Imperfect Beauty, The Making of Contemporary Fashion Photographs
by Charlotte Cotton
Fashion itself, over the last decade, has become so generic and mainstream, and the stylist is more at the forefront helping the brand realise a different perception. I've never known a time that has such a distinct look as now.
Simon Foxton interviewed by Charlotte Cotton
Simon Foxton: I see editorial photography as being about crafting these separate little worlds. Working on the initial concept means getting a feeling for the world that exists in the photographs, the different emotions and perhaps new rules for dressing. It's like creating a little scenario. I'm not sure that's the right word but it's like writing a book and describing an environment, that sort of thing. Creating a separate space, a separate reality, is the side of it that I find most interesting.
Charlotte Cotton: How do you compile your ideas?
Simon Foxton: I'm an avid collector of images and I have scrapbooks. A lot of it is to do with collecting existing images from all over the place. I suppose if you're asking where the inspiration comes from, it's from all sorts of things. I watch as much television as anyone, go to the cinema and galleries, and I love watching people in the street. It's a silly cliche but it's that magpie thing where you're constantly picking up bits and pieces. It's the blending of elements from different pieces that I find quite exciting. I've never called myself a fashion stylist because I don't really know if I understand fashion as a concept. I like style and I like clothing and the drama of it, but fashion as a concept is slightly alien to me. I can never quite grasp the idea that something is right this season and wrong the next. That built-in obsolescence slightly jars with my way of thinking.
Charlotte Cotton: Out of your list of influences you didn't mention the catwalk.
Simon Foxton: No I've been to quite a few shows in the past. I stopped going because it's just a bit too full-on for me. I found that I was being seduced by the designer's presentation of the clothes. You get caught up in the music, lights, staging and the models. I find it far more useful to look at the clothing once it's back at the PR offices, away from all of that hoopla, so I can take a detached view and actually see the clothes as they are.
Charlotte Cotton: Is there a difference between styling men's and women's fashion?
Simon Foxton: To be honest I so rarely do, or have done, womenswear. I'm sure it must be a different mental process but it would be difficult for me to say. There are different boundaries from year to year. Perhaps I got away with things in the eighties that I probably couldn't get away with now. I think it is far more conservative now for men.
Charlotte Cotton: So what did the launch of Arena magazine mean for you?
Simon Foxton: At last there was a magazine within which you could express yourself and your styling talents, but at the same time felt more glossy and heavyweight. It was suddenly like, 'Oh, it's a serious magazine,' because i-D was not taken that seriously at the time. It was still an underground magazine so it was just nice to have another vehicle. I've never really been a The Face person. I think people fell into two categories work-wise- it was either i-D or The Face - so with Arena it was nice to be able to do stories that would have perhaps been too staid or grown-up for i-D. As a menswear stylist, and the sort of stylist I am, I find there are so few vehicles that allow you to do the things you do. That's why I stick with i-D, Arena and the new magazines such as Self Service or Dutch. Eventually Levi's took me on as a consultant, which was a whole new world for me. I was quite taken aback because it was like getting paid for my opinion. With Levi's, there were very clear guidelines. It wasn't about fashion; it had to be about the 'authentic' and 'original' brand, so you work on ideas that fulfilled this brief but were current at the same time. I worked with them for quite a few years on the clothing side and PR - shows, shop windows and point of sale material.
Charlotte Cotton: Did you also commission photographers?
Simon Foxton: Yes, Every season they produced a catalogue, which was for the buyers and sometimes for the general public. I realise now that we had decent budgets to produce this catalogue every season and quite a free reign on how to do it. Over the years, we worked with a lot of photographers - David Sims, Nigel Shafran, Craig McDean, Sean Ellis, Donald Christie - many of them just starting out. We went away with these people and basically gave them a free hand. We set up the environment for them and said, 'We're going to Cape Cod', or wherever, 'and we need to use these clothes.' We often went without any models and hoped to find people out there in the street. You tend to get a certain repertoire of expressions and emotions from a model because they've been in front of the camera so many times. Working with Levi's, I wanted to get a sort of perceived reality. For me, you can't get that with models because they're all slightly better than life. I like people with a few more flaws to them. I think that's more rewarding, photographically.
Charlotte Cotton: In retrospect, how do you feel about the perceived notion of a rising group of British fashion photographers?
Simon Foxton: I think they're all talented people. They're all very dedicated and serious about the work they did. I never see them as a group. Maybe they're lumped together because they're of a similar generation, but they are all just doing they're own thing.
Charlotte Cotton: Do you think the role of stylists, and in particular I mean freelance stylists, has broadened out in the nineties or has just become more visible?
Simon Foxton: It has broadened out. I think stylists are now taken more seriously and are being used a lot of the time as designers. Fashion itself, over the last decade, has become so generic and mainstream, and the stylist is more at the forefront helping the brand realise a different perception. I've never known a time that has such a distinct look as now. Fashion has become a real force, whereas to me it was always more diverse and experimental.
Charlotte Cotton: It's almost as if fashion per se isn't quite the desirable thing. It's more about the representation of fashion.
Simon Foxton: Yes, very much so. This is why there has been such a rise in the number of style magazines and the concept of brands. It's through people perceiving stylists as something more than wardrobe masters that has afforded me diverse types of work. In advertising, I work closely with all sorts of different departments within one company and help to unify the company as a brand. It's been a steep learning curve.
Charlotte Cotton: Does it feel the same working on editorial photography?
Simon Foxton: Over the last few years I've been so busy with consultancy jobs that I don't do as much editorial as I used to. It's very nice every so often to be able to do an editorial job. The same process is involved in the way I think about it, but I can suddenly let out all this creative energy. I still enjoy doing it very much.
Originally published in Imperfect Beauty: The Making of Contemporary Fashion Photographs, V&A Publications, 2000