This March, Ezra Petronio turns 50 years old—happy birthday, Ezra!—but next year, he reaches another landmark: the 25th anniversary of Self Service, the magazine he cofounded with stylist and art director Suzanne Koller. Petronio is the fashion industry’s polymath—photographer, editor, publisher, filmmaker, consultant, adviser, tech obsessive. His passion for what he does—everything he does—is evident in all the projects he does, but especially, the magazine. Twice a year it reminds us all why we love fashion, by daring to radically play around with the concept of what a shoot can be, and by providing a zeitgeist-y take on creative endeavor across the board, not just as it pertains to the subject of clothes. So, if you want to know where the industry is going next, ask someone who knows where it has been. And true to form, when we sat down during the Paris couture shows over coffee one morning, it was the future—particularly, the world of augmented reality, including a groundbreaking project with Zara—that was inspiring Petronio to push ever forward.
Before we get to anything else, Ezra, I’d love to know about the newest issue. I’ve already seen on Instagram that it has three covers! Did you shoot them all?
No, one was shot by Zoe Ghertner; it’s her interpretation of a beauty story. The cover of Azzedine [Alaïa] was taken about 10 years ago in his atelier. It was a beautiful, intimate moment. He was so genuinely kind and introverted. There’s something quite beautiful about him; in our changing times, he represented this kind of feminine empowerment and a passion for elegance in fashion. It’s something that is definitely harder and harder to find these days, you know, what with the departure of Phoebe [Philo]. That’s why we wanted to pay homage to him, and to that past, and juxtapose it with the future, with the cover of the Off-White dress. It’s kind of playing off the dualities of paying homage to the past while embracing the future. And with the “beauty” cover, it’s a kind of celebration of our core values, something that’s more authentic and experimental. And we had this artist who . . .
Oh, who’s the artist?
Monique Baumann, who did these beautiful pictures. She’s a very good Swiss artist. She’s like 50 and works in a very old-school manner with Xeroxes. . . . We gave her all the pictures from the issue and she kind of disrupted and played around with everything. She did these beautiful collages. I like the feel, too. It’s heavy. She created these interruptions throughout the magazine. In a fashion story, you have collages by her using some of the images in that story. We want something with a little more texture and layers.
And surprise, too.
Exactly. I like to play with editorial structures. We like to break up the fashion with artist interruptions or to play with different types of paper or to introduce columns by writers, or articles that function as signs of the times. This issue, [stylist] Joe McKenna did this quite touching tribute to Azzedine and wrote a beautiful little note. It was very personal. We published something that our friend Melanie Ward did a long time ago, nearly 30 years ago, with photographer Nigel Shafran, so that’s interesting. And then you counter that with some nice, contemporary things in the conversation. We did a whole thing on sustainability. Self Service is always like that: perpetuating our values and our vision of fashion with a light on tomorrow.
Self Service Spring/Summer 2018
Photo: Ezra Petronio / Courtesy of Self Service
So that’s now. What about next year, Self Service’s 25th anniversary? Is that a shock to the system?
No. I’m not surprised I’m still inspired. We may be in a confusing time, but fashion is still something that keeps us young, keeps us alive. It’s cyclical and it goes up and down and there are always great things. I still think fashion is a very open-minded industry. It’s still a great industry to be part of. It’s a great luxury to be able to gather great people to reflect their views on the business. That’s why we’ve reintroduced writings and interviews.
It’s one of the things I always loved about Self Service. You always got the different perspectives that somehow distilled a moment. We might think in our digital era that only done now, right this minute, can be timely, but I think a biannual magazine can actually be super timely.
It’s funny because it has never felt so relevant. I’m so touched when I hear people collect them or waited for it. . . .
What’s the rarest issue to get?
I would say number two, three, 10 . . .
I’ll see if I have them at home! Anyway, looking forward to next year . . .
We’re doing several events and shows and exhibitions. I was just saying before, I always loved magazines. I started in the early days at Parsons doing typesetting. I was the editor of the Parsons paper. Then I think about what’re doing now, what with augmented reality . . .
Tell me about the last issue, for Fall/Winter, which had this AR feature with the cover. How did that come about?
