Beauty without Irony and its offshoot, Designers Against AIDS are working towards making the world a more beautiful place. We speak to its founder, Ninette Murk.
"What is the most beautiful thing in the world? I asked a lot of people that question in the last 15 years and their answer is always one out of four things: nature, love, discovering other cultures and compassion. Those are the most beautiful things in the world - that make people most happy. And the important message behind that for me is that these things are free, you can't buy them in a shop. Just let that sink in for a minute... Instead of hankering after it-bags and ringtones and what-have-you, most people already have access to the things that make them the happiest!" Ninette Murk is the founder of Antwerp-based creative platform Beauty without Irony (BWI), which wants to bring about a change in mentality - a realisation that pure beauty is more valuable than anything consumer culture can give us. About 13 years ago, when Ninette was a freelance fashion editor, her close friend and assistant, Peter, died of AIDS and as a tribute to him she launched the offshoot of BWI - Designers Against AIDS (DAA). Aiming to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS, in 2010 DAA opened up international education centres, as well as releasing Designers Against AIDS: The First Decade, a book of her achievements including campaigns Designers Do Denim and Knitting Against AIDS alongside images from her supporters and contributors of what, to them, represents the most beautiful thing in the world. We talked to Ninette about the cause, elitism in the fashion industry and the nice people in pop culture - afterall, beauty is only skin deep...
You were a fashion editor before you started your creative platform for social change Beauty without Irony, what exactly did you do?
Yes, for 15 years but that's a long time ago. I really switched in 2004. I went to the shows a lot when the Antwerp Six became famous - that was the end of the 80s/beginning of the 90s.
Did you meet all of them?
Yes I know them very well, a few are good friends of mine. Some of them I helped with finding manufacturers and finding PR's. This was before the Flanders Fashion Institute was founded. Every time a new class graduated they were left in the cold because they didn't know the business side of things, which was weird because they were trained to be very good and very creative and then just left out. Their parents were re-mortgaging their homes to pay for shows etc. so I tried to help them as much as I could because promoting creativity is very important to me. I don't care if it's a fashion designer or an architect or a photographer or a singer - whatever - people who are creative make life worth living. I did it for almost 20 years - going to the shows and working with designers and magazines. But then I started to feel a little bit like it was the same thing over and over again and it got a bit boring and then there is the story in the book about my assistant who died of AIDS. They treated him like shit at the shows in Paris and I was just like 'fuck that.' I thought, maybe I can take the nice people in fashion - and there are a lot of nice people in fashion - and do something with them. That's when we did my first AIDS awareness project - Designers Do Denim.
After what happened to Peter, you said in your book that you started to hate some aspects of the fashion industry - what was it you hated?
The hypocrisy and the elitist part. You know, people were putting on shows in venues that were too small - deliberately - so people were fighting to get through the door just to make it look more interesting, like 'look how popular that designer is!' By the time the internet came along and I was able to watch shows online, it was a god-send. I went to many shows and by the time I had seats on the front row I wanted to change it to the second row and then the third row! I wear whatever I want, I'm not here to see people's shoes unless they're on the catwalk! And a lot of shows weren't even worth going to - you had to wait 45 minutes to an hour and then the show was over in 20 minutes and most of the clothes I saw should have gone straight to the showroom - it was boring. Maybe one out of twenty shows I was happy to be at. A lot of them were Belgians, like Raf Simons - I've never seen a boring show of his, or Dries Van Noten. I'm not very diplomatic, I always say what I think and some people couldn't deal with that. Sometimes I went to bed and was like 'what did I do today?' I wrote two articles. One about some concealer and one about the best bathing suits for your figure. I was ashamed about my work sometimes. You only live once, so do something that makes you happy and preferably makes other people happy too and try to make a difference. Of course, it was easier said than done because I was a single mother with teenage children and I earned quite a lot of money working for so many magazines and doing consultancy for fashion brands and had an easy life in a way but it wasn't satisfying. After my assistant died I just got more and more upset about it. The only thing that kept me going was discovering new designers, new photographers, organising photoshoots on a shoestring - that was always fun, doing something creative and beautiful without having to pay through your nose for it.
How relevant do you think runway shows are today?
I don't think fashion shows - in the traditional way - are very relevant anymore. If you have a story then show it. If you just have clothes to show then just show them to buyers and press in a showroom and don't make a big song and dance about it.
Do you mean having more of a spectacle or a theatrical show makes it worth it?
If doing a show puts an added value to the collection then by all means do it. I look at a lot of shows online now and if it's boring you can just switch it off but I didn't dare to walk out of a show...
Who were some of the first designers to get involved in Beauty without Irony?
Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten and Raf Simons were some of the first. We started with the Belgians and then more and more designers, photographers and other creatives from differentcountries became involved as well. It was usually the more avant garde designers. In the end there were also bigger designers like Marc Jacobs.
Are there designers you haven't worked with yet that you would like to?
