Spring 1996

Dreams that money can buy

The seamless fantasies devised by designers play a crucial role in the process of selling fashion

Producing graphics which sell fashion is a highly specialised genre of communication design. Designers are granted sizeable budgets, a free rein to experiment and a brief which specifies only that the end result be eye catching and unpredictable, resulting in a form of commissioned personal design which has no excuses not to be innovative. Given that at its best the relationship between fashion and graphic designers involves the meeting of two creative individuals determined to keep ahead of the pack, fashion professionals are among the most enlightened, and demanding, clients a graphic designer could hope to work for.

The fashion industry operates at a blinding rate of change, with designers, manufacturers, and clients caught up in a relentless six-monthly cycle of production and consumption. Unsurprisingly, for an industry selling the promise of a “new you”, plenty of advertising. (Calvin Klein spent million on his most recent campaign for the diffusion of cK range, which gained additional publicity from the fact that Steven Meisel’s shots of girls and boys showing their knickers were banned in the US.) But given the swift seasonal turnover of collections, international advertising campaigns are the exception and most promotional material is created with specific retail outlets and magazines in mind. In addition to visuals aimed at the public, there are also show invitations, catalogues, mailers and product information packs for trade and media insiders and loyal customers. Then the product has to be promoted through seductive window dressing and point-of-sale material, displayed in suitable settings within the stores, packaged and tagged, and finally wrapped up to be taken home in status-enhancing carrier bags. The role of the graphic designer in the process of branding is crucial to the entire undertaking.

The most concentrated expression of the fashion designer’s “look” is the biannual catalogue which appears prior to a collection reaching the retailers. Most of the season’s print-based advertising will be lifted from these pages. Representing a considerable financial investment, these catalogues are interpretative collaborations between fashion designers and graphic designers. If they do not tell you as much about the garments as they might, they express the “feel” of the collection and coincidentally say a lot about the dynamics between the visualizers, the client company and their wished-for audience.

Next comes the advertising and editorial imagery which fills so many magazine pages. Though the majority of us will never own a designer-label garment, we can enjoy the sensation vicariously through the seamless fantasy fashion imagery presents. These pages are high artifice striving to appear natural, and because photography is the favoured medium, we have come to accept it as a substitute for an unattainable reality. Whole teams of models, stylists, make-up artists, photographers, digital image manipulators, art directors, graphic designers and marketing personnel concoct the look which we consume in lieu of actual garments. These image-makers are so tuned in to the fragmented cultural scene which we inhabit hat they are able to appropriate and re-use signs, symbols, attitudes, expressions and gestures to create an appearance of novelty which is in fact a reflection of reality.

All of this takes place across a global network. Specialist public relations agents operate in every capital and a designer will employ a number of them to deal with each national press. In some cases the PRs act as clients, commissioning creative teams who share the aesthetic of the company they are promotion or of its prospective audience. Pairings between fashion and graphic designers may last a single season or a decade: London-based Michael Nash continue to work on Jasper Conran’s corporate identity which they established in the mid-1980; Christoph Radl has produced catalogues and advertising for Milanese designer Romeo Gigli since 1986; Din Associates have worked since 1990 for the husband and wife team that runs mass-market French Connection and since 1993 on the mainline and diffusion ranges of Nicole Farhi. The success of any collaboration depends not only on how accurately the graphic vision mirrors that of the client, but also, in less stable economic times, on how sensitive the graphic designer is to changes in the direction and circumstances of the fashion company.

For avant-garde Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, French graphic designers M/M and English photographer David Sims drew on the realm of fine art to reflect the visual and cultural sophistication of the potential audience. If contemporary art is a victim of fashionability in a market dedicated to novelty, why not redeploy its visual language to invest fashion with a sense of gravitas, while emphasising that the aim of the exercise in both cases is cash? Marc Ascoli, an art director in the purest sense of the term – that is, an enabler who brings together individuals with image-making skills appropriate to the aesthetics and market profile of his clients teamed up Peter Saville, Nick Night and Yamamoto in the mid-1980s and began the vogue for lavish catalogues. For his autumn/winter 1995 collection, however, Yamamoto asked Ascoli to find a new team to express his changing preoccupations. “Having launched a diffusion range, Y’s, Yohji felt his mainline design had matured into haute couture, and he wanted to define it through a catalogue,” says Mathias. Augustyniak of M/M. “It’s not about haute couture in the pre-war sense of supreme luxury, it’s about the mix you find in life between the cheap and the precious, the confrontation between the sophisticated and the everyday.”

