The New York Fashion Industry Members' Report:
'Masters of Fashion' Interview: Don Ashby of firstVIEW.com
- by Adrienne Weinfeld-Berg contributing editor. Adrienne is a veteran of the New York fashion industry with over 30 years of experience as a stylist, writer and teacher - both at Lim College & Fashion Institute of Technology. 'Masters of Fashion' is our continuing series of interviews with important industry people. In the past, we have spoken to Ralph Rucci, Bill Cunningham, Rose Marie Bravo, Irish Apfel, Ruth Finley, Grace Mirabella, Geoffrey Beene, Elsa Klensch, Charles Froom and Arthur Elgort.
Don Ashby is one cool dude, not only because he bears a striking resemblance to a young Calvin Klein, when Klein was fresh, accessible, handsome and a bit vulnerable, but perhaps more to the point, because Ashby comes across as a genuinely warm, open and honest human being with just the right dollop of ego, tossed in for good measure; traits not normally associated with someone who has made it to the top tier of fashion photographers (both runway and backstage) in the wild and wooly world of international fashion.
The faces in the crowd of photographers at YSL show.
Cool quotient aside, Ashby is also a consummate professional, who by all accounts merits the description of The Face in the Crowd, as someone special and unique in his own right. Ashby graduated from Pasadena, Californias Art Center College of Design in l979, and then, worked as a photographer in New York City during the l980s. Along the way, while building his industry and creative credentials, he took his lumps (good and bad), all of which, have brought him full circle in 2010, to the point where he is now sitting at the helm of his ever-expanding company, firstVIEW Photo Agency and Online Magazine.
In this exclusive Lookonline 'Masters of Fashion' interview, Ashby speaks freely about many things; in particular, his unique career, his thoughts about photography and the fashion industry at large. And, of course, the infamous French lawsuit, which brought him, his partners and his company, at odds with The French Fashion Federation and the House of Chanel.
(The interview was conducted September 21, 2010 at firstVIEW's downtown New York office.)
Adrienne: So Don, what is your background?
Don: I was born fifty-three years ago in Coronado, California. After college, and after working in New York as a photographer, went to Paris in l981, for what I thought was going to be for one summer. I stayed in Paris for eighteen years, working throughout Europe, for fashion magazines, such as Vogue and Marie Claire.
In 1989, I started shooting fashion shows for The New York Times, with Carrie Donovan, who was the editor there at that time. In 2010, I continue to work for The New York Times. In 1995, I made the decision to stop shooting editorial fashion and really make my mark; specializing in shooting fashion shows. During this time, I started firstVIEW.com with my present business partner, photographer, Marcio Madeira. And in 2000, the company merged with MCV Photo Agency, and added a third partner, Maria Valentino.
Four years later, I moved back to New York City. In 2000, I married, Kathy Jones, a fashion designer working for Ralph Lauren. Currently, my family, including my daughter, Domino, who was born in 2010, resides in Amagansett, New York.
Adrienne: What is firstView all about?
firstVIEW, which was set up to be the first viewing of fashion show pictures from New York and Europe, is the largest photo agency in the United States that specializes in the licensing of fashion show images and fashion collections.
firstViEW covers fashion shows, events, et al, from around the world; from Auckland, New Zealand to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Milan, Italy, Paris, France; and of course, our home city of New York. firstVIEW is the Official Photo Supplier for both Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo Fashion Weeks, Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week, and Russian Fashion Week. firstVIEW was the Official Photo Supplier for IMG's New York City Fashion Weeks and Los Angeles Fashion Week (both from 2001-2003). In his capacity, firstVIEW can be considered one of the largest promoters and publicists of fashion design worldwide.
firstVIEW's website (www.firstview.com ) has been online since August 1995, and is recognized today as a pioneering and popular fashion website. In fact, firstVIEW was the first website to publish fashion show collections in their entirety, and served as the model for Condé Nast's own website - www.style.com five years later. 2010 marks the first season between firstVIEW and vogue.com.
As one of the premiere, worldwide photo agencies, firstVIEW works with most of the world's best clients, in print and online publishing. Since 2001, firstVIEW has been a contracted supplier for Condé Nast worldwide; this partnership includes Vogue and GQ magazines and websites from sixteen countries, such as USA, France, Italy and Germany, as well as China and Korea.
firstVIEW additionally supplies images for the following: Harpers Bazaar and Marie Claire (both USA, Australia); The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Los Angeles Times; New York Magazine; Cosmopolitan Magazine (USA, International); The Daily, et al. Corporate Clients include: Federated Department Stores; Saks Fifth Avenue; Neiman Marcus. Fashion Design Clients include: Banana Republic; Donna Karan; Philip Lim; Zac Posen; Prada; Giorgio Armani, in addition to many other fashion designers Internationally.
