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Fabien Baron wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps—so he dropped out of school to conquer the magazine world, and has since realized that storytelling is at the core of everything he does, including his latest passion: film.

Design Matters: Fabien Baron

Design Matters: Fabien Baron

DESIGNER / ARTIST / PHOTOGRAPHER

14.6.21

Fabien Baron / film / creative direction / editorial design / photography / fashion

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

“Creative director” is a catchall job description. In the case of Fabien Baron, it doesn’t catch all that he has done in his illustrious career. He’s designed some of the world’s biggest and most prestigious publications. He’s designed books and perfume bottles and furniture. He’s shot and directed films. He’s created some of the most memorable ad campaigns of the last 40 years for clients including Calvin Klein and Dior and Balenciaga. And he’s created singular groundbreaking looks for Harper’s Bizarre, Vogue Italia and Interview. Vanity Fair once called him the most sought-after creative director in the world, and indeed he is. Today, he joins me on Zoom from Paris, France. Fabien Baron, welcome to Design Matters. Bonjour.


Fabien Baron:

Bonjour. You have such a lovely voice.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, thank you. Fabien, the photographer Glen Luchford has insisted that you are the Elvis Presley of graphic design.


Fabien Baron:

Oh my God.


Debbie Millman:

And I’m wondering if you know why he stated that?


Fabien Baron:

No, I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t.


Debbie Millman:

Do you know that he even said it?


Fabien Baron:

Well, I know Glen quite well. From those days, the back days when I was at the Harper’s Bazaar and I hired him to work on the magazine and to do some stories. And there was one story actually that he did that I really liked. What he did was Kate Moss going around the city and 42nd Street and just taking very [inaudible] type of pictures that were really amazing. That’s how I met with Glen.


Debbie Millman:

Maybe it’s the breakthrough groundbreaking part that he was referring to. Fabien, your father, Marc Baron, was a legendary art director in Paris. He worked mainly with two publications. He was the founding art director of the left-wing daily Libération, and the sports daily L’Équipe. Is it true that you were a newspaper delivery boy for the—


Fabien Baron:

Well, not a delivery boy, but I’ve worked under my father, so I was really the go-to guy to do anything at the magazine. It would be doing at the time, photo stats, which were taking the pictures and blowing them up different sizes.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I was a stat girl at my student newspaper in college.


Fabien Baron:

Oh, really? OK. Good. So I used to do that and I used to do mechanicals and putting all the mechanical part of the magazine on pages. And I was doing a lot of Letrasets. I don’t know if you remember that.


Debbie Millman:

Oh yeah. I still do them, just for fun.


Fabien Baron:

I used to be really good at it. I used to be really good because you had to pick the size. It had to be 100%. So I used to be really good at it. I could type something exactly to the length I want, in the size, by just guessing. So it was a fun game.


Debbie Millman:

Knowing that about you now, I could see how that training helped in the creation of some of your typographic constructions. There is a sort of puzzling to them and placing them all together in a way that if I don’t think he knew how to do that by hand, you wouldn’t be able to do it on the computer.


Fabien Baron:

Yes. Actually, the first time I did this kind of graphics, I did it with a Xerox machine. And I was at Italian Vogue at the time. We didn’t have computers or anything, so we had to work everything manually. So I used to take the font and use the Xerox machine and blow them up on the Xerox machine and collage the pieces by cutting them out, basically.


Debbie Millman:

You said that your father was super bright, super smart and very educated. But I also understand that he was quite hard on you in your early days as a designer. In what way?


Fabien Baron:

I guess he wanted me to learn, and learn the proper way but also learn the hard way, because he wanted to make sure this is something I was going to do and something I was going to love. And when it’s hard and you’re still in love, that means it sticks. So I guess he was really tough in the way that we used to work. I was responsible for everything. Every time there was a mistake, it was me, even though it was not me. So he just wanted me to be responsible for everything. So it was not very gentle, let’s say. And I guess at the time, it was not like it is now. Now, you have to be extremely gentle with people and you have to be extremely polite, extremely proper. He was not like that with me, at least.


Debbie Millman:

I read that your father felt that the objective of graphic design was to get the reader involved with the editorial content of the publication, and you talk about this quite a lot. But at the time, you were also reading Francine Crescent’s French Vogue, and you were enthralled by the photography of Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. Did you feel that that was in conflict with what your dad was teaching you?


Fabien Baron:

No, actually. I didn’t feel it was in conflict. I think it was good, proper balance. His teaching was quite journalistic. It was quite like classic journalism. And at the same time, felt like … I think access to magazine, like French Vogue and all these photographers and looking at those visuals, I was really intrigued how you would create such visuals. So it was something that I was really very looking after. I would devour those magazines when they would show up in the house, because the visuals were exceptional and I really had no idea how you would put this type of visuals together, how you would create them. The photography part and after, how you would come up with those ideas, those concepts and everything. I was looking at that, extremely intrigued. At the same time, what was important at the time, especially in newspaper, is to pass the information the proper way. To make sure the reader would understand what you’re trying to say.


Debbie Millman:

After a gigantic fight, I understand you left home and his supervision and you moved into your own apartment. And at that point, you stated that he was still your hero and you still looked up to him, but it took years before you were both fully reconciled. What did you fight about?


Fabien Baron:

I don’t remember. I don’t remember what the fight was about, but I know that I left that day. I don’t recall at all. Isn’t it the case most of the time? You don’t remember what the fight is about, what you remember is, did I leave or didn’t I leave?


Debbie Millman:

The feelings.


Fabien Baron:

Yes. I definitely left, and it was a while before … not that long either, because I liked him and he liked me. I was quite upset. I was not so happy about it, to be honest. It’s not a good memory, that part, but it was time for me to go. Some kids, they leave their parents nicely and some don’t leave their parents nicely.


Debbie Millman:

Ultimately, you’ve said that the relationship with your father gave you a sense of how to treat people.


Fabien Baron:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

What do you feel that he most taught you in that regard?


Fabien Baron:

I think what he really gave me is a good sense of what this job was about. A good sense of, deep down, you have to remain a journalist, to a certain degree. In anything you do, it’s going to make sense, it’s got to be understood, and it’s got to be clear. But also, I think he gave me a discipline and a work ethic that I don’t think I would have gotten if it was not through him. The level of discipline in which I work is quite surprising for some people, I’ve heard. I’m very keen. And it’s a search to perfection, into trying to really find that place, which is difficult to find, that really … I think perfection is quite a good word, even though you understood that you cannot obtain perfection, but you can come close to it. And it is because you can’t obtain it that you continue to search for it.


Fabien Baron:

But that puts you into a certain category of people that you understand that this becomes your life and that you’re going to be professional about it. A little bit like an athlete. I’d do anything to make it right, basically. Just like an athlete would wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning if they need to train. So I’m very similar. I’m ready to do anything to make this right. So part of why I get results is because of that discipline. I think if I wouldn’t have that discipline, I wouldn’t have done that many things. I would have been very hesitant into trying new mediums. And I think it’s that rigor, but also that need and that search to perfection that allowed me to experiment and to try new mediums quite easily, without hesitation.


Debbie Millman:

You attended arts appliqués in Paris for a year before dropping out. What made you decide to leave school at that point?


Fabien Baron:

I felt I was wasting my time. I knew pretty much what I wanted to do. And I don’t know if I wanted to be an art director because my dad was an art director and I wanted to show him that I’d be a better art director than him, or if it was because I really knew the calling. So that one, I still cannot answer, really, but I knew what I wanted to do. That’s for sure. So knowing so clearly what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to waste my time. It’s part of being the athlete in me, that, “OK, let’s go run. Let’s not waste time.”


Fabien Baron:

So even though I had a good time that year and I had very good friends, and it was lovely to be at school and to experiment different experiences and do different work because this art appliqués, they teach you graphics, photography, textile, drawing, painting, modeling. They do so many different things, and that was quite interesting. I didn’t feel I needed to do it. I needed to work right away. I was already, even with my father, helping him doing certain things. So I felt like, I’m going to do this a couple of years, I’m going to waste my time. Might as well go to work and go at it right away and really learn the real job that I want to do.


Debbie Millman:

You also got your first camera when you were 17 years old, and you stated that while art direction is how you make your living, photography remains your personal love.


