Venetia Scott is the stylist who stripped away the impenetrable veneer of fashion in the early 90’s. Together with photographer Juergen Teller, her sense of spirit dismantled existing preconceptions of glamour and brought personality as well as earthy grit to dressing. Iconic shoots of ‘non’-models such as Kate Moss in left-of centre style magazines such as The Face and i-D looked more like exercises in wardrobe rather than seasonal trends.
But that’s not to say there isn’t a sense of contrast in Venetia’s work. The romance, ‘easy’, on-location in fields juxtaposing a more ‘powerful’ style (which is often studio based, a nod to artifice more necessary to evoke that energy, perhaps). Scott has a portfolio, or book as they’re known, for each; as well as one for her own photography.
She talks through an archive as relevant today as it was fifteen, nearly twenty years ago. The message loud and clear; pages holding iconic editorial such as 1994’s ‘The Magic Show’ for The Face – as well as campaigns for Katherine Hamnett, Anna Molinari and Marc Jacobs. Plus works for Self Service, AnOther Magazine and Nova, which Scott worked on the relaunch of around the turn of the millennium.
We meet in her west London studio, a light and airy space dominated by a long, sturdy wooden table in the middle. Ideal for chatting around, it’s perhaps an evocative metaphor for the most personable, warm and zero-bullshit of leading lights around.
Dean Mayo Davies: Your work is quite focused on personalities, which is the crux of the way you apply yourself I think. If you were to go on a trip and shoot in Cornwall, would you get to know your models first?
Venetia Scott: Well, I think half the idea of shooting on location is for the trip you’re going to have and the adventure you’re going to have – the time that you can take people away from their normal environment and it’s very concentrated. More intense than it would be if they come in the morning and then leave in the evening. I quite like keeping my models there overnight and having them in a different environment… I want to have a connection with them.
It’s true that you catalysed this approach for other imagemakers too. This ‘emotive’ viewpoint and sensibility. It’s the location work that showcases this so well, there’s not so much studio from your early days…
No. Now though it’s probably half and half. Studio probably works better in showing the other side of my work, where it isn’t really about a narrative, where it’s more about this ‘power’ of the person and how they project themselves. Not at all about being in an environment.
You have this split in approach that is ultimately complimentary overall, when you look at your body of work as a whole. Do you have a shoot that’s been particularly memorable for you?
The story I shot for AnOther in Cornwall was exciting because it was one of my first photo shoots. And I guess going to Romania was memorable. We, Juergen and I, didn’t really know each other very well, so we had that funny experience of going on a trip with someone you don’t know very well.
Were you put together by an editor?
No, we met in Paris beforehand. I went to work with [Jean-Baptiste] Mondino and they shared the same agent. And then we said ‘when we get back to London, we should meet up and look at each other’s books’. We did that and about two weeks later we went off on this trip.
And that was 1990?
…Or I think it might’ve been ’89.
You started at British Vogue, which is maybe something people don’t associate you with, they know The Face and i-D but this not so much. How was that experience?
I think from about fourteen I thought I’d like to work at British Vogue. When I was around nineteen I met someone who was typing for their advertising department, and she got me the job there, a summer job. Then I decided not to go to university and stay there. Every day, walking in there, that entrance and the typeface… [Laughs]. Everything connected. I worked for the advertising department then I worked for Beatrix Miller who was Editor-in-Chief. I then shifted as quickly as possible into the fashion room and worked for a girl called Sophie Hicks, then Nikki Brewster. And then I was Grace [Coddington]’s assistant. After that I left, but still did a few freelance jobs for them.
Do you think that period built you, and what was to become your take on fashion? What’s interesting is that Terry Jones worked in the art department at Vogue before setting up i-D, which was, again, something totally opposite. Did working at Vogue have the effect of making you different?
