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Mario Testino's Meteoric Arc

With a genuine love for people, the larger-than-life photographer has turned his talent for creating and capturing a high-gloss world into a successful business and platform for philanthropy, earning him the inaugural BoF Global VOICES award.
Mario Testino | Photo: Alex Bramall
  • Robin Mellery-Pratt

LONDON, United Kingdom — Born to a Catholic, middle-class family in the patriarchal society of 1950s Lima, Peru, Mario Testino grew up thousands of miles from the fashion capitals of the world.

“In South America, a metropolitan man did not exist; men were not meant to be interested in clothes. We were supposed to fit in to what society had decided for us,” he recalls. “But I grew up with a mother who was very much into fashion, and I was as mad about it. I wanted to dress differently every day — for every event that I went to. I was quite different.”

Being different meant Testino suffered regular verbal abuse. But it was this same stubborn refusal to conform and the belief in his aesthetic eye that laid the foundations for a career spanning more than 40 years, during which Testino won the trust of megabrands like Gucci, Burberry and Michael Kors; the industry's top fashion editors and stylists; and global icons like Princess Diana and Madonna, catapulting the photographer to a permanent place in the firmament of global fashion and society.

Mario, the man

Gisele Bundchen for Vanity Fair | Photo: Mario Testino/Courtesy

After dropping out of Lima’s Universidad del Pacífico, where he was studying economics, Testino flew to London in 1976 to turn his attention to photography. On arriving in the British capital, Testino dyed his hair pink and waited tables to support himself, while squatting in an abandoned mental hospital.

Between 1977 and 1978, Testino was apprenticed to society photographers John Vickers and Paul Nugent, before striking out on his own. But success took time and it was a certain optimism and self-assurance, along with hard work, that sustained him through these early years.

"Mario has always been somebody with a very strong sense of self, even before he was famous. When he was touting around for work, he was never a shrinking violet. I think in a way he has made himself into a brand. He wanted to be bigger, and I think that takes a lot of hard work and determination," says Alexandra Shulman, editor-in-chief of British Vogue.

Testino got his big break in 1983 when British Vogue commissioned him to shoot with one of its junior fashion editors in London: Lucinda Chambers, now the magazine’s fashion director and one of Testino’s closest friends and collaborators. Chambers famously shared her lunch vouchers with the photographer when he was starting out and in need of a free meal.

He has this magical and magnetic effect on everyone and everything he touches.

“Mario sees the point in a lot of different things, from sex to houses to people and fashion. Nothing is excluded — he is so open [to inspiration] and he takes risks,” says Chambers.

But mostly, she notes Testino’s generosity of spirit. “When you spend a day working with Mario it is joyous. Above anything, he wants you to have a happy, creative day. I love that about him, it is such a generous quality and ability. He is and always has been curious. He wants to know about everything and everybody, from all aspects of his life.”

Kate Moss for British Vogue | Photo: Mario Testino/Courtesy

By the 2000s, this joy of seeing had helped to fundamentally recast sensuality and glamour for a new era. Indeed, whether it was Kate Moss flashing her underwear in a Union Jack blazer and hoop skirt for British Vogue, or Gisele Bünchden's limbs languishing out of a limousine for Vanity Fair, it was Testino's eye that defined sex appeal at the turn of the century.

“Mario sees and creates a particular world: it is very luscious, it is celebratory. Whether it's people, objects or events, Mario shows everything at its best,” says Shulman.

Today, Testino is constantly shooting for numerous international editions of Vogue; for Vanity Fair and, seemingly, for almost every major fashion magazine in existence. His herculean work schedule means the photographer rarely sleeps more than three nights in a single country.

“He doesn’t like not to work,” says Chambers. “He rang me the day after my youngest son was born to ask when I was coming back to work. That made me laugh. [But] you can be in a disastrous situation, location blown away, clothes stolen, et cetera, and he always turns it into a positive experience. That’s talent and personality.”

“Mario sets himself apart with his pictures because they are full of life, full of joy, but they never come off as trite or old-fashioned,” says Michael Kors, who has commissioned the photographer to shoot over 50 of his campaigns. “On set, he’s very focused on getting the right picture, but he loves to laugh, he has a great rapport with everyone he works with, he’s fabulous with the models... he’s a people person.”

"He has an effortless ability to engage with his subjects, which makes his imagery so compelling," says Burberry's Christopher Bailey, a long time friend and collaborator. "He has this magical and magnetic effect on everyone and everything he touches."

“I think Mario has never lost touch with the boy inside, which is why he can connect in such a pure and wonderful way with everyone,” adds creative consultant Amanda Harlech.

Mario, the brand

Few photographers become as famous as their subjects. Testino has. Even back in 1995, when he shot Madonna for the ground-breaking “Versace Presents Madonna” campaign, his name appeared in bold typeface on the images, printed almost as large as the popstar and the brand’s.

