David James – in and out of print

Despite working for some of the world’s most famous brands, David James has kept a low profile. Patrick Burgoyne meets the Prada art director whose career is about to undergo a major change

I’ve been waiting ten years to write this piece. Ten years since first visiting David James at his London studio and suggesting an article on his work. He wasn’t keen: in fact, James explained to me, he never does press, he doesn’t talk publicly about his work, it’s a rule of his. He wasn’t interested in being a ‘celebrity designer’ – there would be no fancy monograph (although the idea was discussed with a publisher once) and no conference appearances. His desire for attention was satisfied by his work. Until recently, he didn’t even display that work online. James reasoned that, as a kid, he stopped liking a band once they became well-known – they weren’t cool anymore. He didn’t want that happening to him. And besides, he wasn’t that interested in graphic design: it was imagery that really fascinated him.

Like so many others, James found early success through music packaging. He then found himself attracted by, and in demand for, fashion, a move that arguably suppressed his public profile still further. In fashion there is usually room for only one star designer, and it’s not the one choosing typefaces.

James is from the Manchester area. He left school at 16 to go to Stockport College, leaving in 1983 to take a job as a signwriter. A short stint at agency Gillett & Bevan convinced him that advertising wasn’t for him and he moved, in pursuit of a girlfriend, to design consultancy McIlroy Coates in Edinburgh. The relationship didn’t work out and James decided to try his luck in London where he worked between 1986 and 1987 at The Fine White Line, the design firm set up by ad agency CDP in the 80s, before starting his own studio, aged just 25.

Early work
He has worked for himself ever since. The client list is a familiar one for a designer seeking to retain independence and work in culturally significant areas – fashion brands, record labels and magazine publishers. One of James’s first pieces was a catalogue for clothes brand Moto which was screenprinted on a soft plastic material that he noticed was being used on the clothes’ labels. Once scrunched up, the material would quickly return to its former shape.

This excitement about materials is something that James has retained in his work for a rather more prominent fashion designer, Miuccia Prada. James has been Prada’s art director for the past 14 years, overseeing and devising the brand’s advertising and printed communications. For each catwalk show, his studio produces a beautiful invitation which always looks to combine materials in an unexpected way. Usually some kind of extra interaction is required on behalf of the recipient – to pop out a perfed piece of corrugated cardboard in order to reveal an acrylic sheet within, for example, or hold something up to the light in order to read its message. Produced in very short runs for the privileged few, they are exquisite pieces of graphic communication.

Like Peter Saville, James had a fruitful collaborative relationship with the late, great photographer Trevor Key. James’s series of sleeves for dance act System 7 made full use of Key’s in-camera expertise to produce painstaking effects on releases such as the 1992 mini-album Altitude. His sleeves, however, are not feted as those of Saville are, but that may have been partly due to the fact that they were designed for dance acts that have never achieved the lasting cultural resonance of, say, Joy Division.

His first forays into editorial came on A Be Sea magazine, a ‘visual paper’ which combined photography, art and typographic experimentation in black and white, large format pages. Each issue took a different letter of the alphabet – issue A for the launch, B for the second and so on.

Indeed, experimentation in typography has been a consistent theme in James’s work. In 1990 he met the type designer Gareth Hague and the two have worked together ever since, with Hague sharing James’s studio space and the pair issuing typefaces as the Alias foundry, formed in 1996. As Alias, James and Hague have also created custom typefaces and logos for clients including Ghost, Monsoon and the Sunday Times Magazine as well as graphic design projects for Phaidon and Tate Modern. Perhaps the pair’s most innovative collaborations have been for AnOther and AnOther Man magazines. Exhibiting a degree of typographic playfulness rare in fashion titles, James and Hague have made the AnOther titles a destination for typophiles as well as fashion victims.

And talking of fashion victims … James’s key client remains Prada. For Prada, James is very much art director rather than graphic designer. He long ago realised that his true interest lay in imagery: even when working with type, whether on the magazines or with Trevor Key, it was type as imagery that attracted James. Fashion offered the best means to pursue this interest. The photographers that he had been working with on sleeves – Nick Knight, for example – had graduated toward fashion. James followed them.

Fashion advertising can, and frequently does, tip over into the ludicrous. While the chief offenders are the fragrance commercials which waft across our screens each Christmas, each one more absurd and annoying than the last, print campaigns also have their moments  – Madonna’s current D&G campaign being a case in point. During the 90s and into the early years of this century, however, fashion photography, whether editorial or advertising, became hugely ambitious. The barrier between art photography and fashion photography grew ever more porous as each borrowed the other’s themes, ideas and practi­tioners. This crossover was celebrated in an exhibition at MoMA New York in 2004: Fashioning Fiction in Photography since 1990. New York magazine’s reviewer of the show, Mark Stevens, noted that, “Artful fashion is often better than fashionable art … the best photographers make something lasting from the fancies of the moment.”

They were also spreading their horizons to embrace all forms of the medium. British Vogue creative director, Robin Derrick, writing for CR in 2002, argued that it was almost impossible to think of a photograph that couldn’t now be used in a fashion context, so all-encompassing had fashion become. Yes, fashion advertising was ultimately about selling product, but it was doing so in increasingly subtle and diverse ways – if highly codified to the outsider.

On the advertising side, no-one was doing this better than James in his work for Prada. Just as the more cerebral art directors of record sleeves use their canvas to express not just ideas about the music but also about the wider culture, so James was doing for fashion. Prada gave him freedom, time and budgets. For the Spring/Summer 01 campaign James recruited the photographer Cedric Buchet for a three week shoot: the voyeuristic long-lens shots of overdressed models on a studio-bound beach remain one of the most striking fashion campaigns ever produced.

