Creative collaborations: Karen Walker and Berenice Abbott

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Fashion designer Karen Walker in a portrait photograph in the same style as her new Magnetic Collection.

Fashion designer Karen Walker in a portrait photograph in the same style as her new Magnetic Collection. Image: Mark and Deborah Smith

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<i>Hands of Jean Cocteau</i>, 1927. Karen Walker bought this photograph - her favourite of Abbott's work - during a trip to New York City earlier this year.

Hands of Jean Cocteau, 1927. Karen Walker bought this photograph - her favourite of Abbott’s work - during a trip to New York City earlier this year. Image: Berenice Abbott

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Von Chunn for the Karen Walker Magnetic Collection.

Von Chunn for the Karen Walker Magnetic Collection. Image: Mark and Deborah Smith

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Valentina Gherman for the Karen Walker Magnetic Collection.

Valentina Gherman for the Karen Walker Magnetic Collection. Image: Mark and Deborah Smith

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Athletic siblings Mollie and Jemma James for the Karen Walker Magnetic Collection.

Athletic siblings Mollie and Jemma James for the Karen Walker Magnetic Collection. Image: Mark and Deborah Smith

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Sisters Hart and Vita Reynolds for the Karen Walker Magnetic Collection.

Sisters Hart and Vita Reynolds for the Karen Walker Magnetic Collection. Image: Mark and Deborah Smith

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Sophie Wolanski of Muck Floral for the Karen Walker Magnetic Collection.

Sophie Wolanski of Muck Floral for the Karen Walker Magnetic Collection. Image: Mark and Deborah Smith

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Local fashion designer Karen Walker has been inspired by United States’ photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) for her new summer collection. Here, Walker talks to Federico Monsalve about the inspiration for the clothes and the photographs by Mark and Deborah Smith commissioned to accompany the collection.

What is it about Berenice Abbott that interested you?

We were attracted to her personal style – a mix of no-fuss utility with a good amount of joie de vivre. We also loved that her style remained true for decades. She wasn’t pushed around by fashion; she had an intrinsic style of her own that remained true throughout her life. 

Do you remember the first time you engaged with one of her photos? Which one was it and what was your reaction/why did you like it?

I first saw her image of Hands of Jean Cocteau a couple of years ago and instantly fell in love. It was a new way into portraiture – portraiture of the hands rather than the face, especially of hands that really make something, seemed so new. 

I understand you now own one of her pieces? Tell us about it and what attracted you to it?

Yes, Mikhail and I bought Berenice Abbott’s Hands of Jean Cocteau for Valentine’s Day 2016. We were in New York City at the time, showing at fashion week our latest collection which is inspired by her look. It seemed only fitting to purchase this shot which is one of my favourites of hers.

The photo shoot of this collection (by photographers Mark and Deborah Smith) seems like a very interesting undertaking… tell us a bit about it.

We’ve worked with, and been friends with, Mark and Deborah for decades and when we thought about how to capture our interpretation of Berenice Abbott’s style in campaign imagery there was no one else we considered working with for a moment.  

We loved their ideas of shooting on large format, shooting only a few frames per set up and shooting on real people. For this project, we really wanted to get away from the sort of shoot where there are 10 people crowded around a monitor. It was important for us that it was intimate, slow, meticulous and considered. 

Five frames per model… what do you think a fashion shoot gains from such a process? 

This was all about self-constraint and slowing down how the work’s considered as it’s being created. It’s anti the shoot-the-shit-out-of-it technique that’s so normal today – so the five pieces of film per set up was integral to the idea.  

This is the first time we’ve shot on film since digital happened and the first time we’ve ever worked in this large format of film. It just fitted so well with the inspiration for the range and it was wonderful to slow everything down and be very considered with every frame.

You refer to this process (as “anti-digital” and a “response to the digital narcissism of late”. How do you prevent the style of the shoot and garments from becoming too nostalgic or too ‘things were better back then’?

This was never going to look nostalgic – this is a response and homage, not a costume drama. It’s always going to look ‘now’ because it’s created now. The subject matter, the clothing and the people are modern and current. This isn’t a cry for the good old days and trying to recreate a period. Modern people, modern clothes and a modern eye keep it from being that – regardless of the format or inspiration. 

Can’t help thinking of Susan Sontag, another strong, New York female figure who engaged with photography quite a bit. Are there any other threads of inspiration you think might have affected your designs and this shoot?

Our ideas are usually pretty single-minded, so, no, Ms Sontag didn’t come into it. However, our work’s always inspired by strong, interesting, talented people, so, I guess she’s not out-of-place in our world. 

Tell us about the eight women used for these shots. Who are they, how did you come across them and why them in particular?

Our subjects were chosen in homage to the proto-feminist spirit of Berenice Abbott. Independent, intelligent and strong-willed women we admire for the way they live, as well as the way they dress. Some I’d met once or twice, but with most it was my first time meeting them. However, they do all have a very close relationship with our collaborators on this project – Deborah and Mark Smith. 

Last but not least, how does all this translate into garments? How can we see Abbott’s ‘spirit’ in this collection?

Berenice’s style was utilitarian with an air of androgynous chic. That’s what we set out to capture in this collection and, in fact, all our collections. 


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