a big company for a few years, to see how this industry really functions. Fashion is not about parties and famous models. It’s a tough business and it should stay that way.
*Portrait of Kris Van Assche by Paolo Roversi
Walter Pfeiffer has been making pictures since the early 1970s. His photographs and short films evoke both the glamour and the grit of hedonistic youth. His influence is seen in the work of photographers like Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans, who have achieved the kind of recognition he has never enjoyed. He has published six books with Ringier and Hatje Cantz: odes to homoeroticism, drama and imperfect beauty, measured out in off-kilter crops and that omnipresent flash. Here, he chats with Dapper Dan from his home in Zurich.
Motwary: Are you having a nice day, Mr. Pfeiffer?
Pfeiffer: Yes. I am lecturing this afternoon at an art school. So I will take some photographs for them. Since I’m old-school, I always photograph on my terrace and then I mix those photos with my new works in a slide show for the students.
Motwary: But you like being old-school, no? It is what people know you for.
Pfeiffer: (Laughs) You know, it’s not nice of me to call myself old-school, because there are many moments where I have to learn how to deal with something new, like a new camera. But I can’t learn too much. Maybe for a new commissioned project I might adjust to a more modern way.
Motwary: How difficult is it for you to look at your work as a spectator?
Pfeiffer: That’s one of the hardest things to do. When it’s a commission, I sometimes leave it to the client to decide how they want it. Sometimes we choose the finals together. I don’t fight. For my own work, once I am done I put everything away and take my time to go back to it. I had a big exhibition, which finished last week, in a very nice gallery. I wasn’t very fortunate with gallerists in the beginning of my career.
They would say, “Oh, your drawings are beautiful but your photos look like something that anyone can do.” Of course now, after the retrospective, things are different. You know, when you come from the country, you tend to be suspicious of success. You can’t trust success too much, and you shouldn’t. Today people may be screaming for your work, but tomorrow they’ll be moaning about it. Two days ago I had a beautiful experience. We went on a tour near the lake and my friend turned to me and said, “Why don’t you ever relax?” I always have to be doing something. I swim, walk and hike. And that’s the relaxing part of my life. But when I am at home, it is time for me to prepare and research my next project. I am so old that it feels as if time, for me, is getting narrower.
Motwary: You have said, “as the past gets blurred, my diaries help me remember”.
Pfeiffer: In 1976 I had this petite notebook – like an agenda, with the hours as numbers on the left and the name of the day on the right. I was writing my notes on each hour, my appointments, etc. After six months I thought, “This is so boring.” Since then, I have started writing down my thoughts. At the end of the year I glue the pages together and they are still sitting on my shelves, never to be opened again.
Motwary: So you never read them?
Pfeiffer: No, because my then masters tutor told me that it would be wrong to do so. I’ve had 30 years of putting down my life in notes. In the beginning, I would glue Polaroid pictures in the empty pages. When the Polaroids got more expensive, I stopped using them. At the time, they were so cheap, and my Polaroid camera was the only thing I had.
Motwary: It’s a bit crazy how things are valued today.
Pfeiffer: Yes, and you know, when I glued them I would think, “Oh, these Polaroids are bad.” But as time passes, especially when I had to make the choices for my retrospective book, I went back to that material, and now I feel they look beautiful. It was a good way for me to see how much I have changed throughout my life.
Motwary: There is not a hint of ego in that idea. I’m impressed with how you don’t interfere with your clients when working on a project.
Pfeiffer: Well, for a commission I am hired to do a certain group of things for somebody else’s needs. Thank God my super-agency gives me projects that I like, so I am never bored. If I have to wait sometimes for the right thing, I’ll wait. I’m used to it. I have been waiting my whole life.
Motwary: What’s the impact of other people’s opinions on your work?
Pfeiffer: For the show, it was hard. Although most people said it was great, all I kept were the bad remarks. So I try to avoid hearing people’s opinions most of the time. Still, it is preferable to discuss the reasons someone doesn’t like my work. If it’s a superficial remark, I forget it immediately. My first book was released in the 1970s and no one said a word back then. No critiques were written. Not even one! So I am surprised now when they write about it.
Motwary: Were you disappointed back then?
Pfeiffer: Yes! I was on my way to America, where I would stay for a year in New York. I was very young at the time, 35, and out of the country for the first time. It was 1980; I had my book with me as Xerox photocopies. The actual book was on the printing press back home. By the time it came out, I was already out of America. So in a way, I lost my chance to show the book to the people I wanted. Nobody wanted to see a book in Xerox anyway.
The book was released upon my return and could be found through the art world, but it didn’t really get any official comments. Maybe some gay library here in Munich invited me to hang some pictures on its walls, but that was it. Nothing much happened. It was too early for a book with such content. I wanted to make a book that wouldn’t be the same as what people already knew. It wasn’t a coffee-table book – it was like a movie book without any text. A mixture of wonderful Polaroids and photos, all blown up in perfect lighting. Flashy, like what I am doing now. I dreamed of a book that would be fun and sexy and erotic. Back then, sex was not as easy as it is today. It had another meaning.
