There are those who think all stylists are gushing posh bints or mincing gaylords. Feckless fashion magpies who swoop on any aesthetic or scene deemed vaguely underground, exotic or historically obscure - with no understanding of or respect for its original context - then rehash it for the consumer via countless glossy magazines. In many cases, they’re not wrong.
Although stylists have to make images with mass appeal, they don’t have to sell anything directly other than the image. This might sell the clothes by extension, but styling is still a pure art, the logical conclusion of the Society of the Spectacle. The empty image is all, its power to seduce the most important thing, leading to page after magazine page of a visual power war. Styling is our most frequent and populist creative act, because it’s dressing ourselves writ large.
The top stylists influence how we see ourselves. If clothes open up the options of who we can be - hippy, skinhead, businessman, conservative, dominant or good-time girl - stylists create completely new types of people to be.
Men’s increasing interest in fashion - and subsequently fashion’s more masculine agenda - has not gone unnoticed by the industry, or the magazines that champion it. It’s a development that can be in part attributed to seminal stylist Simon Foxton.
After leaving his Berwick-upon-Tweed home in 1979 to do a foundation course and fashion degree at Central Saint Martins, Foxton became a key figure among the first wave of famed stylists - including Judy Blame, Caroline Baker and Ray Petri - who emerged from clubs or colleges in the early half of the 1980s to land in the pages of i-D and The Face. They were the first stylists to get name credits for shoots (before them, styling had been done by fashion editors straying from their desks).
Over the 20 years Foxton has been styling, consulting and art directing, he’s arguably helped redefine men’s fashion, even if his aesthetic remains a bit of a contradiction. Mixing sportswear with regular clothing is now hardly worthy of comment, but it was a Foxton innovation. He has also championed black males as models, often street casting for images that were simultaneously mischievous and regal, removed from the usual stereotypes of black males as exotic or sporty. The resurgence of revamped English classics like Burberry can also be traced back to certain shoots Foxton produced in the late 1980s. He dared to use that familiar check pattern - mixed, of course, with other more outlandish motifs - when others were preoccupied with acid house and its related loose-fit club wear.
Foxton’s work has appeared in too many magazines to mention, and has been hung on the walls of the Tate Modern and the V&A (which purchased his i-D shoot, Strictly). Here, Foxton talks about where he was, where he is now and where he hopes to be in the future.
James Anderson: When you graduated from St Martins in 1983, you launched a label, didn’t you? What was that like?
Simon Foxton: It was called Bazooka. It was taking sportswear - which is a bit of a crap old idea now - and doing it as club - or daywear. We got a lot of PR and into a lot of magazines, and sold through Whistles, Jones and Joseph. It was considered quite a label of the time. But like so many other British designers of that era we had absolutely no business acumen whatsoever. We were just like kids really; we were cocking things up left, right and centre. So after a year or so of losing money hand over fist we decided to call it a day. That’s when I began to move into styling.
James Anderson: Can you remember the first bits of styling you did?
Simon Foxton: I did a shoot for i-D with Marc Lebon in 1983 or 1984. They had asked Bazooka, Bodymap, Ray Petri and Caroline Baker to do a 'look' each. I did a big group shot - a sort of cartoon-like mess! After that came out Bazooka went under, so they asked me to do some more styling and hooked me up with Nick Knight, who was looking for a stylist to work with. I’d never met him before. We spoke on the phone, and I said I wanted to do 'something with bright clothes.' With styling it’s so much more immediate. There’s still a lot of hoo-ha - but you can have an idea and the next week shoot it, then it’s finished.
James Anderson: Loads of fledgling stylists seem to be permanently broke. How long was it before you made money?
Simon Foxton: There were dribs and drabs of work now and then, bits of advertising work for Shiseido, Coca-Cola clothing and stuff for record companies - I did people like Sly and Robbie, and Prefab Sprout. I soon realised that record company work wasn’t really for me, though; there are a lot of egos involved. Styling for magazines is better - you can tell models what to wear, and they won’t talk back. It wasn’t until about 1988 when Levi’s picked up on me that I began to earn real money. I started styling their brochures every six months. They had decent budgets and would fly us off to the States to do stuff. Then the marketing director got me in as a consultant in about 1989; that was a nice ongoing thing. I would go to big meetings, like the token trendy bit of frippery.
