Nian Fish

Posted by stephan | September 5th, 2011

Nian Fish - A Models.com interview by Wayne Sterling, portrait by Stephan Moskovic

As a creative director and KCD creative consultant, Nian Fish is among fashion’s most powerful women, but producing shows for the industry’s biggest names is only part of her story. With three decades of experience, her reflections on the world of fashion are insightful and serve as an incredible history lesson for anyone interested in the world behind the seams. From globalization’s effect on the business model, to the rise and fall of the supermodels, Fish has witnessed every trend and movement from the inside out. Her insider perspective has provided her with numerous stories you’re sure to love: everything from the day Calvin Klein selected Kate Moss as his muse to the very beginnings of KCD, each one told with wit and intelligence.
Nian Fish

A models.com interview by Wayne Sterling
Photo by Stephan Moskovic

For people who have heard the name Nian Fish but are not exactly sure what you do could you please give them a frame of reference on your work?

What I do is I call myself a Creative Director. People often ask me what is it that I creative direct. I actually have a unique job because I’m a Creative Director in fashion and I’m also a Producer. To my knowledge this not a common combination. It’s not like there’s no one else doing what I do. I’m certainly not that arrogant but there are very, very few people like me. I actually like both aspects of my endeavors. I creative direct fashion shows, fashion events and fashion films. All of those are image making vehicles for designers. This is all minus their advertising. I have done advertising before, but not currently. I’ve been doing this particular niche for over 30 years.

This was starting with Keeble Cavaco and Duka in the 80s?

I actually started in the 70′s. In the 70′s I was the assistant to Kezia Keeble (she’s the K of KCD) and to Paul Cavaco (who’s the C of KCD). They were married and they were the number one stylists and the only fashion producers in America in the 70′s.

True fashion pioneers then

They were pioneers. Kezia Keeble also had a PR company. This is when there were like five stylists around. It was Paul and Kezia. The Goodman sisters, Wendy and Tonne Goodman, Julie Britt, Iris Bianchi, Barbara Dente, I think and Patti Wilson. That was kind of it and these people did everything. We did every cigarette ad and every editorial. So I was Paul and Kezia’s assistant and they trained me. I left and I was a stylist in the 80′s. During the 80′s Keeble Cavaco and Duka formed. Duka was Kezia’s third husband, Paul was the second. Unfortunately John Duka died. Kezia died a year later. Paul sold the company and then they brought me in as Creative Director of KCD. I was Creative Director of KCD for 18 years and I am now Creative Consultant. I still work for KCD as Creative Consultant and I have my own company.

I finally identified what I love so much about what I do. When I’m doing fashion shows I’m doing theater. That’s why you admire someone like Alexander McQueen because he was really doing pure theater. When you are doing Calvin Klein and it’s a white set and white light, there’s still theater in there. In theater you’re putting together your ingredients, so you put together the stylist, the hair, the make-up, the set designer, the music, the lighting… you ask, what’s the seating… what’s the cushion. Sometimes I design the elements, sometimes we bring in collaborators

and we design the environment to frame and amplify the designer’s vision for that collection. And this becomes a 10 minute piece of theater. It’s the branding. You want to know that when you walk in it’s the Calvin Klein show. You want to know when you’re walking in that it’s a McQueen show… just from the atmosphere… what’s the music… what is the the set design… what is the smell.

And of course for the collection you want to work very, very closely with the designer and the stylist to see how the collection is shaped for that season. So I love my job. It’s a unique job. Shaping it means helping to edit, shaping the casting, shaping the music, the set design so I consult on all the aspects of a theatrical experience. My favorite thing to do is to put the team together for that designer. Like seeing the link between Melanie Ward and Calvin Klein. Now the stylists are so very important to our business. They are also becoming empires, all of them. In the old days many designers wouldn’t even need a stylist. But now every designer including someone as incredibly talented as Marc Jacobs, who is himself a fantastic stylist, has a stylist. He’s running an empire so he will have a stylist.

So from shows to events… let’s say Marc Jacobs is doing a perfume launch, you have to have a process. What’s the smell of the perfume? Gardenias. Oh let’s do a gardenia filled pool on the pier. Let’s create an urban garden. To me it’s still theater. I just love the theatricality of it.

Theater is a wonderful metaphor. Fashion shows are in a way, the only mass market theater experiences left in our media world.