In latter years, however, fashion advertising’s cutting edge has been dulled by the demands of international brands ever more reliant on bags, shoes and sunglasses for their profits. Product is thrust to the fore with celebrities used as a short cut to sophistication. But fashion’s somewhat tardy embrace of the internet is leading to more interesting creative opportunities, for both fashion brands and for James. Last year, he worked with Chinese contemporary artist Yang Fudong on First Spring, a nine-minute short film for Prada which was released online in January. Prada’s Spring Summer 10 print ads were stills pulled direct from that film. In fact, all of James’s recent Prada ad campaigns have been shot first as moving image pieces (using the super high-definition RED camera, as we mentioned last month), with the print using stills pulled from the footage.

The Future
“The idea of fashion being defined by photography, as it’s been for decades, is over,” James says. “We are starting to see a new phase where fashion will be defined by film.” The emergence of the internet both as a medium to advertise on and as a creative medium in its own right is what fascinates him now, he says, pointing to the work that Nick Knight has done at his ShowStudio site as an indication of the potential fashion has online. James is to re-orientate his studio toward making moving image work, or at least work that can exist in both moving and still form. “We are so used to looking at fashion as a static image – how do you express those ideas in film? It’s really exciting,” he says.

We are talking now because James wants to mark his studio’s change of direction by drawing a line under his career so far. He’s still wary of being quoted extensively but an online exhibition, appropriately titled Out of Print, brings together his 20-year back catalogue to date, almost all of it print work. On the site, James discusses each project, putting himself in the public eye as never before. The show, however, is only temporary and will come down later this year. It seems James is still not ready to step into the public gaze. His work, he hopes, will continue to do all the talking for him. Even if it is speaking in fashion’s elusive codes.




Like many graphic designers of his generation, David James initially made his name designing record sleeves. James, more by chance than choice, found himself specialising in dance music, such as  Soul II Soul’s Club Classics Volume One (pictured above, from1989) on which he worked with photographer Jamie Morgan.

Stylist Judy Blame brought James in to art direct Boy George’s Tense Nervous Headache (left, 1988). The singer’s radically cropped portrait was shot by Nick Knight.Perhaps James’s most distinctive work from this era was with System 7 who were named after the Apple Mac operating system. James worked with photographer Trevor Key to create complex in-camera images for albums such as Altitude (see final slide).

For Limited Addition (above, 1994) the song titles were written on sticks, shot by Key.

Owner and editor Sebastian Boyle described A Be Sea as a ‘visual paper’. James worked on three issues of the A3, newsprint publication which was produced on presses alongside local newspapers in order to save money. It had an open submissions policy, printing whenever enough content was gathered, with a circulation of no more than 2,000 copies.

Each issue featured a different letter on the cover (issue G, 1995 shown above) which James designed alongside his long-term collaborator, Gareth Hague.

For Issue I  all the headings were filmed on a Super 8 camera, then re-photographed as still life. This was the last issue of A Be Sea as Boyle ran out of money.

In 2005, James became creative director of the newly-launched AnotherMan magazine. With Gareth Hague, he designed a family of fonts based on geometric forms in which characters could be stacked one on top of the other.

James also subsequently became creative director of Another magazine. This spread from Issue 13, 2007 mixes original imagery shot by Craig McDean with archive pictures in a story styled by Marie-Amelie Suave. The aim was to express the themes in fashion at that moment, linking them to the past and to the future.

On Another Man, Hague’s typographic experimentation, was matched by innovative fashion stories: for Issue 8 German artist Christian Schoeler worked with photographer Alistair Mackie to make images, which he then used as the basis of paintings. The images alongside were by Benjamin Alexander Huseby.

James became art director for Prada in 1997. He had been working for with photographer Glen Luchford since the early 90s. Prada asked Luchford for some ideas for a new ad campaign and Luchford asked James to help him out. They presented their ideas to Miuccia Prada and got the go-ahead for a three-week cinematic shoot that became the Spring Summer 97 ad campaign (one shown above).

The Fall Winter 97 campaign for Prada continued the approach from the previous season and was also shot by Luchford (one shown above). James continued to work for the brand: shown left is the Spring Summer 99 Prada Men’s catalogue, shot by Norbert Schoerner.

The images for the Spring Summer 2004 Prada campaign (one shown above) have a painterly quality inspired by the tie-dyed fabrics used in the collection. James asked Pascal Dangin at retouchers The Box to come up with a digital way of painting Steven Meisel’s images in post-production. A feature of James’s work for Prada have been the finely crafted invitations produced for each season’s catwalk shows.

Shown here is the inside of the Spring Summer 05 invite. The design, says James, references reggae culture with the red, yellow and green bands in the typography, which is a response to a particular influence in the collection.

As well as his work for Prada, James also creates ad campaigns for other fashion brands, including Dior (Fall Winter 07 shown above, shot by Craig McDean with set design by Shona Heath).

The reference for the Prada Spring Summer 09 campaign was Greek and Roman sculptural reliefs. The models were purposefully chosen to look similiar. Photographer Steven Meisel asked them to push and shove each other as they moved across the set. The idea was also filmed for Prada’s fragrance commercial. In future, James envisions doing more and more moving image work but he will carry on producing Prada’s exquisite show invitations.

For Prada’s Spring Summer 09 show, he knew little about the clothes except that they combined raw and techno fabrics. A piece of white plastic is housed in corrugated cardboard sleeve. A lozenge-shaped perforated section can be popped out to reveal the show details within. (Three images shown above.)


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