The designer and photographer have released a cookbook titled More Than Our Bellies – here, the duo discuss their collaborative relationship and the power of food
Fashion is never an autonomous act. It is always collaborative. Indeed, the history of fashion is full of partnerships between designers, photographers and stylists: Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler, Marc Jacobs and Katie Grand, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Rick Owens and Michèle Lamy, to name a handful. Another is Phillip Lim and Viviane Sassen, who have been working together since 2014. United by a shared desire to celebrate the beauty in non-Western cultures, the designer and photographer have partnered on multiple advertising campaigns, shooting all across the globe. However, they’ve also just collaborated on something of a slightly different nature: a cookbook titled More Than Our Bellies, which contains 12 recipes – each with deeply personal meaning to the designer – and photographs by Sassen rendered with a new “personal, painterly approach”. Here, the duo discuss this project, their relationship and the power of food.
Please can you tell me about your relationship?
Phillip Lim: Viviane and I began collaborating many years ago on campaigns for 3.1. We recognised each other as kindred spirits immediately because we value many of the same things: creative freedom, self-expression, finding beauty in the humble and the everyday. At the time, we wanted to do something more intimate with each campaign, to challenge the status quo, so we stripped it down to the bare essentials, going on location with just a model, each other and a member of my team. We didn’t bring a stylist, or hair and make-up, or any assistants. Anyone else in the shot was local to the community. There was incredible freedom in being so unencumbered, so nimble. Later, we continued to evolve the idea and the concept of ‘going home’ was born. Thus we took each model back to her roots – we brought Liya Kebede back to Ethiopia where we shot her with her parents and kids from Addis Ababa, her town. We took Jamie Bochert to her hometown of New Jersey and to her grandmother’s street in Brooklyn. We wanted to infuse reality and memory and something deeply personal into each image. And those shared experiences, in many different locations around the world, have created a bond and a mutual respect between the two of us that I don’t share with anyone else.
Viviane Sassen: We have made incredible journeys together and our friendship is special because of all these shared experiences, and the beauty we both recognise in non-Western cultures.
What do you love about Viviane’s work, Phillip?
PL: She is a true artist, a true creative. There is a freedom in the way she works, the way she follows her instincts to capture certain moments that I would never notice that I am in awe of. She wants to continually challenge herself and break free of her comfort zone. She travels all over the world shooting different landscapes, different communities. She recognises and celebrates the beauty in non-Western cultures so her images are always filled with energy, vitality and poignancy. The first time I encountered her work was coming across her book titled Pikin Slee – I was so moved by the raw dignity of the beautiful images. There is a way she is able to romance reality that speaks to my soul.
Please can you introduce the cookbook, Viviane?
VS: This cookbook is a collaboration between myself and Phillip. It contains 12 of his favourite recipes and about two dozen artworks made by me. This book is about friendship, really… About sharing food with loved ones, friends and family, and sometimes with strangers. And about the fact that Phillip himself so generously shares his home-cooked meals, a lot of them he learned from his own mother. I think that makes this book so personal and special. The great thing about working on a project like this lies in the joy of collaborating with someone (Phillip!) who is totally committed to making beautiful things, and who understands the value of creative freedom, which we allowed ourselves in this project. A labour of love!
Where did the idea come from?
PL: From missing home, missing my mom and her cooking. Nourishing our family was the way she expressed her love. Growing up, my parents had newly immigrated to the United States. We didn’t have a lot, but we always had three home-cooked meals a day, and they were hot and filling and delicious. They nourished us and in doing so, they nurtured us. I began cooking to replicate many of those recipes I remembered and missed from my childhood. And when Viviane and I were looking for new ways to collaborate, we came up with this – a collection of recipes and photographs. A journey of love through food and visuals.
Where did you shoot these images?
VS: I shot these in a variety of places including Morocco, (where we shot the first 3.1 Phillip Lim campaign), Ethiopia (where we shot a campaign as well, with model Liya Kebede and her parents in her home town Addis Ababa), and Madagascar – which is interesting as it unites the Asian and African influences so well.
What is your relationship to food and cooking, Phillip?
PL: I am not a trained chef by any means. Most of the recipes are ones I created by trial and error, trying to recreate the food from my childhood literally from memory. It was a journey – a pinch here, a dash of love there, a madcap exploration into my past by way of the kitchen. And I learned about myself along the way. For years, I didn’t take care of myself, of my body; I ordered takeaway for every meal. Teaching myself to cook, it started as a way to feel closer to my family, but it became a journey of self-care and self-respect, of nurturing my body back to health through simple, beautiful ingredients. Now I cook for myself five days a week. It is my ‘me time,’ my meditation. It allows me to recharge so I can be more alert and more creative in all other aspects of my life.
And what about you, Viviane?
VS: I love good food. It is super important to me, and I can be rather picky; if an apple is slightly floury, I don’t eat it. I wish I was more disciplined when it comes to food but if it’s good I can’t resist! I like to cook as well, but only when I have time, otherwise I get stressed – especially when I’m hungry. A while ago I prepared a hare for the first time in my life and it was delicious. I was rather proud, also because I prepared six different side dishes at the same time… For me, that’s unheard of. Food is the best when shared with loved ones. It is not only a way to feed the body, but also the soul. Food can connect us in so many different ways… I often experience that while travelling. Yesterday was a special day in that sense: I was so lucky to be invited by a group of Maasai who cooked a goat on a bonfire and we all shared the meat together; they also prepared a soup from the organs, some herbs found in the bush, and the bark of a tree… It tasted good! It was a beautiful ritual, as they thanked the goat and ate everything apart from the skin, bones and the intestines. It makes you realise how far removed we are from nature, while all of our food comes from nature in its purest form. It was great to celebrate that in such amazing company – there’s still so much to learn.
What do you hope people take away from the publication?
PL: I hope they make the dishes their own. Reinterpret them, change them; they should be unique and personal to every person who turns the pages, who picks up the skillet, turns on the stove. That is why the images in the book do not depict a finished product. Because there is no ‘right’ way. The process is the fun part, the part where you discover things and make adjustments and come out with something totally unique and totally you. That journey is what I hope for everyone who buys the book.
More Than Our Bellies: A Cookbook by Phillip Lim & Viviane Sassen is out now.