Fabien Baron:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

What motivated you to become a professional creative director versus becoming a professional photographer at that time in your life?


Fabien Baron:

I guess that’s my father. I think if my father would have been an architect, I probably would have said, “I want to be an architect.” I think that’s what it is, because right now you would tell me, “Would you like to be an architect?” I would say yes. There’s so many things I would like to be. And I think the mediums of anything that touches with art in general, they all kind of overlap. I learned throughout the years and experimenting with different mediums that actually, the most important thing is not the medium itself. It’s more the point of view that you have and how you want to express it. And certain mediums are easier to express your point of view than others. So the photography was something that I felt really close to myself, probably because of those French Vogue photographers, Guy Bourdin …


Fabien Baron:

And actually, the first time I got my camera, the things I was doing is I was going with my sister around trying to do a Guy Bourdin picture. I would make her pose in some things very similar and I would do pictures like that, with saturated colors. I didn’t have a flash, so it didn’t work perfectly, but I was experimenting and I was really intrigued by the imagery side of magazines rather than the journalistic side of magazines. So my training was being very journalistic. There was this other side that actually was not taught by my dad. That was the old process of image-making. And that started by taking pictures for myself. And then as I went along, it got more and more, I got involved on the art directing side of making an image.


Fabien Baron:

Then I became the art director that was good with type and good with images. So there was a definite conflict because of the photographers and the level of photographers I ended up working later on, for me to also be a photographer. There was a conflict of interest, to some degree. “Why this guy’s being on set with us? He’s seeing everything we do. And then he’s going to go take pictures and maybe he’s going to take pictures like us.” So there was this conflict going on and I wanted to be really respectful of that. So I never really involved myself as a photographer in my early years as an art director. It’s much, much, much later on that I decided, “Oh, OK. But maybe I should do a story.” And that step was a really hard step for me to take.


Debbie Millman:

Why?


Fabien Baron:

Because of what I just told you, that conflict of interest. I was afraid that photographers would start seeing me as a competition rather than seeing me as someone helping them.


Debbie Millman:

Did you find that that was the case?


Fabien Baron:

No. No, it was not. That was all in my head, I guess. In the meantime, I did a lot of personal work. That’s why I put myself doing landscape photography, and started doing work that was not fashion related. At the same time, it just happened to be that way. I think it was good because it allowed me to experiment with something else, something that was not fashion, something that was not related to a model and related to a style.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. Well, you’ve said that when you are confronted with restrictions, you sometimes do your best work. And so maybe this restriction of not doing photography in fashion gave you this opportunity to explore something that you wouldn’t have otherwise.


Fabien Baron:

Yes. I also forced myself into doing the step and repeat, meaning taking a picture and going over and taking the same picture, same picture, same picture, and trying to look for that perfection of it and to see the difference between each one of them.


Debbie Millman:

So I would say that your ocean pictures certainly do that.


Fabien Baron:

They certainly do that. And they’ve been going on since 1983 and I still catch myself doing some sometimes.


Debbie Millman:

In 1982, a girl you knew from New York came to visit you in Paris and you ended up falling in love. You then decided to move with her back to New York. So you sold your motorcycle, you sublet your apartment. And with only $300 in your pocket, you moved to New York City. Was living in New York something you had always hoped to do, or was this a spontaneous decision after falling in love?


Fabien Baron:

The way I grew up in France, actually, the way most kids my age grew up in France, they were quite Americanized in many ways. The music was coming from the States and from London. The movies were all coming from America. The culture was very much an American culture, and anything that was new was coming from there. So I felt I was not … you know when you’re in the courtyard with the other kids playing? I felt I was in the other courtyard basically getting the scraps from the good courtyard.


Debbie Millman:

Oh yes, I know that feeling well.


Fabien Baron:

I thought it was much better to just check it out in the U.S., especially New York. There was this aura around it, around New York at that time in the ’80s. That was really amazing and I just wanted to go there.


Debbie Millman:

I’m a native New Yorker, but I didn’t move to Manhattan until 1983. So I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’m about a year or so behind you. And New York at that point seemed to be this mystical, magical place. Aside from your girlfriend, you knew only one person in New York, the great Véronique Vienne. She’s also been on the show. The art director at the time from Women’s Wear Daily. Did she help you? Did she help you get settled in the magazine community?


Fabien Baron:

What happened is, actually, I was freelancing in this magazine in France, this fashion magazine in France, and Véronique Vienne was asked to come and redesign the magazine. And when she came, she had a graphic formula and right away I kind of attacked her and worked with her really rapidly and tried to show my skill. She was really impressed that I would understand so quickly what she wanted to do. We got on on the right foot, but rapidly, I told her, “I really want to come to New York. I really want to come to New York. Can I come to New York?” So I bugged her to come to New York, and she basically invited me. She had very little choice. I was relentless.


Debbie Millman:

What a surprise.


Fabien Baron:

Thinking back of it, I was kind of like, my God. Seriously. I was really insistent. And she invited me, even though she was about to move to California. And she invited me and I stayed with her, and I worked at Women’s Wear Daily, and I was an intern there. And I stayed two months, and then I went back to France. In the meantime, during my time in New York, I met this girl that you’re mentioning. And a year later, she showed up in Paris, and that’s when I decided, “Oh, let’s go back to New York and check it out.” And I went back and then I just knew her and her partner at the time. I had $300. I called him up, and Véronique Vienne was already in San Francisco, so she was not part of this.


Fabien Baron:

But he basically organized a meeting for me with a couple of people in New York. But one of the meetings was actually with Alex Lieberman., which was a great meeting. And I knew who he was, I was very impressed about who he was, and had the meeting. And when I came to see him, at the time, he was on the Vogue floor; he had an office there. We met and he spoke French right away. He said, [inaudible]. And he was right because my English at the time, let me tell you, was not that good. So we spoke in French and he was very fond of French people and very fond of my work because I showed him my portfolio at the time. And he said, “What do you want to do?”


Fabien Baron:

I said, “I would like to become an art director. I would like to work in magazines. I’d love to work at Condé Nast. And he said, “Well, have you heard of this magazine? We’re starting this new magazine. It’s called Vanity Fair. It would be very nice if you want to meet with the art director and see if you guys get along.” So he sent me to, at the time, the art director was Lloyd Ziff. And I met with him and we talked, and he liked me very much and logically had the job. But then I got a phone call from Alex Lieberman, who said, “Well, Lloyd Ziff is not going to stay with us any longer, so the Vanity Fair gig is not going to happen. Don’t disappear. You’ve got to stick around here. I’m going to find you something else in the meantime.”


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. So I graduated college in 1983, and in 1982, Vanity Fair had been relaunched. And I thought it was the most glorious magazine in recent history. Just the idea that this was a beautiful arts and literary magazine that David Hockney’s socks and feet were put on the cover. Phillip Roth was on the cover. I desperately wanted to work at Vanity Fair as well. And being a very young designer coming from a state school in New York, I knew the chances were very slim, but I sent my portfolio into Condé Nast as well. This is 1983, so this is a year later after you. And I got a call back from Charles Churchward, who was then the art director.


Fabien Baron:

That’s correct.


Debbie Millman:

I didn’t meet with Charles though. I met with human resources, and the resources women did not like me, so I didn’t get the job. But the idea that the art director at the time thought there was something in my portfolio really, really buoyed me for quite a long time. So it’s so funny how life has its circuitous turns. One thing I didn’t know about you at all and had no idea, Fabien, I read that your first job in New York was actually at Johnson & Johnson.


Fabien Baron:

That’s correct.


Debbie Millman:

Working on a new design for their internal magazine. I was shocked when I learned this.


Fabien Baron:

That is correct.


Debbie Millman:

How did that happen?


Fabien Baron:

That’s through my friend. He said, “Hello, I heard Johnson & Johnson, they’re trying to do an internal magazine and they need a design.” I did the design for them, and it was great. I was paid in cash.


Debbie Millman:

Nice.


Fabien Baron:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

Speaking of being paid in cash, after looking at your portfolio, didn’t Alexander Liberman love your photography so much that he ended up buying—


Fabien Baron:

Yes, because—


Debbie Millman:

$3,000 worth of photography of the Brooklyn Bridge? Tell us about that.


