Coffee-table book doesn’t say it. Nor does vanity project, though by its author’s own assessment, “FB Fabien Baron Works, 1983-2019” is a nontraditional self-portrait.
Certainly, the tome, published this fall by Phaidon, is a 400-plus page exploration of the legendary creative director’s psyche, its lavish pages resonant with meaning that runs as deep as the viewer/reader wants to delve into (or project onto) Baron’s personality. It is also a rich visual history of fashion over the past 30 years, both the fashion of fashion, and its intersect with the broader culture. Finally, it is a creative masterwork. Anyone who fancies powerful imagery will be intrigued. For serious creatives, its wealth of exquisite visuals provides diverse worlds to get lost in and, more pragmatically, lesson after lesson on what makes compelling imagery — concept, color use, composition — whether the subject is as simple as the plainest fragrance bottle or as complicated as a densely populated convocation of young-and-beautiful types engaged in wanton revelry.
The book opens with a forward by Baron’s friend and frequent collaborator Kate Moss. In a lovely piece, she credits him with hiring her for her “first real shoot,” with photographer Patrick Demarchelier, and with introducing her to Calvin Klein, in whose Obsession campaign she skyrocketed to supermodel fame. Still, “For all the decades of knowing him, I’m no closer to understanding how his artist’s mind sees what it sees, and creates what it creates,” she writes.
Kate’s single-page missive is followed by an in-depth piece by Adam Gopnik, with whom Baron worked at GQ very early in their careers. Gopnik describes a “confrontational” young art director who became frustrated with “having to find graphic solutions to sloppy ideas.” The writer notes the influence of Baron’s father, himself a renowned art director in France, and hard to please to boot, so much so that the two were estranged for years. The piece covers many of the formative relationships of Baron’s career — with editor Alexander Liberman; Betsy Carter, editor in chief of New York Woman; Italian Vogue’s Franca Sozzani; Interview’s Ingrid Sischy; Harper Bazaar’s Liz Tilberis. The piece makes for a fascinating read, a detailed profile filled with rich insight and crisp writing.
Otherwise, Baron arranged the book thematically, its 10 chapters each identified by its numbers and a column of words, for example: “1. Elemental Black White Primary Man Woman Neither Both Structure Geometry Symmetry Sand Ice.”
“The words are crucial. Some of them, they fight one another and some of them, they go together with each other,” Baron says. Similarly, the images that follow both integrate and clash. Sometimes the integration occurs across years, projects, countries. One stunning such connection: a 2014 Icelandic nature scape featuring copper turf emerging from a snowy cap opposite a 2016 photo for Interview of model Natalie Westling under a shroud of plastic and wearing a crinkled copper-and-white leather look, its harsh structure mimicking the landscape’s rugged terrain. Deliberate reinterpretation? No. But not mere coincidence, either, according to Baron. “I don’t believe it’s something that’s just, ‘Oh, it’s just a mistake or an accident,’” he says. “I think deep down in me, there are those things.”
In two conversations combined here, Baron discusses many such “things” covered in his book and some not, such as the impact of cancel culture on creatives and the sorry state of magazines today — and why they have only themselves to blame.
WWD: This book tells the story of your career in some 400 pages. Why tell that story now?
Fabien Baron: For me it’s a bracket, it’s like closing a page. I’m at the end a magazine guy. I was born in magazines. I probably won’t die in magazines because magazines are not in a good place. It was a way for me to turn a page and open a door to new possibilities. Right now I feel really refreshed, open-minded, not bitter, ready to do anything that’s a bit new.
WWD: It’s not all editorial; you include advertising and product design. Still, does the book close the door on the traditional editorial aspect of your career?
F.B.: Magazine work? Probably. Not 100 percent sure because you can never know, but I have no intention to do a magazine at the moment, not in the same way that magazines have been done, that’s for sure. I feel like the magazine itself as an object is not relevant in the same way that it used to be many years ago. It’s lost something.
WWD: That’s for sure.
F.B.: The issue is that magazines are where they are because of magazines.
WWD: So it’s not all outside forces? What did magazines do wrong?
F.B.: They wanted to be so tied up with the moment, with what’s going on with entertainment, with personalities, and then, so tied to Instagram. They attached themselves too much to an outside thing rather than remembering what they were about, so they became irrelevant in some degree. Actresses — you see them in a movie. Instagram is where you want to see the Kardashians, or on television; you don’t want to see them in magazines. Any picture of them, you’re going to see it on Instagram anyway.
