8 movement directors on what it’s like working in fashion

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Even before our free passage through life was encumbered by Covid-19 restrictions, fashion had an increasingly heightened sense of motion. Over the course of recent years, choreographers have come to play a pivotal role on the sets of fashion shoots and behind the scenes at fashion shows.

One of the early pioneers of movement direction in the fashion industry is Tennessee-born Stephen Galloway who, following his nearly two-decade tenure as a principal dancer at the Ballet Frankfurt under William Forsythe, imparts his classical technique to the world's top models, including Kate Moss and Anja Rubik. He’s now one of dozens in the field, each with their different entryway and approach to the profession.

Vogue spoke to eight movement directors to find out what’s behind fashion’s new flow.

Saul Nash

The 28-year-old choreographer established his namesake fashion brand in 2018 after graduating from London’s Royal College of Art, and made his debut on the SS20 London Fashion Week men’s calendar. As well as movement directing his own shows, he has collaborated with fellow designer Bianca Saunders and musicians Neneh Cherry and Shygirl.

What skills are required to become a successful movement director in fashion?
“Clothing is centred around the body so an understanding of how it can be guided or directed to produce a specific emotion or quality are important. I always imagine the person that will see this image and how they will see themselves in the person moving. Sometimes movement is so essential to the concept that it couldn’t exist without it, in other circumstances movement is a cog in elevating a photographer or director's vision—the audience might not even be aware that a movement director was involved.”

What do you think has led to the rising number of movement directors in the fashion industry? 
“The industry is finding that movement has the power to lift images. There’s a clear distinction between choreography and movement: [the former] is a sequence of movements in the context of dance; [whereas] movement isn’t limited to a specific style of dance; it looks at the body in the broader context of society.”

Sherrie Silver

Hailing from Rwanda, the 26-year-old is the choreographic mastermind behind Childish Gambino’s 2018 Grammy-winning hit This Is America. Since then she’s gone on to bring her kinetic energy to campaigns for Nike, Mac Cosmetics and fashion films for Vogue.

Which of your fashion movement direction projects are you most proud of? 
“Recreating [Tim Burton’s 1988 film] Beetlejuice with [videographer] Bardia Zeinali for American Vogue’s Hadid! Hadid! Hadid! [showcasing the best looks from NYFW SS19]. I was so proud of the Hadid family and how they let themselves go—it made the end result superb!”

What makes your approach to movement direction unique? 
“I enjoy exploring cultures from all over the world and marrying them to create something unique as opposed to just sticking to one genre of dance. I have a few rules: the content must either move you emotionally, make you want to move, learn something new or inspire you to make a change in the world. It is more than just about physicality.”

Jordan Robson

The 26-year-old Paris-based Brit is an alumnus of London’s prestigious Rambert School. His collaborations with the photographer Tim Walker initiated his career in fashion leading him to work as a movement director for the likes of Prada, Loewe, Maison Margiela, Vivienne Westwood and Versace.

What do you think has led to movement directors becoming such key roles in fashion?
“Fashion is as much based on feeling as aesthetics. Clothes are only as powerful as the way they are worn, and that ultimately comes down to the body and the personality behind it. [It’s important that a movement director] learns to adapt to fit the brief, to work with the clothes or the model, and [combine] one's own ideas with someone else’s without sacrificing integrity. They have to understand angles, perspectives and lighting, as well as think about the final edit.”

What are you working on next?
“I’m shooting a short film about moving meditation, exploring how it can be found across all forms of movement, from Tai Chi, qigong and yoga to techno and contemporary dance. Most of my upcoming work investigates the body's relationship to the mind and how it can be used as a tool to transcend itself.”

Ryan Chappell

The Australian choreographer has worked with Rihanna, Kylie Minogue and Janet Jackson, and has a BA degree in fashion history and design. Alongside working with Fendi, Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton, two years ago he founded Movement+ — a model development programme specialising in the performative and psychological aspects of the profession.

How did movement direction become such a pivotal role in the fashion industry?
“Pre-2000s is romanticised as the golden age of fashion imagery — when teams flew off to exotic locations for three weeks to shoot a 10-page editorial. Now, double that is expected in two days, plus a video and social media content, so there’s a need to have someone guiding the process alongside the photographer.”

Where did you get the idea for Movement+?
“The rise of street-cast models and young new faces having less time to learn the performative skills required to be a good model has created a need for movement directors. Established models also benefit from a good movement director to push them out of their comfort zone, to discover a new part of themselves to work with.”

