LONDON, United Kingdom — Panos Yiapanis cuts a distinctive figure, dressed head to toe in black and accompanied by a giant Rottweiler, named Beast. His dark goth-romantic look is driven by his fascination with counter culture, particularly new wave rock and industrial metal bands. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Sisters of Mercy and Joy Division, but also bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy. In one of my first shoots, there was a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt all cut up.”
When Yiapanis began his career in the late 1990s, his grungy sub-cultural aesthetic was an anomaly amidst a fashion industry dominated by a glossier look. But today, the stylist works with top photographers like Steven Klein and Inez and Vinoodh, as well as a diverse array of brands from Mary Katrantzou to Rochas to Rick Owens, which have all called upon Yiapanis to style their runway shows. Along the way, he has even given the squeaky clean Katie Holmes a subtly gothic makeover in black Alaïa during the height of her Hollywood fame.
Yiapanis was only a few weeks old when he moved from his birth country of Cyprus to Greece. Growing up in Athens, he admits, “I wasn’t remotely interested in fashion at all. At some point I was a complete science fiction geek. I was quite insular and didn’t have many friends, so everything that I did was done alone and I kind of got lost in whatever world it was.”
It was a time of political upheaval as Greece and Turkey battled over their competing claims to Cyprus. By law, Yiapanis was required to complete military service and, so, he returned to Cyprus for a year at the age of 17. “I had a really old rusted Kalashnikov which weighed about a kilo and there was no kind of protective clothing,” he recalls. He was never called up for battle, though the experience was not totally lost on him. “You learnt a state of preparedness,” he says. “It pushes your endurance; it was quite amazing to see how your body will go further.”
After 12 months of service, Yiapanis left for the UK, moving first to Oxford for a year to study literature, followed by time at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and the Chelsea College of Art. In London, he met the late Corinne Day and formed a lasting friendship with the photographer. “I was studying sculpture when I met Corinne through mutual friends and we connected, just personally at first. I knew some of her pictures, but I wasn’t remotely aware of what she was doing.”
At the time, Day had pulled back on her fashion work and was focusing on a personal project that she later released as a book called Diary. “She started showing me old pictures that she’d taken during the 1990s and I found them so exciting, especially at a time when most pictures were really glossy. 1999 to 2000 was that Photoshop period where everything was super immaculate and there was something really human about what she did. I would go on to her about taking fashion pictures again and she said, ‘I’ll do it if you do it.’”
Yiapanis and Day began taking fashion images of friends wearing their own clothes or finds picked up at London’s Camden Market. The pictures portrayed a grainy but beautiful youth, free of make up and retouching, and became a landmark statement of rebellion against the high shine of typical fashion images of the time.
Gradually the experimental shoots turned into commissioned stories — primarily for i-D and Dutch — and Yiapanis soon began working with a wider range of photographers, including Steven Klein, with whom he connected over a mutual interest in the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost, which portrayed the case of the “West Memphis Three.”
“There was this documentary about three teenagers who were accused and sentenced for allegedly murdering three young boys in a satanic ritual. There was mounting pressure to solve the crime and they just basically set up these three Metallica fans,” he explains. “They brought in a ton of forensic experts and proved that there was no way these three guys actually did this. [They were convicted] based on the way they looked, in Little Rock, Arkansas. The argument was just: ‘Look at their clothes, they’re Satanists.’ So that was something that really inspired me and I did a shoot with Steven Klein for Dutch magazine that was based on it.”
The 2002 shoot depicted a gang of boys wearing hoodies and lumberjack shirts, draped in swags of material baring Public Enemy and Ramones logos, their faces painted with black make up like distorted masks. “Jason [Baldwin, one of the accused] emailed me from prison when the shoot came out. Those kinds of things were really important to me. It became this really big thing where Johnny Depp was supporting and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam released an album to raise funds to exonerate them and two years ago they were released from prison.”
Yiapanis is selective about the shoots he works on, styling only a handful of editorials each season for magazines such as Dazed & Confused, Vogue Hommes International, V and Love, where he is fashion director. This is partly because Yiapanis and his team create many of the garments they use from scratch, rather than relying solely on existing clothing. “When I first started, I’d make all the pieces myself. I’d be sitting at home until 4am putting eyelets on to shorts or something,” he says. “The pieces that we make in the studio are usually the anchoring for the shoot. Each shoot usually takes about a month to prep and sometimes there are about 30 people working in the studio. Initially, it was at my house and then that got a little bit hectic, so now I have a space about five minutes from my house.”
