NEW YORK, United States — “I like beauty, but it needs to vibrate. I like the slap in the face,” says Fabien Baron, who has been in the business of making beauty vibrate for over twenty years now, imbuing fashion images with just enough tension and feeling that the viewer may indeed feel struck in the face.
Over the course of more than two decades, the Paris-born, New York-based Baron has reinvented five magazines, including Italian and French Vogue, and set the aesthetic benchmark for countless others, which have emulated the Frenchman’s signature style, characterised by generous expanses of white space, elegantly punctuated with bold black typefaces, a visual language he first introduced as creative director of Harper’s Bazaar in the 1990s.
Currently, Baron is the editorial director of Interview magazine and runs his own design and branding agency, Baron & Baron, through which he has shaped the visual identities of global fashion brands like Calvin Klein, creating iconic print and television campaigns, packaging and, in recent years, digital work, including web films, a medium Baron has called “the future of branding.”
Baron grew up in the 12th arrondissement of Paris in an artistic family. His father was an art director too and Baron’s early exposure to his father’s métier gave him a rigorous foundation that continues to inform his work today. “My dad was doing more of the journalistic side of art direction, for newspapers, and I was really intrigued by the machine of it all, the pace. There were no computers at the time, just huge linotype machines that weighed tons and used metal plates. There was an adrenaline rush about it all.”
Baron went on to work with his father. And if there’s a certain journalistic clarity to the younger Baron’s famous layouts, it’s thanks to Baron senior, from whom the budding art director learned “a very structured approach, really how to organise the information, to say, ‘Ok the title needs to be like that, then what’s the subtitle, captions, etcetera.”
From an early age, Baron was also fascinated with fashion magazines. “When I was 13 or 14 years old, I was looking at French Vogue, amazed by Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin’s images. I was going crazy. I fell in love with photography really early on and got my first camera when I was 17. Art direction is how I make my living, but photography remains my personal love.”
Baron came to New York in 1982, at the age of 20. “Anything that was interesting or new — whether in music, painting or pop culture — came from here and I wanted to be where it was happening, I wanted to be on the frontline!”
“In the 80s, New York was a totally different city than it is now, it was dangerous, it was cool, really harsh, really raw. My first years in New York were tough. It was hard. I knew only one person [Veronique Vienne], an art director at WWD. She was my way in. I arrived with only 300 dollars in my pocket and bad English.” But the young Baron was hungry. “The day after I arrived I was going around the city with my portfolio, looking for work.”
A meeting with Condé Nast editorial director Alexander Liberman changed the course of Baron’s career. “I went to see him, he spoke to me in French, looked at my portfolio and bought some pictures I had taken of the Brooklyn Bridge on the spot for $600.” Apart from putting some cash in his pocket, the meeting resulted in Baron’s first serious publishing job, at GQ, where he worked under Mary Shanahan, one of three critical mentors.
“She made me understand clearly how an image can function, how you can create an image. That I didn’t know really because my experience was in typography; this whole idea that you have to come in with a point of view and bring that point-of-view across and then you build an image with the photographer. I saw Mary do it and I was mesmerized; it was like eating a pie.”
In the mid-80s, Baron left GQ to become the art director of New York Woman, a magazine published by American Express. “Because of New York Woman I got advertising jobs and soon I was doing all the Barneys advertising, including the famous campaign with Steven Meisel and Naomi and Christy.”
It was Meisel who referred Baron to Franca Sozzani, who had just been offered the top job at Italian Vogue. When Sozzani offered Baron a position, he agreed on the spot. “Working with Franca is where I really learned about fashion. I met all the designers, I was going to the shows, I was now in the fashion business. And that’s when I started to do advertising campaigns for Giorgio Armani and Valentino. I had my own little thing on the side.”
Barons’ third great mentor was Liz Tilberis, the legendary British editor with whom he redesigned Harper’s Bazaar in 1992. “From Tilberis I learned management and how to communicate with people in a nice way. She was the most amazing editor I have worked with and knew how to get the best out of everyone that worked for her. She gave you freedom, just the right amount of room for you to find the thing she was looking for. It was an incredible skill she had; so you thought ‘Oh, I have all this freedom I can do whatever I want,’ but at the end you were totally delivering exactly what she was looking for.” Tilberis died of cancer in 1999. “I got really sad when she passed away, I had to quit.”
Baron often describes his style as direct. “I like things to be very simple and very direct and to have a certain balance. There has to be harmony but also vibration, it needs to be dynamic and powerful. I work really, really hard at it. And I’m constantly asking myself, ‘Has it been done already?’ because then I can’t do it.”
“People think being an art director is just about going on shoots and being on set, but that’s only a fraction of my job.” In fact, Baron often functions as a sort of matchmaker, finding the right talents for the right brand long before a photo shoot. “I think I have been successful because I know how to pair things together; I know how to take a problem, an equation, and solve it. In fact, problem-solving is tremendous, a huge part of my job. A lot of it is being the person that is stuck between everyone, you are there from the beginning, the birth of idea, to when it is produced, edited, corrected, retouched and printed. And the entire spectrum is not as glamorous as it sounds; it means dealing with a lot of people.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Baron’s distinctive aesthetic has become the lingua franca of fashion. “My type of design has become so mainstream, you see it everywhere, from the Gap’s sales signs down to Tomato soup cans, on which I recognise my type. I think I opened the door for people to see in another way, and, of course, it has become common ground. Someone has to break the door, so we can all go in and do things with it.”
So, what advice would Baron give young art directors trying to break into the industry?
“First of all I would say go for it, but you have to be ready to work really hard and not feel entitled and be willing to pay your dues. To build an image there are all these components which you have to master and understand how to solve the problem. Being an art director is not about doing good type. That’s being a graphic designer. To be an art director you have to have ideas, an understanding of all these layers and you have to have an extreme enthusiasm to pass along to the team and to make them feel light enough so they can execute.”
Indeed, it’s perhaps his infectious enthusiasm, more than anything, that has made Baron one the most successful creatives working in fashion today. “I am never really working, I am having fun. I love what I do. I really, really love it and enjoy it so much. If I didn’t have it, what would I do? I don’t know, I would be really bored.”