Fashion Pioneers | Nick Knight Says Heart and Mind are the Key to Fashion Imagemaking

LONDON, United Kingdom — Ten years ago at 19:27 GMT on 27 November 2000, at a time before streaming runway shows, before Facebook, before YouTube, before the rise of Web 2.0 itself, Nick Knight’s transformative fashion website went live. Mr. Knight, a boundary-breaking fashion photographer, had considered the internet and saw something that others did not: where many in the industry saw only ugliness and risk, Mr. Knight saw the potential for emotion, connection and opportunity. Crucially, he also understood that digital — inherently active, social, transparent and restless — would fundamentally transform the “closed” fashion system and radically change the way fashion media was created and consumed. While others averted their eyes, Mr. Knight set about catalysing the revolution.

Last Friday, only hours before the 10th anniversary of SHOWstudio’s launch, BoF editor-in-chief Imran Amed sat down with Mr. Knight for the third installment of FASHION PIONEERS, a series of intimate live-streamed conversations between Mr. Amed and the industry’s most interesting operators.

As the conversation unfolded in front of a live studio audience of 200 people at London’s Hospital Club, thousands of others were participating in the conversation online, which at one point made “Nick Knight” a trending topic on Twitter. The Twitter conversation was in turn broadcast back to the studio audience on twin screens on either side of the stage, creating a integrated link between the physical and virtual audiences participating in the live event.

The interview explored Mr. Knight’s start in fashion, the genesis of, the watershed moment of Alexander McQueen’s Plato Atlantis and the rise of fashion entertainment.

The evening began with a look back at Mr. Knight’s early days and the source of the tireless, forward-looking energy that has defined his career. “Ever since I started in photography I wanted to change it,” he said, recalling his days at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art. “Every waking hour I would take photographs. It quickly became an addiction.”

As the talk continued, it became abundantly clear that, unlike many people in the fashion industry, Mr. Knight is not fearful of change. Quite the opposite. He seems to thrive on it. “I think photography is dead,” he said, reflecting on the medium’s inability to evolve. “Film died some years ago. I don’t miss it,” he added without any trace of nostalgia. “None of my children read magazines. Fashion will be shaped by the internet.”

When Mr. Amed focused the conversation around the birth of SHOWstudio, Mr. Knight identified two important objectives that guided the launch of the site. The first was the desire to show clothes in motion. “Clothes are designed to be seen in movement. One could argue that a still photograph of a piece of clothing is to some degree a compromise of the designer’s original vision,” he said, outlining a thought process that informed his first experiments in online fashion film. The second objective was to communicate the process of making fashion imagery. “The life that I was seeing unfolding in front of me, as a fashion photographer, working with a whole range of people from Robert de Niro to Naomi Campbell was absolutely fascinating,” he said. But at the time, consumers only saw the finished product. “It’s allowing people in,” Mr. Knight said of SHOWstudio. “One of the biggest luxuries we have left is access.”

Nine years after SHOWstudio’s launch, Mr. Knight’s partnership with Alexander McQueen on Plato’s Atlantis — a technology-infused fashion extravaganza that brought together fashion, film and music — completely redefined fashion film and internet-enabled access. It was a watershed moment when the entire fashion industry suddenly saw that digital media could turn a runway show for a few hundred people into global fashion entertainment in which millions of people could participate in realtime. Underscoring the point, SHOWstudio’s live stream of the event came crashing down under the weight of interested generated by just one tweet from Lady Gaga, who debuted her new single “Bad Romance” at the end of the show. International Herald Tribune fashion editor Suzy Menkes called it a techno-revolution, while Gucci Group CEO Robert Polet said: “It is the biggest game change we are going to experience and embrace. It’s going to touch every aspect of our business.”

For Mr. Knight, it was Mr. McQueen’s decision to team up with Lady Gaga that was the masterstroke: “Yes it brought the whole bloody thing down, but yes it made it into an event where everyone saw the power of it… He turned that fashion show into entertainment and that’s where the difference is. That’s why there’s three and a half million hits on YouTube. Making fashion into entertainment across the internet is the key to it.”

