Sebastian Faena and Laura Brown’s High Fashion Treasure Hunt

by Eddie Roche
Sebastian Faena

When InStyle celebrated its 25th anniversary in September, the monthly fashion magazine came up with a major way to reflect on the quarter-century milestone. EIC Laura Brown and her team tracked down 25 of the greatest red-carpet dresses and brought them to life again with models Amber Valletta, Joan Smalls, and Karen Elson. The result? An epic editorial shot by Sebastian Faena and styled by Julia von Boehm that we haven’t been able to get off our minds. The Daily reunited this talented trifecta to learn how they put it all together.

Sebastian Faena

Sebastian Faena, Julia von Boehm, and Laura Brown (Courtesy)

How did the editorial come about?
Laura Brown: We had a September issue and [market and accessories director] Sam Broekema and [editor at large] Eric Wilson said it would be great to do something on the greatest red-carpet dresses of the past 25 years. I thought, “That’s all well and good, but how do we make this more?” We need to get the dresses, shoot them on fabulous models, and put them in the world; that’s what makes it cool and original. InStyle’s DNA is red-carpet dressing. We need to get them. The process was really fun, because they had their favorites and I had mine.

One that we really wanted was the Michelle Williams yellow [Vera Wang] dress, which we didn’t get because it was too personal, and I totally understand. We all had dresses that we just died for. I would just spit out dresses. I would send Eric texts like “the Cate Blanchett Gaulthier!” and “the Julianne Moore green YSL!” Everyone wanted the Liz Hurley Versace. It became this investigation of where the thing was, so we’d go to the [fashion] houses and to the actresses. It was sometimes as simple as “We have it in our archive! We’ll send it to you!” to “So-and-so has lost the keys to her storage unit.” It was really quite the hunt. It was sometimes more tricky with the houses where the [creative directors] have changed.

Any examples?
Brown: The story of getting Julianne Moore’s dress is so funny. We originally went to YSL and they didn’t have it, and then we went to Tom Ford and they were sure that YSL had it. I then went to Julianne. She didn’t have it. I was very wed to this green dress. It ended up being with Tom the whole time. It was this rabbit hole of finding things, which was really fun.

The Yves Saint Laurent dress worn by Julianne Moore (Sebastian Faena)

What were some of the other challenges?
Brown: I kept getting scared that we were counting wrong, that we f**ked up and it was actually 26 or 24 dresses. We’d sit here like we were learning to count. We managed to get to 25. Well done, us!

What about the models?
Brown: I desperately wanted Karen Elson. She was the last one to confirm, but I was really holding out for her. I wanted supermodels. I like supermodels who aren’t tiny babies — that have real swagger and presence. So it was Joan [Smalls], Amber [Valletta], and Karen. I wanted to see Gwyneth [Paltrow]’s pink Ralph Lauren on a redhead. It makes it cool. When Sebastian and Julie got on deck to shoot it, we didn’t disagree. I knew Joan would really sauce up that white Tom Ford. We knew that Amber would be perfect in that Versace. I knew Karen could make more classic dresses a bit more subversive with her hair and everything else. It pretty much worked. The dresses we landed on the girls [fit], which was pretty extraordinary.

We took three solid days [to shoot], and I wanted it to be downtown, midtown, and uptown. We shot in Chinatown, the Plaza Hotel, and then we were uptown in the street and in old theaters. It felt really special — we worked really hard, and I’m proud of it. That’s what magazines are capable of doing, and I don’t think magazines are doing it enough. We really tried. We used every relationship — relationships we’ve really earned with houses and actors. People could see that the idea was really great, and they wanted to participate in it. It reminded us of the job of magazine making. This is why we do it. I say to my team, it’s the joy of making things. It’s what propels us in this business, which has so many trials at the moment. Those dresses were iconic, and the history of them was iconic.

The Michael Kors Collection dress worn by Emily Blunt in 2013 (Sebastian Faena)

[Sebastian Faena and Julie von Boehm enter Brown’s office. They greet one another and hug.]

Brown: I’m talking about the joy of making things right now. Sit down! [Faena and von Boehm join interview.] I was just saying how excited we were when we first got the photos. This has been one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever worked on. It was so uncynical. Every part about it.

Julia von Boehm: Everybody showed up and was excited about it, which is rarely the case these days!

Sebastian Faena: The whole thing was sort of perfect. Nowadays when you shoot for magazines, there are so many restrictions and dos and don’ts. Laura was great in giving us so much freedom. And such a good idea.

Von Boehm: The idea was genius.

Brown: We agreed what girl should wear what dress. It got a bit hairy for a minute when we didn’t know if we could get Karen, but I knew we needed to have her because of what she brought. When we knew who was wearing what, it was off you went. So tell about that part because I wasn’t there.

Von Boehm: It was fun because we needed to find the perfect location for the perfect dress. It was logic of where it should go. “There’s a hairdresser there! We have to go there!” The guys [working there] would say they were shutting down and we’d say, “Here’s $50! Stay open for one more hour! Please!” and they did! It felt like a student project, which was exciting. I love to get down and dirty.

