INTERVIEW WITH CHIKASHI SUZUKI
Let’s look at today as the “era of Googling before thinking”. For example, when you are contemplating about something, you’d simply pickup your smart phone, look up what’s on your mind and would choose what looks perfect for your current idea from the enormous information that had been logged in the past. Or, the times you’re borrowing someone else’s opinion instead of finding your own answers. It seems that in those times, your own unique and native senses have gone off somewhere far away.
In our time today, much of fashion archiving is done inside the screen through social media image posts. And by adding narratives to those images, they are starting to create new myths. On the other hand there are also many creators that have not turned around from traveling backwards through those images, era by era, seeking some kind of future in the past. Naturally, those designers whom we tend to perceive as godly creators are also people who enjoy culture like we do. But I assume there were challenges that came in many forms, through critical practices of designers who lived the same era, and in relationship with the previous generations.
We visited photographer Chikashi Suzuki to ask him about the modality and transition of clothes from the 90s to today. Suzuki is Japan’s leading fashion and editorial photographer known for his presence in PURPLE magazine since late 90s. And through his work, he has created deep relationships with the insiders of the fashion industry. We want to look into fashion from here on by exploring his method cultivated through his surrounding environment and through his inner way of life.
First, tell us the way you shoot for PURPLE. I’ve heard the story about how clothes were sent directly from the designers to photographers.
That’s because the editors, Elein Fleiss and Olivier Zahm, had originally been in the art world and so many of their friends were modern artists and photographers. They didn’t know any stylists when they started the magazine and photographers had to handle everything, in a good way. Photographers could shoot in the way we wanted because of that. Number of pages were added if the photos were good even if the clothes were not at all in the pictures. Today, there are fashion directors and it’s like photographers’ job to listen to them. Before the 90s, creators’ dream job was to be a painter or an illustrator. There were many who tried photography simply because they couldn’t be a painter, and same goes for art directors. Unlike today, there weren’t many in Paris who researched what photography was about before considering becoming a photographer. We could even say that that was the reason their non-formative free idea was cultivated back then.
Did you also try to be a painter at one point?
Sure, when I was young, but not seriously. I was naturally good at drawing and did pretty well with draughting but was bad at painting colors to it. Photography, on the other hand, comes with colors, you see? (laughing).
Please tell us, what lead you to your current carrier?
What I still remember is the TV show I happened to see when I was a college kid called Fashion Tsushin. They were showing Juergen Teller shooting for HUGO BOSS. It’s hard to imagine now but he was shooting in a similar style as Bruce Weber. And back then, there was hardly any other resource to know or see further so I planted that single information in my head.
During the 90s, what was the relationship like between photography and fashion?
In each era, without a doubt, images incorporating the leading technology of the time creates the era. And fashion brand creating that new image would become the top seller. Therefore, the transition of photographical technology goes hand in hand with how the style of fashion changes. The further you go back in history, photography was more of a technical work. There was a time when film as well as cameras were in poor quality to a point no image would show if your exposure setting wasn’t perfect. And this makes the 90s’ cheap and high-quality compact camera all the more so inventive. Before then, in the 80s for example, a style represented by Richard Avedon was considered most beautiful, cutting out a scene of a model in dynamic posing with clothes flaring in the wind as if the time had stopped. The 90s generation snapped the streets whimsically with their compact camera. And one of the stars born out of that time was Terry Richardson.
Were there any relativity between those generations or solidarity between the old and the new generations?
Like with anything, it’s probably most common for the new generation to go against the most recent generation in building their own era. And yet, there has been a history of one generation before the recent backing up the rebelling of the brand new gens. For example, photographer Nick Knight, known for his vividly distinct work, had immediately given jobs to artist like Juergen Teller recognizing his talent that focused on snap shots. As for fashion, there’s a whole story about Jean Paul Gaultier recognizing his assistant Martin Margiela’s gift and helping him in ways to support his path. It had been a tradition in a way for superstars of the past generation to discover and support the talents of new generation. But perhaps that trend has been disappearing since around 2000.
