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A Tête-à-Tête with Andrew Richardson

Oct 26 2019

The Stylist-Turned-Editor-Turned-Designer Explains the Power of Vulgarity and the Secret Codes in His Work

“I find good taste, relentless good taste, to be really boring,” explains Andrew Richardson. Having worked closely with Steven Meisel, Terry Richardson (no relation), and David Sims, it is no surprise that Richardson understands the sophistication that lies within vulgarity.

This is the dynamic that propels most of his work. Since 1998, the stylist-turned-editor-turned-designer has published an eponymous magazine that treats sex as an ideal launchpad for cultural exploration. At the suggestion of Supreme’s James Jebbia, Richardson has grown into a streetwear brand conceived as a uniform for its readers. Observant eyes may have spotted t-shirts advertising Richardson Hardware, a fictitious business listing the address of the brand’s storefront in New York City’s Chinatown. It is just one of many graphics functioning as club insignia: ciphers inscrutable to those not in the know. They signal an allegiance to an aesthetic that is simultaneously provocative and refined, the “secret code” that serves as the foundation of the Richardson universe.Thom Bettridge interrupted Andrew Richardson’s weekend in Los Angeles to talk about VR pornography, recognizing excellence, and the satisfaction of translating ideas to products.

I was watching this interview with David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose from like 20 years ago, and he was saying, “How is society as we know it going to exist after we have virtual reality porn?” And I thought to myself, “Wow, now we actually do have virtual reality porn.”Making the subject of sex surprising feels particularly difficult right now. How do you go about doing something in print that people find intriguing in this kind of media environment?Do you have an example of one of those pivotal moments?The Magic City story is interesting, because it’s a strip club reportage but it’s also a psychogeography of American rap. The entire industry goes to that club.

Do we? I’ve never experienced it, but I’d imagine that it’s not as fantastic as you’d imagine it’s gonna be.The magazine’s always been super personal and a reflection of where I’m at at any particular time. For me it doesn’t really matter what’s coming up on Snapchat, or on Instagram, or some Tumblr, or from a very established photographer, it’s a level playing field now. A pathway opens and then you go down that pathway. It’s not structured. There are these little pivotal moments that push it further and further and further over the cliff.When we photographed Blac Chyna, it took a long time for her to agree to be photographed for the magazine, and it then took a long time to actually get her and Steven Klein in the same place to do the series of images. That’s one “eureka” moment, when you’re really struggling to get something, and you don’t think it’s going to happen, and you’re pushing and pushing and pushing, and then you do get it. That sort of re-inflates the balloon and you’re buoyant again. Or, like, Nick Waplington going to Magic City to photograph what’s happening in the Atlanta strip scene. I had a sense that it would be good, but when you’re actually there and you’re making it, you feel like, “Oh, this is what I wanted it to be, this is great.”That club is a very different strip club than any other strip club I’ve ever been to. It’s hard to explain. It’s almost like the Met Ball every Monday night. People go there to see and be seen in a certain way, and it’s a very interesting social dynamic. The DJ is incredibly sophisticated in the way that he paces the night and paces the flow of energy in the room. The MC is very skilled. It’s an incredibly professional environment that is much, much deeper and more complex than what people would perceive a strip club to be.

Are you ever concerned about producing a project that’s in poor taste? That moment where it’s like, “This is excessive,” or, “This is too crass?”What did you learn from your time working with Steven Meisel?So you create this kind of artifice—this very strictly calculated image—and then there’s a rupture in that. It’s like this moment of…Part of that is you see a lot less sexuality in fashion photos. There’s a sort of neutered quality.