There was a time when I thought they would do away with the whole fashion show idea when Helmut Lang had put his show on the Internet with Kristen Owen as his one model… it was in the mid 90′s. I thought, my god, that’s it… that’s the end of my job… everything is going to the Internet! But then again I thought… No… Everybody wants to see a model walking in those clothes through a dimensional space and see her back, see her turn around and see what the back of that outfit looks like. They want to see the diversity of the hair and make-up… The theater is what people crave and get enrolled into.

And then there’s the social theater of who’s in the front row… the cliques… the pecking order…

The backstage theater. The theatrics of the backstage are probably the most fascinating even though we see it every where now… but to see Guido backstage creating the magic of the hair is amazing theater. You make a really good point when you say the theater is everywhere. It’s in the front of the house, the back of the house, it’s on the runway, it’s in the models rushing from one show to another!

And all of this is consciously orchestrated? In detail?

People have no idea. When a designer is picking a time slot. The time slots alone are masterminded. Picking a time slot for a designer is very much knowing how to move around the conflicts. You have to be conscious of the tastes of the different designers around you. That real estate of time slots, it takes place in every city. And there are wars over it. Of course with the younger designers they get the short shrift and it’s the seniors who have their real estate and you cannot mess with their time slots. It’s all the question of clout. It’s that terrible expression: "A-list".

You made the point that the Internet changed the perception of fashion. There’s now this Internet niche cult where people can create their own little brand of mini-stardom.

Yeah. Like Tavi. Creating a cult around a 13 year old blogger. The people speak and you’re helping with that, right? I was just talking about this at lunch today with these very young people and they were asking what it was like before. People always say that in fashion everything is a business now and it’s almost like a complaint. But I don’t like to complain about what is. It’s the reality. Fashion is really really global now . Every kid who’s 9 years old, knows the Chanel bag.

Do you miss the era of exclusivity?

Yes. I try not to go too nostalgic but I have my beautiful war stories. What I love is I have been in the business for 30 years so I have seen momentous innovations. For instance hip-hop was a new movement. English rock n roll was a movement. In fashion I witnessed a lot of movements. I witnessed the turn away from "runway models"… there were amazing runway models, a lot of them were black, a few were Asians… I’m talking about the 70s and early 80′s… and you only booked them because they could walk and they were graceful and they were a perfect fit. But you never saw them in the magazines. And suddenly starting in the late 80′s they started using girls who were editorial and you had to teach them how to walk and then there were no more runway girls.

I love that! Linda and Christy at first had to be shown how to walk!

They were print girls that we turned into runway girls. So I witnessed the shift to the print girls. Then I witnessed the shift from the Amazons like Nadja Auermann, Claudia, Cindy… These big powerful women… to the waifs. I was there when Calvin did it. It was literally Nadja Auermann walking in. She was coming in for a go-see. Believe it or not Nadja still did go-sees then. So it’s Nadja who’s like 6" 1′ and va-va-voom. She’s wearing this beige tone on tone floral chiffon dress with high heels and she’s filling it out. Calvin has her walk. Kate is waiting in the wings. She’s 16 years old. Calvin says "Put it on Kate. Put her in flat shoes" and suddenly this dress stood away from her body. The flat shoes brought the whole thing down and it became this kind of cool thing and he said "We’re changing the casting ". That was it. It was New York that actually changed that moment in fashion. That particular show. It was these diaphanous dresses that would have been filled out by an hour glass shape.

By girls who would have come power stomping down the runway.

From a 6"1′ voluptuous girl to a 5" 7′ boyish body on a post-pubescent girl and suddenly the look changed. The hair and make-up changed. The jewelry went off. I was quoted as saying, in the NY Times that jewelry was out and got all this hate mail from jewelers. I felt so bad but I was just quoting a trend (laughs). That was always the part that was exciting to me. Witnessing the movements. The Belgian movement. The Brazilian movement. The Russians.

Then the army of girls where every model in the cabine had the same face. The Clones.

Who really started that was Prada. I give them credit for that. They were combing girls in these small outskirts of Russia. I also witnessed the change of designers being bought out by these big conglomerates and suddenly having to pump out those handbags and perfumes, like really pumping them out. I don’t know if people know…have you ever written that the real game of fashion imaging is to make the designer’s name so they can sell their licenses?

I think after LVMH super-sized everything on a global scale the word "luxury" became a part of the standard vocabulary. Before that the word kind of expressed the idea of something unattainable. To their credit the conglomerates convinced the public that luxury was something the average person could also acquire.

