‘I live 100% for the deal.’
Giovanni Testino, the founder of Art Partner,
By Thomas Lenthal
Portrait by Mario Sorrenti
‘I’m Latin,’ says Giovanni Testino, ‘we do things more by instinct.’ That intuition, combined with Peruvian-born Testino’s competitive streak, has seen his company, Art Partner, become perhaps the world’s leading management agency for fashion creatives. Co-founded with his photographer brother Mario Testino in 1992, the agency works globally representing the cream of the world’s photographers (including Mario, Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott, Alasdair McLellan, Mario Sorrenti, Steven Klein and Glen Luchford), stylists (Joe McKenna, Camilla Nickerson, Melanie Ward and Marie Chaix), and make-up artists and hair stylists (Charlotte Tilbury, Didier
Malige, Anthony Turner, and Lucia Pica). In other words, it’s no accident that Testino’s clients work on over 1,000 jobs a year with the world’s most prestigious brands and magazines.
There are agents who revel in the public eye and others, like Giovanni, who shy away from it, preferring to remain out of sight, conjuring backroom deals. After 24 years in the business, Giovanni has granted System his first ever interview, taking the opportunity to discuss the revolution of social media, how to keep your artists relevant, and why running a photo agency is like a soap opera.
‘Mario told me that if I could do so well as a shipping agent, I’d be an amazing photography agent too. The next morning we decided to work together.’
Let’s start by talking about your professional life prior to Art Partner and working in fashion.
Giovanni Testino: I studied economics in California and then went back to Peru and started working in shipping in the early 1980s. After visiting various shipping representatives around the world, I brokered a really innovative deal chartering ships that came into Nicaragua with Russian freight, went back empty to the Black Sea, where we then filled them with ores and concentrates, and sent them on to Europe. It was in the middle of the Cold War, an interesting time to be in that business, and I rose in my shipping career really quickly.
Why did you quit shipping to become a photo agent and establish Art Partner?
It was my brother Mario’s idea! At one point, because cellphones were not really around and we were not living in the same place, we had not been in touch for a while. Then we bumped into each other by chance at a party in Los Angeles at Flaming Colossus1. We danced all night and then we started talking about work. My brother told me that if I could do so well as an agent of ships, I could be an amazing photography agent. That next morning we decided to work together and Mario managed to convince Yasuko Austin, then owner of LA-based location company Legend Inc., to become our initial backer. He told her that his brother would create the most successful photography agency. Mario is pretty persuasive and she agreed! Soon after, I moved and opened our first office in New York. Unfortunately, at the last minute, Yasuko decided not to grow with me in New York, so I opened Art Partner there without her.
Why start in New York?
I adored living and working in Los Angeles, but New York was – and is – a major hub for the fashion industry with a concentration of teams, models, clients and, at that time, an explosion of creativity. The best from all over the world were living and working in New York. I was also representing Enrique Badulescu who was living and working there at the time. He was at the top of the market and was also very instrumental in building the agency. I ended up living in New York for 18 years. While growing up, my parents took my sisters, my brother and I to New York at least once or twice a year so I really felt like the city was my second home. Today, it’s still very much the headquarters of Art Partner.
Did you have any interest in fashion or photography before working with your brother and opening Art Partner?
As a child, I was sensitive to fashion and clothing being well done. My mother always took such pride in dressing us kids with special outfits that were made to measure. It’s something that has always resonated with me. I wasn’t thinking of it professionally at that stage though. My brother, on the other hand, has always been into fashion and clothes, and I have always been into my brother’s clothes. I always borrowed his clothes without asking! Perhaps also because my brother is a photographer, I feel close to photography on a human level. That has always been helpful in understanding the pressures and needs of someone who is creating every day, the kind of stress and challenge that it represents.
‘I get excited about deals that might not be considered important financially speaking. It’s not the money that drives me; I am just competitive.’
What has been your basic business strategy?
One constant has always been that I’ve represented talent I really believe in. Maybe it’s arrogant, but I feel I represent either the very best or people who have the potential to become the best. People with an original voice and the technical ability to execute their vision. When you believe in someone it’s very natural to go out and give them exposure. At least, that is what I’ve found over the years. You feel proud of working with such talent.