Eric Christison

The Toronto-born dancer, 31, trained at Canada’s National Ballet School and the English National Ballet before performing with the Finnish National Ballet and Ballett Zürich. In 2017, he left the world of ballet to focus on choreography and movement direction in fashion and has since worked with Gucci, Nike and Chanel.

Why did you decide to trade the stage for the runway?
“I did ballet six days a week for 10 years, 90 per cent of those days were some form of the same. As much as I respected and loved it, the repetition was uncanny. Whereas in fashion you don’t sit on the work for very long, the demand for new ideas forces you to move at a pace that I find exhilarating.”

Which skills are essential to being a successful fashion movement director?
“Besides being able to dissect, analyse and articulate how the body works, from the skeletal to the smile, communication is key. You have to be able to understand and interpret ideas practically and efficiently to the subject and team all while anticipating what the client wants. If something doesn’t work, having an alternate idea in your back pocket is fundamental.”

MJ Harper

Jamaica-born, Florida-raised, Berlin-based Harper, 33, trained at Miami’s New World School of the Arts before dancing with the Ailey II (the younger sibling of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) and subsequently Company Wayne McGregor (then Random Dance). It was in London that he started collaborating with Wales Bonner and he has gone on to work with Comme Des Garçons, Random Identities and Saint Laurent among others.

How does bringing movement to fashion compare to the theatre stage?
“Everything in this universe is movement. Fashion and theatre are both one and the same. The craft of storytelling; the sense of magic; the mythology rooted in lived experiences of the past, present and projected futures; the factuality and mystery within archaeology — it moves me and brings me great joy to excavate and dive within these worlds.”

What do you think has led to fashion’s heightened sense of motion, so to speak?
“Awareness. I believe we are in an unprecedented time in the history of this planet. As such, there seems to be a shift in the level of sophistication as part of an evolutionary development that is currently unfolding. Movement directors contribute to a neutralisation of space, which promotes and encourages the care, safety and wellbeing of individuals.”

Holly Blakey

Last year—just before the pandemic hit—Blakey premiered the sequel to her 2018 production The Cowpuncher; a critique of the western film genre told through dance, with costumes by Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood. The 33-year-old mother of one is a trained contemporary dancer who counts Dior, Burberry, Gucci and Art School as clients.

Which fashion choreography projects have you enjoyed working on recently?
“I starred in Chopova Lowena’s SS21 campaign, shot by Charlotte Wales, alongside dancers and collaborators Nandi Bhebhe and Becky Namgauds where we played folkloric roller-skating derby women. I also worked on a film with director Stephen Isaac-Wilson for Ahluwalia and loved the process so much—it was a genuine, slow examination of ideas.”

How do you think choreography became such an integral role in the fashion industry?
“Beyond making models feel comfortable, there is another perhaps even richer tonality to access through choreography in image-making. I would never use the term ‘movement director’ to describe myself. I’m a choreographer and I’m looking to pass information through movement. It’s massively different to the theatre; you’re capturing a split-moment, and the goal is to make that moment feel bigger, to make the viewer think beyond it.”

Pat Boguslawski

In 2013, the Polish dancer was cast in an Alexander McQueen show, during a rehearsal he caught the eye of the house’s creative director Sarah Burton and she asked him to teach the other models how to walk. It set the 31-year-old on a new career path as a movement director leading him to create viral moments such as Leon Dame’s now-legendary stomp down the Maison Margiela SS20 runway.

Did you ever anticipate the response Leon Dame’s Maison Margiela finale would provoke?
“Not at all. The day before the show, I worked with Leon to choreograph the walk. I let him explore himself and do something strong with the turn. John [Galliano] obviously has his own ideas, but he really gives me a lot of creative freedom. When we showed him he said, ‘Just go for it!’”

What do you want to achieve through your role as a movement director?
“I watched a lot of Galliano and McQueen shows from the 1990s and early 2000s and they let the models be their own person on the runway. That’s the kind of energy, emotion and action I want to create again. Throughout the 2000s and the 2010s, it became more about the product and less about people, and that frustrated me—everyone moved the same.”

Also read:

How Hermès’ triptych performance for fall/winter 2021 celebrated movement and women

Chloé celebrates natural beauty in a nod to 1960s hippy culture

Who is Nicolas Di Felice? The new man at Courrèges

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