The most prolific and respected name in fashion production design is Mary Howard. Howard is a rare talent and for the past two decades she has worked alongside the likes of Avedon, Meisel, Leibovitz, Demarchelier and Testino to create dazzling imagery. Though most are aware of the fact that each photograph is the result of teamwork and careful planning, few realize the sheer amount of work that can go into just one shot. While photographers, models, hair stylists and makeup artists all play a role in creating these portraits, it’s the production designer who provides the depth and detail that make them come alive. With her fine arts background, commitment to research and tireless work ethic, Howard has set the standard for production designers within fashion. Her vision is what can transform an empty Manhattan studio into gilded vintage train car, or chic Parisian drawing room, bringing fantasies to life and creating intricate new worlds.
Given that the ideal fashion image is a seamless final product, Howard’s contributions are a testament to the enduring importance of those working behind the scenes. On the surface, most of the credit for an image’s success is given to the photographer, but you can make or break a photograph with the wrong choice of prop, or a slight change in the set design. The fact that you’ll see Mary Howard’s name attached to some of the most iconic photos of the last 20 years is no accident.
Portrait by Pascal Perich for Models.com
It depends on the job and sometimes it can be the ad agency or it can be the photographer or it can be the editor if it’s for a magazine. Sometimes the information or creative direction is pretty thin – and sometimes it’s very specific, so there’s a whole range of possibilities; each job is very different. But we always build on it and we start to build the world of that look or that idea. I feel like I have to fully understand what that idea is and what the clothes are that we’re showing before I can really dig into it and grasp it mentally. It feels important to intellectually grasp what it is. You know, I think my family still doesn’t understand quite what I do but for me it’s telling a story no matter what. So it is important that I do understand it and that my staff and my crew understand what we’re doing.
Now once you have that all settled do you have sort of a bag full of things that you pull from? Do you go shopping for the individual items – I know it’s different for each individual job but you said something earlier about having these things ready for your trip to Ireland – are you always pulling things?
For example, this trip, which I can’t talk about too specifically because it’s not published yet, it starts with picture research, so I build on that, or I might get some picture research from the photographer, editor, or ad agency but even when I get a pretty solid direction from them I need to expand on it even just for myself. Sometimes I share it with them, sometimes I don’t, depending if I think they’ll be receptive to it. They might not need it, I’m not here to mess with any body’s path in order to do my own job. So, we do extensive amounts of picture research and then what you were just saying, where does this stuff come from… the actual physical stuff- I’m trying to get Irish things locally, which is better than having to put it in a suitcase.
Even up to the minute that I am flying out, I’m going and finding things in stores or prop houses, and at this point I’m pretty familiar with prop houses so I will be adamant about telling myself don’t bother because I know what is there … Nowadays I can just go online, find it, have it ordered and have it in Dublin at my hotel waiting. I’m still a little worried I may not have the things I want, so I’m pulling things from my own stock, that I know will work because it’s already aged, it’s already broken in, already been used.
So do you create these books for each job?
Yes, we call it the binder.. we have a binder for each job.
So what you’re doing really goes beyond set design, it’s like production design.
Yes. The credit at Vogue, for example, had always been set design, up until a few years ago, when I think Phyllis Posnick made a point to give me production design credit, because she felt there was more to it than just the “stuff”, I don’t really like the word props or prop stylist, I’m trying to get people to stop saying that because I think that set designers in my field- print fashion- are doing a lot more than bringing a couple things to a shoot, so I think that’s not fair, I don’t like that word to be used, even on a call sheet I don’t like it, so we are “set designers” and “production designers”… Even credits in a movie, it’ll be the director, the director of photography, then the production designer, maybe it’s the editor then the production designer, it’s right up there. So it’s nice to get a production design credit from Vogue for example because I think that it helps tell people that we’re doing more than just bringing stuff to a set, we are thinking about what a picture is and trying to set it up. Maybe the photographer will say ‘That’s not what I was thinking’, or ‘That’s okay but let’s try this’ at least they can start with something that’s more proactive on our part.
