Nick Knight

SHOW and Tell

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SHOWstudio is not only a Warholian, frontierless creative concept, it is the Switzerland of fashion, down in SW1. The industry can be more political than politics itself, yet all that falls away in this creative hub. Ideas win out, as they should, and the joy of the unmitigated is universal.

Dean Mayo Davies

SHOWstudio is not only a Warholian, frontierless creative concept, it is the Switzerland of fashion, down in SW1. The industry can be more political than politics itself, yet all that falls away in this creative hub. Ideas win out, as they should, and the joy of the unmitigated is universal. “People do feel like this is a free, open space,” says Lou Stoppard, SHOWstudio’s fashion editor, whose live catwalk panel discussions with industry protagonists were the talking point internationally of the AW13 season. “They leave their publications or their studio to come here and they can say something honest. You feel like you’ve genuinely created something new because it was a completely different way of talking about fashion and communicating.” Founded in 2000, it is the online pioneer of fashion film, everchanging with a focus on process.

“I never actually wanted to demystify fashion – it wasn’t or isn’t my objective,” says Nick Knight. “What I felt is the world that the international fashion world I was living through when I was creating in the 1980s, mainly with Yohji Yamamoto, I found so fascinating and different from anything anybody else was seeing, and it was a shame that only six people on a shoot were seeing that happen. Naomi Campbell was 16 at the time and Prince had just given her a tape of his new album, to dance, to listen to. She puts on this amazing scarlet-coloured Yohji Yamamoto coat and the way she was moving in it – I thought Christ – so many people should see this because it’s an amazing piece of living art/fashion theatre, whatever you want to call it.”

Living art and style performance has always nourished Nick Knight – his Skinhead book of 1982, featuring a text by Dick Hebdige on the sociology of youth cults, traces the history of that unique group from the original '60s skinheads to a mid-'70s revival. If an original copy can be quite pricey then with a bit of Googling you can find people in Russia who have scanned the whole thing in as a PDF. Sod the copyright issues of that when art instills such a such a feeling and touches the soul – you get a feeling that Knight would be equally as touched too despite the monetary concern. For his dapper Savile Rowed appearance, Knight is a man of candour whose ideation is pure punk. Like any other creatives who have made a mark on culture, he listens as much as he talks.

We’re sitting in the new SHOWstudio space in Knightsbridge, which if you putting in context of the fashion media map isn’t a windowless bunker in east London or a striplighted mutant call center in W1. If there wasn’t a Waitrose opposite, you’d be stuck for a sandwich, 20 Embassy or a bag of Haribo – it’s easier round here to find a £600 pair of shoes. What continues from when they were at ‘The Barn’ in Mayfair is a sense of breathing space. This commune is removed from thought pollution – very old school, and not what you’d first think when you’re dealing with a protagonist of fashion online, a media that’s become a byword for relentless pace.

“One of the nicest things to be able to do is to have talented, clever, enthusiastic people around you – that’s much more exciting than hanging a painting on a wall for me, or buying another house. So that’s where all my money’s gone,” Knight continues, drinking milky tea from an ornate cup and saucer, which coupled with that impeccable suit draws to mind the image of an East End gangster. Knight might share an unwaivering loyalty and intensity with the Krays, though thankfully criminal inclination.

“Partly it allows me to do the sort of things I’m interested in and pursue the ideas that I have and try and find out things I don’t know anything about and excite me and that sort of thing. It’s a vehicle that allows me to do things but also it allows me to meet people like yourself or meet with Lou or Marie. I always remember being at college and reading about Factory and about the different sort of places where artists came together and I always wanted to be part of that sort of community, where you had people who were inspiring and trendy new things who were excited by life and thought change was possible so I wanted to live in that sort of environment. So I guess it’s that.”

Duty of care is very important, as Knight has seen how the fashion system can destroy its most celebrated.

“The fashion world works with artists, and artists are people who are very susceptible to their environment,” he says honestly. “They see things and feel things that perhaps a lot of people don’t feel and that’s why we like them because they see the world in a different way. But of course they are sensitive to the world in a very much more exaggerated way than perhaps most people are. The bad things tend to affect them more in the end because they’re either attuned to beauties that pass other people by but also attuned to the horrors and the negative part of the world and that often gets to them and manifests itself in different ways. When commercial companies start working with those artists and we see it especially in fashion – I believe strongly that fashion is an art form – you see a commercial engagement with those people and they’re not protected in the way they should be and there’s no duty of care and no or very little realisation if you ask someone to do a collection a month for year in, year out, that you might be exhausting that person. 

You’re asking them to dig deeper and deeper into their soul and every time to set the bar higher and if you want them to keep on doing – which of course you do because you want to get the best work out of them – there’s a certain amount of care you have to put into that person, and love and nourishment and understanding of their position. I think that’s become rather obvious and large companies have got involved in fashion where that care wasn’t in place and it’s arguable considering some of the awful things that have happened over the last 10 years or so.”

Over the 00s, Knight was inextricably linked with Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Gareth Pugh, a contrasting trio who share a sense of total lucidity. Recently he has moved further into the music world, working on videos and imagery for Lady Gaga and Kanye West.

“Lee [Alexander McQueen] had a kind of incredible speed of being able to see what he imagined and what his world was, and to some degree I got involved and facilitated him to see what he couldn’t actually make real. You knew every time he came to a project or idea it would be exciting and feel that we were going somewhere new and his world was very, very different to mine. It’s like going to see a great film; you see things you wouldn’t otherwise see and experience things you wouldn’t otherwise experience. I tend to think that his world was a lot darker than mine, I used to bring a certain amount of lightness to it. 

