Representing the creative future

Nick Knight on working hard and embracing the new

Legendary image maker Nick Knight reflects on the new ways of working in fashion and shares his advice

When I call Nick Knight during England’s second lockdown of the Coronavirus pandemic, he’s taking a morning walk around Richmond, where he lives. “I’m looking at the flora and fauna,” he tells me. “There are big, wild blackberry bushes – they’ve provided a fair few blackberry crumbles, actually!” Anyone who follows Nick’s work – or Instagram – knows he’s a fan of nature, regularly updating his account with images of homegrown roses in bloom. His latest show – titled after this passion – Roses from My Garden, at Waddesdon Manor, was postponed by the pandemic, so pictures of his muddied hands showing a lockdown penchant for gardening now pepper his feed.

But it hasn’t all been flowers and foraging in the last months – despite a stellar career over the last three decades as one of the world’s pre-eminent fashion photographers and filmmakers, Nick says he’s never worked more in his life. At a time when fashion shows are cancelled, media companies are laying off staff and collaboration would seem to grind to a halt, how is it that Nick Knight is busier than ever before? 

"Sunday 6th November, 2016" - Courtesy of Nick Knight & Albion Barn

The answer lies in the way Nick packages his own profession. He calls himself an ‘image-maker’, eschewing the traditional term ‘photographer’, and has championed fashion film long before social distancing made it a necessity. He speaks with reverence of fashion photography, and those mastered it before him, referencing the likes of Horst P. Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene, and Cecil Beaton many times in our conversation. Nick argues firmly that he’s changing the format of photography with the innovative methods he practices. “I always want to look forward,” he says. “What I find most exciting is the discovery of things I hadn’t seen before, a new way of doing something, a new way of seeing something. So when new technologies offer you that, whether it’s 3D scanning, or AI – or telepathy – it’s just a new way of understanding the world and a new way of expressing yourself. Of course that’s more attractive than going back to something you’ve been doing before. I’m not a great believer in nostalgic digging into the past. I’d much rather, as a society, we look towards the future.”

“Although nothing is in any way good about this awful pandemic, the effects of it will be to produce a cultural shift.” – Nick Knight

This week, Nick’s award-winning fashion platform SHOWstudio – The Home of Fashion Film – celebrated its twentieth birthday. Founded in 2000 and co-directed by Nick and his wife and agent, Charlotte Knight, the platform is known for pioneering live fashion broadcasting – panel discussions and show reports to the camera are a staple of the site’s fashion week reportage – and elegantly shot interviews giving formerly unprecedented access to the likes of John Galliano, Kate Moss, Alexander McQueen, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and many more. Fundamentally, at the forefront of SHOWstudio is Nick’s desire to show fashion in motion, through the medium of fashion film.

“It’s quite satisfying to know I was right all along,” Nick laughs when asked how it feels to see fashion film explode in such a manner as necessitated by COVID-19’s restrictive presence in the industry. “Although nothing is in any way good about this awful pandemic, the effects of it will be to produce a cultural shift.” It’s been clear for a long time to him that the way fashion is created and consumed is ripe for change and he sees the adaptations that he’s had to make in order to produce work during this time as pivotal to that.

Nick Knight on working hard and embracing the new
Kanye West, In Camera, SHOWstudio, 2015

“We are going through the Me Too movement, we’ve started looking at sexual codes within the fashion industry, we’re looking at important cultural revolutions like Black Lives Matter. There’s a real shift,” he explains. “I just think to go back to our way of working, which feels like it’s basically set in the same mould as it was sixty years ago, doesn’t feel very exciting to me. And now, this vision of a different way of working, and a different way of using one’s intelligence, didn’t feel kind of nerdy, it actually felt quite desirable, elegant, and poetic and in touch.” One may be somewhat surprised to hear that the ‘vision’ Knight is speaking about refers largely to Zoom – the pandemic’s professional portal. Perhaps it’s only to be expected that someone who has pioneered online consumption of content seems to very much like – and advocate for – digital working.

