artistic visions with john william of pigeons and peacocks

BLOOME journalist Olga Korovina had the chance to talk to fashion-maker John William, who throughout the years  has contributed and collaborated with Dazed and Confused, VICE, i-D, Nylon, Paper, and Bullet magazine. He began his career in fashion, and has had his work exhibited globally including a 2011 show curated by photographer Rankin and a 2014 collaboration with the Museum of London. John's experience in the industry spans marketing, consultancy, trend forecasting and creative direction, and he teaches across a number of BA courses at LCF. He currently works as a stylist and artist and his work often includes props and custom pieces of his own design. 

DISCLAIMER The photos used within this article are not exclusive to BLOOME and belong to fashion photographers, and numerous collaborators on behalf of the publications VICE, Paper, and Pigeons and Peacocks.

BLOOME: Firstly, I'd like to ask you to explain what you do in five words.

JW: That's difficult! Okay, here it goes: Image, making, creative, directing, and teaching.

BLOOME: Well, that's pretty eclectic. Moving forward, why do you do what you do? What keeps you doing those five things?

JW: I didn't grow up in a family or house, or town where there was anything to do with fashion. It was back in the days when we didn't have the internet the same way as we do now, and fashion was an alien concept of the world to me. For some reason even though I knew nothing about it, I was really attracted to it, like I believe a lot of the misfits, those type of young people who maybe don't live in the most glamorous or exciting places do. I think I was probably about thirteen and I took a pair of my old jeans, and I bleached them, and then I ripped them up and pinned them back together. Something happened when I was doing that, and I didn't really know why I was doing it, but I found the fact that I was taking something apart and making something new really exciting.

So when I wore those jeans and went into town with my friends to drink cappuccinos and look at cute boys, it was like I had turned into another person. People were stopping me in the street… pointing… shouting abuse… chatting me up. All over a little pair of jeans. I realised in that moment the power clothing has. Fashion which had seemed to me like an abstract, faraway island – was suddenly real. Those bleached Levis where my ruby slippers. It was just like giving someone the ability to fly. When you teach someone to read, they can take themselves on as many adventures as they want, and I just found a new way of having adventures. I think I have never lost the feeling of the moment when I first realized that power. It still inspires me many years later. It's still the thing that interests me most about fashion - the magic we can feel. It is the way of expressing ourselves. Sometimes it's very loud, and sometimes it can be very quiet, but it is very powerful. I think everything I do goes back to that pair of jeans.

Hibiscus Rising for Paper
Photography by Holly Falconer 
BLOOME: While looking at your work, you appear to be interested in grunge, the eighties, various underground subcultures, and all of this alternative stuff right? You seem to love creating moodboards, constantly researching. Could you estimate the importance of research and moodboards, either visual or textual, what works better for you?

JW: I think in a lot of people I collaborate with, research for us is something that is living and breathing, it is a life. It is constant and it never stops. It is never about just doing a piece of research to achieve a product and then moving on. You know, I have things that I stick on my wall or put into my wallet, or save it on my computer, that constantly inspire me in different ways. And I'm really inspired by how something that may seem so archaic or out-of-date, or out-of-touch will somehow always find it's way back. You can always say something new with the past. I think it is constant. So, I never want to copy someone, whether it's a photoshoot or piece of writing, or an artwork. I never intend to copy, that's not what the referencing is about. It's about finding the way of visually exciting a team you are collaborating with and finding a cohesive language together. Because in fashion we are working in very global international teams.

Everyone has a different idea. If I said to a group of 20 people: "I want you to make piece of art or a fashion shoot, or a piece of design inspired by mermaids" - we would have twenty different mermaids and that's what is so exciting about fashion, that we can still find new things to say with the same old ideas. It's all about a remix and it's about communicating visually. I always say: "show, don't tell". We have to find a way of visibly expressing what you are thinking and I think that's what researching and moodboards are about. So, it's not about copying. It's a way of getting everybody in a mood. It's like putting the right music on, which is also such an important part of fashion shoots for me.

