The following Interview was written by me and published in East End Fashion Magazine’s June 2011 issue.
A coffee shop in the middle of Pittsburgh’s Oakland district is just about the last place you’d expect to run into a world class male model fresh off the runways of Milan. And pokemon stuffed animals are just about the last thing you’d expect to see gracing the interior of any serious model’s bedroom.
But the day I interviewed editorial model and photographer Paris Nicholson, I encountered both.
To describe Nicholson’s approach from across the room as an intimidating experience would be a colossal understatement; to place it into perspective for those of us “normal” people not chiseled from a perfect statuesque mold, it’s probably one of the most intimidating experiences you’ll ever have in your life. His bone structure, towering height, and altogether…well…godlike physicality can’t help but place you into a complete frenzy of self-deprecation. He’s probably going to look down on you in more than just a literal sense. His topical savvy is probably going to make your fashion “knowledge” look rudimentary at best. He probably swaps texts with Anna Wintour about all of the meaningless peons like you who just can’t seem to come close to touching them up on Mt. Couture Olympus. In short, next to Paris, you’re probably going to feel like a three seasons-old Martha Stewart sweater collection being hawked next to Von Furstenberg’s Fall line.
And to be quite honest…I was wrong. And our conversation was easy.
The second Paris begins talking, each and every one of the aforementioned (and altogether unsubstantiated) pretenses melts away. Although he might look like one on the most superficial of levels, you immediately realize you’re not talking to just another vapid, pampered mannequin who uses his good looks to coast through a fashion-related “career”; Paris is, at his core, a quirky photography student with the same relatable qualities that you’ll probably find amongst your own social circle…that is, if you don’t hang out with the fashion elite.
That’s right…Nicholson is almost as ideologically disconnected from the fashion snobs of New York and London as your grandmother who considers tax returns her own personal Spring collection. That’s not to say he doesn’t care about fashion, because he certainly does. It just doesn’t have a pretentious reign over his life. “I definitely think more people should understand fashion in a city like Pittsburgh,” he says, “but I don’t like indulging in it. I like creating it as an art form, but I would never personally buy something ‘designer’ if I could get it cheaper somewhere else.”
It’s this kind of unpretentious, realistic view towards fashion that sets Paris apart from others in his field. He tells me that rubbing elbows with the likes of fashion royalty doesn’t impress him much, rather he enjoys meeting a person versus a fashion “name”. “It’s funny because at a party I could be talking to a really sweet older lady and think nothing of it, walk away, and somebody will be like ‘oh my god that was Donna Karan’. It still doesn’t faze me.”
Even after hearing something like that, you’d still wholeheartedly expect his experience modeling for clients such as Givenchy, Missoni, and Dior to have warped his perception of a city like Pittsburgh for the negative. But that’s not the case, considering he’s in the city building the foundation for a career in fashion related areas.
Paris is currently a photography student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He focuses primarily on fashion photography, which is entirely unsurprising; however, what got him started in the medium undoubtedly is. “When I first started doing it in sophomore year in high school, I had absolutely no interest in photography whatsoever,” Paris says, “I only took the photography class because the teacher was hot, but while other kids were taking typical pictures of like, a flower or a plant, I was getting inspiration from the shoots on America’s Next Top Mode.l” In essence, he styled and shot his friends in outlandish costumes and elaborate, amateur-couture pieces while the other students continued to play it safe. From then on, Paris’ interest in shooting fashion concepts grew to encompass his career ambitions.