I think I loved the 80’s discipline of it. We’d all wear Azzedine Alaïa, these tight belts and heels and the fashion room was full of glass tables that you were only allowed to put three things on. White lilies and nothing else. Everything was very rigid, and I liked that force – the women were very strong; a whole room full of sexy, strong women. I left when I did because Grace went to America, so there wasn’t a job for me – I probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise, unless I got pushed out. With that I guess there was a certain amount of anger, and I wanted to react completely against everything. People like Margiela were beginning to do shows and there were no seats, there was no hierarchy. It was in a tube station and even Anna Wintour had to pile in to this cold location. I loved that breaking down of the structure there’d been. At Vogue, the editor Beatrix Miller was like the reigning queen and we were all terrified of her. As the assistant you’d have to go and buy their shopping for the weekend and the chicken had to come from this butcher, Allens; groceries from Hannells; flowers from Pulbrook & Gould. It was a great experience to see that level of… taste, in a way, but when I left I didn’t want anything to do with it. I loved the belief of Margiela. I started to look at Larry Clark’s books and just wanted to be in a completely different world. The idea at that point of status dressing and Prada handbags… I wanted to react and make it look ridiculous in a way. It all coincided with us going down to Portobello [market] and buying things for a tenner. And then going to these Festivals de la Mode and looking ten times cooler than anybody else. [Laughs]. It felt great and the old guard suddenly looked very old and boring and conservative. There was this surge of energy, people like David Sims and Nigel Shafran and Corinne [Day] and Juergen. We were being invited to all these things and couldn’t really believe it – we’d done these shoots for The Face and i-D but we didn’t think we were actually being noticed. It was done in quite an isolated way and then it suddenly gained this impetus and huge influence – Marc Jacobs did his grunge collection based on the music scene of Seattle but it was also influenced by what was coming out of London. That infiltrated, then American Vogue decided they should have a bit of it and it started becoming mainstream…
Did you source a lot of your clothes from Portobello market?
We’d spend hours – Friday mornings we’d all be down there. I used to love it. And then go and have a coffee… I don’t think we worked so much then, so we’d spend three weeks or a month on every editorial, getting the tiniest details and thinking of the characterisation. What sort of shoes they’d wear, having to find that specific thing that’d convey a bit more of the character they were. It was very much like doing a film and building up – we’d go on a trip and you’d imagine the characters in it; where they’d go and where they’d sleep and what they’d wear. We were inventing the characters. We might go to Australia and pick a girl who was a graphic design student, then we’d take her off to this hippie commune called Nimbin and we’d reinvent her and make her that girl. It wasn’t documentation – if it was successful it might look like it was documentary but actually it was make believe.
The establishment being dressed in immaculate, almost bulletproof looks. And yourself and your contemporaries taking, for want of a better term, ‘anti-fashion’ and making that more covetable. I love the abrasiveness of it.
That’s how it seemed. We were going to the Paris shows and suddenly everyone was focusing on us. Not that that was important, but there was a certain relish, it felt anarchic and great. The end of an era, reacting against the establishment that had been in place and showing people that weren’t with perfect athletic bodies, trying to convey more the spirit of somebody. Using people that would never have been cast before.
Would the way you dressed correlate with the way your shoots looked? Would you dress in that manner?
I think we mixed it up, yes. We all had long John Galliano skirts and big army coats over the top.
That’s what you’ve given this generation the freedom to do…
Except now it’s shot in looks. When I first started at Vogue you’d get all the clothes in, have your rail and you’d make looks. Whereas now the designers do the looks. You can’t mix Chanel now with other designers – the power of advertising is that if you don’t do it in the way that they want you to shoot it then the magazines become scared that they’ll lose the cash. When I first started there wasn’t really any bargaining power between the advertisers and editorial; they were two completely separate things. Now it’s ‘I’ll take out a couple of pages and you give me a couple of pages’.
