When a "very shy" 22-year-old Spanish fashion graduate named Rei Nadal received a message from the acclaimed fashion photographer Nick Knight via her Tumblr site – it's called Death And Milk, and tagged "I'm Rei, I don't exist" – she believed it to be nothing more than an elaborate ruse. Their initial conversation reads like this.
Nick Knight: "To 'I'm Rei. I don't exist'. I have been looking at your Tumblr and really like it. Do you fancy guest curating the SHOWstudio Tumblr for one week. Sorry if this is weird and out of the blue but I don't know a more formal way of contacting you. Nick Knight."
I'm Rei, I don't exist duly replies: "Can you imagine this being actually real?"
"It was this Tumblr full of slightly strange images", Knight says now. "It was a lot to do with death, a lot to do with sex and a lot to do with fashion. There were some abstract ones. And this blonde girl appeared every now and then. She was photographing herself and putting the photographs on to her Tumblr, and people were commenting on it. She's got a very distinctive face, an unconventional beauty. And people wrote quite savage things to her. 'What's wrong with your face?' That sort of thing. But she was putting herself out there, answering those comments. Her answers felt fast, open and vulnerable but at the same time tough. So I thought she'd be really good. I'm going to write to her."
To cut a long-ish story short, after some decidedly sceptical to-ing and fro-ing, culminating in Knight encouraging Nadal to contact the stylist Simon Foxton, who had guest curated Tumblr for SHOWstudio the month before and to substantiate his veracity, Ms Nadal, who also clearly does exist after all, agreed to participate.
With that, Knight dispatched an assistant who "struggled down to Barcelona with suitcases full of clothes" to a hotel near Nadal's home and, each morning, for seven days, asked her to deliver a white leather box overflowing with the requisite tissue paper and replete with a designer look and maybe accompanying music, make-up, scent, flowers, and even food, should it add to any atmosphere.
Nadal had the contents of this box to do with as she wished for 24 hours and, occasionally, there would be a second delivery, quaintly, for evening, and then it would be collected and a new look would arrive. The project was styled remotely by Ellie Grace Cumming and it says something of the weight of authority behind this project that clothes were provided by everyone from Alexander McQueen to Rick Owens.
The end results are remarkable, particularly given that the images of Nadal herself were shot on the photobooth application on her computer. They are interspersed with various carefully juxtaposed and more formal inspiration pictures –a close-up of hair backstage at McQueen, snakes, hard-to-identify nudes, a Nick Knight rose.
"This is her dancing in the Jil Sander dress," says Knight, speaking from SHOWstudio's London headquarters and scrolling through the finished work. "The tones are gorgeous. Cecil Beaton wouldn't have done any better. It's like a painting."
Praise indeed, given that this is a man responsible for many of the most arresting fashion images of the age, from a young Naomi Campbell dressed in Yohji Yamamoto to Kate Moss on any number of British Vogue covers. Having, over more than three decades, climbed his way to the top of the (establishment) tree, Knight, still potently idealistic after all these years, continues to fight against it. "What really gets to me is that you talk to art colleges and they're still teaching dark room," he says. "But nobody uses it any more. Nobody. Nobody teaches Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, but that's what they should be doing."
Embracing new media was at least partly Knight's reason for founding SHOWstudio 12 years ago. And since that time he has put his money where his mouth is. Self-funded, the site features nurtures bright young talent as well as featuring many of the biggest names in fashion and indeed contemporary culture more broadly. Victoria Beckham, Lara Stone and the Chapman Brothers have all recently collaborated and allowed unprecedented access to their working process. They are awarded complete creative freedom in return.
The democracy of the internet has always been a driving force. In particular, the removal of the (frequently commercially interested) middle man is appealing, as Knight goes on to explain. "10 years ago I was working for magazines," he says. "I had no idea whether anybody was looking at my work. The only way I knew whether something I was saying had resonance was if I was booked by a client again. But the situation has changed. With things like Tumblr and Instagram, you're immediately and directly in contact with your audience. When I publish a picture on Tumblr, it's seen by more people than a picture I might have published in Vogue. And they tell me what they think and I can see them sharing. Previously, going right back to any form of patronage of the arts, to the Medicis, say, they would say, 'okay you paint the painting for that church but we tell you how to do it, we decide'."
"I started using Tumblr as both an inspiration source and a way to record the things that inspire me," Nadal says. "Because I am a very shy person, it's not logical to expose myself that way, where anyone can see me and comment. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I wanted to make it more personal, to make my Tumblr more than one image after another, and to make it more conceptual, although that might sound pretentious."
Away from the camera's gaze, she dresses "like a tomboy" in "skinny jeans, a T-shirt and a variable number of layers of shirts, jumpers or jackets." She rose to the challenge of wearing more complex looks – from overblown and beautiful to highly provocative – in the manner, Knight argues, of a "a modern Cindy Sherman". "I was in different moods depending on what I was wearing," she says. "I tried to let the clothes influence me and can honestly say I gained self-confidence wearing these outfits and felt very powerful."
"I'm so excited about this project because it reinforces many of the things that I think fashion should be," says Knight. "We get very cut off and systematic and maybe miss the fact that fashion is capable of making somebody fall in love. I wanted to put the power back into it in a way."
Concept: Rei Nadal and Nick Knight
Tumblr curation: Rei Nadal
Styling selection: Ellie Grace Cumming
Headpieces: Sam McKnight
Make-up consultation: Val Garland
Nails: Marian Newman
Project photography and assistance: Chloe Orefice
Styling assistance: Gerry O'Kane
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