Fabien Baron:

Yes, oh my God! During that meeting, there was all the work I’ve done in France in magazines, but there was also the pictures I’ve taken myself and some of them in New York. He saw these Brooklyn Bridge pictures, and they were doing an article in House & Garden on the Brooklyn Bridge. I think it was for the centennial or something at that time. I don’t know exactly. It got to be for that. I remember they said, “Oh, you got to go see Rochelle Udell, she works at House & Garden. Let me give her a ring, and you got to go to see her and show her those pictures.”


Fabien Baron:

I went to see Rochelle Udell. She was at House & Garden. She looked at the pictures and she said, “Oh, these are lovely. Can we keep them for a little bit?” Then they took four or five pictures. Then I got a phone call from Condé Nast saying, like, “Oh, actually, the pictures, they’re going to be running.” “Oh really?” “Yeah, and they pay $3,000.” I was like, “You must be kidding.” I couldn’t believe … basically, that was my first experience as a photographer working for a publication in America.


Debbie Millman:

Then when you went to Self, you also worked with Rochelle Udell, is that correct?


Fabien Baron:

She also worked for the magazine. She became a little bit like a miniature Alex Liberman. She was working in, I think, at GQ, she had Self magazine. I think she was also up at Mademoiselle. She was like Alex Liberman’s right hand. She would come in and look over all the pages, and then Liberman would come in and look at the pages. We have to make sure everything was well-organized. Each picture was supposed to be from this side, which was very small, to a double-page side, and then he would play with things.


Debbie Millman:

Incredible.


Fabien Baron:

It was really like, my time at Self magazine and GQ working with Mary Shanahan as the art director at GQ, and my time at Self magazine, really couldn’t wait for this moment where Liberman would show up and Rochelle would show up, like shuffling everything around. Some part of it probably just to shuffle and part of it to make more sense of the stories. I learned so much about what you can do with a story. How you can, with editing, with sizing, with putting things one way and another, why would that be better, and that, to me, tied it up so nicely with all the things that I learned from my dad about the journalistic side of how you put something together. So it’s complete, so it makes sense, so there’s a logic to it, but there’s also an artistry about it.


Fabien Baron:

When I was there at Self, it’s not that Self was a fantastic magazine, that’s when I really said, “Wow, I’m really liking this. This, I can.” I was eating it up like there was no tomorrow and I loved it. I loved it. When Alex would come, like some of the designers would put pages together and I was the smaller guy in the corner, and I would think, “I wonder how Liberman’s going to change that. Maybe he’s going to do this, maybe he’s going to do that, maybe he’s going to …” It was really intriguing to see him come and change everything around.


Debbie Millman:

What an education.


Fabien Baron:

The most intriguing part was that every time he was right, he was right. People were so upset, you have no idea. The designers were crying over, not they’re crying literally, but so upset that the layouts were changed and everything. I was thinking, But he’s right. We had arguments. I had arguments with some of the staff. I remember, “But it’s much better. It makes sense. Now, it makes sense. The story is better.” People, they get really attached to their own work, I guess.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. What a magnificent thing to be able to witness and to learn and be part of. Alex moved you to GQ, and you mentioned that you worked with art director Mary Shanahan. I read that she, you’ve said that she helped you clearly understand how an image can function.


Fabien Baron:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

I’m wondering you could talk a little bit about what that means, and what she taught you.


Fabien Baron:

I think she was the one who just put the period on top of the ‘i’ by saying a few things, like pushing this idea of the point of view that everything comes down to a point of view, everything comes down to a vision and to a way to express that vision in a very simple manner. I think that I learned that from her. She was very, very definite about that.


Debbie Millman:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Fabien Baron:

That, I think really, I felt like, “Oh, I’ve completed a circle here.” I have the understanding of how to pass information in a proper way, in a practical way from my father and being a journalist. I understood the artistry and the shuffling and what you can do with an image and how you can say something in this way, if you make the image this size or in this way, if you make the image this size, a little bit like the complete approach to the buildup of a magazine. But then I learned from Mary that this is great, but what is it that is inside the image and what is that point of view? Now, to pass on that information as an art director onto the photographer so that point of view is palatable, relevant and on point. After that, I felt like, “Ooh! I could be an art director.”


Debbie Millman:

You’ve earned your stripes.


Fabien Baron:

Then I left Condé Nast.


Debbie Millman:

I know, I know.


Fabien Baron:

Then Liberman was really pissed.


Debbie Millman:

After a year-and-a-half at GQ, Betsy Carter, the former editor of Esquire and the newly minted editor of a brand new magazine called New York Woman invited you to become the founding art director. I remember when the magazine first came out. I actually had a friend who worked there as a copy editor, and there was so much excitement about the launch. I read that you had many epic battles over the tone of the magazine. You wanted it to be cool and clean, and they wanted it to be warm and cozy, which seemed very odd for a New York Woman–type magazine. How did you manage, looking back on it? How would you describe that time?


Fabien Baron:

Wow! Yes, I remember now that you’re mentioning that. Yes, that’s true, I had a couple of battles with some of the staff. But not with Betsy really, because I think Betsy understood. It was late ’80s New York City. Come on! At that time, the city was the coolest.


Debbie Millman:

Ah, yeah!


Fabien Baron:

It was the place, it was the center of the world. Anything, anything that was happening was happening in New York. Of course, I wanted the best photographers. Of course, I wanted the thing to be the coolest thing possible. Yes, there was, it was American Express who was doing the magazine.


Debbie Millman:

They were the publishers, yeah.


Fabien Baron:

The publisher was a bit corporate, let’s say, but we went against that. I think, yes, I definitely wanted the magazine to be cool, to be quite fashion-y at the time. I remember that’s the first time I worked with Peter Lindbergh, who was at New York Woman, and that’s the first time actually Peter Lindbergh worked in America. Then other photographers—like Patrick Demarchelier worked there, Denis Piel, Max Vadukul, Jean Francois Lepage, Jean [inaudible], photographers at that time, they were working for Franca Sozzani. They were working in Europe, more actually European photographers, strangely enough, because also Mr. Liberman was not happy, he had left Condé Nast. He said he had plans for me, and I didn’t wanted to wait for those plans, and he was really upset. He was really upset, and I couldn’t use any of the photographers that were working for Condé Nast, so I had to go in Europe and get the photographers from Europe, the cool ones.


Debbie Millman:

Right.


Fabien Baron:

That was a battle, and I was winning that battle, and it was really cool. I was bringing like all these newer, interesting photographers, and the magazine got noticed. We got noticed.


Debbie Millman:

Oh yeah! The magazine was stunning. I have been waiting to ask you this question for 30-something years—the logo, New York Woman, very long, elegant, serif face. The ‘W’ in Woman was larger than the rest of the letters and often in color. On the third stroke of the ‘W,’ the ascender was cut off.


Fabien Baron:

Huh?


Debbie Millman:

Tell me what the decision was about that, to remind you of something I have been obsessing about for—


Fabien Baron:

Oh my God. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.


Debbie Millman:

I know you’re not, I know you’re not. OK. Here you go. See?


Fabien Baron:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

See?


Fabien Baron:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Debbie Millman:

How do I do this? This is backwards. There.


Fabien Baron:

The last one.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, there was no tail.


Fabien Baron:

I think there was—


Debbie Millman:

The ascender, it was on every issue, so it’s intentional.


Fabien Baron:

Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t part of the logo. That was only letter.


Debbie Millman:

I’ve been obsessing about this, you haven’t [been] thinking about it.


Fabien Baron:

I don’t think that was the only letter that was doing that. The ‘M’ must have gone—


Debbie Millman:

In the logo, it was.


Fabien Baron:

The ‘M’ must have gone that way too, no?


Debbie Millman:

Let’s see.


Fabien Baron:

The ‘N’ as well, no?


Debbie Millman:

I’m looking online to see.


Fabien Baron:

No?


Debbie Millman:

Nope. Just that pesky little leg on that ‘W.’


Fabien Baron:

I don’t know why. Listen, I have no idea why.


Debbie Millman:

The ‘W’ and the ‘W’ in New also didn’t have it, but it was slightly connected to the ‘Y’ and the center in the ‘Y’ in York. Look at it and tell me, because I need to understand your thinking.


Fabien Baron:

I remember clearly that I didn’t like the fact like New York was written that big and that the name was New York Woman. That was too long, and I wanted to make New York small inside the Woman. I wanted that to be the logo.