Adrienne: What are the details leading up to the infamous French lawsuit, which not only impacted with you and your corporation, her and now, but also made headlines when you, Marcio and another photographer who worked with you at the time, were arrested at the Chanel show in Paris, and hauled off to jail.
The story goes back to when I first met and worked with my current business partner, Marcio Madeira, while I was living in Paris in the early l990's, doing editorial photography for a lot of the younger French magazines.
As a way to sell more pictures, we got the idea about CD Rom's, which at that time, was the hot, new technology. So, we did some experimenting, and because Marcio is really interested in the techy side of stuff, we put more and more pictures n CD's. I brought the CD's around to some clients, but there was not so much interest at that time, because CD's were so new, and nobody really seemed to know or understand what this technology was all about. So, Marcio and I figured that the CD thing was not going to work. But, at the same time as all of this was happening, there was this Internet thing going on, and we thought that maybe we should make an Internet site and just go ahead with that.
We went ahead and put up a season's worth of collections from the New York, Milan and Paris shows. Right around that time, I gave a little interview to Constance White for The New York Times, and things started growing. The site got a little publicity and traffic started to go up. Well, somehow the French got wind of all of this, and they took what we were doing in the wrong way, basically, because we were a subscription site, and we made our money that way. I think that is what angered the French; the whole idea that people were paying to see pictures of what the French designers were doing.
Adrienne: OK, so what happened next?
The French Fashion Federation decided that we should not be doing what we were doing. They tried their best to get all photographers, not only Marcio and I, to get accredited badges from their offices. Everyone had to sign a paper, saying that each photographer could only sell the pictures from the French shows to one magazine, which was the only way to get the accreditation; so, that was the "catch 22" there.
In France, the law states that if you don't have written permission from the designer to sell the pictures, then, you have broken the law. So, in that case, The New York Times breaks the law every day; they never got written permission, and we never did, either.
So, as things went on, The French Fashion Federation sent us threatening letters, and in l997, they sued our corporation with a "cease and desist" in Civil Court, because they really didn't know who we were, or who was behind the corporation. We did not defend the suit, because as an American corporation, with no offices in France, we did not want to give them the idea that they had any jurisdiction over us.
Well, we lost that lawsuit, and there was some astronomical fine attached to it; around 25,000 francs a day, for each and every day that we did not take the pictures down. They then grouped together some thirteen different designers against us; Chanel, Dior, etc., although no designers ever contacted us directly.
I think that in the end, The French Fashion Federation just got bent out of shape, because we did something without asking them. In retrospect, maybe we did not play it right, politically, as we should have, but I also think that even from the beginning, if we had gone in there and asked them for permission, they still would have said, "no".
The next thing to happen, because we never did take the pictures down, was that The French Minister of Commerce got involved, and that office contacted the New York State Attorney General, who, in turn, contacted The FBI, who then contacted our Internet provider. We then, of course, sent our lawyers over to the Attorney General, on the grounds that all this was a "First Amendment" deal. The Attorney General agreed with us, and they threw out the Investigation.
At this point, I think that the French were getting madder and madder, probably, because they were not having any luck with us. A little bit later on; around 2000, I think, things really got interesting. There was a French photographer from American Vogue, who became furious with Marcio and I, because he had lost American Vogue and was replaced by technology. His pictures weren't even ever being used in the magazine; they were only used for reference, but all of this was moot, because Vogue was going to supercede him by using their new Condé Nast website, which we were working for at that time. So, he was angry with us, indirectly, really; thinking that we had taken his job away. Rumor has it that he supposedly ratted us out, along with some other photographers, who in the end, were probably not involved at all in any of his craziness.
Adrienne: What is the pre and post jail story?
At the instigation of The French Fashion Federation, a criminal investigation was started against Marcio, myself, and another photographer who was working for us. In mid-2000, just as we were walking out of the Chanel show in Paris, we were stopped by the police, and taken to jail. Under French Law, we were brought in for questioning. They could legally hold us for fourty-eight hours, but we spent only around thirty-three hours in solitary confinement. To make matters worse, all each of us got was a crummy sandwich.