Unlike many stylists, Yiapanis never makes mood boards. “I kind of despise them. It’s much more of an internal process and I sometimes find it very difficult to explain to a photographer exactly what I want to do. Usually an idea comes from a previous shoot that I did where something interesting happened and I want to take that further. I don’t overthink the result too much,” he says.
At Love magazine, Yiapanis has been given relatively free rein. “Katie [Grand, Love’s editor-in-chief] has been great to give me all the advantages and none of the chores. I think she is wise enough to know what is not my strongest suit. Why send a drivelling idiot to a Michael Kors advertising appointment? I would probably say something ridiculously stupid,” he says, playfully. “She knows what is best for the magazine, let’s put it that way.”
“For the upcoming issue we worked together on which photographer would be great for the cover and she shows me the other shoots. Because Katie is a stylist herself, she’s very much involved as a fashion director per se, whereas many other magazine editors don’t have a fashion background in that way. I really appreciated the fact she gave me that position.”
While many staff stylists feel increasing pressure to please advertisers, Yiapanis has never been concerned with making commercial or accessible images. “I’m not excited by the idea of doing editorials that look like catalogues. There’s a market for those types of magazines, but I’m not excited by that,” he says.
“Everyone has got a different perspective on what this job is. Editors and designers have very different demands from stylists. There are a lot of designers that hate my work because sometimes I don’t show their garments the way that they are shown on the runway. Some designers love that and some designers don’t — to the point that they won’t work with me. That’s true of some editors as well. Some think, ‘I want to sell clothes, I want advertising,’ whereas others want a nice image. I think that’s why photographers have an affinity for me, because I try to give them something visually exciting as opposed to ticking the sales box.”
But editorial work pays much less than what is offered by big shows and advertising gigs. “I’ve sometimes sold myself when it comes to doing shows,” Yiapanis admits, “but never with photographers. I’ve always been really protective about the photographers that I work with. It’s a really precious collaboration. I haven’t worked with a lot of photographers but the ones that I’ve worked with are the ones that I have deep respect for.”
There is a clear distinction between styling shows and shoots, says Yiapanis. “[With shows] you are there to be invisible; it’s not you coming out at the end, even though today everyone knows who is styling what show, more so than in the past. Once I was doing a Gucci men’s show quite early on in my career. I was quite naive about it and over-enthusiastic and put too much of myself into the show and you realise that that is not what you are there for. That was a big learning experience. So since then, if I’m doing Calvin [Klein], it has to be Calvin. I’m not there to be the creative director or to change the house.”
Yiapanis believes in nurturing relationships and letting things develop over time. He has worked with Rick Owens since the designer’s very first show in New York. He also worked for many years with Givenchy, where he was engaged as a creative consultant on the men’s shows for a year and a half before Riccardo Tisci began overseeing both the men’s and women’s sides of the business for Spring/Summer 2009.
“I would go in from the inception of the idea and sit with Riccardo and we would say, ‘What’s the next show going to be?’ More so than I did with other designers. At Calvin, I’ll go in and they might have an idea of what they kind of want to do and it might change a little bit, but with Riccardo we’d start right from scratch. The men’s and women’s were so intertwined and because we were really close friends there was always a conversation about women’s too.”
Despite his assertions to the contrary, Yiapanis’ influence on Tisci’s Givenchy collections was undeniable; the sell out Rottweiler sweatshirts that were introduced for men’s Autumn/Winter 2011 show — about the same time Yiapanis acquired his dog, Beast — were followed by equally coveted panther tops for the women’s Autumn/Winter 2011 collection. “The animals changed but they started becoming one beast in a way.” Yiapanis stopped working with the house the following season.
“The one thing I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about is ownership. It used to bother me that I have no ownership of any work that I’ve done,” he notes. “It’s either the designer’s right or the photographer’s right, so you feel like a perennial gypsy, moving from one place to another. But I've moaned about that in the past. When you are no longer involved in something that you’ve helped on, you just have to be a spectator from that point onwards.”
Nonetheless, Yiapanis has certainly build a reputation as one of fashion’s top stylists with an aesthetic that is very much his own. So what advice does he have for those aiming to follow in his footsteps?
“Assisting sometimes can be the worst way to get into it, because if you assist someone great, then that’s good, but you have to find a way to come out of their shadow, which is extremely difficult. If you assist someone who is not that good, well, you know…” says Yiapanis.
“I can only speak for myself, but if you find something that has some resonance or something that will excite people, eventually someone will sit up and want to hear it.”
The Creative Class is supported by CLIO Image, an extension of the CLIO Awards. CLIO Image recognises the most creative work in fashion, beauty and retail advertising. The deadline for submissions for the next CLIO Image is January 30th 2015.
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