Behind the Image: James Valeri on Finding Provocative References and Candid Moments

Behind the Image is an ongoing MODELS.com series taking a more personal look at both established and emerging creative talent.

portrait by Johan Sandberg, courtesy James Valeri

James Valeri, stylist

Hometown: Born in London, grew up in Rome.
Based: Rome and Paris
Representation: Artlist ((worldwide))

How would you describe your work? What’s your trademark?
I work in various ways, usually inspired by different forms of culture and sociological influences. I’ve always been drawn to duality, femininity vs masculinity… androgyny. You can see provocative sensual references in my work but also very candid and pure ones. I like to focus on a fashion point of view, forging a silhouette or concept that I find relevant, working with teams to create timeless images. I don’t like trends and do my best to work in the opposite direction. I think that the work of a stylist or any image maker reflects their psychology. We absorb what’s around us and express what influences us the most, whether it’s a personal observation or a cultural phenomenon.

How did you get into your chosen career?
Ha! It’s a long story! My childhood definitely affected my choice of career. I used to play with Barbie dolls and make custom clothes for them, cutting out pieces of fabrics or old t-shirts. I was always attracted to beautiful things and according to my mother, I used to love going shopping, pointing out dresses from my stroller. When I was in my teens, the other kids were playing soccer while I was collecting fashion magazines. That was the 90’s… a very vivacious fashion decade that led me to an obsession. So when it was time to go to college I knew that fashion was what I was most attracted to, but not what specific job to pursue. So I applied for the BA Fashion Promotion course (Fashion Journalism and PR) at the London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins and managed to be selected. Part of the course included a period where you had to complete an internship. Long story short, during the internship I managed to get into a Visionaire magazine party in Paris at the Opera’, which was probably the best party I’ve ever been to–Daft Punk was DJing, the Opera’ was awash in disco lights, the crowd packed with ALL the top models and biggest designers that I admired. The whole industry was dancing there. Earlier that day, I had gone to Anouska Vintage in Paris and bought a lilac fringed shawl which I wrapped on my head and wore to the party. When I arrived, Mario Testino, who was photographing some of the guests, started taking shots of me and introduced me to Carine Roitfeld, the stylist I was obsessed with at the time. She went on to offer me an internship while she was freelancing for French Vogue and many other publications. Working with her was an incredible experience and made me understand what I wanted to do in life! After assisting Carine, I moved to NY and had the fortune to assist many other amazing stylists like Andrew Richardson, Joe McKenna and Marie Amelie Sauve. All had very different styles and methods that provided me with a great learning experience and opportunity.

What other jobs have you had?
I interned in a movie production company before going to college.

What have you watched/heard/read lately that has inspired you?
The documentary “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” by Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri. It’s about the life of actor Björn Andresen who starred in Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice”, whom he once described as “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World”. (Out in the US in September)

What do you love about what you do?
Realizing a vision I have in mind, bringing it to life. The moment when the ideas begin to take form on a fun set puts me in a state of bliss, whether making pictures or styling a look. I love creating powerful images, collaborating with other creative and talented people to give birth to beauty together and having fun while doing it. I’m very fortunate to have a career that makes me happy.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced professionally?
Initially, the biggest challenge was to break through and get a chance to work on higher-profile projects. When I entered the industry it was very difficult to break into the establishment. I’m so happy to see that times are changing. Thanks to social media, the industry has become more meritocratic, allowing young talents to be noticed and given a chance.

What’s one thing outside of your work that you would like people to know about you?
I’m an ice-cream junkie, I love gardening and my husband, who keeps me grounded.

Who do you think is one to watch?
Marie DeTeneuille. Anthony Seklaoui. Thomas Christiani. Thomas Rousset. Zhi Wei. Berenger Pelc.

Selected Work

courtesy James Valeri

Jak by Chris Rhodes for M Le Monde
This story is about youth and its interaction with fashion. It was a multicasting story and we focused on the characters (Ramona Eschbach hair, Karin Westerlund makeup, Julia Lange casting). Each model had their own particular style and it was fun to dress them mixing high fashion, vintage, and streetwear while figuring out what felt true to their personality and then giving it a twist. We shot in Paris during the lockdown. It was such a joyful moment of new freedom with many people on set (with all the maximum precautions) after being confined for so long. Working with the M Le Monde team is always great, I’m so grateful to the fashion director Suzanne Koller and creative director Jean-Baptiste Talbourdet, who always give me freedom and trust.

courtesy James Valeri

Daria by Richard Prince
This shoot was for Document Journal (the magazine I co-founded and co-owned) and is one that I’m very proud of. It was tremendously exciting to be working with one of my favorite artists and one of my favorite models! It all happened so fast and last minute, Richard wanted to be alone with Daria without anyone on set with no hair and makeup, I left the looks at Richard’s studio and they worked together creating all the beautiful images very organically and in an intimate way.

courtesy James Valeri

Dave Oldenburg and Camiel Van Wersch by Mario Testino for Man About Town
I was thrilled to do this shoot! After meeting Mario 17 years earlier and working with him many times as an assistant, this time Mario asked me to style a big men’s portfolio for the issue that was entirely dedicated to him. It was an honor and, as usual with Mario, so much fun. I must say I was a bit intimidated but he pushed me to go for it.
Makeup by Lynsey Alexander, hair by Luke Hersheson.

courtesy James Valeri

Rianne by Harley Weir for Document Journal
I remember discovering and falling in love with Harley’s amazing work on Instagram (at the time she just started and wasn’t known in the US) and asked her if she would like to shoot Rianne on a road trip in Tuscany. We had so much fun running around Tuscany in a car that I was driving. Rianne also was amazing, you could already tell she was going to become one of the biggest models out there. So professional, sweet, humble, smart, and fun! We got this particular shot in literally 3 minutes as the sun was disappearing. It turned out to be the best of the entire story and one of the most iconic pictures I’ve worked on. Tina Outen did the hair, Nami Yoshida make-up, DM Casting.

courtesy James Valeri

Freja by Collier Schorr
This was one of the many collaborations I did with the super talented Collier Schorr. I remember being so excited to shoot Freja for the first time after years of working with her while assisting other stylists. I wanted to create different characters with her, I remember pulling so many clothes and doing a ton of eclectic looks the day before with a fitting model. In the end, on set with Collier, Holli Smith, and Ozzy Salvatierra, we decided to create different characters but in a very essential and earnest way, reducing the fashion and focusing more on the emotions the pictures would evoke. The moment Holli put this blonde wig on Freja (she had never been seen blonde before) we realized it didn’t need any fashion and it turned out to be very iconic. DM Casting.

courtesy James Valeri

Jean by Brett Lloyd for Jacquemus
I was working with Jacquemus at the beginning of his amazing career. It was so stimulating to work with Simon, he is and was so creative, enthusiastic, and determined. This season we decided to shoot the lookbook with an amazing talent, Joana Preiss, in the lavender fields of the south of France (near Simon’s hometown). We then moved to shoot at Simon’s grandmother’s house. And I met Simon’s young cousin, Jean, and suggested we shoot him in a women’s suit holding the bag as if it was a campaign. Brett shot this iconic picture with Jean propped against this random car. I love the juxtaposition of adult fashion worn by a child in a raw environment. Kathy Le Sant did the hair and makeup.

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