“I ended up doing styling, which I consider to be the bottom rung of the ladder in terms of creativity”
Panos is still recovering from the menswear shows, and isn’t feeling his best. To consult on just one collection is an all-consuming task, but he worked on Cavalli, Pringle, Givenchy and Rick Owens – the last two taking place on the same day. He says he enjoys the frenetic pace and, only half-joking, confesses to a masochistic streak. But, nursing a medicinal whiskey and Coke, he’s paying the price for it now. These shows, as it happens, were all heavy on the darker greys and black, and Panos himself is in all black today, the tattoos on his arms covered by the long sleeves of his T-shirt. More than any other stylist, the aesthetic he presents in his work is an intuitive extension of his own style. Indeed, were this not the case, he feels he wouldn’t be doing his job properly. He’s modest and self-effacing, referring to his trade as the lowest rung of the creative ladder, and apologetic for his choice of venue for the interview – a smart, up-market pub on his home turf of Camden. And as someone who has always avoided the limelight, he’s surprisingly happy to talk openly and in detail about a career that has taken him around the world since the days when he ran around empty building sites with Corinne Day for i-D.
‘I met Corinne Day through a mutual friend – that was my introduction to the industry. Because I didn’t really know much about styling, it wasn’t something that was a large part of my life growing up. I obviously looked at a magazines but I never stopped to think how the models ended up in those clothes. I wasn’t really aware of Corinne’s work either. I’d kind of seen some of her pictures before we met but I didn’t know how much she’d affected the industry. So as we got to know each other she showed me the work she’d done. At that time she was working on documentary images for her book. She hadn’t really taken any fashion pictures for a long time. I would goad her on to start taking fashion pictures again, ’cause it was just at the time when people were really excited about Photoshop and digital manipulation. I remember this cover of The Face… (gives a disapproving look) I won’t go into too much detail, but it was the culmination of all this digital mania. So I’d pester her to go back to fashion photography. She’d always joke, “I’ll do it if you do it.” So that’s how it started.’
How did you meet her?
‘Through mutual friends. One of her best friends was a friend of one of my best friends.’
What stage of your life were you at then? Were you studying?
‘I was, yes. I was at Chelsea attempting to be a sculptor. And then it got to a point where I had to decide, am I continuing sculpture or am I now a stylist? I still to this day wonder had I chose the other option what the current outcome would be. It’s a pleasant daydream.’
So you gave it up?
‘Yes. I used to work with wax and I had a really bad accident. Being stupid, I didn’t realise wax was highly flammable and ended up setting my hands on fire. That saw me out of college for about two months, so that was a bit of a decider; it meant I spent more time with Corinne. We ended up becoming so close that I would see her every day, apart from Sundays when she’d go to see her grandmother. I’d wake up and go to Corinne’s and stay there till the evening. We were kind of inseparable for a very, very long time. When we started doing pictures together it wasn’t even really work because there was no commission. There was no calling in clothes from PRs; I’d just go along with – I’m not perpetuating a myth – but a bin-bag full of my stuff. We’d go out and do one picture that we’d been talking about for a week. Say she wanted to do a picture in one of the brothel houses in Soho – we’d spend the week knocking on doors… There was this sense of adventure. We’d break into this dilapidated construction site and set off orange smoke bombs… I have a really fond memory of those days, ’cause nothing was political in terms of our job. There was no “OK, I’m gonna shoot the Armani dress because that will…” None of that figured. It wasn’t a purposeful rebellion [against that], it was just having fun. And most of the time we photographed friends or people who either Corinne knew very well or she’d photographed in the past. We photographed this boy Orlando a lot, who was one of my best friends at the time. It was a bit like regressing to your childhood. It was fun.’
The freedom of no politics and being able to take as long as you liked… it must have been fantastic.
‘It was. But when Corinne decided to go back into taking fashion images, a lot of established stylists wanted to work with her. There was this difficulty in finding a publication that was willing to take on a stylist who’d never really done anything before. That’s why to this day I deeply respect and am very grateful to Edward [Enninful] and Terry and Tricia [Jones]. They had that faith in Corinne and took her word: “I really believe in this guy…” That gave me a platform, because once I’d done a couple of things, I had something to back my aesthetic up. Also Sandor [Lubbe] at Dutch was very supportive.’