You said that every job is obviously very different, can you tell us a little about working with Avedon? What was his methodology and the process when you two were working together
I worked with him when I was with Marla Weinhoff. I assisted her at the time and I was able to go on set with him several times when she wasn’t available for example, and he was very easy. It’s a little hard to remember how detailed he would get with what he needed, but he did funny little sketches, kind of like this (Mary sketches), but they were very rough- I wish I kept a couple- then we would go off and figure out what he needed and what he was trying to describe and then just bring it to him, and then he would edit it a little right then and there in terms of what he needed. He was very direct and easy about how he did things, it was sort of done in a snap, his pictures.
Speaking of the shoots, now every one’s sort of doing a video shoot, moving more towards film, has it changed what you do?
It still seems it focuses on the print image, which is great, because I think the print is less forgiving in a way, because it has to look… resolved.. is the right word. Not perfect because I don’t like perfect images, but it has to look resolved, and everything has to have a reason to be in the picture. With a moving image, it’s a little more forgiving and the camera moves around a little bit and I don’t worry. In print, you worry about the backsides of things or even the size of things. I do need to embrace the live part of it more, I’m just not sure I like it as much as the print. I think the print is a more rigorous assignment to have to pull off. I think it’s like my painting background which is very studied, you have to again, be serious about what you’re putting in the picture.
You said you don’t like images to look too perfect, how do you go about making the items, even in the shoot it looks like someone’s incredible drawing…
Well this campaign is meant to… look like these people’s real places …. and you know it’s meant to look real, but not, there’s a lot of accessories, and the product has to look good. So if you had a tour it would be a little messier and bit more unexpected, but I like it to look real. It’s not fully in the picture it’s just an image of something. You see that fishbowl and table for example (gesturing to an image), you see the edges of things. The first thing I learned in art school is that edges are important. That was literally the first day. I’ve been thinking of that ever since.
That feels very much like a painting.
I enjoy those kinds of pictures the most that have a painterly quality to them.
For something like this, when you have this sort of, almost broken piano, are you guys sort of distressing these things yourself?
What happened is we got a cheap piano, it might have even been free, because people are giving away pianos now, they don’t want them ‘Get it out of our house, take it’ (laughs) and my two set assistants have these hatchets and hammers and axes and just went at it, to get it to that point… a lot of fun things happen while you’re there because you see what happens just before the story… To even lift the ax was heavy for them so I think that at that point the photographer said let’s just place them and you know the result is really great. That’s when the collaboration happens. It’s incredible. Really, I’m there to support the photographers more than anyone…
So with Avedon… he’s always had a very clear idea from the beginning?
It’s so hard to remember now, it’s so long ago, but I think he really was a director even from the beginning. He did have a picture in his head, as opposed to other people who liked to see things brought in. I think he was, even then, trying to get to something he was picturing in his head. It’s my favorite thing because it’s about color, pattern, form… I get the clothes beforehand and sometimes in MY head I try to propose, and again only propose, because it is a collaboration, propose because they can shut it down quite a bit of course, but at least it’s something to start with and bounce off of. In this case, just to go back and see what the next outfit is going to be… and at the last minute give her something to hold, funny elements like that.
How do you interact with the photographer, if you want to like, add a rose? do you propose it, do you jump on it and do it?
I just do it and get yelled at. It’s better that way, I don’t ask, because then they can’t tell.. they don’t know until you do it. Sometimes I’ll bring a lot and then in the end they only use one little thing. It’s so painful. For me, I try not to show the pain as I’m crying in the corner a little bit (laughs). I don’t care, I just want it to be a good picture, but yeah that’s quite tough when that happens and you have all this amazing stuff and you really want to make a look but the photographer has an idea that it should be something else.
Are there favorite items that you have that repeat throughout your work?
Yes, to the point where a photographer will be like ‘I just can’t look at that chair again’ or a piece of fabric that I love. Sometimes if hairpins were left on the floor from the hair stylist, they’ll just be like don’t touch it just leave it, it’s part of the picture, I mean if you make it too clean where you’re like picking lint off of everything…
It’s amazing when you do that amount of work to produce the picture even before it’s shot..
It’s labor intensive, it’s real blue collar work in a way; it’s incredibly physical. Even for me, many years later, though I’m not loading trucks or anything anymore, on set I’m moving a lot of the stuff around… you don’t want people waiting for you. I’ve actually yelled (if I see the makeup artist putting lipstick on the model), I’ll yell out like ‘I could’ve done two sets by now!’ (laughs) …. But it is fashion after all, it’s not about me, it’s about the clothes and the girl.
