also there is something eccentric about the ads
like anne-catherine's brown top which turns into a horse
sort of clever and amusing
it's really perfect
and then you notice it might go with the wolf on the other's sweater
sort of like unlikely/strange juxtapositions
the bird on the blond girl, resting on her shoulder
such a weird partnership.. which makes it all the more interesting
Master Minds: From album covers to Calvin Klein ads, the artists have revolutionised the way we see fashion As a retrospective of their art opens at the Pompidou in Paris, Susannah Frankel meets two of the world's most influential designers
Vision Tenace, the show is called, and it features an installation of 32 art posters courtesy of Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag, the artists known simply as M/M.
M/M may be almost unknown outside the fashion industry but, chances are, anyone even remotely interested in clothes – from the woman picking up her monthly copy of Vogue, to the student gazing at billboard campaigns from the top of a bus – will recognise their work. They have created some of the most inspirational commercial imagery of our time, approaching everything they touch – album covers, global ad campaigns, music videos, whatever – with a respect for form, context and concept that is unparalleled.
Such foresight has proved profitable, both creatively and commercially. Since they set up business in 1992, the two graphic designers, art directors or just plain artists – call them what you will – have worked with some very big names, from the über-fashionable (Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent) to the more mainstream (Adidas, Calvin Klein, Stella McCartney), creating everything from ground-breaking advertising campaigns to typefaces for their clients.
M/M were responsible for the acclaimed revamp of French Vogue under the editorship of Carine Roitfeld, and are currently creative directors of the grand men's fashion biannual, Arena Homme+. Their work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale and, in London, at Tate Modern and the Design Museum, where they had a solo show last year. M/M art directed the sleeve for Madonna's American Life, and CD and DVD covers for Björk, for whom they also co-directed a video. They are also the brains behind theatre sets, art posters, carpets... But who are M/M?
It's a week before the Pompidou opening, and on the wall of M/M's design studio in Paris there is a 3D poster of a German shepherd dog. Ears pricked, pink tongue protruding, it looks almost as if it is smiling. "We bought it at a petrol station on a motorway in the summer of 1992 or 1993," Amzalag explains. He goes over to a shelf and locates a familiar image of the model Amber Valletta, shot by Craig McDean and art directed by M/M for the autumn/winter 1995 Jil Sander campaign. Amzalag holds it up. The similarities between the delicately lovely model and the Alsatian are striking.
Not, of course, that anyone might ever accuse Ms Valletta of looking like, well, like a dog (that would simply be rude), but there's an eagerness of gaze, a shagginess of honey blond hair and, yes, more than a hint of a smile that evokes a very similar response.
While the majority of fashion houses, and the biannual glossy marketing campaigns that go with them, trade on a certain untouchable quality, in this case the image is so endearing that one could be forgiven for wanting to reach into the picture and ruffle Valletta's tousled mane. It is a friendly as opposed to self-consciously aloof affair.
Amzalag reaches for a second catalogue, this time for the French lifestyle company APC and produced by M/M in 1996. It is notable for the fact that it contains not one single piece of sellable clothing. Instead, it is a series of lovingly executed reproductions of missing-dog notices, posted by bereft owners on lampposts around town. And there's a signature rogue element. Blink and you might miss the solitary shot of a hatchet-faced woman, above whom are the words "Chèques volés!". "She has stolen some cheques. That's why she's missing," says Augustyniak, conspiratorially. "Maybe, she was the person who kidnapped those dogs."
On the front of the catalogue is a small, fluffy white dog of their own design. On the back is a trail of that small, fluffy, white dog's excrement. "It's poo!" exclaims Augustyniak, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world. Whichever way one chooses to look at it, Augustyniak and Amzalag would no doubt be the first to admit that the brains behind APC must be applauded for backing this entirely oblique marketing exercise. "We convinced APC to fund this booklet," Augustyniak continues, "and then this image – the dog's called Paco – was printed on to the back of one of their windbreakers, just to increase the chance of him being found."