“The idea of flying hundreds of journalists across to some relics of ancient civilization, just to stick a contemporary fashion show in there doesn’t smack of anything other than an old system that nobody really wants to see – it’s just greed.” – Nick Knight

Not only does he feel it allows for this innovative shift in practice he longs for, Nick Knight truly sees it as the future. He described a day working within the ‘new normal’: “I found myself waking up at 5:30 in the morning, to get on [a] Zoom call to Kanye West to direct the launch of his new Gap campaign – via Zoom. He’s at the end of his day in California – around midnight and I just started my day. Then, I spent three hours with Kanye, having a nice, directorial moment through Zoom with people working in California. Then, I went from that into an interview at nine o’clock, about my rose exhibition at Waddesdon, again on a Zoom. And then I went into another Zoom call for another client – the whole day was spent on Zoom. I thought there was something nice in that, that elegance, of being able to just talk to screens and have people create things around you, across the world. It felt like a vision of what we should be doing now, rather than this rather tired method.”

Nick Knight on working hard and embracing the new
Kate Moss, Subjective, SHOWstudio, 2014
Nick Knight on working hard and embracing the new
Lady Gaga, In Camera, SHOWstudio, 2010

 

“We are not in good shape on this planet! And we really need to work out where we stand. The idea of showing displays of ostentatious wealth as a way of doing a fashion presentation isn’t fashionable. It isn’t what you want to see anymore – if you ever did.” – Nick Knight

The system that fashion operated to show its wares, pre-pandemic, is one Nick speaks of scathingly. “The idea of flying hundreds of journalists across to some relics of ancient civilization, just to stick a contemporary fashion show in there doesn’t smack of anything other than an old system that nobody really wants to see – it’s just greed,” he says. “When we look at our graduates, especially from CSM and elsewhere, where we’re doing the sort of fashion graduates support that we do across SHOWstudio, every single graduate will have in the first paragraph of the description of their collection the word ‘sustainability’. Although it’s given token acknowledgment by established fashion designers, it’s actually not really taken on board in any serious way at all. I think you have a generation of image-makers and designers who now really do take that on board. And really do want change. I think that’s really, really, really fundamentally important. We are not in good shape on this planet! And we really need to work out where we stand. The idea of showing displays of ostentatious wealth as a way of doing a fashion presentation isn’t fashionable. It isn’t what you want to see anymore – if you ever did.”

It is not possible to fly the fashion press out to view a show in some far-flung corner of the world right now, nor would it be – as Nick presses – desirable to. So how does one present an appealing alternative? Fashion houses are still looking to showcase their work, in one way or another, and Nick has been tapped over and over during these past months by brands looking to navigate the unprecedented times his work seems to have preempted.

John Galliano – a long-time collaborator – created an exclusively streamed fashion film cum documentary presentation with Nick and SHOWstudio for Maison Margiela’s Artisanal showing. Taking the viewer inside the house’s usually secretive atelier to see how creative director and couturiers constructed the collection while in lockdown, the film used myriad methods compliant with COVID-19 restrictions. Not just Zoom footage, but GoPro body cams and even a drone were utilised for SWALK, shown in July. The partnership continued with SWALK II – a fashion film and lookbook –  in October. Also showing in July, during the digital couture season, Valentino worked together with Nick and SHOWstudio on a fashion film Of Grace And Light. Alongside a live fashion broadcast, Pierpaulo Picciolo chose to present the house’s couture collection in this way. And, of course, Kanye West and his brand Yeezy continue to work with Nick and the SHOWstudio team, putting together films like 2019’s Jesus is King or designing the YZY SPLY e-commerce website, which dropped in June of this year. Like he said, Nick’s been busy.