What would you say are some of your most challenging shoots that you’ve done? The most vigorous?
I think that there are physically challenging ones and mentally challenging ones… the physical ones are hard, because you’ll maybe be on location with this one particular photographer that people can barely even keep up with. But mentally, I think is even harder, if I haven’t intellectually grasped what I’m doing and don’t really get what the direction is from the ad agency, or the photographer, or the editor, you know, that feeling of being lost, and not quite knowing…You know it’s a service industry, so you have to deliver something that will inspire them and fulfill their needs. It’s very visual. A lot of nuts and bolts, about putting the stuff together and really thinking about it. A lot happens when it’s like midnight and I’m trying to go to sleep. I’m trying to just have it cook and incubate a little bit more in my head what I’m supposed to be doing… I guess that’s more challenging… I can’t think of one specifically, they all have their challenges. Sometimes it will be the simplest ones that end up being the one object out of two truckloads of things there. I’ll be sitting outside and not really get what we’re doing, but then when you see it published a couple months later you think ‘Oh that was that, it makes sense now’, and I kind of feel bad that I wasn’t kind of caught up with everybody else. That doesn’t happen so often anymore. It’s always a surprise though. That’s something about image making, you want it to be a surprise but it’s also a little bit painful, it’s kind of like giving birth; you know you don’t know what it’s going to be, even when it happens.
How much do you usually bring to the shoot? Is it usually like two truckloads of stuff?
In the olden days we’d bring one truckload, and now it’s starting to be like two and over, and I feel bad about that. I think it needs to be more refined, and my staff will often say.. well you brought this extra stuff… If I’m on a location and it’s 5 flights up, my crew is not so happy about bringing 2 bags of velvets and 20 different pillows up when I don’t really need them. It’s a lot about communication, you really need to communicate a lot about what’s needed, but if it ends up being too much stuff it gets a little overwhelming. But at the same time, it’s also nice to have the stuff there when that piece of fabric or pillow ends up being that perfect thing that you never thought you would need. My coordinators are thinking about the shoot too, and might have a different interpretation; I love having people’s different takes on any given job, because they may have something I didn’t even think of… I like having stuff there but sometimes it gets a little claustrophobic with too much stuff. Even packing this suitcase for the trip abroad I must be really specific. I think, how many Sharpies am I bringing? The tape I’m going to bring… the blankets and little prop things that I’m going to bring… I have to be careful because I’m going be lugging that thing around.
When you’re on location is there a difference between that and dealing with this outside world, or is it kind of the same too when you’re on set?
On set has much more control. It’s hard to say if I prefer one to the other. If I thought about it I’d probably much prefer to be in a studio and in control, but it’s also really inspiring to be on location in some beautiful home, or some shed in the middle of nowhere, or some gorgeous landscape. I mean it’s kind of amazing about the sort of job I have that I can go to all these different places. Sometimes it’s tricky to figure out if some things should be studio or location, because sometimes you have to build this train in a studio, like the interior of a train because you just won’t be able to find a train like that, I mean it copied the one in Paris.
So the entire Vuitton train set was recreated?
Yes that was built from scratch and thrown right in the dumpster after it.
Do you ever keep things from these sets? You said this went right to the dumpster after, do you ever hold on to stuff?
I do for some things in this house I hold on to. In my studio I try to keep a couple backdrops that I’ve painted if I feel like I could recycle it because, the carbon footprint for set design is pretty hideous. There’s actually a group of us who are people in the industry, film industry/fashion set designers, where everyone’s in touch constantly… ‘I’ve got leftover flats, come pick this up tonight’… So you know if we need extra flats the next day we just pick up the flats. (Ed. note: Flats are movable sections used in staging). Extra paint, this and that… we’re making a lot more than we used to. Things have sped up… for online/digital needs, social media needs.
How do you deal with that? You were talking earlier how you have over 300 jobs a year, and there’s so much more to do with digital and all this stuff, how do you sort of keep up with that pace of things?
Well, my company has grown and we have other stylists, if I can’t do the job I like to propose it. We have 7 stylists, in Miami, London, LA… and New York, so that’s how we do so many…
When did you move in to that? and to also having representatives…
Probably like in the past 2 maybe 3 years
It is a very different side of the business, no?
