When considering the industries that rushed to embrace the potential of digital technology and the internet, fashion is likely to be low on the list. A world of luxury and exclusivity, the democratic nature of the net sat at odds with fashion’s carefully controlled structures and systems, which suited the high-gloss world of fashion magazines and intimate catwalk shows over the messy, grabby world of online.
But then there was SHOWstudio. Established in 2000, at the time of the first dotcom bubble, the website felt pioneering from the off. Founded and directed by Nick Knight – who already had almost 25 years’ experience shooting photography for the fashion and music industries – it took audiences inside the processes of the fashion world for the first time, streaming live photography shoots and inviting designers to create work in the studio in front of an online audience. The site arguably invented the modern idea of the fashion film, and also persuaded designers of the value of broadcasting catwalk shows live online, a practice that now takes place for 70% of shows. In an industry with a reputation for luddite behaviour, SHOWstudio showed the design houses both the creative and commercial benefits to be found in the online world, and slowly – very slowly – they took notice.
At the start, the site’s output was somewhat fuzzy, in keeping with the tech possibilities of the time. “The lo-fi-ness became sort of an aesthetic for SHOWstudio, because it wasn’t an option,” says Knight. “Our first livestream performance, which I think was 2002, went out by webcam and we’d send a picture out every minute. One still frame would go out every minute. It was a piece called Sleep – we had a whole floor of the Metropolitan hotel, it was ten rooms I think, and we had a camera above the bed, the girl would lie, completely dressed, hair and make-up done, and then fall asleep. So the model would do a subconscious performance…. I had no idea how it would turn out – in the end it was very beautiful, because it was so lo-fi.”
Knight embraced the lack of control that came with working with the new technology. “Life is probably better for all the mistakes we make, probably the mistakes are more interesting than the things we get right,” he continues. “I’ve very much had that approach to work all the way through. I believe very strongly that you get to creating an image through having to go through failure, through having to go through a moment of lack of control. I’ve always embraced the error, embraced the mistake, embraced the accident.”
The designers that Knight worked with and was close to at the time immediately saw the potential of SHOWstudio, and the creative freedom that it offered. “The designers I was working with like John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan were super receptive to it,” he says. “It was an extension of what we were doing for print campaigns in magazines. I was saying ‘can I now film you for SHOWstudio?’ We started very quickly – it was a bit like being the first person in a sweet shop, ‘I can do this! I can do this!’ There were lots of really exciting things which were available to us – 3D scanning, which had never been available before, live broadcasting. The removal of the middleman, if you want, between the artist and the audience.”
This last point is key. Having been used to a specific mode of making imagery, which while encouraging creativity, was centred on commercial ends, the opportunities offered by SHOWstudio were energising. “That was quite exciting, that actually I could create art, or I could ask people around me to create art, without it having to be for the reason of making a third party money,” explains Knight. “I think that’s quite unique, it’s one of those tiny realisations that has had a very broad affect throughout the whole of what we’ve done.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, not everyone in the industry was enthusiastic about SHOWstudio at the start, with this lack of interest manifesting itself in a general dismissal of the technology. “Fashion is a weird medium,” says Knight, “because it’s about predicting the future, suggesting to you what your desires might be in the future. So it’s a very forward-looking industry in that way. But when a change happened [with the internet], when there was obviously going to be a big sea change, right across the board, fashion – and image-making – dug its heels in, and said ‘woah, we don’t like this, we’re ignoring this’…. They weren’t excited by a new medium, they didn’t see its possibilities, most of them said ‘well, I don’t really know how to work a computer, it’s not my thing. I’m not very techie.” It was a gentle put-down on the whole thing. I remember when it was quite a big deal if they sent you a fax. And a lot of the technical luddite-ness was expressed as ‘it’s not really fashion, it’s for techie people’. Which actually was just masking a whole bunch of fear that they’re about to lose their jobs and the whole industry’s about to change.”
There were benefits to this lack of interest, however, especially as the key figures in the industry, the designers and the CEOs, were behind the project. “We were basically allowed to do whatever we wanted, without any problem whatsoever, partly because the people we wanted to work with were really enthusiastic, and the other people didn’t want to look,” says Knight.
To ensure the site’s creative freedom, from the start SHOWstudio has had no advertising (though brands do sponsor individual projects), as Knight sees this as being a stranglehold on the way the industry is written about in magazines and on the other fashion websites that have emerged in SHOWstudio’s wake. “I want to be able to have an independent voice,” he says, “so I can allow the people I have here to speak freely, so I can speak freely and say what I want, and not be in fear of losing funding. So we haven’t gone down the advertising route, and I think that’s probably where we’ll stay.”
Knight is obviously frustrated by the perception of fashion in the broader cultural world, where he sees it as underestimated in comparison to other creative forms. “I think it’s one of the most profoundly influential art forms we have, one of the most successful art forms we have,” he says. “We all choose how to dress, and the way we dress says a lot about us. There’s never really been a society that doesn’t do that to some degree – clothes have always been a way of expressing who we are as people. And I think art is an expression of who we are so I don’t really see the difference. There’s a very obvious commercial factor in fashion, [but] there’s a very obvious commercial factor in painting too.”
