Jim Moore of GQ
Jim Moore opens his 375-page door stopper of a book, Hunks & Heroes: Four Decades of Fashion at GQ, with a weird publishing flex: The foreword is a Q&A between himself and his friend Kanye West. The two of them discuss the pain of nostalgia, narrowing a photographic vision through the editorial process, and the evolving definition of the suit, a definition that Moore was responsible for constructing and deconstructing during his extraordinary run at the top of the planet’s most influential men’s magazine. Kanye closes the convo by pointing out the raw power that Moore wielded in the fashion world. “What you do is about joy, pure joy,” Kanye says. “It’s an anointing ability that you have.”
It’s somewhat incredible to me that a legit fashion archdruid like Moore came from the decidedly de-swanked northern suburbs of St. Paul. He graduated from Kellogg High in Roseville, before leaving for New York in 1977. Even after landing at GQ in 1980, he would come home to visit his mother when she was living in White Bear Lake. Before we met for drinks at Marvel Bar—Eric Dayton would be feting him at a dinner upstairs at Bachelor Farmer later on—Moore actually met another north suburban legend, the polar explorer Will Steger, who grew up in Mahtomedi. The two of them met at Askov Finlayson and critiqued Dayton’s yet-to-be-unveiled new parka, and ended up sharing tales of their adventures near the Arctic Circle. One of Moore’s first big photo shoots took place hopping ice floes near Pangnirtung on Canada’s Baffin Island, not far from where Steger began his trek to the North Pole.
Moore came into the bar dressed in his signature head-to-toe black and folded his tall, lanky frame into a back booth, before rising to complain about the forced air ventilation directed at the top of his head. Over our hour-long conversation, I feel lucky that I got to see Moore in art director mode—we changed tables three times for reasons of either vibe or volume. He wasn’t stingy about sharing great stories about working with giants—photographers like Bruce Weber and Richard Avedon, or editors like Art Cooper and Jim Nelson. He told me an outrageous story about Avedon kicking David Letterman out of his studio for chewing gum in the early ’80s. But we delved into even more uncomfortable territory than talk show hosts with bad manners: I had some questions about a 2013 photoshoot of Kendrick Lamar for a GQ cover story I wrote that impacted my own career in publishing. And I felt compelled to ask about the book’s inclusion of images composed by artists, like Weber, who have been confronted by the #MeToo movement. Moore answered every question I asked, and I think we would’ve spoken at even greater length if his brother-in-law hadn’t been forced to remind us that the guest of honor was needed upstairs immediately.
You were taught by Denis Piel, the French fashion photographer for Vogue, that fashion should be cinematic.
He was a Vogue photographer that I was obsessed with, because I loved the pictures that he did. There was one particular story that he did in the early 80s for American Vogue. And he took over the entire December issue. And they often did that: gave it to one photographer. He did this story in Gstaad in the Black Forest. It was a picture of a girl in a mink coat standing in front of a Mercedes Benz in the Black Forest. It just gave me chills because it was so… Even in Minnesota, I was always attracted to things that were chic and glamorous. It was the disco era and we would go to Uncle Sam’s, which became First Avenue. Wednesday nights eventually turned into Prince Night. But it wasn’t our favorite night, because we liked the Disco Night.
What year was that?
’74? ‘75? We would be there on a Monday, Tuesday. We would be there every night. I’m not afraid to admit that I was a disco kid. Everyone’s like “disco sucks!” Disco, to me, in a way that was one of the things that pulled on my heart-strings and actually pulled me to New York. Because I always wanted to be in a much more glamorous environment. And fashion was the fantasy that I always loved.
Lori Barbero told me before she was the drummer for Babes in Toyland, she would compete in the disco dancing contests at Sam’s. Did you ever try?
No, definitely didn’t try. But for me and the friends, just being on the dance floor and listening to the songs, and getting kind of lost in it, and dressing up a little bit, and not being afraid to present ourselves in a little bit of a posh way, where maybe that’s something I couldn’t do when I was in school because I would be snickered at. So that was kind of always coming to the surface, this whole idea that I wanted to look chic, or to kind of embrace you know, something that this place wasn’t. It’s strange, right?