Considering the fashion today, it seems that there are many key players between the Jean Paul Gaultier generation and the Martin Margiela generation.
In my view, Margiela was in some ways inspired by COMME DES GARÇONS and YOHJI YAMAMOTO. I believe he deeply resonated with them in finding beauty hidden in the area that is not, as we might say, in the overly decorative fashion. He might have also been inspired by ISSEY MIYAKE just as much— although, this is only an assumption from what I heard during the time I was in Paris. The designer Issey Miyake had been more engaged in the world of art, crafts, and architecture, and didn’t mingle much in the neck of the woods of fashion celebrities. I feel like Margiela was inspired by that distance Miyake had created. And he additionally mixed the concept of modern art to his style. When I went to Paris in my young days, I also heard from the fashion freaks how “Martin was inspired by the view of i-D Magazine editorials created by Christopher Nemeth and Mark Lebon.” I’m sure the later Kim Jones and John Galliano had played a role too, But there’s no doubt that what Nemeth created had become the foundation of designing for all modern designers.
How did you view the presence of Christopher Nemeth during that time?
He constantly created what he wanted instead of making complicated expression presupposing a concept. And that attitude is what many designers most admired him about. The attitude to really make what you want to create and not be forced to create by external factors such as seasons and many other rules. His style was also extremely simple and pure how he created his items in the studio behind his shop. He was a true designer and a creator.
We also would like to ask you about the societal roles of fashion. Moving far back from the 90s fashion, tell us about the history in ways how fashion has been tied to women’s social advancement as it is represented by Coco Chanel.
Although that period seems far back in history, I believe that the ancestral idea of fashion that continues to live past the 90s to today is based on that generation. At the very root of it, there’s history of men’s clothing. And the technology, material, and detail cultivated through that were integrated in women’s clothing design which ties into women’s advancement in society. For example, in the old days, Coco Chanel had incorporated jersey fabric that had been used for men’s underwear, Yves Saint Laurent launched ‘Le Smoking’, the first tuxedo style for women. The CHANEL jacket was also created by modifying tweed hunting jacket. And after those innovative design have had all been presented, form and decorative aspect of clothes became the center of designing.
In fashion post 90s, I get the impression that there had been a shift from form and decorative approach to more conceptual approach with newly emerged designers.
That time in history was key to fashion even for today’s design. I believe that the trend towards exploring new values had accelerated post Margiela. I still remember the episode I heard from Elein of PURPLE, how people on the subway laughed at Margiela’s tabi boots she wore because it looked like pig feet. There are such issues of cultural differences in people’s perspective. And yet, there are also ways to purposely target those taboos in Western value. For example, although Europeans may think of black colored nails in relation to a dead person, there’s been a case where that was in a fashion show. So going back to the point earlier, post Margiela along with women’s advancement in society, the direction had greatly shifted from value in exploring new form of clothing to designing social concepts.
I think of Helmut Lang as one of the designers of that time who had changed the social concepts (of fashion).
Helmut Lang has definitely created a shift in the history too. He had expressed what we now call genderless and had treated male and female models in the same manner on the runway. He also minimalized the design aspect in order to bring out the inner-self of the person. And what’s important in that is how he designed knowing the rules of men’s wear. For example, jackets, as they are also called sports coat, are supposed to have room for movement around the shoulders and in sleeves. But in his design, he purposely narrowed the shoulder width to create a lengthy silhouette and adjusted the sleeve length to that of coat sleeves. It would simply become a wrong sized jacket if the shoulder width and sleeve lengths were both smaller but it became a high-quality design by making the sleeves longer. I find that to be the root of the family tree that leads to today’s narrow silhouette style. Today, many people wear narrow suits in Japan, right? He drastically changed the value of what had been cool with the big shoulder pads. Although, those power shoulders are back again (laughing).
Are there players that absolutely played a major role who doesn’t appear in the textbook of fashion history?
