Fashion's Relationship With Typography: Arming Us For the New Age

by Christina Donoghue on 10 August 2021

After SHOWstudio's surreal-esque makeover last year with a new moving logo, writer Christina Donoghue decided to delve deeper, interviewing Peter Saville, Nick Knight and Paul Barnes about typography's roots in surrealism and futurism, and how the two have paved the way for modern graphic design in fashion.

After SHOWstudio's surreal-esque makeover last year with a new moving logo, writer Christina Donoghue decided to delve deeper, interviewing Peter Saville, Nick Knight and Paul Barnes about typography's roots in surrealism and futurism, and how the two have paved the way for modern graphic design in fashion.

Have you ever read a book and found the lettering infuriatingly dense, making it hard to follow? Or one whose typeface is too distracting? Have you ever been browsing several book spines on a shelf and had one jump out at you amid a crowded section? Fonts have different personalities, which is why you never see Comic Sans on a funeral notice - or a railway arch graffitied in Times New Roman. Some are aggressive, even slightly punkish in character (Misfit, we're looking at you). Some are light and breezy (Calibri). Others? Well, one can only describe them as goth-like and, quite simply, rather strange.

Graphics and typography not only bombard everyday life - they dictate the everyday; that mouldy carton of milk with a half scratched off label sat in your fridge? Someone's designed that. An album's genre-defining cover art? (Yes, we're talking about New Order's Blue Monday) - you have the genius that is Peter Saville to thank. Picked up The Guardian at the weekend? Typographer Paul Barnes is behind their infamous font - the Guardian Egyptian slab-serif typeface, which came along with the paper's distinguished 2005 rebranding also overseen by Barnes. Almost everything and anything man-made you come across has involved at least a basic level of graphic design, and where there's graphics, the conversation of typography follows not too far behind.

'Type is the most profoundly significant aspect of communications design', Saville revealed when I spoke to him last week about the significance of typography in today's world. 'It's arguably more important than the hair in a fashion show, and the hair is really important in the fashion show. I don't think there's anything as immediately significant in the reading of a fashion image as the hair, so that says a lot.' This comes from the man who once told writer and curator Lou Stoppard in a 2015 SHOWstudio In Fashion interview, 'Our entire globe is a communications sphere.'

Armed with a famed philosophy of wanting to 'make fashion move' (and joining Saville a staggering amount of enthusiasm towards our very own communications sphere), is SHOWstudio's founder and director Nick Knight - which is where the context of our new animated logo, designed by Swiss designer Zach Lieberman and filmmaker and motion graphics artist Dirk Koy, comes into play. Determined to break the rules of typography, in 2020, we began asking designers and creative masterminds to reimagine the original SHOWstudio logo, first designed by Saville in 2000.

If fashion can be shown in movement, why can't type - Nick Knight
Harper’s Bazaar December 1959, cover design by Alexey Brodovitch, photograph by Richard Avedon.

SHOWstudio has always endeavoured to embrace fashion's omnipresent digital future. Fed up with the stagnant images displayed in magazines in the nineties, Knight was fuelled with the burning desire to showcase fashion the way he saw it; on set in real-time, live and in motion. The turn of the millennium brought with it dial-up internet and a future that many people were too scared to accept. Recognising the advantages of an online world, and, in the words of the late David Bowie, its 'enormous potential', SHOWstudio was the first to live stream a fashion shoot (Sleep) in 2001; a move so successful it led to Knight collaborating with fashion virtuoso Alexander McQueen. The pair then worked together to make history, resulting in the first ever live-streamed fashion show, Plato's Atlantis. In short, SHOWstudio made fashion move, encouraged its movement and delighted in it when the industry started to catch on (albeit after considerable hesitance). Considering this, it felt contradictory to have a logo as inactive as the complacent magazine format that repelled Knight in the first place. So, we asked ourselves, 'If fashion can be shown in movement, why can't type?' Queue the moving logo.

Both Lieberman and Koy's work is wildly hypnotic and intensely futuristic, possessing nostalgic surrealist qualities, subsequently straddling many 20th-century art forms as a result. Fundamentally, their moving graphics can be considered a reaction to the technological advancements in computing in the 21st century - similar to all the art movements that have funnily embraced type as part of their own work; Futurism, Constructivism, Dada and Surrealism all were notably all reactions to the old establishment.

As someone who's always been fascinated by the art movements of the early 20th century - wishing to soak up any information that pointed or even alluded to Breton's surrealist manifesto or Marinetti's futurist principles - I found myself likening Knight's intense fascination with the technological advancements of our own time to Marinetti's admiration for machinery and the new industrial age - one that took place a century before SHOWstudio's birth.

In 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (a leading Italian Futurist) put pen to paper and wrote what soon became the first futurist manifesto, declaring 'the end of the past and the beginning of the future', the future being the movement's moniker (Le Futurisme). Written in the manifesto was a hungry desire to neglect all nostalgic forms of art, moving past romanticism by looking to the beauty of the future: 'We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed… a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the victory of Samothrace'. Wondering if these comparisons were far-fetched or if there was more than meets the eye, I turned to one of the world's most notorious graphic designers to look for answers, Peter Saville.

