Grace Joel

Fashion Editor

Grace snuck into Alexander McQueen's last womenswear show before he died, which is a testament to Grace's complete love and obsession with finding the beauty in this industry. She started her career as a fashion assistant at Vogue Turkey when the publication first launched and most recently, she helped start the magazine Off Black, where she is currently the fashion editor.

This interview took place between Tate and Grace at Tate Modern in London
Editor: Claire Tang

TVPS: Can you give an overview of how you got to where you are today?

GJ: I came to London almost nine years ago after I studied fashion design in Sydney. I planned to come over for just a few years because Australia felt pretty isolated and London seemed exciting and the place to be. I first interned for the designer Roksanda Ilincic, doing sample cutting and working in the studio, followed by internships at Dazed and Confused and Vogue.

From there, I got offered an assistant position in the London office of Turkish Vogue, which had just launched. I was the Assistant to the Fashion Director for nearly two years, traveling between London and the office in Istanbul as well as travelling a lot for all the shoots. It was full on, a 24/7 job, but very exciting shooting with photographers I’d always admired like Mert & Marcus, Demarchelier, Sarah Moon and Maripol.

After I assisted stylists’s on a freelance basis while gradually, more and more I started to do my own thing – test shoots and small, independent magazines. One of my biggest projects is the magazine Off Black that I work on with my friends which is now on it’s 5th print issue and stocked globally.

How many people are on your team at Off Black?

Two friends, Sarah and Claire, started the magazine. They are both amazing hair stylists. The magazine started as a creative outlet for them and platform to create the shoots they wanted. The team is now a collective with an art director, fashion editor (myself) and beauty editor and a family of photographers, stylists, set designers and casting directors who regularly contribute.

Since Off Black was founded solely online and later expanded to print, what were some of the challenges of adding that medium?

Print is obviously super expensive in terms of the production, the paper, the layout, the distribution, etc. but it still has the prestige and feels more special. Brands, model agents, and an amazing standard of photographers and creative teams are eager to contribute and are a lot more supportive of print even though its reach is smaller than online. The nice thing with independent magazines at this point in time is that they aren’t bound by advertisers. With the bigger magazines, most of the editorial is actually advertorial where commercial brands are paying to be featured so you can be quite limited creatively as you are more adhering to others direction and concepts. Off Black has been a great opportunity to develop our own voice.

How would you describe the essence and identity of Off Black?

There’s a theme each issue and then everyone kind of goes away and comes up with ideas. Sarah and Claire lead the direction and follow through with everyone. For the “Man-Made” issue, we shot at some really interesting locations – decaying estates in London, the Eden Project in Cornwall which is the world’s largest Greenhouse and Arcades du Lac in Paris. We work a lot with set designers, which I think is quite unique. The direction photography is going in now is very analog and raw. No one has any budget, so people just go out on the street and shoot or make what you can with props, smoke and mirrors. Even if you don’t have a lot, you can still make do. Here in London we’re lucky with clothes. Starting out, obviously it’s really hard to get the big brands, but we have all the amazing students and graduates here who create exciting pieces to shoot.

Do you work with a lot of young designers?

Yes, even for magazines where I can get bigger designers, I’m always trying to mix in graduate work or designers I find on Instagram, as to me its more refreshing because you end up seeing the same Prada look in every shoot and everyone’s work starts to look the same. You start to recognize, that’s from there, and that’s from there. I go to costume shops, I make stuff, I use student stuff, and then I’ll use Dior and Louis Vuitton. It’s all about trying to make something your own rather than just repeating what you’ve seen a million times, although lots of brands are very controlling now and make you shoot the full looks. But I feel like I need to make a look or a picture my own, or what is the point?

How did you make the jump from not being recognized by a lot of brands to now doing features with some of the biggest names?

We’re lucky, actually. For the second issue, we had Vivienne Westwood, then subsequently features with J.W. Anderson, Wanda Nylon, Yang Li and Loewe. We’ve all been doing our thing for quite some time and are lucky to have built relationships over the years.There was definitely an element of trust from various PRs for the early issues and we are so thankful for them taking a chance on us. Also when people hear someone else is involved, they are keen to get involved and so gradually it gets easier as more people support and are excited to contribute. Even in the first issue, when it was quite tricky to get things, we just did what we could. You don’t need all the big designers to do something interesting! In fact it pushed us to be resourceful and creative.