You mention a few painters in the book, John Currin and David Hockney—work that was inspiring to you. You went to Kellogg High, and talking to my EIC who also went to Kellogg, she said that back in the day, that school had this almost magical art department.
You mentioned in your talk at the Walker last night, even though fashion magazines were your first love, you were diverted into this art program at Kellogg. So how important was it to your development?
I found this box not too long ago after my mother died. She had saved all my report cards. Do you remember report cards? So there were these comments on mine: “Shows tremendous creative potential.” “Thinks outside the box.” But then it was always like “introverted.” And my papers or anything that I submitted was kind of like, not as up to par as if it was a more creative assignment. So everything was kind of like “C” in everything else in life, but “A+” in creative and artistic, whatever that is.
So it gave you a territory.
It gave me a territory and it gave me a place to escape. Because I didn’t like gym class. I didn’t like any of that. So I would go to the art department and the teachers would embrace me, because they saw potential in me. And if they were trying to sway me into a certain kind of, whether it be hard edge painting, or air brush, or whatever we were working on, I was fascinated by it. I was just really super spongey, and would kind of turn out these big paintings quite rapidly. And they were like, “you’re gonna be a great fine artist.” And I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to be a fine artist, but I’m certainly enjoying the encouragement I’m getting here. I didn’t love school. It didn’t interest me that much. And it’s interesting because my partner is somebody who could go to school for the rest of his life. And I was someone who couldn’t wait to get out of school. Especially high school.
What does your partner do?
He works at Facebook/Instagram. He’s a creative director. He’s equal parts left and right brain, so he’s hyper creative but he loves being analytical. So he’s really good in like high profile business meetings, but he’s super creative. I’m kind of only creative.
Only a few years after you’re painting at Kellogg High, you’re living in New York City, working at GQ, and living six blocks away from Avedon. I don’t know if you studied him at Kellogg but by that time, in the late ’70s, he’s recognized as a giant of American photography, and you’re dealing with him personally.
I’m on the front lines! I get into GQ and things are starting to happen there. Bruce Weber is still there. We’re doing the lifestyle photography thing, but you’re always wishing that it could be a little bit more print-y, a little bit more magazine-y. And it
wasn’t until a couple years into it, that Art Cooper came on board, kind of got rid of that whole old guard. Everybody was all freaked out, and I was like, “no, this is cool!” We’re gonna be a big time magazine. He’s going to put celebrities on the cover, and even though we were like, “I can’t imagine a celebrity outselling a model.” (Can you imagine, those days?) And then the first cover was Joe Theisman, which I did, and it wasn’t Avedon, but it sold well, and after that was Michael Caine with Avedon, and it was 3 years of Avedon.
How many covers did you do with him?
We did 42 covers, and I was probably on set for 30 of them. We kinda like divide and conquered in those days. There was another fashion editor, but if you got along with a photographer you kind of stayed in that lane.
So he was your guy?
He was my guy, but the thing with Avedon, I cherished working for him, I’ve never been star struck with a celebrity in my life, but with photographers—I’m a photographers guy. And I will nurture you and give you a short leash or a long leash, whatever I think you should have in order for you to get the pictures. But I have the utmost respect for photographers. So it was wonderful. But I was on my third sitting with Dick, and I said to Bill, who was the studio manager, “I don’t think I’ve broken through to him. The sittings are very quick, and I know he’s very quick, but I don’t feel that I have a rapport with him. And this is my third cover.”
And I think we were finishing this second, and he’s like, “when you come back, sit on the edge of the chesterfield sofa, and he’ll come to you like a fly to fly paper”
And I was like, what are you talking about? And I realized because he was a man of short height, he didn’t like tall people. He didn’t like the fact that he had to look up. He had a Napoleon complex, and he was not happy about this (cranes his neck). I was a kind of junior to him. So I was very uneasy about it, but I sat on the edge of this chesterfield sofa, and I’m sitting on the edge and there’s this giant picture of Dovima and the elephants, kind of looming above me.
And he comes downstairs, he lived upstairs, and he wouldn’t give a lot of time between coming down and looking at the clothes and everything. He was working on his book, .