It’s a relationship now, which I find terrifying. I don’t know where it’ll end up, and it does increasingly feel like we’ll never be able to go back…
No, no. It’s like when you do a shoot and the client is on it with you – if you let them in too much you’ve had it. It’s best to either not have them on it or keep yourself a bit scary so they don’t feel they can chip in all the time. You’re never going be able to create the vision otherwise. With the screen and the digital they’re all there and on it and making decisions like that. Everyone’s got their thing: the hairdresser is looking from that point of view and the client is looking to see whether there’s a crease. If you do it with contact sheets, you’re sitting on a light box, every morning coming back to it and whittling it slowly down. How you’re reacting, looking through this little lupe, trying to look at the face and think how you’re reading that expression. Do you want them to look aggressive towards you or have their guard down, totally connected to you? You’re looking at that, you’re looking at their eyes. With the monitor and ten people around I think… Well, I don’t do that, so…
With the monitor there’s also the question of not knowing when to stop – digital is infinite so ‘we can do twenty more’. There’s a loss of magic and spontaneity. It’s rawness and unpredictability that creates something special…
I mean there’s nothing like looking through the camera. And I suppose with Juergen we were always right there, I was almost looking through the camera as well. If you now open that up with the monitor, you haven’t got that one-on-one, there’s not that intimacy. It’s the difference between spending time alone with a person and in a crowd. And on the styling side now, even if you work for big, biannual magazines, before you start you’ve got ten designers you have to include over twelve pages. So you’re sort of stuck, trying to build up something that looks – like you were saying – like it’s a documentary. How can you do that when you’ve got those restrictions on you? I never really do that, and maybe I’m lucky because I’ve done it for so long. I don’t really have the fear that if I use a pair of sneakers on the end of a Chanel outfit that I’m never going to work again. If you’re new and you’re given ten outfits for ten pages you’re going to shoot them because if you don’t then there’s a real fear you’re not in the magazine next time; you didn’t follow the rules. Whereas I tend to think that I won’t do it – if I don’t work for them again it doesn’t really matter because I’ll work for someone else. Which happens a lot. Someone gets fed up with you and you don’t work for them the next season.
Do you think that’s something rarer these days? People worry more…
I think they play the game much, much more. And there’s even some who I’m so surprised that they’re playing this game – they don’t realise that if they didn’t play it they’d still get the work because they’re good, you know? I was talking to someone, saying ‘why are you doing all this stuff, why are you doing all these shoots?’ And he says because his agent says so, he has to do this, that and the other. You’re the one that’s really in control, you know? I’m amazed that they’re listening to their agents. And I’m amazed by stylists that are also maybe a bit younger than me but sort of my contemporaries, who are established and good, and they’re saying they have to include all these credits. I’ve done shoots with these stylists and I think ‘just say fuck it, it didn’t work’. It doesn’t work within the story. The sense of belief is going to be broken because there’s a Prada shirt sticking out like a sore thumb and we’re meant to be doing Russian prisoners. If you put that in, it’s not believable anymore.
The more people play that game the worse it gets and the more and more is expected. It’s a vicious spiral…
Maybe I’m very lucky because I’ve got a contract with Marc Jacobs. While that goes on I’m ‘safe’, so it’s very easy for me to say ‘fuck it!’ It’s like a safety net.
Can we talk about grunge? You mentioned the Perry Ellis collection by Marc that everyone always references. Were you in contact at that time? How did you meet?
We weren’t in contact at that time. We met in New York because I was styling a Louis Vuitton campaign and I went to Marc to pick up clothes. It must’ve been ’97 or ’96. And then Joe McKenna who was styling the [Marc Jacobs] show went to Jil Sander and had an exclusive, so they were looking for someone else. I’d just actually had Lola, who was three weeks old, and said ‘I don’t want to do it, I just don’t feel like I’m in the right space for it’. And I was in Cornwall. Kim Sion who was my agent then said ‘I really think you should meet up with him’. She normally would say things like ‘I don’t think you need to worry about this’ but she was quite emphatic this time. I said ‘can they come to Cornwall?’ and she said ‘no they can’t – Marc’s frightened of the dark and doesn’t like the country’. [Laughs]. We ended up meeting at our house in London and I got persuaded to do the first show. Lola was about six weeks old then and we flew to New York – I felt terrified about the whole thing. It was my first big show, I hadn’t really styled a show -I’d only done Katharine Hamnett which was quite a chaotic, small production in London. Suddenly I was in New York, the venue was the Armory and it was huge. I hadn’t seen the collection and I thought ‘I want to just pack up and go home’. I really seriously thought after two days I’d have to say ‘this isn’t possible’. But we worked through it and it was great; we won the CFDA award for the show… It was twelve years ago.
