Media People: Nick Knight Talks Image-making in the Digital Age – WWD

LONDON — The COVID-19 crisis has forced fashion into some uncomfortable places, namely online or into unfamiliar, digital formats: With the traditional roster of physical shows canceled or postponed in all the major cities, brands, designers and fashion organizations are grappling with the challenge of how to telegraph their messages to the media, the trade — and the public. The desire to have a live fashion event is so ingrained in the industry’s consciousness that, to many, new digital ways of presenting are as daunting as a flight to the moon.

Then there is Nick Knight, who for the past 30 years has believed that fashion is best viewed in motion, and that clothing doesn’t need to be part of a live event to be scrutinized or appreciated.

Here, the photographer, filmmaker and founder of the pioneering fashion web site ShowStudio talks about the tidal waves washing over the industry.

WWD: When did you first think about making the switch from the static to the moving image, and why?

Nick Knight: It first started back in the Eighties for me when I realized that what I was witnessing in my studio, when I was creating images for Yohji Yamamoto, was an amazing event. At that time, we had quite a small crew, and I thought, “What a shame it is, there are only six people in the world seeing this as an event.” Around 1987, I started filming all my sessions for posterity. At every shoot I put a video camera on a tripod, and everybody in the room would just forget it was there and get on with the shoot. I realized, looking back through the films, that clothes look really good in movement. That’s an obvious fact, but it hadn’t really been the way that clothes were being portrayed at that time because magazines were the mainstay for showing fashion. But they didn’t “do” movement, so their vision, from the outset, was compromised.

WWD: How did your fashion films evolve from there?

N.K.: By the mid-Nineties I was thinking of sending out a VHS cassette with short fashion films on it as a way of getting through to people saying, “This is an exciting new way of seeing fashion,” and then shortly after that, the Internet was born, almost as if by magic. There it was, a global distribution platform upon which anyone, without much money, could start communicating globally about fashion. Then I worked on ShowStudio for a couple of years and launched it in 2000. It was slightly ahead of its time technologically. When we launched, you couldn’t live-stream in any meaningful way. Mobile phones did not have cameras. There was no “Big Brother” on television. ShowStudio was waiting for technology to catch up, which it did reasonably quickly. Our first live broadcast was in 2003, and via a webcam that was sending out a still image every minute, which isn’t the most fun way of appreciating an event, but at least it did it. Then, we got better broadband and it eventually got to a point where you could stream video in real time. Everything sort of got going. Weirdly, the fashion industry has been one of the last industries to get going, which is kind of strange given that fashion is based on looking toward the future.

WWD: Your first runway film was Alexander McQueen’s “Plato’s Atlantis” show in 2009. Thanks to Lady Gaga’s song at the end — and her formidable Twitter following — you broke the Internet. How did that change fashion’s attitude toward film?

N.K.: A lot of young people discovered McQueen through that show, and he became synonymous with Lady Gaga’s world. As a marketing tool, it was brilliant. Immediately, he got 6.5 million more fans. Two years later — after there being no shows online — 70 percent of London shows were broadcast live or online. Things changed quite quickly at that point, and then Instagram, an image-based platform, was born. It became enormously popular for people to express themselves through imagery as opposed to words, and became a very useful platform for sharing fashion. It started doing live broadcasting and became an enormously important medium for promoting fashion and creativity.

The balance of power had fundamentally changed. When you’re looking at a magazine that has circulation of 100,000 or 200,000 versus an online platform with 12 million or 15 million followers, where would you rather put your ad? Then you realize that there are people who actually have 150 million followers, and they’re making even American Vogue look like a pamphlet. If you’re Kim Kardashian or Kylie Jenner or Kendall [Jenner] who have such huge Instagram followings, that’s a real power base.

WWD: Not all fashion films take place on the runway. What other types of films do you make?

N.K.: Fashion film comes from fashion photography, and if you look at fashion photography, it’s a non-narrative medium. It’s about expressing a future-based desire. It’s not saying, “This is what you look like,” it’s saying “This is what you want to look like,” or “This is what you will look like.” It’s a future predictive medium, which makes it different from almost every other artistic medium in the world. However, it is, at its best, like fashion photography, a non-narrative medium. If you look at the fantastic Richard Avedon shots, there’s no narrative there. It’s just a moment of desire and style, beauty, elegance and aspiration crystallized by that photographer.

WWD: Would you consider fashion film its own medium?

N.K.: The period we’re going through at the moment reminds me of going from painting to photography. In the first 20 or 30 years of photography, serious photographers spent a lot of time trying to prove that they were as good as painters by imitating painting. People spent an awful lot of effort and time trying to make their work look like painting. They would brush on their emulsions to imitate the paintbrush strokes. The whole thing of pictorialism and the early part of photography was to justify it as a medium, saying it’s painting — but a bit different. Then photography discovered modernism, the modern world, and it changed radically and stopped trying to look like painting. It started to become its own medium.

