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Clifford Jago & The Ice QueensCourtesy of Clifford Jago

Enter the surreal world of Clifford Jago, the non-existent fashion stylist

We catch up with the anonymous duo behind the character

Fashion’s polarising ability to turn things that sound completely wrong on paper into must-have items is nothing new. Thigh-high Ugg boots? Fashion crocs? Check and check

Two photographers have gone one step further in pushing fashion’s (sometimes) ridiculous boundaries, though, by creating a stylist that doesn’t really exist. Yep, if you’ve ever heard the name Clifford Jago, or come across his work, he’s not real. Self-described as “The Messiah of the fashion cupboard, balancing objects on humans in the name of fashion” Jago was first created by the duo – who have chosen to remain anonymous, and go by the aliases Mario Leibovitz and Juergen Penn – back in 2015 as a reaction to ‘credit culture’ and the fact that magazines have to shoot brands simply because they advertise.

The end result – that Jago (yes, he answers questions) describes as “something that would confuse your mum, but make her smile” – is surprisingly captivating. Ditching hair and make-up and “traditional” styling, the images often feature looks completely created out of items found on the street, or bought second-hand. While banana cones, inflatable pool toys, pop-up tents, and spears of asparagus might not sound like your typical fashion looks, the playfulness and light-hearted approach creates beautiful images enhanced by the breathtaking backdrops.

“(I’m) the Messiah of the fashion cupboard, balancing objects on humans in the name of fashion” – Clifford Jago 

First heading to Amsterdam to create his debut book Clifford and the Tulip Chewers, Jago is now back after a sojourn to Iceland for his second project, Clifford Jago & The Ice Queens. “It’s an adventure on another planet, only NASA is easyJet and the spacesuits are bananas,” the stylist explains. “Every single page is a banger, I believe each image should be able to stand alone on its own and have a little party.” Published by Catalogue, the sophomore edition evolves from the analogue style of the first, and includes digitally-created images – yes, that’s more CGI models.  

While it might seem like a poke at fashion (and some of its diva attitudes) the pair behind Jago are adamant it’s not, with the overall message being about collaboration across creative jobs and not being so rigid in approach. “I don’t think you have to be so protective over your role,” they say. “A lot more possibilities can happen if you’re collaborating.” 

Here, we speak to the duo behind Clifford Jago.

How did you first meet?

Mario Leibovitz: We both used to work at a studio called Curtain Road Studios. It closed down two years ago but it was the best daylight going. Juergen worked there before me and I met him through a mutual friend who told me I should work at the studio as well.

And then you started shooting together?

Mario Leibovitz: We started hanging out and doing a few tests to see what we could do. We used to do all these mad shoots with no concept, just going wild and then it eventually led to something pretty solid. We met up on weekends and just set stuff up with smoke machines, dry ice machines, and abandoned radiators.

We had a contact at The Sun newspaper and they sent us this glamour model, so we shot her on top of eight piled-up radiators and she was like ‘what the fuck are you guys doing?’. She completely freaked out, but we really enjoyed it and had a laugh with her. We were just experimenting with stuff and basically trashed the studio, then spent hours cleaning it up.

Where did you get the clothes from?

Juergen Penn: We’d go down to the local vintage shops. There were two different fashion shops and we’d just go in there and ask if we could borrow some clothes. 

Mario Leibovitz: We were quite naughty. All the PR clothes in the office, we used to use them on the side then put them back really neatly. We’d have the biggest brands and then we’d mix them with broken radiators, and go to the garage downstairs and see what we could find down there.

How did the idea to create Clifford Jago come about? 

Mario Leibovitz: He was first created as a reaction to the fashion formula of the industry because we felt restricted by magazine requirements. What the stylist would want from the shoot would often conflict with what we wanted. There would be loads of arguments, so we needed to make our own platform to break free from that.

When we were shooting it was always a no-go for the photographer to jump in and start making styling decisions. We wanted to start doing that, but also have this alter-ego that would allow us a bit of freedom, but anonymously. The character is a hyperreal, super-charged stylist that is a little mad, a bit eccentric, but also doesn’t have to go down the credit route – just total freedom.

The Sun newspaper sent us this glamour model, so we shot her on top of eight piled-up radiators and she was like ‘what the fuck are you guys doing?’” – Mario Leibovitz 

Who inspires his character? 