Debbie Millman:

That makes sense, yeah. Well, I just needed to ask you that question. OK. You’ve mentioned crossing Alexandra Liberman, and you said that he was very upset that you left. He told you that he had big plans for you, he was cross that you left, but he was really cross later, really cross when you turned down the job to work at American Vogue. He revealed his big plan.


Fabien Baron:

Yes, because when I left, he was cross indeed. But he always said to me that the best way to move up in Condé Nast is to leave Condé Nast. They took him back to Condé Nast. That’s what I told him when I left for New York Woman. “But remember, Mr. Liberman, you told me that the best way to go up in Condé Nast was to leave Condé Nast and come back, so maybe I’ll come back,” and that was that. That was my conversation with him. But in the meantime, he really had blocked me from using any of the photographers, which was good sport, fair.


Fabien Baron:

Anyway, after New York Woman and while I was doing New York Women, because I think that was a year-and-a-half, he called me in his office and he proposed to me to become the design director, art director of American Vogue, and I refused. I turned it down.


Debbie Millman:

Why?


Fabien Baron:

I turned it down because I felt the magazine was not in the right place. It was not the right moment. I didn’t feel the editor was doing the right job at the time. I always felt you have to work with the right editor. If it’s not the right editor, it’s not going to be right. Even though in the right position, you get the right title, you’re in the right place, but if the editor is not good, it’s not going to be good. End of story. At that time, it was Grace Mirabella, and I think she felt like she was on the last leg. I think he wanted me there to help out, to redesign the magazine, to give it a boost, to do something with it.


Debbie Millman:

For Grace.


Fabien Baron:

I felt like, Wait a minute. If I go there and this is not happening, it’s not going to go well, and that’s it. I turned him down. It was quite ballsy for me to do that because usually you don’t turn down Alex Liberman. He was a little bit upset. Then a week or so after that, I got a phone call, and I don’t know if it was related through Mr. Liberman or not, but I got a phone call from friends from French Vogue. They were asking me to be the art director at French Vogue. I turned it down as well. I felt like I didn’t want to go back to Paris, giving up on America now, because going back to France would have been like, you have to go back, you have to be there.


Fabien Baron:

It’s not like it is now—you can work from anywhere on the planet with a computer. You had to be physically present to make something happen, and I was really not in the mood for that, to be back in Paris and work again in Paris. It was too early. It was, I think, four years or three-and-a-half years after I was in New York, and I didn’t feel like I had made it in New York yet, so I turned it down. Again, I was not liking what French Vogue looked like. I was not liking what was going on with that magazine at the time for whichever reason.


Debbie Millman:

Did Alexander Liberman think that you were crazy turning down both French Vogue and American Vogue?


Fabien Baron:

I didn’t discuss it with him, but I remember—


Debbie Millman:

Did your friends and family think you were crazy?


Fabien Baron:

Yes. My friends that worked in the business and everything, say, “My god, are you crazy? You just turned down two Vogues? That’s insane. You’re crazy. You should have taken that first one, you should have taken American Vogue.” Nevertheless, two weeks later or three weeks later, I got a phone call from Franca Sozzani, who was just hired to redo Italian Vogue, and that I took on the spot.


Debbie Millman:

Because of Franca or because of the opportunity with Italia?


Fabien Baron:

Because of the editor, because, exactly, because the editor, because Franca was someone that was really admiring for what she had done at Lei and Per Lui and she was doing such a good job. We’re using the same photographers. She was using Steven Meisel. I was using Steven Meisel. She was using Peter, I was using Peter. I felt we had the same vision about things, and she was like a real, true renegade in the way she would approach a magazine. To me, that makes sense. That part is like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe she’s calling me.” She was the one I was really admiring. It was not difficult for me to say yes. I didn’t even think about it, I said, “Yes!” She said, “So would you come to Milan and work?” “Yes!” I took the job on the spot.


Fabien Baron:

I didn’t even think if it was complicated, if it would be a pain in the ass to be in Italy, I just took the job because it made sense. What was interesting in all this, in the whole process, is to turn down two Vogues to get a third one and to get the right one at the moment, because Italian Vogue was the right one at that moment. Because what happened is afterwards, Grace Mirabella got fired from American Vogue, so that would have been my loss. French Vogue, the same thing happened at French Vogue. Someone replaced whomever was the editor at that time. The whole thing collapsed, and Italian Vogue, on the contrary, was a huge success and new thing. Sometimes you really have to follow your guts and your feelings about something and not get impressed by names and by surroundings. So I’m glad I made that decision.


Debbie Millman:

Did you think that you’d be able to have more impact working with Franca at Italian Vogue?


Fabien Baron:

Oh, totally, totally, because I think she gave me carte blanche in the way the magazine could look. She gave me carte blanche, but everything she was saying was bringing my ears some amazing music. Everything she was saying was right on the money. She really was the one that opened my vision and allowed my vision to be expressed in a very, very direct way on the page of a magazine. She really was the first one who said, “OK, do it.” She was beyond me and she pushed me. She didn’t settle for halfway. All the people around her in her team, like Grazia D’Annunzio, that was the editor-in-chief at that time for the editorial part of the magazine, everybody at the magazine were thinking the same. You felt part of a team, and that boat was led by Franca Sozzani in a way that it was impeccable. We were a perfect team going forward, going with the same goal and all in the same direction, and it paid off. Franca became definitely the most sought-after editor in the world for fashion and style. She had a way of putting things together that was unlike anyone else.


Debbie Millman:

Those magazines now are really considered collector’s items.


Fabien Baron:

Totally.


Debbie Millman:

The magazine became a laboratory for edgy, experimental photography and design. You stated that when you were working with Franca is really when you learned about fashion, and I was wondering if you could share what was the biggest thing she taught you?


Fabien Baron:

I remember it was Franca, she would take me around to see all the designers. I would go to the shows with her and she would take me around and have the discussion. I remember when we first did, we did the first issue, she said, “OK, come with me, and we’re going with the magazine to see Mr. Armani.” We went to Mr. Armani and we presented the magazine to him and she was talking all in Italian; I was understanding enough, a little bit of it. I learned Italian afterwards, but it was really interesting to be put directly into the people that were making the fashion, like the designers, to be really working directly with them and to be part of the fashion system so directly. I think the way she was working, she was working in unison with all the designers.


Fabien Baron:

She would like do all these stories on them. She was really … how can I say that? She was like the head of a table and she would deal the cards. For designers, being in Italian Vogue was very important. It meant a lot. To certain photographers, shooting their story and their clothes, I think was very important at that time. It was really meaningful. She was holding the deck of cards and she would play hard. She was really a good leader. She was the voice of Italian fashion in many ways. To be in contact with her directly there was all what it meant, was all the people that is market editors, the fashion editors or it is all the people working for the designers, you would understand the structure and how fashion was built.


Fabien Baron:

I remember going to Miuccia Prada. I think this discussion with Franca there and Miuccia talking to Franca in Italian saying, “I’m thinking I’m going to do a woman’s collection,” to Franca. She was in bags only at that time and she had taken the business from her parents.


Fabien Baron:

I remember very clearly the discussion she had with Franca, and I was there. I remember I asked her, “If you ask me, I would say, of course you should do it. Of course, you should do it.” Because me, I am a French guy that lived in America and came to work in Italy. You can do anything. Everything’s possible. I also told her, “Yeah, I think it’s great that you do clothing. Why not?” She was like, and that’s how Franca was involved in this type of discussion with the designers. I think she was really, when you see someone like Miuccia Prada who had such an influence in the world of fashion, she had that importance. I remember meeting with Dolce & Gabbana. I remember meeting with everyone.


Debbie Millman:

Heady time.


Fabien Baron:

It was fantastic. It was fantastic. It was two years, but after two years of that, of being at Italian Vogue, I think it was really difficult for me to go back and forth and to still deal with my clients. I had some freelance clients in New York. I was like two weeks here, two week there. At that time, it’s not like I was flying business; it was not easy. It was much more complicated. You had to be hands-on, and I would be in Italy two weeks and I had to get my life there but I was also like in New York. It was complicated, it was complicated. After two years of it, I left Italian Vogue to pursue other things.


Debbie Millman:

Baron & Baron was born in 1990. You came back to the United States.