You’re bringing up something really interesting because fashion has always been there. We’ve always worn clothes. Whether in 16th century France where they were dressed to the nines and the men had wigs, fashion has always been there. But for me in the 1960s fashion really exploded globally. It became "Pop " with Twiggy in Vogue and the Cardin look and all that. What is fascinating to me now is that there is so much creativity with designers but you look at any given airport and what are people wearing? J Crew. No offense to J Crew. It’s a great company. There is a uniform going on in the West. Especially in America where there really is a kind of uniform that allows you to "disappear" yourself. But Hermes is there for the people who really want what Hermes means. But what percentage of the population is that?

Probably 0.05 %… but maybe the thinking is, if you are Hermes you just need to capture that ultra-niche market of 0 .05 %, out of billions and billions of people. And then your profit margins are OK. In that regard do you think a very personal way of seeing and feeling fashion, the way Calvin Klein did… is this still possible in an increasingly corporate fashion environment?

I always like to have hope in creativity. Those kinds of movements that happens in every industry… Architecture, music, art… Impressionism was a movement. It was a burst away from what was… Fashion is the same. It is a creative industry. I am waiting for someone who will break the mould. And actually Alexander McQueen did. He really did. In terms of the theatrical experience of his runway shows… in terms of his very, very personal craftsmanship. You could see that at the Met Costume Institute show. The guy was really a genius. Unfortunately he didn’t get to see the end of his genius. There would have been something else coming out if him. When I went to see that show, I thought this was a real and tremendous loss to us. I think that fear holds people back in the world and he was fearless. Calvin was fearless. He was looking for something different. Some people say he was a marketing genius but I think American designers get that short shrift. What Calvin did for his brand that gets carried through with Francisco and Italo is that everything should feel like a T-shirt. The T-shirt is American and the ease of a T-shirt really is something he brought to fashion . I remember he would say, "When you put that evening dress on, does it feel like a T-shirt? "

Do you see a new aesthetic that is forming that is signature to the here and now?

Such a good question… not yet. I do think someone will come out. But everyone is still young. I see a lot of innovation.

A lot of people are trying to resurrect the ideas of a Helmut Lang but they’re not matching his quality of mind. Or quality of craftsmanship.

Helmut made tailoring cool. He made you look amazing in a black suit. He’s a genius as well. Genius is an overused word but that kind of charismatic appeal… that ability to think outside of the box.. it kind of happens in every industry. There are always going to be outstanding people who are not afraid. My philosophy is that everybody has a self-expression. Everybody! I know plumbers with a self-expression. They love plumbing and they love connecting these pipes. We all have this self-expression but then I don’t think we have the education to really explore that. We are put into a school system that tells you if you don’t learn it this one particular way it’s wrong. So we develop fear.

That point is so profound. What advice would you give to young talent to develop a sense of inner authority and inner direction?

I mentor a lot of young people. I have a daughter so I really feel for young people and I try to help them find their way. I have personally trained so many people within our industry and I really love doing that. The people who trained me… Kezia Keeble and Paul Cavaco… they also identified Steven Meisel and Bruce Weber… the people who trained me saw the best in me so when I’m meeting young people I always tell them… find what you love. Don’t obsess about the money. You’re going to make money doing what you love. Don’t be afraid.

Doing what you do one has to have truly great taste. You have to have the eye, the history, the awareness of current culture. Where does it come from?

My father is an American GI Joe. He’s an American soldier. My mother is Chinese and Japanese. If you go to their house they have zero taste. God bless them (laughs). I attribute my taste to being poor and I had to make my own clothes creatively and when that wasn’t good enough I’d go steal when I was very young (laughs). I’m not ashamed to say it. I was 13 and I would steal just to look good because somehow I felt like looking good was going to gain me access to the "non-poor" world. For me to gain access to people with money I had to look good so I’d make this outfit from Vogue magazine. In those days it was about being a beatnik or a hippie but being a hippie with amazing taste so I was all about hanging out in the art world and with the artists with money.

Are you Manhattan born and raised?

I’m Manhattan raised but I was an army brat. I think my taste came from my poverty. And wanting to be not poor, so I studied everything. For some people beauty is really important and it’s important to their well being. I wanted to be accepted by the people, same age as me but their parents were the intellectuals and artists. I wanted to be accepted so I was the best dressed person in that group. And I did get accepted.

What do you think of the aspect of fashion that is now so driven by social media?

