Chris Vidal: Fashion is in a Black Mirror phase
Words Sophie Wilson
SSAW magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Vidal discusses why biannuals are the future of fashion print, the relevance of fashion education, and why he still finds Instagram a little bit scary.
Since launching SSAW Magazine with his partner Tuomas Laitinen in May 2012, Chris Vidal’s independent biannual has featured the work of industry titans like Nan Goldin, Yohji Yamamoto and Ann Demeulemeester. Chris has featured and interviewed legends he has admired since he was a teenager in Barcelona, compulsively collecting fashion magazines and blasting Hole CDs on his way to high school to help him get through the day.
Through SSAW, Chris has made his obsession with fashion tangible. He attests that he could not have made a magazine any other way. Above all, honesty and passion are what he values most, and this is what he looks for in members of the SSAW ‘family,’ those contributors like Dan Thawley, Ola Rindal, and Delphine Danhier that he trusts completely and commissions regularly.
Launching and maintaining a print magazine in the 2010s is no small feat and it’s not something Chris recommends if wealth is what you’re after. Yet he believes that collectable biannuals like SSAW are the future of fashion print. Each issue is a tome dedicated to the creativity of the writers, photographers and stylists that Chris admires most.
In our rapidly evolving, Black Mirror-esque world where technology is designed to keep people glued to their screens, Chris hopes that there will still be room for non-digital content in the future – room for trips to the cinema, for reading books, listening to records and, of course, fashion magazines.
What makes a great fashion magazine, in your opinion?
You need great content – great photographs, great interviews, great stories. That’s pretty obvious, but on a deeper level, I would say that I like magazines that feel like they have a personal point of view, that feel true to the people that do them. I like magazines that reflect something honest. It shouldn’t be about trying to make a cool magazine just for the sake of making a cool magazine or making a fashion magazine just for the sake of making a fashion magazine; you should be able to tell that it means something to the person doing it. At least, that’s how I feel about what we do, and I usually look for similar things in others.
What advice do you have for young people hoping to pursue a career in fashion media?
This advice applies for almost anyone planning to do anything in fashion, media or otherwise. The amount of information we have access to via the internet and social media is overwhelming. We’re totally bombarded, it can be quite difficult for young people to know what they like because there’s so much of it. The advice I would give is to try to find the thing that you are very passionate about as early as you can. It gives you more direction in your career. At the same time, young people are so focussed on the future and their career or studies, but it’s important to just live your life and gather experiences that you will be able to use later on. If you’re just thinking about studying, graduating, and getting your first job, you risk forgetting to actually live your life. There’s too much pressure nowadays put on young people to achieve their goals and do great things very fast: it would be great for people to just slow down a little bit. It’s easy to say and hard to do, but it’s important to have a good understanding of who you are. Ask yourself what you’re really passionate about. You can make decisions about your future a bit later on. You don’t need to make those decisions when you’re so young and still not fully formed as a person.
You did a degree in graphic design before making the transition to fashion and photography. Do you think you need a degree to work in fashion?
Absolutely not! You just need to be interested in things and if you are, there are a thousand different ways you can get that information. I was a very bad student growing up myself, I wasn’t interested in school. Then, later on in life, when I studied graphic design, I realised that I could actually study something that I was passionate about. My personal education in fashion began when I started buying fashion magazines when I was around 13 or 14. I remember buying American Vogue, October 1991. Michelle Pfeiffer was on the cover. After that, I started buying magazines like there was no tomorrow. I had to buy every single magazine I could afford. They were expensive back then! I was always religiously watching fashion TV — I even begged my parents for satellite TV so we could get all the shows from outside Spain. I taped them all on VHS and I still have all the cassettes. I would watch everything on repeat, every documentary, every magazine, every fashion book and that’s how I built my knowledge of fashion. At the same time, if you are a focussed person and you know early on in life what you want to do and you are a good student who knows how to study, then I think that university can be incredible. I wish I was that kind of person myself. Not everyone knows how to study. Some people don’t go to university and they can still be brilliant, others go to university and they can be brilliant too. What I know is that you can 100% have a great career in fashion without a degree, but you have to make up for that by doing the most insane amount of research; you just have to work on it on your own.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I used to be very afraid of things. When I thought about making decisions or about life in general, I was always very afraid. I didn’t have confidence. I wish I had been a bit more fearless. That’s what I would say to myself, that there was nothing to be afraid of.
How did you learn that?