James Anderson: There’s a whole well-oiled structure in place for stylists now, but how did you manage years ago when people didn’t even really know what a stylist was?
Simon Foxton: It wasn’t like now, where I can get in touch with PRs in Italy or France or wherever and they will send stuff over to use. That happened quite rarely. It was mostly using home-grown, local stuff. And also using second-hand stuff a lot, which was the culture that I was from, the do-it-yourself punk thing, then being at college during the whole New Wave and New Romantic things. You often borrowed stuff from the shops and you’d have to woo them a little: I’d take in tear sheets to show what I did, or bring a letter from the magazine. Or you’d have to put a cheque deposit down, and if you didn’t return things you’d borrowed on the same day they’d bank it. Duffer once said they’d break my kneecaps if I didn’t bring stuff back - which they now say was a joke, but at the time I certainly believed them!
James Anderson: How would you compare being a stylist now to 20 years ago?
Simon Foxton: Since the whole style boom in the 1990s people are more eager to get their stuff out there and seen, and because of the internet people can check out collections quickly and easily. One difference, which I regret, is that before, you could get away with all sorts - using second-hand stuff, customised stuff - and now you’ve got to use so many designer labels in there, which is quite restrictive. There’s not enough room for stylists to express themselves now. Because of my longevity I’m still 'allowed' to have that freedom, I can still be giddy. You’ve got to think what styling is about.
James Anderson: What is it about?
Simon Foxton: I think it’s a number of things. It’s partly information, and to do with the selling of clothing. And then a lot of it is just entertainment, and I see myself more on that side - visual entertainment, having fun, exciting people.
James Anderson: Do you still really like fashion?
Simon Foxton: I’ve never really liked fashion, ever. I’ve never coined myself as a 'fashion stylist.' I’m a stylist. The concept that something is right now, but wrong six months later, I find insane. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. I’m not saying what I do is timeless, but it’s not particularly fashion-based, it’s more style- and ideas-based. It’s not about the latest thing. I’ve never really bought into that way of thinking.
James Anderson: What about people who really over-intellectualise fashion?
Simon Foxton: I’m slightly wary of it. When you see exhibitions on fashion and you read the blurb you sometimes think, 'That’s not true - that’s rubbish!' But some journalists who are a little more scholarly are gradually winning me over to their way of looking at it. But it’s not how I approach my work. If someone reads something else into it, then all well and good, but I don’t sit there beforehand with a pen and paper and work out why I’m using this garment and that model.
James Anderson: Yet some of the images you’ve produced - like the famous one with black skinheads wearing Marxist imagery on their jackets, and flames everywhere - surely they provide for some weighty theorising?
Simon Foxton: It’s great if people want to read interpretations into it, but I’m not crusading. I haven’t done it with a political agenda, you know. With the black models, well, a lot of them were mates of mine, and I generally fancy black men. The one thing I did try to change was the lack of black models in magazines. I did make a conscious effort to use more black guys in my shoots, and to use them in an across-the-board way. I have had stick in the past with people saying I use models as dress-up dollies, and it did get some people’s backs up because they were black models.
James Anderson: Do you still do a lot of street casting for models?
Simon Foxton: I’m not great at that as I’m quite shy, and I’ll see someone and by the time I’ve decided to ask them, they’ve gone. But the photographer Jason Evans, who I work with, is brilliant at spotting people. And initially, with some of the people he finds, you think, 'What?' But he’s got a special eye for that. But most people you ask - even those who are initially a bit wary - deep down believe that they’re quite special, so they’re usually quite flattered, and think, "At last someone’s noticed me!"
James Anderson: How important is it to you to make images that are sexy?
Simon Foxton: Quite important, that’s often the driving force. Not that I fancy all the models - even if initially I think they’re cute, when it’s the process of working I’m not lusting after them, it’s just about getting on with the work. Basically, I like to dress nice-looking boys in silly clothes - ha, ha!
James Anderson: Enough about fashion, I hear you have a quite fancy shed in your garden. Tell me about that. I want a shed, too. Is it carpeted?
Simon Foxton: There’s a big Persian rug in there, yes. My desk is in there, and it’s heated. There’s a phone line. I’ve painted the shed a sort of mint green gloss on the inside, and it’s white on the outside. There are double doors that open out. It does get a bit damp, though, so I can’t leave all my scrapbooks in there. I don’t know why you’re so interested in my shed.
Originally published in Tank, Autumn/Winter 2004