Featured in MUSÉE No. 5 Vol. 1
Sam Shahid has been leaving his mark on the world of fashion and advertising for three decades and counting.
When he became the creative director for the in-house advertising agency for Calvin Klein in the early 1980s, he helped to turn the brand into the internationally recognized name it remains today with advertising campaigns that are remembered for their clean yet sensational visuals. In the early 1990s he did the same for Banana Republic, before opening up his own creative design firm and advertising agency Shahid & Company in 1993. His indelible work with Abercrombie & Fitch still inspires today.
Tell me a little about yourself and your background.
I was born and raised in Birmingham, and I graduated from the University of Alabama. In those days, you had to go into the military after graduation. I served my six months in Columbia, South Carolina. The moment I was released from basic training, the civil rights marches began and we were activated. We went with the home unit to Montgomery, to protect the marchers coming from Selma into Montgomery to vote. It got out that I couldn’t wait to see these people, and within the unit I was known as a ‘black lover’ — that was not the word they used — but suddenly there were guys in my unit that didn’t like me. I was stationed in front of a school of black kids, and they were not allowed in the march. When the group passed, the kids were all holding hands. I put my rifle down, and all of a sudden I was yanked off the street, thrown in the truck, and taken back to the colosseum where we were stationed. I sat in this room and never got to see the final group…[laughs]. I was so upset. I was at the University of Alabama when the first black student went to the University of Mississippi. I remember coming back from my classes, to the fraternity house and I saw the Confederate flag hanging from the fraternity house. It gave me a strength. I wasn’t afraid, I felt what I felt — and I knew what was wrong. I didn’t mind going to the top of that fraternity house and being hated by everyone for taking that flag down because I thought it didn’t belong there. Civil rights became part of me more so as I grew older.
When did you move to New York?
I used to get The New York Times Sunday edition, and I would always look through all of the advertisements. I knew I was coming to New York, I didn’t know when it was going to be, but I knew. [First], I went to Atlanta, which, at the time, was kind of a smaller New York. After a few years there, everyone knew I wanted to be in New York. I got a job at Scali, McCabe, and Sloves [Ed. NYC advertising agency], which was the hot place at the time. [During the interview], he kept trying to build this ‘Southern image’ of me to give a reason for my more effeminate voice. I told him, “I don’t know what you’re getting at, but I left the South because of what you’re leading into and I don’t plan to go back there.” He looked at me and then hired me. Being gay wasn’t discussed at that time. It was all sort of hidden.
What did you study in school?
In college, I majored in advertising. I had this one marketing professor I’ll never forget, who said, “They took a survey in New York and asked the readers of The New York Times who advertises the most on Sundays, and found that overwhelmingly, it was Ohrbach’s.” Ohrbach’s had only one page! However, it wasn’t about the product, it was about the image of the store. I remember looking back on those ads and they were genius, they were fabulous. I’ll never forget them.
What about them did you find so genius?
They were so clever. It wasn’t about the product so much, but about the name Ohrbach’s and what they stood for. They did what you call institutional advertising, where they merely promoted the name Ohrbach’s and not so much the dress they made.
How did you start creating ads at Calvin Klein?
We were in the Hampton’s for the 4th of July . . . I showed Calvin a portfolio of about eight or so advertisements I had made. He said, “My God, forget all the other advertising! I want every magazine to run this ad!” I could have died. Next stop, we’re in Mexico City shooting for Calvin’s new fragrance called Obsession that we wanted to launch. Bruce [Weber] was in charge of the shoot. It was one of the [most] glamorous moments of my life! . . . Even after some people got upset about those ads, Calvin stood his ground. If he believed in something, he stood by it.
So how did you get to Abercrombie? How did all that happen?
Mike Jeffries and I met at my apartment at the time on Greene Street. He said, “Tell me what you think about Abercrombie.” I said, “I see it like Norman Rockwell. It’s a very healthy company. It’s very masculine and it’s very outdoors. It’s always kind of Norman Rockwell, but modern.”
You saw Abercrombie as Norman Rockwell?
Yes, it made sense at that time. It would be depicting stories about American life and kids. If you look at their ads individually, you’ll see that.
I think the Abercrombie ads definitely advocate – gayness. Do you think that has helped gay rights?
Oh, I’m sure it has.
Is that a conscious thing with you?
