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Fabien Baron Is Not Nostalgic

A new book by fashion's most illustrious art director is a compilation of his four-decade career. But more than that, this retrospective of ad campaigns, magazine editorials and private photography reveals a primal faceoff between chaos and control — a hint to what's to come, writes Tim Blanks.
Fabien Baron | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Tim Blanks

LONDON, United Kingdom — "It's the period at the end of the sentence," says Fabien Baron of his new book "Works 1983-2019," sounding a note of finality on a career which has defined contemporary style in ways you are scarcely aware of. Designer ad campaigns, high street logos, your department store perfume counter, the look of the magazines that feed off all those things — Baron's work as an art director has touched and mutated them all.

It’s not really the end. “It’s more like opening a new door,” he says. “I wish I’d done it earlier. Now I can move on.” Still, it is a moment to pause and reflect on Baron’s role in weaving the very texture of modern consumerism. But first, that book. “It’s a representation of who I am as a person, not just someone people know through magazines,” Baron insists. “It’s a place for me to show what I was doing at the same time as I was doing the magazines, by myself, lost in a landscape, or at my computer creating graphics for my own pleasure.”

The "Enter the Era of Elegance" cover | Source: Courtesy

There is no chronology in the book. Baron started with a timeline, the Italian Vogue years, the Bazaar years and so on, but quickly realised that work from the early 1990s sat seamlessly with images from 10, even 20 years later. "It gave me the idea that all these things I was doing were interconnected. It was all one mindset. I wanted to work from that perspective, rather than just a recap of how I got here."

There’s something very timely about his idea. For years, it was a given in publishing that books about fashion weren’t big sellers. That seems to have changed. It’s not only the obvious subjects like designers and photographers who are releasing lavish monographs on their work. Models, stylists, hairdressers and makeup artists are equally feted. As an alpha art director, Baron is primed to ride the wave.

But, as he says, there is so much more to his book than a compilation of a career. Lavish in scale it may be, but a deep dive into the images within reveals a primal face-off between chaos and control. That's largely because the contents are split between Baron's public work for fashion, and his private projects, his art. There isn't always a clear delineation between the two, and that can be exciting.

The point of entry into Baron's work for many casual observers would probably be his work for Calvin Klein. Unsurprisingly, it claims quite a slab of real estate in his book. A teenage Kate Moss stretched naked on a manky couch achieved modern-icon status. Eva Mendes, also naked for Calvin, provoked similar outrage. "Calvin liked disruption," Baron recalls. "It was very challenging to work with him. He kept you on your toes. When he felt like things were getting a little formula, he wanted to real it. For years, I gave everything to him."

My favourite gift of Baron’s to Klein is the campaign for CKOne, the perfume that defied fragrance industry wisdom with advertising that courted kids and scandalised their parents in equal shock-horror measure. It’s also one of his favourites. For anyone who wonders quite what it is that an art director does, it was Baron’s idea to shoot the campaign like Avedon’s classic panorama of Andy Warhol and his superstars at the Factory.

"And it made so much sense to me that Steven Meisel had to be the one taking the picture. He was the most relevant fashion photographer of the time, the best one to record grunge, this revelation of a new generation of rebels. But it was a tough decision. There was a conversation about whether it should be a younger person from that generation, a David Sims, a Corinne Day or Mario Sorrenti. Ultimately, I didn't think they were big enough to understand how to make a statement that was iconic. They could have been part of the casting! Then we discussed whether it should just be Avedon himself, but we decided he wouldn't get grunge. Meisel was perfect: his obsession with Warhol, with Avedon, with youth, and with nothingness."

Calvin Klein CK One ad, 1994 | Source: Courtesy

In the book, Baron reproduces the campaign with the logo removed, roughly taped on a plank of wood, like something on a teen rec room wall. It's an artfully raw decontextualisation which succeeds in emphasising the provocative power of the image itself. But provocation has been a strong undercurrent throughout Baron's work. He accepts that Kate in the full flower of her naked teenage wouldn't be acceptable today. Nor would Eva Mendes. Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, his teen idols at French Vogue, definitely wouldn't get a look in the door. "And Carine Roitfeld couldn't do half of her work today," Baron adds.

But he remains steadfastly intrigued by the shockability of people. He’s something of a connoisseur of controversy. Baron did, after all, sculpt Madonna’s SEX book from the raw clay of her obsessions. “It’s very easy now,” he says regretfully. “I think you can shock people today without even knowing it. Whatever you do will offend someone. Everybody has their voice on social media. Before, you would do something like a Calvin ad, people would say how disgusting it was, the company would receive a thousand letters. Today, those thousand letters are public, times a million and everyone has an opinion on everything.” He’s concerned that cancel culture distracts activist energy from a gut issue like gun violence.

