This article is taken from the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine. To celebrate our 20th anniversary, we are making the issue free and available digitally for a limited time only to all our readers wherever you are in the world. Sign up here.
The image of the American model Guinevere van Seenus holding up a strip of pink wallpaper – hair pulled back, make-up pared back, gazing somewhere to the right of the camera, seemingly lost in thought – is one of the defining fashion images of the Nineties. The irony, of course, being that the photograph contains no clothes. Trumping attitude over attire, this image formed part of the Jil Sander Spring/Summer 1996 campaign, but it did more than that: it captured the spirit of the time, eschewing the glamour and excess of the Eighties in favour of something cleaner, leaner, but also more human. It was a breath of fresh air.
That image, as powerful now as it was back then, was the result of a longstanding collaboration between the French art director Marc Ascoli and the English photographer Craig McDean, who have enjoyed a fruitful relationship for the past 25 years. Having first met in the early Nineties, the pair have produced a steady stream of striking imagery that includes campaigns not only for Jil Sander but also Martine Sitbon and Chloé for two seasons during Phoebe Philo’s tenure, as well as covers and fashion stories for AnOther Magazine and W.
Born in Tunis, Ascoli arrived in Paris in the Seventies, when he was still a teenager, and was immediately struck by the fashion of the city – expressed in the pages of French Vogue and in the style of the women on the streets and the “impeccable night owls” who haunted clubs such as Le Palace and Le Sept, where Paris’s elite and creative scenes would converge. After a fateful meeting with the French designer Martine Sitbon (who would later become his life partner), he took on her PR – a decision that would prove pivotal. He later heard that Yohji Yamamoto was looking for a PR, too, got the job and overhauled the Japanese designer’s storytelling, resulting not only in a career in art direction, but also some of the most seminal fashion images of the age.
McDean’s entry into fashion was different – born in Cheshire, he began by taking photographs of his friends and, after moving to London, portraits of people on the street for i-D magazine, where Nick Knight was then commissioning picture editor. A career in fashion photography followed – supported by Ascoli, the Spring/Summer 1995 Jil Sander campaign was his first advertising shoot. McDean has been a constant presence in the pages of AnOther Magazine since the first issue in 2001. For our 20th anniversary, he and Ascoli – now AnOther Magazine’s creative director – came together to reflect on their collaborative friendship, those defining Jil Sander images, and what’s next for fashion.
Marc Ascoli: I always loved seeing people dress well and have a mother who always wore wonderful clothes. She would buy Elle, French Elle. And I remember when I was very, very young – about five or six years old – holding the magazine in my hands and looking at the pictures. I was into it already – not only the aesthetic, but the youth and the beauty.
Also, what struck me when I arrived in Paris were the girls that dressed like Jane Birkin – Seventies girls. Miniskirts. Long hair. These young Parisian girls would make a huge effort to look classy, wearing penny loafers and socks, and that was my first entry point, when we speak about fashion.
That’s also when I first saw French Vogue. I was from a conventional Jewish family and fashion was not so cool for them. It wasn’t a job or a profession you could do, like being a doctor, dentist, or lawyer. It was very eccentric to do that. And then I met Martine. That was the turning point. I was fascinated by the fact that she was from the same sort of family as me, but so cool – she effortlessly entwined the worlds of fashion, film and music.
Before the Eighties, Paris fashion was very snobby. It was very bourgeois. Très bourgeois. But it was very attractive, I was very attracted to it – the colour, the attitude and the people.
Craig McDean: I started by doing portraits for i-D. Nick Knight was the photo editor at the time and he gave me a lot of work. I never really set out to do fashion itself, I just teamed up with Edward [Enninful] and we started working together on fashion projects. It grew from there.
MA: i-D and The Face were so important for us in Paris – the graphics, the street photography, the energy. You could discover a lot of photographers in them – I discovered Nick Knight in i-D, actually.
CM: You had Terry and Tricia Jones at i-D and Neville Brody at The Face, it was incredible. They were good places to work.
MA: Terry and Tricia were connoisseurs. That’s why you were excited to see the magazine – they knew what they were doing. It was not at all commercial, it was very free.
CM: I met you through a mutual friend in Paris in the early Nineties – 25 years later we’re still here, still working together. You are a great teacher, I’m always learning from you. I was always interested in the history of fashion, what went on before, and I can ask you anything about that. I have such great conversations with you – not just about photography, but other subjects, too. It’s a collaborative relationship that started in 1994, with he first Jil Sander campaign.
MA: We met when you were working with Nick. I remember thinking that you brought something very special to Nick – an intelligence, a refinement, a directness. When I saw the first picture you’d done, I saw your personality very quickly. I trust you, and trust is important. It’s the capital in our job – how you capitalise on the fact that people deliver something together. That’s the point. And I had my huge client at the time, Jil Sander. I had been working with her for many years, because I was doing it before you, Craig. She was strict. Nice but strict and very pragmatic ...
“When I saw the first picture you’d done, I saw your personality very quickly. I trust you, and trust is important. It’s the capital in our job – how you capitalise on the fact that people deliver something together” – Marc Ascoli
CM: You have to understand, when I first went to work with you, I was so nervous – working with the incredible Marc Ascoli. I was petrified. I went from doing something in America for W magazine to coming over [to Paris] to do Jil Sander with you. It was quite nerve-racking.
