When it comes to fashion, it’s all about access and excess in our increasingly oversaturated times. The ‘Insta-age’, how can we break through the barrage and make sense of it all? The fashion communication boom started thirty years ago but social media is now fuelling our content-driven fires.
“Imagery is crucial,” says Adam Murray. Coming from the pathway leader of Central Saint Martins’ Fashion Communication and Promotion MA programme, this could be an understatement. Photographer-cum-curator-cum-lecturer, Adam’s new position at CSM is the cherry on top of his well rounded cake. A genuine non-fashion fashion person Adam is down to earth, nonchalant and exudes a cool-older-brother vibe. Adam learned photography without digital cameras, Photoshop, or Snapchat filters and is now facing the future of fashion communication head on.
Rooted in the North and the Midlands, Adam has celebrated his home throughout his career with ‘Preston is My Paris’ and the celebrated ‘North’ exhibition, made in collaboration with Lou Stoppard. The unique identity of northern England is culminating in a new project for Adam in which he will explore the creativity coming from small spaces. Specialising in fashion communication through a somewhat winding path, Adam’s focus is towards making meaningful stuff. He distances himself from the frothy world of fashion and keeps his head down and heart grounded by living and working in Manchester. Getting away from London gives Adam a healthy dose of perspective and he recommends broadening your horizons by simply talking to different people.
Adam began teaching after his undergrad in Preston and has since taught at Preston, Liverpool John Moores and Manchester Metropolitan. Amongst his past students, fashion photographer Jamie Hawkesworth is one of Adam’s most prestigious alumni. In his new position Adam will shape, mould and encourage the next generation of fashion image makers. For Adam, as we find out below, it’s context, personality and perspective.
How did you get into teaching?
When I finished my undergraduate degree in Preston, there was a job going as a technical demonstrator, which is where you run technical workshops, so I took that and it all developed from there. I was teaching at Preston for ten years, just went from technical demonstrator to lecturer. Preston was good because we were able to develop quite strong fashion photography modules and I worked with colleague Jacqui McAssey on a module that was half photography students and half fashion promotion students.
How did you get into photography?
When I was 15 and vaguely thinking about uni, I first wanted to do product design. But I can’t draw anything and in those days you definitely needed to do an art foundation. To get onto an art foundation I took a photography night class, then ended up not doing product design or a foundation at all and applied to Preston to do a BA there. It was one of the courses I found that does both photography and filmmaking in the first term.
Where did you grow up and how does that influence you and your career?
I grew up in a place called Shepshed which is in Leicestershire near Loughborough, about 15,000 people live there or something, very small. I’m in the early stages of researching creative practice that grows out of small towns and small places. Growing up in Shepshed there wasn’t anything, it wasn’t horrible in anyway, but there wasn’t any easy access to culture in terms of art galleries. Also, I find the midlands struggle to find an identity. Whereas the North and London for example, have a strong sense of identity and national mind.
This project is looking at how creative practice thrives from being in small places. Moving to Preston when I was 18 was huge, it was quite a step up. But it was another place that was struggling. It had a Northern England identity, but it’s competing with Manchester and Liverpool. Those years were really crucial in forming my awareness of these things. The internet wasn’t a thing really so you had to seek everything out.
What has changed most about fashion communication and how have you adapted?
Fashion design courses have a long history and so do photography courses. Apart from the specialist colleges, Fashion Communication wasn’t really a thing. To me, young people don’t really read magazines anymore.
“It’s crucial to keep in mind that what I value as frivolous at times could be really important for someone.”
Do you think it’s important to speak and understand young people?
I think it’s crucial. Obviously it’s hard, unless you know people or if you’re in a teaching job, but for me it’s crucial to keep in mind that what I value as frivolous at times could be really important for someone.
Is there a mindset of preparing them for jobs that don’t exist yet?
I think the roles exist. There is an issue with roles existing in the North. I’m not sure there is enough infrastructure for people to stay in the North, but down here the roles exist. Whether or not people are able to survive purely on doing that one thing, I think these days you have to be able to offer a lot.
In the increasingly competitive job market, do you think it’s better to do one thing well or be a jack of all trades?
Particularly MA students have to offer something that someone else isn’t offering. There is always a lot of emphasis on technical skills, which is obviously important, but for me it’s like ‒ what can you offer in terms of your sensibility or your approach to things that someone else can’t offer. A lot of that comes from your personal background. Obviously if you can offer a broad range of skills, that’s helpful. But the key thing is thinking what makes you a unique person because everyone is unique, aren’t they?
How have you viewed the expansion of imagery and the demand for content in an Instagram age?
I argue that imagery is the way that most people experience fashion. If we’re talking higher end fashion, because obviously people get dressed everyday. But most people certainly don’t buy the clothes and most people don’t have the chance to even try them on so imagery is vital. It was the same for me with magazines, that’s your one way of getting access to it. Imagery is crucial.
