I Don't Want to Die in the Office. I Want to Die on the Beaches.
Those were the words of Jack Ma, billionaire founder of Alibaba, in announcing his retirement today. In the past Jack has cited his time in my city, Newcastle, Australia, when he was young and was sponsored by a local family here, as the time in his life that most shaped him. Hearing him say he wants to die on the beaches, sends a message loud and clear to my ears. He was shaped as one of us here.
If you have never lived it, you can never know. I've lived in Oslo, Singapore, Amsterdam and New York with people who could talk your ear off about their cities and their landmarks and histories. While listening to them, I thought of their rivers, how their mirky waters and degraded shores would never have thousands bodysurfing and laying around on white sands. Here in Newcastle, just meters from the main office district, that is the scene almost every day!
Jack is 55. I was 50 when I reached the conclusion he came to today. In fairness, I was only leaving a life of book tours and vaguely inspirational keynotes. I didn't have one of the world's biggest companies to run. Still, I gave up a lot of corporate meetings, where I sat with the top office holders of many great cities, to go where my spirit was calling.
Life is a Beach—or it Can Be!
I sensed frustration in Jack Ma's announcement, as though he had lost 55 years of his life and was going to use his remaining time on this earth to make it up. What a shame Alibaba's head office wasn't in Newcastle! He could have had his cake and eaten it too.
My only lost years are from mid 2012 to mid 2015 when I let the University of Tasmania take me down there and support my urbanist-guru ambitions, and from mid 2015 to mid 2018 when I lived back and forth between Amsterdam and Oslo and the dozens of cities that flew me in for short projects. It was fun, but it's done now. I've been thrust into a life of photographing models in swimsuits, swimsuits I have designed and actually sewn, and being the open kind of person I am, I am going to tell you how it felt to do that for the very first time.
When the Time Came for Booking a Model
In creating my swim brand—my homage to life in this city of former manufacturing glory, workers' right and surf beaches—I took the path of learning how to do just about everything for myself. There were some things I had a head start with. I knew about branding. A former business partner in Amsterdam had previously founded one of the world's most successful digital marketing agencies, Blast Radius, and generously shared all of his knowledge in the course of many late nights and fine whiskeys.
As a published author with loads of other publications and presentations behind me, I knew I would have little trouble with the kind of thing I'm doing right now: telling stories; communicating; sucking you in... kind of like I did with the title to this blog post, promising a "behind the scenes" look at a swimwear catalogue shoot. Ooolalaala! (It will happen. Be patient.)
I also had enough experience to be my own photographer, but there is one thing I could never be for this brand. I could not be the model, goddammit!
So imagine my terror!
If you have never booked a professionally trained model, the most economical way is to email a few agencies with your brief and a date, then pick a face from the photos they send you.
As someone who had not photographed girls in swimwear since he was a boy, the thought of paying a sexy young model half scared me to death. I had my "vision" to relay, about Greek Classical period poses, as opposed to Hellenistic ones, yet the impression I was getting from most models' portfolios, was they would all strike Pirelli Calendar poses, irrespective of what I asked from them.
The impending photoshoot began to look less like a teenaged boy's dream than an onerous chore. I knew I was dreading it, by the way I kept putting it off. I could buy new equipment, no problem—if you don't know how to use a particular kind of sewing machine, heat press or cutter, you can figure it out in due course. However, if you don't know what to do with your top-dollar model the moment she arrives for the shoot, well, you have just gone and wasted your money!
During this time of procrastination and appraising models who didn't inspire me, a particular video interview I had watched with one model, Lili Kahmali in Queensland, kept playing back in my mind. Lili didn't come across as pent up or contrived. She struck me as a good natured student, the kind I used to take on study tours around Europe when I was a university lecturer. Maybe all models are easy to work with? How would I know! I knew one thing from the good humoured and self-effacing manner projected in Lili's video interview, and that was she would fit like a sister or cousin with me and my daggy ol' crew.
But she was in Queensland! I would have to book her for the whole day, to justify the travel expense, then book a real studio photographer, to capitalise on my bigger investment, then book an assistant, and so on and so forth.
In a snap moment, I booked her. The quote made me choke, but I booked her. I had everything made in size-8, and she was size-6, but I booked her. I didn't ask her agency, Busy Models, for a selection of cheaper models suited to a startup like mine. I asked, "How much for Lili Kahmali?" knowing I was just going to pay whatever they happened to quote me.
So Why Pay for a Top Model?
There are two kinds of expenses I face with this business. Expenses like sewing, writing and processing photos, I pay for through my own efforts. I never skimp. I pay with blood, sweat and tears.
Why would I skim then, on the expenses that I have no choice but to pay for from my savings? It has been that way with the equipment I have purchased, with rubber, with thread, with fabric, with pattern making and grading, and also with labels and hardware. I have paid for the best, every step of the way. It made sense I pay Lili whatever her agency quoted and keep building the brand I envisioned.
The second Lili stepped from the change room, wearing one of my swimsuits and posing for photos, my wife Kerry and I knew our lives had just changed. We had seen swimsuits I had made on a whole range of bodies before, but never on someone who had submitted herself to the rigours of model workshops and training.