How do you find the younger designers?

There’s a wonderful new showroom in London called 1 Granary, who represent a lot of recent Central St Martins Graduates. I used to stalk them all on Instagram, Facebook, Linkedin – all forms of social media to track them and their collections down; it can take a lot of research to find them! After I get hold of them, it usually ends up that they’ve already moved overseas. 1 Granary is wonderful and supportive of smaller publications. I also worked with a stylist in LA, B Akerlund who dresses a lot of the big league popstars – from Madonna, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Britney, Fergie. She is so supportive of young and up and coming designers who are from everywhere and she represents in her showroom The Residency.

In London at the moment I love Charles Jeffrey, his clothes have a real art and authenticity to them and he’s created a whole subculture that he’s attached to his brand. I also love Marta Jakubowski who makes really interesting color blocked pieces in the vein of Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester in the 90s, beautiful, conceptual pieces.

Lots of people are quite particular about who they work with. I feel like lots of photographers and stylists have a firm idea about whom they can or “should” work with, and who they shouldn’t to get somewhere, which is valid. But if someone approaches me and I am excited by the idea, then I’ll usually do it. I think the way I’m working is on intuition. If I like the person and I like their idea, then I’ll go for it!

Circling back to your time at Turkish Vogue, what was your day-to-day role?

I was Assistant to the Fashion Director when the magazine first launched. In the first few issues, we had all the top photographers, all the top models, so it was an exciting time and place to work. The main office was in Istanbul, but the fashion office was in London. There was a lot of flying around the world with clothes, millions of trunks and creating all the carnets and paperwork. It was right when Vogue Russia, Vogue Ukraine, Brazil, all the new markets, had launched as well and we all shared an office. I found it really interesting - how can you translate current fashion trends to a different culture, religion, different way of life?

I thought Turkish Vogue would be a lot more conservative, but not at all. Still though they have a different aesthetic, they like quite loud, full-on things, usually with a logo or recognizable print to show the brand. In London, Paris and New York at the moment, it’s all about being quite understated. The fashion director I assisted had amazing ideas. One of the first editorials I did was called Cartoon Femininity. Turkey has quite a masculine culture so we put these really feminine dresses on super feminine models in these Turkish masculine situations.

There’s a tradition of Turkish oil wrestling for the men, it’s a coming of age rite. They’re given these embellished leather trousers and big belts when they are boys. We shot Isabeli Fontana amongst the oil wrestlers on a beach in Montauk. All the samples got drenched in oil and sand, which was a nightmare for me!

Then we went to this beautiful place called Izmir on the Turkish coast for Turkish Love Story but with Dree Hemingway. It was interesting taking their traditional ideas and making them new and fashionable in a way that we could sell to them and also internationally.

I’ve continued to do a lot of work for new markets in my freelance work. I’ve been to Azerbaijan six times, Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Mexico, Argentina. It’s interesting to learn about those parts of the world. You realize that fashion is more than just clothes; it’s a symbol of aspiration that they’re progressing. They’re so into logos; it’s about showing luxury outwardly.

How was the company culture at Vogue Turkey?

There were only two assistants in our office, so it was me and this other girl who is actually one of my best friends still today. We were working 24/7 and relied on each other so much so you really form a bond.

I swear you make your fastest and closest friends in the fashion closet.

Yes! There were a lot of situations that’s seemed so daunting at the time and a massive workload but we were quite resilient because we were there for each other. We were there until 2 in the morning many nights, weekends. We shared an office with other publications and us assistants would all be in it together, exhausted. It was a complete pressure cooker environment.

What was your biggest takeaway from Vogue Turkey? Did you grow during your time there?

