designer turned visual artist hannah marshall on leaving fashion for music

Hannah first caught our eye showing at LFW and designing clothes for the likes of Florence, Savages and Janet Jackson. Since then -- via the loveliest love story with Romy from The xx and endless adventures touring the world together -- she’s now a...

by Francesca Dunn
10 March 2016, 6:10pm

Having already had a successful career as a young London designer, visual artist and creative director Hannah Marshall has just turned her hand to directing her very first music video. Approached by Atlantic Records, Hannah began what she describes as a thrilling journey into the unknown by working closely with newly-signed London electro-pop duo RIVRS. Using her signature black and white palette, the visuals for their new single "Friend Lover" are really quite stunning -- all intimate close-ups and slow-motion shattering glass.

Hannah's Instagram is an art project in itself -- the kind of thing you'd happily walk around a gallery to observe -- groupings of three works, text, a short piece of film, and a photograph. Always in black and white, the three complement and narrate each other. Hannah loves the curation element of creating a set; telling a story through three mediums and getting her kicks from the visual uniformity. Her work tends to focus on female musicians -- connecting with what other women have to say, with music the most powerful conduit of emotion. Back from sunny LA and settled, for now, in her former home of London, we catch up with the longtime i-D friend.

Was music as important to you when you worked in fashion?
Musicians breathed life into my work and gave it a heartbeat. The first artist that I was commissioned to create bespoke clothing for was Florence Welch. Since then, I've had the opportunity to collaborate with and dress some incredible music artists, including Savages, The xx, Jessie Ware, Poliça, Banks, Goldfrapp, Róisín Murphy and Janet Jackson. Clothing is one of the most powerful ways to communicate who we are, but over time, I've become more interested in exploring what is under the skin rather than what we encase it in. I have extended my curatorship out of the body and into to the mind. I am curious about the internal paradox of what we are concealing and what we are revealing.

What prompted the venture into music video territory?
Through my black minimalist aesthetic, I always like to explore the tension of the duality between black and white, light and dark, strength and vulnerability. With my focus now on what's underneath the surface, I explore this through words, photography and film. Music has always been the core influence of my work and video is something I wanted to explore for a while. For me, moving image is a way of being able to tell a story, but in a more expansive way.

Talk us through the concept of the "Friend Lover" video.
The first time I listened to the song, I felt like it was an open letter about a one-way love that is unfulfilled and unreciprocated. It made me think about the emotional walls of a relationship when two people aren't on the same wavelength. At the heart of the video was the intention to explore the openness of reaching out to someone and expressing these emotions. The walls of the glass box breaking and falling away symbolizes the emotional wall literally coming crashing down, representing the expression of love, bravery, and empowerment. Then -- once everything has played out -- the video goes in reverse motion, retracting and rebuilding back to how it was before. The walls have come down, we have opened up and finally expressed emotions but then, everything goes back to the way it was, without an ending, without an answer. Just the knowledge that we took a risk and were open and vulnerable enough to be seen and heard.

How much input did the band have?
The band had so much confidence in me and my vision, which felt very encouraging. The video concept involved movement and initially I planned to put a dancer in the video but decided to ask Charlotte, the singer of RIVRS, if she would be up for taking on this role. She was open to it but admitted she was not a confident dancer. I recognized how beautifully introverted she was and I didn't want to change this, just increase her body and movement confidence. I contacted choreographer Wayne McGregor and explained the video concept and he immediately suggested his right hand woman, Sarah Dowling. Sarah came on board and we worked together with Charlotte in a dance studio, establishing the basics of the different emotions and how to express them through movement in a way that felt natural to Charlotte. Sarah has an incredible energy, she's sensitive to the artist she is working with and her intuitive approach makes it very easy to collaborate.

You turn the human body into art and highlight tiny details. How did you work with Charlotte to guide her through your process?
Since the video was shot in slow motion, it was the intention for Charlotte to move around freely at a pace that felt comfortable to her and that we capture the moments that felt right for the story. Being on set with the eyes of an entire team looking can feel exposing, daunting, and uncomfortable, so we created a partition between the Charlotte and the team, to close us off from her space. This way, she had the freedom to move around in a more liberated way.

What did you learn from making the video?
With any artistic project, it's always important for me to maintain authenticity, keep my artistic integrity and remember my vision -- these three things are essential, but can be difficult and challenging along the way. Although making a video was new territory, the artistic journey was no different. The main lessons I learned were that clear communication is everything and that getting the edit right is so key to conveying the story. I became very involved in the editing process.