"So you like dogs, then?" I ask, not unreasonably.
"I don't," says Augustyniak, matter-of-factly.
"I do," says Amzalag. He pauses for thought before adding, "I like pictures of dogs more than I like dogs." And then, just to clarify his position where our four-legged friends are concerned, "I like dogs. But I like their pictures better."
Any fascination with dogs – or at least their images – pales into insignificance compared with M/M's obsessive interest in the written word. Since they started out, they have created no less than 40 typefaces of their own, and their work often features text, even if it can be challenging to actually read it.
"Language is the main thing that we share," Augustyniak says. "It's the thing that holds together all the many, many layers." To date, M/M have given the world the Cesar font, an "alphabet" put together by a child who had yet to learn how to write. "A Japanese company wants us to write something with that typeface," Augustyniak says, "which is where the idea moves away from something that is legible or not legible. It goes back to the child learning to write and the psychological charge of language".
Perhaps M/M's most well-known font, though, is The Alphabet, formed from the faces of 26 of the world's most successful models photographed by their frequent collaborators, the Dutch photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. "A" is represented by Ann Catherine, "B" by Bridget, "C" by Carmen Maria, "D" by Sophie Dahl, and so forth.
"At the beginning, it was just saying that a face says something," explains Augustyniak. "Is there a relationship between my name and the way I look? Of course there is, but there isn't. This one's called Ann Catherine maybe because her parents called her that, or the model agency gave her that name. And then we are going to project further on to Ann Catherine and call her 'A', so she becomes something else.
"What's great about a model is that she can embody the projection of other people. It's where people's fantasies are projected, sexual fantasies most obviously, but that's not so interesting as ideologies, ideas."
Amzalag puts it more concisely. "To me, it's very simple. It's like typeface. Type. Face."
Mathias Augustyniak, 40, and Michael Amzalag, "nearly 40", grew up in the South of France and Paris respectively. They studied graphic design at l'Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, where they met in 1989.
Amzalag left early, having formed a relationship with a music magazine that he found more interesting, and Augustyniak went on to complete his degree and then an MA at London's Royal College of Art. In 1992, they set up M/M, working predominantly on music-industry contacts. It wasn't long before they made the move into fashion, working with Yohji Yamamoto; Balenciaga (Christy Turlington, photographed by Inez and Vinoodh and stalked by an unidentifiable black blob); Stella McCartney ("the new Ralph Lauren"); and Calvin Klein.
"My best Calvin Klein memory is when, in Back to the Future, the hero is supposed to sleep with his mother because he is going back to the future, and he has CK on his underpants," says Augustyniak. "His mother says, 'You're called Calvin? I didn't think you were called Calvin?'. That's the beauty of Calvin Klein. He invented the idea of a designer putting his name on to clothing. Up until then, clothing was about expressing yourself, about your own name, not somebody else's name. Why would a man want to wear the name of some other guy, especially on his underwear? Calvin Klein invented that, it was like this post-Warholian thing where, through fashion, he lived his life."
The M/M Calvin Klein campaign – models photographed in black-and-white and then cut out, with a red and blue logo in what looked like graffiti ("we wrote 'Calvin Klein' as if he had") has been widely imitated, but the original, with its layers of meaning, endures. "Maybe it is a portrait of Calvin Klein,"Augustyniak says. "And maybe it is a portrait of America, about being American. The campaign coincidentally appeared just after 9/11 – though it was produced before – and it expresses a sweet way of believing in America, the naivety of America, somehow."
The inspiration for the Pompidou Centre show springs from a project in 1999 when M/M joined forces with the artists Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno on an installation for the Venice Biennale. The three artists each made a film, and M/M were responsible for the title sequences, scaled up to Brobdingnagian proportions and painted on to the otherwise blank walls.
