Nick Knight, legendary fashion photographer and director of medium-shattering SHOWstudio gave a rare, live-streamed interview with the Business of Fashion's Imran Amed at London's members-only Hospital Club on Friday, the eve before SHOWstudio's 10th birthday. In the third installment of BoF's "Fashion Pioneers" interview series, Knight explains how he grew from an underachieving pre-med schoolboy into an arrogant box-fresh fashion photographer, dead set on turning the entire medium on its head.
The most pivotal moment in fashion-music-film history came last year when SHOWstudio partnered with Alexander McQueen to live-stream "Plato's Atlantis," McQueen's last ever fashion show, which crashed under the interest generated by a single tweet from Lady Gaga announcing she'd be releasing her new single at the end of the livecast. A moment Knight recalls "One of the worst days of my life, like being in the back row and watching the machinery melt." But the fashion business took note. Suzy Menkes called it "A techno revolution." Hilary Alexander said (of SHOWstudio) "It's the most complex arsenal of computerized weapons ever seen in fashion," and Gucci Group's CEO Robert Polet said: "It's the biggest game change we are going to experience and embrace, it's going to touch every aspect of our business."
Business of Fashion: How did you know you'd found your career path?
Nick Knight: I didn't have a lightning moment. I thought, I don't really know anything about this, but I know if I work every hour that god sends...It became an addiction and I knew "I can't stop this." It's a curse, a pleasure, like all addictions. I don't follow an image in my head as much as a desire. It's a feeling that you want something you haven't got, seen or done before. Then you tend to want to find the best people to work with, learn through and trying to see life through their vision became the fuel to my desire.
BoF: What's been technology's effect on fashion photography?
NK: Ever since I got into it I wanted to change it. Then in the '80s all the things they taught you in school weren't relevant. The medium shifted underneath my feet and by the '90s it was undefinable. It was like being the first person in a sweets shop...you didn't know where to start. Photography has killed itself off with its pretentiousness, its backwards looking, unwillingness to evolve.
BoF: Origins of SHOWstudio?
NK: In the '80s I started filming my shoots. Our idea was to send out a VHS every month...luckily that never happened. First, it occurred to me that clothes are designed to be seen in movement. Secondly, was a realization that nobody sees the incredible creative process behind it. I didn't do it to demistify it. Fashion is actually very poorly served by the media, it's either trivialized or scandalized. The world I knew was artistically very exciting. One of the biggest luxuries is access. But people are approaching it like a Hollywood film, with loads of lighting and bringing in Hollywood directors and actresses. I did a film for J'adore and had a crew of 70 people on the set. I need two. One camera, a model and a light. There's a tendency to push things on you, like the 'red camera' when all you need is maybe a Canon 5D. In the end it's about that personal relationship between you and your model. Has technology made people more/less creative? Neither. If you've nothing to say in the first place it doesn't matter how many tools you have.
You have to make fashion entertainment. It isn't enough to plug in cameras and say here you go. It's the difference between getting three thousand and three million viewers. The whole fashion schedule is evolving too...cycles and distribution are changing when a buyer in Hong Kong can see the catwalk and buy the clothes immediately, the press bitches don't really need to be there anymore and the designer suddenly controls their image.
BoF: What makes a good fashion film?
NK: It has to make something appear desirable. A fashion film, like photography, should be non-narrative. You want the dress or you want to be the girl but you don't need to know where she came from. Whoever's clothes they are, Galliano, Yohji Yamamoto...the narrative is imbued in the clothing. There are only a few people that can take good fashion photographs. In the first decade of Vogue there were two...Steichen who was an art photographer and Baron Adolf de Meyer who was a society photographer. So it's no surprise to me that there aren't more people out there that can make good fashion films. It's different to film as fashion photography is different to fashion. What do you see when you look 10 years ahead? Mobile phones are our new screens, people are very happy to function through them. And 3D scanning. I take photos from several angles and from that data I can make an object, bring a 2D still image into physical space. Technology is waiting for us to catch up. This stuff has been around for years it's just been used by the military and automotive industry. Soon you'll be able to download a sweater. You can already download perfumes. 3D scanning was one of our first projects, 10 years ago. We made a huge Naomi statue and people all over the world could write on it. It was a portal and Naomi was the interface. Soon there'll be a digital modeling agency.
BoF: Our wisdom moment. Any advice to your younger self?
NK: I was too arrogant to listen to anyone...but if I was advising someone else I'd say you have to work harder than anyone else. If it's not more important than your love life, family, food, sleep, etc, you're not gonna make it. What's great about fashion is it never allows you rest on your laurels. You have to get in it to come in first. There is no union or pension and you'll be actively dis-encouraged. It's a lonely job.
BoF: What are the basic tools people getting into the business would need?
NK: Just your heart and mind. If you're desperate to say something you'll find a way to say it, I mean people scratched it on prison walls with rusty nails.
A special thanks to Business of Fashion for allowing Fashionista to livestream the event.