NEW YORK, United States — I once began a fashion meeting at French Vogue in Paris with a question to the rest of the team: “Why do we take pictures of clothes?” Everyone just gave me that look and said “Debra!” I know it probably seemed crazy for a fashion editor to say this, but sometimes we need to ask ourselves the question and I think now is a great time to revisit this topic.
Franceline Prat, an editor at French Vogue and a mentor to so many of us, always reminds me that the most important work she did for the magazine was less often inspired by the clothes themselves than by the great stories that she and many of the forces in fashion’s creative ecosystem pulled directly from their own life experiences.
As Franceline said herself, “always remember the great characters you meet in your life, they will inspire you later on and you never know when.” Our own life stories will always be, for fashion, the strongest and most powerful reference of them all.
An example she often cited was the shoot she did with Helmut Newton, inspired by a young lieutenant belonging to the Cadre Noir de Saumor, the elite French mounted cavalry which was stationed not far from where she grew up as a young belle of Nice society. The lieutenant had loved her from afar.
Many years later, trying to think of an idea that would please the very difficult Mr. Newton, she remembered the Cadre Noir and the young lieutenant, the beautiful black horses and the magnificent black uniforms, which were a particular fetish of the photographer. So, 20 years later she called up her young lieutenant (then a colonel!) and said, “Do you remember me? I want to come and do some photographs with you!” Luckily for the history of fashion photography, he agreed.
But today, fashion creatives just don’t seem to be pulling from these kinds of personal stories, neither at the shows nor in the pages of magazines. Collections are hailed for having great “pieces,” but if this becomes the focus, it leaves the rest of fashion’s creative ecosystem starving and unbalanced.
Magazines, like great absurdist theater, whether operatic or minimalist, tell only vague stories, made from carefully art directed still images that leave a lot of blanks for the reader to fill in. Who didn’t want to run off to Greece after seeing Bob Richardson’s romantically gorgeous editorial in French Vogue, a tear running down the girl’s tanned face as she ends her summer romance in the final spread of the editorial? This is what makes storytelling so important. It allows us to fool ourselves into believing that if we purchase the following list of items, or wear our hair a certain way, we too would be jetting off to Greece in no time. And if we just head over to Bergdorf’s, we too can have that life.
Why did this all start to change? Maybe it was because of the rise of celebrity in fashion. Or the focus on “behind the scenes." Or the practice of referencing upon referencing. Maybe it was the focus publishers put on cross-marketing film and record releases. Or perhaps it was the their relationships with merchants, because, the truth is, for the most part, we now take pictures of clothing in order to optimize merchandising.
It was not so long ago that fashion enjoyed a rich period of more personal storytelling, starring creative forces like Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Yohji Yamamoto, Hussein Chalayan, Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang — and boy did they put on a show! All of these designers found tremendous inspiration in their own life stories. Then the teams that make up the rest of the ecosystem — from hair and makeup artists to shoemakers, jewelers, set designers and music producers — all contributed to the “mise en scene.” There seemed to be a balance then, between the vagueness that allowed us to dream and the more informational “where can I get that?’ aspect of it all.
While watching The September Issue, the documentary about the making of American Vogue’s September 2007 issue, at first I was honestly perplexed by Grace Coddington’s insistence that Galliano’s costume drama collection was her focus for the season. With all due respect to Mr. Galliano (for whom I do have a great deal of respect), it hardly seemed appropriate that in 2007, he would be the key reference point for the creative director of American Vogue considering the radical change we have seen in the way designers, editors, and photographers work today.
But upon further reflection, it made sense. Ms. Coddington comes from the era of fashion storytelling, which was like a beautiful dance between the couturiers, the models, the art directors, the editors and the photographers. They all lived and waltzed through the same world, where Monsieur Saint Laurent fell in love with The Ballet Russes; where Anna Wintour became enamoured with Mark Morris; where Diana Vreeland herself turned the whole of Vogue into a work of theatre both on the magazine’s pages and in its offices. Ms. Coddington was just going back to what she knew was the best way to tell a fashion story.
Luckily, we do have some great fashion storytellers today. So let’s give credit where credit is due. The Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte bring their hard style ballet costumes to Chelsea art galleries. Scott Sternberg refers to himself, not as a designer, but rather as someone who “makes content.” Thom Browne disrobes flying nuns to reveal exquisite clothing which launches a thousand new ideas on how to present clothing, not just in his theatre, but also how to present them in-store, how to present them in the context of a magazine, and, of course, how to present and use the pieces in the theatre of life, as Daphne Guinness, Anna Piaggi and Anna Dello Russo are more than happy to do. It’s much needed oxygen for the industry.
Who do you think are today’s best fashion storytellers?
Debra Scherer has worked at American Vogue, French Vogue and Italian Vogue, where she is currently a contributing editor. She is co-founder of The Little Squares.