“I don’t feel nostalgic,” Baron insists, as he confronts the confusing ambiguities of a new world. “Or maybe a little, sometimes. I have four kids, every age. My son is 31, my youngest is 8. For the past thirty years, it’s been strollers and diapers.” He laughs heartily at the thought, especially because he just turned 60. “That’s a weird thing too. It feels like closing a chapter. And moving on gives me energy.” He claims he’s not scared of dying, but equally he thinks about death “every day, all the time.” Usual reason – death’s finality means he won’t be able to do all the things he wants to do, and there is so much more in store.

Madonna's SEX book | Source: Courtesy

Movies, for a start. But there are also his ambitions in the art world. He’d like his book to bridge the two worlds, commerce and art. So, as much as it features magazine covers, fashion layouts, iconic product design, there is page-after-surreal-page of eerie abstractions, haunted inner landscapes, intimate, intense confections of the mind. “I make pictures all the time. I have millions. People have said, ‘Oh your book is going to be so great, we love your Instagram,’ but I don’t care about that. I have all these other pictures that matter so much more to me. So I’ve opened my own atelier upstairs from my office. I’m starting to do prints. I want to show my work with no compromise, maybe find a gallery. I just want to see what happens. I have no idea what to expect.”

Alex Liberman, former editorial director of Condé Nast and an early mentor of Baron’s, was also a sculptor, but his profile in the commercial world of magazines meant he was never recognised for his art. Baron acknowledges a similar challenge faces him. “You get caught in the mechanics, you get good at doing something, the wheel turns and you go along with it. But, at the same time, I’ve always found time to do this other work. I never regarded one as less than the other.”

Maybe one answer to the challenge lies in New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik's introduction to the book. "I was fascinated by how the look of things could alter their meanings, by how deep surfaces could go," he writes. If the images made in the service of commerce – whether advertising or fashion editorial – are derided as superficial, perhaps the derision itself is superficial. Baron's surfaces run deep. "Maybe I'm not totally aware of the weight of meaning behind the pictures," he muses. "I'm driven by something I don't fully understand."

Is his tongue in his cheek? Only his therapist knows, though there is certainly a backstory to encourage speculation. Baron’s father was a well-known creative director in Paris. “Learning this job with him was hell,” he concedes. “He was always putting me down. I believe I kept on doing it just to show him. But at some point, I realised his presence and strength were so powerful that I would have to move somewhere else. And I don’t think anything would have happened for me if I hadn’t moved.”

The move was to New York. Liberman's mentorship led to jobs with Self and GQ. Then Baron went to the short-lived New York Woman, where his rigorous, lushly minimal style of art direction was seeded: the experimentation with fonts and typefaces, the extravagant use of white space, the monumental monochrome. They caught the eye of Italian Vogue's formidable Franca Sozzani. In 1988, at the age of 27, Baron found himself art director of that magazine during its ascent to style bible par excellence. He flowered. But even with success, his father's presence lingered in Baron's life in that it was a toxic lesson in exactly how he didn't want to treat others. It's not such a surprise when I ask him what the most important relationship in his life has been, and after an extremely long pause, he answers: "My dad."

Interview, creative direction, 1990 | Source: Courtesy

Professionally, he tags Sozzani as his biggest influence. "She took me because I'd already been working with Meisel at New York Woman," he recalls. "We shared a perfect understanding of what a magazine should be. And she really kicked my ass in the right way. She was tough, sarcastic, in my head a bit like my dad, with a way of looking at you that was quite critical. It attracted me. When you get used to that, you kind of want it. But after two years, I couldn't stand the back and forward between New York and Milan so I quit. She gave me so much shit about it. She felt I'd betrayed her. After that, she would make so much fun of me every time she saw me, for ten years at least. It took us a long time to become friends again."

Resettled in New York, Baron went to work for Interview Magazine, erstwhile house organ of Warhol's Factory, now re-positioned by editor Ingrid Sischy as a dazzling cultural gazette. It was a real moment for Baron. "When I was a kid, Interview was the magazine." But he and Sischy didn't get along, their differences exacerbated by Interview's eminence grise Glenn O'Brien who didn't like what Ingrid was doing to the magazine. "She fired me but I was always nice to her afterwards," Baron insists.

