From 15 December 2012 till 17 March 2013, Huis Marseille exhibited a retrospective of Viviane Sassen‘s fashion photography: Viviane Sassen / In and Out of Fashion. In the run-up to this exhibition, curator Nanda van den Berg interviewed people from the fashion industry who have worked with Viviane Sassen. What is fashion photography, anyway? In what ways does Viviane Sassen’s fashion photography differ from the autonomous work with which she has built such a solid reputation in recent years? And most of all: what makes her fashion photography so special?
A conversation with Roxane Danset, stylist and muse to Viviane Sassen.
Nanda van den Berg: Tell me about it: how did the series and the book about you come about? How do you get to know Viviane?
Roxane Danset: Of course, Viviane has always been a very strong image in my mind because she’s been working in fashion for a while and her images were always striking. I have always been working in fashion, since I was 19. Viviane was considered one of the ‘artist photographers’, more so than a fashion photographer. Which we could come back to… but she’s really been great at changing the perception of her work, and making people familiar with it, and for fashion people to get it – they take it for granted that her work is fashion now. She’s very much in demand everywhere… she manages to work on magazines like Numeró and do advertising campaigns, and at the same time she stays very edgy and true to her art. So I think she’s become a big success in that field in the last couple of years.
NvdB: How long have you known her?
RD: I’ve known her personally for three years.
NvdB: Where did you meet?
RD: Well… I’ve been working in fashion since I was 19. I started with Maison Martin Margiela, where I was a press attaché. And then I worked at the magazine Self Service, and then I worked for Acne – a Swedish company – where I set up the PR and structure in Paris. So we have these friends in common – Gert [Jonkers] and Jop [van Bennekom] – from Fantastic Man Magazine, and I knew them from the showroom in Paris – you know, when a journalist comes to the showroom to see the collection, that you welcome and present. And she was working for Fantastic Man a lot. So Gert and Jop came by the showroom and had this idea that me and Viviane should work on the visual on Pierre Cardin for Fantastic Man.
The thing is, there were women involved in the magazine but there were never any women’s fashion stories in the magazine. In fact they were trying to introduce the Gentlewoman Magazine – they wanted to start it but were delayed and so they wanted to incorporate a fashion story in Fantastic Man. And they wanted to do a tribute or a homage to one of the great fashion icons, Mr. Cardin – who is a bit forgotten now – so they proposed that Viviane and me work together. Because the magazine was all about men, I suppose that by asking us they were expecting to get something – not womanly at the time, not feminine, just something… I guess ‘creature-esque’ would be the word…
NvdB: And were you then working as a model with her, or as a stylist?
RD: I’d never worked with her. I’d never met her!
NvdB: But for Fantastic Man?
RD: I was a stylist. And they asked me to do both the styling and to pose for her. What I don’t know is whether it was Fantastic Man’s idea or Viviane’s. I have no idea, I never asked.
I went to the Pierre Cardin showroom and – you know, they’re not clothing, they’re sculptures, which has always turned me on, but my work isn’t t about creating a fashion look, like with an outfit and a blow dry. I think Gert and Jop knew that I couldn’t do that. There are many stylists who can, and who do it well, but I can’t. And I think that’s why they called me. The mixture of my work and Viviane’s would be something very abstract and new, new-looking.
So I went to pick up all the most architectural pieces from Pierre Cardin and flew to Spain, where I was picked up by her husband. He took me to the hotel in the van, where I met her and I was surprised because she’s like you or me, very human and a mum, she has a kid, she was doing another shoot and the whole team was in that room, everybody was there eating dinner, she was friendly and welcoming, so there was never a distance, never a wall, we met and clicked right away. She’s a very smiley, generous, outgoing person. My suitcase got lost and we thought we could never do the shoot, but then it arrived a day later, which was the day that she was doing another shoot. The other stylist, who was doing another story – menswear for Fantastic Man – he was in the van, and I was in the van, and both of us were working on the same day. One stylist would work from one end of the van and I would be at the other, and Viviane would go from one set to the other. It was pretty intense and extreme, but everybody was very professional. We didn’t have time to talk too much or think too much because of the situation of having to deal with two shoots at the same time. She would take one picture for that menswear story and then run over to me. I think the whole thing was very organic and spontaneous. She knows what she does, and she does what she does, and I picked the clothes that I picked, that were extreme in some way – like the whole graphisme of that story…
So… that’s how we met, and we’ve had this relationship ever since. We keep on meeting and bouncing ideas off one another – and she proposed that I work on this book with her, which I was delighted to accept.