Mario Leibovitz: We originally modelled Jago on Cain Dingle from Emmerdale. We modelled it on him because he’s got that real sort of ‘fuck you, I’m doing it’ approach and there’s something about that which is just great. We wanted to combine the personality of a fashion stylist but bring it all back down to earth. As we did it, it became less about Jago’s character and more about the Instagram presence of Jago.

Juergen Penn: When we spoke to Catalogue (the publisher) we sent them a whole bunch of memes that we had made through the humour of Clifford Jago, to try and get his personality across. We definitely think about how the character exists and how he thinks and that plays a big part in the styling.

What does he look like?  

Mario Leibovitz: Imagine Cain Dingle with pink hair, or Cain Dingle but he looks like Mugatu from Zoolander. I reckon if we gave Cain Dingle a bit of money he’d be well up for it. 

What was the reaction to your first book, Clifford Jago and the Tulip Chewers?

Juergen Penn: We got into a bit of trouble with it. We went to Amsterdam and hooked up with a load of agencies there, shooting with their models, but we didn’t really have a lot of stuff to show them previously. They were really shocked when they saw the result, a bit freaked out. So we upset a few agencies there.

Mario Leibovitz: We came up with this massive concept and in our heads it makes sense, but to other people it was like ‘what the hell is going on here?’ As we were doing the book we were still discovering what the hell it was. The difference now is we know what it is and it comes across that way. With the first book, it was about perfecting the style, seeing how it works.

Do you think people now understand the message behind it?

Juergen Penn: This one was a lot easier because we already had one book when we went to Iceland, so people straight away knew what to expect. Having done it before it’s slightly more refined and people are understanding what we’re trying to do now. We’re growing in a good way.

Mario Leibovitz: The good thing about this project is that it’s accessible to everyone. You don’t have to be on the inside to get it, even though it’s keeping in the DNA of fashion.

Juergen Penn: It works because we’ve both been through the industry, we both learnt our trade, so it’s a ‘learn the rules to break rules’ kind of thing. It’s very accessible, but above anything it’s playful, it’s visually fun, and you can read into it or not.

“The good thing about this project is that it’s accessible to everyone. You don’t have to be on the inside to get it, even though it’s keeping in the DNA of fashion” – Mario Leibovitz

Why did you choose Iceland for the second book? 

Juergen Penn: We wanted somewhere that was a mad landscape to try and test ourselves and make a book that feels like you’re on Mars. There was a lot of driving around in campervans, and it’s just barren, cold landscapes for miles and miles.

Mario Leibovitz: The thing with Iceland, because a lot of people have been in recent years on different excursions and photo trips, we wanted to include the side of it that no one wants to put on their Facebook feeds. The more everyday side of it. That was a big thing as well, putting the mundane in there: a vending machine, some old lady in a car park, a supermarket. I think it’s important for us to experience a bit of everything and bring it all into the mix. Magical realism.

Did you take styling items with you, or find things when you were out there? 

Mario Leibovitz: It was a bit 50/50 with this one because when you’re out there you’re really limited. We picked up a bunch of stuff before we went, we also found stuff en route. There’s a banana cone we got from Luton airport, that was a great little find. We did a shop when we got there and went around the town, picked up some stuff. Went to some hardware stores, we went to different shopping centres and found materials while we were there.

How do you plan to continue Clifford’s story?

Mario Leibovitz: We’ve had a few ideas, we want to do a few special collaborations. Things like calendars, maybe collaborate with a model agency or a magazine, and then we also thought about doing our own fashion show. We’d actually make the outfits and then while fashion week was going on we’d put on a Clifford Jago thing, at the main event or in a big lorry. 

It can transform into anything, that’s the beautiful thing about this. It can be a design, a magazine, a video game, we don’t even know what it could be yet, it’s ever-transforming. We’re just having fun with it at the moment. It’s more of an art piece. We will definitely do another adventure abroad somewhere, but I think we’re going to do some smaller stuff between and gear up to the next big trip. 

We were going to do a whole book and document the banana, from the banana plantation in South America all the way back to London. We thought that would be amazing, because a banana is kind of our spirit animal. There’s just so many things you could do with a banana, there are so many ways of styling with a banana. It’s a hilarious object. It’s a metaphor for madness. 

Do people think Clifford is real?

Mario Leibovitz: We try to keep it a big secret, but the more we do it the more we find it just confuses people. When we go to see agencies and magazines we have to give the game away a bit and say there’s this imaginary character. The people outside of that bubble though, they have no idea and it’s important it stays like that. Of we put our names on it, it would be distracting. It’s cool just being Clifford Jago. It doesn’t matter if people think it’s real or not.