Can you describe the fashion landscape at the time you entered the industry?
When I started as an agent, the most important thing for a fashion photographer was to have a specific, unique signature. They were hired for what they were doing for themselves rather than what they were doing for the brand. Brands now want a specific vision for themselves, and photographers, for the most part, adapt to the brief, interpreting it and conveying it with their own style.
The geography was also very different when I started out – we didn’t have the same means of communication that exist now. Artists had different agents all over the world for different territories. For example, I had a whole division just for Japan and Korea with artists I didn’t necessarily represent in the West. It was incredibly profitable, but the time difference made it exhausting. There came a point where I had to stop. Today all our representation is worldwide, which tends to work out a lot better for an artist’s career. If you manage a career, you need to have a global strategy. You need to sometimes pass over a project in one territory to take a career-changing opportunity in another. You need a bird’s eye view of everything and a single agenda for the long-term development of an artist’s career, rather than being driven by short-term numbers or led by diverging agendas.
Do you recall the first big deal you did? The one that convinced you of the industry’s financial possibilities?
Yes, it was with Gianni Versace; the campaign my brother did with Madonna. At that time, I was Mario’s New York agent only so I was not even the agent on record for this European-based job. Gianni had a soft spot for me though, and from time to time he would advise me on things. Gianni was an incredibly generous person. Mario was his second choice, but life itself – a long story – and to a lesser degree my contribution, helped get him that job. I never actually took a fee for that deal though! My brother gave me a watch for it that I still cherish and wear very often.
Do you still get excited about the big deal?
I am always excited about it! I have truly always, always enjoyed it. The funny thing is that I get excited about deals that might not be generally considered important financially speaking. It’s not money that drives me; I am just competitive in everything I get involved in. I live 100 percent for the deal!
‘Knowledge is power’ is a common mantra. You must amass considerable intelligence about what’s going on in the industry at any given time. What part does this play in your job? Can you use that kind of information?
There is a lot of information out there, but you have to know how to use it. If you are properly informed you can do anything. That said, I don’t believe you can hard sell anything, that you can convince anyone to do anything. However, if you are well informed and you can present the right thing to the right people at the right price and at the right time, then you most probably have a deal.
What are the key elements steering artists’ careers – and how can an agent help?
Fashion photography, unlike art photography, is a team effort. I think at Art Partner we are good at advising people who to work with and then making those connections happen. We spend a lot of time and energy maintaining our creative networks and bringing the right teams together, as well as in developing platforms for those teams to work on. Trying to do a fashion image without the close collaboration of make-up artists, hairdressers and stylists would be very difficult.
Another thing is that as fashion inherently changes, so the work constantly needs to shift and adapt. Sometimes that is challenging and as agents we need to help our clients navigate. We are in a central place so we can see what is going on and can often bring ideas and suggestions back to the artist that help to tweak where they are going. Usually it is only a question of the artist looking deeper into their own strength and vision. For example, one strategic move I remember with Mario was encouraging him to go into portraiture and beauty at a very early stage. He is so incredible with people it made sense. It was before celebrities were a part of everyday casting and certainly they were not always the easiest to photograph, but as a strategy it has certainly paid off. With Mert and Marcus, I remember pushing them to move into the Vogue stable. They were at the top of their game and synonymous with high glamour, but were not at Vogue, and I felt that was important for them. It’s turned out to be an incredible relationship.
‘90% of what you see in the Louvre originated as a commercial commission, working to a specific brief for a fee.’
How do you judge a photographer’s work or recognize when someone has what it takes to succeed? Is it as straightforward as finding someone with the potential to make big money?
It is not a thought process, it’s a feeling process. Either their work moves me or it doesn’t. I don’t think anyone looks at something and ‘thinks’ if they like it or not. The same with me. Art Partner doesn’t work with a required minimum ‘income’ for an artist to be represented. It is more about talent and the right fit.
Are there certain personality traits in a potential artist that you consider important in order for them to maintain a successful career?
I don’t look for personality traits at all. It’s all about talent and an authentic point of view. The artists I’ve worked with run the gamut. Some are shy; some are the life of the party; some are intellectual; some are homebodies. Some actually don’t care about fashion and some live for it.