MA: It’s a strong rapport. An intense rapport. That’s why we’re still working together. I never see the age, I see the talent and the energy. The first time you came to see me, I saw that energy. I was fed up. I needed a change, a very cool change, not a pretentious one. Something light, something sharp yet effortless. We worked together for the first time with Shalom Harlow, remember? We cast a crew with Eugene Souleiman, who is a genius, and the extraordinary Pat McGrath. Jil loved it, she was so happy. You didn’t just do the campaign, you did the perfume with us, too.
CM: The models that were coming up at the time – the Ambers, the Shaloms, the Guineveres – it was a new thing. I was pretty fresh into fashion – I had a head full of ideas and just wanted to put them somewhere. You brought those ideas out of me. We would shoot until three or four in the morning, we didn’t want to give up. I was inspired by the clothes as well. I loved Jil’s clothes. I loved what she was doing in fashion. It’s timeless – it’s as relevant today as it was then, in the Nineties. You can still wear it.
MA: This period was so free. It was not market-driven at all.
CM: And we were shooting a catalogue, too. We always had a beautiful catalogue at the end of it. Those were beautiful objects. So that was a part of it, too. It’s different now. Now there are more street brands, more designers, there’s much more diversity in the models, the hair and the make-up. It’s a good thing, all the diversity. It’s a different time.
MA: Of all the photographers who have shot covers for AnOther Magazine, you have done the most. You have always been there.
CM: I think Jefferson is very loyal. I don’t think it’s to do with my age or who I am, I think it’s out of loyalty. And also my work, obviously [Laughs.]. I went out of my way to do those covers, to do those stories. AnOther Magazine has afforded me the freedom that i-D afforded me in the Eighties. It’s fantastic to work with you there. Just being in a studio with you – it’s about that. We can talk as much as we want – and we do have a great deal to talk about – but just to be in a studio with you, what you bring out of me, it’s a taste. It’s not luck, that’s for sure.
MA: It’s not luck. It’s dedication. It’s an art director and a photographer’s job to capture the moment. It’s not easy to go to a studio with a background and a model and take pictures successfully. It’s not magical. There’s a lot of concentration and imagination involved. When I work with you, it’s really interesting. You catch something before the picture, when the model thinks it hasn’t started.
CM: I always look for an off moment. People tend to perform for the camera but sometimes they let their guard down. There’s that very famous picture that Sam Shaw took of Marilyn Monroe, where she’s sitting by a window, just contemplating. I’m always looking for an off moment, when the model isn’t there or isn’t concentrating. You just have to wait for them. I always tell the hair and make-up [artists] not to walk in front of my camera because that’s when I take the picture, when they’re not ready, when they’re looking down or they’re thinking. Those quiet moments. Other times I get them to dance, I show them how to move, what I want. So it’s actually an interpretation of myself put on them.
MA: Not all photographers are like that, have that specific quality to be present to catch those moments. It’s impossible to re-create them. That Nicole Kidman shoot [for AnOther Magazine Spring/Summer 2003] is a particularly memorable one.
“I was pretty fresh into fashion – I had a head full of ideas and just wanted to put them somewhere. You brought those ideas out of me” – Craig McDean
CM: Yes, the Nicole Kidman cover.
MA: The wig [Snaps fingers.].
CM: Yeah, taking off the black wig. The emerging designers story we shot on Adut [for AnOther Magazine Autumn/Winter 2020], that was great, too.
MA: We never underestimate the people who are in the room. We choose them. We choose everybody. That’s why we have great projects together, because we understand the talent, what they bring to the table. That’s very important.
CM: I just think we’re a bit more comfortable with each other these days. I’m more open with you about my ideas and I think we understand each other a lot better because we’ve worked together for so long.
MA: I understand you when you’re working. Having known you since you were starting out makes a difference, because I know the ups and downs you have. I know when you’re up and why you’re up, and I know why you don’t like something. That’s important because a creative director needs to enter the mind of the photographer. When I was doing the Alexander McQueen story, I was thinking about Sarah Burton, trying to bring her to the shoot. That’s why Katie [Shillingford] chose the white shirt for the portrait. I’m lucky because I work with wonderful designers, like Martine, Yohji, Jil, Phoebe Philo, and Julien Dossena. They are all fragile, in a way.
CM: I think I know when I make mistakes, and I don’t like it. And sometimes I go out of my comfort zone to try to do something different, to take a different kind of photograph. Sometimes it’s not very successful, but at least I tried it. But I know when I’ve done something good, I’m very proud of it ... I feel really comfortable in your presence, talking to you about fashion – I feel like I always come out of a conversation with you having learnt something. I enjoy talking to you a lot. I don’t think there’s ever a time I come to Paris and don’t see you.
MA: What do you think the future holds for fashion?
CM: I just see it growing and growing and growing. There are more brands and there’s more diversity. You can’t stop it. Fashion is constantly changing and you’ve got to embrace it. I don’t really look back and say, “Oh, I wish it was like the old days.”
MA: You learn something every day. I’m learning something talking to you. We learn something about friendship, love and respect. Fashion, in my mind, is a group of people driven by aesthetics and the search for singularity. I want a future like that. I want commitment, community.
CM: It’s great that AnOther Magazine is around, it’s an incredible magazine to work for. To me, the future ... I don’t know. I do a lot of work with designers who have just started, I do campaigns for them – fashion is growing because of these young designers, like those we photographed [with Adut]. You’ve got to be curious.