Thomas Lenthal is one of fashion’s preeminent image-makers. For more than 25 years, whether co-founding magazines of substance (Numéro, Paradis, System), overseeing the art direction for luxury maisons (Christian Dior Couture, Yves Saint Laurent – both in the early 2000s), or working with A-list clients (Calvin Klein, Prada) through his namesake agency, the Paris-based creative has proved highly successful at shaping various angles of the industry thanks to his collaborative style and persuasive vision.
From his office in the Marais, where hundreds of books fill the shelves and framed prints from Juergen Teller hang on the wall, Thomas Lenthal recently spoke with writer Amy Verner for Momentum Insights. Their conversation spans the significance of big-budget fashion shows, the pursuit of authenticity, and the importance of free-flowing dialogue.
You often interview subjects for System. How do you feel about being interviewed?
It's much better, actually. I sometimes find interviewing people very trying.
In fashion, it's usually always the same people who are interviewed: the designers, executives, and influencers – maybe also models. There’s this whole sector within the industry that is creating as prolifically as the designers – art directors and graphic designers, for instance, who are rarely profiled.
Maybe there's some merit to that.
You think that, in some cases, it serves a purpose to be under the radar in the role that you have?
It probably serves the project that the art director is an insider character, rather than a public figure. Also, you would have to establish this category and to have the general audience understand what it is we do; we're not at this point where everyone understands what an art director does or is supposed to be doing.
Then I wonder how people think images and campaigns and ads and all of this gets made.
Typically, art directors would tell you that they haven't yet been able to explain to their parents what is it they're doing.
The Spring ’19 shows took place a little over a month ago. Did you see anything this season that excited you?
I'm always impressed with certain shows that carry a message across. Today, a show is also a lot about the set. That's the heart of what this is. It's a spectacle.
More and more, when the show has the means to do it, it becomes an experience. People want added value.
Yes, I think so. By contrast, there are shows like Azzedine Alaïa’s where you were basically in a room with a boom box. They were immensely moving and very beautiful because you could concentrate on that thing. These shows were perfectly calibrated for Azzedine's world, Azzedine's size, Azzedine's clientele, Azzedine's followers and everyone had a wonderful time because of that intimacy. Obviously, what's expected of a huge LVMH house or Chanel cannot be that.
But why do you think the big houses feel they need to stage such big productions?
An Azzedine show wasn’t Instagram friendly. A Chanel show is very Instagram friendly. I'm not saying it's bad; if you're big, that's what you have to do. If you're a smaller brand, then you have to be very sophisticated or very interesting.
Speaking of Instagram, System has an impressive enough following on Instagram but there doesn’t seem to be any imperative to post frequently. And you barely post. Is this deliberate?
Not really. Funnily enough, I think System is still an infant in the industry. We're still able to pretty much do what we do because it's not expected from the brands. It's maybe what the brands enjoy about System or maybe what they think System brings to the ecosystem of magazines. As though they’re saying, “Okay, let's participate because we think it's an interesting voice.” You have to navigate that carefully: to keep your identity and still be desirable, because what it is you do feels authentic. I think the brands have this feeling that we approach things in a somewhat authentic way.
Authenticity is the new “curation” as far as buzzwords. And it gets tossed around rather liberally.
Yes. It’s a big word, but you know what I'm saying.
Magazines these days are also looking at different ways to leverage their own value proposition and to leverage their voice – to offer their point of view as an alternate revenue stream, such as conferences or special projects. How interesting is this to you?
Very interesting. It's a revenue stream, and also, it's something that enables you to engage with clients in a more intimate way. You get an interesting understanding of what they're trying to do. And the way they respond to propositions gives a good sense of what the industry is looking for these days.
Do you think there's still a place for physical magazines?
Yes, but I'm not sure that there will still be a place for the big monthlies. I don't know what the future of these is. I think there's still a place for something that feels a little precious. Paper has become precious. Which means that, when you commit something to paper, you elevate it, somehow.
The flip side is that, younger people might read magazines as a cult-type product; but generally, they feel it's bad for the environment to consume paper. Newspapers and magazines are now nicknamed dead tree media. It's not that they're not reading things; but they also view magazines as taking up space.
Maybe, and then we should also ask ourselves what the environmental impact is of sending emails, sending texts, sending all that stuff. The amount of electricity that's being consumed. I don't know what the carbon print of Instagram is – I'd be interested.
Aren't your clients on the art direction side requiring a steady supply of digital assets?
Of course. Yes. They need snackable content, as it’s often called.
Right. As opposed to substantial food for thought.
Well, there are different levels. You still do catalogs and you still do the big advertising, you still do packaging. Because they're still selling objects. What is digital content? There are so few genuinely creative digital concepts that are seriously clever – that really use the possibilities of the media. The rest of it is just like, okay, [your phone] is like a portable TV.
Do you think all this snackable content is also safer? There’s very little in the way of outrageous today – like some of the Dior campaigns you did for John Galliano.
No, we don't see truly outrageous anymore; I think people got jaded, maybe. Back then, there was an acceleration of truly outrageous because people thought, "That's the way to go." I think the reason why the shock factor is no longer an option is because fashion has grown tenfold. You're talking to an audience that's more than 10 times larger than what it was 15 years ago. You're addressing entire countries that are really not ready for some of the shock factor that was considered okay 20 years ago. Now, your fashion imagery needs to be palatable in countries that are not okay with some of the imagery that we used to put in magazines 20 years ago. It's not that fashion has become more cautious; it's just that it has become a really big industry.