I'm an absolute maniac collector. My flat is just wall-to-wall magazines and objects, and I think everyone I know who works in fashion is an obsessive collector. It might not even be of objects, it might just be of images, it might be of digital images, people, clothes, books... I think creative people often have an obsessive nature and, you know, a picture of Kristen McMenamy shot by Juergen Teller for i-D with Versace scrawled on her chest... This always gonna have something to say to me. A picture of Courtney Love playing her guitar - will always have something to say to me. And they keep saying different things to me. Courtney Love said something different to me when I was thirteen than she says to me now when I'm a bit more of a grown up. But she is still as exciting. I think lots of people working in fashion - especially stylists - are almost always displaying our obsessions. We always try to kind of speak to our audience in this coded language. It's a little bit like when you wear badges with your favourite band or when you get a tattoo, it's kind of a way of displaying your cultural alliances to certain subcultures or style tribes. And I think that's what I love about fashion.

Punk Perfect Awful for Please!
Photography by Saga Sig
BLOOME: What do you think of creative collaboration? How does it influence the work of each individual involved?

JW: In fashion - as in the most creative industries - collaboration is absolutely essential because you are always stronger as a team. You experience that the most difficult shoots or the most difficult projects where it can be tough bringing different points of view together, tends to always result in the strongest work and the work that you'd still go back to years later. It is a lot about respect. Respecting your team, and being an individual while finding a way to collaborate.

Sometimes that collaboration is like working with best friends, and there is no shouting and it's just kind of pleasant all the time. Sometimes that collaboration is tough and you have to really work yourself. Sometimes it can be almost aggressive, and that could be equally as satisfying and enjoyable as the very easy kind of working relationships. I really do think in fashion everything has to be a collaboration. I also think that it's important that there is somebody, who is in some way directing what's happening, but I think that one day that might be you as a stylist and the next day you hand the steering wheel over to your photographer, and then another time you hand the steering wheel over to your make-up artist. It is about sharing that steering wheel.

I do think having someone who has a brilliant mind and a brilliant idea, and a brilliant energy and allowing them to steer your car is important, because, just look at something... Look at, let's say at Christian Dior without Raf Simons. The second he has left the building it falls apart and it is - I don't mind you quoting this on me - it is repulsive. Because under that steady hand of Raf Simons, Christian Dior became something sublime, again. It shows the importance of someone who has a vision. But, Raf Simons would be the first to say Christian Dior isn't just him, it was a collaboration. The only person I believe to be capable of working without any help from anyone is Cindy Sherman. But she is not really a fashion photographer, she is a fine artist. And she must have somebody helping her brush all those wigs.

Babes of Benin for Pigeon and Peacocks
Photography by Saga Sig
BLOOME: Thank you. What memorable responses do you get on your work?

JW: As a teenager, like I was saying, it was before we had social media, it was before there were any fashion magazines online at all, of any kind. I waited every month for my issue of "The Face" or "i-D", and I would be so excited. When I would get that magazine, - I'd read it cover to cover about ten times until the next issue came up, and to me every word and every image meant something special. I mean, even if I didn't like it, I would still read it, because I thought: "Well, c'mon, I trust this editor enough", so that if they think that I should be reading about what these teenagers in Tokyo are doing or what these old women in Iceland are up to, I'm gonna go on the journey with them and I'm gonna try and see, and figure out what they found special. So, if I saw a fashion image when I was a teenager that I didn't think was interesting or attractive, or that I didn't think was "fashion", then I would try and figure out why it was there and what they had to say with it. And I think that spending time with these images, these magazines, it gave me that space to think, and the space to respond, and that space to change my opinions.