How was it to see your first work in print?
‘(Immediately) Very disappointing.’
‘Yeah. I still remember it. It was a story with Orlando and Erika that we’d spent six months doing. When I opened the magazine I thought, “Is this it?” I don’t know what I was expecting but I felt very deflated. What was exciting were the memories rather than the actual shoot. Which isn’t the case now – rather the opposite in fact. But at that time the process was far more exciting than the result in a way.’
Was that because magazines were new to you?
‘No, it was just because it was so much fun doing it! We had so much fun going out there and driving around looking for interesting locations and models. We’d sit in Soho… One day there was this boy with really long hair, really beautiful face, and I said to Corinne, “We must shoot him.” I was always too shy to go up to someone like a lech – especially if it was a guy – and say, “Would you like us to take a picture of you?” So I’d always force Corinne to run up to these people. So, this boy with the long hair: he was an Italian crustie tourist and we wanted to shoot him in a Comme dress. So obviously that took a lot of persuasion. When we’d finally convinced him to wear the dress, Corinne’s camera wouldn’t work so we had to reshoot the whole thing the following week and coax him into the dress all over again. All those small things that are very fond memories for me made the whole job special, rather than seeing the work in print – which was kind of the by-product of everything. It wasn’t the main objective at the beginning. And as I only worked with Corinne for about a year and a half, it was very insular. I didn’t know anything apart from that, so I assumed everyone worked in the same manner. And then I realised that that’s not the case.’
How long was it before other magazines started accepting you?
‘The first editorial I did with Corinne was for i-D, then about six months later we did something for Dutch and i-D at the same time. That was the scenario for a while. There were intermittent things. Like we did one image say for French Vogue – little things that editors wanted Corinne to do, and as
I was available I piggy-backed my way along. But it was mainly those two publications. Then when I started working with other photographers, the relationship with Corinne started souring. Without going into that too much, it meant that I began seeing styling as more of a job; I started working with more publications like The Face and Homme Plus and photographers like Steven Klein – which was a very important milestone for me, because I didn’t know if there would be any interest in me as a stylist, on my own, without Corinne. Even though I’d worked with Corinne outside of the UK, in America no one really knew who I was until Steven came along. He was the first “fashion photographer” I worked with; he had a strong impact on my confidence and approach to styling, his persistence in achieving an image that excites you. So strangely my career seems to always be in chapters of photographers; alongside a few designers I work very closely with, they are the working relationships I cherish the most. Because photographers always bring something out of me that I didn’t know or expect. For example, after Corinne and Steven, the most important would definitely be Inez and Vinoodh, because they took my work out of a “youth culture” aesthetic and through their photography and approach really brought a sophistication and elegance to it, creating some of the most powerful work I’ve done.’
How did you and Steven get together?
‘I’m not quite sure. I think a lot of it has to do with Anya [Panos’s sister and representative] and the way she steers things. I’m not sure if it was something initiated from our side or his… But I remember meeting him in New York and I pulled out my book and he said, “I don’t need to see your book.” I remember being so nervous. We worked on two shoots in the same week; the first one was with Travis [Fimmel]. And then we did this other story that was initially meant to be for L’Uomo Vogue that ended up running in Dutch, with all these boys with their faces painted black, which was much more something I’d seen in Steven’s work that I’d gravitated towards.’
You’ve said in the past that you felt you were quite naive when it came to fashion history…
‘It’s true; I was always aware of my limitations. I knew that a lot of stylists and photographers referenced images or eras from the past when they were talking about what they were gonna do. But I don’t have that knowledge to say, “OK, let’s do something 1950s” or “something 1960s” – I don’t know what the difference is. So even when I do bring in references, it’s always self-centred. It’s always things that I’ve done. Say if I’m consulting for someone, I always print out pictures of shoots I’ve done in the past as images of how I’d like to develop an idea.’
