NS: I would say the usage of your imagination. When I started, we are going back 30 years ago, you didn’t have computers or websites. You didn’t have all of these easy means to source information. Everything was coming from your own pleasure. The movies you were watching, the books you were reading, the paintings and art galleries, the travelling; the visual excitement of being in different places and seeing different things. Overall, it was extremely personal and creative, you were surrounded by people who had the capability to visualize and create images and everything was quite unique. I feel nowadays, references are creating repetition and there is less spontaneity and generally speaking, less creativity. Everything feels a little bit forced. Even when I look at the work of new photographers, it’s often quite difficult for me to be surprised.
When I was an assistant to the editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue many years ago, she used to work often with David Bailey. Then I assisted Manuela Pavesi who is now the creative director at Prada, which was another different experience. She was working with Helmut Newton, she was working with Mapplethorpe, and she was working with Watson. I was exposed to a very particular school of photography through working with these teams while assisting. Then, when I myself started working, I was working with a new generation of photographers. Steven Meisel, Peter Lindbergh, Paolo Roversi… and I felt the difference. The photographers that I had been in touch with prior were, according to me, very old school. The ones I started to work with had a different point of view, a different aesthetic; they were then breaking the rules. Now for the magazine I’m working for, I work with a different generation of photographers and have been seeing again, a different change. At the time that I was working with Avedon, with Newton and you really sensed that there is a kind of mental power, a visual power that doesn’t exist anymore.
CM: Why do you think this mental power doesn’t exist anymore?
NS: I think that there is a bit too much information. Inevitably, you cannot shelter yourself, you cannot be alone. You are kind of bombarded every moment by messages coming from many different sources. The more informed you are, the more your mind registers and absorbs; you have many, many references coming to you.
CM: Do you not think there have always been references of some sort? Or is that not something you found to be the case with the teams you were working with at the time?
NS: With Avedon, references were purely intellectual and cultural. Most of them were paintings. There was a kind of classicism in the images, and a desire to break the rules. To look into fashion through this perspective was a unique challenge. Working with Helmut, he had a sort of classified code in his persona, in his mind. With him, I had been looking at things from a point of view that I couldn’t even imagine. I couldn’t imagine a human mind to look at a woman with such a kind of interpretation. I think for him the references were purely psychological. For Peter Lindbergh, they were always the masters of photography. For Paolo, they were the masters of paintings. For Steven Meisel, it was fashion culture. I remember when we were working in the late 80’s and there was a kind of mini image revolution. We really enjoyed breaking rules. Whereas today, the thing is to fit into the rules.
Vogue China: Garden of Earthly Delights / Collections issue S/S 13 ph: Emma Summerton
NS: Myself, I’m surprised by the instructions I give to my fashion team. I’m surprised by myself when I’m on set and styling. At the same time, I understand that a certain kind of freedom is not allowed by the structure. The structure wants a kind of guarantee on the results they are going to receive and everything moves in a way that is much more regulated and pragmatic. This can, for creative people of course, sometimes be a little frustrating.
My case is quite specific in the way that I started off contesting a certain type of aesthetic when I was a young editor at Italian Vogue. From Italian Vogue, I went to French Vogue where I absorbed another way of thinking and aesthetic. After French Vogue, I had a contract for American Vanity Fair which, again, was another kind of aesthetic. Now I am the fashion director at large of Chinese Vogue and the magazine has a sensibility, an aesthetic and kind of taste which is very different than what I come from. In order to respect my responsibilities, I need to control, which is very far from my spontaneous way of thinking. I like to be surprised; I like a sense of fear, risk and challenge. These, to me, are the elements that really create something. Working within this new set of parameters is an experience that I find simultaneously challenging as well as interesting.
CM: The control you are referring to- is it the control you have to exercise over yourself or the teams you commission for the magazine?
NS: Both. I don’t believe you can impose something on the team, if not first on yourself.
