*This article originally appears in Issue 2 of 1 Granary Magazine
To be honest, the extent of his kindly demeanour, with his soft-spoken Northern accent and the local allotment where he grows his own veg, caught us a little off-guard. It seems worlds apart from the in-your-face (ahem) ‘appendages’ on his Tumblr, and the captivating, high-impact, sexually-charged imagery of his editorials for The Face, i-D and Arena Homme Plus. All of which sit much-loved and dog-eared in the library at Central Saint Martins, where Simon graduated in 1983. It turns out that you can have the best of all worlds though, and we needn’t have been surprised. Simon’s all Good Stuff, just like the title of his Tumblr, and more than happy to stick the kettle on and talk about his early days over a brew.
Things are much more geared up to getting a job and making some money these days, they have to be… When I was at college in the early eighties, a career was the last thing we were thinking about. Most of us were on full grants so didn’t have any fees to pay, so were just there for a laugh. I chose St Martins because I was at school in Edinburgh and didn’t want to stay there. I’d been into punk rock, and thought there must be something in London for that.
CSM is notorious for being a place where you compete to be the best, sleeping there day and night, sacrificing a lot of things…
I envy people who had that focus and drive! I’ve never had that. I think sometimes, it’s an odd thing to admit to, but going through art school and then going to fashion is the path of least resistance. Quite lazy really, but I’ve never been ambitious. I’m surprised that I’m still working in fashion. It’s totally beyond me how that happened. I just think I’ve stayed in the same place, just by being here this long.
Your shoots are still fresh though. They still look really ‘now’ today.
I’ve never seen myself as a fashion stylist. I use clothes to make imagery. Most of my shoots are another idea I’ve thought of, and bought clothes that describe that. Clothes are – sounds really pompous, but – they’re the paint I use for my paintbrushes. I’m not concerned with fashion as such.
You don’t follow any trends and you’re not trying to please advertisers or editors…
I think if I were starting out now, I wouldn’t be allowed to do that. Somehow I’m very fortunate! I know a lot of people who run the magazines, and they know what I’m like and let me do my own thing.
Generally, I look on Style.com, and occasionally I’ll have visits to the showrooms. I’ve never been an avid follower though. I know if I want some baggy trousers or something shiny and pink, that I can style the look around that. I don’t really care if it’s from Topshop or Yves Saint Laurent, as long as it has the right type of look. I don’t know how I get away with it sometimes! I have up until now.
How did you first get into styling, and establish the relationship you have i-D?
I’d recently left Saint Martins and started my own fashion label called Bazooka. It was successful in that it had lots of press, but money-wise it wasn’t a success in any way, so I was getting slightly disheartened by the whole thing. People I knew from college were working at i-D magazine, which was still in its infancy then: my best friend Steven Male, who was on the graphics course at Saint Martins and Caryn Franklin. Both of them said ‘why don’t you come do some styling?’.
Is this how you met (long-term collaborator), Nick Knight?
Yes, I went in to the magazine and met Terry Jones, and he said ‘we’re working with a new guy called Nick’ and put me in touch with him. I’m trying to remember if we actually met before the shoot…
How old were you?
I must have been 24. We talked on the telephone, and then did this shoot for i-D. I don’t remember what the concept was; we made it up as we went along. We just clicked and have worked together since then.
“I’m surprised that I’m still working in fashion.”
Does he ever influence the styling when you’re on a shoot, like ‘I won’t shoot that jacket’? I’m interested in how the two of you work together.
Nick knows what works and what doesn’t… he’s not like “this is shit”. We know each other so well now that I know what he will like, and what will work in for him in a photograph. It’s quite organic. I wouldn’t give him a piece of beige knitwear!
What was the hardest thing about working as a stylist at the time?
Probably getting hold of clothes for shoots. There were a few PR companies, but generally I used to have to borrow clothes from shops. Thinking back, it’s quite a long way of working. Because I was working for magazines like i-D, it wasn’t about the forthcoming season, shooting four months in advance. We would have to shoot what was in the shops at that time. I didn’t have any money for years and years. It must have been 6/7 years before I made anything, and even then I didn’t make much! I’ve never made much money from it. Trying to make a living, I don’t know why I stuck at it, but I must have loved it!
Why didn’t you? I’m sure you had so many opportunities to style big brands and work on big shows – but I know it was your decision not to.
I’m not ambitious… I’m quite lazy! For me, luxury isn’t about having money. Luxury is time. I very much value my free time. I’ve had job offers in New York, but one of the major things that has held me back is a dreadful fear of flying. I hate flying! The whole thing is so traumatic for me. I’m not desperate to work overseas!
I sometimes think that maybe we go into fashion for completely different reasons than you did 20/30 years ago.
Everyone’s youth is fabulous whatever era you’re in. I’m trying to not sound like some old fart saying it was great in my day! Certainly being at Saint Martins from 1979 until 1983 was great with the whole explosion of the London club scene. I think being at Saint Martins then was like being in a nightclub every day. We were all trying to outdo each other by dressing up. It wasn’t about consuming fashion, it was about creating fashion. I don’t remember anyone really buying anything designer in those days. It was almost shunned.
“My Tumblr is my pride and joy. It’s probably my favourite thing, possibly the thing I’m most proud of.”
