Fashion can often be misunderstood, trivialised or reduced to aesthetics alone. What is often overlooked is its power to address complex questions of representation, politics and other concerns beyond the sartorial. Writer, Curator and Broadcaster Lou Stoppard has spent her career giving us a new vocabulary to decode this world. She pushes beneath the surface to reveal how it manifests within a broader social and cultural context, unpicking nuances, visual codes and motifs revealing an exciting new interpretation of the medium across print, digital and physical spaces.
Where you grew up and how did it inform your creative work?
I grew up in a tiny town between Bedford and Luton. I think a lot of people who aren’t from a cultural capital associate with that feeling of this imagined sense of what the creative world will be like. It seems like it’s a very long way from where you are, and it forces you to be quite ambitious and to dream big.
I don’t come from a creative family, but I loved magazines, and I loved fashion photography. From the age of 13, my mum would buy me Vogue, I just loved the photographs, and that was my introduction to fashion. I went on to study History at Oxford. I pondered a conventional career route before quickly realising it wasn’t for me and I went on to do a Masters in Fashion Journalism at Central St Martins. While I was there, I started interning at SHOWstudio. Nick Knight saw something in me and has this incredible ability to foster and develop talent. He ended up giving me a job there, which was quite a senior role for a 21-year-old. It was a huge amount of responsibility, but great.
Did you ever consider becoming an image-maker?
No, what I liked about magazines was the storytelling; the images would suggest certain cultural or social topics, and that is what I found that really fascinating. It was never just about the flat image; it was about all the nuances and suggestions within them. I’d always loved writing, so the journalistic side suited me. Working alongside Nick, who is very collaborative built my confidence working with visuals.
Your role as Editor of SHOWstudio was incredibly diverse; what were some of the highlights?
We worked thematically, so my role was coming up with project ideas, one I loved was around the concept of deliberate ugliness. I would also do a lot of commissioning for films, sound work, or writing. I also did a lot of broadcasting. I got to interview some amazing people while I was there and we worked in a long-form way, so would broadcast live for an hour. I felt very privileged to interview photographers and designers because these are people that don’t choose to express themselves through words or comment
The best part of the role was how collaborative it was. We worked with so many incredible people across the industry from museum directors, curators, archivists, academics who have this amazing fashion knowledge.
In Fashion was such a pioneering live interview series on SHOWstudio, can you tell us about the creative process behind it?
Nick masterminded that interview series. It looks quite unusual if you watch an uncut version of them because I’m sat next to the person and it looks a bit like Blind Date. The reason we do it like that is because the camera’s behind a two-way mirror, so when you watch a final edit the subject is talking directly to the camera in this really intimate way. You can’t get that effect if you just put a camera in front of someone, and say, “Look at the camera,” as they’ll always glance off.
It’s also really exciting to think about the interview as a kind of a creative opportunity; Nick taught me that. Those interviews are very revealing. Not just for what people say, but also you get a sense of their physicality and their habits and their movements, particular tics of how they position their body.
We also had a series In Camera, which is some of the high profile celebrities. I interviewed Kanye West, Travis Scott, ASAP Rocky. I loved interviewing Glen Luchford; he’s one of my favourite photographers. I also loved interviewing David Sims, he’s not someone who gives a lot of interviews, but he’s such an influential image maker, so it was nice to be trusted to conduct that interview. I quite like the one with Jefferson Hack, because it’s a little bit, sort of, combative, which is quite fun.
Those high profile live interviews must come with a lot of pressure, but you never avoided from sensitive or challenging questions. How did you feel going into them?
I always felt like it was a one-time opportunity so it would be wasted if I didn’t go for it. It’s definitely scary, because you think you don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, and you don’t want a car crash moment. But then at the same time, sometimes awkwardness is revealing like if someone doesn’t want to answer something, or they seem a bit awkward about something, you can get a lot from them in that.
I always thought that a good interview is when you get something new from someone. That can be anything; it can be a new story, it could be they reveal something about themselves that they haven’t said before, or it could be a new way of seeing that person like you get a sense that they’re quite shy nervous, and then they hate criticism.
You’re not a typical fashion journalist. You focus on the social context of the work, rather than just the garments. Is that quite a liberating space to occupy?