Would you say your styling is an extension of your own aesthetic?
‘Definitely, yeah. I can’t imagine it being any other way.’
As a teenager, what was your relation with fashion?
‘(Immediately) Ralph Lauren. I used to wear Ralph Lauren ’cause I grew up in Athens. And I wasn’t your… picture of manhood, in a way. I went to quite an affluent school, even though we weren’t affluent by any means. So it was very much a part of Greek society that was very bourgeois and very snobbish. Their dress code was very much Timberland boots, Emporio Armani jeans and a Polo Ralph Lauren shirt. So as not to be completely ostracised, I tried to fit in by adopting that uniform. It didn’t work, but I still insisted on having all the shades of pastel Polo shirts. It’s pathetic.’
At what stage did that stop?
‘I gave up trying around 17, when I began my military service. Basically I started wearing a lot of make-up and stupid metal dog collars. That probably lasted two years before I saw myself in the mirror and thought, what the fuck are you doing? But I think I enjoyed the reaction… We moved to Cyprus for a very brief period and that’s an even more conservative society. I’d be walking in the street and having people almost spit at me. I now like to think that it’s all part of that teenage… “self-discovery”, supposedly, but it’s all silly.’
So at what point did you come to London?
‘The day after I left the army I went on holiday for a week and then came to the UK. I was studying literature in Oxford for a year and then moved down to London. So I was about 18 or 19.’
At what point of the sculpture degree did you switch to styling?
‘Again, about a year into it. I seem to be really good at trying things for a year and then deciding to try something else. I went to RADA for a brief stint too, which was really appalling.’
How long did you last there?
‘Not very long. I think it was a mutual decision between myself and the tutors that I was wasting everyone’s time. I kind of bought my way into RADA, ’cause they always have a certain amount of foreign students who pay the full tuition. So the criteria for us foreigners was much more lenient. But they made you do all these stupid things like go into Russell Square and they’d throw a ball and scream out an emotion and you’d have to act that out… It was really painful. I guess if you have no shame, it’s fun. But I was always aware of the people sitting having lunch staring at us thinking, what a bunch of tossers. And I kind of agreed with them, so I left.’
Was this jumping between subjects a search for self-expression?
‘In a way, yeah. I wanted to do something creative so I was trying to find what means suited me the best. I ended up styling, which is kinda the bottom rung of the ladder in terms of creativity. We’re the kids that always wanted to do something creative but never had the voice or any musical ability or acting ability or literary talent. So we ended up dressing strangely and playing with clothes. It always seemed to be the last resort.’
But styling’s treated with such reverence now.
‘Yeah, which is kind of disturbing. That idea that stylists have assumed this position where what they wear to Fashion Week is more important than their work is kind of comical. I hope that changes. At the same time, I do think a lot of stylists have affected the industry in a huge way and sometimes haven’t received the respect or recognition that they [deserve]. Melanie Ward did something that very few stylists have. Even though Helmut Lang is incredibly amazing, I don’t think he’d have done what he did without his collaboration with Melanie. You hear his name spoken of with such reverence; he’s almost been canonised. But I don’t think Melanie’s influence is given due recognition. It wasn’t just with Helmut Lang – it was the work she did with Jil Sander… She was such a part of that whole period. But now, you know, you open a magazine and you look at the back pages and it’s the same stylists wearing the same dresses. It can become a bit comical. And instead of actually looking at the work someone has done and taking that as the measure of their influence, it’s become a bit of a red-carpet scenario. The front row, the entrance to the shows – it’s become a bit of a circus.’
You mean the whole fuss around who sits where?
‘Yes – and who sits next to who. But I think that always existed. For me it’s the documentation of that whole process that seems to have shifted the emphasis. You have certain stylists whose work is discussed less than their personal appearance. Although I think it’s great that there’s a correlation between the two. I always find it strange when you see a stylist’s work and it’s a very extreme vision and then you see them walking around in a cashmere scarf and a suit. But I don’t know if that’s just because of the way I went about things. Maybe for some people the final image is all that matters. But for me it’s more the instinct that informed that image. Without sounding too poncey…!’