I believe Self Service is a vehicle for experimentation with photography, typography, and editorial design. Yet we’ve also tried to be the first to develop things digitally, like on the iPad. We like to pioneer out of curiosity, embracing new technologies. They’re tools to vehicle ideas. I’m quite inspired by AR and VR, so we just explored. To be able to give the viewer multiple experiences in an image and to be able to shop the magazine, it gives you a whole new experience. We’re doing this big project with Zara to present their new collection in AR. It requires a lot of technology. It’s a first and it will be made more widely available in six months to a year, but I think we are like a laboratory to be able to experiment with these things first.
Can you tell me more about that project?
I work a lot with Zara and one of the projects I presented them was to do an augmented reality project; they’d seen the issue we’d done. We shot a whole series of their collection looks on models in a specialized studio and we’re going to be creating window displays around the world—all their key stores, about 800 of them. There will be a special app that you’ll be able to download by the window with a dedicated Wi-Fi spot and see an augmented reality experience in the windows—and you’ll be able to shop the look there and then. It’s launching around the world in April and it’s the first time it has ever been done. It’s such a big thing and has been a huge technical challenge because you have to design something that works across hundreds of windows with different formats and different languages.
And how long will it last?
It’ll last for two weeks.
And do they see it as something to do more of going forward?
I think these are all things that are part of a sign of the times. People want to explore. This is a pure experience and then there will be other things. It’s the future. It’s a pioneering thing and it’s also an image thing. They really embraced the challenge and were very gutsy because it’s a very complicated thing to do. They have the resources to do it and they were able to act very fast. That’s what’s good about that.
Self Service Spring/Summer 2018
Photo: Zoe Ghertner / Art Partner
When you’re in the midst of harnessing technology for Self Service, where does that leave print for you?
I think print will always prevail as long as there’s a reason to consume print. There’s an inherent beauty in looking at a larger image on paper than on a small smartphone. I was reading an article in The New York Times about how many hours we spend consuming digital media and that’s definitely a sign of the times. I think it’s the same as looking at a billboard outside or going to a museum; it’s important to have these mediums that require a different type of pace. I would say we’re on a different page from other magazines because it’s a biannual magazine. We’re protected economically because of our commercial stability, so I think print will prevail in a humble way. I think today you have to talk about media as a whole and print is an extension of that. We’ll actually be launching sometime later this year or in 2019 a new travel, lifestyle, and fashion magazine . . .
We talked a little about the biannual aspect of Self Service and timeliness. Do you like that rhythm of publishing?
When we started we had no choice. We started all those years ago with four issues a year and that lasted about a year and a half; to go biannual was pure economics. We decided to go hardcover as a pure statement of embracing that we are biannual and it was all about quality and not trying to pretend to the business and advertisers that we sold however many copies. It’s expensive, because that’s what it costs to produce. It’s a luxury product and we do that a couple times a year. It happened out of necessity. Now it’s become a market, but we created that market. We wanted to try a different business model, which we did, and it has served us well.
You gave people breathing space, too, the opportunity to do 20, 30, 40 pages . . .
I was speaking with Clare Waight Keller the other day and she was telling me what she likes about it is that people can find inspiration in what we do. If you have David Sims, who’s going to shoot 30 pages, he might then develop the ideas in that shoot for commercial projects. Our images will serve on designers’ mood boards, so we have to fight for that. It’s not that easy because we have a lot of pressure, too.
In terms of all of that, what’s easier and harder about doing Self Service now?
There’s nothing really easy about it! [Laughs.] There’s something pleasurable about it, with the years we’ve done, and the respect that has come with that. We feel that from our peers and the new generation. You can feel confident about what you’re doing and that feels very pleasurable to be able to take the risks that you want to take with the freedom and be rewarded for it. You don’t have to prove anything anymore, so that’s easier in a way. What’s difficult, in a way, I would say, is creative uncertainty. There’s this kind of organic chain of events and you don’t know where something will go, but it serves a purpose.
You’ve certainly pioneered. Who are some of the people—actors, stylists, designers, models—you’ve promoted over the years?
We started in the pre-Eurostar days when you had to rush around Paris to find that one store to find . . .
The Eurostar really changed a lot of things, opened Europe up . . .
Absolutely. France was very conservative at the time, even its music industry. We had Daft Punk and French electronic and it was a very important movement that had to find itself elsewhere. I think that was a context that enabled us to react. We started with this French group of people; they weren’t necessarily French, but they were creatives. All that generation of Helmut. We grew up with Hedi. We just did an issue of influencers and that whole generation that was really our family.
You started and then we had that storming of the barricades in Paris from the likes of Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme, Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga . . .
