Fabien Baron
Photo by Mert & Marcus

Fabien Baron: “We’ve just seen the beginning”

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Short Profile

Name: Fabien Baron
DOB: 5 July 1959
Place of birth: Antony, Hauts-de-Seine, France
Occupation: Art director

Fabien Baron's retrospective book, Fabien Baron: Works 1983-2019, is set for release on 16 October 2019 via Phaidon.

Mr. Baron, what is the most crucial element in art direction today?

I think that the point of view remains the most important thing. Your voice is your voice and you need to keep it. That way, people are going to look at what you have to say! You know, I think what defines visual culture today is Instagram, selfies, and social media, unfortunately. I think all brands were a little bit overwhelmed by the arrival of digital mediums and felt quite insecure because all of a sudden they became immersed in a category they didn't know much about, and they didn’t really understand how it worked.

So, these brands suddenly had to establish a whole new voice for themselves…

Yes. Many of these brands lost their voices because they followed the common denominator of what makes something acceptable for the masses. And being a luxury brand, you don't want to talk to everybody! You want to be a little bit more highbrow, you want to be a little bit more selective, and you want to be more precise with your voice. But instead, it’s more mediocre than it used to be, but there's so much of it that it took over everything. And I think the idea of excellence, the idea of good visuals has fallen way. Everybody's been going this new route of just throwing in anything with your phone and that’s good enough. Content for the sake of content. There's less an idea of elegance, everything is more sloppy, more common…

“I think as art directors we're in a better place now than we were 15 years ago.”

You once compared this transition to digital communication to the gold rush: nobody really understands the scope of it but everybody wants to do it.

Exactly, everybody’s running after it! It reminds me a little bit of the beginning of MTV, when people were doing the first music videos: they were rather stupid looking and everything, but everybody was hooked on MTV! But you know, 10, 20 years later, people from that generation are in fact producing the most amazing videos now. So it’s really interesting because there is a lot of opportunity to do good work. I think that's what's going to happen with fashion too. The fact that film can be incorporated in communicating fashion is very interesting, and we've just seen the beginning of it. So that’s why I would say that the role of the art director has grown. In fact, I think as art directors we're in a better place now than we were 15 years ago.

How come?

Well, back then the main idea revolved around style and look, so it was the designers and the photographers that had the most power. Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Guy Bourdin, Peter Lindbergh, Patrick Demarchelier, Annie Leibovitz — they all have a look, and that dictated what everything else would follow. Everybody was focused on what the photographer wanted to do. The rest were accommodating to that, including the art director, who was kind of like the pencil: layout, white board, no white board, logo left, right, center, big, small…

But as an art director, you still had the responsibility of selecting these photographers in the first place.

Yes, but as the fashion industry spread to a larger digital medium, the editor became more important, and the photographer took the back seat in a sense and became the executor. Suddenly, all major brands that would have normally only needed photographs for an advertising campaign, now needed an advertising campaign, a second shoot for the lookbook, a third shoot for digital, a behind-the-scenes film — so it became a question of how do you put these elements together? It’s no longer enough for it to be just about the clothes or the colors, or have it simply look amazing.

Something like your iconic black-and-white campaigns for Calvin Klein might not even be enough anymore.

Exactly, that simplicity no longer works for digital today. In a way, the concepts have become even more important than the look. With all the boxes you have to tick today, the art director has become more like a cop: trying to keep everything in line! (Laughs)

Where does that leave the print magazines that were once the core platforms for fashion brands?

Well, of course the more highbrow fashion magazines, like Self Service or Purple, are trying to become more artistic and develop visuals that counterbalance all the mediocrity on social media channels. But right now I think print magazines are in terrible state. I think that needs to change, and print has to take on a different approach. I could put magazines into two different baskets: there's the big media magazines, which lost their way with the arrival of the Internet — they lost service and they lost the news factor. These magazines were extremely commercial: their point of view was very much blue sky, puffy clouds, beautiful garden, little flowers, smiley girls, make sure you see the fashion from head to toe…

Holding onto a formula that depends too much on advertising.

But I have to say that even so, once in a while, this type of magazine publishes really good articles: they were perhaps more interesting voice-wise, rather than on an image level. Then you have the small magazines, the marginal magazines, and they’re the opposite: amazing, artistic visuals, but no actual fashion point of view. They might have some interesting articles, but most of them are a little bit esoteric. So on one end, overtly commercial and then the other, esoteric. It’s hard to find that magazine in the middle, with a very strong point of view that really gives you something back word-wise, idea-wise, concept-wise, image-wise, and design wise.

Ultimately it comes back to that idea of having a strong point of view; perhaps this is the biggest challenge today.

Absolutely. I believe the way to go is to come up with very strong concepts and strong executions that then work on different layers. And in a sense, that's what creative people are supposed to do: really twist their brain to come up with ideas that make sense for what it is we have to deal with today…You know, looking back at some of my work, you could feel nostalgic because it's a good representation of that moment in the nineties, for example. It still sticks with you today because it was authentic! I've always tried to get excited about what was happening at the moment of making. I have a tendency to not want to look back. And I want to continue on that pace.