After teaming up with Derek Zoolander for his campaign comeback, the photographer discusses staying relevant in the cut-throat fashion industry
After 35 years in fashion, you’d imagine that Mario Testino has both seen and done it all. Since he ditched his economics and law degree back in the 70s to head to London and become a photographer, the Peruvian icon has captured images of everyone from the Queen of England to the celebrities he dubs “the new royalty” – the kind of superstars known only by a mononym (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Madonna). One of the industry’s most highly regarded and influential photographers, Testino has a library of books under his belt, held numerous solo exhibitions and regularly shoots campaigns for the world’s most renowned fashion houses – his relationship with Burberry, for instance, goes back over a decade and a half. But he’s preparing to add one more name to his impressive CV.
We meet in early November at a golf course just outside of New York City, where slightly bemused middle-aged men are unloading bags from their cars to find the entrance to their clubhouse obstructed by a blacked-out trailer and a van full of photography equipment. In an art deco hall inside the building, Testino is awaiting the arrival of his latest subject; someone just as esteemed as the faces who feature in his regular glossy editorials. The man he is preparing to shoot is a fashion powerhouse, a male model behemoth in an industry where so often it’s the girls who steal the show. His name is Derek Zoolander.
“It’s a constant battle between yourself and your business: how do you stay relevant? A lot of our business is based on insecurity…” – Mario Testino
Zoolander himself is yet to be seen, but the images that are being shot today – for the latest installment in CÎROC Vodka’s On Arrival campaign, for which Testino is the creative director and has designed a limited edition CÎROC Derek Zoolander Blue Steel bottle – mark an important moment in a carefully-planned career comeback. It’s been 14 years since he last graced our screens, and is now attempting a transmedia return to a world where he’s had to come to terms with the inevitable – he might not stay really, really ridiculously good-looking forever.
Testino, who turns 62 this year, admits that he knows all too well the importance of remaining one step ahead in an industry that changes its tastes from day to day. “It’s a constant battle between yourself and your business: how do you stay relevant?” he ponders, sitting on a plush chair a few metres from where a nightclub set is being specially constructed for today’s pictures (think lots of mirrored surfaces – all the better to perfect a Blue Steel). “A lot of our business is based on insecurity… I’m sure that the girls who aren’t 18 anymore are wondering, ‘Am I out, or am I in…’ and it’s like that for photographers as well! Maybe the things I have to say today aren’t as important as the things that a 25-year-old has to say? You know, I like glamour, I like beauty...and all of a sudden now it’s not glamour, it’s real and grungy?”
Just what is so hot right now? It’s the eternal question that forms the premise of Zoolander 2, out in mid-February to coincide with New York Fashion Week. Years after stopping the assassination of the Malaysian President with a single look (and learning how to turn left) the world’s best-loved male model has found himself in dire straits. A laughing stock, he’s out of fashion – his career derelict rather than derelicte. Thankfully, the arrival of a leather catsuit-clad Interpol agent cracking the mysterious deaths of the world’s most beautiful pop stars looks set to get him back onto the world’s radar.
Zoolander is perhaps the best example of what can happen when fashion is able to poke fun at itself (see the moment the model and his partner in crime Hansel returned to the runway in a surprise addition to the Valentino catwalk), but while he admits he loves the film, Testino doesn’t think the industry takes itself too seriously. “You have to – it’s a huge business!” he smiles. “You know, the thing is that the competition is such that if you don’t take yourself seriously you’re easily left behind.”
He takes a second to think of one notable example to illustrate his point – Kate Moss. “She’s been at it since she was 14, and I remember when I first met her, I shot everything in daylight and I was insecure, I never thought I’d got the picture,” he recalls. “With daylight in cities like London you can’t move a lot because you don’t have a lot of light, so you’re like, ‘Don’t move don’t move!’. She fainted! But she did not move, even when she was feeling ill, she did not say ‘Oh I can’t take this anymore’. She was still standing.” Zoolander and Hansel, take note.
In fact, despite his world-renowned reputation, Testino doesn’t think he’s made it – although he admits being chosen by Madonna over Avedon to shoot her for a Versace campaign came pretty close (“Everyone wanted to work with him, Avedon was like the star!”). “I want to get to the top,” he says, admitting he’s never satisfied with what he does. “I want to look at my work and think it looks as good as the things I like that other people do.” He admits he’s considered calling it a shot. “Should I be carrying on or should I be retiring, you know? I made it? But then what happens?” If there’s anything that can be learned from Derek Zoolander’s exit from the industry – there’s always time in life to return for a sequel.
The CÎROC Derek Zoolander Blue Steel bottle is available from January.