Just living, I guess. One day, life goes by. One day you’re 25, the next, you’re 40 and you realise that it wasn’t so bad. Now that I know that, I have no idea what I was so afraid of.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given, and I apply this religiously, is to never reply to an email when you’re angry. Never do anything when you’re angry. Let it sit. Take a shower. Sleep on it. Wait a day or two and then handle it. Never ever do anything when you’re upset because you’re not going to be able to give a rational reply to a problem. You’re just going to be very emotional and I’m not sure if that’s the best way to approach a crisis!
That’s very wise. What do you think is the greatest asset to have to work in fashion today?
I would say being curious and being a bit obsessive. It’s not the easiest industry and it’s not always the most pleasant, but you need to be totally obsessed with fashion: passionate, interested, curious. That’s what’s most important for me. Someone else might say being very social and very talkative, which I’m sure is a great asset to have because that’s the kind of thing you need to also do in fashion. But I’m really drawn to people that are knowledgeable about fashion and fashion history, or about designers and photographers.
Have you ever wanted to explore other areas of art or culture outside of fashion? Have you ever wished you were doing, say, a music magazine instead of a fashion magazine?
I love lots of other things outside of fashion! I love movies. I love TV. I love music and art. Yet even when I’m really angry at fashion and I feel like I can’t take it anymore, I’m always drawn back to it. It’s almost as if it’s pulling me in even when I’m trying to get out. One of the things I love about fashion is that you can be interested in it and so many other areas can overlap with it. You might work in fashion, but also work in photography, writing, art, music, movies: all of these things intersect with fashion all the time. Yes, fashion lives in a bubble, but at the same time, it’s a space in which lots of different people working in different fields that aren’t necessarily fashion-related can easily cross paths.
Do you think it’s necessary for people working in fashion to work across multiple different platforms and mediums?
That seems to be the case for a lot of people I know. I studied graphic design, but I’ve been working as a professional photographer for fifteen years. I just picked up a camera one day. I never learned photography in school, it was just one of those strange things that happen in life. I’ve also done creative direction for the magazine. In some of the projects that I’ve worked on, there were elements of set design, casting and music. We have interviewed people for the magazine, so I’ve done some writing too. Sometimes I think that I’m not particularly great at any of these things, but I’m good enough that I can do different things at once. Being able to work in different areas and on different platforms is a real asset. You always see designers who are also great at photography. Karl Lagerfeld, for example, had so many interests and talents. You can be a great writer and you can be a great something else as well: it makes a person more interesting.
What do you consider a great article?
If it’s an interview with someone, I think it’s always nice when you get past the facade of who that person is. Most of the world’s interesting people have given many interviews; by the time you get to them it could be their hundredth time, they’re used to giving some of the same answers and hearing some of the same questions. I like to feel that it’s not that repetitive. When we do interviews, I often ask our writers to maybe ask what their favourite song was when they were fourteen or something like that, just to get something started on a different note. When it comes to articles that are more like essays, I’m interested in any subject as long as it’s well written and it feels like the person who wrote it is passionate and engaged. I know it’s a bit cheesy when people say I have a passion for fashion, it’s the worst thing you could say, but it’s important to be passionate about things you love.
So, now I have to ask. What was your favourite song when you were 14?
When I was a teenager in the early ’90s I was really into Hole. I was unhappy in high school, so I used to play Hole very loud in my CD player on my way to school to give me the energy to face the day ahead. That’s the reason why I still love Courtney Love even though people say horrible things about her and maybe some are true, I don’t know, but I will always love her, and I love the album Live Through This.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I really loved architecture when I was very young. There are many great buildings in Barcelona, where I grew up, and I loved to visit them. I romanticised the idea of studying architecture without realising just how complicated and difficult it actually is. Once I realised that you needed to be very good at maths and physics, I knew that I would never be able to do it.
Was that disappointing or were you glad to move onto fashion?
It was very disappointing, it’s not nice to know that you cannot be great at something you love. But it doesn’t matter, I still love architecture. You can still love something even if you’re not doing it yourself.
What excites you at the moment?
All of the different movements that have occurred in culture for the past five years are fascinating in many different respects, we’re really watching the world transform before our eyes. We’ve all heard stories about the sexual revolution of the ’70s and how amazing that was, and now we’re going through a similar time in which the world is changing super-fast, not only because of the internet, but also in terms of how society operates and how we relate to women and minorities. It’s so great that these conversations are finally taking place, but the state of the world at the moment is also a bit scary. Look at what’s happening in the UK and in the US: it’s all quite frightening. In Europe, we’re seeing far-right governments in every country. I’m still inspired though: I think that change is always good, at least I want to believe it is.
