I hate magazines," says stylist Simon Foxton, surprisingly. "I hate the way they clutter up the house, so I rip out the pages I like and I keep them in a box under my bed." Foxton may not sound like your average fashion type, but he is responsible for some of the most innovative and important images to have been printed in those style pages that he professes to so dislike. His work is the focus of an exhibition, When You're A Boy, opening this weekend at London's Photographers' Gallery, and it's unusual in that it focuses on the stylist, rather than the photographer, to chart shifts and changes in male fashion portraiture. "This way you see the work of lots of photographers through the lens of a single artist," says Penny Martin, the Rootstein Hopkins Chair of Fashion Imagery at the London College of Fashion and curator of the show. "There's a sense of continuity across all of Simon's work, though it's tempered according to who he is working with. At the centre of his work is the collision of gay subculture with workwear and caricatures of masculinity. He balances grand gestures with delicate feminine details."
From a suave Adonis in a fuchsia suit via a Shane Meadows-esque youth in distressed skinny jeans, to a muddied and multi-limbed Minotaur, Foxton's work runs the gamut of male imagery, encompassing sex, silliness and sci-fi futuristic fantasy. He has worked with some of the biggest British names in fashion imagery, including Nick Knight, Jason Evans and Alasdair McLellan. "I'm not interested in fashion particularly," he says firmly, when asked about the genesis of his shoots. "It's not about getting the advertising credits in, or about this season's new hemline. I'm not shooting the hottest new looks. It's more real than that – it's about what feels right for that concept, there's a context to it."
The world of stylists – particularly those who deal with menswear – is all too often seen as an esoteric enclave for rich girls and bitchy queens, but Foxton is endearingly self-effacing about his own work, and idiosyncratic in his practices. "I do a lot of visual research and keep a lot of scrapbooks. I keep bits from National Geographic, from fashion shoots and ad campaigns, even pornography." Foxton famously works from a shed at the bottom of his garden, which is filled with remarkable objets that he has collected on his travels. It's an eccentric little den, quite befitting of one of the most imaginative stylists in the business. "He has a strong sense of historical portraiture," adds Penny Martin. "But his work is very friendly: it's vulgar and cheeky, but it's charming, like when you get a private joke."
Foxton graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1983 and initially went into design, setting up clothing label Bazooka with a friend from college. "It was around the time of the club explosion," he says, "so I'd be out all night, and designing and making samples all day." It was the era of the Blitz Kids, of conceptual artist and cult VIP Leigh Bowery and the avant-garde clothing line Bodymap, and Foxton sold his label from a stall at Hyper Hyper, opposite London's Kensington Market, as well as through boutique chains Joseph and Whistles. "We were so young, and had no business sense – we lost money hand over fist and we were ripped off by people who knew what they were doing. We certainly didn't." So it was through the failed label that Foxton got into magazines – when he was asked to style a model for a piece in fledgling street-style bible i-D.
The magazine's groundbreaking editorial policy of taking pictures of ordinary people wearing their clothes well taps into Foxton's own ideology of situationist and natural scene-setting, or as he terms it "honest imagery". But Foxton is keen to make clear that his styling is by no means hemmed in by realism; rather, it is framed by the idea of working within a scenario, towards a certain aesthetic end or vision. "It sounds so hackneyed now – 'the street' – but when I first worked at i-D, they'd just stop people after a club and take their picture. They had photos of people in their own clothes with their own look." In comparison to the studio shoots and soft- focus stills in the high-fashion press of the time, Terry Jones' i-D was something entirely different. "It's a lot more high fashion now," says Foxton, who is now Fashion Director at the magazine, "but it still has that street element."
Foxton is also a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art, where he teaches MA students learning the craft of menswear design. He's an inspirational figure to listen to, given that he's had such a huge influence on altering how the often-overlooked, poor relation to womenswear is perceived – after all, with the advent of street fashion, menswear became so much more than just suits, tailoring and the odd pair of chinos.
Young stylists and designers have much to learn from Foxton. "I tell them to be true to themselves, first and foremost, to build up their references and to know what it is they want to do. It's so important to have a vision of what you want; it's a very personal thing – but that's what gives you the edge over people who are only thinking one trend, one season, ahead." With his inimitable visual flair and prestigious anti-fashion background, Simon Foxton certainly is ahead of the pack – streets ahead.
When You're a Boy: Men's Fashion Styled by Simon Foxton opens today at the Photographers' Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1 (0845 262 1618; photonet.org). Admission free