SHOWstudio Turns 20: An Interview with Nick Knight

by Christina Donoghue on 27 November 2020

To celebrate 20 years of SHOWstudio Christina Donoghue speaks to our founder and legendary image maker, Nick Knight on why he found SHOWstudio in 2000, the importance of showcasing the artistic process and embracing an AI-led future.

To celebrate 20 years of SHOWstudio Christina Donoghue speaks to our founder and legendary image maker, Nick Knight on why he found SHOWstudio in 2000, the importance of showcasing the artistic process and embracing an AI-led future.

Since the advent of Google in 1998, the internet has since been ever-expanding, shaping our society, the way we communicate and the way we receive news. David Bowie told Paxman in a 1999 interview (when dial-up and Teletext were still very much a thing) 'I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society is unimaginable' and he was right. The turn of the millennium saw Nick Knight launch SHOWstudio, taking the first steps towards fashion's digital future. YouTube was yet to exist, Google was only two years old, and no one had even heard of an Instagram or a Twitter account, let alone knew how to use one.

Despite those very early days where the internet was imperfect at its best, Knight saw the potential, and boldly embraced the dawning of the internet age. Since then, SHOWstudio has gone on to become fashion's leading digital platform, internationally recognised as The Home of Fashion Film thanks to the tireless work of the countless creatives who have passed through the studio doors and of course the legendary image-maker Nick Knight who is our founder and director. Continually challenging and questioning its role in a digital space, SHOWstudio continues to lift the lid on the closed world of fashion by showing the behind-the-scenes and giving viewers unprecedented access to exclusive content. Projects including In Fashion, Design Download, Subjective, Transformative, SHOWbiz, Best in Show and In Conversation are ongoing to this day, together with live-streaming all of Knight's shoots and live fashion reportage. It's no secret that SHOWstudio has helped to transform the landscape of fashion image-making and broadcasting for the best part of two decades.

Christina Donoghue sat down (virtually) with Nick Knight to discuss the birth of SHOWstudio and why he wanted to set up SHOWstudio in the first place, discussing the need for a revolutionary media in the nineties and his early excitement for the internet.

Design Download, 2019: Akuac Thiep wears Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen S/S 20, photograph Nick Knight

'When the internet was born in the middle of the nineties it was so glaringly obvious that this, at times, clunky way of communicating, was capable of so much more than what was presented to us at the time. For some reason, with all its faults and issues, it had caught my imagination. By 1998, I started formulating a plan to create SHOWstudio and to create a platform where you could present moving fashion images. I wanted to talk about fashion in a way that the mainstream media didn't talk about it. The press wasn't exciting me, and neither were magazines anymore. I was living a life which was much more exciting, and I wanted to show that to people in an uncensored and open way.'

'This duality of the excitement of possibilities of working with a new media, albeit, a revolutionary media was enormous in its power to be able to communicate across national boundaries. It was pure, new and exciting and the more advanced it became, the more it was clear that this thing was akin to the birth of writing itself.'

Over the past 20 years, SHOWstudio has had the incredible opportunity of being able to collaborate with all manner of creatives, including designers, icons and best of all, friends, who have generously allowed us exclusive and unprecedented access. From getting inside the minds of many of fashion's greats (John Galliano, Kate Moss, Alexander McQueen and Comme des Garçons just to name a few), we've also been there from the beginning with designers such as Mary Katrantzou, Craig Green, Gareth Pugh, Giles Deacon and the Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte.

'It was pure, new and exciting and the more advanced it became, the more it was clear that this thing was akin to the birth of writing itself'
Cutting Edge, 2019: Raquel Zimmerman in Gareth Pugh, photograph Nick Knight

Opening the industry to a world that was not otherwise accessible, Knight and consequently SHOWstudio kickstarted the live-stream trend (something that has become an everyday staple on social media apps like Instagram). Unveiling the secrets behind the creative process, anyone and everyone is invited to tune in. Initially, the only people who had access to watch the action unravel and the magic blossom were the editors and critics who secured an exclusive invite, or the teams working backstage or tiresomely behind the scenes on a photo shoot. Fashion's audience was traditionally only allowed access to the final product. Seen in magazine pages or billboard campaigns, they stumbled across images which became increasingly stagnant rather than moving. Ultimately, Knight and SHOWstudio changed the way fashion spoke to its audience. Documenting the entire creative process through live-streaming photoshoots, showing designers at work and broadcasting conversations with members of the industry resulted in the democratisation of fashion and the inclusion of fashion outsider and insider alike. And, the most crucial part - presenting fashion in movement.

