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12 Sep

Ezra Petronio, Art Director and Editor

Ezra Petronio, Art Director and Editor

“I like classic with disruption — that’s my style,” art director Ezra Petronio said, looking back on greater than 25 years of editing Self Service magazine, running his creative agency Petronio Associates and taking Polaroids of 1000’s of famous people. “I like elegance and I like boldness.”

On Thursday, Phaidon will publish “Ezra Petronio: Visual Considering & Image Making,” a large-format, $200 monograph showcasing graphic and product design for such brands as Chanel and Prada, typography, editorial covers and layouts, photos, art direction — and deep thoughts on the entire above.

A well-known face in fashion’s front rows, and a behind-the-scenes power player helping brands craft compelling, coherent imagery, Petronio sat down with WWD at one among his favorite corner cafés in Paris to reflect on his profession thus far and the way social media — and an accelerated fashion system — have transformed the landscape of image-making and brand-building.

Ezra Petronio

Maria Ziegelboeck

“Art direction is a sort of job that requires numerous different skill sets, from typography, graphic and editorial design obviously, but in addition copy writing,” he said, alternating sips of black coffee and Perrier. “Great image-making is the sum of many parts, and it’s a collaborative process.

“I like gathering talent, whether as an art director or as an editor.…I actually have an actual curiosity and respect for other creative minds.”

He established his strategic agency Petronio Associates in 1993 and a 12 months later cofounded, with stylist Suzanne Koller, the bimonthly, book-like Self Service, which he describes as a “time capsule” of each fashion season, and his “creative lab.”

“I don’t think I could live without doing a magazine,” he confessed, noting Self Service is now “more successful than it has ever been.”

It has a print run of about 20,000 copies, with a goal sell-through of 85 to 90 percent. The subsequent issue, with a canopy price of 40 euros, hits newsstands on Sept. 28.

Petronio described the forthcoming Phaidon book — which features conversations with editor Jefferson Hack, photographer David Sims, stylist Jane How and soundbites from myriad others — as a vector for “transmission,” helping to restate the critical role of the art director, and hopefully encourage young people into creative careers.

He’s actually learned much from such high-profile agency clients as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Miuccia Prada.

Considered one of his early projects for Kawakubo was a text-only fashion-show invitation, emblematic of his penchant for strong fonts and unorthodox cropping. Three days before the show in Paris, a fax rolled in for Petronio at 4 a.m. Tokyo time, with a last-minute change: Kawakubo had circled the RSVP line and requested the text be enlarged by one point size.

“I used to be blown away,” Petronio marveled. “She was a mentor of precision, and we’re talking about absolute precision.”

Comme des Garçons perfume packaging.

Mathieu Boutang and Philippe Lacombe

Prada also dazzled Petronio persistently over a trust-based, 12-year collaboration on perfume bottles, beauty packaging and promoting. Discussing campaign options for the Infusion d’Iris scent, Prada suggested hiring Irving Penn, then in his early 90s.

Petronio described a child-like glee having an audience with the legendary photographer, who “took a bit of paper and sketched this composition of the bottles, like his (topsy-turvy) wood sculptures.” Considered one of Penn’s assistants Xeroxed the drawing, handed it to Petronio, and the art director treated it like a Holy Grail, excited to share with the Italian designer.

“She called and said, ‘Ezra, is there anything? That is so boring. I need one other idea,’” he related, confessing that he “melted” on the prospect of delivering the bad news to Penn’s agent. “But then I spotted, she doesn’t compromise.

“Precision and no compromise — I believe those are values that helped me construct the sort of work I’ve done.”

Born in Recent York City, Petronio grew up in a creative household. His grandfather was a typesetter, his mother a faucet dancer and his father an art director at ad agency TBWA in Paris, meaning he found himself on the set of Kenzo photo shoots on the age of seven. He studied at Parsons School of Design under art director Henry Wolf, famous for his impact on Bazaar and Esquire within the ’50s, and was the editor in chief of the scholar newspaper.

“I loved magazines very early on,” he said. “I like the facility of a magazine within the sense of its capability, whatever the dimensions, to represent a community and to fight for its aspirations.”

Petronio boasts a powerful signature as an art director. Call it blunt or direct, but you may at all times recognize who’s within the photo, and skim the text — except when he employs strange, deliberate word breaks, like Christopher Wool does in his paintings.

Chloë Sevigny in Self Service magazine.

Terry Richardson

He’s agnostic whether big block letters obscures a implausible photo, or if a model’s face gets cropped out entirely. It’s all concerning the composition, or the juxtaposition.

Simplicity, and timelessness are other descriptors that come to mind as you flip through the 424-page tome, discovering his perfume bottles, ad campaigns, Polaroids, fashion-show invitations, club flyers and packaging. He’s keen on shrink-wrapping, photo grids and intense eye contact from models.

“I’ve at all times played with disruptions, but at all times with a certain elegance, with a twist. I never turn it into something that’s inelegant,” he mused.

His client roster through the years has included the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, Chloé, Alaïa and Chanel for makeup and watches.

Malgosia Bela in a Chanel beauty ad.

Sølve Sundsbø

In 2016, he and his partner Lana Petrusevych arrange one other agency, Content Matters, that focuses on digital marketing and brand storytelling.

Throughout the interview, Petronio was afraid of sounding negative or nostalgic, as if the great old days were higher. Still he fretted concerning the breakneck speed of image creation, which threatens quality and coherence, and the tendency to lionize young talents too early, and to just accept and have fun mediocrity.