The band has said that this track is the start of a love story. In what way did you aim to convey this?
I always focus on the lyrics and the sentiment of music; some people hear the melody or the instrumentation first, but I have always been drawn to the words and the message. I wanted the video to be abstract but to also tell a subtle story, one that was in line with my interpretation of the song.

What do you consider the greatest love story of all time?
The only love story that I know, inside out, is my own one and for me it's the greatest love story -- unexpected and magical. I've always been incredibly sensitive and emotional, but it wasn't until my current relationship that I realized these are my strengths, and I found someone that is equally so.

Tell us about how you and Romy first met.
We met many years ago and became friends, which was a beautiful foundation for our relationship to grow from.

What is it about black and white that appeals to you so much?
The poetry and duality of black and white has an unlimited profundity to me, I've always instinctually been drawn to it.

Other than RIVRS, which other new music speaks to you most?
Savages are one of the most exciting bands of our time and have a great deal of integrity and conviction. The new album Adore Life is a powerful piece of sonic art full of raw emotion that cuts straight to the heart and mind. Their live performance is honest and uncompromising and always leaves the audience feeling empowered. The intimacy and strength of Banks' voice and vulnerability of her lyrics floors me. While spending time with her in LA I got to have a listen to some of her new songs, and it put shivers up my spine -- I can't wait for her new album to be released and for the world to hear. Poliça's new album is currently on repeat, their sound is unlike anyone else and their live show is rhythmically hypnotic, the double drummers and lead singer Channy is mesmerizing to watch. Deap Vally is such a liberated, energetic, and effortlessly cool band. I've only seen them play live once, in the desert during a sandstorm which definitely added to the atmosphere! I've had a sneak preview of their next album and can't wait to hear it live. Kelela is a really unique and interesting artist, I've never had the chance to see her live but listened to her EP and cannot wait to hear what she's been working on. There's some new artists that I'm excited to hear more from such as: Francesca Belmonte, Mabel, and Christine and the Queens.

What do you love most about LA and London?
I grew up in the countryside and moved into London under five years ago. London has always been a creative base for me, but over time living in a such big city has begun to feel overwhelming. I think I am drawn to LA because you have the city if you need it but there's also so much nature on your doorstep, more breathing space -- it's the best of both worlds.

And how do the two cities inspire or motivate you artistically?
London's seasons remind me about the significance of change and transition, but the often monochromatic and moody landscape makes me want to stay inside. LA, on the other hand, has an almost opposite effect for me. The consistently beautiful weather can at time feel surreal and it's easy to get lost in time there but it inspires a very different way of living as it's instinctive to spend a lot of time outdoors. To me, the two places have very different mind sets. It may sound cliché but the openness and encouragement of creativity that I've felt from people in LA is something that inspires me. In London it feels like if you change your path and do something that you are not known for doing, people have a tendency to question why, rather than celebrate it.

Which women are particularly inspiring you and how?
The women I surround myself with are all strong and beautiful on the inside and outside. Each of them have impacted me and continue to inspire me in their own way and make me stronger. My mom's inner strength and resilience throughout the most challenging times of her life has taught me that no matter what life brings we can overcome it. Her continuous nurturing and support allowed me to embrace my creativity from a young age, which enabled me to find my own voice and way of expressing it. But, in the last few years there is no one that has had greater impact on the way I see myself and the world around me than my girlfriend, Romy. She has a uniquely beautiful mind and heart, one that I feel so grateful to share. Romy's emotional authenticity, intelligence and creative integrity thread through everything she thinks, says and does. To me, she is the embodiment of living a wholehearted life, one that is brave and courageous.

Most powerful, influential live show you've ever witnessed?
I've had the opportunity to experience some incredibly powerful live shows in my life, the ones that stand out are the ones that have filled me with pure, raw emotion. Björk is my favorite artist of all time, she is an innovator and the most unique visionary of our time. The first time I saw her perform live was in Reykjavik, Iceland. To see and hear her bring to life songs that have formed such a tapestry throughout my life, felt nothing short of a transcendent experience.

What's your next project?
I'm curating a project that brings women in music together, which will be launched in the near future.

What sound makes you happiest?
My girlfriend laughs at me because I always seem to burst into tears when a song has a really beautiful string section.

What's the best advice you've ever received and who was it from?
There's a quote that I have above my desk by Patti Smith which has become my mantra: "We go through life. We shed our skins. We become ourselves."

What are your hopes for 2016?
On January 1, I wrote down my intentions for this year and created my first vision board, visualizing my hopes and dreams. I'm a very private person so this is something I keep to myself but the words that encapsulate it are: Into The Beautiful Unknown.


Text Francesca Dunn
Photography Alexandra Waespi

the xx
romy madley croft
hannah marshall