Behind the Image: Gro Curtis on Rebelling Against the System and Subliminal Messaging

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

Gro Curtis illustrated by Lucie Birant, courtesy Gro Curtis

Gro Curtis, stylist

Hometown: Split, Croatia
Based: New York and London

How would you describe your work? What’s your trademark?
It’s a very difficult question. I wish there was one word that I could use to categorize my work. I really don’t like to look back, but when I go through some of the images: “subliminal” is a term I could use, even though it sounds so pretentious. There are a lot of things with hidden meaning or perhaps things that I see and others necessarily don’t. Consciously I’m aware that stories I do, often permeate with a touch of darkness, long lost romance, and perhaps even nostalgia. You see I strongly believe that the essence of fashion is photography. For me, the image has to tell something to the viewer. Ideally, it has to tell the story about the character. It can be a lavish set design with multiple people or a simple portrait but there has to be a story behind it. When I think about ideas and casting before even approaching a photographer I always try to bring something to the table that has veiled agenda. I’m trying to say is I’m not interested in what people will say about the image but rather what they will think inwardly and not say aloud. Personally, I don’t understand fashion editorials where the girl is standing in the empty studio holding a bag on top of her head with a serious facial expression. Like what’s the story there? What’s going on except you see the girl holding a bag on her head? I rarely go through magazines these days but sometimes I see twenty-page stories and I have no idea what I actually saw. For me, it’s a waste of paper. We keep talking about the importance of sustainability in fashion but today you have more magazines than ever. I feel it’s a crime to spend so much money shipping the clothes around the world with the immense carbon footprint we leave so you can print a story about essentially nothing. If you have the opportunity to work in fashion these days I think your duty is to use your position to say something. So my trademark is based on trying to do just that: tell a story. I don’t always succeed and not everything I do is good enough but I try my best.

How did you get into your chosen career?
By accident. As a kid and a teenager, I was never interested in fashion. I had no idea what Vogue was or what stylists did. I bought my first copy of Vogue when I was 19 and I still couldn’t understand what fashion really was. During my childhood, my dream was to become a serious journalist or war reporter. Marie Colvin was my hero. Later during high school, my interest changed more towards politics so I studied political science. Even though I was not aware of fashion I was extremely aware of art, especially photography. Works of Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, or Daido Moriyama were my food for thought. Of course, I have to mention Sally Mann and the impact she still has over me. Her work can literally make me cry and that doesn’t happen easily. Later I discovered Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman and around the age of 19, I became familiar with names such as Steven Meisel, Steven Klein, and Tim Walker. I always dreamed of creating amazing images but I knew I had no potential whatsoever to be a good photographer. When I was around 20 years old I worked part-time in event & PR management cause it was a fun, new, adrenaline-filled adventure. My first international internship was for PURPLE PR in London in 2009, after which I switched to Karla Otto. As a PR intern, I saw so many great magazines, especially Vogue Italia issues edited by the late Franca Sozzani, and books about designers and photographers. I got infected by a fashion bug back then. I also fell in love with designs by Rei Kawakubo, Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela, Junya Watanabe. Through a friend of a friend, I got the direct e-mail address of Anastasia Barbieri from Vogue Hommes and Vogue Paris so I e-mailed her and asked for an internship. Point blank. I thought after months in London, Paris would be a great idea. Anastasia was kind enough to answer me and she helped me schedule an interview with her team. I moved to Paris and I started interning. I think at the time I was the only intern who didn’t speak French and I remember PRs in Paris being in absolute shock. Anastasia helped me a lot and we became friends. She is someone very dear to my heart and I always smile when I see her. Coming strictly from a PR agency background I had no idea how magazines actually work so I was literally learning every single day even though I pretended I knew everything. Basically, I found that there was a profession that allowed me to be on set and to work with photographers in creating images. My family, who invested so much in my education, of course, was not so amused with my “new job”. I have a bit of an obsessive personality so if I’m intrigued by something I will literally devour all the books and documentaries about the subject of my interest. So at one point instead of political economy, I was researching everything there was about Madame Grès or Madeleine Vionnet and bias cut. I went from one extreme to another.

