MILAN, Italy — Bruce Weber launched the film that accompanied his friend Donatella Versace’s new menswear collection with a quote from the quintessential Hollywood bad boy Robert Mitchum, one of his favourite subjects: “When you first get to a new town, make friends with a blonde.”
It’s been 17 years since Weber and Donatella last worked together, but the durability of their friendship was obvious in their doubles act after the Versace show on Saturday night. “It came so naturally,” said Donatella. “He knows everything about Versace.”
True, as much as Weber was responsible for capturing the ultimate Americana of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, he also defined for posterity the polymorphous sensuality of Versace in the years before Gianni was murdered. “I grew up in Pennsylvania and that was what my sister Barbara and I dreamed our life would be,” Weber said. “Our parents loved Italy and they would come back from Europe and when I saw the early Versace things, I would say that’s what they experienced.” So his campaigns for Versace were a kind of wish fulfilment? “All pictures are like that,” Weber answered.
Sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing. But that’s the right kind of freedom.
That, in fact, has always been the poignant essence of a Weber image. You photograph what you wish you were. But his movie for Donatella grew out of a different sense of mission. “I really care not just that my pictures are good but that the experience really means something to everybody,” said Weber. He filmed in Chicago, a city on its rims where a sense of community has become critically important to counteract an epidemic of appalling violence. “When we first went there,” said the photographer, “we went to St Sebastian, a church in the African-American part of town, and we listened to Father Mike, who was inspirational about building a community.”
So that’s what the Versace-Weber team did for their film. Bruce saw a bunch of kids walking down the street towards a sign advertising a dance marathon and asked them if they were dancers. “No, we’re artists,” came the reply and he knew he’d found the right group of people for what he had in mind. “I’m doing a shooting for Versace, would you be interested?” he asked them. “Well, they fainted.”
Those kids came together with models Karlie Kloss, Gigi Hadid and Janiece Dilone and the renowned Hubbard Street Dance Company to create the finished product, and what comes across is unalloyed joy. “It’s so great to see Gigi and Karlie looking their age,” said Weber. Aren’t all the girls and the guys you photograph men and women one moment and boys and girls the next? “I like that,” said Weber. But the on-set spirit was, he claimed, rare — and, he added, all down to Donatella’s generosity. “The dancers got to keep their shoes, the boys got to keep their suits. This doesn’t happen in fashion anymore.”
Versace’s new menswear makes a distinctive statement about masculinity. Weber, more than any other imagemaker, has defined men over the past three decades. The evolution — more likely devolution — is glaring. Where do men stand now? Weber continues to work with boys just getting into the modelling business, so he has a unique decade-spanning overview. “We just lost Muhammed Ali,” he mused. “When I met him for the first time, he put his arms around me and hugged me and wouldn’t let me go. I carry that with me all the time. So I say that to these guys. I want men to stand up for who they are and what they believe in. For kids now, life is all about success. I say, no it’s about doing something really beautiful in your life."
How that kind of counsel would sit with the average entitled teenage male model is up for debate, which is probably why Weber acknowledges girls are much easier to deal with than boys. That certainly slots in with the Versace scenario of girls on top. Weber, meanwhile, has been photographing a lot of transgender people. The search for definition is intensifying, but there is no clear destination. And that is what makes the Versace-Weber re-connection so intoxicating. “Sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing,” he said. “But that’s the right kind of freedom.”