Completely and really quickly. It’s hard to get magazine jobs because there are so few and it’s fiercely competitive. The first day I got there, I had to organize a whole shoot with 28 trunks. I packed a trunk overweight, and it got stuck in customs and caused hold ups. I think being thrown in the deep end is always the best way because you learn from your mistakes. I never did that again!

Then once a whole shipment for the Britney Spears’ video I was working on got stuck in customs because turns out you’re not allowed to ship sunglasses to the United States. You might write in a customs invoice that a sample has feathers, and then, turns out; you’re not allowed feathers in that country. You always learn the hard way!

What are some of your recent projects?

I worked with a band called Austra; they have a new album coming out. We went to Mexico City and did their album cover at one of Luis Barragan’s amazing houses. I also just collaborated with the Game of Thrones costume designer, we shot her costumes as a fashion editorial. Lately, I’ve also been doing some advertising work. It is different from editorial, as you need to satisfy a brief and brand identity and let go of your own voice and aesthetic, which is an important part of editorial work. Now I’m trying to take on less work and just focus on the things that are exciting to me. It’s not necessarily the biggest name or the most paid things that I go for; it’s the things that I find most interesting and brands and bands that I feel speak the same language.

What was one of the best parts about assisting?

I became quite good friends with the photographer’s assistants, the hair, and makeup assistants, and the set design assistants. Since then we’ve all started working together—it’s quite nice to have that community and have all of us grow together. It’s great to have that kind of support. It’s about building contacts, relationships, and trust. Building a strong creative team and network is so important.

In your opinion, what’s the role of a stylist?

The title “stylist” is so broad these days – it can involve everything from creative research, brand consulting, costume, editorial to e-commerce. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that being a stylist is actually quite an administrative job.

In what ways?

I spend a lot of time doing research – it’s a luxury to have enough time to research. Often, it’ll be, “can you shoot this next week, can you do this tomorrow?” I go through all the shows, go through all the student stuff, look at references online, go to the library. Then it’s requesting, requesting, requesting. Lots of emails. Then there’s all the crediting, invoicing, chasing payments and work. When you’re self-employed you also deal with your own tax, expenses, budgets. Most of the day is often spent on the laptop!

Do you have assistants or is it just you?

Right now, I prefer to do a lot of it myself because I’m very specific about what I want.

Now that I’m getting more work, I do need someone to help me. You need someone that you can trust and someone that understands your aesthetic and can go on appointments for you. It’s also hard to be in so many places at once – out for meetings, on set, pulling appointments, waiting for deliveries.

In an ideal way, it’s always nice for the photographer, the set designer, and the stylist to come up with ideas together. Ultimately, it’s the photographer’s say, the final edit. Now that everyone is shooting on film, it’s really hard for anyone to even see. If you’re shooting digital and looking at the screen then you’ll want to fix the hair, fix the colors. But when you’re shooting film, it’s such a challenge. It’s such a gamble—you have to trust the photographer.

Why do you think more people are shooting on film these days?

I think because everyone can be a photographer now with his or her phone, so it’s about taking back the skill. You have to judge the light, the developing, the printing, the scanning. It’s a lot more expensive as well, so you have to be committed. You can only take a few frames; you can’t take a million shots and then choose the best one. Likewise, I feel like there are so many people who are stylists, so that’s why I’ve got to try and make stuff more special because anyone can put a girl against a white wall in Dior look 55.

I like the whole collaboration process. It’s interesting to see, you create a mood board, and give it to the photographer; or vice versa, it’s so nice to get other people’s views on the same thing. Often they inspire you, and then you come up with something else and then it leads somewhere completely different and new.

Once you’ve called in all of the clothes, you meet with the photographer, the hairstylist, and then you get to set and…

Then we shoot. Shoot day I find, is usually the least stressful for me by that point, if you’re prepared. It’s just trying to build interesting sets, go to interesting locations. We’re quite limited here in England because of the weather. Any time you plan a location shoot; it’ll be a torrential down pour. There’s only a few interesting buildings and houses, the odd beach, so it’s also about trying to find new places or building interesting sets. That’s why set design is such a big thing here.

Do you have a favorite shoot that you worked on?

