Former US Vogue Design Director Charles Churchward

The View magazine had an amazing in-depth interview with Charles Churchward, the former design director of US Vogue. Insights on The New York Times, Vanity Fair, US Vogue, working with Alex Liberman, Herb Ritts and Anna Wintour, how the fashion publishing world developed, and much more.

TV: Hi Charles, how are you? What have you been doing lately?

CC: I’ve moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, after 41 years living in New York city. It’s a whole different, healthy lifestyle. I’ve written and designed books here including ‘Herb Ritts: The Golden Hour’ and ‘It’s Modern’, consulted on a few design projects, shot ads, done lectures and been on panels discussing design, photography and publishing.

Cover of Herb Ritts book. Photo by Richard Gere.
Cover of Herb Ritts book. Photo by Richard Gere.
Cover of Alexander Liberman book.
Cover of Alexander Liberman book.

TV: Many have seen you in the film ‘The September Issue’, without a proper introduction, please tell us a bit about you.

CC: I grew up in the 50s and 60s in a small town in New Jersey. I remember how much fun it was in high school to get all dressed up in suits and ties to visit New York city or the world’s fair. I loved to draw and my parents would buy cheap pads of typing paper that I filled up every day with sketches and they’d have to go the next day and buy another one. By the time I was 8, I was teaching classmates to draw Disney characters for a quarter.

I graduated high school when the Beatles were releasing ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and change was in the air. I studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn at the end of 1967. It was the most extreme time of experimenting with new ideas. We were influenced by the clever Henry Wolf covers of Esquire, psychedelic visuals, the graphics of Push Pin Studios and the Vietnam war on the TV news. Many hours were spent at the Museum Of Modern Art and Greenwich Village was only a short subway ride away.

During the later half of the 20th century everything combined irony and theatricality, especially in the communication arts. In my senior year the school sponsored a trip with film classes to Rome for a semester. Unfortunately, our professor, filmmaker Roberto Rossillini left after one class and we were stranded. This was the best thing that could have happened. Armed with a Eurail pass we each went our own ways around Europe seeing museums, sleeping in train stations, stoned in Amsterdam and seeing swinging London over 3 months. Back in New York, one of my final assignments was to make a good-bye card for a retiring spy. I sent the teacher a fake bomb in the mail to his home and got an ‘A’. Imagine if that was done today!

In 1971 everyone graduating art school wanted to have a job designing record covers, but I didn’t. The only thing was that I got a job right away in the art department for a spoken word company that had actors read plays onto records for schools and libraries. From there I went to a small newspaper and the early years of Ms. Magazine, working with the art director Bea Feitler. Photographer Bill King shot most of our covers since there were still no female photographers with the experience and training to do these commercial shoots yet.

By now I realized the importance of using graphics and words equally. Publishing also brought interesting artists, photographers, writers, editors and story subjects to the office every day. This was the beginning of a glorious era in magazines with new and different audiences that wanted to be in touch with our publication. This was the beginning of almost four decades of my magazine career.

Blame it on youthful energy, but I would work very long hours at the office and still go to clubs to see the New York Dolls every week and David Bowie in concert. The influence of rock music was changing how people walked the city streets.

Charles Churchward and Jonathan Becker, La Grenouille, NYC, 2011.
Charles Churchward and Jonathan Becker, La Grenouille, NYC, 2011.

TV: You have an amazing career, let’s pick it up at the New York times. You told me that was a real adventure and that it was the start of fashion that we know now?

CC: Alexander Liberman was a god in the magazine business and I worked with him for 2 years at Mademoiselle, a popular young woman’s magazine that Alex was using to try out staffers (Nonnie Moore, Mary Randolf Carter, Diane Smith, Andrea Robinson) and photographers (Arthur Elgort, George Barkentin, Patrick Demarchelier, Deborah Turbaville) for Vogue magazine. Women and their way of dressing was freer and sexier and beauty was now about healthier attitudes. Teams went on shoots to new locations like St. Barts, then just a small undeveloped French island. Everything worked around Alex and he even designed the look and working conditions of every magazine office. It was incredible to watch him begin with a collage and quickly by tearing and turning it, he was able to make it into a magazine layout. He was artistically inventive and journalistic at the same time. The fashion industry was still based on very tight structured scheduled seasons in the mid 70s which held growth back, so I left when I was offered a job at The New York Times Sunday magazine, working with art director Ruth Ansel. I thought that would be the end of my work with fashion pages.

At the Times magazine we would work on shabby card tables all joined together to keep them from falling down since some only had 3 legs. We were editing thousands of 35 mm slides of news stories one after the other for hours (Jonestown to fashion shows to politics, etc.) and still putting together mechanics with razor blades and rubber cement. Printing was also improving and now we could bleed photographs off the page and compete visually with glossier publications.

Since I had experience at Conde Nast, I was taken under the wing of the fashion director, Carrie Donovan, who was also creating the fashions of the Times magazine specials (now called ‘T’).. This meant her staff, which included Marion McEvoy, Tonne Goodman, Marilyn Bethany and Mary Russell were shooting fashion each week with no real budget. Part of my job was to talk many of the new group of European fashion photographers into shooting for us in America. Uli Rose, Denis Piel, and Lothar Schmidt had not worked in the US before this. I would time my vacations with the European collections even if I had no invitations. Carrie would pull me into the tents by my tie and be sure there was room in the front row for me to see the fashions and learn about the craftsmanship.

