As a member of that very select group of photographers responsible for visualizing contemporary fashion through high end editorials and advertising Willy Vanderperre has cultivated an air of mystery due to the privacy of his practice. His is not the image of the jet-set high-glam fashion scenester staggering from Fashion Week to Fashion Week, but rather that of a meticulous and cerebral visual artist carefully exploring his ideas on the behalf of the brands and magazines that keep him in heavy rotation. As such Mr. Vanderperre has shot for a wide array of clients that run from V to Arena Homme Plus, Fantastic Man, ID and Love to Jil Sander, Proenza Schouler, Prada, Raf Simons, Givenchy and Dior Homme. For each client he remains respectful of the central ethos of the given brand thus giving his imagery great range and innovation even as he keeps the graphic discipline that is a signature of his photographs. In this exclusive interview with MDX Willy Vanderperre outlines the roots of his vision, his thoughts on fashion films and the emotional drive that is the key impulse behind his image-making.
All photos courtesy of Willy Vanderperre / Management + Artists + Organization for models.com
I grew up in the southwest of Belgium, and at an early age I knew I wanted to do something creative, it was my dream. I was obsessed and was following art school every weekend. Then around my thirteenth year I went full time to art school, nearby where I lived, in the same province, the West Flandres. When I turned eighteen, it was the period in which fashion was really important in Belgium. We had the boom of the Belgian designers ‘The Antwerp 6’ and you would see them written up in magazines everywhere. What that early influence of fashion did in my life was that it gave me the extra push to study fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, where everybody from that group of designers came from. When I arrived in Antwerp, Margiela had just started, but was doing one amazing show after the other in Paris. It was the early 90’s, the period when fashion and photography and art photography… they started to flirt with each other, like a cross-over, where it was acceptable for an art photographer to do fashion photography and vice-versa. It was around that time that I went through a transition, and where I found that for me the medium of photography was more interesting. I was more excited to go about finding images, cutting out images, taking pictures, creating the world around it, than the actual design of fashion itself. Because I always thought that at the end, to translate and capture the emotion I wanted, it was more efficient to do it in images. I think that is the main reason why I went through the transition from studying fashion to photography.
It sounds like those days at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts were quite a defining influence on your aesthetic.
Oh yes for sure, because you know, you come to the ‘big city’…Antwerp… and only entering this ancient school building (the architecture of the school itself dates from the 1600’s) …, where you had corridors filled with Roman and Greek Renaissance statues and you have that feeling of a lot of history, the weight, you could actually feel, in this school. That was quite impressive. In the backyard of the school was this little building, on the verge of collapsing. You would have to very carefully go over the stairs, because if you took one mis-step, you could literally push your feet through them. It was almost dangerous. So I think that the whole thing melted well together. It was the switch from the 80s to 90s, the reaction on excess with minimalism and deconstruction, the first appearance of grunge. So that feeling of romanticism, together with the history, the building and the run down corridors with the statues, it really did make a big impact on how you formed your visual language. I really think there was something quite dark and magical about it, matching perfectly the zeitgeist of the period.
I don’t know … I think maybe it is a Belgian cultural thing because Belgium is a very small country. We were never conquerors. We were always conquered. So I think that has a lot to do with the individualism of people. There’s an introversion of feelings rather than making a show of them.
What would you say is the basis of your long running collaboration with Olivier Rizzo?
I met Olivier on the first day at school in Antwerp. So it really is a long-time collaboration. We’ve been friends ever since. We started in the same year at The Academy. Olivier and I… right after graduation we just started to team up together. It would be Saturdays, Sundays… mostly on weekends that we would get together for a shoot. He was styling. I was taking pictures. Peter Phillips, who was at the Academy with us, was make-up. We shot outside on location, we shot in our living room, always natural daylight, very raw, it was all about the emotion we tried to capture in the expressions of the models. The living room where we worked from, had the perfect light-orientation and Belgium has the most beautiful diffused light. We just did things that we wanted to express to the world. It was raw and emotional. I guess it was that rawness, that search for real emotions, that people picked up on. Many years later, what is great about teaming up with Olivier… is that when we work together, we’ve known each other for such a long time, and we’ve worked together for such a long time, we understand each other. We trust each other, but we also push each other every time again and again. We don’t want to fall into repetition. I think we always strive for something that pushes our work forward. Or that gives people a different look on how we work together. I think we always try to do something unexpected in terms of imagery or in terms of styling. I think that’s the nice thing about it. That comes with friendship and trust and I hope we can continue working together forever because he is a very talented person.
