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Lily Cole talks chess, art and innovation

Being the first person to put your hand up in class used to be a bad thing, but Lily Cole has proved that academia is sexy. With a little help from chess champion Magnus Carlsen, the model stars in G-Star’s spring/summer 2014 campaign, which sees the duo engrossed in a chess battle. We catch up with Lily under the shade of a Miami palm tree to talk more about metaphors and masters at work.

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You battle chess champion Magnus Carlsen in the new G-Star campaign. Do you actually play? 
Yes. I think one of the reasons G-Star asked me to be involved in the campaign is because they saw a picture of me playing with an ex-champion... for about five minutes before he beat me. I’m no expert, but I have a chessboard and have played on and off with friends for years. The thing I love about chess is that you never really know who’s winning until the game ends, because the odds can completely swivel round the other way at the last minute. You can’t get too cocky. 

Is the high level of concentration something that you enjoy? 
I struggle with that a bit. I imagine I could be a much better player if I really wanted to win, but I’ve never wanted it enough. The thing is about working out the possibilities - and I go so far, and then I’m like ‘fuck it!’ because I can’t be bothered to work it out anymore.

So it’s about the devotion? 
Yeah, if I had the devotion I’d have Magnus down in one! No, I don’t think that’s true…

What appealed to you about the G-Star campaign?
First and foremost I really love how they work with lots of people from different industries. I’ve noticed the photographers they’ve used in the past, and obviously they’ve used Anton Corbijn for a few seasons now. It’s an interesting cross-pollination of creatives. This time the proposition was with Magnus Carlsen and photographer Philip Hale. Also, Shueti’s a really interesting filmmaker, so it was an opportunity to work with people who I admire creatively, which is always a big motivator for me. I like the aesthetic of the brand too. It’s not something I’ve done before and it felt right for me. I looked into the CSR and they’re trying to lead the way in sustainability in denim. 

The arts angle seems to be quite an important factor for you. Was that a hook on this project?
Definitely, because I can see that their approach was very creative in terms of the people that they asked to collaborate. They had clear ideas about the chess game and how it was going to be storyboarded. It’s like making a short art film, which is an interesting, fun thing to do. 

You studied History of Art at Cambridge. Tell us about your favourite artists?  
My favourite art is art that breaks paradigms – it's innovative and the artists are remembered because their contribution is so pivotal. Picasso is an obvious example of breaking paradigms multiple times. In terms of a period? I’d say early 20th century art is probably one of my favourites because there was such radical change within a short time. I think it has affected our aesthetic language now... not just in art, but in designs, fashion and philosophy. I like the Situationists and artists who use art as a means to question things – as a philosophical medium. My favourite practising artists are Gerhard Richter, Sarah Lucas and Joe Bradley. Also Marina Abramović, whose art I wouldn’t necessarily want on my wall - but the purpose is not to buy it, but to make us think about life or experiences in quite an interesting way, and I like that. 

Obviously denim is classic, but G-Star's 3D denim is fairly innovative... 
They look at it from an engineering perspective rather than purely a design perspective, but I think I was more inspired by their approach to collaboration. Even as far as doing collage as an advertising campaign is innovative. I love that. I mean you can hardly even see our faces in it because it’s all cut up. It’s fresh. Innovation in general is one of the most important things that I think exists in the world’s possibilities... because without that, we’re stuck somewhere. 

How entwined do you think fashion and art are?
I see them as separate but I see the potential for crossing over. Most of the time fashion is very commercial, which doesn’t always gel with how I understand art. For me, art is absolute freedom and when you’re within commercial restraints, you don't have that. There are instances where they do cross over. I’ve worked with many artists in fashion - photographers and designers who’ve chosen this medium as their landscape. 

Yeah, you’ve worked with lots of incredible people. Do you have a highlight?
I did a very cool cover for i-D with Tim Walker actually! I've done a lot of really great work with Tim. Juergen Teller too - I love his imagery. Irving Penn as well, and Steven Meisel back in the early days. I’ve done a few things with artists like Gillian Wearing and Fiona Banner, and it’s really nice to be different. I've always enjoyed the process of meeting lots of different people, dressing up in funny outfits, having my hair and make-up done, travelling places. I enjoy working with really high-end photographers and being a sponge to the creativity around me.

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