He had a contract with Condé Nast, where he was doing Vogue, GQ, Self and Mademoiselle at the time. And we were kind of a thorn in his side. He just wanted to be out [in the west] with Laura Wilson. But he had to fulfill his contract, so he came back and would do all these magazines in one day. So he would be with me shooting Michael Jordan, and two hours later it would be working with Brooke Shields on Mademoiselle, and then he’d be off to New Mexico again, or wherever he was going.
So I’m sitting on the edge of the couch, and he came right over to me, and that’s when the relationship really started. And it’s not to say there weren’t days when he was grumpy and would run back upstairs after he was done. But if you got him in a good mood, he would tell you about the sitting with Marilyn Monroe, take you upstairs, bring up the big prints. He loved to tell his tales. And he loved to be the grand photographer.
And I certainly enabled him to be. To the point, where he trusted me so much, I was the first person he showed the Obsession TV commercials to, that he did with Calvin Klein. I don’t know if you remember them. The stairs and the slamming of the doors and all that stuff. I was like sitting on an apple box, and the studio had kind of this garage door that you would close. And he would hit the VCR or whatever it was in those days, and Dick would be sitting on an apple box next to me. I can almost hear him breathing. And I would watch like four of these commercials and the whole time I’d be like, “What am I going to say?” They’re kind of masterful but they’re kind of indescribable too. So the lights come on and he’s like, “What did you think?” And he only wanted to hear praise. So I would give him praise and some constructive criticism.
I remember shooting Woody Allen with him once, and he had the prototype for In The American West, and it was all done in printouts and all taped together. And this was before Woody Allen ever left New York City to do a movie. There was a time when he never left Manhattan. So he was sitting there and Dick was trying to get him to get excited about the pictures, and Woody Allen was like, [pretty funny Woody Allen impression] “Where did you find this person?” And [increasingly anxious Woody Allen voice] “What were you doing in that town?” And “What is New Mexico like?” and “Was there any food to eat?”
It was like he had gone to Mars or something. And I was on one side, and Dick was on the other side, and Woody Allen was looking at this book, and I’m like, I have to remember this. I have to take this in and remember it.
I know you don’t like talking about bad behavior, but my creative director Mike Norseng, who worked with you at GQ, told me this legendary story about Letterman chewing gum in Avedon’s studio and Avedon asking him to leave.
I was put in a very difficult position. You know, Avedon was like, “Hey, David, I just need you to just spit out that gum.” The assistant brought over a paper cup. And David’s like, “What’s the big deal? It’s just some gum.” It was a train wreck. Dick would just very nervously, “well, um, actually,” and he even offered to put it in his own hand. And Dave’s like, “With all due respect, you can’t even see it. It’s like the models when they hide it under their tongue. It’s under my tongue—you’re not going to see it.” And Dick is just scratching his head, and looking at me, and then he goes up to David Letterman and shook his hand and is like, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this.” And he walks out the door and he leaves. All I can think about is now I have to call Art Cooper and say we didn’t get the cover. And David Letterman is doing that laugh he does and is like, “it’s a joke, right? He’s gonna come back right?” And I’m like, “you’re donnneee. It’s over. This is like, not happening.”
Oh my God.
Yeah, and then we had to get this cover. Alexander Liberman had to call Dick and say, “you have to do this cover. It’s an important cover for GQ. We’re under deadline, you have to honor your contract.” So I was there for the re-shoot, and there was no conversation between the two of them. Dick usually took six to seven 8×10 plates, and I think he took 3 and that was it.
How was the cover?
It was okay. It was a little animated.
Robin Williams GQ Cover
There’s a gatefold in the book that shows you half of the covers I’ve done. There’s 250 and I did about 500. I wanted people to see the evolution of the covers. And I think the Letterman one is in there. With Avedon, there was always some sort of gesture. Pulling a pocket square out. Or Robin Williams with the banana.
They’re quite corny as covers. They became dated very quickly. At a moment when Anna Wintour took over Vogue and she decided that she wanted the covers to be on location, she didn’t need Dick, and she kind of convinced the others. My editor in chief was kinda like, “I’m kind of ready to move on. This guy is becoming difficult.” And everybody kind of bowed out of his contract. But Condé Nast kept the contract so Hearst couldn’t have him. And eventually he started taking pictures for Tina Brown in the New Yorker.