As a result of everything that happened to us. we received a lot of press and publicity, and we became even more famous, or "infamous", you might say, because of everything that had happened. Afterwards, we did defend the case, where we won the first round, much to our surprise. Naturally, the French appealed and they won on that appeal. We then appealed that appeal to the equivalent of The Supreme Court in France, and we lost that, as well. So, we were then obliged to pay; I want to say, like around 100,000 Euros each, which is around $150,000 each, and we have been paying that off on a monthly basis, and we are still paying that off today. So, we are each paying the equivalent of some $5,000 a month, which believe is split between The French Fashion Federation and the Fashion houses in question.
Adrienne: Why can't you just stop paying?
If any one of us stops paying, then, the other two still must continue to pay. But, the real tragedy here is that the poor French photographer Olivier Claisse, who was only an employee of ours, and is still working with us, yet had really nothing at all that big to do with any of this, is being punished as much as I and Marcio are being punished.
Adrienne: In the end, what are your thoughts on all of these experiences?
We still do exactly what we did before. Most editors (U.S. and Europe) that I have spoken with about all of this, think that the whole thing is just preposterous, and really, the law is being used in the wrong way. Look, I mean, everybody is against he idea of a Chanel jacket being "copied", and putting a fake Chanel "label" on that jacket, or something else like that. But, that The French Fashion Federation used the law against us, was that we were still taking pictures of those garments, and as such, we were "copying" those garments as counterfits. We were convicted of counterfitting, because we took pictures of the original outfits, and the really ridiculous thing was that they said, "oh, then once you download the card from the camera to your computer, then, that is a second copy, and then, if you make a CD of this, then, that is a third copy. So, you're really a big counterfitter." I think that they focused on us because we've been a thorn in their side, since, from the beginning, we never backed down and we fought them.
I have to say that we always thought that we were doing good for the designers; yet, we were the only ones who got sued, because we were one of the few and the first at this time, to use the new technology. And, because of this, we were the scapegoats. I think, as I stated previously, that we rubbed the French the wrong way and they wanted to make an example of us.
Adrienne: So, now, in 2010, is this debaucle finally done and over with?
No, because we are now pursuing the case with the next court up, which is The European Court, but they are extremely slow, and as far as we know, they are still thinking if they are even going to take the case, which in this instance, is like taking a case to The Supreme Court in America. They get a lot of requests, but they only take a very few cases to be heard, so we just don't know what is going to happen.
Adrienne: Aside from the law suit, are there any other bad experiences you've encountered?
I have to say that often times, the fashion show photographers are not treated all that well by the designers and the security, et al. To be thought of as a second-class citizen, as photographers sometimes are thought of, is aggravating. There have been times when the treatment has been especially bad, and this has led to photographers walking out of a how. In Europe, it has happened several times that I can think of. For example, the old Claude Montana shows used to be really tough; there was a big walkout with him once. Also, there was an incident and walkout at Fendi, in Milan, not too long ago, here they built a sort of podium for the photographers, which collapsed from the weight of all of the photographers crowded onto it, and people got hurt.
Adrienne: In terms of fashion show coverage, which has been your bread-and-butter from the beginning, what is different now?
Back then, it was much easier for single photographers to work for magazines, in general. Everyone shot film and hardly nobody backstage. I don't regularly shoot backstage anymore, but I am doing some backstage this season for Vogue.com. Clients want so much more now, and they want and totally expect to have it all instantly. Naturally, all of this takes more than just a single photographer to deliver everything to that client. For example, the clients want pictures of the shoes, the bags, the clothes; everything. Clients want all of the fashion from the front and back of the house. We do this within a few hours now, but we never could have done all of this so quickly with film. I did start out with film. I especially love black-and-white film. Today, though, film is used for different things, and much more artistically than fashion shows. Let's face it, fashion show pictures have little, if anything, to do with being artistic; pictures from the shows are down and dirty, fashion information. The operative word is "quick"; some magazines don't care if the model's eyes are closed, or if he expression is a little bit strange or funny. We consider ourselves to be the best at what we do, and so, we give our best efforts to do good editing and good color correcting, in order to make sure that the pictures look as good as they can.
Adrienne: Who's your biggest competitor?
Groups such as Dan and Corrine Lecca in America; they're sort of our counterparts at Hearst. Plus, the Leccas work for all of the designers directly, so that gives them an extra clout. It would be hard to imagine about who would be the boss if we were ever to think about merging with another group, such as the Leccas, but it is an interesting thing to think about.