Do you recall a particular image or series that any of your photographers created that convinced you Art Partner should represent them?
I always have an epiphany before the desire to represent, but more than an image or story, it is a body of work.
Are you interested in discovering young new talent?
I am not only interested, I’m actively following and pursuing it all the time! Over the past three years Art Partner has taken on young photographers Theo Wenner and Harley Weir, stylist Francesca Burns, and just this month, creative director Christopher Simmonds. We are super excited to have started 2016 with Zoe Ghertner and Colin Dodgson. We are very focused on representing a broad range of original styles.
Compared to many agencies, you continue to maintain a relatively small roster of artists. What’s the thinking behind this?
I don’t believe in filling up endless rosters. Size matters, but for us what is important is the type of size. We keep growing regularly. We are always on the look out for top talent; we are just not desperate to become a behemoth in terms of numbers of artists. In terms of growth, I always reflect on this with the help of my core team. In terms of structure and logistics, I rely a lot on my management in New York and London. I can’t say that I look at other companies’ or industries’ business models, as our business is so sui generis that strictly speaking, I don’t think it would apply. Growth at Art Partner is very organic; it comes from within the company, and often comes as a response to changes in the industry itself.
When is big too big, in terms of an agency’s size, scale and annual revenue? Or is the sky the limit?
I don’t know if there is an answer to that. For me personally I like to be strong and nimble. Things are changing very quickly in our business, in everything really. I don’t want to be too big and slow to react, and risk going down like the Spanish Armada.
As an agent, how do you qualify the success of one of your artists?
I think of an artist as being successful when they love the work they do, and they are creating beautiful work consistently and are in a good flow. Income is important, too, of course, but it isn’t the first barometer for success. I think the artists would agree with me.
Can you pinpoint a particular moment when you took a specific decision that has since influenced the growth and success of Art Partner?
It was not so much my decision, in fact, it was my wife Amber’s idea. In 1997 when my brother asked us to take over his production in Europe, she offered to go and open an Art Partner liaison office there. Being present in Europe has completely transformed our client base, as well as the direction of the artists we represent.
Let’s discuss the fundamental dynamic at the heart of your profession – art versus business.
Although Art Partner is a commercial agency, I believe without a doubt that we represent artists. Artists are people who can change the way you look and see and feel things; ours do that for the most part in the arena of fashion, beauty and luxury. Fashion is a major force in culture so that is very powerful. Look at how Mert and Marcus’ work has defined an entire era of beauty, a type of woman. Alasdair McLellan introduced a completely different point of view of woman, fashion, and London. His vision has become the point of reference for a whole generation of photographers.
Artists working in fashion need to create within a set context and still come with something fresh and relevant to say. Ninety percent of what you see in the Louvre originated as a commercial commission, working to a specific brief for a fee. Granted, not every photograph is art, but you cannot deny that there is a lot of work in the fashion industry that should qualify as fine-art photography. This is true for many editorial images in which one works at the freer side of fashion photography, but it can also be true of photographs made for a commercial client. If an image moves us, if it is iconic and reflects or creates a moment in culture, then its meaning is greater than its original commercial purpose. I am seeing more demand than ever for photography books and fine-art prints. Even with everything that’s going on with the rise of digital media, books and prints are an important part of a fashion photographer’s career, which we take very seriously.
Let’s discuss the notion of longevity in an artist’s career. How do photographers keep their edge over many years?
Talent is paramount, but consistency and range tell the test of time. What keeps an artist at the top of their game for so many years is that they have a vision and a technical mastery. Their work can go in and out of fashion, but if you choose true talent, they perform consistently and they can constantly reassess their own work. They will always have longevity.
What are your feelings when an artist wants to leave the agency?
We have been very fortunate as most people do not want to leave the agency. But when it has happened, we take it as an opportunity for growth and change. Life has a curious way of guiding us. In my experience, when a door has closed, two windows have often opened. But it is always a very sad affair on a personal level.
How do you define the Art Partner team spirit?