Nick Knight on working hard and embracing the new
S.W.A.L.K., John Galliano for Maison Margiela Artisanal A/W 20, 2020
S.W.A.L.K., John Galliano for Maison Margiela Artisanal A/W 20, 2020
YEEZY SUPPLY, Website Development, Ongoing
YEEZY SUPPLY, Website Development, Ongoing

“I think you just have to embrace new ways of doing things.” – Nick Knight

But what advice would he give, I ask, to young designers, image-makers – the new, aspiring fashion vanguard – to put together shows or shoots in these uncertain times, looking to pioneer a more responsible approach? “I think you just have to embrace new ways of doing things,” he says. “I’ve directed fashion films via Zoom, editorials via Zoom – all perfectly possible and doable. All it meant is I didn’t have to move from my house to do it, nor did the model or hairdresser or make-up artist or stylist. It means we can find a slightly new way of working, which provides yes, in some ways, frustrations, because obviously the hairdresser can’t touch the girl’s hair, but even if [they] couldn’t do that, it still meant that they could advise the girl. And I think both of them found a certain pleasure in that. I think that was pretty much true across the board. It puts a lot more onus on the model. He or she has to be a set designer, hairdresser, make-up artist, stylist, image-maker, all at the same time. But they have pretty good advice around them. That was a way of embracing a new way of working.”

Those people, the ones Nick has around him – on set, at SHOWstudio, or those creatives he is known to pair up with to produce a singular, seminal vision – are key to his process. “I’ve been lucky enough in my career to look through the eyes of Kanye, Lee McQueen, John [Galliano] and communicate what they want to communicate.” As for young image-makers, looking for collaborators, Nick advises, “Whether you want to spend every day of your life with them or whether you just see them on shoots, you just have to find people who are in it for the same reason.’

“Most people want to have a life where they get to go out to see their mates at the pub or, you know, whatever it is, but that was never my schtick. Once I discovered photography, nothing could come close to it – other than when I had children.” – Nick Knight

“When I was first starting, the clashes I’ve had on set were with people wanting to leave at six o’clock in the evening, because they wanted to go and have a meal or go out somewhere as if photography was secondary to their lives,” he explains. “I think you have to work with people who believe what you believe, in terms of – this is more important than anything else. Sex, food, sleep, anything. Those sort of people are few and far between. Most people want to have a life where they get to go out to see their mates at the pub or, you know, whatever it is, but that was never my schtick. Once I discovered photography, nothing could come close to it – other than when I had children.”

“It’s no longer appropriate to behave in the way we did fifty years ago when it comes to making imagery.” – Nick Knight

It’s a tough stance, this attitude to work. “That makes you into a filmmaker or fashion filmmaker, treating it as if it’s the main thing in your life. If you prefer to be down the pub with your mates, then you’re probably not. But that’s me. And that’s how I’ve done my life, my career. People will not always agree with that.” No, not everyone would agree with that. There has been strong pushback in fashion about that concept of making your work your world, particularly at the early stages, for very little money. But, we have to acknowledge that the concept Nick raises is important. Make sure that the people around you, who you work with and trust have the same priorities as you. Whether it’s the Knight-ian philosophy of image-making before all else, or a more balanced work/leisure routine, the work that you create will be reflective of that. “A lot of [young] people I speak to have no desire to do the next Prada campaign. They want to be working with fashion that they really feel. I guess it’s the same [as] when I first started, I had no desire to work with Versace. When I was offered it in 1985, or whatever, it was just fashion for somebody else. It wasn’t part of my world. I didn’t really understand it, I didn’t get it, it didn’t reflect anything that I had in my values.”

“It’s no longer appropriate to behave in the way we did fifty years ago when it comes to making imagery,” Nick concludes. “There are new possibilities and it would be inappropriate not to take these up. So, it is really important for the artistic community to embrace new ways of looking at the world and not treat them with skepticism and dogma, and reactionary thought. We really need the artistic world to be creating the vision that we can all aspire to.” Nick Knight seems to be leading by example – here’s to the next generation of fashion image-makers, continuing to innovate with such open minds.

1 Granary

Magazine Issue 6

With unprecedented honesty and depth, 1 Granary Issue 6 dives into the work and lives of fashion designers today. As a response to the construction of desire and personality cults that govern our industry, the magazine steps away from the conventional profiles and editorials, focussing instead on raw work and anonymous, unfiltered testimonies. For the first time ever, readers are given a truthful insight into the process, dreams, fears, hardships, and struggles of today’s creatives.

Buy Now