Robbie Snelders by Willy Vanderperre, styling Olivier Rizzo, makeup Peter Philips, from V Magazine issue 0 (1999)
Did you ever think that the work you were doing on the weekend would ever have a commercial application?
At that point, none whatsoever. We all were very naive back then. We just shot! I was obsessed with this one girl, Chloe Winkel, and one boy, Robbie Snelders. So him and her… we always worked around the same boy and girl in a shoot because they were a source of inspiration. Those images were also the start of the link with Raf Simons. Raf was a close friend of ours and he was just starting his collection. He was translating perfectly what happened around that time with his clothes, that we used a lot of them on Robbie and Chloe mixed in with their own clothes and lots of vintage. One of those early images went into an exhibition and Terry Jones from i-D magazine picked up on it. And that’s when the first picture got published. Ever since then we did shoots and we worked together and then I just always took the liberty of sending it to i-D magazine saying “This is what we’ve done. Do you like it? Perhaps you’d like to publish it” and I’d always be fortunate enough that they liked it (laughs) and it just continued. Also Alix Browne, who used to work for V magazine at the time, was there at the start. Alix was in Antwerp and we bumped into each other. We started to talk. She did not know who I was, I didn’t know who she was. She was in Antwerp to see about some advertising for V Magazine, the start of it, the launch of it. V Zero saw the publication of some images we had produced, my first publication in the US. It was Robbie, still the same boy, with a Mickey Mouse painted on his face. We started to collaborate with them in the same way. They commissioned, we proposed. There was never a thought that if it continued in that direction it was going to become a commercial success or anything. We just did things and sent them out. We just had fun. Later, at one point you start to think about the commercial application of your work.
Do you find it ironic that 90s Antwerp now ranks as its own reference point for so many contemporary designers and stylists?
Ironic? Hmmm… Maybe because everything was far more spontaneous than it looks now or how people think of it now.
I think what it was and still is… is that you have to stay true to who you are, and I feel you have to express, honestly… what you are. Of course you absorb a lot of things and that’s quite natural. For me, the raw image that was confrontational, that had this grittiness to it, an emotion, that’s who I am.
The portraits you create for Givenchy have been an interesting strategy in how couture is presented and documented. Could you tell us a little bit about how the project developed?
Riccardo wanted a way to look at couture that was not the runway. It was almost like going back to the origin of couture, where it was a private thing. He also wanted to have something that had a consistency and carried a repetition. He teamed up with art directors M/M Paris, and we came up with the idea of doing the pictures from the front and from the back. Each season we change the surroundings, but the composition stays the same, so it is a reproduction of that same composition, always filled in with different clothes, different girls. It gives you a beautiful timeline of the collections and a simplicity because of that consistency.
Speaking of timeline, are you trying to push the medium of fashion photography to have a larger and more lasting significance? Or are you happy simply crafting a beautiful picture for that moment?
Sometimes you think of the beautiful picture. But you also try to express through imagery and through photography, the zeitgeist, what is happening in the world at that moment in time. It’s not about just the clothes, it’s about the emotion. Sometimes the beautiful picture is enough but then in the back of my head, I’m thinking, “Will this help fashion? Will it have an impact? Will it do something? Will it be more than the beautiful picture?”
Is there an influence of contemporary art in your style and if so, whose work do you find yourself being responsive to?