I truly believe that you go up only when the people you are surrounded with also go up. That’s how I run my company and I think it’s reflected in Art Partner’s culture. The sense of teamwork is remarkable and there’s very little ego. Just a lot of really hard-working people who are passionate about what they do. In fact, Art Partner is not structured on commissions as most agencies are. I’ve seen it proven year after year that an all-hands-on-deck support for the artist yields stronger results than when agents work independently.
You are still representing your brother and working with your wife, so would you say your agency is a bit like a family?
Absolutely and there is nothing better than working with friends and family. It can be difficult, but there is nothing better! When you work as hard and long hours as we all do, it would be pretty empty if it was just a job. I’d say that’s true for the Art Partner team as well as for the artists. I look for a kind of ‘family’ chemistry or openness when I’m meeting new artists or interviewing someone for a position. If the vibe is too business-like or corporate, it generally doesn’t work.
How do you manage your three offices on a daily basis?
I don’t. I have an amazing management team in Europe and New York who run the day to day. I do like to look at strategy and numbers, but not on a daily basis. And for operations, I work with a team of senior agents who are top of the line and who have been with me for years and years: Candice Marks in New York, Brigitte Sondag in Paris, and Ayesha Arefin in London. And of course, my wife, Amber, who is a senior agent in London and who also leads strategy and growth across the three offices. I think the better question is how they all manage to manage me!
What would you say are the differences between the main fashion-image markets in the US, France, Italy and the UK? And what about China, which I know you’ve been working on lately?
Years ago I would have told you that the US always wanted a smile and that they preferred blondes, that the Asian market preferred dark hair with white skin, and the Europeans want tans. Back then you could stereotype certain tastes by cultures, but that model is disappearing faster than you can read this article! Looks, styles and trends are becoming more and more global.
How has the move towards digital media and imagery altered your business and your artists’ work?
We have been ‘digital’ for years. The move from film into digital photography was a big shift in the early 2000s, then several years ago there was a big move towards moving image and we grew extensively in that area. In fact, Mario Sorrenti is currently finishing a feature film. But the biggest shift yet is the one we are seeing today from print-based advertising to social-media-based advertising. Social media means clients don’t advertise with a campaign anymore; they engage, interact, inform and entertain their community all year round; and on many platforms.
All these platforms need constant content. Some of that is advertising and some of it – a lot of it – is not. In some ways it opens up the playing field to express, communicate, create in new ways, and the results can be incredible. However, while you can’t ignore what is happening in communication and technology, you also can’t let it take over or determine the creative process, or allow it to replace quality with quantity. Artists in fashion are leaders, visionaries, it won’t work if we all start to follow too much or if the quantity of content required makes it impossible to maintain quality. In any case, we and our artists are embracing the changes wholeheartedly.
Look at Charlotte Tilbury. She has 810,000 followers on Instagram and is building a whole community and business around her own platform. The launch of her cosmetics line was phenomenal in terms of how much she achieved in such a short period of time – it is now competing with brands that have been well established for decades. We have the three most ‘seen’ photographers on Instagram in the world: Mario Testino with 2.1 million Instagram followers, and The Towel Series, one of the most successful content strands in the industry. Then there’s Terry Richardson with 1 million Instagram followers, whose video for the song ‘Wrecking Ball’ is approaching over 1 billion views. As well as Mert Alas with 630,000. As an agency we’ve brought in social-media strategists and creatives over the last two years to work with us and our artists on bespoke launches and client briefs.
What are your thoughts on Trunk Archive’s acquisition of entire agencies? Is it a menace or an opportunity for a business like yours?
I don’t know what to say. I hope they also have in mind other things than ‘economies of scale’ and ‘streamlined operations’, which big corporations must be based on. I hope that the artists are also at the forefront of the project. If this is the case, I think we will all benefit. If not, perhaps it could become an opportunity.
‘Mert and Marcus’ work has defined an entire era of beauty. Alasdair McLellan’s vision has become the point of reference for a whole generation.’
What are your thoughts on the current ‘fashion film’ landscape?
