Michael Roberts - Fashion Director, Vanity Fair
I searched and searched but to no avail I did not find a thread on Michael Roberts. So here we go...... lets get started on the great unsung Renaissance man of fashion. And black to boot. He is a source of inspiration to a young black boy wanting to break into the world of fashion. He has worn many hats from writer, stylist, illustrator, photographer and editor and all of them worn well.
I found this article with Q&A between him and cathy Horyn.
Q and A: Michael Roberts
Michael Roberts attending the Dolce & Gabbana 20th Anniversary in Milan. (Uno Press/WireImage)
I knew Michael Roberts’ work as a writer, photographer, stylist and illustrator long before we were introduced in the late 1990s. Were we introduced? Or did we meet one day at a fashion show and just start talking? We quickly discovered that we had a link to the same unpublished Vivienne Westwood profile, for Vanity Fair, in the mid 90s. I had been asked to write a profile of Westwood, which I did, but publication of the piece was delayed and delayed until, eventually, the editorial window closed for her. Michael had photographed her—appropriately, under glass. He had found an enormous bell jar and Westwood had gamely consented to be photographed as if her head were a museum specimen. Or an offering at a pagan feast, brightly colored. She is a genius.
Michael is a rare fellow in the fashion world. He has a great mind and a great wit. He is incredibly decisive. He knows why something is the way it is and he can draw on his vast store of memory to further explain things. He is currently the fashion director of Vanity Fair, but he has also worked for The New Yorker, Tatler and the London Sunday Times. In 2005, Edition 7L published “The Snippy World of New Yorker Fashion Artist Michael Roberts,” a collection of his drawings and collages. Next month, in New York, 7L (Lagerfeld’s imprint) will bring out “Shot in Sicily,” a book of his photographs taken over 20 years. I sat down with Michael in Paris to talk about Sicily — and, along the way, Irvin Penn, Helmut Newton and the state of fashion.
See photos from Michael Roberts’ book “Shot in Sicily.”
CH: When did you go to Sicily for the first time?
MR: Easter, 1987. I was on holiday in Venice for a few days with a friend, Martha Fiennes, sister of Ralph Fiennes, and we had three more days. Couldn’t decide where to go. So I said, “Let’s put on a blindfold on and stick a pin in the map.” Just like that. We put the pin on Messina, on the tip of Italy. Driving into Taormina, I had this weird feeling I had seen it before, like the first time I went to New York. I just completely loved the landscape. I went back in the summer and did a whole series of photographs. Then gradually I got to know the people.
Q: A lot of fashion people have discovered Sicily, exposing it. Have you seen a change?
A: Subliminally, I’ve seen a lot of change. But my vision of it has been so determinately the one I started with that I tended to block the other stuff out. You may call my vision of Sicily very clichéd, but it is the Sicily that certainly existed once and in a way still does. I’ve edited out the plastic, the bad discos and terrible clothes. And I always knew I was going to do a book. It’s completely idealized but it doesn’t make it any less true.
Q: How do people in Sicily like having their pictures taken?
A: Now I think I’m a little bit known there, so it’s okay. Of course, 20 years ago, I had the courage of being much younger, so I just assumed that everyone wanted to be photographed anyway! The older women in black often don’t like being photographed. They’re wearing black because they’re widows, they’re in mourning and they’re mourning for the rest of their lives. So it’s a bit intrusive to run up to people and say how fabulous they look in their black clothes. They’re actually attending a permanent wake.
Q: The people in the photographs are so stunning you often can’t tell who’s a model and who’s a local. Like the garage mechanic. Was he conscious of his good looks?
A: Absolutely not. He was in training for bodybuilding, and he had arranged his T-shirt himself. When Armani saw the shirt, he said, “I must use that in my next collection.” And he did. I saw it in Emporio. Like, a week ago! I photographed the guy regularly over the next 10 years.