Growing up, I was really into the Flemish painters, the light of those paintings, the shapes of the bodies, the emotion and the drama. I absorbed a lot of that. It is still part of my signature, but I always stay receptive to what I’m drawn to. For the moment I’m very much into painting, sculpture and dance. Always Francis Bacon, always Lucien Freud, the raw energy, the movement. Jenny Saville, the texture and abstraction. There are Flemish/Belgian contemporaries that I find very inspiring: Berlinde De Bruyckere, she scuplts, morphs human/animal bodies into shapes and what she does- it’s quite spectacular. In that similar way the idea of morphing, raw emotions and movement, but through a different medium, there is Anne Therese Keersmaeker for dance, what she can evoke is amazing. Michael Borremans, does these amazing paintings and also Cris Brodahl… hers are almost like a Man Ray picture, surreal, striking, a bit uncomfortable. Religion is a red thread throughout all of it, I feel. I was brought up with the idea of Catholic guilt, which is so Flemish. It’s our heritage, catholicism is everywhere. Like for example, when I was seven years old, when instead of being taken on a trip to the park you went to see dungeons and tombs. It was quite scary. If you look back at it now, you go… WHY???(laughs). But it really formed me into what I am. These Belgian artists I mentioned still carry that as well, that real feeling of small town Catholic guilt. It is very much Belgian.
No. I don’t think so. I think what could be said is that sometimes the magic is lost. Everything is being blogged. Everything is behind-the-scenes, and out-takes of behind-the-scenes, it feels like sometimes the mystery and the thing that makes you dream when you look at a picture is fading. There is crap, but there is also a lot of information that is important and valuable as well. The net stays a fantastic medium. I think it’s the same with images on it. There’s a lot of them that just don’t do it, but to make the viewer do a natural selection is interesting, as it gives an idea of what is around, what people are feeling and what is relevant to them.
You spoke earlier about finding your early style in the raw, the gritty, the confrontational. As the fashion world has become increasingly digitalized, has it changed the nature or the approach of your image-making?
I think you should always stay true to your style but at the same time never be afraid of experimentation. Otherwise you just get stuck. Staying true to your style doesn’t mean it becomes a mannerism. True to your style is your emotion that you put into your picture. I think your style can be transferred or transformed into something that is completely digitally enhanced. I think, again, it is a process and one that is very beautiful. Things should evolve. The change from film to digital was a learning experience for me, as the treatment of light is sometimes completely different. I talk to my niece, who is 9 years old, about negatives and polaroids. She doesn’t know the existence of these things (laughs). I think you have to embrace the world of today. If you just stayed focused on that one thing that you did a long time ago, or are still doing, it will not push you forward in a creative way. One has to evolve, embrace technology in our case, for it to evolve too. I think it’s quite… you could do everything on a computer to the point where you don’t recognize the original image anymore. It could become a totally different thing. But it’s not a situation where I’d say “Oh no I’d never do that to my picture” If it works for your image, why not? And if it doesn’t work, at least you explored it.
Oh yeah. The Dior Homme ‘The Wanderer’ project that just came out, where the narrative becomes more important. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, it becomes a small film. I think it’s very interesting. It’s like going to school again. You learn new things every time. So yes, eventually I’m greatly looking forward to doing a feature film in the future.
The Wanderer – a Dior Homme film by Willy Vanderperre
Do you see fashion films as extended editorials, short films or a new medium unto themselves?
I want to treat them as a new medium. I don’t think you should treat fashion films only as an extension of the published editorial, or it has to be the purpose, that the editorial is taken from the film. Sometimes you just have to treat it differently. Again, it’s the challenges of a new, very interesting medium. With the Red camera high quality digital filming became accesible. The first clips I produced for Raf Simons and Another Magazine or LOVE, were all done with iMovie. I filmed, I graded, I edited, put the music on it. It was quite interesting having to learn and understand a new medium within itself, to find what I liked. I was working around a kind of fast forward, time lapse, hysterical editing style. I think the minute you feel excited about what you’re doing, you can start to explore it more. You should treat it as a world of its own. Even if it’s only a minute long, you should try to give a feeling, an emotion for something that is not solely about the belt or the tie or the shirt or the high heel of the shoe. I think you should once again, try to seduce the viewer with an emotion. It’s too beautiful a medium not to do something emotional with it. I think something without an emotion doesn’t have a meaning.
Thank you so much for that sentiment. I think it is inspiring to know that emotion is what drives your imagery. What do you hope to leave behind as your lasting legacy?
It’s a rather big question I know.
I would like to leave behind a series of images that said something about the period I lived in. That’s truly it.
Which makes for the perfect closure to our conversation. Thank you very much, Mr Vanderperre, for taking time out to talk to MDX.
It was really my pleasure Wayne. Thank you so much.