Ascoli chose Sims because of his reputation as a trend-setter. Sims introduced energy, movement and speed, counter-balancing previous treatments which had emphasised the sculptural quality of the garments. With its still-life arrangements of food containers, stacking chairs and plastic busts, 1950s motel room background colours and glossy and matte “champagne label paper”, the catalogue screams “contrast”, echoing the garments’ mix of dense felted wool and fishing-net transparency. The models’ “bruised” make-up and bored expressions allude to the claustrophobia of suburban life, while the type, printed letterpress in a till-receipt arrangement, conveys the message that this pseudo-art catalogue is a sales tool. The result disrupts notions of beauty, taste and commerce. It is hoped that the audience will recognise the irony.

Paul Smith, Britain’s most successful fashion designer, relates to a wider range of customers than Yamamoto and as a result has developed a graphic identity with different layers. Back in 1989, before expanding into Japan, French and the US, he looked for a graphic designer who could promote his work worldwide. Following a visit to the degree show at Saint Martins College of Art, just around the corner from his Covent Garden office, he chose Alan Aboud for the job. In partnership with Sandro Sodano, Aboud now creates imagery for the entire range of products including PS (sportswear), jeans, women’s, children’s, shoes luggage, eyewear and toiletries, as well as an exclusive “collection” range available only in Japan.

Each season’s graphics stem from a discussion between Smith and Aboud about the inspiration behind the collection. One season had a particularly 1960s feel to it, so Aboud chose celebrity portrait photographer David Bailey to shoot friends and local “faces” rather than models. “It was good just to document a group of people. Because the company had achieved a substantial level of recognition, we didn’t have to sell the product in either the advertisements or the catalogue, just promote the name,” says Aboud.

Smith is well known for collecting playful objects – his office and shops are crammed with “inspirational” tin toys, antique cameras and watched, sporting memorabilia, old advertising hordings and so on – and for applying found graphic and photographic imagery to garments. If a Paul Smith customer feels comfortable in a shirt printed with pictures of seed packets, it is likely he has a sense of humour. For the autumn/winter 1995 catalogue, Aboud took image-based advertising to a new level of abstraction and kitsch. “We had our annual advertising meeting and we were all bored of seeing the Bailey look copied so we decided to stick our necks out,” he says. “We found 400 original illustrations for Mills & Boon book covers in a warehouse and used them for the catalogue. I wanted to put in something completely unrelated to fashion.” Aboud knew Smith would appreciate layouts rounded off by “raiding the worst possible typefaces” for the jokey straplines. “I’ve had more positive response to this catalogue and the advertisements than to anything else I’ve done,” he claims.

Such a successful stylistic departure is difficult to follow up. An added complication is that as the company moves into new territories, the audience fragments. In the established markets, abstract, image-based advertising keeps the name current among the cognoscenti, but new customers need to be introduced to the garments themselves. As a result, for the autumn/winter 1995 season Aboud produced two catalogues, the second featuring closely cropped fashion plates photographed by Julian Broad.

The print run for the Paul Smith catalogue – 15,000 for Japan and 3,000 for the rest of the world – is minute in comparison with that of an organisation such as Italian jeans company Diesel, who print 500,000 copies of their catalogue for worldwide distribution. Yet Diesel have attained cult status for their mass-market range by producing a catalogue which mixes surreal imagery and irony-laden copy, printed in English without translations. The format echoes the post-modern aesthetic of the clothing, with its unruly detailing and mix of stylistic reference to 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Art director/copywriter Brian Baderman came to Diesel as a graduate of the Royal College of Art’s radical (now defunct) Environmental media course. Like his artistic education, his interpretation of the fashion catalogue is far from conventional. Highlights include covering models in custard, dressing them in furry lion costumes and having fat ladies frolic in the waves on a Miami beach. “When I first went to see the clothing designers to discuss the catalogue, they were so exhausted from having just finished the collection that they gave me the best pieces and told me to get on with it,” Baderman says. “They don’t know what they want – if they did, they could do it themselves and wouldn’t need me.” His working practice reflects his need to invent his own brief. “I place myself in a position of mental doubt to push myself, to find the most extreme solutions to the problem of how to show clothes in a new way, time and time again,” he says. “I can do this because the client believes in me.”