Yes, for sure. My fashion background comes from a tradition of playing around with vulgarity and trying to be thoughtful of how you do it. Helmut Newton was a big fan of vulgar, bad taste, and I think he had a big influence on all of us. I find relentless good taste to be really boring and really stifling. It’s really good to assault people with something vulgar.Working with Steven on and off for 15 years taught me about being thoughtful about what you do and also optimizing every opportunity to make images. Not being lazy, but also staying open to coincidences and staying flexible within the idea that you’re interested in. If you don’t have good taste, you can’t do vulgar work. But if you have good taste then you can break that good taste and make something really interesting. Some of Steven’s best images are ones where he’s broken the beauty of the situation in a way that somebody else wouldn’t have thought of doing.Pop! Those are the kind of moments when you’re like, “Wow, that’s an image that will resonate forever.” Terry Richardson’s always talking about doing something that can be referenced in 15 years time. That was always the goal, rather than just being more wood for the fire. Unfortunately, I feel a lot of fresh imagery today is so controlled by advertisers and editors who are afraid about the financial aspects of a magazine. It’s almost like we’re going back to a pre-Diana Vreeland idea of fashion magazines, where they’re just like catalogs for brands to sell their wares. What happened after her was fashion magazines were the arena of ideas and feelings and became kind of cultural magazines. And I feel that it’s less about that now. That’s a great sadness.You see a lot of really dumb conventions of sexuality. People feel like they’re restricted to expressing themselves using the fashion that they’re photographing, and then they’ll use some sort of boring erotic motif to make the story “cool.” It all seems very lazy and boring.

How do you keep yourself excited?What made you decide to start a clothing brand?In an interview, you once described streetwear as being “paramilitary.” In a way, when you create a streetwear brand, you’re creating uniforms for a fictional gang.What are some things that you’re working on now that are intriguing you?

The magazine is about sex, but it’s really about provocation. It’s trying to be a thought-provoking magazine based around sexuality and culture. And then the magazine evolved into a fashion brand, so you’re thinking about clothes and you’re thinking about graphics and you’re thinking about translating the ideas that are in the ethos of the magazine into clothing. There’s a lot of work to do in the Richardson world. That keeps me pretty busy and pretty satisfied.I’m friends with James from Supreme. He said, “Oh, we should do some t-shirts with artwork from the magazine.” And I had never even thought about it before. We did that, and then I didn’t do the magazine for about seven years. When I came back, I thought, “Let’s do a few t-shirts!” I have a background in fashion and I’ve always sort of enjoyed it.When I was a kid, there were mods, punks, teds, rockers, skinheads, and rudeboys. And there was no Internet, so if you were young and you wanted to establish what you were into musically and culturally and politically, you could dress a certain way to show everybody what your affiliations were. I think maybe that’s changed, but I still feel like there’s a place for wearing certain types of things that express who you are and what you’re into. Like secret codes. It’s sort of reassuring that you can represent yourself through these choices about the way you look. And that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s like a uniform for somebody who’s into the culture of the brand.I’m very excited about some of the things that have come out for Fall/Winter 2016. We’ve done this whole thing on the American Standard, like the graphics on the toilet. And we played around with some stuff about dazzle camouflage. We’ve done this whole thing about the Midwest. There’s something about the Midwest that is dark and fascinating.

The toilet idea sounds apt. Because American Standard is such an iconic thing that everyone sees, but it’s covered in piss.You mentioned that for you the magazine was as much about provocation as it was about sex. What are you provoking us towards? What types of boundaries are you trying to transgress?

It’s sort of weirdly sexual. Even though it may or may not be for different people. What’s so much fun about doing a streetwear brand is that there’s all these ideas in your personal vision that give you a little inner smile. And then it’s about being able to manipulate the idea so that it actually connects. This incense burner, for example, is one of my favorite things that I’ve made. I had this Nymphenburg ashtray that had a large central column. Somebody was at my house and said, “Oh, that would make a really cool incense burner.” But as it was it wouldn’t have worked. And then I looked at a vase that Ettore Sottsass made, and I looked at those Tibetan lingams that are kind of these phallic symbols, and so you put these three or four elements together and come up with this weird incense burner ashtray.We live in a culture of “like” and “shame.” And it feels almost like a fascistic culture of intolerance of any kind of dissent or any kind of negativity. There’s very little subtle nuance, and there’s very little room for any kind of personal truth. We’re trying to present freedom of thought, whether it’s about politics, sexuality, violence, or whatever. We are trying to present things that if you wear them, you are separating yourself from mainstream culture. And so we’re talking about being thoughtful. I was always really impressed with people who were able to accept and communicate and weren’t ashamed of their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and who they really were. Some of the ideas we present, you have to be quite into provocation to want to wear them.