Fabien Baron:

Yeah, that was after Interview magazine. I went back basically and my friend Glenn O’Brien said, “Oh, you know, they’re looking for someone at Interview magazine.” I thought, she’s a new editor, Ingrid Sischy. She was at Artforum. Would you be interested?” I took the job.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve had a real on-again, off-again relationship with the magazine. She first hired you in 1990, Ingrid, but she fired you a year or so later because, this is what I’ve read, “the graphics were dominating the magazine.”


Fabien Baron:

Yes, I guess.


Debbie Millman:

Then in 2008, you returned with Glenn O’Brien and took on the editorial director role, which you had until 2018. What was that first year-and-a-half like working to reinvigorate Andy Warhol’s magazine?


Fabien Baron:

That was a very interesting time in the life of the magazine because Andy Warhol just died, and Ingrid Sischy was taking over the magazine, and we wanted it to be different. I don’t think me and Ingrid got along really well, like in the direction in which the magazine was supposed to go. We didn’t see eye to eye, and that’s where I was like a missing … like Franca Sozzani, I was missing Franca, for how distinctive and how precise and how on-point she was. Now, I felt like everything she was saying like, “Oh yeah, that’s golden. That’s OK. That’s working, that’s working.” When, on the other hand, Ingrid’s ideas, I didn’t feel were applicable for magazines in the same way. She had an approach that was not something I was understanding. It was not my cup of tea, but in a way, but still, it was interesting because graphically and the way the magazine looked was interesting.


Fabien Baron:

I was fine with that, but I guess she didn’t think it was fine. I guess we didn’t get along. We didn’t fight. She didn’t understand what I was about and I don’t think I really appreciated what she was about either at that time. We got to know each other better after. She was still at Interview; I was, I think, at Bazaar by then. I grew to respect her and she grew to respect me as well. We had different point of views, and that’s fine. That’s why it’s important to go back to the point of view. For a good magazine, one point of view, you cannot have different points of view. That’s when the magazine becomes schizophrenic and un-understandable for people. I guess that, when that first Interview I did, even though I really liked what it looked like, it didn’t make sense for what it was, for what she wanted to do, so I think it was better we didn’t continue together.


Debbie Millman:

Was that the first time you’d ever been fired?


Fabien Baron:

Yeah, it was. It was a strange feeling. I was upset at first, but then [inaudible] or whatever, like we had to move on. That’s why right away I started my company. The day I left Interview, I started my company. Because I was doing a lot of freelance anyway; I had clients, I was doing Barney’s, Valentino advertising, some Giorgio Armani advertising. I had met all these designers in Italy and I was doing a lot of freelance for them. It was all the other things, I felt like, “Let me start my company. Maybe I don’t want to work for magazines. Magazines are complicated.” They really take everything under your feet. They really grab all your energy. They require a tremendous amount of work. They’re not that good. I was really disappointed with magazines in a certain way, and so I said, “I’m not going to work for a magazine again. I’m going to start my company.”


Fabien Baron:

I started my company, got successful right away, which was good, and I’d moved on. I’ve moved on quite rapidly. I remember going to the shows and seeing Ingrid and I was fine. “Hello, Ingrid, how are you?” Blah, blah, blah. Didn’t hold a grudge; I was fine, I’d moved on. That’s when I got the phone call for Harper’s Bazaar. After, I think, a year after I left Interview, something like that.


Debbie Millman:

Right. Before we get to Bazaar, I want to talk to you about just a few projects that you did back at the beginning of Baron & Baron. One of your first jobs was with Isimiaki. You designed his first fragrance. You’ve said that fragrances are the strangest accounts to work on, that they’re the most abstract form of advertising that there is. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about why you feel that way.


Fabien Baron:

At that time, when Isi called, I know that Isi loved what I was doing at Italian Vogue. He said he was really impressed in the way I was putting the magazine together, and he said, “We got to find a way to work together.” I said, “Sure, lovely, that’d be great.” Then I started my company, then I get a phone call from him. He said, “Fabien, we should work together. Have you ever done a fragrance bottle?” I said, “No, I’ve never done that, but that must be so interesting. I’d love to do it.” Yeah, I love fragrance. I love the object by itself. It’s the item that most people or a lot of people get access to; I find it very Democratic. It’s one of the first things you can buy from a designer brand, is the fragrance or lipstick or makeup or beauty item. I felt that it was really interesting to participate into the vision of a designer and into creating this object that, if successful, can becomes quite cult. Right?


Debbie Millman:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Fabien Baron:

And generational. I was thinking at that time, like Chanel No. 5. Oh my god! What did he do for Chanel? It’s unbelievable. I was really, really, really intrigued by the question of Isimiaki in a bottle. He said, “Can you come to Paris?” I said, “Sure, I can come to Paris.” He put me on the plane and I was in Paris, and basically, we talked and went on to design the bottle.


Debbie Millman:

Which is one of the most successful and long-running designs in fragrances of our time. You’ve since designed over 40 different bottles for 40 different fragrances and have stated that one of the problems with developing a new fragrance is the name, and have jokingly stated that all that’s left are names like “fief,” “memory,” “jealousy” and “pirate.” Have we actually ran out of names?


Fabien Baron:

It’s incredible. To name a fragrance is so complicated.


Debbie Millman:

Actually, I think the name “jealousy” could be interesting.


Fabien Baron:

No, “jealousy” is not bad, actually. But you know what? I’m sure that name is taken.


Debbie Millman:

I’m sure it is.


Fabien Baron:

Someone owns it. Every single word in the dictionary is taken.


Debbie Millman:

It’s crazy.


Fabien Baron:

Either you go to whomever owns it and buy it back or you can put words together.


Debbie Millman:

Shades of Jealousy.


Fabien Baron:

Yeah, Shades of Jealousy, yeah. Naming a fragrance is a nightmare. I’ve named a few and it’s a nightmare. It’s really—


Debbie Millman:

Naming anything is a nightmare. I’ve named some pharmaceuticals and it’s a nightmare.


Fabien Baron:

Oh yeah, and all the words, the words are taken.


Debbie Millman:

Yep.


Fabien Baron:

Words are taken. It’s like, something visual, you can do something new. It’s not like you can invent a word, even though the car industry, that’s what they do.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah.


Fabien Baron:

That’s why some industries, they have to invent words that don’t exist.


Debbie Millman:

Right. That’s the easiest way now. To create a name is to just make something up that has never been uttered. Oftentimes though, that’s hard because it ends up sounding so foreign that nobody really has any attachment to it.


Fabien Baron:

Yes. The problem with the fragrance is it needs to strike on an emotional level immediately. That’s the tricky part. Any emotion in the dictionary is taken for sure.


Debbie Millman:

Right.


Fabien Baron:

15 times around by 15 brands.


Debbie Millman:

Yep. You also helped Calvin Klein relaunch, because I also didn’t know at that time that his fragrance had launched to very little fanfare. You helped him relaunch CK One and then went on to help shape everything for Calvin for several decades. Fabien, is it true you introduced Calvin to Kate Moss?


Fabien Baron:

Yes, I did. What happened with Calvin, he called me when I was at Harper’s Bazaar and he asked me to do his logo. He said, “I need a logo to put on the back of the jeans, and I want it to say “CK.” Can you come up with something?” I designed that CK logo, and he liked it very much. That’s how my relationship started with him. Then he started to, “Well, can you look at different colors, that logo, because if we do [inaudible].” I came up with a whole range of colors and a whole thing. Then he called me for something else, and then another thing, and then, “Oh, can you look? Na, na, na. We are doing a jeans campaign,” and I started working on a campaign. It went gradually, but surely, in a space of six months. I came from not knowing Calvin Klein into almost living with Calvin Klein.


Fabien Baron:

It was an amazing experience because this guy, I just think like him. I just loved it. Everything he was saying, he’s like, “I know what you’re talking about. I know exactly what you’re saying.” He was so unafraid to try things that were not the proper thing to do and to do things in a way that were very visible, but with an extreme sense of aestheticism and a very precise way to execute it. He understood media. He understood how to communicate visually a dream that people wanted.


Debbie Millman:

How did Kate Moss fit into that dream? Because she was quite an unusual model for that time. She was not the face you would have associated with high fashion. She was short, or not short as in, in the grand scheme of things, but shorter than most models.