Anyone who goes to Taormina is very much aware of the work of a German photographer called Baron Von Gloeden. A turn-of-the-century baron who went there and photographed the locals, young boys and girls, in Greek mythic poses, wearing something like a fig leaf. He became incredibly famous there and people like Queen Victoria collected his art photography. Oscar Wilde visited Sicily just to meet him. I did a whole series based on his kind of look. He was ex-communicated by the Catholic church, and when the Nazis invaded Sicily, they crushed 3,000 of his glass negatives. I always thought he would make a fantastic movie.
Q: What do you like about contemporary photography?
A: I like a lot of the photography that is very, very artificial, I suppose. I like Mert and Marcus, because they’re so stripped down to a perfection of glamour. Which is what selling clothes is about. It’s so slick that it’s like looking at a new iPod. You can marvel at the technological wonder of it. And, of course, like an iPod, it’s not a lasting love. You love it for its moment.
In terms of pure photography, you can’t fault someone like Penn, who was doing that kind of perfection in 1945, and is still doing it today. This is a person like Picasso. He has an incredible eye. He’s a genius.
Q: I’d love to meet Penn.
A: He’s an amazing person to talk to. When I was first at Vanity Fair, years ago, I was constantly making trips to Mr. Penn’s studio to talk him into doing things. He wasn’t ‘talked to’ at all in those days. He’d just say, “I want to do this,” and the conversation would be closed. But when I was at The New Yorker, maybe 20 years later, and I had to go down and talk to him, he was much more amenable. He loved talking. He still wouldn’t do the things [laughs] but he’d give you a very gracious four hours explaining why he wouldn’t. I treasure my conversations with Penn.
There are three things I will keep forever. One is a very complimentary letter from Avedon about something that I had done. Another is a letter from Saint Laurent, and the third is an amazing letter from Penn. He sent me a letter about the book of cutouts.
Q: What example does Penn set?
A: The absolute pursuit of excellence. It’s crystalline. It makes me think of Vreeland’s statement that “style is refusal.” That’s exactly what Penn does. It’s the denial of excess, of things, of excess light. There’s no one—not even Avedon—who approaches that. The denial of ego also comes through Penn’s work. Penn always gives the impression that no ego is involved. In Avedon’s work, I think, the ego gets in the way. A big ego was always in the way. He was that kind of guy. It was always “Me, me, me.” Maybe inwardly, Penn is shrieking “Me, me, me,” but it certainly doesn’t come through in his work.
Q: We have a lot of egos in fashion, but it’s interesting to see who is able to renew himself and take risks and not repeat.
A: Refining yourself is not repeating yourself. Yes, Penn has his way, but he’s refining himself. You know, he does marvelous doodles. He draws things out. Helmut Newton’s way was to rip things out of newspaper and remember them for later, so he’d have an image in his mind. Of course, the picture he did never really looked like the newspaper image. It would always be Helmutized. He was the one who inspired me to be a photographer. He said two things to me. He said, “When they tell you there’s no light, don’t believe them. There’s always enough light.” And the other was, “You don’t need more than two rolls.” In the end, you only need one frame. He got all those night pictures of Paris by knowing there was enough light from the street lamps to take a picture.
Q: In school, you started as an illustrator. Then you became a writer [for the London Sunday Times], then a stylist, then a photographer. You’ve also been an art director and now you’re back to taking pictures. What if you had stayed with one thing?
A: That was never an option, I suppose. I like painting, but I knew I would never be just a painter. I felt the same about illustration. All the stuff I do relies on having the idea. They are idea-driven things.
Q: I remember seeing you at lunch at Alaia’s cutting out your collages at the table.
A: Endlessly! The collages very much had to do with the fact that I was at the New Yorker, and the magazine doesn’t have much call for fashion photographs. It’s the home for illustration and drawings. I was committed to doing covers. I ended up doing 22 of them. People say, “Oh, you jump from one thing to another.” I don’t see it as jumping from one thing to another. I see them all as branches of the same thing. And when I’m tired of sitting on that branch, I can run to the other.