And it continued from there. Can you tell us about your role at Marc Jacobs now? Is your title creative director?
The title is creative director, yes. For both lines. But I’m much more involved now on the second line [Marc by Marc Jacobs] –research; colour; fabric; print. Though I still style the shows for first line.
Do you think Marc by Marc correlates with the body of work you’ve built up throughout your career? Or do you not think about that and treat it as a separate entity?
Essentially I think there’s a link between them in that I think the girl puts herself together. The idea for the first show was that every girl would have their own look, they wouldn’t just be used as models, each girl we cast would be a type-of-girl. So they weren’t like mannequins walking out in one dress. Camille Bidault-Waddington styles it and it’s quite layered up and individual. Hopefully our girl doesn’t look like she’s conforming, she’s got her own thing going on and there’s a bit of rebellion in it or character.
It’s about five years you’ve been photographing for magazines now…
Yes I guess it is. It wasn’t really a conscious thing. When Juergen and I stopped working together I did do editorial with different people and I found it increasingly frustrating that I’d be standing there and not seeing it in the way they were seeing it. Whereas with Juergen I felt that I was on the same track. Now I will still work with a photographer – I work with Stephen Shore who I admire, and I would’ve worked with [Helmut] Newton if he was still around. I did some shoots with Horst [Diekgerdes] that I enjoyed too, but on the whole I just… I’d been at Nova and looked through millions of photography books. I just didn’t find that many people worth putting my energy into doing a whole story with. Beth [Fenton, stylist] had been assisting me for about four years and she said ‘you should just do it’. I think she was getting fed up with me going ‘oh, I wouldn’t do it like that’. [Laughs]. I thought ‘oh fuck I should just do it and not think about what anyone’s going to think – when people look at it, they’ll look at it for two minutes’. You know when you go through magazines and you go ‘oh this is crap and this is crap…’? Just do it. It’s quite good mental training to just think of that day and not the next. People get so afraid about others’ responses that they just don’t do anything…
How do you find working with a stylist when you’re taking pictures? You’ve worked with Alister Mackie a few times recently…
I think I’m probably the worst nightmare for stylists! [Laughs]. I’ll get rooting around and be not wanting to shoot things. I like Ali’s energy and it wouldn’t be the same if he wasn’t there, so for me it’s good. But there are other times if I have an idea, I’m probably the only one…
The Vogue Hommes Japan ‘Young America’ shoot was a really special one…
It was great. We actually shot it there [gestures to wall]. I’m shooting more and more there and I like the idea of people coming in… Very much we’re doing it on our own and it’s getting to the most basic thing; we can shoot at home and we don’t have to go out or be in a studio or end at any time. There’s something quite nice about playing, though I know that sounds really trite. It feels like we can have all the clothes and play around for as long as we want to, until everyone wants to go home. Or not. With Alister, we decided to go on and do that knicker shoot at the end of the day, the one that then appeared in Dazed. We did each roll, each picture in ten minutes. Lyle [Lodwick] leaping around to music and Alister grabbing any props he could find around the house – he had a pile of stuff and it would be the businessman in underwear and a tie, a sort of housewifey man on a broom then a superhero man with a shirt buttoned around his neck like a cape. All these different characterisations of man in a way. I’d spent some time with Alister at Serena Rees’ house in Cornwall and their whole sort of thing is endless charades and games, picking a piece of paper out a hat then having to go round the house and find stuff. I remember mine was Victoria Beckham. And they love all that. Next! Two minutes later another character…
How do you see your impact on the world of fashion? Do you reflect on your contribution, your legacy?
I try to work in quite an isolated way here, Poppy [Kain, Scott’s assistant] and I do our thing. It’s almost once the pictures have been handed over – I do the layout and the edit; everything is as controlled as possible – and it’s given to the magazine I don’t really think about it. But I suppose what I’m trying to project is what people are getting. I certainly have an idea of what I see and what I’m trying to project when I do the pictures or the styling. Funnily enough, I don’t really hear anything [Laughs]. Poppy does! Because she goes out more. But I don’t really have any feedback, it’s very disconnected from the fashion business now. I haven’t got a clue who’s doing what within it. So I’m not going to go to a party and have feedback. In a way I don’t really mind that. I find magazines less and less interesting – I don’t really buy magazines or look at magazines. I mean I’ve got a twelve year old and we were talking about it yesterday – she’ll go on the internet and probably look at something like your magazine more. She would not ever go to a newsagent and buy a magazine. And even here when we get sent ones that I’ve got work in, she’s not really interested in it. In a way I’m doing less editorial because it seems a bit tired now.