Fabien Baron:

What happened is we had put Kate Moss in the first issue of Harper’s Bazaar, in our first issue, with Linda on the cover but Kate Moss opened the first story of Bazaar. She was already our, like Bazaar’s mascot. Then Calvin called me again and said, “Oh, Fabien, I would love to use Vanessa Paradis for my jeans ad, but she turned me down.”


Debbie Millman:

Wow!


Fabien Baron:

I look at Vanessa Paradis and I look at the picture that he had showed me, to see it was a picture of Vanessa Paradis sitting down on a gray background and crouching down with a pair of jeans and a white shirt. I think she wore a T-shirt or something. She was just slouchy, and I said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute.” I said, “OK.” I brought in Kate Moss. What I did is I told Kate Moss to come in the room and said, “Can you sit on the floor just like that picture?” She sat on the floor just like that picture in front of Calvin Klein and Calvin Klein turned to me and goes like this. I said, “Yeah, yeah. See?” He hired her.


Debbie Millman:

History was made.


Fabien Baron:

He loved her. But also, the thing is, Kate at that time was, there was something very innocent about her, but there was something very mischievous about her. There was everything. She was like a flower about to explode. I don’t know how to explain it. She was oozing cool by just being there. Whatever she was doing, she could sit, she could stand, the way she would move, she was oozing cool. Calvin went crazy on her in a second, put her under contract immediately, and that was it. That was the Kate Moss and Calvin Klein moment.


Debbie Millman:

She’s written about how everyone thought she should fix her teeth but you. What did people think were wrong with her teeth?


Fabien Baron:

I don’t know. I don’t know. I said, “Kate, you’re crazy. I love your teeth. That’s part of you, don’t change it.” Her beauty is her imperfection.


Debbie Millman:

Right.


Fabien Baron:

Her beauty is that she’s petite. Her beauty is, she has a little bit shorter legs. Her beauty is that she’s a little bit [inaudible], she’s a bit crooked. She’s a bit like … it’s her imperfection are making her this most amazing person. Her soul is worn on the outside, and that you read that and that’s what you see. You’re charmed. You’re definitely charmed by her. She’s definitely charming.


Debbie Millman:

She wrote a wonderful, wonderful foreword to your monograph.


Fabien Baron:

Yes, she did. That was so nice.


Debbie Millman:

About you’re comrades and being mischievous together, which is really lovely.


Fabien Baron:

Yes, yes.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve mentioned Harper’s Bazaar a few times. I remember the day I got my Harper’s Bazaar, your first Harper’s Bazaar, “welcome to the age of elegance,” with the ‘A’ in Linda Evangelista’s hand. It is one of the most glorious magazine relaunches of our time. You worked with the legendary editor, the great, the late, great Elizabeth Tilberis. You and Liz completely revived Harper’s Bazaar, and in doing so created what many believe to be the most beautiful magazine in history. You’ve said that Liz Tilberis’ real talent was that she was not scared of talent.


Fabien Baron:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

Do you find that people in leadership positions are fearful or intimidated by greatness?


Fabien Baron:

Yes, definitely.


Debbie Millman:

Especially in the fashion industry, I would imagine, where it’s so, holding onto a job is so hard.


Fabien Baron:

I think a lot of people in the business see talent as a competition to their point of view. I think Liz was smart enough to surround herself with very, very talented people, and she would take everybody’s point of view and make it her point of view. That’s where she was amazing. The only thing you wanted to do. In all her abilities to do anything, she would do that with a smile and with lots of love. The only thing you wanted to do is to please Liz the best.


Debbie Millman:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.


Fabien Baron:

And to give her what she wanted. She would let you use your own talent to achieve that, and that’s amazing. She didn’t ask you to be someone else.


Debbie Millman:

How competitive was Harper’s Bazaar at that time with the redesign and relaunch of Vogue that was happening with Anna Wintour?


Fabien Baron:

It was war.


Debbie Millman:

OK then.


Fabien Baron:

It was war. I think the number of contracts between Hearst publications and Condé Nast publications for the photographers, the fights we had to get to the photographers because we needed the photographers, it was really, really the most competitive time in magazine making probably that ever existed. I did enjoy it, and I think we gave Anna Wintour a run for her money, for sure.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, without a doubt. How did she react to Linda Evangelista being on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar?


Fabien Baron:

She didn’t like it because the minute Harper’s Bazaar was happening, the veto was, the Condé Nast veto, was imposed. It was like, “This is it. This is war.” The models wouldn’t give up. We had to do what to do, everything we had to do. We had to put photographers under contract, we had to talk to models, we had to talk to everyone. You got to do it, it’s very important, we’re going to put you on the cover, and will you do it? Everybody was petrified to go against Condé Nast, but we did it.


Debbie Millman:

Right, and you did it well. The interesting thing about Harper’s Bazaar under your tenure with Liz was that it juxtaposed two words that you generally didn’t see together. It was elegantly provocative. You were able to be controversial and edgy, but also at the same time, very elegant and almost formal in that.


Fabien Baron:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely.


Debbie Millman:

I read that one of your mottos, and I don’t know if it still is, but one of your mottos at that time was to minimize maximally, and I was wondering if you can talk about how you know when something is minimized maximally.


Fabien Baron:

Wow! I said that?


Debbie Millman:

Yes.


Fabien Baron:

I think deep down I’m a minimalist and yet, like fashion, Bazaar came about in the grand years, where fashion became more poor and more normal and more real. But then after that, glamor came about again. Fashion is not automatic, it’s a maximal thing. It’s not plain and simple, if you see what I mean.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah.


Fabien Baron:

Even though you have some Jil Sanders and people like that that embrace that profession, but in general, it’s a world that is not subtle. Bazaar, we tried to stay somewhere classic, therefore understandable, yet we pushed it quite far in some of the ideas that were extreme. It was extreme yet it was classic. There was always that balance, and elegance was always a part of the game, that it needed to be absolutely beautiful. I felt like you could package any idea—even if it was an odd concept of something difficult to understand, if it was packaged in a beautiful way, people would understand it better. It would be closer to them. They would be more acceptable. Maybe that’s what I call minimal maximalism.


Debbie Millman:

Minimized maximally. Liz Tilberis very tragically died of cancer. You left shortly thereafter because you were so heartbroken. Glenda Bailey took over and it was recently announced that she would be leaving after many decades. A new editor has just been announced. I read that you were in the consideration for the editor-in-chief position. Is that true?


Fabien Baron:

Yeah, that’s what I heard too, but I never got a phone call, so I think it’s—


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, all these different rumors that go around.


Fabien Baron:

Yes. To be honest, I would have not taken it.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I figured, reading some of your more recent thoughts, which we’ll get to about the magazine business, that didn’t seem likely that you’d want to do it.


Fabien Baron:

No.


Debbie Millman:

Back to the ’90s, one of my other favorite projects that you worked on around that time, and one that I also own, the French version, is Madonna’s Sex book. Steven Meisel was photographing the book and both he and Madonna wanted you to art direct it. In your 2019 monograph, you talked about how one of the objectives was to give it the right kind of “crazy tabloid elegance.” You couldn’t make it too wild-looking without making it look cheap, and if you made it look too crazy, the right crazy, you had to ensure that the crazy was not going to be ridiculous. How crazy was it to work on that job? What did you think of the ensuing hysteria?


Fabien Baron:

I had a great time. I had a fabulous, great time working with her. She was unbelievable. She was so—


Debbie Millman:

Was she naked most of the time?


Fabien Baron:

She was naked, yeah, not most of the time.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah?


Fabien Baron:

Some of the time she was definitely naked, yeah. It didn’t bother me. It didn’t bother me at all.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, I would think the opposite.


Fabien Baron:

I’m French. Right? I’m French.


Debbie Millman:

Think how fabulous, but there was a lot of nudity; it was nudity everywhere. Did it ever get lurid?


Fabien Baron:

No, no, I don’t think. We took it as a job. It was like with working on a film or something. I think like when you’re on set and you have all these people, nudity is not something that is intriguing really, to be honest. It’s a job. You look at it as a job, you don’t look at, “Oh my God, she’s naked.” We didn’t care. We were here to do something, and being on set doesn’t allow other thoughts. No, it didn’t bother me one bit.


