Thursday, May 5, 2016

Hanro and Izak Zenou: when art married commerce

The genesis of this interview began with an invitation inviting me to the unveiling of a collaboration between Izak Zenou and Hanro which resulted in a full store mural.  Hanro is one of, if not the, leading manufacturers of luxury cotton undergarments and sleepwear made in Switzerland. To equate the brand in any way with let’s say an underwear brand such as Hanes would be like comparing Van Cleef to Kay Jewelers. Mr. Zenou is known as one of New York City's most celebrated and accomplished illustrators/artists and this mural marks a first for both.

Izak Zenou's hand painted mural is homage to the brand's heritage and an engaging view into the spirited women who inspire him. This is the latest artist collaboration in Hanro's on-going public art campaign.

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As you will read, this is an example of how art and in this case more specifically illustration has morphed with commerce to produce a seminal work by one artist. When you read the interview, there is no not being able to conjure a certain great artist painting a certain great ceiling in a certain great religious site. The difference being is that is the 21st century and this didn’t take decades to produce but nonetheless one can’t help but marvel at it and its raison d’etre.

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Jeffrey Felner: Can you tell us a bit about your history including how you arrived at this point in your creative career?

Izak Zenou: I was born in a suburb of Paris and grew up always very interested in art and design.  So as a young man I decided to pursue fashion and became a designer; it was the 80s and a really exciting time in fashion. I always loved doing the sketches and illustrating the clothing more than actually making the clothes.  The husband of one of my friends, an artist who was designing fabrics for the designer Kenzo, took a look at my portfolio and really encouraged me to pursue my collection.  Not long after, I was asked to contribute some to several trend reports.  People responded to my illustrations and my work was being published in these magazines and books.  I also began to collaborate with various advertising agencies.  So I realized that my illustration was something special.  One of the advertising agencies offered to help me to find an agent and made some calls on my behalf.  It was then that I met Virgine Challamel who went on to become my first agent and who is still my agent in Paris.  Virgine loved my work, but she explained to me that it was not very commercial and that clients would not know exactly what to do with it.    Suddenly, after collaborating on a book that spoofed French fashion, people started to call like crazy and this is how I booked my first few jobs.  Soon I was doing illustrations for magazines like Madame Figaro and Marie Claire.

Soon after I was approached to work on a very hush-hush project for Chanel; it was for the launch of their fragrance Allure and they wanted to create a really special little book to tell the story of the woman who would wear the fragrance.  What I didn’t know until the president of Chanel told me was that they really weren’t sure it was going to work until the very last moment. Luckily, it was and I have had a twenty-year relationship with them.  It also led to a lot of other great projects with brands like Guerlain and a lot of top magazines.

Virgine then said to me, ‘I think you have to move to America, because you will be an amazing success there and it is such a big market for you.’   As fate would have it, Michelle Edelman called and said I want you to come to New York and I will represent you.  So I thought, ‘Okay, this is a sign.’ And I did.  We have been working together ever since and I am still represented by her agency Traffic Creative Management here in the states. 

When I came to the US, we decided to again do a little promotional book about my work…which was also a way to say goodbye to Paris.  It was that promotional piece that Henri Bendel saw and they asked me to do something similar for them for their beauty collection.  That is what began our relationship which flourished for twenty years.  I also received commissions from magazines like Vogue, Glamour and Mademoiselle, and many new clients.  I loved the energy of New York in way that I had never expected as there was so much excitement and enthusiasm for me and my work.  I had found a new home.

One of the really exciting things to happen recently is my collaboration with Hanro of Switzerland, which is a brand I love personally because it’s truly understated luxury.  I had been a customer for many years, so when they approached me to create a piece for a group show they were doing to celebrate their 130th anniversary, I was really excited.  It was also a bit scary because they asked me to illustrate the famous Marilyn Monroe moment from the film The Seven Year Itch, when she is over the subway and suddenly her dress is lifted up to reveal her Hanro underwear.  It is such an iconic moment, not only for Hanro, but a real New York moment.  So I was actually nervous about it but it was a lot of fun and they loved what I did...  Then this year, they returned and asked if I could create a mural on the walls of their flagship store on Washington Street in the Meatpacking District.  The brand has been very closely tied to art and architecture throughout their history and since the anniversary event; they have been exploring these sorts of collaborations for the New York store.  Again, I was very excited about the idea but also a bit nervous.  The store is in a wonderful old industrial building with this incredible design and retains a lot of the original architectural elements with incredibly high ceilings which add to the dramatic white wraparound fascia element above the sales floor, so it is like an enormous canvas.  When I went to look at the space, the US president Jan Snodgrass explained to me that he wanted me to be the first artist to paint right on the walls and create a custom mural.  I thought, ‘Well, it’s either going to be a big success or a huge mess.’  But he had faith, so how could I say no?  In fact, I have been painting the last few days in the store and it has been so exhilarating.  I am actually challenging myself in a way I never imagined and I love it!  It is something special to have a partner who says, ‘Go and do whatever you want.  I believe in you.’  So I have focused on the women who inspire me through all my work, “my muses” and I am bringing them to life in this huge scale…while chatting with the shoppers who are coming in for a silk robe or something.  It’s truly been an adventure.  And it will be open to the public for something like six months to a year, so I really want everyone to come see it!

