In Conversation: Katy England Talks to Nick Knight About the Future of Fashion

In Conversation: Katy England Talks to Nick Knight About the Future of Fashion

From her visionary work with Alexander McQueen to her years with Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, stylist Katy England's career is nothing short of legendary. Here, she opens up to frequent collaborator Nick Knight in a rare interview about the role of the stylist, the history of couture, and what the future of fashion holds.

From her visionary work with Alexander McQueen to her years with Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, stylist Katy England's career is nothing short of legendary. Here, she opens up to frequent collaborator Nick Knight in a rare interview about the role of the stylist, the history of couture, and what the future of fashion holds.

Text: William Defebaugh

NICK KNIGHT So Katy, shall we start with our story we did for V?

KATY ENGLAND Yeah, we could.

NK Seems like a logical place to start. So we’ve just shot a couture story starring a very beautiful young model called Sara Grace [Wallerstedt]. Part of the idea was to have the purity of the girl match the purity of the photography, so I didn’t put any effects as such on it. The color wasn’t treated, the form not changed. I was showing what you do Katy, because I didn’t want to take that somewhere else.

Do you want to tell me what you were doing? How did you approach it?

KE The starting point was [Sara Grace] being so young, pure and beautiful. I felt like we couldn’t put too much makeup on her because it would disguise her. Couture is often quite grand and sometimes overpowering, so I was thinking, “How do I make it more relaxed? How do I bring it down, as if a younger girl was wearing it?” She felt quite Californian and surf-y in a way, and I was also inspired by looking at the Fall ’17 ready-to-wear shows, this trend of lovely homemade craftsmanship and ’70s mood with the homemade knitted scarves and hand embroidery, I just thought that it was so beautiful and decided to put these two worlds together, which were very opposite.

I worked with a lovely girl called Cecily [Cracroft-Eley], a student at Central Saint Martins. I thought, “How can I get someone to home make these things? I can’t put other designer names with it, I have to make it from scratch.” So we went sort of base level, and we got knitwear from vintage and secondhand shops, and Cecily worked on it, and brought her skills to it—she spontaneously did it on the day for us, and I love working spontaneously. It was such a lovely process with her, fantastic actually.

COAT MAISON MARGIELA ARTISANAL BY JOHN GALLIANO, BALACLAVA AND FLOWER CUSTOM-MADE FOR STYLIST BY CECILY CRACROFT-ELEY

NK She was one of five BA students that I saw at Central Saint Martins when I was awarding scholarships for Alexander McQueen’s charity Sarabande. It was Cecily I awarded the scholarship to. I think her work is great, of course the other students' work was fantastic too. When you see five students, all their work is always so interesting - each one of them can deserve the scholarship, so it is quite a difficult decision making process.

KE Yeah, I did one in January myself. It is very hard, and it doesn’t just boil down to the talent because there’s so much each of them have got to say in different ways. You have to think who needs it the most, and who needs the money to survive.

NK Student work is often so raw and uncompromising because they don’t have to sell the clothes or make a collection that will sell. Their ideas are beautiful because they haven’t been tampered with or adjusted or calmed down. All of them are special in that way. It’s just the pure ideas.

KE Do you do any other work with students besides placing the scholarship money for Alexander McQueen?

NK We do lots of things with students on SHOWstudio. We have students that come and do work placements of course, and we have a student panel every season when we review the collections live. We get all students from different colleges, usually throughout London, sometimes we go a little bit further a field, but it’s logistics more than anything else that stops us from doing that. I wish I could bring in students from all across the globe. Also through Machine-A, which is the SHOWstudio online shop. Stavros Karelis who runs Machine-A sees all the graduation shows, and we will often buy directly for the shop after the graduation shows. So we’re seeing talent in that way through the colleges. We’re getting to know who’s actually going to make that next step into the market place; we know a lot of the young designers, not just from the London colleges, but designers from all across the world. Yesterday’s students are today’s big names. JW Anderson, Gareth Pugh, Mary Katranzou, for example were all involved with SHOWstudio when they were at college.

Katy, bear with me on this one. When we both started off working, in my memory, it was much more common for fashion stylists to actually make some of the clothes that were photographed and to strongly accessorize and customize other vintage pieces. They wouldn’t appear with look number 21 right off the Givenchy or Prada catwalk. It would be something that they would make. They would take an old pair of jeans or a military jacket and put it with look number 21, or change it in someway, but the whole art of the stylist wasn’t just to be a shopper who could get some look-book from the designers, but to be somebody who almost was another version of a designer themselves.