Magazines have lost their point of view; they gave it up too early. I’m talking about the big ones. If you look at the way they were relative to now [which is] blue sky, little flowers, girl wearing a big skirt, a famous person from Hollywood. That became the formula for a lot of magazines. Supermarket fashion.
WWD: Any magazines in particular?
F.B.: I’m talking about big magazines in general.
WWD: What could big magazines in general have done to prevent this from happening?
F.B.: They should have stuck with fashion. They should have stuck with fashion. They should have made that the real core, the point of view. They should have sold the customer — the people who were buying magazines — fashion, real, real, real fashion, and in a big way. That’s what they should have done. Social media and Instagram, these things came up in the midst of magazines not being very powerful and not being very strong. So people flipped, they just shifted to that. The two could have lived [together]. All these small magazines, they’re doing better now than the big ones because they have a point of view.
It’s almost like in the movie industry. There’s Hollywood and there’s the independents, right?….Hollywood collapsed to a certain degree with Netflix and all these things. All the talent are going into Netflix, to do things that are more [adventurous]….
WWD: Hollywood does well with the big blockbuster, the big sequel.
F.B.: That’s why they’re getting hit by Netflix, because [the creatives] can have more freedom and do more of what they want. And they win the awards. “Roma” — it won an Academy Award. And the Netflix movie “The Irishman” — it’s [Martin Scorsese’s] best movie in such a long time.
WWD: Back to magazines, can they come back?
F.B.: I doubt it. Something else amazing can happen, something that you haven’t seen. I think people are still very eager to discover things that they haven’t seen before.
WWD: You’re now interested in film, and all of media is obsessed with video. Is there an exciting, viable platform for the kind of rich, beautiful still imagery that’s in your book?
F.B.: Maybe books that behave more like books/magazines could be a way.
WWD: Many brands now are doing their own magazines and some are beautiful. But most feel like marketing vehicles.
F.B.: I think there is still room for opinion out there. The brands need a very opinionated [platform], call it books, magazines, whatever you want to call it. There is still room for that. There is still room for a great Irving Penn-type of picture. There is still room for really beautiful Steven Klein work. There is room for all that. There is room for great photography, there is room for great fashion.
Magazines used to do fashion really, really well. If you look at the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, even the Nineties, you looked at fashion magazines, you were inspired. They told you something, and they’ve lost that. They’ve lost the opinion and a real sense of not being afraid to say that’s where it’s at and this is edgy and it’s really out there, but you have to show fashion. The problem today is the small magazines, they give you 20 pages of naked girls, so what’s the point when you see [almost nothing] of an outfit? That’s not fashion either.
WWD: Your book is filled with amazing imagery. I find the organization fascinating. The chapter on Red, which is so beautiful and so powerful, followed by the chapter on Circles and Movement that has a softer and more mesmerizing quality. How did you organize the book?
F.B.: By putting the entire archive together, I realized that there were images done in the Nineties and other images done in 2014 and pictures done right now. One could be a landscape, one could be a fashion picture and something else, and juxtaposed together they have the same meaning, the same thought process. In putting these blocks together, I realized that certain themes are recurring in my work. And I spread it out as chapters. That’s how it came about.
WWD: Did you discover ongoing themes that you hadn’t known existed?
F.B.: Of course, of course.
WWD: Such as?
F.B.: There’s a side of me that is very — it’s not religious but, what is the word? Let’s say spiritual. Spiritual, monastic, a little bit religious. And it’s usually attached to culture. There’s a whole chapter on that.
WWD: Yes! Chapter 10: “Sacred, Secular, Faith, Doubt, Terror, Beauty…” Was the religious revelation a little scary to you?
F.B.: Yes, because I have never been religious in my life at all. I was born atheist and I was not baptized. I was raised with absolutely no religious background, and I always felt like religion was actually impairing people rather than helping them. So I was kind of surprised.
WWD: How does it manifest for you personally?
F.B.: The physicality of religion is really interesting — the way religion has the churches, the monasteries, the architecture, the art, the culture that goes around religion. I’m mesmerized by it. When I go to Paris I always go to the church to see. I don’t pray, I don’t light a candle, I don’t do anything, but I love the way it looks.
