August 29 2014

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Dennis Freedman: “The Longer I’ve Worked In Fashion, The More I’ve Realized It’s Really Not Just About Clothes”


One year ago, it was announced that Dennis Freedman, the longtime creative director of W, would be leaving the magazine. Freedman didn’t waste any time before embarking on a new chapter of his storied career: In short order, he accepted the role of creative director at a rebooted Barneys New York and revealed that he would be partnering with Damiani on a new book imprint, Freedman Damiani. This month, Freedman Damiani publishes its first title, Philip-Lorca diCorcia: ELEVEN, a retrospective of the photographer’s editorials for W. “I was talking to Philip-Lorca,” Freedman recalls, “and he brought up the idea of doing a book about the work we did together at W, and it happened that I had just made this deal with Damiani. The whole thing was serendipitous.” Freedman goes on to note that his life has been shaped by that kind of luck. “Most of the best things that happened in my career, I never planned or expected,” he says. “But what I’ve learned is that, as long as you’re curious and as long as you’re committed to working with people you care about, the path will create itself.” Here, Freedman talks to about art versus commerce, the value of commitment, and what fashion, at the end of the day, is really all about.

Was launching a book imprint something you knew you wanted to do when you left W?
It wasn’t, no. Damiani approached me, and of course, it struck me as an amazing opportunity. I’ve been really lucky in my career to have been able to work with a lot of people I admire, whose work I believe in, and the imprint is a way of continuing to do that. The idea is, basically, we publish two books a year, and they reflect my tastes and interests. And it’s incredibly gratifying—and fitting—that the very first title is with Philip-Lorca, with whom I had one of the most meaningful collaborations of my career.

How did that collaboration come about?
I was very familiar with his work, after he did this one-man show at MoMA, I was looking at the book from the show, and it struck me that the nature of his work could be applied to fashion, and interesting in the context of a quote-unquote “fashion” shoot. I mean, as a fashion magazine, we could use our tools—fashion, hair, makeup—to define the characters in his pictures. I didn’t want it to be a straight-ahead fashion editorial, and I didn’t want it to be a Philip-Lorca diCorcia work, either; the minute you, as an artist, are incorporating someone else’s objectives into your work, it’s not your art, it’s something else. I wanted to see what that something else could be.

Do you look at these photographs now, and see more fashion, or more art?
I see both. There are credits in those stories, and clothes that were for sale, but that doesn’t mean the photographs don’t have their own validity or integrity. They’re no less interesting because Philip-Lorca had to incorporate other people’s commercial needs, and they have the characteristics of great art, in that you can return to them, they don’t reveal themselves immediately, they require attention. That’s very different than most commercial photography.

Are there other photographers you collaborated with at W whose work you’d like to compile?
Looking back, one of the things I’m most proud of is that with many photographers, we worked together over a very long period of time and we were trying to do something beyond selling clothes. We were really trying to explore ideas—aesthetic, emotional, psychological. One example is the very, very long collaboration with Juergen Teller. Maybe someday that’ll be a book. Juergen’s is, in my opinion, the most revealing body of work about the fashion world at the time they were being made. It was really commentary. The subject of each story was very carefully thought out, to build on the one before. That’s a body of work: The whole is more than the parts. I certainly hope we will publish those stories.

What do you see as your mark on W, over the course of your time there?
That commitment, I think. There are several photographers I could cite—Craig McDean or David Sims or Mario Sorrenti, to name a few—that we committed to over the long term. It wasn’t about the success of one particular story; sometimes, stories didn’t work. But that’s what I’m most proud of, at W, that commitment to building a body of work.

Obviously, you’ve got this position at Barneys New York now—
Which I can’t talk about yet.

Duly noted. But do you ever think about going back to a magazine?
Well, never say never. But, I have to say, the way the publishing world is constituted now, the opportunity to do the kind of work I did at W exists less and less. It’s almost inconceivable that there would be a collaboration with someone like Philip-Lorca diCorcia on that level, on that scale, in the magazine world today. That’s very unfortunate, I think. I mean, the health, the vitality of fashion magazines—whatever form they take—in the end, that comes from doing something compelling and honest and different from what a reader could find anywhere else. If you think about it, a magazine is actually a pretty inefficient way of delivering a product, and so especially now, a magazine has to be more than the means for your audience to see product. You have to give them something else, too.

And I also have to say—it’s a loss on a lot of levels, to take the inspiration out of fashion, and push it in this more and more advertorial direction. Because the people who work in fashion, who create these shoots, they are amazing. Fashion people get a bad rap: After spending 20-something years in the fashion world, there’s no question that the public underestimates, utterly, the brilliant creativity and talent and intelligence of the people who work in this field. The first art issue we did at W, we worked with Richard Tuttle. So, no small talent, he. And he said to me, it was an amazing opportunity to collaborate with people “who can really see.” What a compliment! And I hope, too, that people who look at ELEVEN take a minute and check out the credits, because those photos weren’t just a collaboration between me and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Joe Zee, Camilla Nickerson, Dick Page, countless fashion editors and hair stylists and location scouts…For 11 years, all of these people worked together to create indelible images. It’s the embodiment of what people in our industry can do. The longer you work in fashion, or at least, the longer I’ve worked in fashion, the more I’ve realized it’s really not just about clothes. So why reduce it to that?

Photo: Joe Schildhorn /