11.10.09

The Magazine Whisperer

Fabien Baron has redesigned some of the most famous publications in the world, including Harper’s Bazaar and French Vogue. He talks to Jacob Bernstein about reinventing Andy Warhol’s Interview and doing a new book with Madonna.

Fabien Baron’s office on New York's Hudson Street is the cleanest thing you’ve ever seen. There’s a flat-screen TV on the wall in the waiting room and a couple of loveseats to sit on, but everything is white. The walls are white. The seats are white. The coffee table is white. It’s almost like a doctor’s office, except that the man who works here with his staff of 35 doesn’t diagnose illnesses: He cures design problems.

Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of Fabien Baron's Work

For nearly 20 years, Baron has been among the most successful art directors in fashion, presiding over ad campaigns for Calvin Klein, Burberry, and Giorgio Armani, as well as overseeing the looks of four of the most famous fashion magazines in the world. In the 1980s, Baron and Franca Sozzani turned Italian Vogue into a laboratory for edgy, experimental photography. In the ’90s, he took over Harper’s Bazaar with Liz Tilberis and helped usher in the minimalistic aesthetic that came to dominate fashion. Then, in 2003, Carine Roitfeld brought Baron aboard to redesign French Vogue and it became (despite its small readership) perhaps the most influential fashion publication in the world. And in 2008, when Ingrid Sischy and Sandy Brant sold their stakes in Interview to Brant’s ex-husband, Peter, it was Baron who once again got the call to reinvent Andy Warhol’s magazine.

Baron’s Interview is a product that looks and feels less like a magazine than a coffee table book, which is exactly what the designer, 50, was going for. “You have to offer something that feels produced, because that’s what you cannot have on Internet,” Baron says in his trademark patois, dropping the “the” before Internet. “You have to reinforce all the good things magazines are there for and eliminate everything else.” Consequently, he’s upped the trim size of the magazine (it is now comparable to V and W), cleaned up the design, and filled Interview with pages and pages of impeccably styled fashion photographs (and very expensive clothes).

Still, for an art director whose design aesthetic is pristine, his early months at the magazine were rather messy. Shortly after he was hired, Baron (and the magazine’s fashion director, Karl Templer) quit after clashing with Interview’s co-editorial director Glenn O’Brien. Soon after that, O’Brien left and Baron was brought back.

Certainly the most recent issue, a 40th-anniversary special with Kristen Stewart on the cover, doesn’t indicate a magazine in turmoil. It carried almost 100 pages of ads and virtually every top-tier fashion brand signed on, including Louis Vuitton, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Prada.

But hurdles remain. According to Baron, the biggest two are budget constraints and getting photographers to shoot in an era when nearly every top talent is under contract with Condé Nast. “Even the photographers who aren’t locked up have been locked up,” he says. “People are worried that if they work for us, they’re not going to work for Vogue. (Or W, the other Condé Nast fashion magazine that Interview seems most clearly to be taking a run at.)

From time to time, Baron has also had to deflect some criticism in publishing circles that Interview under his leadership is gorgeous, while being somewhat unreadable. For display type, he favors giant capital letters that are crammed together. The articles often feature a font so small even a teenager with 20/20 could have trouble reading them. “I’m very aware of this,” says Baron. “It’s possible it’s a little bit harder to read. But you get so much more. You get the beauty, you get organization, and you get an experience that you would not get if I made it totally legible.”

“Even the photographers who aren’t locked up have been locked up,” Baron says of Interview. “People are worried that if they work for us, they’re not going to work for Vogue.

If Baron doesn’t seem overly concerned with the words in his magazine, that might be because he’s a visual person who comes as much from an advertising sensibility as an editorial one. After growing up in Paris (where his father was a magazine art director), he moved to New York in the early 1980s and got a job as an assistant art director at GQ. He moved from there to an ill-fated startup called New York Woman, then took over at Italian Vogue and began doing Barneys’ groundbreaking ad campaigns with the photographer Steven Meisel and models Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell.

Since then, he’s been known for his prodigious use of white space (there's an almost arctic chill to everything he designs) and a tendency to align himself with projects that pushed sexual boundaries. The Calvin Klein “kiddie porn” spread? That would be one of his most famous campaigns. Madonna’s Sex book? He did the art direction. Baron’s said to be working on another coffee table book with the singer now—a massive retrospective of the queen of reinvention as photographed over the years by everyone from Herb Ritts to Steven Klein. “I’m not sure I’m supposed to talk about it yet,” he says, with characteristic self-restraint.

Despite having worked in fashion for decades, Baron purports to be a little flummoxed by the reaction some of his work gets here in the United States. In 2008, a Calvin Klein ad with a naked Eva Mendes was banned from U.S. television. A little while later, the company also generated controversy with a billboard that hinted at group sex. “Ten years ago, it was easier to do something than it is today,” Baron says. “People get offended by imagery way more than they used to. The Eva Mendes commercial I did? Honestly, you look at it and it’s not offensive at all. But they got letters and complaints. ‘Overtly sexual’ is what they called it. This country has become quite uptight. It’s, like, come on. I know the '60s are far away, but in Europe the same image doesn’t even get mentioned. They don’t care.”

Much as Baron doesn’t seem to care about the church-state divide between advertising and editing, he has even stepped behind the lens and done some fashion photography. Given that it’s basically a hobby for him, the results have been very well received. The late New York Times fashion critic Amy Spindler called his 2000 “Primal Scream” spread in W her favorite fashion editorial of the year. In the most recent issue of Interview, Baron photographed polo player and Ralph Lauren model Nacho Figueras, who then sits for a Q & A with the publication’s polo-playing owner Peter Brant. Says Bob Colacello, a former editor of Interview and friend of the Brants: “I told Peter he should put Nacho on the cover because he’s glamorous and it will get them a lot of Ralph Lauren advertising.” In the end, Baron apparently decided just to go with an inside spread, though it seems unlikely anyone had to twist his arm to do the shoot. Asked what brand he’d most like to work with but hasn’t yet, he says simply, “Ralph Lauren.”

Perhaps for his next act.

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.