WWD: Any church in particular?
F.B.: I used to visit Notre Dame all the time because it’s beautiful. If you immerse yourself into it, it projects you into that time, you’re back in 1630, the 1800s, whatever, you make your own movie inside of it.
WWD: Chapter 5: “Nature, Corrosion, Decay, Mystery…” The Nocturne Series of recent photos in mesmerizing, moody, surrealistic nature pictures, the first juxtaposed against postapocalyptic fashion. Then there’s a spread of crashed-up cars.
F.B.: That chapter I liked very much. That chapter is maybe the one that is the most me.
WWD: In what way?
F.B.: This attachment to nature, this attachment to the organic. It’s also a little bit scary. There is something about being afraid of the unknown: what’s beyond the shadow, what’s beyond the tree, what’s beyond everything.
WWD: There’s a great of contrast in your work, extremes of simplicity and intricacy.
F.B.: There’s the minimal side, but there is the complicated side, too. When you look at some of the landscapes they’re just like, water, sky. And then you have the tree pictures with intricate layers, and it’s like layered and you don’t see how deep it is. So there is this opposition, there’s all these clashes that I felt by making the book, make me understand myself a lot more.
WWD: How did you get into product design? Were fragrance bottles your first such projects?
F.B.: The first thing I did was for Issey Miyake, the bottle for L’eau d’Issey. I’d just started at Interview with Ingrid Sischy, Issey Miyake called me up because he liked what I’d done just before, at Italian Vogue with Franca Sozzani. He said, “have you ever done a fragrance bottle?” I said, “no, but I’d love to do it.” I thought it was something new, I was always intrigued by fragrances. I said yes and started working on it.
WWD: What about the process surprised you or challenged you?
F.B.: I had to learn quickly how you make a bottle. I read a lot of stuff and asked a lot of people who knew about it. There was a technician, a great guy that was working with Issey Miyake. He was an engineer and very knowledgeable about what was possible and not possible.
WWD: What was Miyake’s brief?
F.B.: He said, “I would like something that feels like the Eiffel Tower.” And it looks a little bit like the Eiffel Tower. But I wanted it to be minimal.
WWD: You also did CK One. What was that process?
F.B.: CK One was so much fun. Number one, Calvin has such a good nose for things.
WWD: You mean culturally, not a fragrance nose.
F.B.: I don’t mean nose like [a fragrance nose], no. I mean nose in terms of knowing exactly where the culture is going to turn…CK One was really important for what it was, for its simplicity, for this idea that it was not designed, basically, and that it was recyclable, and it was for men and women and for the impact it had on the industry. It changed the fragrance industry at the time.
WWD: Any others?
F.B.: I worked with Miuccia Prada on her first fragrance. Miuccia is amazing. She’s one of my favorite designers. She has such culture.
WWD: What was your mandate there?
F.B.: She wanted something very feminine, but not typical feminine. Like her clothes, she wanted the thing to be twisted. She wanted some newness, but also this idea of the culture and the past, bringing the past today. That’s why there’s the old-fashioned [atomizer] way of spraying.
WWD: Miuccia is one of the greats.
F.B.: There’s so much brain.
WWD: Back to Calvin, talk a bit about his impact on the culture.
F.B.: Calvin was a visionary and an amazing communicator. He knew how to play the tectonic plates of media. He knew how to manage ideas, photography and put it out there in a way that would create friction — and make his name more and more important and give a twist to everything.
He loved controversy, but not for the sake of controversy. I think what he liked about controversy, he liked to break the barrier of what people used to see. It was not an issue for him that he would get in trouble.
WWD: Speaking of which — you were involved in one of the most famous/infamous fashion campaigns of all time, the CK film shoot that critics thought was intended to replicate an adolescent casting for a porn film.
F.B.: Ohhh yes. CK Jeans.
WWD: CK Jeans, you and Steven Meisel.
F.B.: Me, Steven Meisel, yes.
WWD: Take me through the idea. Did all of you sit in a room and say, let’s make this look like an underaged casting for a porn film?
F.B.: It was not meant to be a porno. It was meant to be a casting of a bunch of characters, some young, some a little bit older, men and women that would be asked questions a little bit off the cuff, questions about sexuality but about a lot of different things. The idea was to do it in a live manner so none of the talent knew the questions in advance, none of the talent knew what we were doing. They were all in a room off set, and they were called one by one onto the set and asked questions on the spot in a way that maybe in some way feels a little bit intimidating for a young person.