Q: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the fashion world in the past 35 years?
A: Fashion has never been more popular, I think. It ceased to be a very exclusive thing. There’s Karl doing H & M, Kate doing Topshop. It’s almost become nauseatingly widespread. Sometimes I long to get away from it. That’s a huge difference from when I started. I came in as assistant at the Sunday Times to a very famous editor, Molly Parkin, who started a magazine called Nova. We’d go to Paris for the couture. It was a whole hierarchical world in those days. There were huge power figures in terms of journalists. I’m talking about the early 70s. John Fairchild. There was Vreeland sitting on a couch at Saint Laurent. All these dragon ladies, endless dragon ladies. There were the first rumblings of ready to wear.
Q: Fashion’s universality is relatively new.
A: I do find that fashion is much less about the designers. That’s a huge change. Even though I never became a designer, I spent three years learning how to make clothes—how to ease in a sleeve, how to put in a bust dart. When I look around, years and years later, fashion has nothing to do with that world anymore. It’s all to do with “mood boards.” A picture by Man Ray, a clipping from a magazine…The mood board is a substitute for not knowing how to make something. I mean, that’s a huge difference—you don’t need to know how to make something to be a fashion designer.
Q: What’s your next book?
A: It’s going to be called “You’re Only Young Once.” I’ve done lots of pictures of young stars at the beginning of their careers, like Brad Pitt and Jude Law. I’ve also got lots of pictures of young people behaving as young people do. Food fights in Paris. In initiation at a Louisiana university, where people are completely out of their heads. The youngest matador in the world, a 15-year-old, doing his first fight. There’s an incredible hope and daring about everything.
flaunt the imperfection
it's a great article...
but i am confused...
is he now a photographer or is he a fashion director...?
i don't see a date for the article...is it an old one?
is he now at vanity fair?
did he replace elizabeth saltzman?
"It is not money that makes you well dressed: it is understanding."
No ones written in this thread in awhile so I'm gonna try and revive it. I found an older article from 2007 about him in the telegraph.
Michael Roberts: the snippy snapper
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 28/10/2007
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Fashion photographer, illustrator, art director – the legendary Michael Roberts has many talents, not least a wonderful waspishness. And these days, he tells Justine Picardie, there's plenty of personalities in the business to be waspish about
There's no way of missing Michael Roberts at a fashion show or party, however many fluttering celebrities might be clustered around him like butterflies. He's the tall, handsome man with mocha-coloured skin, shaved head and chiselled cheekbones; the one all the VIPs are gravitating towards. Thus it was at the V&A gala in London Fashion Week, when he was deep in conversation with Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue, and the Chanel muse Amanda Harlech (two of the most powerful women in the room), and so it will be at every other gathering of the fashion clans.
His jobs have been numerous: currently the fashion and style director of Vanity Fair; previously the fashion director of the New Yorker; art director of Tatler; photographer and illustrator for every possible Vogue (British, Italian, French, American, Chinese, Brazilian, Japanese – you name it, he's worked for them). He has published four books of gloriously witty illustrations and collages, most recently The Snippy World of New Yorker Fashion Artist Michael Roberts, which was launched with no fewer than six different parties around the world; and when I catch up with him in London he's preparing for the exhibition to celebrate his latest book, Shot in Sicily, which features his photographs from the past 20 years of his favourite part of Italy.