If ever wanted to rip an image out, I would have to buy a separate second issue of the magazine, because I had to have one that was complete. And there were images that I would rip out, stick on my wall and then they would travel with me. When I moved to London, they came with me and they went up on my wall. And that is basically the response that I want people to have from my work. I want people to rip them out of the magazine or I want them to screen grab it. I want it to be the wallpaper on their bedroom wall or the wallpaper on their phone. That is my intent. As a stylist, I know that I am selling clothing, I am essentially promoting fashion, but, you know I'm aware that I'm doing that, but my intent is to create these images that for some reason speak to people. So, when I see a student, who has put one of my images in their sketchbook or they have stuck it on their laptop as a sticker, or if I see someone re-draw a photograph from one of my fashion shoots on Tumblr or Instagram, those are the things that really keep me inspired and keep me wanting to make fashion. Whether that's a written piece, an image, a magazine, a zine. That's what inspires me and that is the kind of effect I want my work to have.

I don't want someone to rush out and buy a pair of shoes, I want them to cherish that image. We live in this society where we are bombarded with thousands of advertisements every day, often before we've even left our beds in the morning because we see them literally in our hands through smartphones. To create the image that you want someone to stop scrolling and pay attention to, I think is hard these days, but nonetheless is still the intent. With one particular shoot I did, which is still one of my absolute favourites, it was with the photographer Saga Sig and it was for the magazine I founded "Pigeons & Peacocks", and it was the cover. We put three black models: two boys and one girl, on the cover 100% unretouched, with their natural hair, with their natural gorgeous shiny skin in a mix of their clothes, my clothes, pieces we've made with students. And that shoot, which I can not remember exactly what year it was - it was a number of years ago - it shouldn't have been a statement to put these three gorgeous models on the cover, who happened to not be white... But because of how narrow the industries definition of fashion and beauty was... It was a statement... And that shoot I saw in so many students sketchbooks. For years afterwards, I saw it on Tumblr, reblogged so many times, because I think some people looked at that shoot and felt represented by it or inspired by it, or they felt they were seeing something they weren't used to seeing in your average fashion magazine. So that was a particular shoot I still have a great deal of affection for, because I do think it inspired a lot of young people.

Ver-Sar-Chay for VICE
Photography by Alena Jascanka 
BLOOME: That's incredible. With everything you said taken into consideration, what piece of advice could you give to young fashion [industry] enthusiasts, who want to establish their creativity, their artistic vision?

JW: So my advice would be to first of all - and it's the advice I give my journalism students - the most important question is always "Why?. You know, "W-H-Y-?". When you are interviewing someone, it is always the most fascinating question. And it's a question you need to ask yourself. If you want to work in fashion - why? Because, you know, to be completely frank, it's not glamorous, it's hard work, it's unfair, it's an industry with lots of problems, it's not an industry that is going to make you rich, if that's your goal. It is not an industry that is going to pat you on the back or give you a kiss... It is tough. So, there has to be a reason "WHY?". It's a bit like when people say they want to be an artist or they say they want to be a journalist, but they are not willing to create anything or write anything. You can't just want to be the thing. It's about the work. So, why... You know, asking "WHY?" is a really kind of profound piece of advice that we should all take onboard.

But also just do it, just get on with it. The more that you take in and the more that you pop out - the more you will make sense of your own "WHY". The more that you write, the more that you shoot, the more that you try things out, - you will start looking at your work and you will see a voice emerging. It is so important to just be active. If you want to make stuff, just do it. I think the most important piece of advice - it's a piece of advice one of my best friends Darren (photographer Darren Black) always gives to friends, students, family, which is: " Be interested and be interesting". Be interested in everything and it will make you a much more interesting person. I think it's important that we know what we do like, and what we don't like. But then, it goes back to that question "WHY". Why do we like it, why don't we like that. Why do I love Courtney Love, why is she always there, in the back of my head? Why do I hate Chanel? Why do I find myself so repulsed by that brand? We have to ask "WHY?". That, I think, would be my key piece of advice.

BLOOME: Great, and thank you very much. It was really nice to chat with you.

JW: No problem. Cool!

INTERVIEW BY OLGA KOROVINA

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