New Order: Power, Corruption and Lies (front cover), 1983 featuring 'A Basket of Roses', Henri Fantin-Latour, 1890 (courtesy of National Gallery, London). Design by Peter Saville.

Some of Saville's most iconic artworks (see Joy Division's Closer, for example) take imagery synonymous with art history, such as the still life, placing them in a modern context by reinterpreting their meaning entirely. These works, emblematic of the period in which Saville was working in, have gone on to inspire a myriad of creatives, notably the Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons. To give even a brief synopsis that encapsulates their rich cultural cache, the records Saville designed while at Factory Records for the likes of Joy Division and New Order have ended up on cult collector's items; take the the A/W 03 Raf Simons parkas. This in itself makes Saville the perfect candidate to speak to when wondering about the influence of graphic design on contemporary culture.

Cementing my thoughts on the synergy between 20th century art, fashion, modern graphic design and typography, Saville started by telling me that his eureka moment in understanding the importance of art and its relation to everyday graphics happened when he was in the library at Manchester Polytechnic. 'When I was in college, somebody told me to go and look in the library and hidden there is what I can now only describe as the canon of graphic design history.' Going on to explain this so-called 'canon', Saville notes 'Its provenance and origins are in early 20th century art movements,' and went on to establish that 'graphics is a discipline that comes out of the modernist era of art'. Making such a statement could imply that Saville believes graphic design didn't exist pre-modernism, yet he knows that's not the case. 'Obviously, there was print and posters and newspapers before the early 20th century, but the crucial understanding of graphic design that prevailed through the 20th century has its origins in those very significant art movements.' Saville quickly corrects himself, 'But really, the art of the early 20th century is more than just movements; they speak of the new industrial order in life.'

So, where did Saville's interest in design come from? For people who know the prolific art director and his rich and diverse portfolio of work, it comes as no surprise that Saville didn't stumble upon the art of making record covers out of the blue. In fact, this very exercise led him to be interested in art and graphics in the first place. 'I didn't go to art school to learn and study graphic design. At the age of 17, 18, I didn't even know what graphic design was', he admits. Asked when he started to see graphics as a 'job', he tells me about his introduction to 1970s record cover art. 'Like any other teenager, particularly in the 70s, we were obsessed with record covers, the reason being that they were pretty much', he pauses, 'well actually, not pretty much, they were singularly the only medium of progressive visual imagery that permeated our lives. We liked visual culture, and the only place where we saw progressive visual culture was on a record sleeve - we saw them as a medium in their own right.'

Explaining the cultural significance of not only a record but the artwork it came with, Saville notes that he and his friend spoke of them 'as if they were independent we may have been indifferent to the music, but we would first and foremost always speak about the cover. It wasn't just covers of records of the bands we liked; we identified the covers themselves as art that we did or didn't like, and over time, it became apparent that that was what we were into. We would spend all of our spare time in the art room at school and lunchtimes and stay for an hour after school and things like that, doing illustrations and paintings for fantasy record covers.' Little did he know that the following decade would see him create some of the world's most influential cover art that's ever been designed.

Everything I've done; it's always the choice in the typeface first - Peter Saville
Raf Simons A/W 03, featuring Peter Saville cover art for New Order and Joy Division

Inspired by Saville's work from the eighties, leading typographer Paul Barnes also started to make his own record covers when at school. 'I didn't study art at school, but I always had an interest in letters, which I saw as a way into graphic design. With things like what Saville did, a lot of it was purely typographical - which inspired me and my own path. Eventually, one of the art tutors came up to me to try and convince me to apply to the typography course at Reading University, and I already had a portfolio because I started making things like imaginary record covers and different things.'

When Barnes went on to study typography seriously, he realised that 'Not everything was about making record covers all the time, you did quite dry things also, like learning about how to specify the type for a book and other formats.' Though typography does not always allude to fantasy record covers (at least not in Barnes's case), type is still a definitive factor. Highlighting the specific power the choice of type holds over many designers when they're faced with the task of making new work, Saville reminisces on his younger years and how the discovery of a book that held what he refers to as 'the secrets to typography', old and new, immediately resonated with him as a new graphic designer that was only starting out. 'When I was at the beginning of my career, I stumbled across this enormous encyclopaedia of typography. We're talking about hundreds of years worth of development in type. I could also see how they all - these profoundly evident and sometimes subtly different semiotic qualities - informed any piece of graphic work that I wished to do. Everything I've done; it's always the choice in the typeface first.'

The collaborative performance between word and image is also a heady one. An interplay that feeds into the very nature of graphic design and the importance of curating a page, it's imperative to reference the dutiful relationship between words and images and how the two (if done successfully) should work with each other, rather than against one another. Words, when given thought, also act as a form of imagery. Composition, typeface and overall layout are integral to the idea of seeing type as an expressive form of design. No one knew this better than the artistic genius Alexey Brodovitch, most notably when he held the appointed position of art director at Harper's Bazaar from 1934-1958.

