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IN CONVERSATION: VOGUE 100, A CENTURY OF STYLE

19.02.16

This month sees the launch of one of 2016’s most anticipated exhibits: Vogue 100, A Century of Style. Designed to mark the publication’s 100th birthday, this curation draws on Vogue's extensive archive to form a showcase of stunning imagery spanning from 1916 to present day. Today, as the style set flocks to London for the launch of Fashion Week, we celebrate the exhibition and the city’s fashion offering outside the shows. We talk to Robin Muir, the curator of the exhibition and previously picture editor at Vogue, about the process behind creating one of the most talked about events in fashion’s calendar. Vogue 100: A Century of Style is sponsored by Leon Max and is now showing at the National Portrait Gallery, London until the 22nd May 2016. Purchase tickets here.

Housed in the National Portrait Gallery, Vogue 100: A Century of Style is a stunning showcase comprised of a multitude of fashion media. As well as the expected prints, mediums such as motion film, slides, vintage film reels, original magazines and snippets of history provide a true insight into the brand and create a presentation that’s hard to drag yourself away from. Expect iconic imagery from the likes of Mario Testino and Irving Penn as well as some never-before revealed shots. Factual anecdotes such as the date of the first colour photo and the effect of WW2 on the economy (and therefore the industry), allow for a lesson in history as well as a visual escape.

Be sure to leave time to wander the magazine archive – there’s an original print from every year of Vogue’s existence displayed to illustrate the art direction and graphic design progression throughout the years.

We sat down with Robin Muir to gain a deeper insight into the exhibition and its importance to the Vogue 100 birthday celebrations. 

 

Vogue 100, A Century Of Style is arguably the most talked about exhibit of 2016 so far. What inspired the idea behind the exhibition?

Well, you’re only 100 once! There hasn’t been a major show of 20th century fashion photography at a London museum since the early 1990s and certainly not one that has been this far-ranging. To couple an exhibit like this with portraiture too hasn’t been done for a while, if at all. I think you could only do this retrospective with VOGUE — it just doesn’t work with other magazines. Of course it’s about quality. I love the fact that Cecil Beaton once thought about titling his fashion memoirs ‘When I Die I Want to go to Vogue’.

I realised as I was researching this concept that all the great names in VOGUE; Man Ray, Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Lee Miller, Blumenfeld, Penn are also the great names of modern photography.

 

How did you go about curating it and choosing the imagery?

It took about five years. You can’t avoid it — you have to sit down and look through every single page of the magazine from 1916 to now. That’s over 1500 issues. And then you do it again. We couldn’t really look at BritVog in isolation, so the research had to include US and Paris Vogue too and then all the satellite British Vogue supplemental magazines like the Vogue Book of Beauty, The Vogue Book of British Exports and so on. It was a golden opportunity to showcase Vogue’s ‘Greatest Hits’ but also to reveal less well known images and many that were taken but never published at the time.

Is there a running theme throughout? 

Only (I hope) that every photograph has integrity. That was the keystone. Nothing got through unless it thoroughly deserved its place. So you might expect, for example, to see a portrait of Winston Churchill, a great British figure if ever there was, but the portraits taken of him in Vogue are not good enough (he was famously irascible to photographers, so no wonder), therefore he is not in the show.

In your opinion, what makes a great fashion photograph / what do you look for?

The above. Integrity, something out of the ordinary, something that transcends its time and place and something that doesn’t look like anything else. Originality, I guess. You know when an image works because it hits you in the chest first and then the head.  You just know when something speaks to you. It’s a very subjective show but I have been studying Vogue and its pictures since 1986 so I think I’m in a  unique position to know what makes up, as the magazine put it in 1942, ‘The Stuff of Vogue’.

 

And similarly, what makes a great exhibition? 

A great collaborator! The National Portrait Gallery is the only logical place we could really have done this. And collaborators in the form of our current photographers who were pliant and agreeable. Everyone has been committed to the exhibition — it is very touching.

 

What does Vogue mean to you?

A lot. Everything. It has given me a 30 year education in photography and I’m hugely grateful for that.

 

How do you think the magazine has evolved over the years?

It has not evolved as such. Obviously there are differences in tastes and design over the years but essentially it has remained true to its original promise to reflect the world as seen through the prism of the magazine and to bring the best of all worlds to the reader with a generosity of spirit and with an expert eye. It has been true to that notion since 1916.

How much of the curation was about the story behind the image and how much was to do with the aesthetics? 

It’s all to do with aesthetics, as I said before each photograph had to work first and foremost as a photograph. It had to look and feel ‘right’. The story comes later. Of course there were some very well-known shots that I knew we just had to have; Horst’s famous corset picture for one, Twiggy riding her electric motorbike, Helmut Newton’s homage to the crop-spraying light aircraft from North by North West.

Do you have a personal favourite shot? 

So many photographs say such different things to me, but I love hugely Clifford Coffin’s portrait of Lucian Freud from 1948 with his sparrow hawk. It’s a very sensitive portrait of a young man with very little but a naval sweater a paintbrush and a bird as a friend but who is clearly on the road to greatness.

How do you think the photographs capture popular culture at the time? Is there a particularly good example of this within the exhibit?

The point of Vogue and its photographs is to capture the moment, so they all do, I guess.

 

In your time contributing to Vogue, have you been on any of these shoots and if so who was in the team and what were they like to work with? 

No I haven’t been to many. I did a lot with Lord Snowdon and he is quick, often with a pre-conceived view born out of research as to how he wants the picture to look, but he is never afraid to change it on a whim or as the day unfolds. Sometimes a great picture is the result of a happy accident.

 

Which photographers / stylist would you bookmark as one to watch out for in the future?

Look out for Jamie Hawkesworth. His is a tremendous talent. I think Alasdair McLellan, who is very established now will go from strength to strength.