A certain amount of light into what was often quite a dark vision and he either wanted that or would allow it, which is why we kept on working together. He was incredibly demanding in what he wanted, so you never felt that didn’t care. He’d always be 100% invested in it. It was a good relationship but Lee wasn’t an easy man to be anywhere near. But people who have that ability to show society things we can’t otherwise see are people who are attuned to things that we miss and sometimes that’s very difficult. In some aspects he was one of the kindest and gentlest people I’ve ever met and in some aspects one of the harshest, most brutal people I’ve ever met. So you have a very interesting relationship in there. 

Somebody who can be so incredibly kind and at the same time so incredibly difficult to be with. But Kanye [West]’s not easy, I’m sure Gareth isn’t easy and nobody who’s pushing like the way Lee pushed is easy to be around – not all the time. They can be entertaining, invigorating and exciting to be around but never easy. If you want, people who I admire the most and I work with have not been easy people to be near. And that’s the nature of the beast.”

“Nick has talked about – forever – how fashion is our biggest art form and it’s the most accessible one,” says gallery director Carrie Scott. Scott curates their exhibition space, in which you can buy a photographic print Knight has spent eight months perfecting or a handpainted jacket you’ve watched her create online over four days. “Fashion is the way we communicate, since the beginning of time people have adorned themselves with clothes. So it’s interesting to position that within a art environment and as a collectable thing.” The gallery space has features guest curations by Daphne Guinness and a grouping of work based on prosthetics.

During the gestation period of this feature, Knight has instigated a project with his friend – and much loved by Ponystep – Daphne Guinness and Iris van Herpen. Daphne is an extended member of the SHOWstudio family, keeping an office next to Knight’s. 

Their project Splash saw a new ‘Crystallization’ dress created live on camera, as the photographer shot Guinness being splattered with black and clear water then offering up the footage to van Herpen to create a one-of-a-kind H2O dress. Combining archaic craft with futuristic technology, van Herpen proposed a shape shifting garment defying all aspects of logic.

“Technology’s always much more advanced than any of us are, it’s always waiting for us to catch up a bit,” Knight explains. “It’s slightly overrated in one particular way. Nobody’s interested in what machine you’re recording my voice on or if you’re writing it down with a biro. Nobody asks a writer what equipment they have but everybody asks a photographer or an image-maker what equipment they’re using. New ways of working, for instance fashion film or 3D scanning, they’re all a bit like we just got a new toy. Maybe not toy, that’s dismissive, but more words in your sentence, more words in your vocabulary, more ways of expressing what you’re trying to say.”

Recent series have moved Knights photography closer to painting, as flowers, a recurrent emblem in his work, marry classical imagery to a sense of melting. Psychedelic Sky Ferreira portraiture for Another Man, styled by Alister Mackie, felt like an erotic West Coast acid trip.

As a youth, Nick Knight used to practice photography on Saturdays. “I used to take a camera to Cambridge market square when I was 15/16 and photograph girls – mostly a way of being able to talk to girls I liked the look of. It wasn’t particularly grand. It had no artistic pretensions. It had a sort of social function if you want. I was studying the sciences – chemistry, biology, physics – to go to university to study medicine. I took up photography almost by chance as a social thing. It just became more and more clear to me that I really enjoyed it. By the time I got to University – I went to London University and I was on Manresa Road, which is off the King’s Road, there was Chelsea Arts College on one corner and Chelsea Science College on the other corner. I remember thinking “I’m the wrong side of this street, because all that lot are the people I want to be with and I do not want to be with this lot. And I’d sit in lectures and see rows and rows of super-studious 

Chinese students and Indian students taking down every note and at the back there’d be a small wedge of British students, most of which were working, and there were the stragglers-on, which I was part of, we’d just sit thinking “what the fuck am I doing here?” 

So it was a realisation I really was in the wrong place but in a way I was in the right place because I was on the King’s Road in 1978 so it was an exciting time, there was SEX/Seditionaries and that feeling going on and the King’s Road in the 1970s was an interesting, fun place to be.” 

“I’d left university in May or whatever that year and just went and worked in an off-licence and met up with skinheads and that’s how I got involved in the skinhead thing. I had a certain personal thing to prove and it allowed me to prove it and I had a social thing to prove to myself and the skinhead thing allowed me to do that. I’m a white middle class boy and in 70s just drifted. There was very little to mark that transition from childhood to adulthood. There are no rights of passage available really. Military service had been disbanded 20-30 years beforehand. And it’s still the same in society. We don’t feel it so much but acutely you didn’t feel a junction between adulthood and childhood and skinhead became very much part of that for me, as a kind of: ‘OK, well I’ll push myself in situations that I clearly don’t know how to behave in, how to react in’. You’re desperate for a justification in yourself, desperate for a cause. So I rejected any values that I had previously and just tried a whole bunch of different values, which was fascinating.”

“I think fashion film is one of the most exciting things that’s around at the moment,” says Marie Schuller, SHOWstudio’s head of fashion film and one of Knight’s young protégé’s being encouraged to develop their own values, along with Lou Stoppard and Ruth Hogben and Alexander Fury before her. “It’s only been able to establish itself after the internet became a major part of life. So there aren’t any norms attributed to it yet. And that’s what we’re able to experiment with.”