Adrienne: What are your thoughts on Celebrity Photography a la Patrick McMullan?
I think that we probably should think about doing what Patrick McMullan does, even though what he does is different from what we do. I think that there is a lot of money in shooting celebrities now, or there used to be a lot of money in it, but this area is not something in which I am personally interested, other than looking at it as only a business thing.
Adrienne: What is your take on celebrities vs. models?
I think that people across the board are plainly fascinated by and with celebrities, and so, the celebrities have become the new standard, and models have taken more of a backseat and the majority of models have become much more faceless now. There are no model personalities today. People, I think, are much more interested in what Lindsay Lohan is doing and what she is wearing, and all that; its just something thats a natural curiosity, which so people seem to have for all of this. But, I also do think that the celebrity thing has gone to an extreme, especially when it comes to paying the celebrities to come to a fashion show and wear the clothes, and then, make a big deal out of it. My company never spent much time with that sort of thing. There is just something about all of this that I dont really like or relate to. Im kind of shy and Im not a paparazzi type of guy. I never really felt that comfortable about going up and taking a picture of somebody.
Adrienne: So, from your perspective, where are we today, in terms of model models and the fashion models?
For whatever reason, models seem to change a lot faster now. Theres less time for models with strong personalities to become stars, really. Gisele, I guess, is the last model to be that kind of a star. Shes still around, but she really doesnt do many fashion shows these days; instead, shes doing the big money, advertising jobs, now. And, theres a funny thing when it comes to what we see as fashion models vs. model models. Model models are more middle America; the girls who do Victorias Secret or Sports Illustrated, for example. Model models are the girls we think of as sexy, all-American; very girl next door. Cindy Crawford and Heidi Klum are good examples, as the type of models most Americans think of when they think about what a model is, and what she should look like. But, in the fashion industry, these girls are not models, per se, even though many of them did start out doing runway shows. But now, theyve moved on to bigger and better things. Lets look at Tyra Banks; shes a perfect example of what Im talking about. She started out as a model, but today, shes a huge brand, just like Crawford and Klum. So, its not fashion anymore; its all about personality; theyre selling other things now, and making millions doing this.
Most people dont even know the names of the fashion models that they see on runways or in magazine. Theres been a big swing to Eastern European girls, who maybe are less friendly or open or accessible than models such as Linda Evangelista used to be. I find that these new girls are unfriendly and extremely serious; just not as easy to know as someone such as Evangelista was. Also, the fun attitude of a Cindy Crawford or an Evangelista is gone; replaced by todays models who do not seem to be enjoying themselves at all. These girls seem to me to be doing what they are doing, in order to support their families, or waiting for that big break, so that they can move away from the runway on to the next big thing. Look at Gemma Ward; she could have been a big star, but shes pretty much disappeared. I think that shes making movies in Australia; I dont really know.
Adrienne: It seems still that we are not seeing so many ethnic models on the runway, in magazines or advertising campaigns. Whats your take on this?
There are a few Asian girls; a few more African American girls around these days, but I think that in this sense, we are living in a racist world in America; I mean that the fashion business, by and large, I should say, is a racist world. There are very few dark-skinned girls; models or celebrities, really, on the covers of big magazines, and thats been going on for a long time. For me, there are loads of beautiful, darker-skinned girls out there, but in a weird way of thinking, you could say that the cosmetics companies, for example, have really ignored the black girls for an equally long time, and that is why Imans line of cosmetics has done very well. And, speaking of Iman, thats quite an interesting story in and of itself.
Adrienne: What do you mean by this?
I mean that the tie-in between Iman being discovered by Peter Beard made a good story when it first came out. But, Im not so sure about the story being true. Do you really think that Iman was a bush girl that he found under a bush somewhere in no-mans land, and then, he brought her back to civilization, and because of that story, she became such a big star. She was the daughter of a Diplomat or something like that. The Iman-Beard story got a lot of press and publicity, and she became a famous model, who did really well in the fashion industry, in a very short time. Plus, I think that the David Bowie connection, really, really helped to make her the celebrity that she has become today.
Adrienne: You also talk about sexism in the fashion industry. What is this all about?
There definitely is sexism in fashion. Its weird to me, in general, that most of the fashion industry sells more womens clothing than mens clothing; yet, mostly all of these companies are run by men and the majority of the designers are men. Think about it; there are about five, big designers who are women, vs. hundreds of designers who are male. And, of all of these designers, think about how many ethnic or black designers there are; even less. So, you have all of that sexism and racism going on, and its all just very weird to me that this is still happening, in this day and age; in 2010. But, I man and other like her, I think, are helping to change this, I think.