Image-making, which is the medium we’re in right now, is not photography anymore. It takes in live performance, 3-D scanning, fashion film, a whole range of things we do at ShowStudio. But it’s a new medium of image-making, and we’re being forced to say, “It looks a bit like photography.” It doesn’t. Photography is dead. Photography stopped when the digital revolution happened and image-making was born. I can pick up my iPhone now and take a picture, change the contrast and make it look 3-D. I can publish it instantly across ShowStudio and across different platforms to photography, which had to be published in a magazine or book. Today, you can take a picture and turn it into a new vision. It’s not photography. It’s something else.

I was being slightly provocative when I say photography died, but that’s not the medium we use anymore. If we acknowledge where we are with image making now, it’s a really exciting new medium that takes in things like virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robotics, all these things are part of image-making. They’re not part of photography. Once you’re outside the parameters [of photography], working with artificial intelligence or 3-D scanning, you’re creating imagery. You’re not creating photographs. These are things created with scanners and 3-D, and we should acknowledge that.

WWD: Fashion has dragged its heels for years, using the same-old, same-old physical formats, live runway shows and print magazine spreads. Why has the industry been so slow to embrace the moving image, the manipulated digital image and other formats?

N.K.: The power brokers in the fashion industry are largely of a pre-Internet generation. They’re people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. They’ve been working for the system their whole lives, and it is a system based on the magazine and the sale of page spreads and the back cover. They really weren’t used to digital and they were also slightly technophobic. Technology seemed geeky to them and aesthetically it didn’t fit into fashion’s cool, luxury elegance. Technology felt a bit like punk music when it first came out — raw, aggressive and difficult.

Technology also opened up the process of creating fashion, which, until then, had been in a bubble, with the whole idea that only 300 people could get into a fashion show. People were frantic trying to get into events, but the fashion industry didn’t see them as something for the public. The industry has never really seen itself as talking to the public. It talks to itself, and slightly dismisses the public. There is this whole idea of fashion being for a certain elite and a certain sort of person. So if I talk about Jean Paul [Gaultier], or Miuccia [Prada], or Hedi [Slimane], you know who I mean. But if I walk into the street and say, “Have you seen what Jean Paul is doing?” They’ll say, “Who?”

Fashion managed to put itself in the bubble: You have the depictions of people like Cruella de Vil as these haughty women, reinforced by the likes of Diana Vreeland looking down on people with an “I know, and you don’t” attitude. That haughtiness became a mold for the fashion editor. But it’s very, very against what’s happening now.

WWD: Due to the impact of the coronavirus — and a variety of other factors — fashion has really only just begun to embrace the public, inviting people to seasonal runway events and presentations, and creating shows where young designers compete.

N.K.: The generations that I’m seeing graduating are all talking about sustainability, about the non-use of fur. I spend a lot of time with them, and their ideas are very much based on preserving the planet and not exploiting people. That’s very contrary to all of fashion’s thinking from the Seventies onward. Fashion has fallen out of the contemporary zeitgeist, and there is a younger generation of creative people who do not want to be looked down upon by the likes of whomever, and who are quite happy to show their process. They don’t see magazines as where they want to work, or where they want to have their work shown. They’re quite happy showing it on different platforms and across the Internet where they get straight through to their audience.

WWD: What else are fashion students telling you?

N.K.: This structure of showing fashion shows on a catwalk to a small, invited elite, it can’t keep on, it’s unsustainable, the public doesn’t want it. And the generation that should have it wants something else. I’ve gone through 500 graduate portfolios this week, and the first word on every one of those briefs is, “I want my collection to be sustainable.” They’re terrified of what we’ve done to the planet. They’re terrified of the legacy we’re leaving behind. Fashion can’t ignore that. And it isn’t being ignored by the young designers. We have to really acknowledge that the medium of fashion has changed fundamentally, and this pandemic, as awful as it is, will force the long road of change onto the fashion industry. That is one thing I’m very pleased about. Forcing a young designer to spend their money on a catwalk show is morally and financially wrong. It’s not for the benefit of the designer and not the best way to get their message across to the public.

WWD: New social distancing measures have meant that designers and brands are now being forced to show digitally, if they want to show at all this year. Is this the moment when the industry will consider the digital show as a viable alternative to the physical one?

N.K.: There are a lot of young designers who I feel are unfairly pressurized into doing a catwalk show to get the support of the British Fashion Council. These foundations and organizations that look after fashion have been complicit in forcing young designers to spend an awful lot of money unnecessarily on a catwalk presentation. The industry is now suffering, like any other industry, from the massive changes that have been forced upon it. I think — and hope — that this will provide designers with the freedom to move beyond the catwalk to show the way they want to, when they want to and how they want to. Presentations and fashion films are just as exciting, and perhaps even more exciting, than the runway. If you talk to a designer like Gareth Pugh, he will say to you, “Doing a fashion film, I can show a collection how I want it to be seen.” Designers get very excited by the idea that they can do things in a different way, because they are creative people. They like doing things that are different and new, and I welcome the fact that we are now acknowledging and using the things that I’ve been talking about for literally 25 years.

