'He has a generosity you don't expect in someone with so much power,' says David Sims, the English fashion photographers Baron imported to New York at the beginning of the waif-model craze a couple of years ago. 'He uses his power to help people's talent come out. He gives you the main chance. He has a real fondness for work, a philosophy, and an agenda. He wants to be remembered.'
Fabien Baron is a creative director - what used to be called an art director, before art directors became such important players in magazine and advertising companies that a wider- ranging title was necessary. On magazines, the person who calls the shots - who vets the photographers and models and requires the words to be cut to fit around them - tends to be the creative director, rather than the editor. And if Fabien Baron wants to be remembered, he is certainly in the right seat. As creative director of Harper's Bazaar in New York, he is in the direct line of descent from the greatest art director of them all, Alexey Brodovitch.
Between 1934 and 1958, Brodovitch at Harper's Bazaar was responsible, along with his opposite number at American Vogue, Alexander Liberman, for making fashion magazines the graphic adventurers they are today. He held informal workshops for young photographers and designers and encouraged many now-famous photographers to experiment on the pages of Junior Bazaar (a very young Richard Avedon was one of them). His work influenced the look of magazines and book jackets, posters and postage stamps. And art directors have been granted enormous licence ever since.
'This was the only magazine left to do,' Baron explains, his French accent undiminished by years in America. 'I thought it would be cool, after Brodovitch, who made it the first directional fashion magazine. And working with Leez (Liz Tilberis, the magazine's British editor) is the greatest thing.'
'Leez' calls Fabien 'Fab. Unless I can't find him when I need him and then I call him the F-word.'
Two years ago, Elizabeth Tilberis, fresh from the editorship of British Vogue, asked Fabien to join her dream team to pull Harper's Bazaar out of the doldrums. For years, it had been filled with glossy pictures of girls with big teeth and who-cares headlines like 'The ten most beautiful women in Oregon'. For years, no one rated what had been, in a distant and glorious past, the most important style magazine in the world. Tilberis was smart enough to realise that she needed Fabien to take up the challenge Bazaar offered her. Other candidates for creative director were suggested but she didn't want them. She had seen Baron's work, but never met him. Common sense told her she couldn't afford him. She met him anyway, and knew that 'I'd got him hook line and sinker. He needed a magazine.'
And she needed him. As Baron told The New Yorker, getting Bazaar back off the ground was like an elaborate game of tag. 'Leez started with me and then I went to Patrick (the photographer Patrick Demarchelier) and I say 'It's me and Leez, why don't you come?' And Patrick says 'sounds great' and then Peter (the photographer Peter Lindbergh) came and then of course Christy and Kate and the other girls. They all like Leez but they don't really know Leez. With me it is safe.'
He and Liz clearly admire each other but don't always agree. What has distinguished Baron's redesign of Bazaar is its cool, clear layout and the extraordinary manipulation of its graphics. Simple words are transformed into constructions of incredible subtlety and beauty. Full-page photographs are matched with blocks of delicate shaded type: words are given the same power as images. And this is where the computer comes in. 'He wants to use the computer all the time,' says Tilberis. 'Sometimes I have to say, 'Fab, come on] you can't change any more]' He loves that computer. The only thing it can't do is play darts]'
The style of the revamped magazine took Bazaar's competitors by storm. He had done what most people thought impossible. He had created a truly distinctive look, clean, clear, elegant, modern. Not for nothing was it quickly dubbed 'the world's most beautiful fashion magazine'. Since then his typographical style in particular has been plundered and bastardised by everybody from IBM to IKEA, by designers of television graphics, and by such unlikely magazines as the British title You and Your Wedding. The Sunday Times magazine has been well and truly 'Baronised', with shaded, coloured and blown-up letters crashing into one another all over the place (as they did not do in Bazaar). Nobody in the magazine world in recent decades, except perhaps for Neville Brody, the British art director of The Face magazine from its inception in 1981 (and later of Arena), has had so much influence so quickly and so widely spread.
WHERE did Fabien Baron come from? The son of a graphic artist in Paris, he turned up in New York in 1982, looking like a damp dog and aged 22. As Carl Lehmann-Haupt, now the art director of the architectural magazine Metropolis, remembers: 'He was working on some lonely hearts mag in Paris, muttering that all he did was stick stuff down with Scotch Tape. I said, 'Come to America', and he did, turning up with rain pouring off him and the best portfolio you've ever seen in your life. He was obviously way beyond me, so I introduced him to everyone else I knew in magazines and he started making his way. Which was difficult at first. The French save their smiles for their families and Americans didn't appreciate that.'
Judged morose but spectacularly talented, he soon moved on to a campaigning magazine, New York Woman. Betsy Carter, now launching Marie Claire in the US, was its editor. 'There were some epic battles,' she recalls. 'The look people wanted was warm and cosy, and Fabien was for cool and clean. My only problem was that sometimes you had to read the words . . .'