Oh plenty. There are always new designers and they're refreshing because they always get it, there's no bullshit, no hype. When I wrote the Beauty Without Irony manifesto it touched a nerve but I think it was a little bit too early, it was 2001 and two months after I wrote it 9/11 happened. After that there were a few years when the fashion industry was drawn more to pure beauty, less destruction, less negativity and less darkness. I think now there is more appreciation for pure beauty and wanting to give something back to society, it's a lot more relevant to people today.
What was it like working with Rihanna and Katy Perry?
Rihanna had just become big when I worked with her - when Umbrella had just come out! But she already had a huge entourage, and when she turned up she had somebody to carry her dog and somebody to carry her handbag, there were like 30 people with her. You don't get much time to talk to people like that. I did get to talk to Pharrell, but that was because I was almost jumping on him! He's so nice and he is a good kisser... (laughs)
Pharrell's a good kisser?!
Yes, very soft and he smells very nice I can tell you... not a really strong aftershave that makes you need to lie down afterwards. You do need to lie down afterwards but it's not from the aftershave lets put it like that! I'd love to work again with him on a project as he's smart and well connected- and young people listen to what he has to say. And I LOVE his 24 hour video for the song Happy, it's 100% what we want to express with Beauty without Irony. He's sweet but with Rihanna there was some distance. She was still really young - 17 or 18 and I knew by having her in the campaign we would reach more young people.
Which campaigns or collaborations have been the most successful?
Fashion Against AIDS was very successful because H&M is very powerful, they have a big marketing machine and we had the biggest names - that was the one that raised the most money. As we did it with H&M worldwide for 5 years in over 35 countries, it was also the project that put the subject of HIV/AIDS and safe sex in the minds of a new generation of a lot of young people. I'm reasonably sure that some lives were saved because of this. I think we raised $13 million for charity and I was very proud. Part of it went to MTV Staying Alive in London, part went to Youth AIDS, part went to United Nations Population Fund and part went to us. With our part of the donations we built our first education center in Antwerp, Belgium. One other project that comes to mind was the coop we did with Marc Jacobs and Playboy a few years ago, where he designed three T-shirts, did a huge promotion campaign in New York, London, Paris and Milan during fashion week and gave all the proceeds to us. I'm much prouder doing that than writing about new skirt lengths. It's a nice way to work because you can use celebrity, you can use pop-culture but you can still get a serious message across in a way that is attractive to these young people, it's not preaching. If they want to sleep with a different person every night, I don't care but for heavens sake use a condom. If you're old enough to have sex, you're old enough to have safe sex, that's it! Next subject!
Is fashion the best means of raising awareness?
Pop-culture in general, not just fashion. It's really fun to work with fashion and music.
At the moment you're concentrating mostly on the education centres, how many have you got now?
At the moment we have the main one in Antwerp, then we have a small office in Indonesia which we opened last year and we want to open a second big education centre in America because it's not very easy to get interns to come from North or South America (to come) to Europe. There are so many friends of mine who have moved to LA and the creative scene there is extremely interesting. It's the centre of pop-culture really, you have the film industry and the music industry there, all the talent agencies...
And young people actually come to the education centres just to learn specifically about AIDS for two months?
Yes two, sometimes three months depending on the project we're working on. So if there's a campaign or exhibition we're working on, we do it together with them and give them a lot of responsibilities from day 1. Sometimes they freak out but after one week, they swim! They also have to update the website, Facebook, Twitter - they work mostly on social media. It's mostly about HIV and AIDS but this year we are branching out to other subjects as well. Safe sex is one thing but it's only one part of the whole story. We also want to raise awareness about more issues than HIV/AIDS: self awareness among/empowerment for young women, anti-violence/bullying, further education, volunteering (that's the compassion thing again), environment...and do more exhibitions that inspire people and make them happy. They're also doing that brilliantly in All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, I've been talking with Caryn Franklin about it. It's our mission to inspire young people, to tell them that what they feel and say DOES matter and that they can help shape their future and make the world a more beautiful place at the same time. We need more independent thinkers, not headless chickens who just do what advertisers and the government wants them to do. How can you affect change when you keep doing things the way the always have been done?
What are the next steps for Beauty without Irony and Designers Against AIDS?
My next step is to open the new centre in Los Angeles as soon as possible, but we need partners to make that happen!
In the book you talk about Serkan Sarier's graduate show being a defining moment in your views on pure beauty, can you recall any other specific moments in your life where you have been touched by beauty?
As you can see in the book, it mainly happens in nature (a beautiful sunset, a starry night in the desert, thunder & lightning...) or for instance when there are a lot of people singing together (I remember a spectacular concert of Bruce Springsteen back in the 80's in a football stadium in Rotterdam where everybody was singing and dancing along, so much so that the grounds were literally moving). Music in general can evoke these emotions of course. You know it when you feel it. Trust your heart, trust your guts, they're just as important as logical thinking is. And if you feel the need to shock, shock with kindness.