What other jobs have you had?
As a kid in elementary school, I was editing school newspapers and I found that to be my first job even though it was not paid. Paid jobs I had later were in PR, journalism, and contemporary art as assistant curator. They were all pretty exciting and I’ve learned so much about public relations, crisis communications, image-making, etc. It all came in pretty handy when I entered the world of fashion.

What have you watched/heard/read lately that has inspired you?
Art and literature are my fuel. I love movies so I will spend my free time watching works by my other hero Andrei Tarkovsky. I think I’ve watched “Nostalghia” and “Mirror” around twenty times. I love collecting old issues of LIFE magazine and Rolling Stone, books by my favorite artists and photographers. Lately, I’ve been going back to the early work of Joan Didion. I’m amazed by the power of her words. Movies are very important to me. So much of my work is inspired by moments from specific movies or movie characters.

What do you love about what you do?
I still have issues with what I do because the term “stylist” has become so silly, abstract, and obscene in this era of social media where everyone “has to be something”. Even before the explosion of Instagram I was struggling with my vocation. It’s a daily struggle almost at this point. Fashion today is not about democracy. It’s about pure populism. But I must confess I was very lucky in experiencing the most amazing moments. I’ve seen Prince singing at Versace after-party, Stevie Nicks at Gucci party, Diana Ross in Marrakech for Dior. I’ve learned how to prepare “asado” in Argentina, how to properly drink vodka in Moscow, or cook soba noodles in Tokyo. Thanks to fashion I’ve been around the world, met some truly stunning people from Frank Gehry to Ryuichi Sakamoto. Fashion indeed takes a lot from you but it also gives a lot. It’s a very bizarre and almost passive-aggressive relationship I have with this industry. Also, I’ve met and worked with photographers and creatives I truly admire from Sølve Sundsbø to Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Richard Burbridge, Emma Summerton all the way to Val Garland, Stephane Marais, Odile Gilbert, Eugene Souleiman. I feel blessed by having an opportunity to listen to advice from people who truly lived through the golden era of fashion. The stories these artists have are priceless.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced professionally?
There are so many but breaking out on my own was the most difficult part. I never did full-time assisting. When I moved to New York after Paris, I freelanced for Karl Templer and Melanie Ward—two of the most amazing mentors you could have—but I never stayed on and did what was expected from me, which is four or five years of full time assisting. I was pretty naive and I had no idea how political the fashion system is and how harsh it can be. People of my generation who went by the book had many doors open for them because the system tells us they’ve earned it. Back then you had to full-time assist and based on that your boss would give you smaller jobs with the big clients and would introduce you to first assistants of top photographers. Then you would have gangs of former first assistants of top editors and photographers united in getting all the right agencies to represent them and clients to hire them. I never felt I truly belong to that certain prestigious group. I broke the rules and I wanted to start on my own without the blessing of an ex-boss. I remember so many styling agents telling me I’m doing things wrong and that I should follow the rules. Absurd rule-following was never my cup of tea. When you assist someone for years you will undoubtedly get influenced or even brainwashed by their aesthetic. Later you find yourself mimicking language that is not yours. I refused to do that. Why do I have to learn someone else’s language when the key to storytelling is to develop my own?

As a fashion director of V and VMAN, I meet a lot of young photographers who used to assist top names in the industry. I give all of them the same advice. I tell them when they leave they should burn or lock away all the magazines and campaigns on which they assisted, they should read Susan Sontag’s “On Photography”, take a six months break, really think if they want to work in fashion and what can they bring that’s new. Even though fashion today is trying to portray itself as a welcoming community of creatives, that is still not true. Many mainstream magazines are still ruled by fear. I remember my first meeting with Vogue U.S. five years ago or so…I was full of enthusiasm and ideas that I wanted to pitch but the guy across the table looked at me like I was a skinhead breaking into a church. I remember I was trying to explain that when you spend so much time in an ivory tower it’s only natural to get completely disconnected from reality. When I look back it’s no wonder I was never invited again. Fashion can be dismissive like that so you have to develop very thick skin otherwise you will get hurt.