I wanted to talk about the onset of the celebrity age. You said in the book that in 1983 Art Cooper came in with a mandate to transition to celebrities on the cover. You write about the aspirational aspect that a celebrity gives you. But even going off the Letterman story—celebrities have personality. They talk back and they aren’t as malleable as a model. So what did celebrities give you to justify that bargain?
Art came in and he said I want to make this a general interest magazine. I never liked that category, but it’s funny, at the ASME’s, we’re always in the general interest category. A little bit of everything, right?
You’re one of the big boys.
So GQ was this coffee table magazine that’s really great to look at. It’s really kind of outrageous in the ’70s. And then Bruce Weber gets ahold of it with [art director] Donald Sterzin in the late ’70s, early ’80s, and it’s “the new masculinity” but it’s niche. It’s mostly for gay guys, it’s a coffee table magazine, and you know, Condé Nast bought it and was fine with the way it was, but saw the potential to appeal to a broader audience and all types of men. So Art really felt like this would give the magazine some gravitas and some cred and some heat.
That it would be more central to the culture?
And by shooting the godfathers of the culture, it would give GQ a presence on the newsstand. And at that point, Esquire is waning a little bit. It tipped the scales to have Art Cooper as editor in chief, because suddenly it’s the only game in town.
Because Esquire dominated the ’60s with Baldwin, Mailer, Terry Southern. They were literary heavyweights.
Art was the lover the 5 to 10,000 word piece by a celebrity writer or an award winning writer. So he wanted the magazine to be rich and full. If anything, his time was over, because he was a product of the martini and cigar culture, and it was time to modernize that. But he brought a lot to the magazine.
What did the celebrity do for fashion? Rei Kawakubo was an early adopter of putting celebrities and artists, known figures, in her advertisements for Comme des Garçons. So what did celebrities do for the clothes?
That was happening around the same time. A young John Malkovich was in the Comme de Garçons show.
She was using all these characters. Steve Buscemi types. Character looking guys. And guys who walked the runway and looked at the audience. Wandering eccentrics. That kind of changed it all. And GQ was using celebrities. We were a little slicker. GQ was brash and modern and colorful. A lot of people look at the book and go, “it’s so joyful!” Well that’s what GQ was! That’s what GQ is! It’s a celebration of manhood. It’s not a magazine that’s ever going to send just anyone to take a picture of anyone. It’s very–hopefully it’s very thoughtful, hopefully there’s a surprise every month.
The 80s weren’t the age of celebrities on the cover, but it was the beginning of celebrities on the masthead. Graydon [Carter], Anna [Wintour], Tina [Brown], Art [Cooper], just like heavyweights. Fucking stars.
When people said “Jim at GQ” you knew exactly what you were talking about, until there were two Jims at GQ and it got a little confusing. But Condé Nast in the ’80s and ’90s was a golden era for magazines.
Well it was so special. I think what you had is that you had Si Newhouse, who owned the company, and [Condé Nast editorial director] Alexander Liberman, who at least for the beginning of the ’80s was large and in charge and had been for 20, 30 years. And Si really saw Condé Nast as his top shelf trophies and he treated us as such. Alexander Liberman once said, “Waste is creativity.”
I’m jealous of that.
Well you know, I don’t think GQ was that kind of a magazine. But Vogue would do reshoot after reshoot after reshoot in those days. And this was even before Anna got there. I probably had done 3 reshoots in my entire life, because I was taught to get it right the first time. But Si was very proud of his editor in chiefs. They were his collector’s cars. And he showed them off to the world. And he got awards. They were spoiled rotten. And given big expense accounts, and cars and all that stuff. Listen, the magazine business is not over, but I think advertising going south as quickly as it did hit Condé Nast a little hard, because we were kind of the fat cats. But thank god! Because it allowed us to establish ourselves at a certain level. So even though we’ve had to struggle, as everyone has, with budgets and recessions and magazine sales being be awful, we’ve been able to find our way in the new digital age. The titles are strong, and the brands are strong, because of those kingpins of the industry. And some of them are still there.
In the 80s, you weren’t immune to some of these market forces. There came a turning point in the 80s when location shooting wasn’t as important and there was a shift to minimalism. That wasn’t completely market driven.
It was a choice.
But you were aware of change under your feet back then.
