There are many coveted awards handed out in the world of fashion, but perhaps none as revered as the Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator, which was once again presented this past week at the annual British Fashion Awards. Named for the eccentric and inimitable style icon who took her life in 2007, the award honours visionaries who help push fashion forward. And on that front, British photographer Nick Knight definitely deserves the nod from the late, legendary editor. Knight, whose first book, “Skinhead” was published in 1982, is known for his arresting fashion imagery and powerful take on unconventional beauty, having shot campaigns, catalogues, and editorials for everyone from Yohji Yamamoto and Alexander McQueen to Calvin Klein and Yves St. Laurent. His work in the music world is equally as noteworthy, with album covers for such artists as Bjork, Lady Gaga, Seal and Grace Jones to his credit. Beyond photography, Knight is also famous for having directed music videos, including “Born this Way” for Lady Gaga and “Bound 2” for Kanye West. But it’s Knight’s innovative online fashion broadcasting company, SHOWstudio, founded 15 years ago, that has most fashion tongues wagging. The site features an array of live fashion media, including fashion films, which are Knight’s true passion. I spoke with the 57 year-old Nick Knight from London recently about the art of fashion, its newfound accessibility, and why it’s about to have its biggest and most exciting period.
JEANNE: The last time I spoke with you was at that brilliant McQueen show that was done in honour of Isabella Blow, just after she had passed. The emotion that filled that venue was so spectacular. You have worked hard to help keep her legacy alive and I know you had a very special relationship with her. What was it about Isabella Blow that made you see the world in a different way?
NICK: That’s a tough question to answer. The fact that she took risks, that she was a strong and courageous woman in many ways… She wouldn’t care about what people would think, but would follow her emotions and follow her desires. She was somebody who was incredibly articulate and also incredibly cultured. I think that’s a pretty powerful combination.
J: You’ve done remarkable things over the years and have continued to push boundaries in brave new ways. Why be a risk taker to that degree?
N: I think it’s something that I feel is natural to do. I don’t feel I’m being brave or risk taking. I think I’m just doing things that I feel are important. There’s enough wrong with the world that needs changing. I think it’s natural in a way that one would want to change it and try and make it better, and try to make things more exciting and try to open up doors that perhaps have previously been closed.
J: The way that you’ve celebrated diversity and unconventional beauty has been inspiring. Was that something that was always a driving factor for you?
N: I really just follow my desires to be honest. I’m drawn to people who I think are attractive and interesting. But I’m not purposely doing something that I think is different. I’m just doing what I want to do. There are enough absolutely stunning people in the world to keep me going forever if I could. There’s no shortage of amazing people one would want to photograph, or work with, or spend time with, or in some way, collaborate with. Whether it’s musicians, or whether it’s actors, or whether it’s people you see in the street, or waiting at the bus stop…. People are inherently fascinating. There is such a richness of people around and now with the Internet, we’ve got such a good system to see each other. Back thirty, forty years ago, you lived in your little community and it was very hard to get outside of that. Just in my lifetime, there’s been a complete revolution in how we interact as a species. Often how I find people to work with is simply by going on Instagram.
J: When it comes to fashion, some feel that it’s been watered down by all the information and social media coming at us. They look back at fashion’s glory days over the past few decades, and now feel that it’s blown out of control…
N: I beg to differ. I think we’re just on the horizon of the glory days. Now you’ve got a much more accessible, much more active, much more exciting, much more authentic fashion scene happening. Before it was really a question of a lot of people trying to make money out of fashion. I think fashion is a spontaneous art form that we all do. Everybody gets dressed in the morning on purpose. They wear the clothes that they wear because they’re trying to say something about themselves, however great or small that desire is. But it’s still in all of us. Nobody gets dressed randomly. And I think it’s an art form that’s through every society across this planet. And I think now we have the ability to be able to see each other much more. That’s the proliferation of fashion… I actually think that it’s much better because it was such a narrow system before, and so clearly at odds with what people wanted. Hundreds of thousands people might want to go to a fashion show, so why only let three hundred people see it? When you can see the fashion shows lives, designers can now actually talk straight to their audience. Why do they have to wait three months to see it in a magazine, or see an advertising campaign come out when actually when you see that Gareth Pugh dress, or you see that Balenciaga dress? You want it the moment you see it. That’s when your desire for that dress starts, so why then push it through a whole bunch of other things you don’t need to know. My son who’s eighteen now and is studying fashion merchandising at Parsons in Paris, actually can’t believe that we used to have to wait three months after the fashion shows to be able to see anything that happened there. He’s grown up with the fact that you can see it all straight away. And he’s absolutely in love with fashion.