What’s one thing outside of your work that you would like people to know about you?
Honestly, I wouldn’t like people to know anything else outside of my work. For someone who sounds so extroverted, I’m a boringly private person.

Who do you think is one to watch?
From young photographers: William Waterworth. When it comes to models I like Quinn Mora, Maty Fall, Babacar N’doye, and Caren Jepkemei.

Selected Work

image courtesy Gro Curtis

Primrose Archer by Sølve Sundsbø for V Magazine
I feel this is one of the most quintessential images I have ever worked on creating. It was an haute couture story and Primrose is wearing a Givenchy gown but that’s not the point. Some people see this as a clash between fantasy and reality but I initially saw it as a very nostalgic and romantic image that brings the past into the present. In my mind, she could have been the long-lost love of this lovely old gentleman who is gazing through the glass. My attention goes immediately not to the dress but to his eyes cause they have so many stories to tell. There is a sense of longing, a sense of lost possibilities that you can only understand when you enter certain age. I love working with Sølve because he is an artist in the true sense of that meaning. He can capture raw emotion on location with daylight or a perfectly technical masterpiece in the studio. It’s always a privilege to work with him.

image courtesy Gro Curtis

Jean Augnet by Sølve Sundsbø for VMAN
Jean is a professional dancer and not a model. What’s important about this image is the context in which it was created. This happened in the middle of hard-core lockdown in Europe when we were still trying to figure out the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences. There was so much fear and insecurity. I felt clothes are here to protect us so I chose this ridiculously oversized bomber jacket from Moschino to serve as armor. Jean’s face was hidden by a face mask designed by Muriel Nisse. There is something dark and shamanic about this mask and the movement of the hair. It’s like creating a magic character who will fight this modern plague. This was again perfectly captured by Sølve.

image courtesy Gro Curtis

Klara Kristin by Emma Summerton for HEROINE
Emma is my close friend, artist, and longstanding collaborator. It was not easy to choose one image that represents the marrow of our creative relationship. We shot this story over two days in a seaside motel in New Jersey. Klara is an amazing model and after we shot this look front-on I was obsessed with getting it from behind. This image has an almost Jan Saudek quality to it. It’s like a painting. I love things that are hidden away so the viewer doesn’t know if she is sleeping or she is dreaming or perhaps crying. You want to know what’s happening. You want to know her state of mind but you can’t figure it out so you are left with an unresolved question. There is so much beauty in not knowing.

image courtesy Gro Curtis

Atticus Wakefield by Gray Sorrenti for VOGUE HOMMES
This was my first shoot with Gray and I believe her first big Vogue moment. We shot it in Brooklyn using her friends as the cast. They were a bunch of young New York kids speeding around on the skateboard and laughing all day long. In this particular portrait of Atticus, Gray managed to capture such an essence of youth and that particular period we all went through when there are no limits and everything is possible. As we get older in this business we are constantly attracted to the idea of youth. It’s like we are chasing it, we are trying to decode it and dissect it simply because we lost it. Also, I’m a big fan of Davide Sorrenti and I can feel the touch of his spirit in this image.

image courtesy Gro Curtis

Nico Traubman by Richard Burbridge for VMAN
Richard is an incredible portrait photographer. He is like a human X-ray machine. For me, this is an immensely melancholic image. It almost captures an off moment when Nico was not aware he was being photographed. Models tend to give you so much at the beginning of the session but at one point they show a human face that is far from the exciting, glamourous attitude they have to put on to seduce all of us on set. There is something about this image that tells me “the party is over” and you are left alone with your thoughts. As Michael Cunningham wrote, “you still have to face the hours and the hours after that”. Mind you this was imagined as a full-on fashion shoot but this shot speaks volumes to me.