Yeah. You know, Dmitri Levas, who designed the book, he said, “When I started this project, I didn’t quite know what your style was. I knew what GQ was, but it was a jumble for me, because you worked with so many different photographers. But when I started going through it, it actually became this really clear line. You are someone who is a bit anti-retro. You aren’t someone who looks to the past. You look to the future.” Art was very nostalgic. He wanted to interpret a Cary Grant movie as a fashion story. I was the one who was always like, let’s do Cary Grant but let’s make it at least look timeless, if not modern. So when you look through the book, hopefully that’s what you see.
So when we hit the ’90s, and Helmut Lang—who I think is the most influential designer of all time—started to design, that kind of disrupted everybody. And you can’t not acknowledge Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani, because they completely changed the way we dress. But then you had these new players. Specifically Helmut Lang and Tom Ford. And one was doing ultra-sexy, lush, posh—things you would’ve worn at Uncle Sam’s in the ’70s. There’s a very important picture in the book when you see the guy sitting in the orange cube with the khaki suit, because it’s the first time a khaki suit didn’t look blue blood and preppy. Suddenly a khaki suit comes out on the runway and it’s made of wool and it’s shown with an olive shirt underneath, and beautiful shoes, and it’s stripped of its pedigree. It’s no longer a madras tie and a white button down shirt and a webbed belt and a pair of loafers. Suddenly the khaki suit is: “Who the hell did this? And why am I fainting over these clothes? And why are the simple clothes making the biggest statements right now?”
One thing that leapt out of me, as you get deeper into the book, you see Peggy Sirota’s images over and over and over again. And you realize in my 25 years of reading this magazine, she has come to define a look in the same way that Annie Leibovitz did at Vanity Fair. Her relentless cheerfulness. There’s an artist right now, Lizzo, who is scoring all these commercials because that effervescent mood sells.
Peggy is the one who weathered the storm. Because when Jim Nelson came in [as editor in chief in 2003] he got rid of everybody. He could’ve gotten rid of me, you know? I had to sing for my supper. He came back to the fashion department and was like, what goes on back here? I don’t know anything about fashion. So he spent six months with us everyday trying to figure it all out.
Jim was there under Art though, right?
For six years. But it’s like, [Jim] never came close to even walking into the fashion department. Because he was Art’s right hand man on the literary side of the magazine. He’s the one who would go off on these big, sweeping, epic stories. And he had all this independence. And suddenly the worst dressed person on staff becomes the editor in chief of the most stylish magazine on the planet for men. So it was very interesting, that whole dynamic. And he kept Peggy.
And I talked a little bit about it in the lecture last night. She can disarm athletes and actors and personalities and find that moment. She’s not afraid, she can squeeze water out of a stone for sure with people, but she’s not afraid of the pushback. Some publicists are like, “oh no, Peggy Sirota. Is he going to have dance and do all these crazy things?” But it’s actually not that as much as it’s her wanting to get to the purest moment with someone. That picture of The Rock—Dwayne—on the tour bus is pure joy.
But the joy isn’t corny. It’s an inner child thing. But it’s still a fashion picture. And it’s not corny, but it’s funny. There’s a very famous picture of Vince Vaughn. He’s sitting in a diner and he’s having a conversation with a monkey, and Peggy took that picture, and it’s dry but it’s funny. And that’s what Peggy and I were able to create together.
I enjoy the process of working with photographers. Because really, really great photographers want you to give them the idea, and then they’ll run with it. You know, Peggy is like, “I’m nothing without you.” And I’m nothing without her. They want direction. They want me to say, let’s do a grey suit story, but let’s get a rain machine. And she’ll take it one step further, and be like let’s get the rain machine, but then let’s get them to dance on top of cars. And then the whole thing turns into a bigger kettle of soup.
Kanye West, who sort of wrote the foreword to your book, was a fashion icon from the get. For the polo shirt and the preppy College Dropout look. But he faced great resistance from the elite fashion establishment. You were the first one to give him an exclusive with Yeezy Season 1. You have championed him from the beginning. When did you become aware of his struggles to make inroads into the fashion world?
Well if you’ve followed him at all you remember his frustration with some of the big brands. Nike and Louis Vuitton. And he’s been very public about his frustration. And sometimes he turns his struggle into his art form.
