East of Eden: Behind the Scenes

Edward Enninful's mood board

Edward Enninful's mood board, with work by Nobuyoshi Araki and Ling Jian.

The initial spark for this story came from the spring 2013 collections: Prada, Haider Ackermann, Alexander McQueen, Emilio Pucci, and others had lots of Asian references, which I found interesting. That got me thinking about the Japanese designers from the ’80s whom I love, like Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons. From there, I started looking at the work of Nobuyoshi Araki, who’s one of Japan’s most prolific contemporary artists and photographers. I wanted the story to acknowledge the past but still feel new; you never want fashion to look like costumes with no current relevance.

There’s a lot of research and time that goes into my shoots. I spend weeks on them, even for one picture. You have to go to the recesses of your mind and recall every movie you’ve watched, every book you’ve read. I always think of Tom Cruise in Minority Report—just grabbing every bit of information. You never know where inspiration is going to come from.

Using old Yohji ads, Araki photos, and other images, I created a mood board, which is what I do before every shoot. It allows me to fully develop the character. I’ll kick around ideas with the photographers—in this case, Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott—and together we flesh everything out. Who is the woman? Is she Chinese? Japanese? How old is she? Does she have bleached-blonde hair? We approach the project as if it were a play. The next step is, Where does she live? Where does she hang out? That’s when we brainstorm about location. Maybe she’s in a castle, maybe a studio. The clothes are the third layer: Once we have the character and know where she is, the fashion just falls into place. I may be obsessed with a certain red dress, but if it doesn’t work on the character, then it’s out. I envy those stylists who can just take an outfit from the runway and photograph it. It’s so much less torturous than the way I go about it.

It was important to have Asian models, since the story was about Asian-inspired fashion. So we cast Yumi Lambert, who’s part Japanese, part Belgian; and Xiao Wen Ju, who’s Chinese. Then there was Ondria Hardin, who’s American but has a manga look, with her big eyes. There were a bunch of girls that season who had a similar aesthetic—I call them the children of Gemma Ward. It was Mert and Marcus who suggested we use them; originally, I had imagined girls with really round faces. We also cast Saskia de Brauw, who is one of the most iconic models today. When you do a story with many models, you need someone to ground it, and for me that was Saskia. For the cover, we chose three of the biggest names in modeling—Kate Moss, Lara Stone, and Natalia Vodianova.

We shot for two days in a huge Gothic country estate in England with beautiful grounds. We brought in sets and built amazing Asian-inspired rooms. But ultimately we decided not to use the pictures, because they felt too heavy-handed. We realized that the idea was so strong it didn’t need such an extravagant location—the girls were getting lost in the background. We thought the focus needed to be on them and the clothes, so we reshot in a studio in London for three days, using some of the set pieces we had created for the first shoot. A Japanese screen on the ground suggested Asia, and that was enough. We didn’t need to hammer home the point.

Mert and Marcus are very good at directing the girls on-set. They really know about dance and movement, and they choreographed the pictures of Saskia with her hands positioned just so. We also had an expert who came to the studio to make sure that the hairdos were authentic and the obis were tied properly. We wanted to remain true to tradition.

It was an intense shoot—probably one of the most demanding I’ve ever experienced. Working with Mert and Marcus is always challenging, but that’s what I love about them. Everyone is very focused, and if the images don’t reach a certain level of excellence, they’ll simply redo them. And I thank God we did. It turned out to be one of my favorite stories ever—it just felt so magical. Plus, I love the title: “East of Eden.” It has such scope; your imagination can just run wild.