I was going to shoot the commercial cold. We’re going to start, and you roll the tape immediately, it can be nerve-racking. There was this idea of being very direct and not letting people get at ease [of capturing] that live experience. That’s the way the commercial was shot.
WWD: Were you surprised at the near-universal outraged reaction?
F.B.: I thought there would a reaction, but I didn’t know the reaction would be that strong. It was so blown over the edge. I think what happened was that one of the models was not 18 and we didn’t know that. That created the problem, and it made the whole thing collapse.
WWD: That was a very different time. Would you do that project today?
F.B.: Like everything, things fit with their time. When you deal with pop culture and you deal with fashion, you have to feed the time, you have to be current with the conversation of the moment. So at the time it was good. Doing this now? I don’t think so. I don’t think it would be appropriate.
WWD: Let’s talk about some of your more traditional subjects — models. You worked at Harper’s Bazaar with Liz Tilberis, starting with her relaunch issue. It featured a very famous cover with an ultra-glamorous Linda Evangelista against a white seamless and no cover lines.
F.B.: There was just one cover line: “Enter the Era of Elegance.”
WWD: That was very daring.
F.B.: When we met, Liz said, “I would like to do the most beautiful magazine there is out there today.” Doing the most beautiful magazine in the world? Sure. That’s exciting, that’s different and there’s a need for that.
So when we talked about the first cover, I told Liz, “You have to have just one cover line, you have to be like very, very direct with your messaging. You have to put it out there in a very powerful way and an iconic way.” So Linda makes sense; the logo, Bazaar, and also the title, “Enter the Era of Elegance.” It said what it was going to be. It gave the spirit of what things were coming.
WWD: What was Linda like as a model?
F.B.: Linda is about the glamour. She is fashion to me. If you think about a model who is fashion and is the clothes, you think about Linda.
WWD: What was Liz Tilberis like to work for?
F.B.: Liz Tilberis was the nicest person to work with. Her real talent was that she was not scared of talent. She would surround herself with the best talent possible. She was able to extract what they were good at and at the same time give them the freedom to express themselves and use it to her advantage to make the magazine she wanted to make. She wanted to make the most beautiful magazine. That was our original discussion.
WWD: Back to models, you’ve worked with them all. Kate Moss is a friend of yours, and she wrote a beautiful forward for the book. Why is Kate so compelling?
F.B.: The first time I saw Kate was in a picture of David Sims. She appeared to be so cool, so normal and so accessible, and yet she felt unobtainable in a certain way. There was something really cool about her. Then when I met her, we got along right away.
What I love about her is…she was a person with all the fragility and all her beauty and all her mistakes and all her imperfections. There’s a lot of imperfection in Kate, from her teeth to her little thing, little nose, there’s a lot of things…
WWD: Physical imperfections?
F.B.: Physical imperfections, but also she has a lot of imperfections in other ways, and she doesn’t try to hide that. She doesn’t try to embellish herself.…It’s Kate and what you see is what you get. I really love that about her.
WWD: Daria Werbowy.
F.B.: Daria is to me the ultimate woman, the dream woman. She is sophisticated, she’s womanly, she is not girly, she’s very intelligent.
WWD: Stephanie Seymour.
F.B.: She is more extravagant, she is this idea of a top model and she represents to me the Eighties, the Nineties, in a way that is the glamour.
WWD: Amber Valletta.
F.B.: I feel like she has a soul and she’s deep and there’s a charm and a softness about her, but also she’s not soft in a way that she’s weak, she is tough. She is soft in a powerful way.
WWD: Christy Turlington.
F.B.: Christy is the ultimate woman…Christy is fabulous. Christy is charming, fantastic, still beautiful, always beautiful…What I admire about her is she stepped out of modeling and…she has a cause, to help other women.
WWD: Gisele Bündchen.
F.B.: Gisele is energy. Gisele is life. Gisele is a goddess a little bit. In a physical way, she’s close to perfection. Her body is insane. It’s insanity, what she can do with her body. She is an amazing model…working with her was really, really a blessing.
WWD: Designers. You once cast Marc Jacobs as Andy Warhol for an Interview cover.
