Nick Knight on SHOWstudio’s Beginnings and the Early Days of Online Fashion

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Photographer Nick Knight launched SHOWstudio 15 years ago as a venue for the fashion films he'd already been making for years. Since then, it's become a juggernaut, featuring collaborations with everyone from Alexander McQueen and John Galliano to Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. Knight spoke to the Cut about the early days of online fashion and how he convinced so many high-profile figures to take part in the Wild West that was the Web 1.0.

You started filming your shoots back in the '80s. Was there ever an eye toward doing something with them later? Or was it just about having that footage and archiving it?
It started because I was watching my shoots and thinking, This is amazing, what I’m seeing here. The one that sort of made me say, "I’m going to have to go on with this": I was working with Naomi Campbell when she was first starting out. She had a beautiful scarlet Yohji Yamamoto coat on and was moving in front of a white background, listening to a track that her friend Prince had given her from his new album, which hadn’t been released yet. I thought, There’s six people in the whole world who are going to see this: the hairdresser, the art director, and my assistants, and that’s it. What a shame. So then I said, "I’ll just put a camera on a tripod in the back of the studio and keep some record of this."

I started doing that from about 1988 onward, filming everything I did, shoot-wise. Originally it was very, very low-key. It was just a camera on a tripod in the back of the studio. It got a little more advanced as the years went on, and I thought, This is something really interesting. We’re doing stills of [clothing], but it moves really beautifully. What a shame there’s no showing that. If a designer creates a garment, it’s to be seen in movement, and we’re always representing it in a still image. If you could make a film about just that garment moving, then that must be closer to the original intentions of the designer. I thought about releasing a VHS cassette every month that we would mail out.

Like a subscription service.
Instead of doing just a magazine, I thought we’d do a VHS and that was the embryonic idea for SHOWstudio. Then of course, years later, all of a sudden you have a platform for it. It was kind of clear right from the beginning that fashion film was something that was going to happen or should happen. Guy Bourdin did amazing fashion films, and so did Bob Richardson. So did Erwin Blumenfeld. You start to recognize a lot of very important fashion photographers have looked at film as a medium because people who create imagery are normally excited by imagery in all its forms. Erwin Blumenfeld, making short fashion films to show to his clients at the time, like Saks or [other] big department stores, said, "Look, why don’t we advertise on television instead of in magazines, because television is sort of a really exciting new medium, and look, you can make fashion move!” But of course television didn’t really catch on to fashion the way, perhaps, he hoped it would have done. TV is so much about the ratings and getting as many people to watch a program as possible. They only ever treated fashion as scandal or trivia. It wasn’t until the internet came along that there was actually a platform for fashion film.

One of the things I like about some of these early films is that they have this unaffected quality, because people don’t know this is going to be for a bigger audience, necessarily. So you have that great film of Kate Moss singing "Diamond Blues." And then also the surveillance footage film you did of her from 1995.
Kate really liked that film. She wrote to me after we put it out and said, "I’m so glad you filmed it."

You also have some never-before-seen McQueen-related footage you did that you released recently as part of your project "Unseen McQueen." 
The V&A put on the very successful exhibition that was at the Met, "Savage Beauty." We thought it would be really lovely, in tandem with that, to [post] seven films of McQueen, so then you add some interesting things that I’d done of him in the past. All the footage from behind-the-scenes of shoots I did with him, which of course had never been seen before. I don’t go back into my archive a lot, but when I go back in there, there are some great things. Plenty of years of basically shot-in-real-time, fly-on-the-wall documentary. Nobody’s directing it, nobody’s rehearsing it, it’s just real. So the access is very instant and very direct. You really get into the heart of whatever’s happening in the studio.

For "Unseen McQueen," we released just the footage that was shot on those shoots, and you see Alexander McQueen working with me or with [dancer] Michael Clark. As you said, it’s quite rare. There’s very little footage of Lee around. I had a lot of footage of him working and talking and that’s so priceless, all that material. We spent two or three months putting it all together.

You were making these without having a huge audience in mind at the time.
I don’t think it’s prudent to work for your audience, really. That’s probably something they should tell all artists: Don’t consider your audience when creating a piece of work. Consider what your own emotional desire is. Don’t consider whether people will like it or not. You shouldn’t care about that. You should care about making the best piece of work. If people like it, great. If they don’t like it, tough, but you made it for your own reasons.

When you started the site in 2000, what was the response like? Were people confused because this was such a new medium? Did they need to be persuaded to participate or were people pretty much onboard right away? Who were some of the first people you collaborated with?
I think people were pretty excited, to be honest. People don’t often get asked to do new things. Newness is something strange in the fashion industry; it’s actually quite rare. I made one of the early pieces of Alexander McQueen making a man into a woman, but he did that live. It was one of our first broadcasts, and it’s called "The Bridegroom Stripped Bare." It starts off with a man in a white suit, and [McQueen] rips the sleeves off, surrounds him in tape, cuts back up, cuts the seams open, turns the whole thing inside out, throws white paint all over him. It eventually transforms the suit into a bridal dress. That was a live performance McQueen did. Where else is he going to do that? For him to be able to sort of perform in that way was a thrill, and I think the models found it such, the designers the same.

You’ve especially got to remember that a lot of mainstream fashion media is pretty — I mean, how do I say it in a nice way? It’s a bit straight, you know? McQueen obviously wanted to create really compelling and strong imagery, and there aren’t that many places that would carry that. To give [people] more of a platform and to remove the kind of restrictions that are in place by the sort of commercialness of a lot of mainstream fashion media — to be able to say things you can’t really say, to do things you can’t normally do — we were met with pretty much a lot of enthusiasm about it. Obviously people had no idea of the reach of it and what would happen to it and where it was going, but nobody really cared. People just want to do things.