“I think the best pictures are about a moment that’s holistic, describing the model and the whole picture with layers of style”

Karl Templer is making me tea in the kitchen of his townhouse in Chelsea, NYC. The place is, as you might expect, as good-looking as the photographs he styles – examples of which hang on the walls, images he shot with Richard Avedon and Craig McDean – and decked out with classic modernist furniture that manages to feel warm for all its cool sobriety. Some of the pieces are also very hard to find; I’m quite sure there is only one store in the world that sells the sofa I’m sitting on right now. New York is pretty much Karl’s adopted home these days. In addition to this place, where he has been living for nearly three years, he has an office on the other side of Manhattan, although occasionally he’ll head back to London, where he still keeps his Bloomsbury flat a stone’s throw from David Bailey’s studio. Bringing in the tea, Karl sits down and we chat about obscure furniture shops while an electrician in the background fusses with a light fitting before excusing himself due to ‘personal problems’. It’s as good a cue as any to get to the point of our conversation: Karl’s career. From his early days at The Face to his years as creative director of Arena Homme Plus to Italian Vogue, consultancies and Calvin campaigns, it’s a subject he has rarely spoken about in the media before now.

Written by: Erik Torstensson Photographed by: Craig McDean

So can you tell me how it all started for you?

‘I was always really into clothes, and that led me to get a Saturday job in a menswear store in London called Woodhouse. At the time it sold labels like Armani, Stone Island, Katharine Hamnett and Jean Paul Gaultier. Working there, I started going to clubs and my taste in music started to broaden, and began following style magazines like i-D, Blitz and mainly The Face, as well as sometimes British Vogue.’

How old were you then?

‘Fifteen. At 17, after I left school, I started working full-time – first in the store and then doing visuals and windows. Stylists came in to get clothes for commercials and editorials that they were working on, and I became curious about the possibility of that kind of career. I was very aware of menswear and the way those around me were dressing – people who worked in other similar stores, hairdressers, DJs, people on the club scene in London – that was fashion to me at the time. When Arena was launched, I was still working in the store. The magazine really became a bible for the kind of menswear I knew about. It summed up a lot of my interests at that time, as it was about style as much as fashion and it felt like a truly modern men’s magazine. At the same time, I was getting into a street kind of fashion. House music was taking over from hip hop and I was getting into a different look, wearing Stüssy, Nike, Levi’s, T-shirts, baseball caps, sweatshirts and streetwear labels – a new kind of casual uniform. I wanted to do pictures that reflected what I was into at the time. I knew Chris Logan, whose father owned The Face, and he put me in touch with a photographer who wanted to test. So I did some test pictures of guys in baseball jackets in an arcade and showed them to the art director of The Face at the time, Phil Bicker. They published them very small at the front of the magazine and it started from there.’

Were you making a living from styling?

‘Not really, no. I was hanging out around London, dressing windows and doing small jobs when they came up.’

Was it an interesting time to be in London?

‘I think it was a really creative time for a lot of emerging British talent. But the kind of jobs I had access to were styling bands or department store catalogue-type shoots. Around that time I was buying Italian Vogue and started to become interested in the work of Steven Meisel.’

What other photographers were you into then?

‘I liked Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh, and through looking at more grunge-type pictures I was introduced to Richard Avedon’s work. I was very aware of Helmut Newton too as his work was being published a lot. I felt I could really connect with it in a certain way as my parents were both from continental Europe, so I’d travelled to Berlin, Paris and around Europe a lot as a child and that European feeling resonated with me. I remember being really blown away by Bruce Weber’s book, O Rio. In the store I worked I’d always look at copies of L’Uomo Vogue and occasionally Per Lui.’

Did you consciously try to create those kinds of images then?

‘I didn’t have the means to. During that period I started to test with some photographers’ assistants and do pictures for the front section of The Face, shooting smaller, trend-orientated pieces.’

When was this?

‘Late Eighties. I was in London working but at that time it felt more like an extension of a hobby than a career. I started buying photography books when I could afford to and that helped shape a visual sense of what was going on. I wanted to work with different photographers so I decided to go to New York to expand my experiences. There I started to work with people like Albert and Norman Watson, and Steven Klein. I’d propose an idea, see what happened, then hope the magazine would run it. I travelled back and forth. I spent a summer there but didn’t work so much – just rode my bike around, drank coffee and had fun. Then I came back to England, where I broke my ankle and couldn’t work. I was pretty disheartened and felt like giving up.’

So what kept you going?