You’re bringing up something important that I see and I see it in myself too. What’s happening with the social media is it’s taking us away from being present in the moment. I worry about our brain cells changing. I really love what I do. People say are you going to retire soon? I say nope. I’m doing a lot of fashion films now. It’s the same story… imaging through fashion media… but when we’re all working on a show the reason why it is so enjoyable is because we are all present with what we’re doing and then there’s this dance. Everybody knows this is it. This is the synergy. And when it’s done right it’s a magical thing and it comes from everybody being in the moment of what they’re doing.

Is moving to fashion films problematic for photographers?

Well the interesting thing about that is models are going to be called upon, more and more to be more like actresses. They can’t be flat. They have to have soul on film. They’re going to have to learn to seduce the camera. And that’s not easy because they are not trained for that. Film is not print. I don’t see a lot of moving images where the models are that great. But what do you think? Do you think people are watching those things?

I think they are… mainly because the Internet is creating a problem with still fashion images on a computer screen. It’s like a traffic jam where you see every page of every magazine online a month in advance and it’s killing your eye. You wouldn’t even look at that many magazines on a newsstand. You’d only select the ones you care about. But now it is this glut of fashion images, good bad and indifferent so that the beautiful pictures get buried the next day in your memory bank. A generation that grew up with music videos is going to accept fashion films because it’s something we instinctively understand and it does have the potential to make that fashion image memorable.

Well this is my old school generational thing because I still love the printed page. They are a few of us left but I feel like it’s a losing battle. I think the survival of the industry is about expanding… it’s about expanding fashion into new formats like film, to new markets like China, Brazil, India. We all want the same thing. Can I tell you why fashion perpetuates itself?

Why?

Because we all want to be loved. And to self-express. We want to be accepted. I wear 95% Commes des Garçons as a uniform and it’s all black.I’ve worn this my whole time in this industry. I wear my clothes to shreds and wearing Commes des Garcons is expensive and I have to update it, but that is to me is business acceptance.

On a final note what would you say to all those young designers showing their collections aspiring to be the next Calvin and Ralph and Donna.

Look less to the past. There’s some amazing emerging talent and it’s all in New York. Alex Wang and Rodarte and Proenza. Sophie Theallet. Peter Som. Prabal. Jason Wu. Robert Geller. They have the opportunity to create something new. I was just thinking about passion. What makes you successful as a designer or model is that there is no definition between work and play. I know that I’m happiest when… it’s not like I’m working… I’m playing… there’s no sense of… oh I have to go to work now. Artists are like that. I’m so grateful for the training I’ve had with these masters like Keeble and Cavaco, Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, Helmut Lang, Tom Ford, Jil Sander. To have worked with such visionaries that’s where my joy for this business comes from.

And I thank you so much for sharing that inspiring journey with us Nian. Your energy and insight is just incredibly beautiful.

Thank you Wayne.

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10 Comments

  1. Trevor says:

    WOW that interview was incredibly inspiring, and such a good read. It opened my eyes on the way this industry is always changing, and why it changes.

    Great interview models.com!

    http://www.trev-ology.com

  2. whythehate says:

    Love Nian Fish as the Buddha in this picture!

  3. Mat says:

    Best MDX interview I have read.

  4. Alexis says:

    Totally agree with Mat, probably the best ever published here. And by far the most inspiring.

    “Don’t obsess about the money. You’re going to make money doing what you love. Don’t be afraid.”

    “What makes you successful as a designer or model is that there is no definition between work and play.”

    “Well the interesting thing about that is models are going to be called upon, more and more to be more like actresses. They can’t be flat. They have to have soul on film.”

    Quotes like those are priceless. So simple and true but one had to put these ideas into words and it’s done now, in the most beautiful way.

  5. Photographer Steve Jones - Urbano Moda says:

    Great article, glad to see this made an interview and got published. Nice shot Mosk.

  6. andrew says:

    Phenomenal.

  7. Gustavo says:

    that story on Nadja and Kate has absolutely made my day! =)

  8. Sara Foley-Anderson says:

    The correct spelling is Kezia Keeble…I assisted her on Vogue shoots in the 70′s. Love the interview…just have a thing about spelling a name correctly!

  9. stephan says:

    Thanks Sara! We totally missed that.

  10. George says:

    I remember back to eighth grade, where like most kids, Nian was interested in music and the arts. What made her different was that she had a keen sense of what was up-and-coming, and she was pretty accurate in recognizing new trends.

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