So it must have been a couple of years after working with Steven that suddenly you were working with Chanel couture and really big brands I wouldn’t have automatically associated you with. Did it seem like a bit of a leap for you as well?
‘Yes, totally! It was really scary, and I think it came too soon. The Chanel thing is really funny ’cause in the beginning Karl thought I was a hat maker. He’d introduce me as the new Philip Treacy and I’d have to correct him and say I don’t make hats. I did this project with him for Fendi for the 60th anniversary and we were shooting in Rome. So we had to have 60 girls. Obviously with 60 models from Rome, you’re not going to get beauties, so we had to create 60 masks. I think that’s what made him think that that’s what I do. Then he asked me to do the Chanel couture show and kept talking about making all these headpieces, which is something I love doing. But I did get the feeling that he thought I was a milliner, so I had to constantly correct him. In the end all I did was tie 15 ribbons on the girls’ wrists. It was still great to be a part of and see the whole process. But I did feel out of place. I kept thinking, what am I doing here?’
Didn’t you work for Dolce & Gabbana for several seasons as well?
‘Yes, for two years.’
Their aesthetic isn’t one I’d automatically link to yours – how did that come about?
‘There’ve been several instances where I’ve worked with people whose aesthetic you wouldn’t naturally say has a common thread with what I do. For me not so much Dolce but Hermès, especially for menswear – that’s probably the most extreme opposite to what I do. Because there’s no mess there, there’s no element of error, in a way, and those are things I thrive on. For them it’s all about quality and precision and simplicity. So on the one side it’s a great opportunity for me to be exposed to things that I don’t naturally know about: how fine-gauge knitwear can get, and men’s tailoring – all things I had never had been exposed to. I can actually bring some of that knowledge to what I do now and find a good balance. So it was a good kind of… crash course.’
Did you find yourself having to compromise creatively?
‘No – I’m getting paid, so it’s not a case of having to compromise. When it comes to doing shows or campaigns with certain clients, I’ll do what I’m asked to. But I always approach my editorial as something very selfish and indulgent – it’s about me and what I want to do and the collaboration with the photographer. I try to keep as much of the commercial side out of that.’
Even when you worked at Harper’s?
‘(Shudders) Oh… I kind of got that all wrong. I approached it from a completely wrong direction – it was only on the last shoot I did for them that I felt I got it right.’
Don’t they give very strict guidance over what you can shoot?
‘Oh definitely. I remember doing a shoot with Gemma Ward supposedly as Brigitte Bardot – she had these two pigtails and was holding a shih-tzu and strumming a guitar, and I kept thinking, “Has it all come to this?” The only reason I started doing those things was because I thought I had to. I thought I had to present a much more subdued, commercial existence to my work. I understood that that isn’t my strength. There are other stylists who have this ability to accessorise in a beautiful way, bringing in creative ideas in terms of hair and make-up, constructing everything around a total look. That’s when I realised I don’t have that ability and that knowledge to look at a season and the collections and tie them in, in terms of trends and in terms of creating a character. I spent about a year and a half trying to do something that isn’t within my capabilities. It’s taken a long time to go from that and to reclaiming what I’d been doing before and rebuilding the relationships with the people who I was working with when I was doing what I enjoy more. So you fall out of sync, you fall out of that rhythm that you had. And I can honestly say it has taken me till now to get back to feeling comfortable with what I’m doing. There was this very long period where I was really miserable with what I was putting out there, but finally I can say that I’m back to where I was five years ago.’
You mention assessing seasonal trends – the imperative to keep coming up with new trends every season has never been something you’re a fan of, has it?