‘I just stopped and thought about what I really liked, about what I could do that others weren’t already doing. So I tried to do classic, good-looking pictures. I started to work with Mark Vanderloo and Mike Campbell and other top male models who were doing the better fashion advertising of the day. Arena Homme Plus launched and as they were looking for more fashion stylists, so an opening came up by default and I got the opportunity to shoot some bigger stories. As most of the photographers in London already had their teams that they worked with, I thought it would be a good idea to approach someone who wasn’t based there. I carried on working with Albert Watson and also started to work with Mikael Jansson. His work had been in British Vogue and French Glamour – his pictures at the time were mostly black and white, with a cinematic feeling, often shot away on trips. I started working with him and we produced some beautiful work. We shot in places like Poland, Hungary, Sweden and Cuba, figuring it out on very small budgets. He would never like to shoot men alone then so we always had female models too, which is how I started to style womenswear.

Who were the big stylists at the time?

‘It was 1993, ’94, so people like Venetia Scott, Joe McKenna, Camilla Nickerson, Melanie Ward, Babeth Djian.’

So you started working with Richard Avedon…

‘Mark Vanderloo introduced me to a new client, Hugo Boss, for whom Richard Avedon shot the campaign – he and Fabien Baron booked me for the job. I was a huge fan of Avedon’s and already had most of his books, so I was very aware of what it meant to work with him – it was very intimidating. By then I was working for Arena, Arena Homme Plus and L’Uomo Vogue, so I had made enough money to rent an apartment in New York. The magazines I was working with had credibility so I could get to work with some great photographers and started to get asked to work on bigger projects. Calvin Klein asked me to come to New York and see his women’s show, as he wanted to talk to me about styling his men’s show. I was also picking up bigger clients – DKNY, Nicole Farhi, Costume National – all menswear, but it was great.’

How did you get into women’s styling?

‘I was adding more womenswear into some of the fashion stories I was working on and then Steven Meisel booked me for Italian Vogue.’
You must have been quite young still.

‘I was 27. It was 1997 and it was one of the first Italian Vogues I did. The story was called ‘In Country’ – Sunniva was on the cover.’

Was that a pivotal point in your career?

‘I think when you work with Steven Meisel, it’s the highest it can get – he can do everything so brilliantly and his eye is so refined. I watched, listened and worked as hard as I could. I was such a huge fan of his work – I can remember when I was younger queueing till midnight to buy his Madonna Sex book at a shop on Charing Cross Road. So the experience of working with him meant a lot to me, and it changed my career. I learnt a lot from all those experiences, as well as from working with Richard Avedon, Peter Lindbergh, Fabien Baron, Mikael Jansson, and also Pat McGrath and Guido, Eugene Souleiman – they all helped me to focus and to do better the work. Gradually I had opportunities to work with other photographers like Steven Klein and David Sims and also to do a lot of advertising, like with Calvin Klein. Once people demonstrate confidence in you, you become braver and more open to developing your ideas.’

Is this around the time you formed your partnership with Fabien?

‘No, I think that was earlier, when we were working on the Hugo Boss campaigns and an Armani fragrance together. Eventually, that developed into us both working at Arena Homme Plus. Fabien joined as editor-in-chief, with his company, Baron & Baron, overseeing the design, and I became creative director. I think I had worked on every issue since it started, so it was an exciting moment for me, and I felt quite confident in what
I liked and felt was right for the magazine. It was well received – Fabien’s reputation and the loyalty that photographers had towards him meant that a lot of people who didn’t really shoot menswear were now willing to work for Homme Plus. He expanded the range of the magazine, making it much more international and senior: beautiful design and typography, and A-list photographers. In one issue we had work by Steven Klein, Mario Testino, David Sims, Craig McDean and Mikael Jansson. We ran more journalistic pieces, like the first style pictures of David Beckham and the first great pictures of Justin Timberlake.’

Was it in that period at Arena Homme Plus that you formed your gang, so to speak?

‘I wouldn’t say it was a gang but there was a certain intimacy due to the small group of people who worked on the project. The magazine provided me with the opportunity to work without feeling as if someone else was editing my point of view; I hadn’t had that sort of freedom before.’

So that’s how it all started.