Moving Fashion, 2005: Kate Moss

'I've always had a sort of great enthusiasm for finding new ways of doing things and not wanting to repeat either myself or repeat imagery or media I've seen in the past. By the mid-nineties, I became frustrated by the idea that print was the only means used to express fashion. When you commit to a day of shooting fashion, you see it in movement; clothes are about movement, yet every time a shoot was done, the result was one still image. I couldn't help but think "why do we still show hours and hours of footage as still images? That can't be the best way to do it".'

'With the help of the internet, I used SHOWstudio as the basis to reveal these artists and their artistic processes. SHOWstudio dispels the myth that artists waltz into a room, create something extraordinary and walk out. The truth of it is that there's many hours, days, weeks of failure, shooting and trying and trying again. That's what SHOWstudio is about, the truth behind the artistic process.'

Shortly after its launch, it was SHOWstudio that stood behind the first-ever live-streamed fashion shoot. A project called Sleep saw nine different models styled and made up, retire to their rooms in the Metropolitan Hotel, all while a webcam camera recorded their tosses and turns during their stay, not without the permission of the model of course. Viewers tuned in while Knight's lens tuned out, capturing only pixelated stills composed of form colour and texture, purposefully lacking definition. In the early days of webcams in 2001, they would only be able to send a single low res image every minute, resulting in a short film of sliced images representing lumbered movement.

Sleep, 2001: Natasha Prince
Sleep, 2001: Devon Aoki

Another monumental live-stream (although, maybe not for technical reasons) that will go down in fashion's history happened on 6 October 2009; the date that fashion's future changed forever. Alexander McQueen teamed up with Nick Knight and the rest of SHOWstudio to live-stream his show (inspired by the futuristic idea of a time when humanity, having wreaked havoc on earth, returns to the oceans) Plato's Atlantis. Just before the stream went live, everything all set, Lady Gaga tweeted the link to the live-stream; and the inevitable followed. The site crashed due to millions of people trying to access it. Despite the broadcast struggles, the live stream represented more than just another fashion show; it bridged the gap between a once exclusive industry and the digital masses.

Plato's Atlantis, 2000: photograph by Joseph Bennett documenting his magical set design for Alexander McQueen's S/S 10 show

Ceaselessly striving for a much more inclusive world, Knight has always been political with his work, believing that fashion and politics are distinctly intertwined. Looking back on a year like no other, with two nation-wide lockdowns and the Black Lives Matter protests, the image-maker has always tried to fight for people and communities whose voices have been suppressed.

'You've got to remember there was an awfully clear social injustice of the magazine system and mainstream fashion which was very and I mean, very, exclusive; there were no Black people or people of colour on magazine covers, nobody was curvy, and there was nobody over the age of 25. Fashion had perpetuated this same old vision of women year in year out, which was quite a dull image, and I wanted to change that.'

Many of SHOWstudio's projects have always given meaningful depth to fashion by revealing its political nature. The most notorious of those projects is probably Political Fashion - launched on 23 July 2008. Believing fashion to be inherently political, Knight invited figures from fashion, art and celebrity alongside SHOWstudio viewers to express their political beliefs, agendas and thoughts in a film and essay season that ran for just under a year. Knowing, however, that we can never do enough, following the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020 Ruba Abu-Nimah took over the SHOWstudio Instagram, live-streaming footage from the New York protests to uncover what was really happening on the streets following George Floyd's death. Continuing to find new ways to share our platform with Black voices, Le Tings took over the SHOWstudio Instagram in July. Panel discussions with industry professionals and young Black talent have been a regular occurrence over the recent months, especially during Black History Month in October, discussing the issues of racism in fashion while simultaneously celebrating fashion's rising stars and the Black voices in fashion that demand they are heard, too right.