We were the first to do major reports on the new designers (Armani, Versace, and Ferre with their unstructured styles, and Rykiel, Montana, Mugler with their theatrical shoulder pads) and their collections in Milan and Paris in a colorful, journalistic style using the designers’ sketches and the photographs we had taken. We had also become one of the first to use backstage photographs by Ken Probst, who used a powerful ring light to help show all the details for our newspaper printing. Once in a while we would splurge and twice Helmut Newton shot for us due to his love of newsprint. Soon the Americans (Calvin Klein, Donna Karen and Perry Ellis) would follow. Week after week new faces and names were appearing and Carrie reported on them. I still never slept and it was disco uptown and punk downtown.

The magazine world was growing more powerful and Alexander Liberman came calling again. Ruth and I came over to Conde Nast Publishing for the redesign of House & Garden as a competitor to Architectural Digest now that decorating themed magazines had begun to become popular. After 8 months we were moved to the recently re-created Vanity Fair. Later House & Garden changed to HG with Anna Wintour as it’s new editor. Her vision was not considered successful at the time, but now it’s the formula for almost every decor magazine.

Alexander Liberman, Tina Brown and Charles Churchward, NYC 1994.
Alexander Liberman, Tina Brown and Charles Churchward, NYC 1994.

TV: 11 year stint at Vanity Fair, rising from art director to design director, love to hear more about this.

CC: In the 90s there was a new attitude of entitlement among the younger generation, and young graphic designers were demanding titles that they felt they deserved, without years getting experience. Everyone thought they were an art director, never an assistant. For that reason, a few of edtors sat down and threw titles around until we came up with ‘design director’. Now that has become pretty common as well.
Most of the time it’s easier for me to say that I was a glorified art director. People on the outside understand that. The job itself is only what you make of it.

A brief description of the job: First, it’s important that the director keeps the package well designed and support the editor’s ideas so they come across in the magazine. A package must work well in presenting the constant image to it’s readership. Seeing an article through all it’s steps from the original idea to the final production of the layout as it goes to the printer. This means you have to be both an expert and a critic of everything, which also means you don’t get invited to many places.

In the case of fashion, the goal is to sell clothes and beauty products and the 2 main objectives in fashion visuals are (1.) creating a fantasy world that the reader will want to partake and (2.) also educate the reader in how to wear the clothes and products, hopefully explaining cut and proportions through the images. He/she must also be sure the fashion photographer and stylists will help bring that point of view to the page. This is done with planning before a shoot and if necessary in person.

Being on location on certain days of the month can either be a vacation from the office or the worst possible situations, usually depending on the conditions and photographer. I’ve had to paint an impressionist canvas on the spot for a prop, take care of press agents who are too intrusive or having nervous breakdowns, almost drown falling off a boat in the atlantic, and been in a van pushed around by a herd of large spanish bulls. Your involvement on a shoot is important. You represent the magazine’s wishes, but most importantly, you have to come back with the ‘goods’. In most cases there is no second chance to reshoot. Therefore everyone’s a pro and therefore few new faces at the top.

Today there is less opportunity for art directors to be involved while sitting at a computer for so much of the time. The entire process has been reorganized for digital age business, but that does not mean that everything will not turn around. The creative challenges are still there but the outlets for expressing them are changing.

Herb Ritts, Charles Churchward and Helmut Newton in Miami.
Herb Ritts, Charles Churchward and Helmut Newton in Miami.

TV: You must have worked with amazing talent at Vanity Fair, both in-house and commissioned, that you can tell stories about?

CC: When Tina Brown arrived as editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, she brought the needed ideas and people in and took chances to not only turn the magazine around, but turn around the entire media. She was open and extremely curious about everything. The secret to a great editor in journalism.

When I first began it was about designing and communicating. I worried about typography and hiring the correct illustrator, but everything had changed. And suddenly I was directing many of the biggest names in photography (Annie Liebovitz, Herb Ritts, Helmut Newton, Avedon, Horst, Bruce Weber, Jonathan Becker, etc.) and it was an era of a new breed of celebrity (Madonna, a pregnant Demi Moore, Michael Jackson, the Reagans, Claus Von Bulow, Lady Di, Roseanne Baar, and K.D. Lang being shaved by Cindy Crawford).

At the same time, Vanity Fair created the monster of the press agent/ handler we know today for controlling ‘events’ for the press and negotiates the cooperation of their clients. This can mean avoiding what is important over the superficial.

TV: Then you switched to Vogue, it was time for something new?

CC: My life was entirely magazine publishing by that point. I had contributed to Vanity Fair for close to 12 very exciting years but as it’s focus began to change I needed a change as well, and what can you do after that other than the flagship of the company?

My love is publishing and every day that I was at my job I was laughing to myself how lucky and how much fun I was having.