Have you had any big failures?
I can think of a few editorial shoots that were less successful. But, saying that, that’s why I’ve always worked with i-D. They allow people to fail. I think failing is a very important part of the creative process; if you don’t try something then you’re not going to learn anything. If everything is immaculate then what’s the point? A lot of my shoots have been experiments, things I’ve thought about, but then when it’s come on to the final page, I look at it and say ‘oh that hasn’t really worked out’. It’s a picture in a magazine at the end of the day, and it’s not going to change anyone’s life.
Would you ever go back to designing like you did straight after Saint Martins?
I would rather do a collaboration with someone, go in with drawings and they take it away. We did it for Fred Perry. Really, that’s why I got in to styling, having been a designer first you realise – and I absolutely take my hat off to any designer, big or small – the amount of work to produce even a small collection is quite phenomenal. I’d rather, and I’m very much up for collaboration.
Are you up for collaborating with young photographers and magazines? Can they just approach you?
Oh yes, absolutely. I love working with new photographers. Quite often, I work with people I have never worked with. I like that process of discovering or trying something new, and generally young photographers are more open to that. A lot of the time, for me, the process of doing the shoot is far more important than the result – I make it sound like some conceptual art, and that’s not what I mean! I actually enjoy the whole coming up with ideas, discussions, working on whatever it is on that day.
What is usually your starting point for any shoot?
Often, I will have seen an image somewhere else that I think is beautiful or interesting. Then I think about how I can twist it. That’s the starting point, normally. Then I try and do some research around it to find more imagery. It’s more so I can explain to the photographer the world that I’m imagining, and it helps hair and make-up… I like to see what happens on the day.
Do you make a lot of spontaneous decisions?
Yes, very much. I think, again, within the world of Condé Nast, it seems all about getting the right look, correct credits and the fit is great. That’s what their publications are about. The sort of shoots that I do, I’m allowed more spontaneity, and a lot of it is trying things on all day and, “oh that looks funny!”.
I’ve read that the reason you don’t style womenswear is because you don’t really understand it. Thirty years in the industry – were you ever tempted?
I have tried it a couple of times. I like the results, but from the reactions of my friends I can see it wasn’t as successful! With menswear, I can feel it and it’s a gut instinct. With womenswear, it’s like I am guessing. I’d rather not. I have always named the people who are very good at it, and better than I would ever be, so I’d rather leave them to get on with it – I can do my thing, and they can do theirs!
Do you think styling can be taught, or do you think it’s all about instinct?
I think it’s a mixture. I know there are courses for styling now, I don’t want to put them down, I’m sure they’re very good, but I can’t quite imagine how you teach styling. I’m sure there are great educators on those things, but I can’t imagine how it could be approached. I think, for me, it’s just gut instinct, but I think being at Saint Martins, as I said, it was being there at that specific time that was very useful. I was there with John Galliano in my year; it was all the Blitz club crowd, all sorts of people.
I think Saint Martins was very important to me in spite of the teaching. Not that the teaching was awful, but there really wasn’t any… we were left to ourselves. There were pattern classes, cutting, sewing, whatever, but I wasn’t a very good student. I spent most of my time wandering around Soho and things. It was more to do with contacts you made and the environment.
Are you still friends with the people you met at Saint Martins?
John [Galliano], I saw last year. I had a show at a photographer’s gallery and he came along to see that. We’re not best buddies or anything! There are two or three college friends that I still see regularly.
A lot of our friends at CSM were actually talking about you the other day… We realised we were all following your Tumblr. We were talking about how diverse your references are.
My Tumblr is my pride and joy. It’s probably my favourite thing, possibly the thing I’m most proud of. It’s the one thing I’ve done that’s most me, above all things. I like doing photoshoots and things – I love them – but for the most part it’s a compromise.
It’s a necessary compromise. You’re working with a team: models, a photographer and make-up artists. Everyone is putting in their own. I like that team effort, but at the same time, you end up with something that isn’t very you. It can be better than you imagined, but with Tumblr, there are no compromises. Everything there is chosen by me, so I feel that it’s the closest reflection to how I think.
What do you think about the digital platforms and printed magazines?
I don’t know. For myself, I’ve discovered so much more – gay blogs, different avenues, tastes, aesthetics – through things like Tumblr. People have gone on for a while now saying that magazines are dead, but I don’t know if I believe that any more. For a while, things were online and exciting, and I thought, maybe, but then I think about the way you look at an image on a printed page in comparison to the screen. The two are good when they go hand-in-hand. I think if a magazine is purely online, I’m not sure if it’s taken very seriously. That’s the nature of looking at a screen; you can skip through things. If it’s there in front of you, then you will stop. It’s probably something to do with the brain. I think magazines are here for a long time yet. Though I’ve never kept magazines.
I thought you did. Do you still use a scrapbook?
Oh, I keep my scrapbooks. To be honest, my Tumblr has more or less taken over from my scrapbook. I used to buy magazines and tear them up, but I hardly ever buy them any more. I find everything I want online.
Do you like where fashion is heading?
To be honest, I don’t know where fashion is heading! I don’t know! It’s a world I work on the outskirts of; I never go out to parties and that sort of thing. I have an allotment and grow vegetables…