WWD: What options do designers have in terms of presenting their collections this year?

N.K.: They have to think about what sort of film their audience wants to see. Every designer has a different aesthetic and audience, and different ways of capturing an audience. In a way, the worry is ours, not theirs. That’s what they do. These are great innovators with very pronounced artistic visions. That’s why we enjoy seeing their clothes. When fashion weeks come along, it’s such a luxury and honor to be shown this outpouring of creative work. I know people are very negative about fashion weeks, and I agree with all that. But if you look at it in a different way, you’re looking at the artistic outpouring of some incredible minds. Whether it’s Pierpaolo [Piccioli] at Valentino or Riccardo [Tisci] at Burberry. You’re looking at some of the most creative minds on the planet producing a vision for you. I don’t think they have any worry of how they’re going to show. They’ll do that quite naturally. I think the only problem comes when people try to force them into a commercial, outdated structure. It’ll be the ceo’s and commercial wings of the companies that will say, “No you can’t do that.” It’s all old system stuff — they need to forget everything starting from now and move forward. It’s a very exciting time.

In a way, fashion has taken over from painting and film and music as the most zeitgeist-y, important, creative medium at the moment. We tend to work with young designers at ShowStudio to give them space to do something important. We just did this beautiful film which is coming out with Fredrik Tjaerandsen. He did dresses that look like beautiful balloons. It’s incredibly timely, because you have these people in the balloons and they can’t touch each other. It’s about how isolated we are in our own little worlds, and we can’t touch anymore. He’s a young designer who doesn’t quite know if he’s a fashion designer or an artist — or whatever he wants to call himself.

WWD: Can you talk about some of the brands and designers that are embracing change? The ones that see fashion films or the moving, digital image as a viable alternative to the runway show?

N.K.: Twenty years ago, every commission I got from whatever fashion brand was always for a set of photographs. Now, every commission I get is a film. They want still imagery, too, but they want film. Everybody wants film. Every single brand now knows that they want film, because that’s the medium they speak within. That’s taken 20 years to change fundamentally. On top of that, there are other things they want. It’s interesting, what’s happening at the moment because of the pandemic. We’re not allowed to be in the studio, so I’m doing my shoots across Zoom and Skype. That’s how we’re creating imagery, and in some ways it feels a lot more sane. I was creating imagery this way back in 2005, so it’s not new to me.

We’re not shipping large quantities of people and equipment around the world. We have to, at some point, say, “Enough!” We can’t keep on pretending that it’s OK to catch private jets across the world and to ship clothes needlessly all over the planet, or for a huge brand to suddenly take us to Shanghai or Mexico to do a fashion show. That’s a hell of a lot of pollution going on. What a lot of people really don’t want to see now is conspicuous wealth. Doing shoots across Zoom is totally appropriate. We’re looking at a completely new way of seeing the world. With augmented reality and artificial intelligence, we’re looking at a new world. It’s why I’m so careful to say that photography has stopped and image-making has started. Image-making takes in what’s going to happen next, and what happens next is incredibly exciting. I wish I was 18 again — there’s so much to do.

Every great art movement comes from somewhere. We haven’t seen the art movement that comes from the Internet. We haven’t seen culture really, with confidence, express itself in this new medium. Partly because it’s only 25 years old and partly because it’s changing so fast. We’re now fundamentally working on a different medium, which is free to access and global. There has never, ever been, in the entire history of our species, a way to speak to each other globally. Now — and I’m not saying it’s perfect — we’re allowed to communicate globally as a species. That takes power away from the more traditional bastions of power, be it the government, data companies, etc., and the fashion industry has to find a way to deal with it. It’s no longer about the power brokers.

WWD: Is there any turning back?

N.K.: I really hope not. I’d like to see this as a turning point. I think it makes sense both creatively and in terms of the future generations that we’re leaving this planet to. I think it’ll make sense in terms of the satisfaction of everybody understanding fashion, rather than it being aimed at such a small audience. For ages now, fashion has felt like it’s not doing the right thing. There have been a lot of attempts to do things, and I think this pandemic will provide a [moment] to stop to reassess and say, “Actually, let’s do the things we want to do. Life is finite; let’s do something we all love rather than something we’re forced to do to make some gentlemen in a suit more rich.” In the end, you have to try and see life in a different way. It’s not just about making more and more money.

I’d be very happy to see business and art divorced. I’m sure everybody across the planet will be upset about that. There just has to be something that touches your soul, and that’s what we ought to be aiming at now. I do think there’s a spirituality in life, where we feel like we’re doing something right. The world is fundamentally changing. You’ve got to look at the world we’re becoming, not ignoring and trying to look back in the past and say, “I want it back there, because it was rosy 50 years ago.” It wasn’t, I lived through it. We need to be looking forward, and it’s really the responsibility for the artistic world to look forward and to shape the planet that we live on. For me, the most important thing is trusting the future, and for the artistic world to shape the future. We have to be shaped by artists, people who are concerned with the human condition. And we have to look at the future with optimism, intrigue, excitement — not just fear or retro-thinking.


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