“Hommage à Sue Clowes”, Photographer Samuel Guerrier

The photographs of the Sue Clowes vintage 80’s collection are from the creative world of Samuel Guerrier, Parisian fine art photographer. We met up in Paris to ask a few questions on Samuel’s work and the ideas behind his creative and thoughtful shots.
1) Why did you choose to photograph Sue Clowes and her daughter Marta Melani in the 80’s vintage clothing?
Considering that Marta had taken over the brand with her mother, I wanted to develop some theme around filiation. Staging a mother and daughter who share artistic endeavors and a passion for fashion felt like a dream opportunity to me. I did my best to magnify this relationship and hope I succeeded, however feebly. I remember the day I discovered a statue of Marta as a child in their Empoli family garden. The plump, slightly sullen facial expression was reminiscent of Auguste Renoir’s sculptures, especially those representing his son, Jean. When I learned that this was actually Sue’s own work, I couldn’t resist including it in our portfolio… the symbol was too beautiful to be discarded. The whole thing is actually rather troubling to me, since my own father – whom I never met – also sculpted clay. A potter and a ceramist, he taught ancient techniques at the Tunis Academy of Fine Arts. How I would have loved to be able to collaborate with him the way Sue and Marta do, passing down know-how from generation to generation…
2) Do you have a title (also in French) for this collection of creative work ? What did you want to transmit to the people who discover it?
Tribute to Sue Clowes is the title (Hommage à Sue Clowes in French).
As a genuine early-day fan, I wanted to pay tribute to Sue Clowes’ multicultural prints, highlighting the spectacularly atemporal graphic quality of her designs (as evidenced by how successful her reissues are).
To me and many others, Sue Clowes is one of the iconic figures of the 80s, when multiracial, sexy streetwear reigned supreme, and each and every budding pop star in London simply had to wear her clothes, from Boy George & Culture Club to Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan through Wham, Bananarama or even Kylie Mynogue. Incidentally, this did not escape the attention of the Victoria & Albert Museum, which devoted an exhibition to her in 2014, focusing largely on vintage pieces. Still, in spite of these honors, she remains fairly affordable – a lesson in fashion, really, teaching us that style does not have to be a matter of money…
3) What is the inspiration and the message?
The message I wish to pass on is none other than Sue’s: a universal, ecumenical one, with a focus on how she combines religious symbols, delivering a message of tolerance that seems rather topical and urgent these days, in view of current racial and religious tensions. Sue Clowes’ philosophy could be summed up as follows: “Spirituality, yes! Ideology, no!”
Back in the troubled days of Thatcher’s UK, musical trends other than pop music did lead by example, standing up against the National Front. I am thinking in particular of ska and punk rock, both of which readily mingled with Jamaican music, reggae in particular.
I grew up with Sue Clowes’ mystic, multi-ethnic imagery, which deeply resonates within the mixed-blood that I am. As a teenager, I used to draw all those religious symbols – distorted sometimes, maybe, but first and foremost reunited – on my own clothes, to my poor mother’s dismay…
Visually, and as far as general inspiration is concerned, I wanted to reach beyond the 80s, coming back to basics… Hence the use of astrolabes, for instance, which are evocative of long-distance travels and a longing for other cultures…
Drawing on the 60s’ psychedelic rock culture and its taste for Art Nouveau, I also used 1900-style interior settings (e.g. wrought iron peacock feathers), stretching as far as the 1920s, the golden age of avant-garde, when African-American jazz men triumphed in Paris…
As mentioned before, the relationship between Sue Clowes and British pop music historically is a true love story, which explains the presence of musical instruments on more than one picture. To be perfectly honest, we used this as a good excuse for putting on rock star personae, rolling on the floor and yelling “we’re gonna smash it all up!” (laughing)
I remember being a die-hard fan of Sue’s roses and sacred-hearts prints – a highly romantic imagery for the melancholic teenager that I was at the time. In a nutshell, my relationship with Sue Clowes’ designs is one of deep affection. They are my Proustian madeleine, in a way, and I hope they can also act as such for the new generation some day…
4) What feeling did you want to convey?
One thing is that Sue Clowes’ fashion is unisex and even androgynous. Legendary musician Boy George and his band Culture Club made it a defining element of their identity in 1982, when their brilliant single Do you really want to hurt me was topping the charts. Just like Sue Clowes, what I am trying to say is: “Regardless of your age, religion, or sexuality, just come as you are!”
5) A lot of your work has historical feeling. Where does your interest in archives come from and why are you drawn to this theatrical quality that your work has?
My priority is to unearth the truth in my models – without this basic foundation, any aesthetic attempt, historical or otherwise, would be meaningless. I still wonder why I chose studio photography, this much-reviled medium, over photojournalism, which might have turned me into the new Raymond Depardon (laughing). I am a huge fan of cinema, especially period films, such as Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, François Truffaut’s The Story of Adèle H., Blake Edwards’ Victor Victoria, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo… Thanks to studio photography – and with a little help from digital image editing – I can afford my own miniature Hollywood temple. While German expressionism gave me a taste for chiaroscuro, Caravaggio made me opt for colour photography. That a vintage garment, or even a mere theatre prop, has the power to take us so far into long-forgotten eras and places is just magic to me. Besides, is there anything more regressive and exhilarating than dressing up? Escaping you own self, losing your inhibitions, dropping the social mask… Can photojournalism bring you that?
6) Which is your favourite photograph from the collection and why?
It would be the one where Marta and Sue solemnly stare into each other’s eyes – all the more solemnly because of the chiaroscuro. The tacit understanding between them is almost palpable here. This image is filled with true harmony, in keeping with the floral patterns of their respective outfits. Mother and daughter can be seen embracing a Stockman bustform, their joined hands suggesting some kind of elegant and protective scarf. I like the surrealistic effect it produces. This pose is a touching illustration of their “four-hand” tailoring work. As for the naked dummy, it evokes a new, blank page asking to be filled, the promise of many a collection to come…
Translation by François Xavier Priour