Madonna for Atelier Versace | Photo: Mario Testino/Courtesy

Over the years, Testino has built a team big enough to award him total creative control over every aspect of image production. "Very early on he recognised that the best results come from sharing a vision with his clients, whether that is him and Michael Kors, Christopher Bailey or Anna Wintour, and then maintaining total control in execution, to really make it what he sees and what he wants," explains Suki Larson, chief executive of Mario Testino+, the west London-based creative factory that now employs 45 people, from art directors and archivists to video directors, trend researchers and digital retouchers, who collaborate to deliver Mario's work.

“In earlier days,” Testino recalls, “clients were always asking me to oversee everything. So I decided to build up my company — or develop the different areas that became my company — and created the teams to work with me. I am a control freak, of course. But I am a collaborative one. I need to participate in every aspect of a project, but I always listen. I leave all doors open for others to bring in other ideas.”

I think Mario has never lost touch with the boy inside, which is why he can connect in such a pure and wonderful way with everyone.

More recently, Mario Testino+ has also expanded its focus to include digital and social media distribution, and the capacity to oversee event production and product collaborations. “As digital has become more and more important and efficient for our clients, we have expanded our offer to meet their needs and leverage our own digital reach for them — this means that we now not only make the digital assets for clients, but couple the asset-making with a media distribution and promotion strategy through partnerships with Mario’s social media — he has 2.5 million followers on Instagram — online media and bloggers, and Mira Mira, our own home for digital content,” explains Larson. Mira Mira — which means “look look” in Spanish — is Testino’s website featuring a feed of his unpublished images, travel dispatches and other behind-the-scenes content.

Mario, the philanthropist

As a teenager Testino volunteered in the informal settlements and slums that surrounded Lima, but he was inspired to do more when he met Princess Diana, whom he shot for Vanity Fair in 1997. Through his interactions with the Princess, Testino saw firsthand the positive change a single individual could bring about in the world, reigniting his interest in charitable work.

Princess Diana for Vanity Fair | Photo: Mario Testino/Courtesy

Initially, Testino focused on organisations benefitting AIDS victims and children, donating his time and his work. In 2003, Testino published the photographic book "Kids" in aid of Sargent's Cancer Care for Children. A year later, he contributed portraiture to a Fashion Fights AIDS project, documenting the experiences of women diagnosed with the disease all over the world. Over the years he has donated numerous prints and sittings to a variety of causes, one of which was sold at auction for $1.2 million on behalf of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and become a valued and active supporter of both Amfar and Natalia Vodianova's Naked Heart Foundation.

“Mario brings the same passion and dedication to his work with the causes that are very close to his heart as he does to his photography,” says Bailey. “It has been a privilege to watch all the successes he has enjoyed and I am extremely proud of having worked with him.”

But it was a tragic natural disaster, an earthquake in Peru in 2007 that destroyed over 50,000 homes, that spurred Testino to dedicate his energies and his hugely influential network of friends and colleagues to his home country. In the aftermath of the disaster, in 2008, Testino built the El Salvador Clinic for children suffering with tuberculosis in the Chincha region of his native Peru. “The essence of Mario is that he’s all about people. He’s incredibly proud of where he’s from and has been unbelievably supportive of every aspect of life in Lima. Everything with him goes back to being a people person in the best way possible,” says Kors.

In 2012 Testino opened a not-for-profit arts foundation and museum: Asociación Mario Testino (MATE). The project has two primary aims: to house and display Testino’s personal art collection, which includes fashion photographs by Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, for the benefit of the Peruvian people, and to act as a platform for Peruvian art, culture and heritage. Located in Lima, the museum provides a workspace for emerging artists and showcases the finest Peruvian craftsmanship and artists.

Women's cosume for the tupay dance, Peru | Photo" Mario Testino/Courtesy

“His museum in Lima is incredible and his empathy with children, with their openness and innocence so like his own, makes him one of the great philanthropists in our fashion world,” says Harlech.

Mario now dedicates a portion of the year to visiting Peru and fundraising both in Lima and all over the world in support of the country’s development. “It is not the easiest road for us in Peru,” says Larson. “But the idea of us going away and making more money to then give to someone else to spend in Peru is absolutely not good enough for him. He fundamentally wants to bring the best to his country. He has an insatiable attitude to do that.”

“His foundation is both a natural and huge thing to do — typical of him,” says Chambers. And indeed it is. As Nelson Mandela once said, “The measure of a man is not determined by his show of outward strength... It is seen rather in terms of the love that he has for his family and for everyone.”

The Business of Fashion is honoured to present the Global VOICES Award 2016 to Mario Testino for outstanding achievement in fashion and exemplary impact on the wider world.

VOICES is BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, taking place from 1-3 December, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate. To follow all the discussions, interviews and stories on the VOICES stage, watch our live stream, brought to you by Topshop, or read our live blog.

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