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Perfect vision: Fashion's most memorable imagery

Superstar art director David James is the creative force behind some of fashion's most memorable imagery. He tells Harriet Walker how he captures the spirit of the age

Creative director David James's most valuable asset is his imagination. In two decades he has become one of fashion's most important image makers: from record sleeves and ad campaigns to magazine shoots and online films, his work is a ubiquitous part of contemporary fashion – which is to say, latter-day culture in general.

Out of Print, a new online exhibition opening today, brings together over 300 images from James's portfolio, and visitors can click through an archive of partnerships with some of the most important photographers and innovators in fashion, music, art and publishing.

"As an artist, you choose your subject matter and every decision you make is yours," he says, modestly refuting the suggestion that his work transcends the pages of magazines and could easily hang in a gallery. "With commercial work, you've been hired for your skill. That's not to say I don't bring my own personal point of view and aesthetic to bear – I hope I do. I think when you look at all the work it may become apparent that I have a particular way of doing things."

Looking at the work, the most noticeable thing is how familiar it all is. The dreadlocked silhouettes on Soul II Soul's Club Classics Vol 1; the lounging figures on the beach from Prada's spring/summer 2001 ad campaign; Dior's acidic brights and geometric haircuts from autumn/winter 2007; the striking and individual covers of bi-annual style bibles AnOther Magazine and AnOther Man.

"As an art director, you are responsible for the visual expression," he continues. "You are reflecting, in pictures and design, the essence of the brand, the point to get across. Fashion is always anticipating and referring to the contemporary condition. That's exciting, but it doesn't always make it easy."

James's success lies in a certain intangible and idiosyncratic quality, a vision. When we meet, I am struck by the fact that his version of the daily grind is a constant tussling with abstract concepts and as yet unrealised ideas, like some Renaissance philosopher or Chinese mathematician. "It's not that you look into a crystal ball," he says, "but there are lots of indicators around and it's a question of recognising the indicators. There is often something in the air."

His east London studio is full of that "something" brought to fruition – one wall is covered with a storyboard of the exhibition as it appears on the website; there are folders and box files everywhere filled with tear sheets, magazines and Pantone samples; shelves are filled with books that James and his team have worked on. The never-ending, circular book that he created with photographer Norbert Schoerner sits on a table, next to LPs by Neneh Cherry and Boy George – whose covers he masterminded. Music and art are where he finds much of his inspiration.

"Music culture in the Seventies and Eighties changed the way people thought and dressed, and I don't know if that really happens any more. I used to hope there would be a generation that would hang on to things and not let them be exploited and exposed, but I don't see that around me at the moment," he says. "I see everybody wanting to become a phenomenon; there is a sort of desperation about it which isn't very inspiring."

So how does he go about creating an image that people will remember and recognise? "It's a question of the right idea and the right fashion, the right person, the right team. Sometimes it goes way beyond what you could imagine; the pictures have their own life above and beyond fashion." James's autumn/winter 2007 campaign for McQ, Alexander McQueen's second line, used archive photos taken of protesters in the 1968 Paris riots. "Every time we tried to translate those pictures or think of an idea, it was never better than those pictures," he says. The last project he worked on with McQueen was the spring/summer 2009 collection, which was inspired by Eighties club culture. The resulting campaign simply bore the names of legendary clubs, white lettering on black. "It was even more codified," admits James, "but the target audience understood. That was what was brilliant about Lee [McQueen's given name] – he didn't really want fashion pictures, that's what he didn't like."

Typography is a feature in James's work, and he creates many fonts anew for his projects: they are one-offs and individual signifiers. He is an alchemist of imagery and visual culture, whose ambitions are often challenged (though never constrained) by the rest of the world struggling to catch up. An album sleeve created for System 7 in 1993 spells out the band's name in tiny droplets of water. "It was before photoshop," says James. "It took three days and was all done on camera." James's autumn/winter 1999 Prada campaign was, similarly, thwarted because of its prescience. "We were working with the idea of fakeness at the end of the Nineties," he explains. "We wanted to create everything completely digitally ... but we couldn't do it. Lo and behold, by the end of the Noughties, you've got Avatar. We knew that was going to happen."

His spring/summer 2000 work for Prada has previously been exhibited in New York's Museum of Modern Art; James's campaigns for the brand are based on whole stories and characters – as far from being about selling clothes as it is possible to go. This season, he created a short film for the label which debuted online before the printed campaigns even came out; the exhibition of his work is entirely digital too, accessible on a website for two months only.

"This shift from static to motion just feels like a natural progression to me," he says. "And I am drawn to the ephemeralness of the internet." Indeed, it mirrors the intangible qualities of his own line of work.

'Out of print' is online from today until 1 May, at Davidjames-outofprint.com