Interview: Get to know Mathias Augustyniak of M/M (Paris).
by Eric Waroll
For the past 20 years, eclectic design partners Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak have created a unique world of images, collages, and typographies under the name of M/M (Paris). Their collective work in the music, fashion, and art worlds makes them one of the most emblematic and influential design partners of the twenty-first century.
The M/M name is not unknown to fashion lovers. Throughout their career they’ve collaborated with Givenchy, Balenciaga, Yohji Yamamoto, Marc Jacobs, and many others, including a roster of prestigious musicians, such as Björk and Madonna to name but a few.
To celebrate the release of their first monograph, M to M from M/M (Paris), Mathias Augustyniak took a moment to discuss his new book, his career with Michael, and more.
Eric: Where did you get the idea for M to M of M/M (Paris)?
Mathias: The idea came to us about eight years ago. A publisher from Thames & Hudson came to our studio and proposed the idea to publish a book about our work. It took us eight years to find a solution to publish it—to find a way to incorporate all of our work and make it look wonderful.
Eric: But M/M also publishes independently; for instance, you published The Givenchy Files yourself, correct?
Mathias: The Givenchy Files is a Thames & Hudson publication. It is more like volumes of an encyclopedia. With M to M from M/M (Paris), we wanted to do something different. We do have the ambition to publish our own books, or in any case, to have an editorial policy. That’s why with M to M, we wanted to be intentionally detached. There were so many things [to include] because [the book] represents two decades of our work. We wanted it to be very simple. The idea was to create a kind of compass.
Eric: The book contains all of your collaborations in the fashion industry. Was fashion an industry that you both wanted to get into when you were young?
Mathias: Fashion has always been important to us, as a medium in which we can intervene, and, in any case, an environment in which we can create images. When we got into it, the only images were from fashion shows. There were commercials and there were magazines, but it was not like today where image is essential to convey all the things related to a brand. Today more than ever, the image in the fashion industry is very important. And we are interested in it because, in the history of images, fashion is a culturally rich area.
Eric: Nicolas Ghesquière said in the book, Fashion has become global. As an artist, what is your view?
Mathias: I would go even further. I would say that fashion has become a real industry. When we started, there was still a concept of craft. We worked with people who were at the head of their own fashion houses; the fashion designer was still the one who owned the house in which he worked. For example, someone like Jil Sander, or someone with whom we have never worked, such as Helmut Lang. Today, for example, someone like Nicolas Ghesquière runs a brand called Balenciaga, but this is not his own brand. We really went into this industrial level.
Eric: How were your collaborations with Nicolas Ghesquière?
Mathias: Initially, they had this ‘pre-industrial’ quality; that is, we had a lot more time to do things because the pace was slower than it is today. We had time to discuss things. It was a time when everyone brought his piece to the building.
He was doing the collection. We were doing the visual translation of it, and at the time, we worked with a team of photographers called Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. It was a pooling of knowledge; we influenced each other. We made a visual translation of Nicolas’s ideas and then him with our images. It went further and brought us further and so on. We gradually created this whole brand.
Eric: A few weeks ago, Vogue Paris remade his mock-up. You worked there for a few years ago that.
Mathias: Yes, we ended up there because there was Marie-Amélie Sauvé, who worked at Vogue Paris. Marie-Amélie Sauvé is a stylist. She worked extensively with Nicolas Ghesquière. And she talked about us to Carine Roitfeld, who wanted to meet us. At the time, we did campaigns with Nicolas Ghesquière, Calvin Klein, and Yohji Yamamoto, so we already had a presence as the artistic directors of Vogue Paris.
Eric: Was your arrival at Interview magazine identical to Vogue?
Mathias: There was a thunderbolt [of creativity] between us and Glenn O’Brien. It was very fast; it lasted two months. We did three or four issues.
Eric: And the last issue you did was the one with Björk on the cover?
Mathias: Yes, yes it was. That was a story of passion that had us consumed. It’s a shame, because there really was a thunderbolt with Glenn O’Brien, who was then the editor-in-chief of Interview, and when we left, he left shortly after.