Presently I am also working on a new collection of fashion accessories under my own name.  I have collaborated with so many wonderful brands over the years from Bendel to Celine, but this collection is very personal to me.  It is called d’izak and we are launching a small capsule of silk scarves, totes and pouches for Spring/Summer that will be available through my web store and then we will have a big launch for Holiday ’16 with great stores like Lord  & Taylor who will carry the collection. 

The other thing that I am just beginning is a new series of portraits…real portraiture, very intimate.  I have been known for many years for my fashion illustration, but this is a chance for me to return to my roots and explore something more dramatic and personal. I have begun a series of sittings in my studio with some of my favorite style icons that will result in an exhibition of these works.  We are lining up amazing subjects from Iris Apfel to Catherine Malandrino and Langley Fox, as well as some great men like Nigel Barker. The sittings are a way for me to connect to the personalities behind these iconic figures and explore those connections.  It is still me, but from a distinctly different vantage point.  I think a lot of people will be surprised to see this other dimension of my work.
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JF: What would be your dream collaboration and why?

IZ: I’m a total design freak.  I love home decor, so I would like to design furniture, lighting, wall coverings…anything to do with interiors. It would be great to collaborate on an amazing home collection, something really special and really beautiful quality.  That would be dream collaboration. 

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JF: If you could invite any 5 people to dinner, who would they be and why?

IZ: I would definitely say Oprah.  I can remember the very first time I saw one of her shows.  I just thought, “Wow, she gets it.”  I think that the impact she has had on the world is amazing.  She has really been such a positive influence for so many people and done it in a way that demonstrates her wisdom, kindness and care.  She is very inspiring to me and I would love the opportunity to have a sort of philosophical and spiritual discussion with her.

 Elie Wiesel is another as I think he is a remarkable individual and would love to talk with him about faith and his experiences.  This is becoming a very spiritual group, isn’t it?

I would invite the French novelist Patrick Modiano as he is one of my favorite authors.  I am totally obsessed with him and find his work totally mesmerizing. It’s fiction, but I feel that so much is drawn from his own life.  He creates this atmosphere that I totally relate to…this world that is just fascinating.

If I could have Meryl Streep there, that would be amazing!  She has so much talent, intelligence and beauty.  She’s really a force of nature and I would love to meet her. 

And there are so many others, but there has to be at least one musician.  I find it hard to choose, but if I had to I would say one…then it would be the guitarist Pat Metheny.  His music is a total inspiration to me. His is music brings me to places no one else can and gives me so much inspiration.

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JF: What was the best advice you ever received, from whom and why?

IZ: The best advice I ever received was from my grandmother. She said, ‘If you are patient in life, then you are the wealthiest person in the world.’ It is something that I cherish and it always stayed with me.  When things are missing or not going the way I want, then I know that it means it’s not the right time.  It’s not that I don’t deserve it.  It’s just that I’m not ready for it. It’s all about waiting for the right moment and being patient.  It’s so true and it has helped me so much.

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JF: What advice would you give to those just starting out in the creative fields?

IZ: The advice I would give is believe in yourself, work hard and be patient.  You also have to engage in life and always stay in motion; keep moving forward.  Do what you are inspired to do and eventually, it will all work out.

JF: Can you speak of the best day of your life to date and why?

IZ: Oh yes, the best day of my life was the day that my daughter was born.  It’s hard to describe, but everything else just became so small and I had this great sense of responsibility.  It may seem cliché, but it was truly amazing and I had this profound feeling that it was a miracle.  It was a truly humbling moment to me.  She was born premature and there she was this tiny thing, her mother and I made, that fit in one hand.  Now she is a beautiful young lady.  She’s fourteen and I can’t believe that she is a teenager already.  She’s so funny and creative.  When I look at her I see so much of myself and so much that is more than me.

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