After Sischy dispensed with his services, Baron was hired by Liz Tilberis, newly installed editor of Harper's Bazaar. His redesign of the magazine was signalled by the September 1992 cover featuring Linda Evangelista and one single line of copy provided by Glenn O'Brien: "Enter the Era of Elegance." The fashion world rose to its worshipful feet.

"Italian Vogue was a new form of graphic expression for fashion magazines, but Bazaar had that with more substance behind it," says Baron, and, really, who cares if he's blowing his own trumpet there because what he and Tilberis made was a magazine for the ages. "Liz was respectful," he remembers, "like a mother protecting her team, but at the same time, she knew how to manipulate your talents. The only thing you wanted to do was please her. I tortured myself to find my voice and give her what she wanted at the same time. I remember the last conversation we had, two days before she passed away. She was still looking at the magazine, and there was one story with two or three black and white pictures. 'Do you have these in colour?' she goes to me. 'I'm sure you probably do.' I said, 'Of course, but they're better in black and white.' And she sighed, 'Can't you just give an old lady what she wants?' We ran the pictures in colour."

Baron's Monuments Series, 2014 | Source: Courtesy

A twist of fate brought him back to Interview in 2008 when publisher Peter Brant reclaimed the magazine from his ex-wife Sandy and Sischy. “I remember very well the meeting we had with Ingrid, Sandy, Glenn and me. Peter was not nice to Ingrid and Sandy, and I was the one defending them. ‘You can say whatever you want but they’ve done something for the magazine and you can be civilised, it doesn’t need to go there.’ I got very upset because the conflict got so ugly.” Baron pauses, allows himself a dry chuckle as he reflects on his own subsequent falling out with Brant in 2018. “In the end, they fucked me too. But look… Glenn died, Ingrid’s not around anymore. And all this for what? So stupid.”

True, death is a great decider. The ultimate control freak, in fact. You can understand why Baron, also an arch controller, would have a problem with that. His book includes many monumental photos of icebergs, the taking of which required Kubrickian levels of physical and technical effort. Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is Baron’s favourite film, rivalled only by “Apocalypse Now,” created under another equally obsessive directorial regime.

And his favourite fashion collaborator is Guido Palau, the hair stylist who won't let the limitations of his raw material stand in the way of extraordinary, surreal creations. "He's a maniac about precision. When we're looking at images, they might all look the same to everyone else but there's only one he and I like." One of Guido's styles in the book depicts a woman with hair artfully tangled over her face. The image occurs twice, so it clearly has some personal significance. "It reminded me of the landscape pictures I was doing of trees," Baron confirms. "The hair reminded me of branches." So what looks like chaos is actually natural order.

Source: Courtesy

There is a grandeur in Baron’s work which suggests less timelessness than out-of-timelessness. As in, a meditation which, for all its aestheticised embrace of chaos, is ultimately so formal and pure that it is out of step with the muck of this troubled moment. It’s no surprise Baron is dogged by frustrations. “Instagram has replaced magazines to a degree. It makes everything we’ve done a little bit redundant, less on a pedestal. And the elevation of mediocrity is beyond. It’s hard for people to see the good things through all the bad stuff. And the younger generation doesn’t think enough, they don’t try hard, they don’t believe enough, I feel. That manifests itself in mediocrity. They’re turning the camera towards themselves and doing selfies.” Or they’re on a nostalgia trip, 80s, 90s, wanting to live in a time they missed. “I like the idea of being in your time, living in your time. I don’t like being in the past so much.”

None of this is said with any particular rancour. Baron’s good humour never flags. “I’m sure they think I’m an old fart. ‘Oh my God, look at him.’” Anyway, he is convinced social media is still in its infancy and he has high hopes for its future. That said, his book is not intended to change anyone’s mind about him. “It’s for me, to close the door.” I know I made that glib comment about therapy earlier on, but Baron has actually been in therapy for years. Because of his father? “Yeah, of course.” And he cheerfully adds that it’s worked wonders. Then it strikes me – where was his mother in all of this? Turns out he had issues with her as well. “She was always very quiet, very un-present, not protective. She was just too young when she had me.”

And something else registers. Poet Philip Larkin’s classic line: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” There is no chronology in Baron’s book because he’s been dealing with the same issue all his life, plucking order from chaos. But at least he’s found a happy ending to his story. “Yes, sure,” he agrees. “Maybe now I’m free.” And he has a big, fat, consoling volume of beautiful things he made to prove it.

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