Motwary: Your heroes are always so young, but so real.
Pfeiffer: You know, when I first started to work in Germany, the same period when my book Welcome Aboard 16 came out, after 10 years of painting and drawing, I had this new chance. There was anger in me and I was feeling dated. So when the first magazine offer came, I thought, “I should do it, because I’ll learn it by doing it.” My first job was for Achtung magazine, which was very fresh then. I had never done a casting before, so it was a new experience that got me quite nervous, seeing all those young boys with their lookbooks. I got so scared, thinking, “I cannot do that, they’re so perfect.” So I asked the magazine to leave me with only the beginners. We sent home the experienced models. That was exciting. I love real beauty. I like things that are not easy to get. This old song comes to mind, by the Rolling Stones… I cannot recall the title. Anyway, I like working with people who don’t know my name. But it’s getting harder, because when you ask them for a photograph they are suspicious, as if it’s for pornographic material for the web…
Motwary: How does it interfere with the reality of the moment when you press the shutter?
Pfeiffer: I always start with an idea, though most of the time, the result comes out different. It’s just that you have to direct people a little bit. Last week I was photographing an athlete who did everything from jumping to laughing and kicking. People are more at ease when they’re asked to do something they are familiar with. That works for me. Work must be linked with fun. And the right timing.
Motwary: Did you doubt yourself?
Pfeiffer: You know, the big Hollywood films had such an impact on me as a young man. I admired all those big stars, Brando and so on. Warren Beatty. I was always into art but back then; artists were all about masculine, good-looking men with ladies who knew how to party all the time. Me, I had to find my own surroundings, the people I could belong with, my own world. So I didn’t really care that nobody reacted to what I was doing. Obviously I had to go on and try out new materials like clay, just to keep myself working. You can’t sit down and cry, you have to be… up.
Motwary: At what age did your vision take form?
Pfeiffer: When I was offered apprenticeship training as a window-dresser in a huge department store. As a young man coming from the depths of the country, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I was rejected at school, so I had to do something about it. Although I managed to get this apprenticeship, my teacher advised that I should apply again to art school. So I did, with no result, and that made me feel even sadder about myself. Then I went back to another department store as a decorator, thinking, “That’s it! My life won’t be that great.” Until another letter came, informing me that I was finally accepted into the first-year class. This changed me, changed the way I felt. I became confident all of a sudden.
I learned how to deal with people finally, after going through hell as a teenager, like we all did, as an innocent young man. Going to art school was a great opportunity to be surrounded by other artists. It felt like a rebirth.
Motwary: But as a window decorator, you had the chance to showcase your poetry in the store’s windows for everyone to see.
Pfeiffer: Well, it wasn’t Bergdorf Goodman, but the advantage was that this store had everything from womenswear to hardware. Cheap stuff. I had a whole range of materials to play with. And it also had these salesgirls and their dramas, which put me through hell, but frankly, it helped me to be stronger. When I started as a so-called artist at the age of 26, my first photos were cheap Polaroids, which I would use for my drawings.
I never used a photograph as something beautiful. The whole thing started when I would take pictures for my drawings, directing people or props. Then I would use them as inspiration for my drawings or commissioned illustrations for magazines.
Motwary: In your last book, Cherchez la femme, you focus on women. It’s totally different to everything you’ve done before.
Pfeiffer: It was never really fun for me, going to gay bars when I was younger. I don’t know why! I always felt at ease when surrounded by straight people, and since women were always better friends to me, I followed them. They would always help and care for me, as well as serving the role of a muse, giving me inspiration.
Motwary: You had beautiful women as friends?
Pfeiffer: I would say that I had the most exquisite and most tasteful women friends ever. They taught me a lot about style, beauty, cooking… everything. I always loved being in the position of a learner, having teachers around me. I still do. I always value a woman’s opinion.
Motwary: What is the difference between man and woman?
Pfeiffer: For me, men are more difficult and more suspicious of others’ intentions, my intentions included. I am not interested in their sexuality. It was a problem for me in the beginning, when I had to work with them, because I was always interested in straight men and their masculine beauty.
Motwary: How about women?
Pfeiffer: They have to be witty and funny, good-looking and clever… With boys, I don’t care so much about all that. Anyway, women last longer with me.
Motwary: Do you see them as more intellectual than men?
Pfeiffer: Maybe I treat them more intellectually. I don’t know. I do respect their advice as they are more advanced, in a way. Boys can be a problem sometimes.
Motwary: Do you enjoy the company of others?
Pfeiffer: I am a loner.
Motwary: You have said, “Reality is great, but not always”.
Pfeiffer: Sometimes you have to create reality in exactly the way I build my sets. It’s like when I go to a person’s home and borrow the way he placed the furniture, the light, the plants, and I think that it suits my reality perfectly. Borrrriiinnnggg…
Self-portrait with mask © Walter Pfeiffer. Interview originally published in Dapper Dan, Issue 03, March 2011 Thanks to C. Scott Lyles