There is something very exciting about being presented with so many new mediums to communicate in – sound, movement, graphics – and over the years I’ve been impressed with how the photographers have responded to the new technology. Alasdair McLellan, for example, does these amazing moving portraits that are very much his ‘photograph’ expressed in more depth. Steven Klein has this incredible way or working with sound effects in a powerful way. We previewed his Kate Moss McQueen film in a surround-sound theatre in Paris, and it was so strong, everyone was on the edge of their seats. Having said that, I’m not sure if there is a sustained appetite from brands’ audiences to see long-format fashion films. What is more interesting now is the ability to share shorter vignettes through social media and even as loops in store imagery. We are doing this now, to one extent or another on almost all of our shoots.
Would it be fair to say that agencies now need to consider their artists more like brands?
Yes, they are very much like brands – and they have the same challenge brands have in communicating their ‘worlds’. As an agency we see supporting them in this communication as an important part of our role. It can extend to books, exhibitions, events, and their related press and social-media platforms. Just as with brands, the work we do in the digital space doesn’t mean we are leaving out the work we do for print or for that matter, film, it’s rather a layer added on top. The secret is how to work all these elements together and with a holistic approach.
The industry is now bigger and faster, which creates the potential for more work than ever before. Does this affect the role of the agent? Is it only a good thing because it means more work or is it potentially damaging?
There are always two sides to the story. There is definitely a downside when the pace and quantity is uncontrolled. The upside, as you say, is of course more opportunities to work. The agent’s role is to be sure that artists are protected and not overwhelmed on any given booking by the need for more, more, more. We have to be strategic and prepared in how we help to surround artists with the right teams that can help execute new forms of content, as well as logistics on set, so there is still space to create and time to think. Sometimes it’s about knowing when to pass on jobs that could be good money, but might lead to burnout or won’t allow an artist the time or resources to work well.
How would you describe the rise of the fashion stylist over the past 15 years?
Fashion stylists used to be tied to one magazine for editorial and they were confined to photo shoots when it came to advertising. I think it really all started to change when Joe McKenna launched his own magazine, Joe, in the early 1990s. And then when Melanie Ward became famous for consulting with Helmut Lang, and Carine Roitfeld started consulting for brands like Missoni and Gucci, as did Joe McKenna for Jil Sander. Art Partner introduced this way of working into the US. The first major example being Carine Roitfeld and Calvin himself. This created a dramatic power shift, giving stylists a major role in the commercial side of the industry, whereas previously they were confined to editorial. They bring a broader view into a fashion house and have become indispensable at most major houses. Stylists have enormous exposure across the board; they are working in almost every country, touching every product, working with the best photographers, the best designers and the best models. There is a certain knowledge they gain from this experience and they bring it to their work. They are in a unique position to inform the brands of the different movements and trends as they are happening, not after – and that is priceless!
‘Sometimes I think you could do a South American telenovela about the stuff we go through at the agency. It would be a huge success!’
With the current phenomenon of imagery being shared freely in the public domain on platforms such as Instagram, what are your thoughts on copyright and exclusivity, and the licensing of archive imagery that may already belong in the public domain?
There is a clear difference between an image being ‘accessible’, i.e., ‘belonging’ to the public, and an image being used to sell or promote something. Just because an image was seen on Instagram, or on any digital platform for that matter, doesn’t mean it is available to promote or endorse something. I think the lines were blurred for a while in the initial frenzy, but the distinction is a clear one, and I don’t see a lot of brands infringing copyright or trying to use images without authority. If anything, what is impressive is how most brands uphold the highest ethical standards.
What’s the shrewdest specific piece of advice you’ve given one of your artists?
I’m not sure if it’s shrewd, but there is one piece of advice I have given to young artists (and I often remind myself and my team), which is that we are in this for the long term. There will be both ups and downs, and the people you see for a while going up will be the very same people you see for a while coming down. It is so very important to respect everyone all the time, regardless of who they are or what position they hold.
What’s the shrewdest piece of advice you’ve been given by somebody else?
Find something you love and pursue it.
Lastly, if you had to sum up your career, what would you say?
Fun. Fabulous. Amazing. Frustrating. Overwhelming. Sometimes I think you could do a South American telenovela about the stuff we go through. It would be a huge success! In any case, it’s too rich of an experience to be condensed into a few words.