Here, the highlights of a wide-ranging, one-hour conversation:

WWD: Looking back at your profession thus far, what are among the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in art direction and artistic industries?

Ezra Petronio: The brand new, incoming generation didn’t have the time to mature, to develop their very own voice, their very own personality — meaning people were hired immediately from school and thrown into the actual world very fast, whether it’s photographers, editors or designers. All that has impacted ideas and role models within the creative industry.

I believe experience helps us navigate the industry today with somewhat bit more wisdom, and calm.

WWD: How has social media disrupted things?

E.P.: Today, the pace at which you want to produce, conceptualize, produce and deliver and communicate as a brand to your customers has radically modified. Once I used to launch fragrances with corporations, you would take three years. Today, you’ve got six months.

The sheer volume of content brands need to provide today is ridiculous. Mainly, it’s a continuing flow of things that may lack quality, where crucial thing is to create an impact for a second.…I’m more of a purist on creativity, and I like strong ideas and powerful branding. I mean, there’s some brands that manage the pace thoroughly.…The larger brands obviously have more means to try this.

A whole lot of the work that’s produced today lives for a day, two days, three days after which disappears within the void of the feed.

We as art directors must adapt in order that we’re in a position to provide a coherence.

I seek for goosebumps, for hopefully emotion. A fashion show is where a brand must deliver an emotional statement.”

Ezra Petronio

WWD: How do you do this?

E.P.: We try in our relationships with clients to strip down the unnecessary and give attention to the essential things.

[Fashion] is a big entertainment industry.…The more you grow, the more you develop, the more you want to expand your reach, so anything goes. That’s why you’ve got mega shows, influencers, celebrities, KOLs and all these items…and if brands don’t manage it in a superb way, then you definately can dilute the DNA, the essence of the brand.

WWD: What are the risks?

E.P.: A whole lot of brands associate themselves with influencers. Sometimes they’re targeting the equivalent of tabloids so there’s a cheapening of the associations simply because there’s a necessity for an intensive reach. And that’s where I find social media disruptive.

A whole lot of brands are losing themselves in these associations that hurt their integrity, even in the event that they do expand their revenue.

There’s a growing sense of of mediocrity. I believe the values of the role models and the values that fashion projects carry today are perhaps not as noble as they were up to now by way of fashion being a cultural engine, being a frontrunner in social progress. But I believe it’s cyclical. I don’t think this can last endlessly.

WWD: So that you’re not pessimistic?

E.P.: I still have numerous faith in our creative community in the style industry, as much as I may be critical at times. I still think there are numerous great talented people on the market who encourage me, some recent people who are available in with dreams or aspirations of wanting to vary things. And I’m very inspired by creative collaborations.

WWD: Is that also the main focus of Self Service?

E.P.: It has five staff [members]. Don’t forget, it’s only twice a 12 months. We now have 120 pages of promoting, numerous editorials and it’s develop into quite a healthy business. I believe it’s a stupendous reward for this constant integrity. We stayed faithful to our raison d’être, which is supporting emerging talents — photographers, stylists, designers. We’ve at all times given free ads to young designers and we still do today.

A whole lot of the brands now see the perfect of the high-end independent magazines as these sort of galleries, where you may present your brand image in an undiluted way.

WWD: Words seem integral to your art direction.

E.P.: I believe making a magazine is concerning the combination of words and pictures to specific an idea or an idea. Certain ways of breaking up typography and words can provide a tone, whether it’s irony or humor.

Great art direction in a magazine is about enabling the viewer to take an interesting, visual roller-coaster ride — to be led from the quilt to the back cover in an inspiring way. That’s what I like, creating a stupendous flow.

WWD: Fashion has stampeded toward Helvetica recently, because the go-to font for branding. What gives?

E.P.: I feel whenever you rebrand a logo, it’s one of the complex things to be done. It requires numerous humility to return into the brand heritage to know. It is determined by the temporary.

I like classic typefaces, but I like restructuring them, twiddling with them, combining them together.

WWD: While you look back in your work, do you see consistent threads?

E.P.: I don’t consider myself an artist. I consider that I exploit creative artistry to specific what a brand wants.

I wish to determine a sort of creative dogma for a brand. What are its creative values?

I like when things are to the purpose, very strong, very impactful and all of the emotions are encapsulated within the image. And packaging should be strong and consistent and have fun the message. I don’t wish to lose myself in unnecessary tricks, but to be very straightforward. Once I do campaigns, logos are likely to be daring…because I believe it’s more self-confident.

A Chloé campaign by Petronio Associates.

Inez & Vinoodh

WWD: You go to quite numerous fashion shows. As an art director, what do you get out of them?

E.P.: I seek for goosebumps, for hopefully emotion. A fashion show is where a brand must deliver an emotional statement.

WWD: Do you continue to use only real Polaroids in your famous portraits?

E.P.: Throughout the pandemic, the world ran out of Polaroid film, so I created a recent camera with an old Polaroid ’70s lens and a digital back, but we use the old-school cube flashes. So it’s actually this sort of Frankenstein process that we developed.

WWD: Any recent editorial projects up your sleeve?

E.P.: We’re going to launch a recent media next 12 months called Go & See magazine, which is an extension of Self Service about travel and lifestyle experience. We were imagined to launch pre-COVID-19.

The quilt of the Phaidon book.

Courtesy of Phaidon

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