Roberts is standing in Hamiltons gallery in Mayfair, arranging a sequence of gilt-framed photographs on a newly constructed mantelpiece. The pictures are not only instantly recognisable as his trademark style, but also indicative of his sway over subsequent photographers and a host of advertising campaigns. There's the now-familiar imagery of beautiful yet muscular boys and exquisite dark-haired girls in black lace dresses, with crucifixes and gravestones and crowns of thorns as accessories. Seeing them like this, en masse, is a reminder of Roberts's influence on everyone from Mario Testino to Madonna – and a thousand less illustrious imitators – but also of how subversive he was when I first met him, more than 20 years ago, before this particular aesthetic had been absorbed into the mainstream. Roberts was already much in demand, while I was the most junior of writers and thoroughly in awe of him as he breezed between the offices of Tatler and Vogue, and social assignations with Manolo Blahnik, Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger. He was the man who had famously photographed Vivienne Westwood as a look-alike Margaret Thatcher and fresh-faced Etonians in compromising positions for Tatler; he also specialised in debunking one-liners in his fashion reviews. For example, 'Saint Laurent calls his narrow look the Tube; Karl Lagerfeld calls his the Tunnel; I can see no light at the end of it.'
If he is slightly more senatorial these days, he nevertheless retains a rare talent for waspishness. When I ask him his verdict on the recent somewhat controversial Marc Jacobs show at New York Fashion Week (the controversy was as much to do with Jacobs' angry reaction to complaints about the show's late start as his decision to begin it backwards, with his own bow), Roberts assumes a characteristically quizzical gaze. 'It was kind of a nothing, frankly,' he says, in a tone that swoops between a laconic upper-class English drawl and more emphatic transatlantic vowels. 'I think he's getting a little bit spoilt. No one is above criticism… What is worrying with Marc is that he used to be very iconoclastic – he wasn't afraid of speaking his mind or frightened of the establishment when he was doing grunge – so for him to do this whole thing, saying, "You can't criticise me," it's too bizarre. But it's inevitable when someone becomes part of the establishment, and [as creative director of] Louis Vuitton, he's at the heart of the establishment. I thought his show was bad. He'd thought of the concept – starting at the end, which is not a very interesting concept, anyway – and when you looked at the show, it didn't have that much to say. Certainly not enough to justify being two hours late.'
You might assume that Roberts himself has become part of the establishment – after all, what could be more central to the global entertainment machine than Vanity Fair? – yet he remains fearless of authority, as usual. He prefers creating his own books, he says, to magazines: 'I'm much more into the process, from A to Z, with the books. With the magazine, I don't want to rush down to the printing press – by the time it's left my hands, been mangled by an art department, throttled by some person putting their opinion in about which picture they'd like, which has nothing to do with anything… If you get too involved with magazines, it's soul-destroying, but if you get too involved with books, it's fabulous. If you get superficially involved with magazines, it's fine, you can just let it go. But if you get superficially involved with a book, it's a disaster. That was a huge learning process for me. And now that I've learnt it, it's very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle, and to go back to magazines and toe the party line.'
Not that he shows any sign of toeing the party line for his employers. 'The thing about Vanity Fair is that they always want the stars naked,' he says. 'But I'm trying to persuade them to put the clothes on.' However, he reserves his greatest contempt for the Hollywood entourages that surround the celebrities he styles for Vanity Fair. 'They arrive with their gangs – their hangers-on – their managers, their publicists, their this, their that. These bitches march in with her [the celebrity], and there's an array of clothes for them to choose from, and you find this nasty little person is saying, " These shoulders are too big!" It's unreal. Unreal. You have everything there with pulling power – you have the magazine, you have Annie Leibovitz, you have the best hair and make-up, you have the best clothes, from the latest collections, that have never been seen before, they have this very impressive array of stuff – but it's still a nightmare, one of the most relentlessly unforgiving experiences.'