J: That is so wonderful that you’ve ignited that kind of passion in him too and that he’s going to carry the torch. I also find your point of view incredibly refreshing too, because there are a lot of naysayers around and a lot of people fretting over the future of fashion.
N: It’s about to have it’s biggest and most exciting period. It is so accessible now. People can pick up their phone, and create an image, and distribute it globally. Before you had to jump through certain hoops to get your work out there. But when you’re working for art, you just want to touch your audience. And that’s a much more healthy position for art, for artists, and for the audience. Of course the middlemen get pushed out. But I think that’s probably not a bad thing to be honest. I think having a direct relationship with your audience as is possible now is much more rewarding and I think it’s actually much closer to what artists want.
J: Well it’ true democratization no question. What you’ve done with your SHOWStudio site has been rather brilliant and we’ve been following the evolution of it. When you first started the site, did you have a big vision in mind or was this just a natural kind of evolution?
N: I knew exactly when I started it that I wanted to create a platform for fashion film much in the same way that Vogue magazine a hundred year ago created a platform for fashion photography. I saw towards the end of the nineties that actually fashion film was very accessible, that a designer always created a garment to be seen in movement. A designer never created a garment to be seen as a still image. So I’ve always thought that fashion film is the best medium for showing fashion. However we never had a platform where we could show fashion film before. It’s was only with the invention of the Internet that we could do it. So I started SHOWstudio primarily as a platform for fashion film, to try and find the best fashion film in the world. It’s a young medium. It’s been going fifteen years now, so I don’t expect to see it perfectly defined. I don’t think anybody quite knows the parameters of fashion film. It will find itself over time, in the same way that fashion photography too about 50 years to define itself. I think giving a medium fifty years to develop is fine. But that being said I think there’s some fantastic fashion film being made. We’ve just launched our SHOWstudio Fashion Film Award. So now we’re going right out across the globe to try and find the best young fashion filmmakers. I used to get commissioned for fashion photography. But now I get commissioned for fashion film and that’s the way the industry’s going. They know that they need stuff that’s appropriate for the Internet, because the Internet has become the main medium to see fashion these days. A hundred thousand people will see your images in print but you’re going through to ten million people online. I don’t say that with any kind of grudge. It’s fine, it’s progress, it’s what happens. Some fantastic thing in the past is no longer applicable to what we do. We no longer cruise across the Atlantic to get to America or get to Europe. Now we fly. Things change. It doesn’t mean a cruise liner wasn’t a beautiful thing to be on. I’m sure it was. However things change.
J: How does it bode for the future of theatrical fashion presentations? Some are going the way the dinosaur, but when we think back to some of those brilliant spectacles that Lee McQueen staged in those early days….
N: I think there are two different versions of the fashion shows now. There’s something that Gareth Pugh, for instance, would put on that would be a spectacle, like a piece of fashion theatre. However, to get through to a large audience, you have to make it even more of a spectacle or you go the way I’ve just gone with Tom Ford, and say okay, I don’t want to do a fashion show, I want to do a fashion film. And Tom put out a fashion film and within the first day, it had over a million hits. The second day, it had another million. I don’t know if Tom would have had a million hits had he’d just done a conventional catwalk show. There are still some designers who are embracing the spectacle of theatre, but I think Burberry did it in an interesting way cause you can actually buy from the catwalk, and that’s obviously where it’s going to go. But I don’t know how sustainable that is to be honest.
J: You’ve celebrated so many different forms of art through your work—you’re plugged into the music scene, plugged into film, photography… Where do you see these increasing synergies going?
N: The Internet is so huge in our lives now and so important that it’s bound to have it’s own art form or art forms that come from it. So I think what we’re seeing is the beginnings of those starting to shape up. I can take my phone, and take a picture, and then move that picture around, paint it with my finger… Is that photography? Is that painting? And then I could then make it into 3D, I could print out as an object, so I think all of the divisions break down very, very quickly once you have new technology. It allows you to move freely between the different art mediums. But all these things really are just ways to communicate, to say what we feel, vent our frustrations, show our love, or our desires, or our confusion, or whatever it is. That’s all that the artists do. They communicate through whatever chosen medium they have. They communicate their emotions, so the medium isn’t so important—it’s still the emotions that are the most important things and what makes us love a piece of work, whether it’s a digital piece by Jon Rafman, or whether it’s a painting by Picasso, it’s the emotion behind it, not the actual sort of materials it’s made from.
J: What is the one force, the one that really excites you about the future today? What’s the one thing that really gets you going?
N: People, always. People, always eternally and forever will be inspiring, so absolutely people.