That's a really interesting point even if it seems obvious. One of the repercussions, however, is a certain homogenization. Campaigns start to look the same – and it's not just because the same players might be working behind the scenes. In the past, you had these distinct identities.
I don't believe in that, at all. I think there's always going to be a prevailing style, a zeitgeist. That's why you can look at a picture and say, "This looks very 90s." It’s impossible to avoid a kind of middle-of-the-road style that emerges every now and then. And it’s media, not just fashion. You could argue that movies feel the same, too – the same kind of photography, the same kind of music. It's not even that it's wrong or it's good. It's just what it is. And suddenly something pops out and becomes remarkable and then maybe it becomes the root for the next banality.
With your clients, how much carte blanche do you usually have?
It's not about carte blanche; it's really a collaboration.
That's a good distinction.
It's a very collaborative thing. And it's the same with magazines. I think magazines are a result of conversations. Most of what I do in my professional life is a result of a conversation – or many conversations, for that matter. I really don't see myself as an author. For better or worse, I’m really interested in the conversation. Then it becomes about being lucky enough to have clients with whom you can have a conversation. You have to establish the dialogue. To me, that's the inspiring bit.
Is commercial a dirty word? Especially compared to artistic? Are they opposing forces?
I don't think they're opposing. I think it's all a question of the level of sophistication of the person you're having the conversation with, i.e. the client. How much do they understand the merits of being cool or not cool? Do they think this is a value or liability? If you're dealing with a client that thinks that looking fresh is a liability, then that gives you an indication of whom you're dealing with. Some clients are braver than others.
To what degree does this correspond to the brand’s size?
If you're brave and big, then you have to put a lot of muscle behind your bravery to push your point across, the way that Gucci did it. They went for it. I'm not even saying I love it or I don’t. I think they were very brave, and they put their money where their mouth is. It was a leap of faith, and that doesn't happen often, actually.
It's worked for them commercially.
Yes, and now every other client that was more conservative is perhaps like, "Look at what they're doing." And you're like, "Yeah, but you would never ever do that. If you were offered the opportunity to really stick your neck out, you probably wouldn't."
Does it interest you to work with young designers, someone fresh out of design school? If someone like Marine Serre was to come to you and say, "I want you to help me,” how do you do that? How do you build an image from the ground up?
That's really an interesting thing. With a younger designer, you have to feel kinship or friendship; you have to really be into what it is they have to say, what they have to show. You have to love them and then translate that somehow.
It's very telling that you put Virgil Abloh on the cover of System issue 10. I get the sense it did phenomenally well. Was that one of your better performing issues?
Yeah, absolutely, it sold out.
So then with issue 11, you made a point in the introductory message to say that the cover was conspicuously not a major figure in the fashion world.
Yes. The reason behind this issue with Sadie Sink was that we were really keen on exploring the way the Z generation is reacting to the world, and more specifically, to the fashion and luxury industry and the beauty industry. The market always has a keen eye on what's coming next; it's not only out of sheer niceness to teenagers. But we did this because we know that what these people think or the way they see the world is something that will influence the industry – shaping it to what it needs to be. If you're in this industry, it makes sense to hear what a 13-year-old has to say about what you do. They're not coming in 20 years; they're coming in a couple of years. And they're either buying into your brand or they're not buying into your brand.
That's what Virgil does so well.
Virgil is phenomenally good at engaging with a younger generation. That's why Virgil is also such a hot commodity. The entire industry seems to be absolutely fascinated with him as a character. Virgil bridges all these different cultures in a formidable way. And people are like, "This is what's happening. Let's incorporate this force in the luxury industry."
This might sound banal given what we’ve discussed, but what is a day or a week like in the life of Thomas Lenthal?
There’s some travel. There’s a lot of conversation. We talk a lot.
Here at this table?
Here at the table. We ponder. We try to find clever solutions. We argue. The conversations are always fairly conceptual, which is a big word, but they lead to solutions.
Do you have a dream project, a project that you haven't yet realized?
Yes. A feature film – or actually, a TV series.
Can you explain why?
I think because what an art director does is not necessarily about creating a better world, but a contained world. Whatever the project, you are art directing a picture, you are art directing a show, you are art directing a place. At the end of the day I think that filmmaking is a lot about this. Feature films are probably the greatest playground for an art director, even though it takes more than just being a good art director to do a great film.
Do you have the idea?
Yes, it's a historical thing, actually. I like the past.
In the video that accompanies Karl Lagerfeld’s furniture collection at Carpenters Workshop Gallery, he said, “Nothing is more modern than antiquity." Which is essentially another way of saying the best design comes from the past.
I believe the past is the most exotic destination there is left. Because anyone can go and see a beautiful sea, it's very accessible. I think I derive a lot more out of an old building or an old place than going to a tropical island.
It's not about nostalgia – or is it?
Not necessarily, no. It's just that in those places you get a feeling that there was another state of consciousness. If you're quiet enough and if there's not too much noise around you, you feel what people must have felt or what they were concerned with.
Well, we're very lucky in Paris; we are surrounded by the past.
Yes, it’s true.
But at the end of the day, you still have to put out a product that is relevant.
Absolutely. That's the goal: to be able to arouse past, present and future– through places, timeframes, dimensions.
System #12 is out now, featuring Dior’s Kim Jones shot by Juergen Teller.