‘Yeah. I had already worked on a few stories for Italian Vogue each season, and then through Steven Klein I began contributing to W. W was great because of people like Alex White and Dennis Freedman, who were very encouraging. It was the best magazine in New York, as Harper’s Bazaar had already changed direction by then, with photographers like Steven Klein, and also Bruce Weber, Craig McDean and Mario Sorrenti. It was the only American magazine that felt European and it had a lot of style. Through W I started working with Michael Thompson, Steven Klein and David Sims. It also taught me to listen more to others – when you’re working with a great model, great hairdresser and make-up talent, to respect their input and learn from it. It gave me the discipline to know when to hold back and let others do what they’re best at. Sometimes if the model is amazing she or he can make the pictures work and the styling becomes less prominent; you fall in love with the experience of being a part of making
the pictures. At the same time, I was also doing a lot of big commercial campaigns, for Calvin Klein and a host of other designers each season. I started working a lot on the Gap campaigns, as well as many fragrances and TV commercials. I was also meeting a lot of celebrities, which was interesting as celebrity styling is a completely different skill. So, in general, I was becoming more rounded, developing different skills and working on a range of projects.

Was this after your time on Arena Homme Plus?

‘Yes. I didn’t want to do men for a long time after that because I didn’t feel like I had anything new to say. I did some good work for W and for French Vogue, and then Fabien asked me to come and work for Interview. By that time I’d had the experience of working for many different magazines and had come to understand that the best work comes when you are working with the right team or person. Sometimes, if we couldn’t build the right team, I preferred not to do the work at all.’

With your editorial work, you seem to enjoy working on stories that have a sense of the real world rather than indulge in abstract aesthetics.

‘Yes, I’m interested in what’s going on around me as much as what the trends are. It was fun to work on the Rehab story for Italian Vogue, for example [‘Super Mods Enter Rehab’, July 2007]. Those pictures were kind of controversial and were much less about fashion styling and more about the overall concept and context. It was also great to be involved in the Black Issue [Italian Vogue, July 2008]. It’s fun to be a part of something like that, which happens when you are working with the right people. Hopefully some of the work I’ve done will stand out in the future.’

You’ve been a stylist, an editor, a consultant and a creative director – it must have been nice to have that kind of variety in your professional life. Do you like working as a consultant for brands?

‘Yes, though it can be complicated, when you’re working in a situation where you’d like to influence change but you don’t have the ultimate responsibility for a brand. I do really enjoy working on shows – there’s a great energy to them and they’re the ultimate expression of a brand in that moment in time.’

In many ways you’ve ticked all the boxes: you’ve worked with photographers like Avedon and Meisel, contributed to magazines like French and Italian Vogue, consulted at Calvin Klein and Gap. Is there a box that hasn’t been ticked yet?

‘I would love to have the opportunity to have creative control over a brand.’

How about taking photographs?

‘I’ve had the experience of working with so many great photographers – I’m not sure whether I would produce a truly original photograph or wouldn’t want to do simply another version of somebody else’s work. I’m pretty good at taking pictures of my son and people I care about.’

Do you think it is easier now to take good photographs, given that the technology is more readily available, since the emergence of digital photography and development of digital manipulation?

‘I think that access to a certain type of photograph is easier and because post-production is more prevalent. But nothing beats a brilliant idea, a great eye, a great team around you and a lot of talent to stand out. The equipment and technique are important tools, but having a point of view is perhaps still the most important factor.’

Everyone also seems to be looking for the ‘new’, and we are starting to get a lot of art photographers in fashion…

‘Yes, but my personal feeling is that the art photographer has never been as successful in a commercial fashion context – it’s harder for them to compromise their ideas when they try translate them into a project that has commercial needs to be answered.’

What about the status of the stylist today? How has that changed?

‘I certainly think that there’s more awareness of stylists and what they do. I also think the role of the stylist has evolved and grown – from helping designers communicate their visions, dressing celebrities and shaping a point of view for brands, as well as developing the editorial point of view in magazines.’

They’ve gained a lot of influence.

‘Yes. I think in some instances the styling can be so defining and resolved that it becomes less about the photographer finding their voice. Some stylists work like designers, making special pieces and so on – there’s some incredible talent around.’

So what needs to happen on a shoot to make a really great image?

‘I think the best pictures are about a moment that’s holistic, describing the model and the whole picture, with layers of style, from the subject, the clothes, the hair and make-up. I personally prefer those type of pictures, that are born out of collaborative efforts.’

How do you think magazines are changing?

‘The web, the iPad, online – it all means that there’s a much greater appetite for content to satisfy. There’s a greater demand from the audience than ever before. Viewers are interested in “the making of”, so some of the mystery is taken away. The sheer volume of imagery being generated and competing for readers’ attention means that it’s a greater challenge than ever to create something that stands out and stops you on the page. That’s pretty hard when there’s such a saturation of imagery, fashion points of view, interest in the newest girls and so on. Maybe we’re moving towards a new democracy, where the classic pyramid of influence is being inverted and the mass have a bigger influence than they’ve ever had before, through blogs and message boards and so on. There are both positive and negatives aspects to that.’