I’m from Minnesota. I’m a tourist. I’m insanely observant. I’m probably a little bit ADD. But there’s something about the truth that he speaks. The honesty. And people kind of translate that as like as crazy shit. But I actually think it’s the rawest truth you can experience. So when I get together with him, there’s no filters. And there’s no negativity. We’re not bashing people. If I’m in a car with him and he’s driving, and we’re in Calabasas, and I’m like “stop for a second. I think one of the most perfectly designed things in America are gas stations.” And he stops the car and he has to take notes. And then he’ll blow my mind about something else. We have a very deep friendship. And it’s based on creativity. And it’s based on brotherly love. And it’s based on the fact that he’s respectful and he’s a very good listener. And he’ll remember something you said to him. He’ll take it as verbatim. You almost have to be careful what you say to him, because he’ll take it as gold. And he’ll repeat that to you months or years later.
He’s just my kind of guy. He’s an open book. And he’s unfiltered. And he’s honest. And he respects the human condition. And when you see him around people, whether it’s his kids, or his wife, or people that work with him, he’s a tremendous human being. I love him.
Last night you mentioned in your talk that the early part of your career was the power suit and models, and then it went into celebrity. And this last part of your career was defined by diversity. I was going to show you something.
I’d love to see it.
This is my . Do you remember this shoot?
Do you remember the consternation it caused?
Yes. I do.
The head of his label accused me of making “racial overtones” in my story. But years later, my editor, Devin Gordon, told me that Kendrick’s camp was actually furious about the photographs that accompanied the story. And when the magazine refused to change them, his label pulled him off the GQ Man of the Year Party at the Chateau Marmont and released their statement attacking me. Did you realize Kendrick was upset about the pictures?
I had a bit of an argument with [GQ editor] Mark Anthony Green over that. He called me out in a meeting as maybe [Kendrick] wasn’t styled in the proper way. What’s the year?
It’s 2013, and this guy is relatively new on the scene. And it’s not where things are now. At this particular moment, we’re in the business of being image makers. Vogue is no different. They’ll take Charlize Theron and make her an ice queen. Creating characters is part of the GQ DNA. So I’d rather make someone a character for the sake of a great photograph as long as they’re willing and able—which Kendrick was. Rather than just put him in clothes, I’d rather tell a story. Because for me that’s a give back. Because here’s someone who’s on the rise. Who has a lot of cred in the music industry and on the street level. And you’re kind of telling a guy that wearing a suit and styling him like this is cool. And you know, there was backlash on how he was styled. But I said, he was part of the process. We did the fitting probably a week before the shoot and he was loving everything. And enjoyed the experience. And then all of the sudden, he’s not going to perform at Man of the Year because he’s upset about all of it.
The fashion photos disagreement never came up publicly. And Jim never hired me again for another cover story. And I know this kind of thing happens in our business. But I think I was one of the first examples of call-out culture on the Internet. Did you ever feel a disconnect between the world of fashion and this emerging conversation about race? Is there a blind spot there?
Reny White GQ Cover
Not really. Some magazines make such a big deal out of like “the first black female actress on the cover” and we’re already into the 2000s. At my talk at the 92nd Street Y, I ran into this model, his name is Reny White. In 1978 he was the first black model on the cover of GQ.
He still carries that badge in a very proud way. You can never say that GQ was not and is not a diversified magazine. And you have to look at moments like this.
Sue me, but this was an idea that I had. And I was pretty headstrong about how I see people. And [Kendrick’s] is a career that’s off and running, and we’re introducing him to our readers. So we put him through the GQ mill. And he was excited to be styled up. I never thought it was like, “Oh I should be putting him in streetwear clothes instead of this.” I thought this was a real way to respect him and make him look super fly.
Were the pictures inspired by Chuck Berry?
Yeah! It was Chuck Berry.
It looks like he had fun with Sebastian Kim on the shoot.
He had a lot of fun. And Jim used to get very involved in concepts. And I always had the initial idea and I would be pretty headstrong. And he’s like, “Okay, we’re shooting so and so, what do you think?” And even if I was put on the spot, I would say, “well this is how I think we should do it.” And then I would stick to that idea. And Jim would be like, I love your notion of putting him in suits. And what can we do more than just like putting him in suits? Could we create a character? Well I love the fact he has this kind of timeless energy to him and he’s pulling from all these music references. And we were just so in love with Sebastian’s pictures at the time. And Jim always wants there to be like excitement and energy in the pictures. And always wants the fashion to be really clear because that’s my gift to the reader.