KE For me, I think that idea was born out of the fact that when you’re a young stylist, you can’t get the clothes. You absolutely cannot. You can’t call up Versace and ask for an outfit, because they don’t know who you are and they’re not interested in giving you anything. You have to conjure up this stuff yourself. I think I was always really fascinated with the beauty of vintage clothes and the craftsmanship involved. It was easier for me to get my hands on vintage clothes so I would gather them, customize them and if I was lucky I would put them with a little bit of John Galliano because I could get some. That’s how we approached it. But then, the landscape was different, wasn’t it? Because I might have been working for Dazed and Confused in the early days and we didn’t have advertisers so nobody put any pressure on me to photograph particular things, or to include them in stories. I feel like it was a very pure time where you had no restrictions as well, stylists don’t grow up in the same way now since the advertisers are way more powerful.

NK The landscape does seem to have changed a lot, and I think it’s to its own detriment in some ways. Of course people find ways around it, and creativity always comes to the forefront in the end, because in the end nobody is going to want to buy a magazine that’s full of exact reproductions of the catwalk looks. Creativity will always triumph over commerce, but I do think it’s a different situation now. There isn’t that mono-directional feeling in fashion that there was before our time, during the ’60s and ’70s, when one person said hemlines were going up and then they went up, and everyone followed suit. Now there are so many different versions of what’s fashionable, so many different opinions, because now we work in the global sense. With this story we’re working for V Magazine, and there’s V Magazine online as well, so our work will be seen globally, not just Americans. Anybody anywhere in the world can look and see what we are proposing with our story.  The Internet is global, and the national boundaries don’t make any difference at all anymore when we are online. Nationalism seems so out of date as a concept to me. Nationality has always seemed so irrelevant to me, it is not a consideration in my work at all.   I’m trying very hard not to get this conversation caught up in the stupidity of Brexit! It is too depressing!

KE I knew where you were going with that [laughs]. I still think that the job of the stylist is to be inspired by the designers, the runway collections, but to twist it. I still think that’s our job. I find it incredibly difficult to just shoot the look from the runway, because to me, that’s pure advertising. What is my job if not to take it to the next step from the runway?

NK I think that’s certainly very true in the shoot that we just did with Sara Grace. Although we were representing the couture looks, the way that you worked with the crochet and the knitwear, made them into something completely different. I was super interested in that.  I’m always love photographing Couture, because for an image-maker, it gives you such rich imagery. You’ve got a garment that has so much time and care and love spent on it, that when you photograph it, of course all the care and love and time is emitted, so to speak, by the garment, they are such a narrative rich garments.

Which brings me onto a point about imagery. It is the role of a great photographer to be offering something that people haven’t seen before, and it should be challenging to the audience. In mainstream fashion magazines that idea seems to have slipped away now slightly. We are seeing a lot of easy imagery that almost anybody could take. In the same way that you were saying some people are just reproducing a look as it is on the catwalk, the imagery has a little bit of that feeling to it too, where it is very simple to digest. No question marks are being thrown up, and no great challenges are being put in front of you.

KE Why do you think this is happening? Do you have a theory?

NK It’s the dumbing down in magazines. I think in an increasingly desperate search for higher and higher sales figures, trying to make more and more money, so they’ve accepted a way of working which is just pleasing their advertisers. An advertiser won’t place an ad if their clothes aren’t presented in a way that they like, so anything that is questionable, which the advertisers feel is difficult or don’t understand, they encourage the magazine to take out. That might be the ethnicity of the model, the age of the model, the size of the model. It might be the proposal of the imagery; which might be very violent, very sexual, very subversive, highly political or even very abstracted. All of that gets taken out.

I think the grip that money and advertising have on magazines is responsible to a large degree for the dumbing down of imagery. They’re trying to get to the most possible people, so they try and get the stuff that is the most palatable. But you end up with the fast food version of imagery: cheap to buy, easy to digest, not particularly memorable. Off it goes.

To some degree that’s commerciality, and we work with a commercial art form, but I think that’s not to the long-term benefit of creative fashion photography or the magazines. In the end, magazines are only going to survive if they continue to do what magazines were meant to do, which is to show great, innovative and creative fashion photography. If they get too caught up in the current blanding out of imagery just to appease the advertisers and to make more money, they all end removing their reason to exist. Now we all see the collections live as they happen, and increasingly you can actually buy the clothes from the catwalk, so you have to ask what is the purpose of fashion magazines, when they come out three months or more after the shows have happened. Their only raison d’être has to be to show great fashion imagery. Otherwise...what is their point?

Anyway….  British Vogue interestingly just appointed Edward [Enninful], who IS somebody who passionately cares about the image, as their editor. Can I ask were you in the running, Katy?