Yeah, it is. There are plenty of people who are so great at writing pieces about what to buy and how to shop, new trends on how you can wear that – I’m not good at that, and I wouldn’t be able to write about that with any degree of passion or excitement. I’m interested in exploring fashion from a critical standpoint and contextualising it within a broader social or cultural setting and understanding all the things that feed into that. I’ve actively tried to avoid that pressure that I think a lot of young women face who enter the fashion industry, which involves their body or looks within their work. That pressure came from the explosion of blogging and social media. While I think that plays a role within the industry, I avoid crossing that into my work. I’m quite nerdy, and I’m happiest when I’m doing behind the scenes work.
How do you feel about the fashion industry, it’s a complicated space, which is both democratic and elitist at the same time. How do you deal with that hierarchy?
It’s a tricky industry. There are moments where I find it hard and I’m like: why am I doing it? Why am I working in something that is so tied to capitalism, to hierarchies and notions of the establishment? And sometimes the price of these garments and the excess does make you feel uncomfortable, particularly when you think about how much we all need to consume less.
What I find funny about fashion is that it’s all about change and the new, but it’s such a conservative industry, there’s very little meaningful change. You get these cycles and habits of thinking that just go on and on and on. I think fashion’s starting to be quite an interesting space because these hierarchies of old don’t work any more and people are starting to question them. People who had authority within the industry for ages are toppling slightly, because potentially they haven’t promoted the best values, or they haven’t operated in the most ethical ways, and I think you are starting to see a bit of questioning of that, which is interesting to watch.
Curation has become a big part of your work since going freelance. What do you enjoy about it and how did the North Exhibition come about?
The thing I love about curating is that it marries those two things, there’s a lot of writing in research, but there is a very visual aspect too. Exhibitions are like storytelling; you’re controlling how someone moves through a space and how they face feel at certain points. I feel that’s similar to writing. I often think about pacing when I’m writing, building in crescendos and calm points.
The North Exhibition came about through a collaboration with Adam Murray, who co-curated the show. We were talking about how there’d been this glut of editorials that were paying homage to the north, and sometimes in quite nuanced beautiful ways, other times almost quite problematic ways, and we found that quite interesting. The show wasn’t a typical fashion exhibition; the majority of the objects were documentary photographs.
We worked with Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, and the show ended up touring, coming to Somerset House in London, and later this year it’s going to Barnsley Civic.
Your work also manifests in book form. Your first book Fashion Together explored collaboration within the fashion Industry. What was the most interesting discovery you made while working on the project?
I think the thing that I liked about that was realising how diverse collaboration is. It’s become such a buzz word, and I was interested in looking at it in a meaningful way exploring how these relationships work. Many of the relationships were long, so they had a sizeable impact on peoples careers, and I was fascinated by how different everyone’s relationships were.
In some cases one person plays much more of a cheerleading role like they’re supporting that other person within that relationship, they’re helping motivate them, they’re helping validate them. Other times it’s the complete opposite like the relationship is built on challenging, really pushing in quite an intense and sometimes difficult way. Sometimes there’s a clear balance of power, and in others, one person leads, and the other plays a more supportive role. Some of the pairs within the book almost operate as one, so they do everything together. Others’ benefit of the collaboration is kind of a time-saving thing, where it means that there are two minds, two sets of hands, you know, two bodies, you can get more done. That was fascinating to see.
I was curious who your heroes are? What writers and artists do you love that you surround yourself with?
Oh, so hard! There are a lot of people whose work I admire. I really like people who manage to have an undefined career, who move between different mediums. Ali Smith is a really good example of someone who’s a very successful novelist, but then also has this amazing background within the arts. In terms of curating I really like the exhibitions that Judith Clark makes, I think she’s brilliant and does really interesting projects. I love writers like Sam Knight is one of my favourite writers; I love the work that he does at the New Yorker. His profile of Ronnie O’Sullivan, the snooker player, is my favourite piece of journalism of all time.
I also think it’s really important to support your peers, that’s something that I’ve been very lucky with that, that I have supportive friends within similar fields to me, and we’re good at bouncing ideas off each other.