‘At the end of the day, everyone has a personal way of dressing. Being dictated to by designers each season and being told you have to change according to their whim is a patronising way of seeing your consumer and your client. You’ve always got give something new I guess, otherwise there’s no reason to purchase anything. But that consistency is the sign of a confident and probably successful designer. If you look at people in the past like Giorgio Armani – he wasn’t the sort to go from one season to another and completely change. And then on the flipside even the Versaces, they had their vision, their clientele, and it was a case of fine-tuning that each season. And that’s something I see very much in Rick [Owens]. I really respect that in today’s climate, where people expect you completely disregard what you’ve done six months before, purely for the excitement of the people within the industry. A show has to excite the press and the buyers, but the final product is not meant for them. They’re more the channel through which the clothes end up in the store. So it’s silly just to pander to them and not really think of why you’re doing this, which is the consumer.’
There’s a longstanding relationship between you and Rick. Talk about a convergence of visions…
‘Yeah. It’s strange because it could almost never have happened. I met Rick and we spoke loads over the phone and then he came to London and we met again in person. Then Anna Wintour sponsored his first show and I went over to help him. This was my second trip to the States ever. I got really pissed on the flight over and as I got up to leave the plane I dropped my passport. Which meant I didn’t have it when I got to immigration. So I was ushered into this room with all these supposedly illegal [immigrants] and they kept me there for about four hours and did all these background checks. They asked me to explain all my tattoos to them and all these stupid things. But in the end it was a choice between getting deported or paying $180 for a passport waiver. At that time $180 was a lot more for me than it is today, so I was going to take the next flight home. And then I thought, fuck it, I’ll pay. Had I taken that flight home, I wouldn’t have worked with Rick and that relationship would never have turned into what it has today. And everything that ensued in the States would never have happened because I wouldn’t have been able to go back for at least 10 years. (Quiet laugh) That’s amusing. For me.’
And Riccardo Tisci seems to be another like mind .
‘Yes. That’s more of a new relationship. We started working together about two and a half years ago. He was always very supportive even prior to that. Then we met when I started working on the menswear [at Givenchy] before he was involved. We kind of developed a friendship, and since then we have a very tight-knit relationship both personally and in work. People assume that we have an identical approach and vision, although we actually don’t. There are definitely convergences, but you take those for granted. It’s the things you disagree on and how you find the balance between “I hate that but I love that” to end up making something you both like… Those small battles always seems to create the winning mix. It’s always the pieces that we argue about and develop into something we both agree on that tend to be the success of the relationship.’
Is there a lot of confrontation in that?
‘I think the more we’ve become friends, yes.’
You get over that politeness barrier, don’t you?
‘Yes. We’ve definitely got beyond that. But I also think that’s something I tend to bring out in people anyway, because I don’t usually react very much. So there’s always this element of goading me on to kind of scream.’
Was it you who introduced Courtney Love to Givenchy?
She became a very vocal advocate of Riccardo’s very early on.
‘Definitely. She was one of the first people to really embrace Riccardo. We all see Riccardo as a very successful designer of his generation, but if you cast yourself back a bit further there were a lot of naysayers who were saying it was too early for someone like him, and this, that and the other. But a few people saw his talent really early on and she was one of them.’
You never assisted anyone when you were starting, did you?
But you have your own team of assistants now?
‘Yeah. On the one side I have a team that works in the office very much with the samples, press offices, this that and the other. Then there’s the other side that’s at the studio making the pieces for use in editorials and it’s much more like an atelier. They’re great – finally. Because in the beginning, my first two assistants were my best friends: it was great, when we used to travel I’d be taking my best friend with me. But about two years ago I started working with people that I didn’t know personally. And it’s taken that long to finally build the team I’m really happy with.’
Isn’t it difficult to find someone with the right mix of commitment, talent and personal ambition? And someone who’s really good isn’t going to stick around for too long.
‘Definitely. Obviously I wouldn’t want to have anyone working with me who didn’t want to be there, because it is a gruelling job, especially during the shows. So unless you have someone who wants to be there and is excited to forego their sleep and their sanity for a while, then it’s not going to work.Because however a good salary you pay them, it’s still measly in comparison to a normal salary in a nine-to-five job, considering the hours they put in. So unless they have the youth and the excitement to be in the industry and learn, there’s no point. And after two years you’re kind of sick of the sight of them, to be honest!’
You spend so long in each other’s pockets.