BERNADETTE CORPORATION would be one that definitely changed the fashion history and yet is hard to receive recognition for it. It’s a brand based in New York created by Bernadette Van Huy in early 90s whose crew consisted mostly of Asians. The brand expressed a connection between art and fashion before Susan Cianciolo did. What best describes their style is a combination of the Japanese biker gang uniform with “天上天下唯我独尊” written on it plus cornrows on the head (laughing). They were most likely the first to bring hip-hop style onto the runway. They were also the first to introduce a parody of RALPH LAUREN’s preppy style which I believe Thom Browne was inspired by. BERNADETTE CORPORATION had an expression only Asians could express such as parody of white people brand or bringing out an objective perspective of black culture. And they still had photographers like Mario Sorrenti and Harmony Korine around them. One of the members, a Vietnamese American Thuy Pham was a stylist for Harmony Korine’s movie, Julien Donkey-Boy, and later became a designer for UNITED BAMBOO. They had quit the brand before they saw profit so in the view of a creator, that makes them a true pioneer. It was just something playful people with good taste had done which would not be recognized by the so-called critics of fashion industry. The only ones that followed them were Fumihiro Hayashi, the chief editor of DUNE, and Elein and Olivier of PURPLE.
Tell us about the New York street scene back then. I believe that trend had formed the context that led to today’s street fashion.
The big boss of that scene was Colin de Land. He was the founder of the American Fine Arts gallery and had created an archetype of street culture, a path leading to SUPREME via Alleged Gallery. He truly had eyes for art and was the type who would tell his sponsoring artist to “go to a bigger gallery” when their career started to take off. Because Colin existed, creators like Aaron Rose could come about and start Alleged Gallery sponsoring artists such as Mark Gonzalez, Terry Richardson, and more. In magazines of those days, you can see Colin’s wide network of people he had. For example, Wolfgang Tillmans’ photography subjects during his visit to New York were all Colin’s friends because Collin had showed him around the city. There were people like Elizabeth Peyton and members of BERNADETTE CORPORATION I mentioned earlier in those photos.
Around the same time, what did you see in the trend of Ura-Harajuku which was another spot showcasing the 90s scene? I believe the phenomenon of that scene has also greatly influenced the fashion today.
Japanese magazines back then had portrayed the scene solely in perspective of consumption and not as culture. But things like what Virgil Abloh is doing today have flowed down from the headstream of Ura-Hara. The Ura-Hara people had studied the essence of workwear and everyday outfits such as t-shirts and jeans, and finessed them to have deep quality in fashion. If a critic like Suzy Menkes had written about their activity as creating a culture instead of simply consuming, perhaps designers like NIGO and Tetsu Nishiyama of WTAPS might have become a director of major fashion brand. And their ideas really could have become the mainstream of today’s high fashion.
What type of field do you think created this phenomenon that occurred in New York, Paris, and Tokyo at the same time?
What I can say from what I actually saw is that there was PURPLE and DUNE at the core of 90s culture. And that stream of culture happened through the relationship of people involved. I have to say there might be counter opinion to that statement… But coeval connections had positively spawned from it, say, between people like Terry Richardson, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Dash Snow of IRAK. When Elein and Olivier of PURPLE visited Japan for the first time, they asked me to set up a dinner with Hayashi and I still can’t forget how they were calling him “Ayashi” because they couldn’t pronounce “Hayashi” (laughing). Out of all fashion magazines in the world, there were only two magazines, PURPLE and DUNE, that hired Terry Richardson as a photographer back then.
When they all met, did they actually identify with each other?
Although Olivier and Hayashi got along well, Elein and Hayashi were much like oil and water (laughing). Elein wasn’t having Hayashi’s funky attitude (laughing). I tried to back him up by telling her how “he just acts like that because he’s really shy.” Either way, they all introduced me to many young talents before they become somebody so I could associate with them on the same ground. For example, when Sofia Coppola was in Japan for her Lost in Translation shoot, Hayashi had forced me to come out saying, “Come now! There will be no point in meeting her after she becomes famous!” And even though I was hesitant since I had no interest in famous people back then, those experiences had ultimately turned into a great fortune of mine.
Interview text_ SHINGO ISOYAMA