Adrienne: You speak of the fashion industry as occupying an elitist, little niche. Define what you mean.
The large size thing is quite strange. When I say that the fashion industry has got this elitist, little niche, I mean that a good share of the fashion industry thinks that everybody out there is this skinny, little, white girl or boy; rich, of course, because so much of the industry overall is just so high-end, and aimed at this miniscule slice of humanity. But, none of this is my business. I just do my job and take pictures of what comes down the runway.
But, in saying all of this, I would also say that if only black or Asian models came down the runway, Id be equally happy to take pictures of that although, Id probably wonder why theres no white models, or something like that. I dont think that I much chance, as a photographer, of changing things.
Adrienne: Are you a frustrated designer? A pissed-off civil rights activist? Anything like that?
Not at all. Im not a frustrated anything. Im very happy with my life. I dont want to sound like an old curmudgeon or anything like that. But, I do have to say how I feel about the consolidation of fashion show photographers, by and large, making it so hard for the new, next, young photographer to get in there, make a name or establish themselves. It is getting harder and harder to just get in. Sure, the young guys and girls do work with the different groups, and once in awhile, someone does come in and becomes suddenly successful, but I do not see this happening so much anymore.
Adrienne: America vs. Europe: the good, bad and ugly?
You mean aside from the law suit? Well, the U.S.A. is great. Everything is so efficient here; you get a lot done. During New York Fashion Week, there are more than two-hundred shows and presentations vs. in Paris, say, where there are only 60 or so things going on. So, going to Europe is almost like going on a holiday. Is America more entrepreneurial? With all of the TV shows and celebrity factor here, which so many people are exposed to all of the time; on and on and on, well, fashion design in American seems to be a really big deal. Everyone thinks that they can be a fashion designer, where in Europe theres much more of the old-world craft. In Europe, a designer has to know how to sew; have the real know how about being a true fashion designer.
Here in America, its like, well, I can make t-shirts, and then, you have a collection of t-shirts and you have a show, and youre a designer. But, this is still OK and good, I think, because this makes fashion broader, so that the very high-end, fashion companies, such as a Chanel or a Prada, can co-exist with the t-shirt companies next to them. Now, I dont know if everyone necessarily needs to show at the same time, but its all fashion and everything sells. After all, more people buy t-shirts than they buy Chanel jackets.
Adrienne: What is the new, now, next for you these days?
Shooting backstage. I shot backstage years ago, and it was so much easier. Today, there are zillions of photographers back there, and its hard to get anything different or interesting. Youre trying to get one model to pose in a certain way, or do something unique, and there are going to be two other photographers, shooting over your shoulder.
Over the last year, Ive been doing more videos than actual pictures, and thats been a fun change. And, Ill do videos and pictures both front and back of house, now. Last year, we started firstVIEW TV. I think that video is the new direction, because technology has improved a lot. More and more people have fast lines; live stream, I think, is a little bit of a gimmick, though, but well see where that goes. The idea of live stream is interesting, but its going to appeal to a limited group of people. For example, lets say that the live stream of the Burberry fashion show in Europe is going to be at 3AM here. How many people are going to wake up and watch this on TV or on their computer? It is probably easier and more time efficient to see the edited version the next day.
Now, we have 3D TV, which I think is going to be next seasons hot, new gimmick. Weve actually been thinking about 3D, and how this technology could work, but there are problems right now, especially with the ways that most of the designers try to have all of the photographers clumped together at the end of the runway, where you need really long lenses that flattens the perspective. If you were shooting that with a 3D camera, you wouldnt really see any of the 3D feeling of it. Therefore, it would have to be shooting in a different manner; i.e., much closer to the runway, or maybe catching the girl when she turns around to you, or something like that, because you wouldnt get so much of that 3D effect of that girl just walking straight towards you. So, well see; well see. Were trying to do some experimentation with all of this. You still have to have the glasses, though. But, the technology overall for 3D is fantastic right now, and can only get better and better. So, I think that there is definitely something to be said for the future of 3D, certainly as related to the overall future of fashion and runway photography.
Others Recent Interviews in the 'Masters of Fashion' Series::
Exhibition Designer Charles B Froom
Style Icon Iris Apfel
Photographer Bill Cunningham
DFR: Daily Fashion Report