I was so excited for the story when it came out on Tuesday, and by Friday my career was really injured.
I’m so sorry that happened to you.
To Jim’s credit, he did stick up for me publicly. But then we never worked together again.
I heard there was a scuffle. I don’t really get involved. I do the pictures then I hope for beautiful layouts. And then I don’t get involved with the written word. I learned my lesson years ago when I tried to change a cover line. It’s not my area. But it came up in that meeting, that there was a problem with the styling. And it was the first I’d heard of it.
So Kendrick’s label said unless the photos change we’re not going to do the party.
Well you know, the party was all set. The party was set for him to perform. And then he didn’t show up. And I was a little miffed by all of it. The shoot was legendary! We had a great time. We actually had him come to Memphis.
This was shot in Memphis?
I’m pretty sure he came to Memphis because we were shooting another story, and it was easier for him to come to Memphis than it was us for him to come somewhere else.
So you actually shot this in the cradle of rock and roll.
That’s why we were inspired to do it. It was an homage. And he was loving it. I must say. Look at him. There’s no one unhappy. His camp was incredibly receptive to what we were doing and excited. He walks out on set feeling great and I said, “Thank you so much for being here and being a part of this.” He’s like, “No no no. Thank you. This is one of the biggest days of my life. I’m in GQ. And you’re styling me and I’m wearing these cool suits.” That’s why when I heard it for the first time from Mark Anthony Green in the meeting I didn’t really understand what was going on. Because I remember nothing but good things.
So you felt blindsided.
Did you consider putting these pictures in the book or was this a sore memory?
No it’s not a sore memory at all. I was saying on TV today, I just said, “How do you take 30,000 images and only run 250?” There is this thing that Dmitry taught me, the book gets stronger the more pictures you take out. But you have to leave a lot of children on the floor. But you know, they were all hard choices. Ivan Schalla, who was the photo director for Vogue for 25 years, kind of produced the book. We went through each image, and we had to photographically love the picture. It wasn’t just going to be put in there because it was a moment in pop culture, it had to be a picture that we really loved. And it had to tell the story of the time.
Like you said, the barometer is if it gives you chills.
That’s my whole mantra in life.
One more difficult question. There are pictures in the book by Bruce Weber, Mario Testino and Terry Richardson. These guys have all been called out by the MeToo movement: Bruce and Mario by male models, and Terry by female models. Were you aware of any model’s uncomfortability at the time?
The New York Times called me about Bruce, and I said, “I’m happy to talk to you, but I’m like the worst person to talk to because I had nothing but incredible experiences with Bruce and with Mario.” They’re my friends. And I never saw any shenanigans with anything. I saw two people who loved taking pictures more than anybody. And treated everybody on that set like they were gold. The only time I saw Mario ever get upset is when a publicist had disrespected him by looking at some of his polaroids. But other than that, he would have a conversation with the guy making his omelette in the morning, and the craft services people. And remember everyone’s name. Really sweet, and so kind. Both of them. And not manipulative, but definitely wants the team to feel good, so the pictures feel good. And the experience feels good. And I was captain of the ship, but I never saw anything. And Terry’s one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met. And are his pictures overtly sexy? Yes. Was there a time when that was part of the culture. Yes. And I never saw anything ever that would allude to him having any kind of… I mean, I was always shooting boys with him. We shot Jennifer Aniston with him.
His Beyoncé shot is in the book.
Yeah. And she was great. And Terry was the right choice for that.
Did any of this give you pause about including their work in your book?
No. Not for a second. Because it’s part of my history, and the history of GQ. And the legacy of GQ.
I mean, Bruce Weber is nearly synonymous with GQ.
Well yeah, you have Bruce Weber in the early ’80s, and then you have Art coming in and saying, “I’m going to do away with Donald Sterzin.” Donald was the art director of GQ, and he was Bruce’s friend and the one to put a camera in his hand. Art knew this would cause a domino effect—he knew Bruce would leave. And Bruce very publicly said I would never work with GQ again. Which was a big deal. We were really turning a corner, because we were letting go of all that.