Implying that consumer-facing fashion entertainment was the future of the industry, Mr. Knight observed: “There is a big sea change ahead. It’s a fundamental revolution in fashion really,” he continued. “Fashion shows are giving over to fashion film, the shows are completely changing, the scheduling of the shows is completely changing. We are in a moment of total flux.”

So what new technologies is Nick Knight most excited about? “Our mobile phones are [becoming] our screens for understanding fashion, as much as our computers were,” he said, insisting that what matters most is not the size of the screen or the quality of the visual, but the emotional connection that a communication creates. “Mobile gives you access,” he said. “For that, you don’t need high definition.”

Mr. Knight also referenced his continuing experiments in 3D scanning. “What I end up with is data and from that data I can make an object,” he explained. “It’s really exciting where that will go… I can use the data to make a living, talking, walking avatar — all things are possible, the digital modeling agency is there,” he said. Challenging the fashion industry to experiment with these new technologies, he commented: “We’re not waiting for technology, technology is waiting for us.”

But when asked what new tools young fashion imagemakers need to have in their arsenal, Mr. Knight replied simply: “Their heart and their mind is all,” emphasising that it’s the emotion and the idea behind a communication that matters most, not the tool. “If you’ve got something to say, you’ll find a way of saying it, you’ll find the most appropriate tool, whether it’s a photo booth in King’s Cross Station or whether it’s the 3D globe that I walked into in California a couple of months ago,” he continued. Indeed, while technology is radically changing fashion, according to Mr. Knight “it’s the human part of what you do that is way more important that anything else.”

As the evening drew to a close, a Twitter question from British Vogue’s creative director Robin Derrick triggered a very honest, personal and emotionally charged statement from Mr. Knight on the fraught relationship between fashion and society at large. “There are moments when you do question the validity… when you do question your own ethics and morals,” admitted Mr. Knight. “Fashion tends to be one very, very narrow parameter on what is acceptable beauty,” he noted.

“I think the fashion industry is so narrow in terms of what it will accept. I’ve fought very, very hard to articulate an alternative,” said Mr. Knight, who, in the spirit of a true fashion revolutionary, driven by heart, mind and the pursuit of change, has relentlessly used his craft to break social boundaries, as well as aesthetic and technological ones. “I hate the idea that fashion photography is exclusive in the way that it excludes people from feeling part of society. I think there’s beauty in every human being and it’s up to the person looking at it to bring it out.”

Fashion Pioneers was filmed by Pundersons Gardens. Many thanks to our friends from the fashion blogosphere who live-streamed the event to a global audience.

A selection of images from the event, held at The Hospital Club in London.

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  1. That’s a shame. I love photography.
    If clothes were really meant to be seen moving, then how the hell do they start out as static 2 dimensional drawings and are draped as static pieces on a body form?
    I get what Knight is saying and some fashion photography is crap, since you can’t even see, get an idea of, the garment being shown in the photo.
    I love fashion magazines. I don’t own a printer and many of us have photos on our cameras that will never see the light of day.
    I don’t want to have to use electricity any time I want to see fashion. Fashion mags are low tech and that is what makes them so great. You can share them with the less fortunate. You can save them for posterity.
    I do think sharing fashion shows over the web is great and ‘now’ but to dismiss magazines… is sad. Not everyone wants the image without any written word and to dumb down fashion to just video stream is dull too.

    Emm from Schenectady, NY, United States
  2. I entirely agree with the comment above. To dismiss magazines is fairly ignorant and illustrative of the fact that this person has absolutely no connection with editorial; or in fact the very simple psychology of the love of feeling glossy pages between your fingers as you would feel the material of a dress. Photography takes on so many different forms and to make such a statement that it is dead is again, a little emptily bold. Even if he believe so strongly in the internet- photography is alive and kicking in that forum too. Clothes are meant to be seen in movement but there’s ultimately no point in that without capturing the inspiration behind the costume- and that is done in a still frame; an image of a model wearing a certain outfit for example, in a certain environment, captures our imaginations and reminds us of the idea behind that outfit from the designers perspective.

    I’m certainly not knocking digital. I’m as internet savvy as the next person; but we have so many fabulous outlets for our fashion ardor- why should any of them be dismissed if they are working so well?

    Francesca from United Kingdom