Fashionistas in Focus

Philip Sherwell Fashionistas in focus 12/11/2006 For two years Timothy Greenfield-Sanders has been photographing the circus that is New York Fashion Week. But it was the spectators rather than the models who caught his eye. He tells Philip Sherwell why everyone but everyone was happy to sit for him It is a bright September day in New York and the great and good of the fashion world are gathering in Bryant Park in Manhattan, the home of New York Fashion Week. A cluster of paparazzi gathers by the red-rope walkway, calling, ‘This way, Paris,’ as the stars sweep in to the complex of grand tents where the shows will take place. Inside, another phalanx jostles for pole position at the end of the catwalk to capture the latest creations – as well as the reactions of the front-row guests whose nods or scowls can make or break a designer’s season. But while everyone’s eyes are on the likes of the editor of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, and her French counterpart, Carine Roitfeld, or the numerous celebrities crammed into the front row, there is another kind of fashion parade taking place backstage. For the past four seasons Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, one of America’s foremost portrait photographers, has worked from a temporary studio backstage amid the frenzy and hubbub of the shows. In 2004 Olympus, the sponsors of Fashion Week, offered Greenfield-Sanders the chance to capture the mix of personalities drawn to the white tents that fill the park for eight days each spring and autumn. He has spent the past two years coaxing designers, models, actors, journalists and rock stars to let him take their portrait, the results of which can be seen in Look: Portraits Backstage at Olympus Fashion Week. There are those you would expect to see, such as Nicole, Lindsay, Paris, plus some more unlikely characters – whoever took Salman Rushdie for a fashionista? – along with a few downright oddballs such as the drag queen Lady Bunny in her matching faux-zebra coat and boots. ‘The tents have become the place where the fields of fashion, Hollywood, music, television, sport, business, society, even porn come together,’ Greenfield-Sanders tells me when I join him during a frenetic evening at the shows. ‘This book offers a glimpse into that amazing mix, and there are people from all those worlds in there.’ Greenfield-Sanders, 54, who is married to the daughter of the abstract expressionist painter Joop Sanders, was introduced to the fashion industry when Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons asked him to take portraits of his artist friends wearing her designs, including Willem de Kooning, Julian Schnabel and Robert Rauschenberg. Since then Presidents Clinton and Bush have sat for him; he has made an award-winning television documentary on his friend Lou Reed; is a contributing photographer at Vanity Fair; and has works hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum in New York, and the National Portrait Gallery in London. When Greenfield-Sanders first visited Fashion Week in the late 1980s it was still a party for industry insiders, a clubby gathering of designers, journalists, models and buyers. Now it has developed into New York’s premier media and celebrity draw – ‘Rather like the Oscars, but dragged out over a week rather than a night,’ as he observes. ‘Fashion Week has changed tremendously since the days when I first attended the occasional show,’ he continues. ‘The dynamic is global and non-stop, with traditional print-media coverage now being supplemented by satellite uplinks, an ever-swelling pack of paparazzi, obsessive blog coverage, live webcasts and more. “Everybody’s watching, not only to get the early word on tomorrow’s fashions, but also to gawk at the disparate group of A-listers who attend. In many ways the fashion world, with its frenetic energy, its extravagance, its fanatical devotion, rivals any realm I’ve ever focused on.’ Some of the most interesting portraits in the book are not of the celebrities who are already so familiar to us, but of the people who work behind the scenes in the fashion industry. As well as the designers, Greenfield-Sanders has photographed the journalists, stylists and of course those who wield the power to make or break a designer with the flick of a fountain pen – Wintour, Roitfeld and the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Glenda Bailey. Of Roitfeld, Greenfield-Sanders observes, ‘She is really quite glamorous,’ and says he loves the photograph he took of Anna Wintour: ‘It is very simple and yet quite sophisticated.’ And it is good to see that the fashion writers uphold their reputation as the best dressed journalists in the business. Amy Fine Collins, a special correspondent at Vanity Fair, shows us just how to do understated chic, while Lauren Ezersky is in danger of out-shining even the likes of Wintour and Roitfeld. Robert Verdi, referred to in the book as a ‘style guru’, is, says Greenfield-Sanders, ‘one of the hardest-working people at Fashion Week. Last season Robert was so exhausted from it all, I found him asleep, sitting in my studio – with his sunglasses on, of course.’ Somehow, amid the frantic behind-the-scenes chaos, Greenfield-Sanders operates in an oasis of relative calm in his makeshift studio next to the hospitality rooms at the rear of the tented complex. But even here he has at most a few minutes with his subjects rather than the hours that he would usually spend on a shoot with his beloved 1930s vintage Deardorff camera in his New York studio, a converted rectory in the gritty East Village. The night I join him, the gloriously camp design duo Heatherette (comprising the New York club kid Richie Rich and his invariably cowboy-hat-wearing collaborateur Traver Rains) are showing their collection. Nervous energy mixes with near-panic as Rains and Rich make last-minute tweaks to the outfits. First on to the catwalk with her remarkably proportioned physique is Amanda Lepore, a blonde transsexual who is a fixture on the club scene and a muse to the Heatherette team. Her portrait features in Greenfield-Sanders’s book. A few yards away a stream of guests is ushered into Greenfield-Sanders’s studio, plucked from the pandemonium outside by his colleagues. A flurry of young male models come and go – not quite clear why they are there, but delighted by the chance to show off their buff torsos anyway. ‘When do I take off my shirt?’ one asks plaintively. The singers Brandy, Kelis and Mya waltz in with their entourages before the studio becomes the setting for an impromptu ‘after party’ as the Heatherette crew celebrate their glowing reception. Over the four seasons virtually nobody has declined to be pictured. ‘After all, they come here to be seen and get attention,’ says Greenfield-Sanders. ‘Most of them are not here for the fashion. The tents have become magnets for celebrities and their friends.’ Only a couple of the stars that he photographed refused permission for their pictures to be included in the book – most notably Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is famously protective of her image. ‘It’s unfortunate, especially as some of the proceeds are going to charity, but she’s a controlling figure. Do I care? No, I don’t,’ he says with a shrug. Greenfield-Sanders is known for his love of film and large-format photography but was persuaded by the event’s sponsors to try his hand with a digital camera. ‘Instant feedback and instant gratification are what digital photography is all about,’ he observes in his foreword to the book. The portraits still bear his trademark style of plain, clean backdrops, soft lighting, simplicity of style, and composition. ‘I want it to be about the people, not the fancy lighting or the equipment.’ ‘Look’ (Powerhouse, £26.99) by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is published on 30 November