And then he returned.
So when Jim Nelson came on board in 2003, I said—and [Condé Nast editorial director] James Truman was a part of this conversation also—I said I think something that would be really clever and smart for you is to ask Bruce to come back to GQ. Because he said he would never, ever, ever. And this is a new chapter, the slate is clean. And this is a chance for you to work with our greatest living American photographer. So Jim loved it and was up for the challenge. And we had a lunch with Bruce. And Bruce was great. And I got to shoot with Bruce again.
And it was really fun. He would always tease me about my fittings. Because he always got such a kick out of it: “I can’t believe you got four hours with Tom Brady fitting him.” Well how else am I going to give you ten hours of not fussing with the clothes so you can do anything you want with him? I’m doing it for you!
But just really incredible memories. And then there’s that reprise in 2004 with that picture of two models kissing, which is the story called “San Tropez in the USA.” So Jim is like let’s hit it really hard out of the box. It was a big deal, and we ran 22 pages of Bruce Weber, and it was important to talk about it. And when we did our 50th anniversary issue, which was shortly after that, Jim wrote an essay on Bruce Weber and how he changed the culture completely in the ’80s.
You said when he became EIC, Jim was the worst dressed man on staff.
Jim was the least stylish person on staff.
That wasn’t the case by the end.
That wasn’t the case after about a few weeks into the job.
He had a steep learning curve?
I remember the first time I took him to Prada to get a couple new suits. We laughed about it a few weeks later, because we thought they were so skinny. And that’s fashion. But not only did Jim embrace the idea that we had to be more didactic, we needed to demystify fashion, but we needed to celebrate it. We needed to find that line where we should show guys the European runway collection but explain why they’re cool and explain how they can wear these clothes. But he also embraced the GQ look for himself. And he started wearing skinny suits, and he started getting his haircut in a cool way, and he started looking at things differently. He’ll always give it to me. He’ll always say if there’s anybody who’s ever out there who ever tells you “you look GQ,” or if you ever look at someone and think they look “very GQ,” you can only trace that back to one person. I call myself little Jim. He was big Jim. I don’t know. It’s an inside joke. But he was great. Tough and challenging which is what I liked. And you couldn’t just show him a bunch of sweaters, there had to be a reason for it. He liked stories like the Kendrick Lamar story. He liked the idea that we would take the godfathers of culture and dress them very GQ.
At the end, you, and Jim and Fred Woodward, the design director, kind of left en masse.
Looking back at history, that will be marked as an end of an era partly based on the loss of the personnel.
100 percent. I’m still there. I’m still under contract. I got the sweetest deal because some people just walked out the door like Fred and Jim. But I’m still there under contract. And I’ll like to think that I’ll always have the DNA of GQ inside of me. And who knows what the future brings, but you can’t help but want to celebrate those years in this book. The years I call the golden era of GQ.
What was the golden era?
I find those five years that Bruce Weber was there in the late ’70s completely fascinating. He really set the benchmark. Even when Art came in and got rid of the baby and the bathwater and the bathtub, you couldn’t help but take a little of that magic dust and bring it forward. But I think it started in the 90s.
How do you make a GQ picture? I don’t know how to make a cake. I don’t know how to fix a car. But I know how to make an image. I think it’s important that images, for me, feel not only iconic but that the person is happy to be there and engaged.
And you know, when Jim came on board, I told him: “I really want you to tell me what you expect in a cover. I’m going to be doing all the covers and you probably won’t be on the cover shoots, because that’s not what an editor in chief does. So how do I deliver the bacon to you? What are you looking for?” He might have said, “I want everything on location,” or whatever. And he’s like, “I’ll leave the clothes up to you. You can show them to me. I do feel like the guy should look the best he’s ever looked. I want people to look back at the magazine and say “Ryan Gosling has never looked better.” But the most important thing for me is the person is engaged, and when you look at that cover you know that person is happy to be there.”
And I said, “That’s all the direction I need.”
That’s a very specific direction.
Very specific! And when you looked at the newsstand you could tell. There was nothing recessive about a GQ cover. It was coming at you.
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