In 1934, the newly appointed editor of Harper's Bazaar, Carmel Snow, attended an exhibition curated by Brodovitch for The Art Directors Club of New York. Snow described it as a revelation, writing, 'Pages that bled beautifully, cropped photographs, typography and design that were bold and arresting.' Before he knew it, Brodovitch would become art director of the famed magazine, where he gave a platform to many of the surrealists, situating them in a fashion context while transforming the magazine altogether. Creating double-page spreads that bore witness to words wrapped slinkily around the silhouette of an image, Brodovitch revolutionised the importance and imposing elegance of the written word, something that's seemingly been lost over the years. From someone whose work has featured in countless magazines over the last four decades, Knight told me, 'The curation of a page can either make or massacre my work - once I've handed my work over, it's no longer up to me, it becomes someone else's job.'

When understanding the surrealist aspect of both Lieberman and Koy's works, it's important to note that although both artists choosing to couple their practice with CGI is new, their fascination with using words to create modern poetry isn't. The term 'modern poetry' has floated about before, bouncing between many of the earlier 20th-century art movements Saville talks about. Famed for his avant-garde approach towards creating 'typographical poetry', Guillaume Apollinaire - who made enormous contributions to the French literary and artistic circles at the beginning of the 20th century - designed II Pleut; a barely legible poem with cascades of letters - emphasised to evoke the feeling of rain. II Pleut is a shaped poem, where the order, look, and style are as integral to the form as the actual writing (or tumbling words), referring to these poems as Calligrames.

Typography has always stood at the forefront of change, and futurism was no exception for embracing new ways of thinking and communication in line with a 'typographical revolution'. When asking Saville about typography's role in supporting graphics and significant art movements, he told me 'there's a remarkable and noteworthy synergy within fashion, culture and typography, and it's to a great extent', adding, 'the application of type is the styling of communications design through and through'. Marinetti understood this, pushing his love for the written word and typography beyond 'freeing the verse' and rejecting all the traditionalist values that had come before, he wrote in the Futurist manifesto:

'I call for a typographic revolution directed against the idiotic and nauseating concepts of the outdated and conventional book, with its handmade paper and seventeenth ornamentation of garlands and goddesses, huge initials and mythological vegetation, its missal ribbons and epigraphs and roman numerals. The book must be the futurist expression of our futurist ideas.'

Dirk Koy - SHOWstudio Logo Animation

Constructivist in style, futurism was easily recognisable through its abrasive appearance. Think Jackson Pollock furiously attacking his canvas. Think hard and think fast. Think speed, destruction, machinery, violence and industrialisation. Think of the mechanical age and the industrial revolution. Although visually, the differences are stark, and our current optimism in the future doesn't rely on maximalist approaches, rather minimalist ones, the obsession with the future and technological advancements could be likened to now. If anything, it is the now. We live in a growing culture of NFT's, AI and CGI, resulting in a fashion industry that's more in touch with the future than with the past. Impactful and meaningful fashion has never looked to the past but rather, the future. Saville also touches upon this, although his reasoning for it is one I never thought of before, yet once realised, one knows it couldn't be any other way.

'Since the post-modern reset of a pluralist culture, postmodernism positioned itself as the end of "post-isms". Since postmodernism, there has not been one singular, overwhelming ideology that has controlled the way we do things. Modernism was one of those, and along with the others, it said, "you can only build this way, everybody has to wear these clothes and travel in these cars on these roads". After modernism, society said, "fuck it, we've had enough of this notion, this ideological notion that said there's one size fits all", by the time you get to the seventies, it's like, no, I'm sorry, this is not like that and postmodernism is that watershed moment.'

To try and live in the present can be daunting at best. The future? Terrifying and electrifying in equal parts. After two decades, the internet has reached the brink of a second revolution. At the beginning of the last century, the Western world was on the brink of something too - although unknown what quite that was - the industrial revolution had only taken place some decades before; futurism as a movement signalled all of this. It was a new technological age. Fast forward 110 years to the present day, and the same thing is occurring. Which leads me to ask, is this our futurism? The 21st-century futurism that, instead of looking to cars and machinery, looks to the future of the internet? When the internet came about towards the end of the 90s, people feared it and yet, it's become so ingrained into our lives that Labour even campaigned for the 'digital bill of rights' in their 2016 manifesto, with Corbyn pledging to 'democratise the internet' if he came into power. At one point, the internet was the future; now, it's the present. Who knows, maybe one day it'll be the past. Typography has played a part in the fundamentals of graphic design since the beginning of the 20th century, helping us transfer from one 'ism' to the next. We can't predict what's around the corner but we know typographical developments played a significant role in our culture's past, and who's to say typography won't arm us for the future too.

Zach Lieberman - SHOWstudio Logo Animation
Author and Interviewer:



Interview: Peter Saville

13 May 2015
Graphic Designer and Artist Peter Saville interviewed by Lou Stoppard on 13 May 2015 as part of SHOWstudio's 'In Fashion' series.

Surrealism: Q&A With Nick Knight

26 March 2020
Nick Knight on how Surrealistic pioneers within photography came to influence him, the desire to create the unseen and how some of his wildest surreal-looking work came to be.
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