INTERVIEW: Fabien Baron on Kate, craft and creativity
The most sought-after creative director in the world reveals why the last 36 years have been 'a blast of good times' in this Christmas Long Read
Fabien Baron has never really had an off day. Over the past three-and-a-half decades, the French-born, world-famous art director has produced work at a consistent level of excellence, whether he’s creating typography, packaging, product, furniture, or interior design. How has he gone from launching Kate Moss’s commercial career, to packaging up Madonna’s most infamous project, to branching into film?
In this interview, which precedes the publication of his new monograph, Fabien Baron: Works 1983-2019, he says it’s partly thanks to a sincere focus on his own personal craftsmanship, and partly thanks to him not taking work too seriously at all. Read on to discover why, for Baron, the last 36 years have been a “a blast of good times.”
Your work with Kate Moss and Mario Sorrenti has gone down in history. What did you see when you first came across them? And were you surprised by the instant appeal of those images?
I remember Mario’s first work, when he came to see me at Harper’s Bazaar. He did not have a portfolio with him, instead he showed me a journal he was constantly working on, filled with Polaroids, drawings, cut up C-prints, words, graffiti, etc. I was impressed how real and pure the small pictures were. Mario was going out with Kate at the time, they were madly in love, and you could feel that passion in the pictures he had taken of her in his journal. They felt so intimate, unpretentious and magnetic. I hired Mario on the spot for Bazaar and a bit later for a fashion campaign for Calvin Klein with Kate.
There was so much passion going on between the two of them on set, it was unreal. It is there that I thought Mario should shoot Calvin’s OBSESSION fragrance campaign. I wanted the pictures to be real and untouched, I wanted the rawness of their love; so, I proposed to Calvin that we send them on a vacation and for Mario to record their time together just like in his journal. I did not want a crew, or any assistants. Just them. Calvin loved the idea. So they went to Jamaica for a week’s vacation to take pictures, and shoot a film with a 16mm camera. And that was that - one of the most memorable fragrance campaigns ever.
Your book goes from 1983 up until 2019. Did you notice different waves within your work as you put it together? Stylistically it seems that you arrived fully formed. I think I’ve always had recurrent themes in my work, even from my early years of working. I also have never made a difference between an assignment or an artistic exploration. I’ve treated all the work with the same approach: a certain boldness, a search for simplicity, purity, provocation, and contemplation. To put this book together was very interesting because it also helped me define these patterns more precisely, to juxtapose work from different periods together, to examine the similitudes but also the contradictions. The book is organized in chapters representing different mindsets for this very reason.
It's rare for someone to have such a long, successful career in fashion, without going in and out of favour. Why have you succeeded, do you think? Every time I work on something new, I feel like it’s my first time. Still today, I want to deliver the best possible work, give it my best effort without compromise. It is more tiring to approach work this way, but I put a lot of pride in the work I do. I want the work to be good and most of all I want the work to be honest.
I’ve spent years relentlessly learning different crafts, navigating all different mediums: graphic design, photography, film, furniture making, etc. I’ve given it the time and energy to understand its vocabulary, its techniques, etc. It’s called craft, and I believe craft is one of the most important skills we can always improve on to help ourselves express a point of view. I’ve never cut corners to do things half-way. Maybe thinking in those terms helped me stay in tune with the world around me and kept me relevant.
Fashion is almost always a collaborative process. Who, from the past, would you have liked to work with for whatever reason? I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best photographers, editors, models, hair and makeup people in the world. But if there was one person I would have loved to work with it would have to been Guy Bourdin. I grew up looking at his pictures in Paris Vogue, and I fell in love with my job basically because of him. He was my hero photographically speaking. I simply loved the way he was looking at the world.
Kate Moss says you always seemed to know what the world is waiting for before it did. Is that harder now that the world moves so much more quickly? I hope she is right! Hahahahaha…I think I have had good intuition in the past, but that is mainly because I keep an open mind, and I do not discard any options or become a snob about my own ideas. The world is full of options, and certain concepts are always floating, and sometimes it is just a matter of packaging them in your own very personal way for them to resonate.
What’s a typical Fabien Baron day when you’re not working? I’ve never had the feeling of working in my life. It’s been a blast of good times.
In the book you write very eloquently about viewing shapes and letters as feelings and emotions. Can you remember how it felt making the leap from two dimensional text to three dimensional product? ____ When experimenting with any new medium, I always get very excited by the challenges that are ahead of me. I've never been scared. It’s always been the perfect occasion for me to learn something new, and to refine my own craft. Going 3D was actually a real inspiration for 2D work such as magazine work or photography. I think knowledge works in every direction.
There are a couple of occasions in the introduction to the book - one referring to turning down a Conde Nast job and another when you talk about your Madonna Sex cover where you intimate that you were unafraid then and that today you are very careful. Is that to do with age and experience or perhaps a change in the creative environment? I think when you're young and unknown, you’re are ready to take lot of risks, and when you’re successful and have a certain notoriety—it is not that you have to compromise, as this is still difficult for me but let’s just say that you have a legacy and a body of work that you need to protect, so you put more thought into a decision. And ageing also makes you wiser.
We've heard that you'd like to branch into film for the next part of your life. You’ve made a career of communicating the story, so what would be the story that would hook you in to a film? I’ve always loved film. I find it the most appealing and rewarding form of expression today. To be able to work an idea through the many complex layers that construct a film is one of the most exciting and challenging enterprises for me today. I had the luck to learn the craft with some of the best teams out there, and I’ve done more than 150 short commercial films to date. To work on a longer form film would be a natural step forward for me, as I believe I am ready. In fact, I am currently working on a scenario to make this happen.
The photo painting series, Liquid Light and the Fragments series of photos in the book are particularly pleasing. Could a second career as a fine artist also beckon? During my entire career, I have always dedicated a fair amount of my personal time to develop my own work. It's been very important to me to build my own world, especially after spending so much time building the world of others. I needed the balance, and the ability to express my own ideas freely without limitations and not for a particular audience. All these years, I was able to accumulate a huge archive of different works, some being sampled in the book. I feel it is now time for that work to exist in a bigger way, and for me to give it the proper attention and finalize it.
Part design manual, part manifesto, Fabien Baron: Works 1983-2019 is the first career retrospective of Fabien Baron, an immersive visual survey of more than 30 years of award-winning art direction, design, and image-making. Using examples taken from across the entire range of his work - including typography, packaging, product, furniture, and interior design - Baron's book communicates his aesthetic logic with clarity and style. With text by acclaimed author Adam Gopnik and a foreword by worldfamous super model Kate Moss, this is an intimate insider's visit with a true fashion, photography, and design visionary. Fabien Baron: Works 1983-2019 is available for pre order now.