Photograph by Mark Heithoff
Sex and design, not that long ago, were total strangers—at least in magazines. You could have sex and fashion, as Helmut Newton had memorably proved in Vogue, and you could have fashion and design, as Alexey Brodovitch, Harper’s Bazaar’s legendary art director from 1934 to 1958, had shown. But Fabien Baron’s remarkable 1992 redesign of Bazaar, under editor Liz Tilberis, brought them together under one elegant, sensuous roof. Baron also introduced art-world and European photographers (Mario Testino, David Sims, Cindy Sherman, Craig McDean, Mario Sorrenti, Raymond Meier, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Inez van Lamsweerde, and Vinoodh Matadin) to the fashion world for the first time, permanently altering our perception of what a fashion photographer does.
That redesign is still a benchmark in the magazine world, but it’s hardly Baron’s sole claim to fame. Some other iconic achievements include his design of the cK One perfume bottle, one of the quintessential products of the nineties; his vision for ad campaigns for Burberry, Hugo Boss, Asprey, Balenciaga, Prada, and Armani; his ongoing work at French Vogue as creative director under editor Carine Roitfeld; his furniture designs for Cappellini and Bernhardt; and the list goes on.
But even the man who designed Madonna’s Sex book looks amused when it’s suggested that he instigated the design-sex partnership. “It’s probably because I’m French,” says Baron, sitting in the serene yet decadent Soho loft where he’s lived for the past eight years with his wife, Malin, and their daughter Eva, the youngest of his three children. “Sexuality in Europe is much more open than it is here,” he says. “Here, it’s such a hypocritical society. I mean, Clinton gets impeached for a blow job, while Bush creates a war that kills thousands of people, and that’s fine.”
His politics sound typically French, but Baron has felt the wrath of the right personally; he was investigated by the FBI for the infamous 1995 Calvin Klein Jeans campaign that featured young models lolling in what looked like suburban basements. Critics likened it to child pornography. “That was a huge scandal,” he recalls. “It was a bit too much—we didn’t do anything bad.” The models were all legal and the shoot was completely aboveboard, but the campaign was so transgressively suggestive that people were, in effect, seduced into outrage.
It was classic Baron, a man for whom sex and suggestion are one and the same, and who finds porn itself “very cold.”
“It’s so mechanical—it’s not very exciting,” he says. “What’s sexy is what you see in your imagination. It’s not the dress; it’s what you imagine behind the dress. You have to create desire, envy. That’s what we do when we sell fragrance and fashion and magazines.”
Baron grew up in Paris, the son of a magazine art director. He came to New York at 23; his first magazine job was at GQ, in 1982, where Bruce Weber was making his name. By the late eighties, he was multitasking prodigiously, producing Barneys’ famous ads with Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and Naomi Campbell, and working on Franca Sozzani’s Italian Vogue and Ingrid Sischy’s Interview, all at the same time. By 1992, when he landed at Bazaar, he was a ubiquitous design star.
And a new kind of star at that: a “creative director,” which in short order became the most-sought-after (and then clichéd) title of the nineties.
“I was the first person to have that title,” he says. “I didn’t want to be just the art director!”