He left New York Woman, his American wife Heidi Siegel and their son, Matthew, for the top job at Italian Vogue. The September 1988 issue, the first on which he collaborated with editor Franca Sozzani, is now a collectors' item. After a year and a half, he returned to New York to be creative director of Interview. Sozzani says now she didn't miss him, but in fact he left with more than she'd bargained for. He took with him Sciascia Gambaccini, now one of the top fashion stylists at Bazaar; they married and have a daughter, Arielle. The relationship with Interview lasted five months and was famously discordant. The editor, Ingrid Sischy, insisted that the magazine needed many different ways of displaying information, while Baron insisted on stark graphics throughout.
He did the same for Harper's Bazaar. But just when its imitators thought they'd got it off pat, the magazine's formula has evolved - slightly, certainly not enough to frighten the horses, but enough. When the master tweaks, it matters.
In the May issue, with its tightly cropped portrait of Madonna on the cover, there's more breathing space in the most beautiful magazine on earth. In June, there is less manipulated type, fewer tricks, the magazine is easier to read. There's more content, too. Instead of being threatened with suffocation by style, there is now space for substance.
Which it needed. The only criticism flung at Bazaar since Tilberis and Baron took over is that there was plenty to drool over, but not enough to get one's teeth into. The recent evolution frees Baron from a formula that was beginning to show the limits of a slick strategy increasingly unable to reflect the diversity women demand in a smart magazine. But the tweaking won't lose Bazaar its disciples. As I discovered, an amazing number of people are keen to praise Fabien Baron.
I had drawn up a shortlist of people who might have something to say about his influence. Usually, this kind of thing gets about a 50 per cent response rate. But Baron got almost 100 per cent (if you count Christy Turlington and Peter Lindbergh, whose messages came too late). Kate Moss came up with a quote on time and so did Calvin Klein. Klein faxed, 'We are on the same wavelength, except Fabien goes way beyond my capability of aestheticism.' Moss: 'He's good to work with, he kind of rubs off on everyone.' Photographer Glen Lutchford insisted: 'He's the Elvis Presley of graphic design.' Glen O'Brien, creative director of the store Barneys New York (for whom Baron has designed promotional campaigns), compared Baron to no less a figure than the American sporting hero Babe Ruth. 'What I mean is that Fab is king. The Champ. The great one. He's moved it up to a new level, set a new standard. And he knows it. He is the most innovative and imitated graphic designer of his time, maybe ever.' All this, for someone who is only 34.
Franca Sozzani, Betsy Carter, Ingrid Sischy, all responded. Neville Brody rang from Germany. Patrick Demarchelier, Mario Testino, Enrique Badulescu called back. As did designers, models and other journalists. Only Issey Miyake, who rarely responds to any such request faxed less than 40 times, failed to reply. Everyone - even Madonna's people - delivered a quote.
Baron's involvement with Madonna goes further than just putting her on the cover of Bazaar. One of his jobs as a freelance art director was to direct Madonna's Erotica video. It was his idea to give her Sex book its spiral-bound metal cover, and it is he, it's rumoured, who has designed the bottle for her soon-to- be-released first scent. The bottle design, the advertising and even the soap shape for Issey Miyake's fragrance Eau D'Issey are Fabien's. So is the idea for the half-vodka bottle for Calvin Klein's new unisex perfume, One. He is reluctant to talk about work like this. 'Where have you seen that? How do you know that?' he asks, quite distressed. 'I'm working on a couple of projects with Cosmair (a cosmetics giant) which I can't talk about; a project for Lancome I can't talk about, a perfume project and a couple of commercials I can't talk about . . .'
He has been flattered, he says, by all the awards Bazaar has garnered since its rebirth, particularly the Council of Fashion Designers of America 'Oscar' it won early this year. As for the imitators: 'I'm flattered to be in the mainstream. I had so many doubts for so many years, so I was not that wrong. The look doesn't belong to me any more,' he says, meaning that it is, irretrievably, out there.
So is he. Reading for graphic designers includes a sumptuous coffee-table book on Alexey Brodovitch and a flexi-paperback called The Graphic Art of Neville Brody. It will not be long, surely, before a 'how-to' book on Fabien Baron joins them.
Brody's advice to Baron is to take all the praise with a pinch of salt, bank his money and watch his back. David Carson, an art director unknown except to devotees of the Californian mag Raygun, is, says Brody, 'the one ad agencies are looking at next, the contemporary on the greats list'. But the worship of Fabien Baron isn't about to stop just yet. Raygun is a brash, brutalist rattle through popular culture, hard to read, with a zero glamour rating. At Bazaar everything is glamour and smelling of roses - or perhaps lilies, which are, after all, truer to its clean, slightly sterile, controlled, palatable, imitable beauty.-
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