Too many to remember really. I love traveling, so when I’m somewhere new and far-flung, I think, “Oh, I’m so lucky that I do this job!” For me, traveling is the best bit.

When did you know you wanted to work in this industry?

I think when I saw the film, Strictly Ballroom. The costumes, visuals, and music were so inspiring to me. I began drawing all of the costumes, and that’s when I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. I also used to make all of these little magazines with my friends. We hand wrote them and made copies with carbon paper.

I found when I did fashion design; I wasn’t designing wearable clothes; I was designing stuff that I thought would look good in a picture or that would tell a story. I love Tim Walker’s pictures for example; it’s a complete fantasy. When I was sewing, I didn’t care about things being perfect; I often glued my hems, it was about the bigger picture for me. I love all of the old-school, iconic fashion imagery - Avedon, Horst, Blumenfeld. The images of fashion are what stay in the memories and history, and that’s what I love.

A lot of stylists that I’ve interviewed so far have some background in fashion design. Did yours have an impact on your career?

Yeah, I think so. It’s important because you learn about how fabrics fall, what goes well with what, what looks good in what light because it has this shine, or will this stick to that; what’s going to be a nice fit on this person, how to pin and alter things, etc. I still even need to learn more. When you’re on a commercial job, you’re a seamstress or a tailor sometimes, tailoring a suit to someone. Often, it’s not that creative; you’re just polishing.

Why did you choose to start your career in London versus other cities?

I visited quite a few times when I was younger, and I liked the energy. I had read a lot about Central Saint Martins. I used to get the airfreight issues of British Vogue and i-D when I was in Australia and the images of Boombox and the whole scene and designers at the time just looked so exciting.

The best thing about London is that there are so many people from all over the world. They’re all here doing their thing and all are trying to make it work, and it’s quite an inspiring community. Everyone needs to work really hard, and everyone needs to help each other because it’s such a struggle to get by as a small fish in a massive pond.

Have you seen the fashion scene change in London over the past couple of years?

Yeah, completely. I just read an article the other day; it was about how one of Alexander McQueen’s final shows before he died, changed the whole of fashion forever. I was lucky enough to somehow sneak into the show in Paris. It was the one with the armadillo shoes and amphibian silhouettes, “Plato’s Atlantis.” I used to just have no shame and just go and try my luck to get in! It was quite an important moment because it was the first show they streamed live for everyone to access and be a part of, the first time people realized they could reach millions of people, not just 200 fashion people. It opened fashion up to be accessible and democratic, although now most complain that it’s lost its exclusivity and aspiration. Burberry was one of the first big houses to do that; streaming the show live in Piccadilly Circus as well as online, and it had all of the big celebrities in attendance for the social media images. They were also one of the first companies to pick up the “see-now-buy-now” concept too. Everyone can see everything immediately and come up with their own opinion. You don’t have to wait for a journalist to feed it to you, which is great in a way but does also devalue our jobs and experience a bit.

Many designers burn out because now to keep people interested in your brand you have to produce 4 collections a year and constantly produce new content and interest. The speed of things has killed a lot of creativity, excitement and also the desire. When I moved here, it was all about Gareth Pugh and Christopher Kane and doing really fun really crazy stuff, but it’s not about that anymore. I think people have to be a lot more realistic; there’s a lot less money around today and people can’t take the risks that they used to.

Designers find it hard to get by. There are maybe two stores in London that sell the work of young designers. It’s Machine A, and then there’s Dover Street Market, but apart from that... when I arrived ten years ago, everyone was dressing up and getting into it. Obviously, retail is suffering as well because the convenience of e-commerce has stopped people from making an occasion and experience of going shopping.

Is there a time period that significantly influenced your aesthetic?

I’m a big fan of the fifties and sixties, things that are quite feminine, nostalgic and cinematic. Growing up I guess you’re influenced by what’s around you. Australia is very colorful. I love things that are quite theatrical and over the top. I guess it’s having a bit of a renaissance with Gucci - really piling stuff on, mixing eras. It’s not new, but I like it because for so long things have been sterile and minimal. It’s a bit softer and more accessible; it’s quite dreamy and imaginative.