F.B.: It was the anniversary of Andy Warhol and we were saying, “Who is Andy Warhol today?” We felt like Marc Jacobs was the new Andy Warhol at the time. So we called him up and we asked him, “Would you be Andy Warhol for us? Would you wear the wig, would you wear the hair, would you play with us and do something?” He was so into it. We just did it, and it was fabulous. It was a lot of fun. We dyed his hair, we did everything.
WWD: You photographed Rei Kawakubo, who is famously averse to having her picture taken. What was she like as a subject?
F.B.: Very, very fast. The pictures took about 15 minutes…we shot at her showroom. We did two pictures, one when she is in the corridor, standing, and the other one where she is looking into a mirror at herself.
WWD: Has any subject ever intimidated you?
F.B.: A lot of them intimidated. Yes, a lot of them.
WWD: Was Rei one?
F.B.: Yes, of course. She is a genius. You look at her work, and then you have the person right there in front of you and you have to take her picture. The picture better be good. You have no time, she is not going to stick around very long and you have to deal with it really quickly.
WWD: Let’s talk about someone who, unlike Rei Kawakubo, is not at all camera-shy. Madonna. You worked on the “Sex” book.
F.B.: The Madonna “Sex” book was a lot of fun. Her idea, wanting to do that book at that time, was good, it was right on the edge of wanting to be controversial. I think her beauty was amazing, physically she looked absolutely amazing.
I think also her messaging was really much, much trying to liberate women. I think she really wanted to help women with that book. She went out there and she played the game all the way. I was really, really impressed.…Controversy was good at that time. It was something people could take.
WWD: Would you do it today?
F.B.: Doing a sex book today? I’m not sure. I’m not sure it would fit with the politics of today.
WWD: Do you think creatives today have to operate from a position of fear?
F.B.: Oh, yes, for sure. Before you do anything you have to think like, oh, is this correct? Are the people from [any constituency] going to be upset? Is there someone who is going to make a comment that this is too much like this or too much like that? You can read bad on anything.
WWD: Where do you think it’s going to go?
F.B.: It’s going to deflate. I hope so because otherwise, you can’t do anything. You cannot be creative. It’s like that, a time of repression. I mean, doesn’t it go with the politics? Doesn’t it go with Trump all this somehow?
WWD: We can blame President Trump for a lot. But this is coming from woke cancel culture. It’s not coming from the Trump side.
F.B.: Yes, but if you have that low [behavior], you have the opposite going the other way so it’s overly protective. He’s playing so racist and so off the marks with everything that [people try] to put a lid on this by something extreme the other way.
WWD: You have done daring and cutting-edge editorial and advertising. You’ve also designed countless logos — Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Coach, Zara, Dior, Guerlain, CAA, to name a few. What makes a great logo?
F.B.: Number one is visibility. Visibility and uniqueness and clarity in the messaging of what the graphics feel like. The graphicness must feel like what the brand is trying to say.
WWD: How do you achieve uniqueness when there are so many brands, so many logos and you’re dealing with a 26-letter alphabet?
F.B.: Ninety-nine percent of the logos [I’ve done] were hand-drawn. So each one is not a font that you can buy. Ninety-nine percent were drawn from scratch.
WWD: Even then, it must be extremely difficult to do something fresh.
F.B.: There’s so many different ways you can do letters with space or bigness, boldness, not boldness, feminine, not feminine. You play with all these elements and you try to find what is right for your client.
WWD: Is there an a-ha moment?
F.B.: I know it is difficult to explain, but when you do a logo you know when it’s right.…It’s also funny to see brands that don’t want to change their logos. They want to stick to the logo and age with the logo. That’s also not so good for them.
WWD: What attracts you to film and what kind of film do you want to do? What makes a good subject?
F.B.: I think film is the sum of all the things I’ve learned and liked and been exposed to with different disciplines. Filmmaking is many, many, many, many different things. It’s very editorial. You have the words, number one, which I love; you have the story, number two, which I love, which is the most important thing, the number-one thing. But then you have all these other things — to be able to turn this into an image. It encompasses everything that I think I have learned through the years, certainly in putting together a magazine.
WWD: What kind of stories do you want to tell?
F.B.: Ambiguous stories, things that are not one layer. I like layered stories when there is different meaning into things.
WWD: One assumes that fashion will play a role.
F.B.: I love fashion.