Debbie Millman:

There was a lot of Robert Mapplethorpe influenced S&M, BDSM.


Fabien Baron:

Yeah. She wanted to cover a little bit of everything. She wanted to have that bit, the S&M bit. She wanted the weirdness, she wanted the underground, she wanted the overtly pop culture, she wanted all the different aspects of sex, she wanted to cover everything. To be honest, I found like it was treated like a journal in a way, like her thoughts, thought process. The visuals were like, some of them very sophisticated, some of them very trashy, some of them very pop, some of them very cartoonish, some of them very hard; there was everything in it. It was like a collage of all these different visions done and packaged again by the same people, like a photographer, an art director and a writer. Glenn O’Brien, myself and Steven Meisel.


Fabien Baron:

These different expressions of the subject matter that ended up being like, the package was together in a good way. It held together nicely, the voice, the whole thing. The voice and the point of view, and visually, it was really controlled and really fun in many ways.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, I think it’s still—


Fabien Baron:

And the scandal.


Debbie Millman:

Oh my God, the scandal.


Fabien Baron:

Then the scandal when it came out.


Debbie Millman:

You couldn’t find it. I was finally able to get the French copy. They could not get an English copy. I got a French copy, which I still have. I was so enthralled with that book, Fabien, that at that time the internet and email and all of that was first taking off, usernames. I used the name Dita as my username. Madonna’s name in the book was Dita; I used that name. I just remembered that as we’re talking, I was so enthralled of it. But really, as racy as it was and as controversial as it was, and looking back on it now, it doesn’t seem that way, but then it was, every single photograph is beautiful. Every single photograph is beautiful in that book.


Fabien Baron:

Well, it’s Steven Meisel.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. In your monograph published by Phaidon, it’s a 400+ page stunning exploration of 30 years of your own work. One thing that surprised me in reading it is your statement that when you were younger, you really loved being controversial and you were never afraid, and today you find yourself to be more careful. I’m wondering what is behind that change.


Fabien Baron:

If you see what’s going on politically, don’t you think you have to be careful?


Debbie Millman:

OK. OK. I see. I wasn’t sure if you meant taking creative risks or being less maybe politically correct.


Fabien Baron:

I don’t think it’s a good moment for that. I don’t think it’s, the climate doesn’t allow controversy. I think controversy is not read as controversy. Controversy is read as something extremely offensive and actually can put your career down today. You have to think really twice before you say something, before you do something a certain way, before you use certain visuals. You have to think about everything. Everything can become a weapon against you, so you have to be very careful, I think. Somewhere it’s good; in many ways it’s good and it’s necessary, in other ways it’s less good because I think it takes out a lot of the creative factor. It’s never innocent when you do something, but there’s a certain innocence in creation that doesn’t put automatically things that you say or do in context of a political or geo-sociological environment of a certain time.


Fabien Baron:

I find certain artists don’t live in their time, yet they get judged per the environment and the context in which they work. That could really endanger the vision, these kind of restrictions or self-restrictions one has to put on themselves to a certain degree. Being controversial today, no. It’s very risky, there’s that reason. The other reason is, I guess, you learn. I think when you’re younger, you want to shake the tree, you want to bother the people that are older, you want to create your own little revolution. Then you become wiser and you don’t want to shake the tree, you actually want to protect the tree. You want to make sure it’s trimmed properly. You want to make sure it gets water. You want to make sure, all the other things you want, you want to care, and you want maybe pass along the knowledge that you’ve amassed through the years, and you want to pass that along to someone else. Your behavior, your mental behavior is shifting and changing. That’s the second part of this.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. You’ve stated that the era of the fashion magazine has come to an end. Why do you feel that way?


Fabien Baron:

It feels that way, because it seems magazines … do people look at magazines still? Do people buy magazines? Do we feel in the age of technology, in the age of portable phone, tablets, anything digital, do you feel that turning the page of a magazine is something relevant for today? Or is it better to swipe?


Debbie Millman:

What do you think?


Fabien Baron:

I think it’s about swiping. It’s not about turning pages of a magazine, to be honest.


Debbie Millman:

Do you think that—


Fabien Baron:

You may turn the page of a book.


Debbie Millman:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). But do you think that—


Fabien Baron:

But of a magazine, I find magazines not relevant in my mind, I don’t find them … even though I miss them. I do miss putting a magazine together. I miss working with photographers on editorial stories, but I don’t feel it’s relevant. I don’t feel it’s the proper tool to communicate fashion today.


Debbie Millman:

Do you still subscribe to a lot of magazines?


Fabien Baron:

No.


Debbie Millman:

Which ones do you still subscribe to? Could you share?


Fabien Baron:

No.


Debbie Millman:

No?


Fabien Baron:

No, I don’t.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, none.


Fabien Baron:

I don’t subscribe. No, I don’t.


Debbie Millman:

I used to subscribe. I had a subscription to Vogue for 18 years. I paid for it and there was a glitch with the payment and then I repaid, and then all of a sudden Bon Appetit took over from House & Garden, so I got the balance put on Vogue. I had it for 18 years and then it stopped, and I don’t miss it. I still think about it and I’ll look at it online from time to time, but I don’t miss it. I don’t know if it’s because Grace Coddington left. I don’t know, but it’s just not the same.


Fabien Baron:

I think it’s different time. I think what we were doing at that time in the ’90s, that was relevant. It felt like it was something.


Debbie Millman:

It felt like there was a connection. When Dominique Browning was editor of House & Garden, the first thing I would read was her editorial. The last magazine for me to go was Harper’s Bazaar.


Fabien Baron:

It’s the talent of all this. I think people are just hanging on the branches desperately trying to still hang on the … I don’t know, I’m not into it. It’s funny. I think to do something that makes sense, it needs to be relevant, it needs to be a medium that is relevant. We’re more intrigued into … with all my clients, we don’t talk about the page that’s going to go in Vogue, we talk about the Instagram posts. I hate to say this. Even though I’m not … it’s a shame that it is the Instagram post, but it’s what it’s about. My question that I put to myself now is like, “How am I going to make that Instagram post much better than all the other Instagram posts? I want to make this relevant, I want to make this work, and now I’m going to make this important,” and that’s what I’m trying to do.


Debbie Millman:

Do you enjoy it as much?


Fabien Baron:

It’s different. It’s a different process, it’s a different exercise. Do I enjoy as much? I don’t know. I don’t even ask myself the question, because I think you learn through working. I’ve been working so much you realize that most of what you do is problem-solving. Problem-solving that it is on the page, on a screen, or on a billboard, or in a book or as a moving image, you’re problem-solving. I became a problem-solver.


Debbie Millman:

Fabien, I don’t think so. I think that you became a problem-maker for other people because your work was so much better. That’s what I think great designers do. Even if you’re trying to do—


Fabien Baron:

Really, that’s nice.


Debbie Millman:

When you’re trying to make an Instagram post that’s better than anybody else’s that has never been done before, you’re a problem-maker for everybody else that can’t.


Fabien Baron:

Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that’s what I do all day long. I’m being put in front of a problem by a client and I’m trying to resolve the issues that … and try to make the best solution out of it. Listen, there’s nothing wrong with that and I enjoy that. It’s like a great math problem; it’s also interesting, but it’s true the things have shifted. It’s not about magazines. Is it about a book? It could still be about the magazines that are treated a little bit more like an object, something that is less throwaway.


Debbie Millman:

Right.


Fabien Baron:

I’m talking about like maybe the bi-annual magazines.


Debbie Millman:

Visionaire.


Fabien Baron:

Purple, like in the oldies.


Debbie Millman:

Are you aware of Stack magazines? It’s a subscription service out of the UK, and they curate sending indie magazines once a month. Really, really, really well-done, and I love getting them. They’re never large-circulation magazines, but it’s really interesting to see what some people are doing. I’ll send you a link, it’s Stack magazines. They pick the magazine, you get what they pick once a month. You get a magazine, it’s really great.


Fabien Baron:

That’s interesting.


Debbie Millman:

Then you stay on top of—


Fabien Baron:

You get an object? You get the object?


Debbie Millman:

An object, the actual object, yeah, the actual magazine.


Fabien Baron:

OK.


Debbie Millman:

There are some extraordinary efforts being made these days. They’re small, but they’re really, really good.