KATY ENGLAND PHOTOGRAPHED BY LUIGI AND IANGO

KE British Vogue have never asked me to work for them, and I’m not quite sure why? [Laughs]

NK It’s interesting; you had your whole career outside of Vogue. I love that about you.

I am writing a piece on my shirt-maker, a wonderful man called Frank Foster, however  I’m writing the piece because he died a few months ago, he was 93. He was also a very important person in my life, he made all my shirts. Everyday I’m putting on a shirt made by Frank Foster, and I went to interview his widow today and I went to interview his daughter. The way they described him was  "independent, strong minded and tenacious” which rang some bells in me, I thought, “I recognize these character traits. And I recognize them in Kanye [West], and I recognize them Katy.” It’s this sort of individuality trait.

KE [Squeals]

NK Yes, I’m linking you and Kanye in one sentence! But there is individuality in what you do. Not in a devil-may-care way, but there is a sort of “I’m going to do it my way and I’m not going to rely on the tried and tested path.” So you haven’t, to my knowledge, sought out that sort of career path. You’ve done what you’ve done, and you’ve done it because you love doing it, or because you want to do it. But I do think there’s a kind of interesting sort of character trait that I do see in certain people. I would say you definitely have that character trait. Do you recognize that description of you, or am I wide of the mark ?

KE No, I think so. I feel like I approach it as a challenge, like, “Okay, I’ve got this ingredient but what can I do with it? I have a need to try and do something I haven’t done before. I want to do something different. I have a little bit of aversion about being the same, which I’ve always had since being young. I don’t want to be the same as anyone else.

NK That’s sort of how I perceive what you do. So Katy, what do you see as the future of fashion? What are you excited by?

KE We have seen in the past few years a huge increase in the emergence of so many new brands and innovative small labels that is really exciting. I do however hope that in the excitement and urgency for newness that the more established brands are not overlooked and forgotten or dismissed as irrelevant, just because something newer comes along. To develop from a young creative into a consistently good designer/creative director making desirable products season after season and building a business is a massive skill, which I have huge respect for— it is a real craft that is learnt over time. I hope for the future that this is something that doesn’t disappear.

The fashion industry at present feels a bit like nature’s selection process where only the strongest survive—it’s a tough time, I hope the brave can survive. I think about somebody such as Charles Jeffrey who really feels like an exciting part of fashion’s immediate future. I’ve been to his shows in London, and what he brings on to the runway feels very genuine—his truth, his world, the underground scene he is part of with all his friends. It’s really honest and it’s really who he is. I was so excited at his last show because I thought, “He’s brave, he’s fearless, he’s just putting it out there,” and it felt a little bit like the early days of McQueen—that’s what we did. We didn’t question it. It was our world. We threw it out there. And we didn’t really think about the consequences. I hope that the future can continue to have designers like Charles and sustain them.

NK I agree. I like Charles a lot as well. We did a “Live Studio “ broadcast with him on SHOWstudio where he made clothes live over the course of 3 days and we sell his fashion illustrations in the SHOWstudio Gallery as well as his clothes in the shop.

Often when I’m doing a shoot, the stylist will bring pieces in from students. I’m always seeing new and exciting work. I never feel like I’ve seen everything before, like everything’s been done before. I never feel like there’s a lack of ideas, or lack of exciting people doing new things. People often ask what you think the future is going to be, and I think the future is always bright. I trust in humankind, I trust in our inventiveness, and our creativity and innate desire for excitement and new ways of putting things together. This always seems to be there. If you compare it back to early twentieth century and photographers like Man Ray or designers like Schiaparelli, those types of people are still around toady. There are still great and exciting talents out there doing new and amazing things.

I do think, to be honest, that we are literally the beginning of a new way of relating to each other and understanding each other. People are inventing identities for themselves online that are just as important as the ones they live in real life. I think it gives us another dimension and I'm extremely excited by the use of AI, and robotics. I find myself constantly looking to the future and very little to the past. I’m excited by things that are coming up, different ways of doing things. Look at the whole range of models we have now, including trans models. It's a new proposal of gender. It's a different way of being; it's a different way of seeing. So I'm quite optimistic about human kind, how human kind will deal with change and deal with future. I don't have any bleak Terminator scenarios. I actually think the natural poetry, creativity and humanity that's in all of us will come to the forefront, so I'm enormously optimistic about things…apart from Brexit.

KE [Laughs] oh my goodness. I don't know what to say after that.

NK Well it's probably a very good sign that I've spoken enough.

See more from Nick Knight and Katy England's couture story for V107 here.

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