Peep Show: Tumblr inspired fashion individuality

by Susannah Frankel .

This project reinforces so many things that I think fashion should be about. It reinforces the preciousness and beauty of clothes. We get so cut off and systematic about fashion and maybe miss the fact that it's capable of making somebody fall in love.

When a self-proclaimed 'very shy' fashion graduate named Rei Nadal received a message from the photographer Nick Knight via her Tumblr site – it’s called Death And Milk, and tagged 'I’m Rei, I don’t exist' - she believed it to be nothing more than an elaborate ruse. Their initial conversation reads like this.

Nick Knight: ''To ‘I’m Rei. I don’t exist'. I have been looking at your Tumblr and really like it. Do you fancy guest curating the SHOWstudio Tumblr for one week. Sorry if this is weird and out of the blue but I don’t know any more formal way of contacting you. Nick Knight.'

I’m Rei. I don’t exist duly replies: 'Can you imagine this being actually real?'

'It was this Tumblr full of slightly strange images,' Knight says now of his motivation behind contacting Nadal in the first place. 'It was a lot to do with death, a lot to do with sex and a lot to do with fashion. There were some abstract ones. And this blonde girl appeared every now and then. She was obviously photographing herself and putting herself onto her own Tumblr, and then people were commenting on it. She’s got a very distinctive face, a very unconventional beauty. And people wrote quite savage things to her. ‘What’s wrong with your face?’ That sort of thing. But she was putting herself out there, answering those comments. Her answers felt fast, very open and vulnerable but at the same time tough. So I thought she’d be really good. I’m going to write to her.'

To cut a long-ish story short, after some decidedly sceptical to-ing and fro-ing, culminating in Knight encouraging Nadal to contact the stylist, Simon Foxton, who had guest curated Tumblr for SHOWstudio the month before and to substantiate his verisimilitude, Ms Nadal, who also clearly does exist after all, agreed to participate.

With that, Knight dispatched an assistant who 'struggled down to Barcelona with suitcases full of clothes' to a hotel near Nadal’s home in that city and, each morning at 9am, for seven consecutive days, asked her to deliver a white leather box overflowing with the requisite tissue paper and replete with a designer look and maybe accompanying music, scent, flowers and even food should it add to any atmosphere.

Nadal had the contents of this box to do with as she wished until 6pm the same day when it would be collected. The project was styled remotely by Ellie Grace Cumming and it says something of the weight of authority behind this project and, of course, the reputation of the man behind it that clothes were provided by everyone from Alexander McQueen to Rick Owens and from Lanvin to Jil Sander who made up the black finale dress of Raf Simons by now legendary final collection for that label in blush coloured silk: Cumming was insistent that such soft tones should dominate. 'Everyone we approached sent clothes,' says Knight, and this despite the fact that the ‘model’ in question, to use the term very loosely, was hitherto unseen.

The end results are remarkable, particularly given that the images of Nadal herself, interspersed with various carefully juxtaposed and more formal inspiration pictures –a close-up of hair backstage at McQueen, snakes, hard-to-identify nudes, a Nick Knight rose – were shot on nothing more technologically advanced than the photobooth application on her computer.

'This is her dancing in the Jil Sander dress,' says Knight, speaking from SHOWstudio’s central London headquarters and scrolling through the finished work. 'The tones are gorgeous. Cecil Beaton wouldn’t have done any better. It’s like a painting.'

Praise indeed, given that this is a man responsible for many of the most arresting fashion images of the age, from a young Naomi Campbell dressed in Yohji Yamamoto to Kate Moss on any number of British Vogue covers. Having, over more than three decades, climbed his way to the top of the (establishment) tree, Knight, still potently idealistic after all these years, continues to fight against it. 'What really gets to me is that you talk to art colleges and they’re still teaching dark room,' he says. 'But nobody uses it any more. Nobody. Nobody teaches Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, but that’s what they should be doing.'

Embracing new media – and, in the first instance at least, the moving fashion image in particular – was at least partly Knight’s reason for founding SHOWstudio 12 years ago. And since that time, tirelessly, he has put his money where his mouth is. Entirely self-funded, the site features many of the biggest names in fashion and indeed contemporary culture more broadly, all of whom have allowed unprecedented access to their process – they are awarded complete creative freedom in return - and nurtured bright young talent alongside. The democracy of the internet has also always been a driving force. To this day, the strength of the site lies in Knight’s ability to pull in names including Lara Stone, Victoria Beckham, the Chapman Brothers and more and his unprecedented willingness to showcase the results of any labours in just the same way – and in fact with just the same degree of comparative understatement – as he does fledgling talent. The removal of the – often commercially interested – middle man is equally appealing, as Knight goes on to explain.

'Ten years ago I was working for magazines,' he says. 'I had no idea whether anybody was looking at my work. The only way I knew whether something I was saying had resonance was if I was booked by a client again. But the situation has changed now. With things like Tumblr and Instagram [both of which he uses on a daily basis] you’re immediately in contact with your audience. When I publish a picture on Tumblr, it’s instantly seen by more people than a picture I might have published in Vogue. And they write back to me and tell me what they think of it and I can see them sharing. That gives you a direct relationship with your audience which is different from any other time in history. Because previously going right back to any form of patronage of the arts, to the Medicis, say, the patron would say, ‘okay you paint the painting for that church or wherever but we tell you how to do it, we decide’.'

'I started using Tumblr as both an inspiration source and a way to record all the things that inspire me,' Nadal, for her part, says. 'I often think of my Tumblr as a huge scrapbook. With time, it also because a diary where I would write my thoughts and put up images of myself. Because I am a very shy person it’s not logical to expose myself that way, where anyone can see me and comment. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I wanted to make it more personal, to make my Tumblr more than one image after another, to make it more conceptual, although I’m worried that might sound pretentious.'

While Nadal claims to 'dress like a tomboy' in real life, preferring 'a unisex uniform of skinny jeans, a t-shirt and a variable number of layers of shirts, jumpers or jackets depending on the weather' she rose to the challenge of wearing more complex and extraordinary looks almost in the manner of, as Knight points out, 'a modern Cindy Sherman'. 'In fact I was in very different moods depending on what I was wearing,' Nadal says. 'I tried to let the clothes influence me and I think that can be seen in the photographs. Each set has its own atmosphere and rhythm. I gained self-confidence and honestly felt very powerful.'

'One of the reasons I’m so excited about this project,' says Knight with that in in mind, 'is because it reinforces so many things that I think fashion should be about. It reinforces the preciousness and beauty of these clothes. We get so cut off and systematic about fashion and maybe miss the fact that it's capable of making somebody fall in love. I wanted the power put back into fashion in that way. People are so bad about appreciating it, they’re so ready to jump to criticism, but it’s such an important thing in our lives. There’s never been a society that hasn’t expressed itself in some way through fashion. We go right back to whatever society we care to mention and the way we present ourselves, the physical, visual relationship we form with other people through clothes is incredibly important. Especially in Western society fashion is an elevated art form in that way.'