For sure. And we had all these Belgian and Japanese designers in Paris. But also, don’t forget the fashion industry was not as big as it is today. There’s now the money and the investment and the capital. Doing business today in ready-to-wear only is almost impossible for any brand. It was really a different industry that enabled that. What I’m interested in now are the new business models that are going to come up and how are we going to create. We all try to look to those—to made-to-measure, to recycling . . . It’s interesting, really, to hear the concerns of the new fashion designers.
They’re probably more vocal. The curtain has been raised and they see the machinery of the industry much more.
Absolutely. And the pace has changed. Everything is being questioned, which is really quite fascinating. Our role is maintaining this vision of creativity and fashion. To have that hub to produce things that’ll be more relevant than ever while engaging the future, like, for example, AR.
Self Service Spring/Summer 2018
Photo: Ezra Petronio / Courtesy of Self Service
It seems like you aren’t very nostalgic, or is that wrong?
I love the emotionality of it. I always like looking back at things because it provides energy and inspiration to go out and come up with new ideas. There’s this great documentary called Fashion on the ’80s, ’90s . . . Whenever I’m down, I pop the DVD in and it brings tears to my eyes. Nostalgia is how I stimulate myself. It’s not about thinking about the past, but thinking about how you were then and what gave you that energy and motivation to go ahead, which is sometimes difficult. You have to have those moments to fuel yourself.
Something you mentioned earlier is this notion of turning the camera onto the industry itself.
Absolutely. It’s about celebrating the creative process and it’s not only about the frontliners—it’s all the people behind. We did give that kind of exploration, talking about new technology and celebrating that side of the industry and a point of view on how our business was. That has been something we keep on doing. That’s something I’ve always liked to do and that’s why I started taking pictures 15 years ago—the luxury and privilege you have of meeting all these people through the magazine. I was obsessed with Andy Warhol and social documentation: insiders, outsiders, old-school establishment. It’s so wonderful, the creative minds that work. We’ve supported other creatives in other industries besides fashion. We did the writers of Lost because we thought TV was offering a lot of creative platforms. We’ve talked about music producers and film producers. It’s humbling to think there’s a lot of creativity happening outside our fashion industry. I had a big argument with a marine biologist. I asked her how she uses creativity and she got really upset and said, “Everyone uses creativity!”
I think it’s incredible you caught the moment of instantaneous self-styling with your ongoing series of Polaroids of all sorts of people, in and out of the industry. I was looking at the book you did of them the other day and you had everyone!
We conveyed it through print just as social media conveys it today. I remember we did it on another issue where we used this photographer who we were really close to. We said, “Let’s blow it up.” We did a stars and style issue. It was kind of a moment where we felt this backstage glamour. It’s instinct. That was interesting—and it came at the beginning of all the vanity in the world . . .
Do you think we have too much of that now?
Oh, there’s way too much vanity! I mean, that’s just a whole other conversation. We spend seven to eight hours in front of digital devices. I just don’t like stupidity and people who lack humility. That’s what I can be critical about!
Self Service Spring/Summer 2018
Photo: Harley Weir/ Art Partner
You’re someone who has brought a lot of people into the world—stylists, photographers, models. What are you looking for from them now?
What I like from some of the young ones is that naivety—raw, pure talent that you can guide. Then for the more experienced people we work with, we have a certain vision of women and the sense of strength of a woman, whether it’s a young model or an older model, that we like to see. We really believe we should be celebrating strength and style, so in terms of the stylists, we’re a bit more difficult because we want people with a unique sense of style.
Tell me, who are some of the newer people you’ve found?
We’re working with [stylist] Elodie David Touboul. She’s one of those kinds of people who has serenity and a critical eye. That’s a good example of someone with maturity who is hardworking. The people we work with have to be cultured, hardworking, and passionate. That’s the way I was brought up. We worked with Rei Kawakubo and I remember doing her invitation for her show. That attention to detail . . . Miuccia [Prada] is the same. Some people are more instinctive. I think it’s important to be instinctual but also questioning things and challenges. The problem today is that people are too afraid to leave their comfort zone. When you depart from your comfort zone, that’s when you risk making mistakes and create things that have not been done. There’s a lot of that lacking today. Most people come to us to do campaigns of things they’ve already seen. There’s no magic. What interests me are intentions. I encourage my staff to make mistakes. It’s the only way to do things.
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