Eschewing facts and figures in favour of intuition, Diesel send out researchers to major cities to check out street fashion. “There’s no market research – incredible in a company of this size,” says Baderman. Once he had managed to persuade his employers that London was the centre of street fashion, they allowed him to base himself there rather than at their Italian headquarters. The distance suits both parties: the closest the client gets to the catalogue prior to publication is seeing printed proofs, “when it’s too late to change anything anyway”. Baderman also keeps his distance from his audience and other graphic designers. “I don’t go to club or read The Face, and I don’t want to see fashionable graphics,” he says.

For the latest Diesel catalogue, Baderman mixed models and “street people” found wandering past his studio and at his local north London job centre. “Using models creates instant clichés, so does using real people. But put them together and two worlds clash. They were fascinated by each other.” Shot by photographer Peter Gehrke in front of painted flats in a studio and in the deserted Heathrow Business Centre, the catalogue is based on a series of handshakes, a straightforward but visually effective way of signalling links between disparate social realities. Interspersed with the photographed scenarios are pages of type laid out like advertisements from fine art journals. “I wanted to make bold, poster-type statements which reinforce the obscurity of the images because even though it’s global, Diesel feels very much like a well-kept secret,” Baderman explains.

Not even in youth magazines do designers enjoy such freedom to be subversive. The fashion industry is a perfect vehicle for shocking imagery: innovation sells, but because of the seasonal turnover, a “mistake” is soon superseded. Photographer Juergen Teller’s approach for Austrian designer Helmut Lang relies on the shock value of revealing the manic, edgy madness, stress and fatigue that lie behind fashion’s cool façade. Three years ago Teller got backstage at one of Lang’s catwalk shows. His speedily taken shot of model Kirsty McMenamy was used as a front cover by i-D magazine and since then he has documented every Lang show. His photographs concentrate, literally, on the edges of the garments: on the interface between Lang’s spaceage and traditional textiles, on the skin, faces and bodies of the models and on the no-space of backstage.

Teller and Lang go through the contact sheets together. “Helmut sees different things from me,” says Teller. “He uses the more obscure and uncommercial images, but I support that.” If the pair think they have enough useable material from a show they will try to get it published. In the world of commercial fashion magazines, to secure pages of editorial for a single designer without the promise of placing advertising is a difficult feat. But Teller’s candid, real-life images are an attractive antidote to the high artifice of most fashion photography. And as a bonus, this uncontrived honesty enhances the credibility of both the photographer and the designer: Teller is commissioned for commercial campaigns and Lang’s clothes are called in for shots by stylists eager to simulate Teller’s voyeurism.

Art director Claudio Dell’Olio of Box Milano used Teller’s fly-on-the-wall photography for the autumn/winter 1995 catalogue and advertising for Italian company Blumarine. Normally a shoot takes no more than two days, but Teller persuaded the client to move the entire team to a small town in southern Italy for almost a week, requiring a considerable extra investment of time and money. Documenting the models, who were also good friends of the photographer, simply “living the life” produced a level of intimacy that through staged was not fake. Teller considered this lifestyle the “natural habitat” of Blumarine’s young, decadent, predominately Italian customers.

Teller’s photographs of Lang’s autumn/winter 1995 collection accompanied an interview with the designer in the October 1995 issue of contemporary art journal Artforum, dedicated to an investigation of the “radical face of fashion”. Art critic David Coleman’s questions to practitioners from the fashion and art worlds produced an uncompromising consensus. As a means of “constructing personal identity…offending society with overt shows of eccentricity…affecting changes in taste…getting art our of the gallery and onto the street [and] appealing to both mass and elite audiences,” fashion has taken over from art. That may be stretching it a little, but it is certainly the case that among the watered-down copies and glossy slickness are some clever visual commentaries on the notion of “contemporary”.

First published in Eye no. 20 vol. 5, 1996