FROM THE VAULT (WINTER 2010)
Sitting outside a busy Knightsbridge cafe on an overcast September day and Joe McKenna is politely trying to wriggle out of the interview. “I honestly don’t know why Ten would want to talk me,” he says, chuckling. “I mean, I’m just quite boring really… ”
One of the most influential men in fashion, Joe is also one of the most modest (although, arguably, there’s not much competition). A super-stylist in the very best sense of the term, he has created some of the most enduring fashion images of the past 30 years and has helped shape the ongoing identity of brands including Calvin Klein, Versace and Jil Sander. His collaborative relationships – with the likes of Bruce Weber, David Sims, Steven Meisel and Mario Sorrenti – are the stuff of legend. Yet the man himself very rarely does interviews and, seemingly, hates to talk about his work. Which only makes him more intriguing, obviously.
“Okay, let’s do it,” he says eventually, with a look of resigned determination.
Let’s start, then, with his rather unusual childhood. As a kid, Joe was a child actor and a very successful one at that. Raised in Glasgow and the nearby town of Kirkintilloch, he starred in soaps (he was the original Peter Barlow in Corrie – how incredible is that?) and then in films (most notably, Absolute Beginners. Ditto). For some reason, perhaps from reading a previous interview, I’d expected Joe to be reticent about talking about that time but he’s refreshingly upfront, “although it’s pretty much a blur now”, he admits. “I loved acting as a kid and it was something that I really wanted to do – my parents never pushed me into it or anything. But looking back, I’m not sure I was any good at it, to be honest. Then there comes a point when you do fewer jobs and sit looking at the phone, willing it to ring. That’s when it’s time to start figuring something else out… ”
That something else involved first a brief foray into pop music – he released a Euro-disco record under the name A Cha Cha at the Opera – and then a full immersion in the mid-1980s London fashion scene. Arriving at a time when the modern notion of the “style magazine” was only just being formulated, he started out with some test shoots for The Face. “Ray Petri and Helen Roberts were working there at the time and those were the people that I really identified as ‘stylists’,” he says. “I was aware that there were fashion editors at Vogue but the role of the stylist was really only being created at that point…”
Somehow said test shoots ended up in the lap of Mr Bruce Weber, although Joe is a little sketchy as to how that happened. “I was living in London and hadn’t done very much at all and he called out of the blue and asked if I wanted to work with him,” he says, still sounding slightly mystified. “It was more exciting than petrifying – you’re a bit more invincible with youth, I guess.” The opportunity represented some serious wish fulfilment for Joe nonetheless. “I was never someone who liked film stars as a kid – I loved looking at fashion pictures and dreaming about the people in them and the people who made them. So Bruce was an obvious icon of mine.”
Having now built up three decades’ worth of work together, the partnership with Weber has perhaps become the most significant of Joe’s career, certainly the most enduring. “What I’ve always liked about working with Bruce is the risks that he takes and the sense of the unexpected in what he does,” he says, even today with a certain reverence in his voice. “Things are set up, but nothing’s ever really planned. And in today’s digital world especially, I like that process – allowing for spontaneous moments to happen. I like not knowing what the picture is until I get sent the layout from the magazine.”
If this has been the key creative relationship of Joe’s professional life, then others have certainly come close however. Indeed, ever since moving to New York in 1986 (initially to work on Rolling Stone and then Vanity Fair), Joe has always been the one stylist that successive generations of photographers are hungry to work with. From Glen Luchford, David Sims, Mario Sorrenti and Mert + Marcus in the 1990s through to Alasdair McLellan and Willy Vanderperre in the early 2000s, he has been there, Zelig-like, during some of the defining moments of modern fashion imagery. Actually, forget the Zelig analogy – Joe’s presence in all of these moments is hardly a coincidence.
With his own particular approach to each shoot – emphatically modern yet with a unique sensitivity and a strong awareness of fashion history and context – Joe has been more than instrumental in creating these incredible moments, even if, for his part, he is reticent to take credit for the finished work. “I strongly believe in the concept of teams,” he says. “I’m always just part of a team and I don’t think there should be too much relevance put on any one member of that team. We’re all there to try to create a great image, whether it’s an advertising client or an editorial job, and I don’t think too much light should be shone on the stylist alone.”
When I ask him whom he is excited by right now, his answer is rather telling. “I’ve always tried to work with new people,” he says. “But for me, a photographer needs to have a strong point of view and sometimes, with a young photographer, that’s not developed right away. It’s not that I have no interest in new photographers, but I’m looking for someone that’s got something to say that’s very different from the people I already work with. And I’m not sure I’m seeing that at the moment.”
Nor, rather sadly, does he have any immediate plans to revive his own magazine, Joes’s. With its carefully curated yet idiosyncratic mix of fashion and features (the publication contained pieces on Dirk Bogarde, Tennessee Williams and Paul Cadmus, alongside shoots by Craig McDean and Steven Klein and an interview with Miuccia Prada), the publication was, in many ways, a blueprint for the modern style magazine as we know it (when I tell him how certain friends of mine have spent hundreds of pounds hunting down copies of it on eBay, he dismisses it with a little laugh – “Oh, I think you better get some new friends, Glenn”). With only two editions ever being published – one in 1992 and one in 1998 – Joe suggests that the magazine was very much a product of its time. “Then, it was very easy to ring up everybody I knew and ask if they’d take an ad to support the printing of it, to pay for the cost of the magazine,” he says. “I think it would be a hard sell to someone these days. Plus I’m not sure we need another printed magazine out there right now.”
Nevertheless, he has just edited an issue of Self Service, using the opportunity to explore fashion’s current move towards all things digital (“Even though I only use the internet for email, to be honest.”). Alongside shoots with many of his most notable collaborators, the issue sees Joe grilling designers and CEOs on the state of the industry right now. “It seems like fashion is going through some kind of reconfiguration at the moment,” he says. “There’s a lot of change, there’s a lot of newness coming in. And maybe the creative part is a little bit blurry for the moment.”
For his part, Joe is confident that this current period of stasis will be replaced by something far more exciting. “I do think things will shift – they have to – even if it’s just the emergence of more moving film. But something has to give. At the moment, it feels like a holding pattern. I’m not seeing anything that I get very excited about. We’re going through this change in fashion and I don’t think we’ve finished. The dust hasn’t settled and, when it does, hopefully there will be some good new things to come through.”
But while Joe is intrigued by these changes, he is decidedly less keen to shine a light on his creative process. Perhaps because he works largely by instinct. Or perhaps simply because he doesn’t want to give all his secrets away. “I try not to analyse my work so much,” he says. “I think there’s too much analysing going on. I mean, it’s a picture and that’s what’s important to me. That it’s a great image and a great photograph. That’s always meant far more to me than trying to make a statement about clothes.” Whatever the reason, when I push him to define what he does, this modestly charming man is having none of it. Ultimately, he argues, there are some things that are better left unspoken. “I never really think about my aesthetic. Only in that I try to do things that are true to me,” he says. “Really, I just do what I do.”
by Glenn Waldron
Photograph by Bruce Weber – www.bruceweber.com