Fabien Baron:

Yes. I’m sure. I’m sure. I’m talking about magazines as a large, with a large audience, like the Vogue, the Bazaar, that level of magazine. Ultimately, we love small independent magazines because they have a voice and they have a point of view and they have something they want to say. At the same time, they do it with no money and they let the photographers run with the ball and they undermine themselves before just to get certain people inside their magazine. It’s a little bit a free-for-all, and then on the other hand, a very commercial magazine is the opposite. You have to do exactly what they want as if you were doing advertising, and your voice as a collaborator is not appreciated or you’re here to fill in the gap. It’s one or the other. I don’t think there’s any place where you feel like the collaboration and the point of view from the team inside the magazine is forward in a way that is meaningful. I don’t know a magazine like that today.


Debbie Millman:

The one magazine I still really enjoy reading both online and in-hand is The New Yorker. I still think that they’re doing—


Fabien Baron:

They were very smart the way they did it through subscriptions. They decided it’s not about the advertising, it’s about the quality of the product, and for that quality you’re going to pay a certain amount of money to get the magazine, and it paid off for them. It’s the one magazine at Condé Nast that is successful.


Debbie Millman:

Good. In your monograph, you state that while you’ve devoted most of your life to becoming a good art director, you now want to dedicate the rest of what time you have left to film and photography. Tell me why.


Fabien Baron:

I think, like I said, it goes all the way back to my dad. I’ve learned art direction because I think he was an art director. He would have been a filmmaker, I would be in film. I realized that all the mediums are very much their own thing, and it’s your point of view mixing with that medium that creates something exceptional. That it is magazines, building houses, painting, sculptures, filmmaking, photography, I think it’s all the same. I think what you have to say is the important part. How are you going to say it is also the important part. The medium in which you communicate these thoughts is just that medium. It has its own vocabulary, it has its own language. It’s a little bit like, let’s say a magazine is French, a film is English, it’s another line. It’s like learning another language.


Fabien Baron:

But basically, what you have to say is the same. Like most big artists, they just repeat themselves. I had the luck to be able to play with different mediums and to pass from one medium to the other, from magazines into books, into fragrance, into furniture and into film. I’ve done film for about 25 years now, a lot of commercials, started doing those commercials … one of my first commercials was for Giorgio Armani, and then one for Calvin Klein; I did many, many, many for Calvin Klein. And on and on and on. I just love him.


Debbie Millman:

What you did for Moncler, by the way, was extraordinary.


Fabien Baron:

Oh, thank you.


Debbie Millman:

I tried to write a little explanation in anticipation of asking you some questions about it, but I decided that it might be easier for you to just share with my listeners what you actually did for Moncler, and that magnificent film in The Icebergs.


Fabien Baron:

Actually, the Iceberg thing was a project that I had made for a long time. I went to, it was part of my sea pictures and I was always, always intrigued by ice and by icebergs, and these amazing landscapes that felt like they were another planet. I went to Greenland once, and I took my camera and I have a special technique when I do pictures. I do very long exposures. Very, very long exposures, sometimes three, four minutes, and I took my big camera at that time. Like it was an 8 by 10 camera. I went, schlepped it all the way to Greenland, and realized when I stand on land and the iceberg is actually moving. I get my pictures back from my trip in Greenland and you barely see it. You see the little ice moving back, but the big things you felt that that thing’s not moving.


Fabien Baron:

But then you get the picture back and you see a little blur and it’s got, “Ugh! Everything is a bit blurry. Oh my God.” I think, I said, “I love this. How can I take a picture of an iceberg that is not something that looks like amazing pictures from National Geographic, that feels like my picture, and has that amazingness, something special?” The only thing I could think about is that you need to light the whole thing. You need to light it like a theater stage, like you would light a street or something, because it’s big.


Debbie Millman:

Right, but there are no electrical outlets out in the Arctic.


Fabien Baron:

Yes, so I said, “Oh my god, that’s complicated. That requires a big production,” dah, dah, dah, dah. Then, years passed by, and Remo calls me, he said, “I love your pictures. I love your pictures of the sea. Is there something you … what would you do? If I would ask you to do something for me, what would you do?” I go, “Oh, you know what? I know exactly what I would do.”


Debbie Millman:

Especially given the brand.


Fabien Baron:

I would do—


Debbie Millman:

Warm coats.


Fabien Baron:

I would do icebergs. I would go to Greenland and shoot icebergs, but I would light everything at night. He said, “OK, let’s do it.” Basically, he allowed that dream to happen.


Debbie Millman:

That’s amazing.


Fabien Baron:

That was the most amazing journey and the most amazing job I was ever, ever assigned. I loved that job. Me, the fashion guy being lost in Greenland, minus 20 degrees with my camera and my huge strobes, like massive strobes that were on boats, on other boats and trying to take these pictures of icebergs. It was heaven. Thank you, Remo, for this. It was a really extraordinary experience. It was really great.


Debbie Millman:

Is there anyone in the fashion or publishing business that you haven’t worked for that could cajole you to work for them?


Fabien Baron:

I doubt it. To be entirely honest, I think … we were talking about film, we were talking about what I’ve learned through the years, working in magazines, you learn how to build a story. You learn how to make stories. You learn how to become a narrator. Then, as I worked in film and doing commercials, you learned that same spirit of narrative, but you deal with visuals, you deal with the art direction, you deal with hair and makeup, you deal with sound, you deal with special effects, you deal with color, you deal with movement, you deal with action, you deal with so many other layers. I find the film the most complete method of expression that, to me, is relevant for what I want to say today. I’ve put, to be honest, most of my efforts towards that lately, and I do a lot of films. I do about 20 different films per year that I direct.


Fabien Baron:

I’m about to launch into a feature film, and I’m in the works for that. This is something that’s going to happen. That’s what is next for me, to be honest. That is what’s going to replace, definitely, it’s going to replace the magazines. It’s the same thing, but it’s just bigger. It’s just bigger. It’s bolder and more, and the narratives bigger, and the expression is bigger. I’m someone with ultimate control in everything I do, and what I love about film is that you spend months and months trying to put something together that is in total control, but the minute you say “action” and the film is rolling, you totally lost all the control, and all the magic starts to happen.


Fabien Baron:

All these things that you put together, we’re really calculating everything. This can happen, this can happen, you’re going to say this. That’s going to be said, you’re going to say that word, you’re going to be like, the color is going to be like that, dah, dah, dah. You say “action” and it’s like, you’re like the child in front of an image and something is happening in front of you that, “Wow! It’s magic.” That, I think, to me, is the maximum. I think that’s where I’m going to focus the rest of my life, into doing that, and my photography work, and hopefully exhibits and things of my work that I’ve been collecting for the past 35 years without doing any exhibits, without doing any prints. I have an archive that is huge that I’m putting together and starting printing.


Debbie Millman:

That sounds exciting.


Fabien Baron:

Two things, and really, that’s where I want to go.


Debbie Millman:

Congratulations. That sounds magnificent.


Fabien Baron:

It’s great. I’m really happy about that. It took me a long time.


Debbie Millman:

Yes, it seems to, yeah.


Fabien Baron:

To get to that point.


Debbie Millman:

That seems to be the way it goes, I’m finding. My last question: How does your father feel about your career?


Fabien Baron:

My father passed away a couple of years ago, about seven years, eight years ago, and he was very pleased, he was very pleased. Of course, we were like this.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, I can tell by your face how happy that makes you.


Fabien Baron:

We were very, very, very, very close. I think for dad, for someone like him that really fought all his life to get where he was, and he was in a great place when he died, I think it was very, at first, threatening. I was threatening. Then I think he embraced me, and then he really supported me and very much like he totally embraced what I was doing and was very proud. Yeah, so he passed away and I miss him. I do.


Debbie Millman:

Now you can infuse his work and yours into your four wonderful children.


Fabien Baron:

Yes, I do.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. Fabien Baron, thank you, thank you, thank you so much for making the world a more provocative and elegant place. Thank you for joining me today on Design Matters. It’s been an honor.


Fabien Baron:

It was a pleasure. It was a pleasure, and thank you for having me. I had a really good time.


Debbie Millman:

You can see more of Fabien Baron’s work at baron-baron.com and in his magnificent monograph, Fabien Baron: Works 1983–2019. This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman