Tuesday, 15 November 2011

After Tretchikoff...

Stylist John William and photographer Holly Falconer’s first editorial for Let Them Eat Cake is a colourful exploration of ethnicity in fashion and the cultural legacy of Vladimir Tretchikoff. They were keen to talk me through their concept before publication. And as I’m always ready to talk big ideas, visual minutiae and the eccentric print-buying habits of the Great British Housewife, I let them. It begins in the middle, like all great conversations…

JW: … I love Tretchikoff’s paintings because he comes from a very naïve place, because he’s just painting what he finds beautiful in a way that he finds beautiful. I feel that when I use African iconography in my work it’s in the same spirit: it comes from a place of love and inspiration.

HF: Really? Because when I look at what you do it seems so much more sophisticated than anything by Tretchikoff. You learn a lot more about the models, it’s more layered…

JW: I think that’s because this is 2011. In the way you shoot people and the way I style them, there’s a lack of polish; we like reality. With Tretchikoff there’s absolutely no lack of polish in his execution but there is in the way he presents non-white identity.

HF: We began by imagining his paintings hanging in middleclass living rooms across Britain in the sixties. The first layer of this project was to bring in an acknowledgement that isn’t present in Tretchikoff’s painting, a really emphatic acknowledgment that we’re coming at African culture from a very British place, hence the use of wallpaper. With its design, we were also drawing on Ndebele house painting, a type of South African art that became really popular in the late nineteenth century when the Ndebele people lost a war against white Boer farmers. To the Boers they just looked like patterns, but they allowed communities to communicate without outsiders realizing it. In the portraits I’ve made you’ve got a mixture of standard Tretchikoff poses – some of which are highly sexualized, others of which are thoughtful or smiling – mixed in with something quite real about the models, something that I caught in the moment. Similarly, in the balance between kitsch wallpaper and Ndebele house painting, there’s both an acknowledgement of something Western with something secret behind it.”

JW: With the styling, the makeup and the lighting on top of all that, it was meant to be quite obvious that me, as the stylist, and Bea, as the make up artist, that we are taking these two real people, Harry and Sienna, and we’re literally putting on them our version of the story. Tretchikoff created his own version of exoticness and otherness; we were doing that too but in a way that was obvious.

HF: It’s beyond cliché; we’re doing something interesting with it.

JW: In many ways for me this story is part of an ongoing life project. I use a lot of African iconography in my work as a stylist; African style is something I find very inspiring. I’m not scared of using non-white models and piecing together stories using non-white iconography. I see it as something important, something that I should be doing. Engaging with cliché can be powerful provided you’re using it for a reason. The problem arises when you have a rich fashion magazine engaging with black stereotypes and it doesn’t seem to be doing so for any reason at all: “Oh, Lanvin’s brought out some new tribal-esque jewellery, let’s shoot it on black models.” I want to engage with my model on a personal level. I want to tell a story and put something of the model into the work. That makes it important to engage with different cultures, whether we’re talking ethnicity or something else.

HF: This shoot was really important for me in terms of models. I find it disturbing that so many agencies have such a small number of black models.

JW: People, regardless of their background or skin colour, shouldn’t feel scared to explore other cultures beyond their experience so long as they engage, and so long as they have a reason. That seems okay to me because the only way people can learn is by being curious. What I want to see in fashion is more thought - that’s across fashion and styling and photography as a whole. All too often what you’ll see is a black girl arrive at a shoot and the stylist immediately says “let’s do a bright orange lip”. Of course, they can do that but I want them to understand why they’re doing it. With these images, and images I create in general, I’m not saying I have any answers, just lots of questions. I want people to ask questions. I’m curious and I want other people to be curious too. I just want people to talk about and think about these things.

HF: Absolutely. Tretchikoff’s paintings represent what can happen when you can go too far with embracing stereotypes. The poses in his paintings and the ideas expressed by them are very, very colonial. And that’s something that fashion can sometimes be, one of the last bastions of colonialism.

JW: When you see Vogue shooting yet another skinny white girl jumping up and down with Masai tribesmen wearing Alexander McQueen, it’s not right. They haven’t engaged with any respect or curiosity. It’s not about exploration but exploitation. Yes, it’s okay to occasionally cross the line and make mistakes but you should know you’re doing it and do so with respect. A skinny white girl surrounded by non-white people… Vogue have been doing that same shoot once a year forever!

HF: The point is that that’s not what’s great and what’s exciting about England and Britain today. What’s exciting is the last forty years when we learnt to embrace other cultures instead of fetishising them. It’s what Edward Said said in Orientalism: it’s not just about prettifying other cultures to make them distant and safe. With this shoot we’ve tried to show a bit of tension: in the wallpaper and in the models, posed generically sometimes and at other times being themselves. It’s almost like the people and the cultures depicted in Tretchikoff’s paintings are fighting back years later.

See the full shoot here.


Photography: Holly Falconer
Styling: John William
Hair and make Up: Bea Sweet
Models: Sienna @ FM and Harry @ M&P

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