I’m also very inspired by old magazines. If I go to another city and I know there’s a second-hand bookstore selling fashion magazines and books, you’ll find me there. I’m always online buying old issues of Vogue or fashion catalogues. I’m also inspired by my friends. I’m lucky that some of my closest ones also work in fashion, some of them even make independent fashion publications themselves. There’s a nice feeling of support among us. It feels like we’re in it together and there’s no sense of competitiveness.
What interests you most about the fashion industry right now?
Not much to be honest. I feel that fashion, like the whole world, is going through this Black Mirror phase where everything feels very strange and we’re still trying to understand what’s happening. What I’m interested in is what’s going to happen next, I’m really curious. The old system and structures of fashion as we know them, like fashion weeks and the old magazines, are going to have to change. Fashion week makes no sense. You cannot have people travelling for two to three months of the year, just going from show to show in different parts of the world. It’s insane. I don’t know what it will be, but there needs to be some sort of change eventually.
In the era of Instagram, what do you think the role of the fashion image-maker is today and what makes a great fashion image?
I’m a bit older so saying that we live in an Instagram-era sounds scary, I didn’t grow up with it. Sure, I’m on Instagram myself, as is the magazine, and I check it regularly; but I don’t allow it to affect how I decide on what I do and don’t like. What I think makes a great image is something that touches you personally. What that is changes from person to person, and I don’t think there’s just one recipe that makes for a great image, but a great fashion image will have something about it that is emotional or personal to you. That’s what makes anything great, whether it’s a book or a movie. I don’t care if the image is technically amazing or if a movie is shot by some famous director. Art is all about being touched by something.
For you, what are some of the benefits and drawbacks of publishing biannually?
I think the future of fashion publishing is definitely going to be biannual. Operating as a biannual is a good thing, it gives you six months to produce the content! Monthly magazines are thinning out, there are less and less of them. It’s very difficult for magazines to give fresh information and content to readers monthly because people that want to know about things that are happening at the moment will find other sources for that information. On the other hand, if you’re interested in fashion on a larger scale, in the whole season, then you get a biannual, with 300, 400, or 500 pages of great images, great interviews, in-depth articles. The future, at least from what I see and from speaking to my colleagues, is going to be biannual. The biggest challenge at the moment, at least for us, and for most others, is how to find the money to make it all possible. Advertisers and big brands are now channelling a lot of their money into social media. But I think there’s still room for advertising in print and, fortunately, quite a few of the big brands understand this. That said, I wouldn’t recommend starting a fashion magazine today if you want to be rich!
A lot of biannual magazines are branching out into events and launching their own creative agencies to generate more money. How does SSAW make money? Is it just from advertising and the cover price or have you considered expanding?
We have definitely considered expanding. I can see from many of the magazines around us, that seems to be an interesting way to find money. We’re doing projects that are parallel to the magazine. They might not necessarily end up in the magazine, but we also operate as a creative agency offering different services based on the world we have created around the magazine. I have also noticed that some magazines have turned into brands themselves. Sometimes they are fashion brands, sometimes they are different types of brands, but it seems to be a common pattern that you can see in many of the independent biannuals that are around at the moment.
How does the pitching and commissioning process for biannuals differ from online and more frequent print publications?
We don’t take any submissions. We have a policy that we only include original content that is commissioned directly by us. We have a big, strong family of contributors that we work with regularly. We introduce new contributors in every issue, but we like to have some of the same people we’ve been working with over the years in every issue. At the beginning of the season, we simply ask how they are feeling about the coming season, whether they have any ideas, or if they’re inspired by anything specific and we’ll have a back and forth about it. If they tell us they’re inspired by xyz or that they’d like to shoot so-and-so, then we give them the green light and off they go. We trust the people we choose to work with. Once I have trust in someone, I like to let them run free. I think people do their best when you’re not micromanaging them, especially creative people. You need to let them feel that they can be creative. I like to know a little bit of the idea, but it doesn’t need to be super detailed, just if they’re gonna shoot in the studio or on-location, or who’s going to be the subject…things like that. We do get emails from people who offer their services to the magazine or people that submit ready-made stories. Unfortunately, we have to turn them down because that’s just not part of how we create content for the magazine.
How do you think the way we consume fashion media will change in the next 10 years?
I ask myself that every day. I have no idea, but that’s a great question for the future to answer. I have a feeling we’re going to be on our screens more. I don’t see how that’s going to change. I just cannot imagine that we would use our phones less. All this technology is designed so that we use it more. I’m afraid that we’re doing less and less of all the things I grew up doing. I used to go to the cinema once or twice or week. I grew up buying records from record stores. I grew up buying books and magazines. Hopefully, there’s going to be room in tomorrow’s world for things that aren’t digital. I really hope so, but it’s hard to tell.