Happenstance led Raphael Hirsch to a career in fashion, first discovering his natural talent for styling after moving to London from Nigeria for university. After cutting his teeth with Caroline Newell, the creative set about finding his own lane, soon collaborating on editorials with photographers including Luis Alberto Rodriguez, Théo de Gueltzl, and Campbell Addy. Somewhat a fashion explorer, Hirsch’s vibrant work is often backdropped by far-flung locales: from nature reserves in South Africa to mountainous landscapes in Morocco. The stylist has also celebrated his birthplace, returning to Nigeria with Harley Weir to highlight his heritage and explore previously undiscovered sights. Yet, clothes remain at the forefront of Hirsch’s work, occasionally the sole focus in projects without models. In celebrating garments as works of art in their own right, the stylist continues to hone his unique perspective, most recently for the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of More or Less, in which he transformed deadstock fabrics and recyclable materials into voluminous garments and eccentric headpieces. Models.com contributor Dominic Cadogan spoke with Hirsch about his entry into styling, shooting on location, and the secret to success when collaborating on creating impactful fashion imagery.
Where does your interest in fashion come from?
Growing up in Nigeria, the idea of working in fashion wasn’t really an option. I knew I wanted to work in something creative, but I didn’t even know that styling was a career choice. I think a lot of parents guide their children into careers like becoming a doctor or engineer to ensure that you have stability in their future. Fashion wasn’t something I’d thought about much until I moved to England. I was studying finance at university and worked in a bank for a bit, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
What was your entry into styling?
I ended up working in merchandising as an assistant at Topshop. I was working closely with the buyer’s assistants there and started to look at magazines in a very different way. I noticed the credits in the magazine and all of the people who actually work on creating the images that go into the magazine, which wasn’t something I’d thought about in detail before. I noticed Caroline Newell’s name coming up a lot, so I found her website and emailed to say that I didn’t have any experience, but I wanted to help out if there were any opportunities. I assisted her for five years and she taught me all the basics you need to learn as an assistant and how to go about things. It was a good learning curve and she was a great boss. That was my avenue into fashion.
What specific skills do you possess that are most useful for your work?
Patience. There are lots of moving parts; you have to work with a lot of different people with different ideas, so you have to have a lot of patience. Being able to provide space so that everyone involved is comfortable enough to express themselves is also a pretty good trait to have. It means that you get a better version out of everyone. You also need to have good administrative skills. A lot of people don’t realize how much admin there is involved in the process of styling – from calling in looks to optioning models – so you have to be organized and make it work.
Can you tell me about your styling process from the initial idea to set? How does it change depending on the project?
It depends on what the story is but usually it starts with an idea and lots of research. Research is an important part of what we do as stylists, you have to look a lot at films, photography, and exhibitions which inspire you. One thing I learned early on is to have a bank of ideas that you can always pull from because work gets so busy and it can take a minute to actually sit down and research. Sometimes you can be there for days if you go down a wormhole and sometimes it takes a bit longer to be able to crack an idea. Once you have an idea nailed down, you try and find a photographer whose work or aesthetic aligns with the story you’re trying to tell. There’s a unison in what it is that you want to do and what they want to do – that’s how the process starts. Then you go into the admin part of it, pulling looks, dealing with advertisers, all that extra stuff.
Looking at your work, many of the settings or exotic locations seem tied to the styling. Is that coincidental or do you naturally find yourself drawn towards thinking of clothing in real environments?
When you visualize your ideas as a story, sometimes you visualize them in a certain location, which can help build the narrative you want to tell. When you’re on location, somehow you find something you weren’t expecting and that’s the beauty of it. There’s only so much you can pre-plan so there’s an element of spontaneity that you get being on location, which you don’t get from a studio.
What has been your favorite moment shooting on location?
There’s a place I went to when I shot in Lagos with Harley Weir called Erin-Ijesha Waterfalls in Osun State. It’s a long drive from Lagos to get there and then you have to hike up this massive hill, but when you get there it’s incredibly beautiful. One of my favorite images that I’ve ever worked on is from that trip at that waterfall. I grew up in Nigeria, but there are still parts of Lagos and parts of Nigeria that I hadn’t seen and that trip allowed me to explore places I had never been to.
You’ve also explored projects sans models, focusing on clothes as works of art themselves. How do you see this?
Clothes in themselves are essentially an art form. All the processes that go into making an item of clothing – from research into fabrics, pattern cutting, piecing everything together. There was a project that I did with an artist called Frida Orupabo. She uses a lot of found imagery and goes into archives to cut out pieces of clothing and remakes them into art pieces. For the project we did for AnOther magazine, we photographed the clothes on a fit model and then Frida cut the clothes out to recreate scenes. I’ve been obsessed with her work since I was introduced to it and it took a while to find a way that we could merge what I do and what she does to work in a fashion context.
What do you think the role of a fashion editorial is today? What do you want to say with the editorials you create?
The stuff I enjoy making feels like it has more legs than standard fashion imagery. When I get to collaborate with artists like Frida or I did a project with Olgaç Bozalp which was a whole book on migration and the social conversations around migration, immigration, and refugees and what that meant to both of us. Working on projects like that allows you to have a conversation that goes beyond clothes, even if you are using clothes as the vehicle for the conversation. They give you an avenue to be able to say what it is that you want to say.
What have been some of your career highlights so far?
Working on Home: Leaving One for Another with Olgaç is a career highlight because we’re both immigrants and the rhetoric around immigration and refugees at the time was heightened because Trump was in power and Brexit was happening, so we wanted to have a conversation about what that meant to us. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now if I didn’t have the opportunity to come to the UK and he wouldn’t be making the kind of images that he does as well. Working with Frida Orupabo is another career highlight and also the book, FATHER that I did with Harley Weir. I’m starting to realize that the running thread is art projects.
You’ve worked with a slew of photographers (including Harley Weir, Viviane Sassen, and Campbell Addy) – what is the secret to successful collaboration when it comes to creating fashion imagery?
The main thing is conversation, it boils down to being comfortable enough to have conversations with the people you’re working with. I find the best experiences that I’ve had with creating images, I have been comfortable enough to say what it is that I feel and express how I feel no matter how weird the idea might sound. Sometimes you might have to meet in the middle if you’re not seeing eye to eye on a certain thing, but if you have a conversation, you can find a middle ground where you’re both happy. At the end of the day, everyone is trying to create incredible work, so if you have that in the back of your mind, it allows you to navigate difficult situations.
The fashion landscape is always changing, but what is some evergreen advice you would give to people who are starting out in styling now?
Build a community around yourself. Nobody tells you the importance of that, but I think it’s super important. The world of fashion changes so quickly, so having a good support network of peers you work with or can bounce ideas off allows you to share your joys and frustrations with people who understand. As a stylist, you don’t really cross paths with other stylists, but having a support network of people who do the same thing as you is good. Also, having people around you outside of fashion can give you perspective because the world is bigger than just fashion. There’s a whole world of people out there and it’s good to get a reality check.