The images filling my viewfinder corresponded—depending on your world view—either with the Platonic idea of Beauty Itself, or a culturally constructed ideal of a similar ilk (bare with me, my PhD and past appointments have seen me write quite a lot on philosophies of aesthetics and art). I was seeing my swimwear on a body no woman would object to if it were their own and in poses exactly like I had asked for.
Relaxed Poses for a Relaxed Brand
My briefing to Lili (for which my wife ridiculed me) involved me imitating famous Greek artworks. First I imitated the c.580 B.C. statues of Kleobis and Biton, who, with their stiff poses, exemplify the Archaic period in Greek art. I said I did not want stiff poses like those.
Neither did I want poses reminiscent of the grandiose Hellenistic period, that if you look at the way Instagram girls are all posing these days, you would think we have entered again.
No, my vision for the collection of swimsuits with which I would be launching my brand, was purely Classical. That is why I provided our model (and my bemused wife), with my best impersonation of Hermes, in all his contrapposto male beauty.
I am lucky to have been to the museum where he stands on two occasions. Both times I stood alone with him, mirroring the pose he has been holding for two-thousand years. (Please be aware, if ever you try this, that there is a rule against imitating statues in museums in Greece. Too many people have done it to mock them. The second time I tried, I was stopped.)
Just looking at that picture of Hermes, I feel relaxed. Mimic his stance and you will as well. Now, for comparison's sake, try impersonating Michelangelo's David.
Hermes is relaxed, as though he has just stepped from a hot shower, dried off, and is thinking to himself in the privacy of his own bathroom.
David is squaring up to someone, like he is ready to swipe them.
Hermes is Lili, on the day of our shoot.
Of course, relaxed, "contrapposto" poses aren't all she did for us. You will see the full range in due course if you follow PRIDE swim on Instagram. Why I am emphasising those poses in this blog post, is they characterise the relaxed mood of the day and I guess, by extension, the relaxed mood of this enterprise that I have turned to.
Unlike the vast majority of here-today gone-tomorrow swim brands on Instagram and shopify, I have not spent my money on crate loads of stock. I have invested in skills and the means of production. I didn't buy fish. I bought rods. I can relax knowing nothing is going stale that I need to sell or dump quickly.
The Thank You's
I have to thank our real photographer, Edward Cross, for a level of work in his studio that I will never be able to match.
My friend Kayla was a remarkable holder of light reflectors and she also rode shot gun with me creatively for the day—most of snapshots I've used in this blogpost were taken by Kayla. The drum beat to which we all marched, was played by my wife Kerry, who as well as organising the wardrobe, kept bringing me back to the vision. "Just take beautiful photos!" she scolded, any time it looked like I was forgetting I was there to photograph swimwear and was focussing more on my bike.
My biggest thanks, of course, go to Lili and her agency, Busy Models, for being utterly transparent, patient and kind through what might otherwise have been a harsh process. If I can give one word of advice to other new labels, it would be to forget hiring models directly from their Instagram profiles, unless it's just for a whimsical collaboration of some kind. It would take you months and multiple sessions to achieve what we did in one day. Yes, the model will be paid, with money out of your pocket. It's not much though, when you consider the training, gym work and skin care that professional models submit themselves to every day and that they release the right for you to reproduce photos of them in white swimmers (in our case, to show that two layers of 190gsm nylon/lycra aren't really very see-through when wet).
As for the agency's cut? It will be your smallest expense, and when you see all the work they do for it, you will not complain.
But who really pays for these beautiful photos of models in swimwear, that we all love and come back to?
If that was my advice to others in my industry, I should say something too to my buyers. Here it is: the photos you see when you're shopping online, or that lured you to me from my instagram feed, are photos you're helping to pay for. Not all of the expense in producing photos is directly connected to sales. Some of the cost can be pegged to general brand building and some to the egos of people like me. But let's say a third of the cost of making these photos is a cost of making the goods. And let's say a thousand swimsuits are eventually sold as a direct result of these photos. Well then each of those swimsuits will have one dollar's worth of photography built in as part of its cost of production. The retail price of each swimsuit will carry the burden of model hire and depreciation on a big camera, as surely as it carries the cost of my factory, fabric and labour.
I do regret that any swimsuit you buy from my Colours of Newcastle collection, the collection I photographed using Lili, will carry the burden of the return flight I paid for her, between Brisbane and Newcastle. (I paid the carbon offset, but I'm sure the price isn't sufficient).
Do I regret that a hardworking student, lucky enough to be born with good looks, pocketed a nice fee for the day? Not at all! I'm even happier to have contributed to her superannuation.
On balance, I think our consciences ought to be clear. This photoshoot was conducted in the service of clothing we need, designed to last ages and produced in the most sustainable and ethical way. I make it to customer order, eliminating the possibility of bulk foreign orders being dumped before sale when they go out of fashion.
And if Plato was right, the approximation we see here, of Beauty Itself, will lead our minds to an understanding of The Good and of Justice.
Some more snaps from the day
Forcing my model to indulge my obsession with pushbikes.
The boss and I, making decisions.
Wetting one of our white swimsuits to show they're not all that transparent
Having Newcastle baths almost completely to ourselves on a winter day that reached 24-degrees. Why would I want to be in Amsterdam and not here!
Kayla's reporting on the day.
If you have read this Jack Ma, I hope it has changed you, again. China has some beautiful waters that could be cleaned up (along with some air) to give China's people more cities like this one. You're in a position, surely, to help do that!