TV: Most people think of editor-in-chief Anna Wintour when hearing US Vogue, could you explain what a design director does and that it’s actually a very important thing at a magazine?

CC: Among other things, the editor-in-chief is the figurehead of the magazine as well as it’s top editor. Anna Wintour, like the editors before her, is synonymous with the logo. Vogue’s editor is very hands on with the magazine and also the fashion industry as a whole. Do not forget her work on the CFDA and fashion department of the Metropolitan Museum Of Art.

The design director is a right hand of the editor and makes sure the visual and production side works in tandem with all other parts in the creation of the publication to make a finished issue. Usually they make sure the vision is consistent as well as creative.

Alex Liberman, Anna Wintour, Charles Churchward, Patrick Demarchier, NYC 1994.
Alex Liberman, Anna Wintour, Charles Churchward, Patrick Demarchier, NYC 1994.

TV: What kind of decisions did you make at Vogue, that were considered risky and ahead of time, in terms of layout, colors, shapes, style, tone-of-voice?

CC: I’m not sure I know the answer. That is for someone in the future who is looking at the magazine to say. It’s a team effort of the best in the business. When you work on a publication of that scale it’s more like keeping a speeding train on the tracks. At Vogue a new group of photographers and their entourages of assistants, stylists, hair and makeup were involved and along with the people I had worked with in the past, I had a newer group (Penn, Mario Testino, Steven Meisel, Craig McDean, Steven Klein), each with their own style and work habits.

TV: How did you experience working with the best in the business, did that come with challenges of its own?

CC: It’s extremely difficult in this business to have peers. You need the excitement every day of someone who will both challenge you and laugh with you. That is the real respect I have been lucky to have had with many of the editors I have worked with. You will fail if you worry about making your mark rather than working with the best people and to create the best package possible. Young viewers may find it more entertaining watching ‘The devil wears Prada’ on Netflix than hearing about the day-to-day goings in a fashion magazine office. I have been lucky to work with almost everyone at one time or another. Some of these people have become good friends. Every shoot has so many variables that you can never be sure if it is going to be a good or bad day. I have even had to take the camera and do a shot if needed to get the job done and some hang on gallery walls in photographer’s exhibitions.

TV: Teen Vogue launched, it must have been a dream to help create a brand new publication, and able to art and creative direct it from scratch?

CC: Teen Vogue began as one of many supplements that came with Vogue as a test. It succeeded where others failed. It reminded me of Alex Liberman working with Mademoiselle. I have always found that starting a magazine from scratch is thankless work, rather than joining an already established publication with all the established parts. It’s more rewarding to fix one than start one.

Annie Liebovitz and Charles Churchward, Spain.
Annie Liebovitz and Charles Churchward, Spain.

TV: Aside from editorials, you also edited, designed and produced books for Alexander Liberman and Herb Ritts, among others. I imagine a nice change from the daily work?

CC: Herb was not only a photographer I had worked closely with but also a dear friend. Soon after he passed in 2002, I was approached by his former manager and now foundation president, Mark McKenna about suggestions to insure Herb’s legacy. I suggested a biography but soon was persuaded to be the author as well as the designer. Having not written much other than a few columns or essays, I decided the best way of doing this was to just interview everyone that Herb had dealt with and create an oral history of his life. I knew many of the people but had to stop after 100 or the book would never be finished. The book explains the dealings with models and celebrities and the work necessary to do a photo shoot well and I think it is one of the better oral biographies that has been done. Maybe that’s because Herb was such a ‘people person’.

My book on Alex Liberman was an easy choice. There had already been a few books written on his life (I did one on his photography in 1994) but no one had attempted to show how his graphic work during the week and the painting and sculpture he created on the weekends related and influenced each other over the years.

TV: Comparing the fashion industry back then and now, what have been good developments you reckon, and what things are you less thrilled about?

CC: Production is superior to anything we had in the past. I wonder how we all survived the days of mechanicals created by hand. Editing text is also a breeze now. The biggest concept a creative person must get their head around these days is that a computer is a tool. It does not give you all the answers or tell you everything. You still need knowledge of both the past and what is going on in the world.

Most media companies never had backup reserves for the digital revolution and have given over half their budgets to online websites and let the original products suffer, even if no money is coming in from them. The technology is still in it’s infancy, so most editors copy each other rather than take chances. Once there is a healthy financial balance of print and digital can there again be a place for pushing the limits.

The biggest worry seems to be the number of a new generation readers has been turned off during this time. Lines have been blurred by other media as to what is journalism. Readers are not as interested in escaping into the pages of a publication. Magazines also nurtured photographers, giving them various assignments, discussing and editing there shots, giving them the staffs and equipment they needed. There is little room for that now and the photography world has no new stars or vision.

As for our cultural and fashion references, I find the lines blurred in our daily lives and including the lack of individuality in street style and nightlife trends needed to influence the fashion design ideas coming from the top. Designers have their moments but are subject to outside influences. Most toil in anonymity but if a designer lucks out, a single job, style or graphic design will be remembered.

TV: Thank you Charles for this great insightful interview!

Charles Churchward
Charles Churchward

Interview minimally edited to keep authenticity.

Images are copyright to their respective owners.

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