"Afterwards, we decided to do a poster to commemorate that event and bring together all the graphic elements that were on the wall," Amzalag explains, "and that became the first of a series that was made in relationship with artists and institutions."
Augustyniak continues: "The artists we have worked with are post-conceptual. They're more interested in dealing with space and concept. We offer them a visual interface between their complex project and reality."
And so there's a poster for a documentary film that was never made by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick and Parreno again, of "the last Communist factory in Mexico", purveyor of Boing fruit juice. "In the Fifties they met up with Walt Disney," says Amzalag, "and he gave them permission to use the Donald Duck logo on the cap, and now they have a problem with the Walt Disney Corporation because there was no paperwork to prove it."
"But the movie was never finished," adds Augustyniak, "and they came to ask us to edit it. They gave us this big pile of negatives. We said, 'Impossible'. But they had been given the money, so they had to do an exhibition."
The M/M poster – Mickey Mouse, smoking gun in hand, riding a bottle of Boing complete with its Donald Duck cap – was entitled La Batalla de los Patos, and is the only complete visual record of the event. It became the show's sole exhibit. There are now 32 such posters in total – they are an unlimited edition and sell on the M/M website for €200 apiece, regardless of production costs: "two-colour, six- colour, glow-in-the-dark". Each one has had its moment in the sun, appearing in succession, blown up to around 4m tall, in the lobby of the Pompidou Centre over the past eight months. Now all are being shown together, alongside a "miniature" (classical painting-sized) version, restricted to an edition of just five. "There's this mix – what's real, what's reproduction?" Augustyniak says. "What's art and what's imitation?"
"I have always been fascinated by M/M," says Jo-Ann Furniss, editor-in-chief of Arena Homme+. "I loved what they did with French Vogue, that certain seriousness alongside a lightness. There is a substance to it, a sense of real fashion, and a thorough-ness to the design, but a lightness and prettiness, too. There's always content to their work, whether it's an art project or a fashion advertising campaign, there's the feeling that you get something more from it. At the same time it's not crushingly boring or about being clever. It's not like that at all."
Augustyniak tries to explain their approach: "At the moment, there's a very levelled way of talking, working, thinking. Since the beginning, we've said that that doesn't work because there's no relief, everything is flat. Our idea is that it's important to create bumps that people can grab, visually or ideologically."
M/M has also always been about creating a platform, both for their own work and that of their collaborators. "When we stop working," says Augustyniak, "and M/M doesn't exist any more, what will be left is the portrait of a group and a portrait of us within that group."
On the M/M website there is a mission statement. "An image never interests us as such," it reads. "Its relevance lies in the fact that it contains the sum of preceding dialogues, stories, experiences with various interlocutors, and the fact that it induces a questioning of these pre-existing values. This is what, for us, makes a pertinent image. A good image should be in between two others, a previous one and another to come."
Calvin Klein Jeans
Fall/winter 2002/3, art direction and illustration by M/M (Paris), photograph by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin The Alphabet
Silk-screened poster (2001), by M/M (Paris), based on an original photograph by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin. Courtesy of www.mmparis.com and Air de Paris Gallery, Paris La Batalla de los Patos
Unlimited edition silkscreened poster (2003), by M/M (Paris) Vision Tenace
View of the M/M (Paris) show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris Stella McCartney
Spring/summer 2008, creative direction and art by M/M (Paris), photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin Yohji Yamamoto
Fall/winter 1998 catalogue, creative direction by M/M (Paris), photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin No Ghost Just A Shell
Silkscreened poster by M/M (Paris), Pierre Huyghe & Philippe Parreno (2000) Björk
Cover of heralbum Medulla (2004), art by M/M (Paris), photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin About
Unlimited edition silkscreened poster by M/M (Paris), Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe & Philippe Parreno (1999) Balenciaga
Spring/summer 2002, photosby Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin, art by M/M (Paris) Arena Homme+
Cover of the winter/spring 2008 edition, Marc Jacobs photographed by Juergen Teller