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In Conversation with Ruth Hogben, Fashion Filmmaker

  • Vikram Alexei Kansara

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LONDON, United Kingdom — Digital fashion film has gained real momentum over the last couple of seasons. Using sound and movement to communicate fashion in a way that's emotionally charged, cost-effective and easily distributed, the format has been adopted for online editorial and fashion week presentations alike. But it's important to remember that new formats are only as successful as the image-makers and stylists who embrace and sustain them with their creativity.

Over the last year, on the strength of two breakthrough films for Gareth Pugh, London-based Ruth Hogben has emerged as one of the most influential and passionate young filmmakers working in fashion film today. It's a genre she helped to pioneer while assisting Nick Knight between 2005 and February 2009, both as his first photographic assistant and editor of his fashion film projects for SHOWstudio.

With her third major film — a short for Christopher Kane's highly anticipated new Topshop collection — due to launch during London Fashion Week, BoF recently caught up with Ruth to talk about her first experiments in film, the power of sound and movement, balancing concept with clothes, the importance of the internet, and her hopes for the future of fashion film.

BoF: Let's start at the beginning. When did you first start experimenting with fashion film?

At the very beginning of my work with Nick Knight, I spent about two days writing down timecodes for a project on SHOWstudio. It was called Editing Fashion and it was basically about 8 hours of footage sent out to different editors. There was a porn editor, a wildlife editor, a Hollywood director. It just opened my eyes and I thought: "This is such an exciting medium!"

Nick used to film everything for copyright reasons and for his archives. And one day, I picked up a video camera and started filming beside him. The very first film I made was called Beasting. It was with Simon Foxton and John Galliano's A/W '07 menswear collection. I had half a day with an editor, teaching me how to use Final Cut Pro, and I've just been working at it and trying to embrace my mistakes ever since. I started out wanting to do photography, but at the end of two years, I realized I'd been spending every single evening and all weekend shooting and editing films.

BoF: How did you move from documenting photo shoots to making your own films?

I guess I was always frustrated shooting on the side of Nick's shot because you don't get somebody looking down your lens, they're always looking at the side of the lens. But we did Hussein Chalayan's show about four or five seasons ago, and we did something for Bernhard Willhelm. It all felt really exciting at the time and we were learning quite a lot. We did lots of stuff on SHOWstudio like 24 with YSL.

But the first time I felt that I was actually able to understand the medium properly was when I did the films for Gareth Pugh. "Insensate" was a film that I made with Nick on a Dazed & Confused shoot with Gareth. When I first started thinking seriously about fashion film, the only thing in my head was Gareth's clothes.

BoF: Your films for Gareth are stunning. "Insensate," as you mentioned, accompanied the cover shoot for Dazed & Confused's October 2008 issue, while your second film screened during his Autumn/Winter 2009 presentation in Paris. What's the difference between creating a film for editorial and a film for a fashion week presentation?

The pressure is very different! I spent about three months on the "Insensate" film, while I spent five days on the presentation. You have to wait until the clothes are ready, so I shot it in a day and edited it in four days. The difference is the adrenaline and the pressure, like "I've got to get this finished and there's going to be Suzy Menkes watching this and hating that it's a film!"

That's the thing you're up against. You're removing your audience from the clothing. Unless the clothes have dimension like Gareth's that let you use film to your advantage. You wouldn't have been able to see that balloon ladybird coat as well on the catwalk. It worked really well on film. But to show a film is not easy. The journalists and the editors and the stylists, they all want to see the movement, the textures, the colours. So I think it was quite brave of Gareth.

BoF: It must be quite difficult capturing detail and texture. What are the challenges of communicating clothing on film?

When I start to do a film, it's always led by the clothes. As you say, the challenge is textures and making the right movement for the right piece of clothing. If you've got something really strong and solid in front of you then it's got to be a very different movement and direction to what you'd do if you have a see-through dress. Just like a fashion photograph, everything is led by shape, movement, style and the woman inside the dress.

BoF: Some fashion films are more like moving photos that really focus on the clothes, while others are more narrative and focus on communicating a more abstract concept or mood. Where on the spectrum do you think fashion films are most successful?

I think the most successful films, just like the most successful photographs, are the ones that are from someone's heart and are passionate and understanding. Film is such a vast medium. But for me, I like the idea of a fashion film being like a picture, but moving.

You can have a film that has a story and words. But I like the idea of it being more about the clothes and more about the motion. But it's quite hard to know. One day I might want to do scripts!

BoF: How does shooting movement and sound impact your approach to casting? Have you ever considered using dancers or other types of performers instead of models?

If it was right for the clothes and the film. But if you get to work with someone like Lily Donaldson or one of the other great models, their hands and feet and legs and arms: it's elegance from start to finish.

When you're watching Lily on the side of a Vogue shoot, when she's not in front of the camera for stills, she's just absolutely incredible. It's complete performance. If you've got a great model, the movement in between positions is what you use for the film and it's going to be exquisite.

I think fashion films are really exciting for the new young models, because they're the generation that are on the internet and are looking at clothes online and it's not just stills anymore. They're the ones sharing stuff on Twitter and YouTube. So it's exciting for them to know that their shoot is part of a whole new fresh medium.

BoF: Of course, moving images have been around since the late 19th century. What do you think makes "fashion film" a new medium? What role has the internet played in its development?

There's been a lot of experimentation over the years. There are loads of experimental films by fashion photographers like Guy Bourdin. But he didn't really have a platform. Basically in the past, companies haven't been able to afford to put these types of films on cinema screens or they haven't always been able to afford TV advertising.

But now, because of the internet and because of places like SHOWstudio and, there's a platform. Net-a-Porter are playing films now! Everybody's just sort of realizing that it doesn't have to be still and I think people are realizing how incredibly powerful that is.

BoF: People sometimes draw parallels between fashion films and music videos. Do you think there is potential for crossover between the two?

The difference is, what should lead a music video is the lyrics and the music and the beat, while the lead for a fashion film is the clothes. I'm not sure I'd like it if the genres ever crossed. I'd like to think that fashion film is strong enough not to look like music video, and not to look like anything else but it's own genre.

I also think it's really important that whoever is filming or editing a fashion film actually understands what a pencil skirt means to a woman, or what ankle socks communicate. All those little things.

BoF: What is the future of fashion film, for your work and as a medium?

I think everybody is still learning how to make a good fashion film and what it means to make a fashion film. I'm spending all my time and energy making fashion films. So I hope as a medium it blossoms into its own niche in the market.

If you're making an 8 minute film, then somebody's actually got to be quite interested. It's not as immediate as a photograph you can digest in 2.4 seconds. But if it's made the right way, the communication can be really powerful.

I'd like to make my films about equality and women being powerful and intelligent and not always just being sexual. You put movement and music to something and it's got so many different facets and layers to it, that what you're saying almost has to be deeper. It's got more depth to it. You can say so much more with 30 seconds than you can in a single frame.

Vikram Alexei Kansara is a digital strategist and writer based in New York.

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