That he remains steadfast in his refusal to bow down to Hollywood or the fashion industry may have something to do with his rebellious childhood, though the details of his past have always been shrouded in mystery. The managing director of Condé Nast UK, Nicholas Coleridge – who worked with Roberts at Tatler in the 1970s – describes him as a latter-day Scarlet Pimpernel: 'He glides through fashionland like a stealth bomber, flying low and missing nothing.' Roberts appears so fully formed – so very much himself, and looking exactly the same now as he did 30 years ago – that it is difficult to conceive of him as a small boy growing up in Buckinghamshire. But his childhood cannot have been easy: he was born in 1948; his mother was English, his father an engineer from St Lucia. After his father's death in 1960, 'I was sent off to boarding-school.' He pauses, and lets out a small, almost imperceptible sigh. 'Well, many boarding-schools. I went to so many different ones, because I was so unhappy. My mother was always shuttling me to different schools – I must have been to about ten. She went to work in Slough as a secretary. I was probably too much to handle. I was a demanding child. I complained a lot, and so I moved from school to school to school. I'd go on hunger strike. Those boys' schools were very sporty, so I'd be out on the rugby field, which is the most foreign place I could possibly think of being. Twenty-four schoolboys bearing down on me – it wasn't for me!' His ambivalence about his own unhappy experiences may or may not be evident in his subsequent depictions of public schoolboys. As one of his friends observes, 'When he came to do the Tatler shoot of the boys at Eton he was the outsider and he felt the need to seize what he saw that day, to invade it, own it and control it.'
After passing his A-levels Roberts escaped to art school at High Wycombe, where he studied fine art and graphic design, before moving to the fashion department ('because it seemed like more fun – there was always hysterical laughter coming through the walls'). There he won a fashion illustration competition, sponsored by the advertising agency J Walter Thompson, and his prize was a trip to New York. 'I got to hang out with Andy Warhol and the Factory people, I did drawings for Women's Wear Daily, I met Richard Avedon, and when I got back to England Molly Parkin asked me to do some work for her magazine, Nova.'
The rest, as they say, is history; but he seems to prefer the notion of his own history starting with that trip to New York in 1967. He will say little about either parent – he saw his mother infrequently, and she died 'five or six years ago' – aside from a single, vividly expressed episode. 'One of my earliest memories is being on the back of my mother's bike, and she was wearing the highest pair of sandals – white kid with a cork heel – and the bike crashed, because she was wearing these goddamn inappropriate shoes, and we fell off the bike, and I was thrown out of my seat on to the pavement. Her blood was on the white kid. And I've hated inappropriate shoes ever since.'
When I suggest that the story might be a revealing one, with its mingling of fashion and danger and disaster, he roars with laughter. 'Exactly!' he says. Then he tells me another story, about a friend who was working for L'Uomo Vogue and came to Sicily to do a shoot. 'He was immaculately dressed – Romeo Gigli, the latest Rolex watch. I said to him, "Be careful with that watch." Anyway, it was very hot, and he had his arm dangling languidly out of the car window on the way from the airport to the villa. And I saw this scooter whizz by, and heard a scream of agony when his wrist was nearly broken as they wrenched the Rolex off him.'
Roberts laughs again, and remarks that his own watch is a Swiss Army one, and his trousers are '15 years old, from Gap'. In Sicily, he says, he always dresses down, like today, 'to fit in with the locals. They're very hospitable, but if you go flouncing in there, they can give you such a hard time. If they take against you, they really take against you. If they take against you a lot, then you're dead!'
All of which suits him fine, I think, because he likes a hint of danger, the darkness that lurks just beyond the edges of his work. 'Fashion people herd together,' he says. 'But I pride myself on going the other way to everyone else.' Long may he reign over us, contrary as always and triumphantly perverse.
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Last edited by Mirik; 26-04-2011 at 08:34 AM.
L'Officiel Paris February 2012 : Chanel Iman by Michael Roberts
Chanel Iman, Tina & Nana by Michael Roberts
Styled by Monica Pillosio
Makeup by Carol Upton
lofficielmode.com via tentalicious
ebook free download via visualoptimism
you soft and only
Vanity Fair September 1994
"Pretty in Paris"
Celebrity: Molly Ringwald
Photographer: Michael Roberts
Stylist: Jerry Stafford
Hair: Greg for Carole Agency
Stylist: Marc Schaeffer for Carole Agency
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