CM: It’s so interesting to think about the two such specific cultures of China and Italy, coming together in collaboration such as yours with China Vogue…
NS: We have discussed my trajectory, which involves much moving around and has led me to be much more international and receptive to the cultural differences. I’m now an example of cultural fusion; my husband is Indian and my children speak three different languages. I’m very proud of this capability of not being so fixed on very few things; this is a type of wealth. At the same time, I am who I am, and my aesthetic and my taste and what I believe in has been shifting and reaching, but never changing. Your signature doesn’t change.
Vogue China December 2012 cover ph: Sølve Sundsbø
Vogue China rock diaries ph: Paolo Roversi
NS: Specifically with Vogue China?
CM: With Vogue China and with the industry as a whole. Obviously, this role has changed a lot over the years and there was a demand to recognize the models. Despite the seemingly logical idea of moving to celebrities at one point for their mass selling power, we’ve somehow found ourselves in an extreme opposite situation with models. Alienating the audience with a sea of unknown faces, really killing any sort of relatable relationship between the public and what is being presented in so much of the advertising. For you as a fashion editor, is that okay with you? Are you drawn to specific girls that have a strong identity?
NS: As a woman, I am very interested in women. When I cast, I always have a specific reason, she needs to be like an artist. The right person for the interpretation of what I have in mind. I think I’m not following the trends because I’m very convinced that only one specific model can make the story right. I’m quite determined in pursuing the girl I have in mind for a specific story. Perhaps I work with some photographers who follow these trends, but they also trust my vision a lot so we always focus on the right girl for the right story. I prefer women, to young girls, because I relate to them. I think there is a dialogue, between the model, the camera, and the photographer. I even think there is a dialogue between the model and the stylist. It happens when the girl in front of the camera is a little bit more mature and has had the chance to learn what it means to be in front of the camera. In the past, it was a work of seduction. The girl was seducing the camera, she was seducing the photographer. I feel quite sad when someone in front of the camera is empty and hair and makeup don’t help much.
CM: This really goes back to the age of the girls and not allowing for that longevity and experience…
NS: This is why they don’t last more than one campaign or more than one editorial. Somehow I think the capability of photographers like Steven Meisel, who has the capability to create models, is not incredibly common. He has the ability to have a vision or comprehension of a character for a girl and somehow manages to apply those characteristics to the girl. For photographers that don’t have this capability, the model is an empty object in front of a camera.
Vogue China March 2012 cover ph: Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin
Vogue China cameo attitude ph: Willy Vanderperre
NS: With the new generation of photographers, the passion and drive are always the same but there are differences. For starters, the image is more often created in post, rather than just in the camera. And there’s a difference in content. The new generation is also more business savvy than the preceding generations. And this ultimately can make them more responsive to a market’s wants and needs.
CM: Going back to China, what do you think the role is of this superpower market in the industry today?
NS: I think that it’s a very relevant market, which justifies the huge interest that designers and companies have for the magazine. In other ways, it’s still a growing process. What’s interesting is that for many years, they’ve sort of followed the international influence, and they are now really developing their own point of view and perspective.
CM: What goes into the decision making process for you when choosing your teams for the magazine?
NS: The well of the magazine is the portion I work on, is for them, a sort of international window. With this, I have to also respect the Chinese audience, and yet I’m both allowed as well as expected to bring to them an international point of view and sensibility. My choice of photographers is always within the frame of respect for this audience, but I still of course continue to challenge myself and the magazine and continue to open more doors. Which has thus far been successful.
CM: What other changes can we expect to see from the magazine?
NS: In my opinion, a successful magazine is a magazine that continuously evolves to reflect, stimulate, please, and respond to the taste and sensibilities of the readers. All that said, a strong magazine should maintain its core identity at the same time. In regards to specific upcoming changes, I’d rather not comment.
CM: What has changed in your process of finding inspiration now, with the overload of information?
NS: I haven’t changed much. I still find a lot of inspiration in film, in exhibitions, in books. For me, travel is a big source of inspiration because I can see what’s happening in the world. I still don’t work with references. This job, without curiosity, dies.
CM: Do you believe there are still new creative ideas to discover in fashion photography and style?
NS: Of course! If you stop believing, you have to stop working in this business. Somehow, I feel frustrated by the changes. I comply but I also fight against them.
Vogue China chic sauvage ph: Max Vadukul