Nick Knight, slender and well-dressed, is sitting at a long, clutter-free wooden table in the kitchen of his family home in Richmond in southwest London. He’s wearing his signature white shirt (handmade by 93-year-old Frank Foster), Tricker’s brogues and a Kilgour suit. On a studio day he’d have been in customised silk-lined Levi’s. For 30 years he has been innovating, arresting and inspiring with his imagery, and it seems loyalty pervades his whole approach.
“Artistically, there’ve been half a dozen strong relationships in my life. The first was probably Yohji Yamamoto. I worked with him through the 1980s. He represented a vision of women that I found very refreshing. It was the first time that design was saying so simply that you don’t have to show off your cleavage, your waist; this isn’t about your body, this is about your mind. I thought it was so beautiful. He was just a fascinating man to work for, and I did that for three years. Then there was Alexander McQueen, John Galliano. They came into my life at roughly the same time. I knew John from London from the mid-1980s from a club called Taboo that Leigh Bowery ran. But we didn’t work together until John went to Dior.”
Much of Knight’s formative period was spent in Paris and Brussels. His psychologist father was stationed at NATO headquarters in Brussels, returning to Britain in 1970 when Knight was 10. Knight’s mother, a physiotherapist, turned to art as a hobby after she left her job to have children. Knight made a brief foray into medical science before studying photography in the English seaside town of Bournemouth, where a set of his photographs was made into a book, Skinhead, in 1982. His work was picked up by ID magazine and this led to a series of remarkable collaborations.
Knight met his wife when she came to work in his company on an industrial placement. “Charlotte is clearly the most important creative relationship I have. I could say that Charlotte’s my legend but it’s a very odd way to describe your wife.”
After Yamamoto came Galliano, who was by then at the head of Dior, and they embarked on a series of photographic campaigns. Knight was to work consistently on Dior projects with Galliano for 10 years until the revamped fashion house decided it wanted a change. “You never get sacked, you just don’t get asked back. Which is fine. I understand the whole process,” Knight says.
A much-publicised drunken rant in a Paris cafe in 2011 cost Galliano his coveted position. “John, I think, was quite isolated, which can happen to someone who is fragile and artistic in that pressured situation. The same thing happened to Alexander McQueen. If you met Lee (McQueen), he was incredibly tough and aggressive – in fact, often far too aggressive. And he was put under the same kind of pressure. And then you crack,” Knight says with a click of his fingers to show how quick it can be.
“If nothing else, we should all try and learn from that. Lee McQueen was far more artistic than any of the artists I have ever met; the same thing with John. That’s where I found my work, if you like, working with people like Lee and John. It actually feels more genuine than anything else. You know, we should value these people, and give them a bit more care.
“I’m not sure, though, how much the big companies learn from those sorts of things. I mean, you can’t go into a gallery now without it feeling like a bank.”
Knight believes changes can be made at ground level. He is a trustee of Sarabande, the charity set up by McQueen to support alumni of Central Saint Martins. Sarabande was the major beneficiary when McQueen took his life in 2010. Among the scholars it has supported are up-and-coming designers Craig Green and Molly Goddard.
The seismic shifts in the fashion industry are a source of excitement for Knight. “I think there is something totally new happening. Call it revolution if you want. Designers now show their collections live. Previously it was the fashion editors who saw it, went back to their offices and decided how it should be represented. So it was almost six months before the public even saw it.
“Now designers are saying: ‘I don’t want to be part of that circus because I have an e-commerce site. I can sell my stuff to who I want, when I want, and I don’t need you to represent it.’
“And then the models come in and on their Instagram account they’ve got 11 million followers. So they’ve got the balance of power. The magazines before said, ‘Well, we can get you in front of 100,000 people,” even though it might only be about 10,000 people and now the models are walking in with hugely bigger audiences than they could ever hope to have.”
Knight set up pioneering Showstudio in 2000 as an e-commerce platform dedicated to fashion film. This extraordinary resource has interviews and pundits discussing live catwalk shows in the manner of live commentary on sport and it covers other aspects of the ever-changing history of fashion, Knight having documented each of his fashion shoots.
Innovation is evident in the media used. “In the 1950s, the fashion illustrator would go and see the collections with the editor and sit next to her and draw the collections,” Knight says.
“Then, in the 1970s, illustration was used a little bit more creatively and then, in the 1980s, it started to die. The shows were being presented purely by photography. So fashion illustrators started to find work a little bit scarce and the medium went into decline.
“And then the Internet came along and later, with things like Tumblr and Instagram, illustrators found a new audience. They would draw what they wanted to draw online, and they’d suddenly find they have 30,000 people following them, which was more than the circulation of a lot of the magazines. So fashion illustration started to have a renaissance and it was just a medium I particularly loved. We’d include them on the panel at Showstudio when we were looking at, say, the Gucci show. They would be actually drawing.”
Renowned illustrator David Downton, now celebrating 20 years of drawing couture, is a vocal supporter of preserving the skill. “Nick really does support new talent, which is exactly what we need,” says Downton. “At one time, I think when I started, relatively few people were doing it, and it just didn’t seem a viable proposition. Now I think people realise that it is necessary. It tells this whole other story in fashion.”
Showstudio is now on the move from London’s expensive Mayfair to the urban regeneration area of Earls Court. “We are super-excited about this. It is a lot of space, 15,000 square feet,” Knight says. “You used to have artistic pockets all round London. But now almost 100 per cent of the artistic community is in the East End of London, which is very destabilising because London is a huge city. And those artists living there just experience one part of London and that is not particularly good. I also think it is not helpful to have one artistic community in one huge city. So we’re opening up one in the West.”
Now, as ever, Knight is looking ahead, beyond Showstudio. “There are two or three projects we’re trying to get together with Hong Kong. There’s one, it’s the idea of a sort of artistic trade with Hong Kong or Beijing. I won’t say any more about it.”
Immediately after our meeting, Knight is off with his trusty iPhone to the Tate Britain gallery, to put the finishing touches to his London Fashion Week Instagram takeover for Topshop.
“Nowadays, you can take as many shots as you want. It makes all sorts of possibilities become open to you. I have to be spontaneous and I have to be of that particular moment. It is very stressful, and all that is part of the energy you get on the session. So you’re standing in front of Robert De Niro and you have to take his picture. You can’t have practised that. It is very stressful, but it’s very physical as well.
“The senses we most rely on are our intuition, perception, all those things that we don’t normally use. I have to see what’s going to happen, not what is happening. “If I was reacting to something that is happening in front of me, I would miss it. You go in and it’s just about that moment. It only happens if you make it happen.”