Do you have any aspirations for your work?

I love old school fashion photographers; their pictures are so iconic, and they still resonate today, people still reference them now, or they are hanging on walls, printed in books. I want to create things that people remember and reference again.

Is casting important to you?

Casting’s really important. When you have a good idea, the wrong model can kill it. It’s hard because they’re all young girls without much confidence and experience. You need someone that can connect, who has a good attitude, who can get into character. It’s important to meet the girl first. You look at a model’s book, and it’s all carefully edited, retouched, etc. - it’s hard to get an accurate indication.

Circling back to print, do you think it could ever go out of business?

I listened to a podcast called The Stack by Monocle about print medium. There’s been a huge surge of self-published print medium in the last few years. There is an abundance of magazines being produced that are self-published and self-funded, so it’s really about people creating them out of passion, rather than money. I think you have a lot more genuinely interesting ideas with no restrictions. Lots of online platforms are doing print editions too because people still like to have tactile objects.

I have stacks on top of stacks in my apartment; I’m a huge fan.

It’s always nice to go back to things, to keep things. Everyone’s going back to analog attitudes. In London, everyone’s really into ceramics, my friends and I all go to a life drawing class. People – at least in my little pocket of London—are getting back into doing things with their hands. Staring at a screen all day you stop feeling human. I didn’t sew for years, and I just bought a sewing machine again. We forget why we got into it in the first place! I think the resurgence of printed magazines, vinyl music, analog photography all show we are moving back in that direction.

How do you keep growing and moving forward?

I feel like being self-employed you’ve got to be so self-motivated and proactive. You just got to keep pushing yourself. Keep being inspired; keep working with the right people and projects that excite you. I’m always working on something. I never have a day off; I’ll do an editorial, or go to a gallery or museum to look for ideas.

What is your take on this generation as a whole and where are we headed?

I’ll be thirty soon; I feel like there’s a huge gap between my generation and the one after. My generation, we all worked our asses off assisting for years. It was almost like a hierarchy, and you had to work your way up. I feel like because of Instagram; it’s easier just to do something and get it out there and be discovered. You don’t have to work for years to earn respect as you can just put work out and automatically have an audience.

I think it’s interesting how you’re on the cusp of the millennial generation. Do you think growing up with less technology had an effect on who you are today?

We didn’t have so many distractions, for starters. We didn’t have Facebook until college. Because we didn’t have the distraction, I think we were a lot more insular. Now I feel a lot of work is just made for Instagram. People flipping through Instagram or Tumblr overlook how a fashion story is put together, how a photographer communicates a narrative. The whole skill of putting together a fashion story from start to finish is so hard. You’ve got to keep the same feeling, the same character going for 12, 14 pages rather than just a single image that you see on Instagram.

How what you like to see this industry evolve?

I think everything’s in a bit of a flux at the moment. It’s changed so much in last 5 years. It’s going to completely change again in the next 5 years, so it’s hard to see a path forward or a direction. You can’t predict what’s going to happen next week, let alone 5, 10 years from now. Everyday the fashion news is all, ‘this is happening, this is over, and this is dead.’ A lot of doom and gloom.

And your career? Is there a way in which you’d like it to evolve?

I have lots of projects I want to do. It’s just about finding the time and money to do them. I’d like to start making clothes again. I think I could brand a product well now through all sorts of media, something I’ve learned from styling. I’d like to do some more film stuff; I like doing bits of costume. It’s so unpredictable; it’s all about challenging yourself and going back to what you enjoy.

What advice would you give to someone who looks up to you?

It’s tough, so you’ve got to love it and put your all into it. Everything I earn, I spend on my shoots. The amount of time you have to spend on admin and logistics – chasing PRs, chasing couriers, chasing payments! You have to be inspired by it. Everyday you’re in a different place, with different people, but, it’s such freedom and privilege being able to do that. Magazines don’t exist in the same capacity as they used to. So many magazines have folded in the last five years. It’s not an easy career to get into.

Everyone says that they want to get into fashion, but often they don’t know what it entails. But if you’re inspired by it, I think you can always find a way to do it.