‘Definitely. My first assistant is really great, but you do get to the point where you don’t want to speak to him. You don’t want to be rude or mean, but you do get sick of the sight of them.’
You don’t make money for years as a stylist. How did you survive at the start?
‘Frugally! I was always lucky that some bizarre job would come in and save the day. But you’d get close to that crunch moment where you’re like, OK, what do I have that I can pawn? And then luckily something would come in.’
And now, what’s the hardest aspect of the job for you? Is it the schedule?
‘No, I enjoy that. I feed off that mania… It’s a conversation I always have with Anya, who tries to tell me, “OK, you don’t have to take that job.” But I want to. This menswear season we ended up doing four shows, because in a way I find that frenetic pace exciting. It’s a masochistic tendency I have. That thing of going from one client from seven till ten and then the next from ten till midnight and then going back from midnight till four, then going back to the hotel, not showering because that’s 15 minutes’ less sleep… That whole process, that whole insanity keeps me going. The minute I stop… Well, I stopped today and I feel like shit.’
You mentioned recently that you were coming to the end of what you needed to say in fashion. Were you just being melodramatic when you said that?
‘No, I definitely feel the expiry date is very close. And that’s kind of why I’ve been doing things outside of styling; for the first time, I took pictures. Not that I want to become a photographer by any means – I wanted to see what the whole fuss about photography was. So many times when I work with photographers, they say, “Oh I can’t do this now, I’m too busy,” and my argument would be, “It’s only two days out of your life.” And finally I understand the whole process, especially after the shoot. And there are a few projects coming up that are different tangents off what I’m doing in a bid to see whether I want to stay in this industry or completely sever all ties and do something that has nothing to do with fashion. But in all honesty I can’t see myself doing this for very much longer. It was never something I planned on doing, and there were always things I wanted to do that have been shelved due to this job. And now more than ever I feel that itch. So the dilemma is whether I have the balls to give up what has become a comfortable way of life. I guess that’s why I’m trying to find out if there’s something I can do within the industry where I don’t have to start from complete zero. But I think it’s a process of elimination where I realise that there really isn’t.
Has your opinion of the industry changed much in the time you’ve been working in it?
‘I think lately it’s really, uh… (Pause) I’m disappointed. I feel there’s even more money involved now, and that seems to have created this unnecessary and tiresome environment. I just think everything is really safe and sterile at the moment. Certain publications I don’t want to name have used this supposed crisis as a reason to not rock the boat. But I really think that there is a need for exciting and inspiring work right now. Because what we’re peddling is not a necessity – you can make do without the eighth handbag. So unless you really excite a person to part with their money – and at this time it’s even harder to do that unless you really excite them – then they’re just not going to. It’s not a case of tricking them into doing that – it’s a case of creating something they really will cherish. If you’re playing it safe and you’re just putting campaigns out there that look like catalogues, then it’s not going to work. Everything looks like, “OK, here’s everything we make.” Remember the old Jil Sander campaigns with Guinevere with half her face cut off and no product? I was just starting to look at magazines then, and those are the first campaigns I can remember seeing; they created a feeling of mystery and excitement around the brand. Now there seems to be more emphasis on making sure you can see every stitch of the jacket and the shoes. I think it’s naive and short-sighted. But that might just be my opinion. I don’t know.’
In previous recessions, when people were starting out with nothing to lose, the work became really bold – like Corinne and Melanie in the early 1990s.
‘And in the late 1970s – everything came out of a desire to break new territory because the previous way didn’t work. When you have all the resources available and you have everything at your disposal with regard to carpet-bombing every publication with your advertising, it almost saturates the market to the point where you don’t want see or to be part of that brand any more. Everyone wants to buy into something that’s a little bit enigmatic and still has an air of exclusivity but if it’s everywhere… That’s the great conundrum with brands like Balmain, which today seem to be everywhere. When you turn on the TV and there’s some dodgy TV presenter wearing a cheap knock-off version, the original piece is killed, and it hasn’t even hit the shops yet… Then you have to pause and think, this isn’t working, this isn’t right. But everyone seems to be happy to keep going with this pace.’