'Fashion had perpetuated this same old vision of women year in year out, which was quite a dull image, and I wanted to change that'
Political Fashion, 2008: excerpt from nail artist Marian Newman's film submission
Panel Discussion: Black is Still the New Black, 2020: Model and journalist, Trey Trey was joined by make-up artist Crystabel Riley, stylist and editor KK Obi and journalists Eni Subair and Dominic Cadogan to discuss working as black creatives in the fashion industry

2020 has undoubtedly been a tumultuous year that nobody could predict and has surprisingly shared similar references to Bowie's first film, released over 40 years ago way back in 1976, Man Who Fell to Earth. Knight shot the star's 1993 album cover, Black Tie, White Noise, (you can find the exclusive shoot footage in our project dedicated to the legacy of Bowie, Oooh Fashion) and still finds himself reflecting on the work of the musician today. 'When I talk about how fashion was portrayed in the media and how I wanted to change that, Bowie is an excellent example of someone that shared my vision in seeing through the frivolity and vanity that was published in the mainstream media.... and to see it for what it was… a much more exciting world.'

'I've found myself referencing Bowie quite a lot recently, especially when you think about his first film in 1976, Man Who Fell to Earth, sitting and looking incredible in front of all these different screens looking at various media, taking a bit of information from here and a bit of information from there, there's something very appealing about that, and to me, it's a perfect foresight into zoom. It's certainly how my life feels currently.'

Oooh Fashion, 2003: Kate Moss wears David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto, photograph Nick Knight, British Vogue (May 2003)

The Victoria and Albert Museum released a pin badge in conjunction with the David Bowie Is exhibition they held in 2013. The badge read, 'David Bowie is turning us all into voyeurs,' which provides a revealing link between the endless screens Bowie is placed in front of in the 1976 Nicolas Roeg film, and the Voyeuristic tendencies Knight taps into in the SHOWstudio project launched in 2000, The More Visible They Make Me, The More Invisible I Become. Exploring and unpicking society's obsession with images of celebrities, Knight shot a film in 1995 starring a 20-year-old Kate Moss centring around the idea of CCTV footage. A nod to the controversy surrounding surveillance culture at the time, the film features snippets from security cameras, following Moss going about her normal day.

Diamonds, 2000: Kate Moss styled by Camilla Nickerson in Nick Knight's original surveillant shoot
Diamonds, 2000

When asked on his thoughts for the next twenty years of SHOWstudio Knight revealed that 'we have only just seen the tip of the iceberg… the door is slightly ajar and we're seeing into the next room, we're not quite in the next room yet, but we're seeing into it, and I'm enormously excited by it.' Of course, the imaginary room Knight is referring to is the future; the future of humankind and the future of SHOWstudio. 'I think we're going to see SHOWstudio manifest itself across the globe in different physical locations, a SHOWstudio Moscow, SHOWstudio Buenos Aires, a SHOWstudio Paris - it's a complete global network and always has been, a perfect balance between the physical and the digital.'

'We have only just seen the tip of the iceberg… the door is slightly ajar and we're seeing into the next room, we're not quite in the next room yet, but we're seeing into it, and I'm enormously excited by it'

Known for always looking for new ways to communicate fashion's digital presence, Knight has always been a firm believer in the future of technology from the 2000 project Sweet to the AI (artificial intelligence) project in 2019. Looking to the next frontier in an exploration of artificial intelligence's ability to match human creativity, SHOWstudio posed the question: 'Can Nick Knight be recreated as an AI?' Believing that it's critical to factor in the existence of AI when talking about the future, Knight commented:

'Whatever AI is capable of, we're seeing the beginning of something incredible and a very different way of looking and understanding our position in the world, is it benevolent? Who knows, but we cannot shun this new vision. Artists have a responsibility to be in control by pushing AI forward, and we have to look at the future of this world in terms of its survival; there is no use pushing against it because we need to learn to live with it.'

Sweet, 2000: an image created by Nick Knight and Jane How using 3-D imaging technologies. A CT head scanner was used to capture Jane How’s sweetie-wrapper recreations of the S/S 00 collections
AI, 2017: photograph of Sara Grace Wallerstedt taken by Nick Knight and fed to an AI by the German digital and conceptual artist Mario Klingemann
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