I like growth and I hate turning jobs down. It’s fun because we all sort of collaborate. We all contribute our input to help each of us get through our jobs.
Yes it’s in the city, it’s a good size… The back is like a set building so we can make flats and these guys spend many late nights there making the last minute things we might need.
Do you have people on staff that will like fix furniture and repair things?
Yes! You’ll see it’s like a little army there. It’s not just what you’ll see in the office; there’s other stuff going on.
I think you mentioned you worked as a costume designer at one point?
I worked in Macy’s special productions which, you know we had to outfit a couple hundred clowns and deal with celebrities in the parade. It was a funny job but it was a good training ground because it HAD to happen Thanksgiving morning, there were no delays. So it was a very calm production office. I really learned a lot. To get into float building you cannot be afraid of big things, like the Statue of Liberty float in the parade and having to dress that many people and then get them undressed and pack all the stuff when the parade’s over.. that whole day of madness.
That’s interesting, it sounds kind of like the best training you could imagine…
The funniest thing is you know, I was taught there- and this happens in the studio all the time- you get a box that you ordered and you think it’s what you ordered but it might not be. I learned at the parade office to open the thing right then, and you might see one thousand of the wrong clown noses. So yes, you need to make sure you have the right noses… that’s a big deal.
You also did some stuff with Saturday Night Live at one point?
I did, after I was at Macy’s, I did some freelance props for SNL with this funny prop builder for a couple of years. I was probably in my late 20s, we did a clay car and funny things like gag props..
It sounds like before you got into fashion you had a lot of training for this sort of, basically everything you’ve done led to this point, everything before kind of contributed to where you are at this point…
I grew up a tennis player, my family’s in the Tennis Hall of Fame. There’s something about tennis that feeds more in to what I do about anything. Tennis, which was all of my childhood and every single day, had a huge influence on my thinking. I think just hitting the ball back to the opponent. That’s my whole childhood with art classes thrown in. Just to stay focused on what you’re doing at every given moment, I think that has helped me with my business quite a bit.
It’s also really rigorous, really hot in the Louisiana sun and involves stamina, which I think you really need on many of the fashion shoots. I mean the shoots can be mentally tough, sometimes I think it’s like being in surgery. It’s not a life or death thing though, we have to remind ourselves of that all the time. You feel like it is, and you’re sweating but the big personalities make it so colorful and so fun, I mean just the combination of people in the room, if you’re a people watcher, which I am, it’s great.
Do you ever do shows?
I’ve worked with Nicolas a lot on his last Balenciaga show. I went to Paris last August where I consulted with them about some of their painting and decorative finishings and stuff.. and when Alber ( Ed. note: Alber Elbaz from Lanvin) comes here for his pre-collection, I’ve worked with him for the past several seasons. But I would love to do more, I don’t know why that’s not, I just think the word’s not out that I do that but I’ll do anything.
The shows are becoming even more theatrical, and they call it a media event… a major media event.
Yes, everyone’s watching it. Sometimes it gets connected to the campaign. Sometimes, we study the shows to kind of see what the art direction is there, and steal little bits and alter things.
A good show can be almost a bit like performance art.
It is! I mean that’s my background…. now I’m kind of sad I don’t do more of those. I do like live events, the film I don’t care about as much, I do love the print because I’m a painter. I like the live event and the whole concept of moving through space and the models moving through space.
There are so many designers whose collections that would be enhanced by having a more theatrical presentation. Most just go for the usual…
Yes, with the usual catwalk. I have to say the creativity in London and Paris is amazing. They make things so beautifully; to have a studio platform made overnight is just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I’m just astounded by the things I’ve seen.
Is there any set that you haven’t done, or haven’t gotten the chance to do yet that you would just love to do? Like any sort of idea you haven’t had a chance to use for a shoot, or something that you’d personally love to do that haven’t gotten to yet?
I think that performance art that I showed you might have been the one, because I studied performance art for my MFA and I got to go back to that world where I studied at Rutger’s Mason Gross (School of the Arts).
If I could throw glitter on everything I would, I do it even when it’s not appropriate. Being from New Orleans and growing up with Mardi Gras, I loved looking at things, we rode around and saw different colors, it was and still is so inspiring… That’s why I keep doing this work, that’s why we have so many jobs, it’s the thrill of the final image, I think.