You have a very strong collaboration with Margaret Howell that’s been going on for five or six seasons now…
Yes. That came about because Kim Sion is art director with Michael Nash and they suggested me to Margaret. From the first days of being at Vogue, ’87, there was the Azzedine Alaïa side and then there was the Bruce Weber/Margaret Howell side. They were the two things that if you had any money you’d spend it on.
Does Margaret give you a degree of autonomy over the imagery you produce?
Yes, she completely does. Nobody comes on the shoot. We just did this one here [gestures at polaroids] and it was just us. I think that’s quite unusual for the model – they come here and we just shoot it. Three or four of us…
You’re right, that’s probably something the model has never experienced before. They weren’t working in the early 90’s when you started, they’ve probably only been modelling a year or two years. And if they’ve done a big campaign with twenty or so people on set… it’s interesting.
I don’t know in the beginning if they’re a bit confused by it. If they’re thinking ‘oh when are they coming?’ and nobody does come. [Laughs]. But because the girls work every day and are travelling to new places with new teams, when they come here it probably feels a bit like being at home or a ‘downtime’ day. They ask what I want them to do and I say ‘nothing, you’re fine’. And the boys say ‘do you want me to throw shapes?’! I mean you can if you want to. [Laughs]. ‘This is the first shoot that I haven’t had to throw shapes’… They say. [Laughs]. Here they can sit or stand there – not that there’s no direction, but it’s very much just ‘be there’. And look at me, most of the time. Ninety-nine percent, I want them to look at me.
Casting is extremely important, as we touched upon. You’ve shot Yuri a few times recently…
I love Yuri. I’d marry him tomorrow [Laughs]. On the Margaret Howell shoot he brought these flowers from a garage, those ones that have been in dyed so they’re blue. And a bottle of champagne and a bottle of wine. Then he said ‘it’s my birthday today’. I thought ‘what a privilege – I’m shooting you on your nineteenth birthday. There’ll be portraits of you aged nineteen, this is you’. I do like that about photography – it is that day, at that time and you’re never able to go back there again. The next day, you’ll be a day older. I regret now not documenting things I feel I should’ve documented – when we sold my parents house, I wish I’d photographed every room. I would have this document of how it was and how they put things together. Then it was all dismantled and gone, I’ve got nothing.
Did you used to look through magazines as a child? Or was there an image or piece of clothing that sparked your journey?
I don’t know. I remember looking at magazines like Over 21 at boarding school. In Wiltshire. And it wasn’t a fashionable school. I just thought I want to work on a magazine and I want to do these pages, though there weren’t any photographers at that point I can remember or a particular look. I suppose it was more about fashion and it definitely wasn’t about characterisation at that point. It was just clothes, it wasn’t about an escape. Growing up and defining your individuality. I lived in France and I’d come back to school with clothes that nobody else had; Kickers you couldn’t get here, Fiorucci.
Do you think your ideals remain the same as when you started styling? You still want to project the same philosophy?
I think they’re exactly the same, which is why I don’t renew my books or take things out. But now I’m wondering where it all goes… Looking at magazines and feeling bored. Bored by the narratives. I want to reject that at the moment, the idea of believing that someone is from this place or from that place. I don’t even care if you think ‘it’s a girl dressed up in this dress’. I don’t want the ‘reality’ thing anymore, I want them to come here and I want to push some sort of exploration in a very pared down way.
Yet there’s a certain correlation within that to your lineage, an evolution…
I almost want to pare it down to the fact they could be naked. They just have to look at me, and that’s the end of it. I don’t want any of the other stuff around at the moment.
Originally posted on 1/4/2010
Special thanks to Kathryn Scahill at www.smiletoo.com