Shona Heath and partner Tim Gutt were the talents behind our festive Mulberry Fairy Tale. We invited them to interview each other about their inspirations and work on the Mulberry Christmas campaign.
Tim Gutt: It’s a rainy Sunday night two weeks before Christmas and we’re sitting here having a conversation about the Mulberry Christmas campaign. How did it come about?
Shona Heath: The starting point was probably about five months ago, Mulberry asked me to come in and said right, we have five main windows in Harrods and we need to create a fantastic magical Christmas scene, whatever that might be, and please will you make it beautiful and British and very Mulberry. That was near enough my brief.
The initial idea I had that developed was to create a seemingly continual landscape depicting the English countryside in the middle of a snowy winter – then it felt very Mulberry to use all the British wildlife that I could get my hands on! I’ve always been drawn to the countryside, I like nature and I’m often inspired by it in a lot of my work. I felt like it was a good starting point to do something really beautiful and really magical that would appeal to everybody – I didn’t want it to be overtly blingy or ‘fashiony’, I just wanted it to be really beautiful and special and really magical. There were lots of ‘magical’ surprising elements that you wouldn’t find in nature – the gold acorns, golden arrows in a tree trunk, little elements of mystery.
TG: Did you envisage this place that you’re describing, this moment in the countryside? How do you feel about this place you have created?
SH: I suppose I feel at home in this place – it feels like a collage of certain elements of my childhood, walking in the snow in the countryside in Worcestershire. I also like to inject elements of fantasy and fairy tale into something natural and organic. There is a pre-Raphaelite beauty about some of the props – the arrows, the peacocks, some really iconic symbolism that fitted into the theme and gave it a feminine edge that I suppose I always try to add into my work. So I feel very comfortable in this Mulberry place that I have created.
And then we invited you to take beautiful photographs – it felt like such a shame just to do all this work for the windows that would eventually be taken down and it also felt like there was more to get out of the concept and the huge amount of effort and work that went into it. That’s when we asked you to photograph and also come up with a short film. I’m really happy with how the photos and film looked, you always move what I do on from a realm of maybe where it could get a bit fussy to something more simplified, and it showed the bags beautifully.
TG: For me it was when I first sat down to discuss and imagine and create this world that we were going to photograph that I had a strong feeling that the use of all the taxidermy and the animals and the elements of snow needed a bit of real life to add that unexpected and majestic beauty that live animals have – that’s when Becky the deer came into the fold. Becky features in the video along with a very elegant swan whose name I don’t remember…
SH: She was called Angela!
TG: Yes, Angela, they helped bring the space to life – it involved a bit of chaos in that the set and studio was a controlled space but with a lot going on – fine snow, bags being styled to perfection, and then you introduce the loose canons of these beautiful animals.
SH: Becky was quite big wasn’t she? And she didn’t have spots!
TG: No, Becky needed a bit of time in hair and makeup but she had the elegance that we were hoping for. We just had to put her into the back of the set a bit more as she seemed a bit big in relation to the rest of the props. The landscape we photographed seemed spacious but t wasn’t a huge set – it was 10 metres of scenery that we used to create the idea of an expanse of landscape wilderness.
SH: how did you feel when Becky walked on set? We’d done a whole day’s shoot without the animals and saved them for the final day.
TG: I was petrified she was going to fall off set! But luckily that didn’t happen. I felt that the unexpected element brought the set to life, somewhat disturbing the equation of all the carefully chosen and placed ingredients – it’s very much what the pictures are trying to evoke: a place and a narrative about the people who desire these bags – there they are, sitting in the morning light of winter in this magical place. That was what I was trying to bring to the table with the lighting, the sense of a bright moment in a fairy tale place.
SH: I think that the way you shot the pictures was good in that you sort of brought the weather with you, with the lighting and smoke and midst – you created the sky and I really feel that in the photos it looks like a real place, the photography really captured the winteriness – I felt chilly! At the same time the bags looked gorgeous. For the animals the set must have been surreal, a plastic lake and a golden snail!
TG: Speaking of the surreal, can you say a bit more about how you approach the set design? There is a play on scale, and some odd things going on…
SH: What I wanted to do is create the feeling that on first glance it looks like nature – an amazing snowy forest, but actually nothing is real, the way the trees and wildlife are, nothing is really the right colour. I looked at silhouettes of nature, which I’ve always loved, trees, shapes, and then painted some of the trees and bulrushes black so that they feel like shadows, then white bulrushes and leaves so that they become like snow. Then the gold was added – golden frogs and golden squirrels! The snow was as a way of cleaning it up – very pure white to give a sense of space.
TG: Your sets always tell a story and hold a narrative, we’ve worked mainly on editorial stories together where there is always a narrative or a concept that underlies a certain form of storytelling.
SH: I think out of the two of us I’m definitely the one who is more interested in storytelling in a fairy tale sense, and you are the one who is very concept-driven and I think the mix of the two often has a very nice outcome. You simplify and edit much more than I do, I sort of hack in things and maybe go to far sometimes! You’re very selective and look at the key things that will work. The Mulberry images work so well because they feel clean, even though there is lots of detail it feels like a calm space, not chaotic.
TG: I suppose a calm but magical storytelling has been a bit of a thread in the fashion work we’ve done – we strive to produce something with a timeless beauty, something that is fashionable in the sense that it is beautiful and has a luxury to it but that is something that transcends a moment in time, that has a certain ambiguity.
SH: I think we’re quite good at making the ridiculous make sense, or taking a number of ingredients that don’t necessarily make sense together and giving them a narrative.
SH: An interesting thing about Mulberry is its Englishness – people always say to me ‘Oh your work is so English’. What is that English thing, because often I can’t put my finger on it myself, is it something to do with humour, and history or an approach and an attitude, is it something you can describe?
TG: (laughs) that is going to be very hard to answer!
SH: I think Mulberry definitely sums up what it means to be British, especially the finer points of being English – heritage, family, country houses, a fantastic eccentric life in the country in a rambling manor with dishevelled sofas and curtains, where you step outside into gorgeous countryside. But Mulberry also has an irreverence and a playfulness and a creativity, and fearlessness with creativity, that feels very British in a visual way, in a storytelling way.
Another thing about Mulberry’s Englishness, their brand and their products, is that they don’t try so hard, their starting points are so great – the craftsmanship is there, they take care at every stage of the process, but there is not over-design going on, it’s more about quality and craft and ideas coming from the strangest places. It’s very English to find sensible ideas in the strangest places.