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How Clara Cullen Became a Go-To Director for Cool, Authentic Fashion Films

With gigs for Nordstrom and Chanel under her belt, she's making a name for herself in this ever-relevant genre, alongside her fashion-photographer husband.
Clara Cullen and Max Farago. Photo: Max Farago/Nordstrom

Clara Cullen and Max Farago. Photo: Max Farago/Nordstrom

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

While they may not have the novelty factor they did a few years ago, fashion films are still as popular as ever in the content-driven, video-pivoting media landscape we now live in. And one of the freshest voices in this genre currently is director Clara Cullen. Nordstrom's influential VP of Creative Projects Olivia Kim just tapped her for the department store's fall fashion campaign, which followed work she'd done for Chanel, Levi's, MAC, Max Mara, Nowness, Purple, Love and The New York Times.

Cullen's work can be seen as a antidote to the stylized, "dreamy" or narrative films that fashion brands have tended to make or commission in the past. Rather, she takes more of a documentarian approach. For her Nordstrom project, for example, she interviewed a diverse cast of "real" creatives, like Hailey Gates, the designers of Vejas, Ebonee Davis and the creator of The Hiplets ballet group. "I think the glossy fashion is a little bit over, and we're in a more interesting state now of shooting real people, wanting to know more about their lives," she says. "At the end of the day, what I really love is to meet people and to be able to see their interior."

Cullen frequently works with her husband, fashion photographer Max Farago (he shot the images for the Nordstrom campaign), who's been a big influence on her career as a fashion filmmaker. We caught up with Cullen to hear more about how she found herself at the intersection of fashion and film at just the right time, balancing commercial work with personal work, and more. Read on for the highlights.

What is your background? Did you study film?

I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, then after finishing school there [at Universidad del Cine], I moved to New York and I kept studying documentary filmmaking [at Parsons]. I started working in fashion afterward. It was when fashion films started to become something that people were thinking about, and it was a good moment to be there.

What were your first jobs in film and fashion?

I worked for Spike Lee on a movie called 'Inside Man.'

For fashion, it was my friend Sebastian Faena who's a fashion photographer who asked me to do a film for one of his shoots for V magazine. I did, and that was really the beginning.

Why do you think you gravitated toward fashion films?

Fashion films didn't have so much importance then, I don't know what it was. I remember I had a gut feeling that that was a good area to focus. I did it because I needed to make money; I needed to do something. I had a camera, and I knew how to edit, and I had a friend who would [call me for] a job and I did it and then somebody else calls you to do something else, and when you're young and you're at that point, you're up for anything.

I remember telling this to my shrink in Buenos Aires. I told her, 'I want to make very short videos — like, 15-second videos.' And at that point 15 seconds was, like, nothing. Nobody was doing that. I had this dream that I was making a 15-second video of a girl and then the name of the brand would show up and I had that dream or that feeling, and now that's all I do. [Laughs] Now I am trying to work on something that is not a 15-second video.

How did you start making a name for yourself and getting jobs?

I did some photos shoots; I was covering some Sebastian Faena shoots for V Magazine and he's my dear friend, so it was fun. Then I started doing this thing that actually made me do more stuff, I started doing the films for Max Mara campaigns that Max [Farago] used to shoot. He actually still shoots it, but that gave me a lot of freedom to do whatever I wanted. I sort of found some visual language that was mine, and then Claudia Donaldson, who was the editor-in-chief of Nowness at some point, emailed me to do something there, and I started doing a lot of stuff for them. That also gave me the opportunity to express myself. I started contributing with other people, like The New York Times, and now I'm doing a lot of documentary stuff with food and fashion.

Some of the stuff came through my agent and some of the stuff is people that see something they like and then they just email me or my agent and then... I have no idea. I always wonder, how do I get jobs? [Laughs]

Is there one project that sticks out to you that maybe got the ball rolling or that people mention to you a lot?

The Raf Simons interview that I did for The New York Times. I think Raf Simons was considered such a not-approachable [person]. He has this image of this person who is much more under control and cold, but he's actually such a sweet, smart guy. I think you see the essence of himself in that interview. That's what people want to see now in fashion. I think the glossy fashion is a little bit over and we're in a more interesting state now of shooting real people, wanting to know more about their lives. It's less about the models and the retouch now, and it's more about real people coming to life in the campaigns.

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How much creative control do you usually get working with brands?

They approach me with a brief; they want a concept for the brand, but the way I work is like, I'm not such a control freak knowing exactly what I'm going to do. I leave everything open to be able to see what's going to happen on the day of the shoot. It's a collaboration; as I work a lot with interviews, you never know exactly what you're going to get, but you're going to get that intimate feeling. I think that when they want me is when they want that intimate feeling. 

Is it challenging to create that with fashion people?

The hardest people to interview are the people that have been interviewed a lot of times, so those people are like answering machines. So the way I work is, I ask maybe a question that they think I'm going to ask so they answer to me about something that is easy for them to answer, and before they finish, I ask them a totally random question that they are not expecting. So in that moment, the person switches from the person they have to be in front of the camera to themselves. That's the moment that I like to capture. 

You work a lot with your husband Max, who you say helped you get into fashion. Why do you think you work well together?

I love working with Max, and I think he started liking it more now, but he's very generous on his work and everything. I think he doesn't like to have me as much on his set as I like for him to be on my set. [Laughs] Now, I think we're working together super well, and the key is to keep ourselves together but separate. I think it's the same with any couple — so to each have a place to work and not to be together all the time because we have very different ways of working. He's more quiet and more introverted and I'm more extroverted and loud, so our sets are very different and the Nordstrom job... Max's set was really cold; the AC was up and in mine it was super warm, and he would listen to reggae and I would listen to some South American/salsa music and I would burn palo santo and he would eat M&Ms.

I think we have similar tastes, and even though we don't have the same personality, we like the same things. I admire his work a lot, and I think he is a really great photographer, and I would say if you showed me 100 photos and then if you showed him the same 100 photos, we would choose 5/10 the same. That's why we're together is we have the same visual language. 

How did the Nordstrom gig come about and what was your process for it?

Olivia Kim wanted to work with us, and we'd been friends for a long time, so it's so great to work with somebody that you know so well. We were talking about the same people, the same references and we wanted to do something that was very New York, like New York of now — our friends, our families, how it feels to be a creative person in New York — so we sort of referenced some of the stripped-down loft artist idea from the '70s.

We wanted to have this artist community feeling and not only what it was looking like, but what it was going to feel like. The set was very much like if you were inviting people over to our house, so we wanted to create that feeling like, let's make this space feel like our space and have lunch all together and bring our baby to set and play music and have everybody involved.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge in your career?

I think to keep consistency in the quality. When you're hired to do something, you have to maintain the things...,you can't just do exactly what they want you to do; you have to maintain your authority on the author side as the person who is doing that, as opposed to you just doing whatever they want you to do.

You have to keep your crew happy, you have to keep the client happy, and you have to make sure what's in front of the camera is going well and everybody is looking over your shoulder so you have to keep it cool. The only thing that matters in the end is the quality of the work.

How do you see your career progressing in the next few years. Will you stick with fashion films?

I always keep doing my personal projects. They're mostly documentaries, so in a way fashion is a way to fuel those personal projects, to be able to produce them. It's a job and so I like to be able to have enough time to shoot fashion and enough time to do my own personal projects, and I don't know exactly what I see myself doing... I hope I don't know that because it would be boring to know.

The only thing that matters is to keep a balance between personal work and commercial work and my family happy and safe.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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