NvdB: When I look at the pictures, you seem to have many different faces. Is that what Viviane brings out of you? How does that work? I don’t think I would recognize you from the photos if we were to meet.
RD: That’s a good thing! I’m not a model. The idea was more to work on a performance, rather than how I would approach a fashion story, which would have to make sense or be coherent. I approached it like performance art, like these performance artist women from the 1980s – Ann Hamilton, Hannah Wiike, Francesca Woodman, Maripol – but the idea was to approach this like a performance: a white Grace Jones, you know? Without the singing, obviously! I tried to be a performer. I didn’t want to anything to look pretty – you know how difficult it is to deal with your image, and I’ve never seen myself as a pretty person. I know I have a strong bone structure, but I never perceived myself as a beauty, so it’s easier for me to do it at a performance level.
NvdB: And who came up with the idea of the book?
RD: Viviane proposed it to me and it was like the old work, the work in progress, there were lots of email exchanges, reference exchanges, talking about where we wanted to go. We did it when she was in Holland, or wherever she was in the world, and then the day we met it was just there – her with her way of photographing, which is very secure, she knows exactly what she’s doing. She doesn’t question at all what she is doing, she just photographs and has this image in mind. The day floats by like this and with me it’s the same, I have no problem trying things out, pushing things, going for an image that’s not a stereotype, that’s unexpected. So it was really playful, and we would try this, and try that, and say “how about this?” What I’m trying to say is that we had a very prepared image, but on the actual day we were very good at trying others.
NvdB: Is it true that all the portraits were shot in one day?
RD: Yes, all 35 portraits. A lot of people see her as an artist and she definitely does that, but I think we have this in common, we can get on – for that book I see us as ‘professional artists’, or ‘office work artists’, in that we can really work and produce and move on. She’s in Holland and I’m in Paris, so time is always a big stress. And it’s rather a pity that we didn’t have such a long time to work on something – I think we both knew this. But we just got moving and made it happen.
NvdB: Did you know beforehand the locations that you were going to go to, or was that also very spontaneous?
RD: Yes, absolutely. They were all in Paris. She’s done a lot of shooting in Paris so she knows the area. I was living there, so I knew the area. And I think because we both had these ideas in mind, the rest of it was very spontaneous.
NvdB: It makes it extra special, that all the pictures were shot in one day.
RD: There might have been some from the Fantastic Man story but I am not too sure… on the Canary Islands.
NvdB: Have you seen it already?
RD: Yes, she came to me and we started working on the process of the book and the layout; it was very exciting.
NvdB: What does she bring out with you that others don’t? What is it that she can show of you that you never saw before?
RD: Well… that’s a good question. I know she doesn’t have boundaries, I don’t have boundaries. I know that she won’t do average. I know that she won’t do a stereotype or a cliché and I see that she’s really, she’s one of the artists that very much looks at tomorrow rather than yesterday…
NvdB: How do you mean?
RD: She’s very forward-thinking. Her work never references the past. I don’t feel the anchor of her work is in the past – it’s more her inspiration, and the way she looks at the world, and her travel, which for me creates very new, fresh, unseen and unexpected visuals, and this is something I enjoy so much and feel so comfortable with. My biggest fear is to work with stereotypes, with an image that people expect or are familiar with or feel comfortable with because they think they know it already, because it’s accepted. She doesn’t do work that is accepted by the masses – she makes the masses accept her work.
Also because she is a woman. Her work is very feminine – for sure – but it’s never girly, it is never frivolous. She is a woman, but one who works along very masculine lines, I would say.
NvdB: Did you move from Paris to New York to work with different things?
RD: You know, New York was never a work project. I got married, I met this American artist and six months later he proposed to me and I moved here. I’m spontaneous in work and in love. The thing is, it’s the same with Viviane. It’s when I believe in someone or when I see something in the person I’m very spontaneous and direct and extreme – I go for it, when I believe in it. When I see this very special sparkle in someone, I am ready to do anything. And I don’t think I could have done a book with anyone other than Viviane. I have been asked to do photographs and it is very embarrassing, you know? They always want to do a portrait of you, and photograph your wardrobe as a stylist, and show how many shoes you have, and what is your favourite piece of the season – and I just don’t care about that. Like I told you, I would rather create ‘creatures’ with someone than create a fashion look. So Viviane is perfect for me.