Not at all. It does have a gay sensitivity to it. It just does. The models are very beautiful and sexy, but there was never that intention at first. Mike said to me, “My God, these kids are gorgeous.” Actually, the very first ad we ran, the guys were running naked around the Princeton campus and the girls were chasing them. When we ran that, everybody said, “Woah!” The gays loved it. The straights loved it. It really had a crossover there because all the girls want to meet those guys. Those guys want to be those guys who meet those girls and the gays want to meet them too. It was a real crossover. It seemed all-in-one to me. It all seemed fine.
What makes for a good art director?
What are the responsibilities of an art director? What is the difference between an art director and a creative director?
The creative director oversees everything. He hires art directors. That’s the way the chain of it works. But in my situation, creative director and art director are basically the same person. It’s my agency, so I’m the creative director, but I also sit with everybody and direct.
What words would you use to describe your work? Would you call it ‘sexual’?
Oh, definitely. I’ll tell you what someone nicknamed me one day: “Tits and Ass.” Someone said to me, “That’s the Tits and Ass art director.” That’s sort of funny, isn’t it? My work is definitely sensual, sexual. I want to be direct in the simplicity of it, not complicated. I think every frame should tell a story. There needs to be a story.
So you have a vision and you tell the photographer what you want?
I tell them what I’m thinking, but, in your heart, you have to trust the photographer. You’ve got to know what they do. It’s interesting when you talk to photographers like Bruce [Weber] or Mario [Testino] or anybody — the con-versation is something like, “Oh, here’s what I think will be great!” “Really?” “Okay, I do too. I think it’ll be fantastic.” It’s a collaboration. It’s interesting to go on the shoot and realize what we said two hours before doesn’t always apply. You get there and something else begins happening. I welcome that, because a lot of times, the best things happen when you don’t expect them to. As an art director, you have to allow these things to happen.
What’s the difference between laying out a magazine and laying out a book?
I don’t think there should be a difference, but there is. In a book, as the art director, [the book] is yours and the author’s, and you both trust one another. In a magazine, the layers are just overwhelming for me. You’ve got the fashion person, you’ve got the editor-in-chief, you’ve got the publisher, you’ve got everybody laying on top of you. How could you do anything original? I think Grace [Coddington] talked about it beautifully in “The September Issue.” We’re all so frustrated with that kind of world. It’s a platform for them. They’re not the visionaries to me. They might be good writers or they might have an idea, but they’re not really creative. Those days are gone. That happened in the 60s, but today, it’s all business — it’s run by business people. They don’t have the same vision.
If you could design a new book for any photographer, living or dead, whose book would it be and why?
There’s one I want to do for Bruce Weber. I’m not sure if he’s going to let me, but I love doing his books because he’s very cinematic.
He is. What elements do you think make a fantastic book?
Well, imagery of course, and the contents. Those together make the rhythm of the book.
How difficult is it to achieve something looking ‘unique’ — in terms of a layout or book design — while striking a balance between creativity and clarity?
You have to be clear. You have got to know the story. One of the things I’m excited about recently is Erich Salomon’s book. I have to tell you, a lot of the photos are old. You’ve seen a thousand of them in old books and things . . . I’ve never done this type of layout. I’ve never done something this extreme.
Is there anybody you haven’t worked with that you would like to?
The clothes of Brooks Brothers that I grew up with were so fantastic. I always told Bruce I’d love to do Brooks Brothers. Everyone said, “You should be doing that.” But I’m not.
What do you think about this whole online magazine type of thing? Has it affected you?
It has affected me, and I was very much against it in the beginning. I love the feeling of the book and the paper. We all talk about it. The magazine is so different for me. I look at it completely differently. I love it even more because I can touch it and look at it, I can feel it, I can go back and forth. There’s just something about holding it in your hand. My work doesn’t change, though.
Do you think photographers are good editors of their own work?
No, they’re too close to it. It’s very hard for them to sit there and get rid of something that they really love. They were there. They know what went on before and after the picture was taken. They know so much about it sometimes, more so than the viewer does when they see the two dimensional piece. I think it’s best when the photographer trusts someone who understands them and their imagery.
In terms of your advertisements, clothes don’t really play an enormous part. From what you said earlier when we talked about the institutional ads — it seems like you’ve taken that idea with you along the way and never got it out of your system.
Because the image is what we’ll always remember. I think it’s also interesting that individually, everybody looks at things differently. When I look at an image — what excites me? What gets the adrenaline going? It’s called “the tingle.” It’s what you’re attracted to. It’s very, very important and I watched other kids in my office and they don’t have that same reference or the same feeling. They don’t see it the same way and they say, “Oh, that’s really pretty.”