What’s important is working out the different purposes and the different types of image. The catwalk images are vital in order to see the details and the collections. But in terms of visual identity most of the time they are quite formulaic. So that’s one way of engaging with it. The most exciting stuff is when somebody has a real strong idea of what they want to do with imagery and then link it really nicely with clothing or fashion.
“Most magazine type web pages use a magazine format, whereas I think it has the potential to offer so much more.”
What do you think a ‘new’ magazine would be like?
Well it depends who their market is. If they’re aiming at 16-24 year olds a print magazine, unless it’s a very niche fashion market, is probably not the most effective way. Equally people aren’t using the internet enough. Most magazine type web pages, use a magazine format, an article you scroll through or pages you flick through, whereas I think it offers so much more, it has the potential to offer so much more.
I know that Jon Emmony came in last week to talk all things digital, where do you think the future of fashion communication is going? Is it 3D and VR?
Potentially. He’s just a really interesting person. The reason we got him in for the day was partly because he did so much work with ShowStudio over the last few years but as a practitioner in his own way. He’s just really exploring what an image can be these days. He’s experimenting with all different kinds of production, different ways of engaging with imagery, so for sure, some of the stuff he’s doing has got to offer something new.
I think there is a place for them all, analogue and all that kind of stuff. Fashion imagery tends to be very cyclical, at the moment we’re going through an analogue everyday type phase which is very similar to the mid 90s. But after that, in the mid 90s, Photoshop was just coming out so you were getting experiments with digital imagery. Then that died off a bit and it’ll probably come back again. The new generation, they weren’t born yet, so they can respond to it or reject the trend at the minute, but now they have access to the new technology and a whole new aesthetic might build.
“For me that’s one of the best forms of research… just to get different viewpoints on things.”
A lot of people nowadays say that they don’t look at Pinterest or Instagram for inspiration, they look at classical films etc. but what do you find that your students are looking at?
It’s a mix. Particularly the group we’re working with at the minute, the most interesting thing for them is to go out and talk to people. Most of the people we’re working with are visual people. They’re not necessarily massively into essay writing and academia so just chatting to people and finding out different people’s views. I think that was nice growing up in Shepshed and Preston, fashion is so distanced from those things that you get a nice perspective on it all. By talking to people, learning about different viewpoints that can inform your work really well. For me that’s one of the best forms of research. It could be experts, practitioners, or it could be friends or your parents or people you’ve met in a cafe, just to get different viewpoints on things.
What would you like your students to come away with from the course? Is it the way of thinking?
It would be amazing if each student was super confident in what they’re doing this for, what they are getting into image making for. If they had really good intentions with their work, they’re understanding of what it is they’re interested in, they know how they want to explore it and know why imagery is the best way to do that. So they actually have a voice and something to say. That can vary, it doesn’t have to be massively political, but as long as they have a point of view on things. Also a great body of work. A really strong and engaging body of work that has real value.
Are there any recent campaigns that stood out to you as a sign of the times?
Campaigns these days are very safe, I think that’s a crucial thing to recognise. On the whole they’re quite repetitive and do the job. I can’t think of any that made me go ‒ oh wow, that’s really outstanding. So I think that’s the commercial aspect of it all really. But the joy is that the editorial work and the personal work can really flourish.
Do you think that is where fashion imagery is most exciting? What do you still like looking at?
Yeah for sure! I like to see it when something unexpected comes out. The usual ones like Gentlewoman and Fantastic Man and Arena and 032C I really like. My friends run a bookshop in Leeds called Village so they stock magazines really well. I’m not one of those people that never read fashion magazines because I think it’s important to keep awareness of everything that’s going on.
“Everybody is coming from such different backgrounds that it’s a very vibrant environment to be in.”
What do you find inspiring about your students?
I’m rubbish at working on my own. I had a studio once just to try it out and I was sat on my own pretty much all day and I hated it. I need to be around people when I’m working. One of the best bits is working with a new set of people every year. Everybody has something positive to contribute. Obviously the course here, everybody is coming from such different backgrounds that it’s a very vibrant environment to be in, without sounding too cheesy. I’m not trying to develop a house style, it’s my job to respond to them really.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing them heading into industry?
Just the fact that the roles are so sought after these days. So many more people are wanting to do fashion jobs. I think people have to be quite entrepreneurial because in terms of staying with one company forever, it just doesn’t really exist anymore. The most I’ve got out of stuff is when I’ve gone off and done it myself, testing things in public. Do not be afraid, get it out there and start developing this conversation about your work. Be open to unexpected audiences and unexpected people might be interested in your work. Don’t just aim it at a fashion thing necessarily. Don’t put your blinkers on. Things have so many outlets and relevance to a wider audience.
Words Elli Weir Portrait Azra Sudetic