That last issue [with Björk] was very symbolic of what we wanted to do. We had to find a formula very quickly, and in a magazine, it is very difficult to find one that can be repeated every month.
I think there was a real symbiosis between the content and the form. It was a good issue. I like things that are human scale. I like to feel that people can be extraordinary, that they can be like everybody at the same time. I do not say this in a demagogic tone, but that’s what I liked in that issue—there was a very human side.
That is what we tried to do with Vogue, and it took a long time. Even if it is the fashion world, the world of luxury, we wished there was a human dimension. For me, that is important. Even if I cannot afford what is advertised in the magazine, at least I can dream about it, or find a way to purchase it. That is what I like about fashion—some things are unaffordable—and when I was a student it was like that. But I like the dream that fashion can provide. It’s a little obnoxious to say that, but it’s important. Art has no price.
Eric: We just talked about a decade of collaborating with Björk. People say that there is a before and after M/M (Paris) in her career. Do you think that’s true?
Mathias: I’ve always liked that she is a woman. I totally respect what was done before, but what I found amazing about her is that she is a woman. To help her take this step to become a woman—an icon—it was the best thing we could have done for her. She needed to be everything she was before to finally become what she is today… it takes time. So yes, there was a before and after us, but it also corresponded to a turning point in her music career.
Eric: In the interview she gave in the book, she said she hated the duck-shaped logo that you designed; yet it was often printed on her album covers.
Mathias: For me, it was a duck; it was a metaphor for the ugly duckling. This is the idea that in Vespertine, she became a swan. For me, she was this ‘ugly duckling’ that explodes and becomes something else; we do not care what this ugly duckling was before. It precisely helped to enable the transformation about which we just spoke. Maybe she hated it, but for me, it helped to move [her] from one character to another.
I love it, and maybe she hated it because she loved it very much. I don’t know. In any case, it helped a lot. We understand each other. She is someone who knows what she wants. Rather than say ‘We do not like this character,’ we would rather try to understand what she wants.
And it happened for the album Volta, in fact. For example, I know that for Volta, we had hesitated for a long time between two characters. That is why there is that character sticker—some said it [looked like] a bottle of Orangina. I always struggled to understand that character.
In contrast, the strange knitted character inside the album was closer to what the character of Volta was for me. But I think neither one nor the other was the right representation. Both were needed to embody the character. We had long discussions about this with Björk, and I remember telling her: ‘Listen, this is not about who is right; you cannot help but describe this character with all her faces’. It is like the moon, we see only one side, but there’s the side we don’t see behind it; both exist. The ‘Orangina bottle’ became the shell of the character and inside, another part of the character in a knitted outfit was more earthy. We needed both.
Eric: Two years after Björk’s Vespertine, you worked with Madonna. Was the process the same or totally different?
Mathias: It was difficult. That cover—which I find perfectly executed—is nothing new. That was a superposition of shots. The typography was made with photographs cut of Madonna; it is a parody. The alphabet we had done with models had already existed, so when we worked with Madonna, it was just self-parody in a way; we gave her nothing new. For us, Madonna is a brilliant sign. Even if Madonna would not appreciate that, she’s a bit like Lady Gaga—they’re both people who represent the present.
Eric: What can we expect in the future? Who will you work with next?
Mathias: Someone I’ve never heard of… It always frightens me actually. I remember, for example, when Björk called us, it was such a surprise and so nice. I prefer to be surprised.
In fact, I like the idea of chance. I also remember [my first encounter with] Calvin Klein with whom we [eventually] worked. Suddenly, there was a message on our phone from Calvin Klein. And so there was this man’s voice… I don’t know. When I was younger, I saw Back to the Future, and there’s this scene where the hero wears Calvin Klein underwear. And there’s a funny dialogue when someone says, ‘But Calvin Klein is not your name’ and the hero replies ‘No, it is not my name; it’s the brand.’ And suddenly, I thought it would be interesting to work with Calvin Klein, and it is done. But I find it hard to force such meetings.