Part of the problem is due to the industry’s resistance to critiquing itself – “fashion really has fallen into this sycophantic and not very aggressive critical forum, or hardly a critical forum at all, arguably,” says Knight – coupled with a wider lack of interest from the mainstream press, which routinely frames the industry as kooky or comical rather than taking it seriously. On SHOWstudio, Knight aims to offer this elusive criticism, with the site conducting regular live panel reviews of catwalk shows as well as giving a voice to figures within the industry who are routinely overlooked.
These include the models, whose faces might be instantly recognisable but whose influence is rarely acknowledged. In a series called ‘Subjective’, SHOWstudio has interviewed models including Kate Moss, Karen Elson, Naomi Campbell and Alek Wek on the work they have done with various designers and photographers. “There are lots of people who are missed out in the general understanding of fashion,” says Knight, “lots of people’s voices you don’t hear. It’s become very, very obvious to me over the last 30–40 years. The models’ voices you just don’t hear.
I’ve always felt that was wrong, because I know through working with models that they bring so much to a photograph. Bring so much of themselves to an image.”
The site also champions fashion film, an area that has boomed since the development of the internet though also come in for some derision, with its tendency towards cliché. Knight is defensive of the medium, arguing that as a newly developing form, it’s bound to stumble occasionally. “We’re looking at fashion film in its infancy. It’s 15 years old. I would argue, arrogantly, that SHOWstudio started it,” he says, with a smile. “There were fashion films around before but they had no platform…. There was nowhere to put it, and if you haven’t got anywhere to put it, it doesn’t exist as a medium.”
As well as new films, SHOWstudio has aired films by photography masters including Guy Bourdin and Erwin Blumenfeld for the first time on the site, as well as archive film footage from Knight’s own shoots. These include a series of films about Alexander McQueen, titled ‘Unseen McQueen’, which show the designer both in interviews and at work on shoots with Knight, and were released online to coincide with the recent Savage Beauty retrospective of McQueen’s work, held at the V&A in London. The films offer a fascinating insight into both McQueen and Knight’s methods, and offer up a slice of fashion history that will only grow in value as time passes.
While the site operates as both an online magazine and a wider archive of the history of fashion, it is also intrinsically embedded in Knight’s personal development as an artist. Knight has always filmed his shoots so it seems a natural progression that, as the possibilities of the internet unfolded, he would want to continue this process online, in front of an audience, and encourage others to do so. His decision to turn down advertising for the site has meant that he self-funds a significant proportion of SHOWstudio, and in return uses it as a platform for his own (and others’) creative experimentation.
He has an obvious, and vast, enthusiasm for new technologies, which has led to a child-like excitement about the myriad ways he can work today, coupled with a frustration about the limitations in the language used to explain his output. He is regularly described as a photographer but “actually I don’t do photography anymore,” he says, “image-making is the best word I’ve come up with.”
Knight has met with conservatism over how he works, however, perhaps particularly from those who are reluctant to give up tagging him as simply a photographer. “People get very upset when I use my iPhone,” he says, “it’s not a ‘proper’ camera. I’ve done books on my iPhone, we use our iPhones for nearly everything these days. Certainly for publishing photographs in magazines and books, we shoot on the iPhone because it’s exciting and good.”
He is keen to encourage people to break out of these constraints and to fully embrace the apps and technology, such as 3D scanning, that will allow new forms of image-making to emerge. “We should be happy seeing it as the first infantile steps in a new medium,” he says. “We should allow that to be recognised as a new medium and not photography. I think that’s really important because then you free people up.”
Talking of what this new medium might contain, Knight talks excitedly about the development of artificial intelligence – “56% of the traffic that comes to any site is a bot, so we’re making work that’s primarily seen by robots! Which I think is thrilling,” he says – and envisions a near future where we will view fashion catwalk shows virtually, and also use VR to visit artist studios.
But the physical space is still important to him, and SHOWstudio has a long-term desire to open more spaces across the world. “We have this space here and the interactions of all the people coming in is really important,” he says. “When we do a shoot, it’s a 12-hour live broadcast, that’s just from one studio and we do that two or three times a week, every week. You only need to have three or four of those and you’ll have 24-hour live broadcasting. Open access to the people you really want to have open access to. None of these silly press junkets where you can’t ask questions…. I’m really excited about broadcasting the reality of what life is, and working on the virtual side of it – and where those two crossover.”
To achieve such expansion though, Knight would have to allow others to take some control, an evolution he admits he would find difficult. “The trouble is I don’t want to become a manager,” he says. “I don’t want to become somebody who runs studios. I want to still be doing what I do.”
However SHOWstudio develops in the future, it will likely always champion new technologies and ways of working, and keep pushing the fashion world to see the creative – and commercial – opportunities that may lie within these. “The times when I’ve thought I should really stop SHOWstudio because I haven’t got any money left, I’ve thought ‘well, what would I do?’,” concludes Knight. “Because actually all the things I want to do are based around working like this. Everything we’re doing, I wouldn’t be able to do, working in the old format.”