The Valentino Couture dress worn by Jennifer Lopez at the 2003 Oscars (Sebastian Faena)

Faena: When we first found out about the story, we thought, “How we can show the dresses in a way that’s interesting? Let’s shoot them in the streets, in a very real, hands-on way.” We were in beast mode in the streets.

Von Boehm: Nice beasts!

Faena: We shot in the summer, which is always a good vibe.

How challenging was it to shoot in three days?
Faena: For me, it wasn’t. I shoot a lot. I’m very, very fast. Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Von Boehm: I like the speed of having to shoot a lot of pictures. It’s wonderful in a productive way. It’s horrible in an unproductive way and you just have to get s**t done. In this case, we had fun!

Brown: You have good instincts. People slow down because they second-guess themselves. You can tell if a photographer is not certain if they’re taking too long. If you know you got it, you can move.

Faena: The idea was so good. We planned so much before and then in the moment of the shoot, it was like playing. Everything was so well organized by the team. What’s so exciting about these pictures is you remember — the psychological thing of remembering when you first saw the dresses. There are layers. We weren’t just shooting bags and shoes. We were shooting things that were in a way part of our history.

Von Boehm: The casting was really important. All these women are not just models. They are women I have cherished and loved for a long time. Women that are all amazing in their way and more interesting to me than just a model. They’re impressive women. They wanted to be a part of it. They got it and that shows in the pictures.

Sebastian Faena

The Balenciaga dress worn by Nicole Kidman at the 2017 Oscars (Courtesy)

What was the story?
Von Boehm: Each lady had her consistent story. They were their own characters.

Brown: All three of them are great performers.

Faena: They were stars — hardworking, kind, and giving their all.

What were the days like?
Faena: I was crawling on the floor. The pictures weren’t easy to make. It was the opposite of being comfortable in a studio. It was a lot of fun and very physical.

Von Boehm: Aren’t they all?

Faena: This one especially!

Sebastian Faena

The Ben de Lisi dress worn by Kate Winslet at the 2012 Oscars (Sebastian Faena)

Brown: It would be good for the kids to see how this happens because it really is about the joy of the work. Everyone was there for the right reason. It sounds cheesy, but I think it was affirming for all of us. Everyone who was there were like, “We’re going to do this!” I long for more of it.

Von Boehm: It’s wonderful to be proud of something again.

Was there one gown on-set that everyone died over?
Von boehm: I died over all of them.

Brown: She died so many times!

Von Boehm: They were all museum pieces. I promised Nicole [Kidman] it was going to come back clean! I was panicking sometimes but not that much because the picture is too important to me. I had other people panic around me! It was incredible how we dared to not treat them like museum pieces. We made them alive.

Faena: I was starstruck by the Courtney Love dress. I remember when I was a kid and saw Courtney with that dress how she was suddenly a different person to me. When I saw it live, it was exciting. I remember when the shoot was over, I asked where the J. Lo [Versace] dress was and you said she wouldn’t give it to us.

The dress worn by Courtney Love at the 1997 Oscars (Sebastian Faena)

Brown: It became clear why she didn’t give it to us a little later. [Jennifer Lopez walked the Spring 2020 show in an updated version of the iconic dress.]

Von Boehm: What Laura does so well is we get to execute her ideas — the ideas don’t just speak to you in a fashion. There are many elements. It has to have a meaning, and I think it always does. It speaks in a second-degree language; there’s not just a first degree of a picture.

Why was Sebastian the right photographer for this?
Brown: I knew he could take a great picture, but he also really loves glamour and beautiful women. He has a real uncynical love for it and a real appreciation. I knew he’d grown up with it in another country like I had. There’s a mythology to all of it. We’re in it now, but there was a time when it was far away, and now we’re making the images. He’s always had an appreciation for these women. The fact that he could take the picture was secondary. I knew he could take a picture. I know I can edit a magazine. I know that Julia could style an image. I knew he would go into it joyfully and do the work.

The Armani Privé dress worn by Cate Blanchett at the 2016 Oscars (Sebastian Faena)

Von Boehm: We’re good friends — we know each other pretty much inside out! We have a similar vision and aesthetic. We complement each other in our work.

Faena: There was a feeling of love and community [on set.] That doesn’t happen all the time. The team was fantastic. It felt like making a film. It wasn’t the feeling of a fashion shoot. It was stronger. I’ve known Amber and Joan for so long. It was the first time I shot with Karen, which was exciting.

Von Boehm: Everyone wanted to make beautiful images. It wasn’t like they wanted to go home. There was a passion to the process.

Faena: I’ve done mainstream [projects] and I often shoot these big beautiful shoots for smaller publications with a smaller audience. [For InStyle], you talk to so many people. It’s scarier, but when you get it right, the feeling is so much more gratifying.

Read the complete Art Basel issue for yourself below.

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