Paris hopes to become a successful fashion photographer and make a decent living, and who wouldn’t? But his ambitions don’t stop there. “I like creating images that stir the pot and force people to reconsider their ideas towards something whether they like it or not,” he says, “I guess I like to be obnoxious and force my own opinions on people.” A playful smirk crosses his face as he says this. I can tell he has something more on his mind. I ask him what he means, and he immediately lunges into a full-on description of his latest concept he was obviously waiting for me to ask about. To describe the concept in family-friendly terms is next to impossible, considering the description I received from Paris. The project is essentially a mock ad campaign for Prada. All the basic elements for a typical Prada ad are there; a gorgeous model, the product perfectly showcased, and perfect fashion lighting and composition dominating the frame. The only thing that keeps the shot from gracing the pages of Vogue as a real advertisement is the presence of a thick white residue that happens to be splattered across the model’s face. I’ll leave it to your own perception to figure out what Paris told me the substance is meant to be, but I have the feeling that if I’d seen the picture first without him explaining anything to me, it’d take me a minute to fully understand what exactly I was looking at. And that’s the beauty of his images; they’re not always thematically intelligible upon first glance, which is undoubtedly a refreshing alternative to the explicitly overstated images photography students typically craft. His outlandish ideas often come from his dreams, a surreal place he often taps into when he’s fresh out of concepts and wants to challenge himself to present an image.
It’s this kind of perspective that gives Paris and his work such an alluring quality. There’s a mischievous, almost childlike quirkiness about the attitude he possesses as well as work he does, and that truly sets him apart from most of his peers. But that doesn’t mean Paris doesn’t harbor a great appreciation for the skills of others pursuing fashion careers in the city. “If you weed through all the bullshit, as you’d have to do in any field, there are definitely other talented people in fashion in the city,” he says. Specifically he mentions fellow students, photographers, stylists, and local fashion designers he feels all have potential to make a name for themselves within the industry. “There are definitely people in Pittsburgh who do awesome work and are going to make something of themselves” he says, “I really have a great appreciation and admiration for others around me doing the things I can’t do myself.” Paris specifically cites the photographic skills of Danielle Yagodich as well as the fashion-savvy styling prowess of Danny Lutz, both of whom are also students at the Art Institute.
Paris also hasn’t kept his face out of circulation in Pittsburgh fashion publications either. Another local fashion magazine recently recognized and utilized Paris’ skills as a photographer and model when they allowed him to shoot and star in an editorial for a local brand.
But what interested me most about our conversation had to be Paris’ clear favoring of topics concerning his photography versus his modeling. “To be honest, I’d much rather be known for my photography than modeling,” he says, “modeling is definitely more of a job to me than a lifestyle…photography gives me the chance to be creative and express myself by injecting my own personality, and with modeling you can’t fully do that.”
Despite his low-key attitude towards the exposure modeling has garnered him, that hasn’t stopped the public from lapping up every tear sheet or runway appearance he can credit to his name. There’s even an online forum dedicated entirely to his modeling work, with various users gushing over his many endearing physical qualities like a lion to fresh meat. “By far my biggest fans would have to be my family,” he says, “my mom goes crazy when she sees me on a runway, but in all honesty I don’t understand why simply working for a designer is much of an accomplishment. It’s just a job to me.”
Despite his humble feelings towards modeling and fashion, it’s undeniable that Paris’ modeling career has thus far been an incredibly diverse one. Jobs have taken him everywhere from New York City to Milan, with agencies like Boss and D’Men. It’s this kind of experience that gives Paris an elite, untouchable quality reminiscent of a true world class fashion model…that is until he shows me pictures of the pokemon toys he has sitting around his room. “I’m a total dork” he says excitedly. And he’s certainly proud of it.
At one point during our interview I paused to gather my thoughts on which direction I should take the conversation next. The silence was broken by an impromptu rendition of Yael Naim’s “New Soul” coming from across the table. I stared at Paris for a second and couldn’t help but laugh. I asked him what made him decide to sing. “Wasn’t that like, the song that was just playing in here?” [side note: It definitely wasn’t]. My interest is entirely piqued at this point, considering I’ve never had anyone burst into song during the middle of an interview. But then again I’ve never interviewed someone quite like Paris Nicholson before. It’s not often you come across a model or photographer as experienced as him, especially in a mid-sized city like Pittsburgh. But it’s even less likely to find someone of Paris’ stature who will freely confess their undying love of video game characters and McDonald’s. Because of his elite background in the fashion industry, Paris (and anyone else of his standing, for that matter) ultimately comes with a slew of preconceived notions unfairly tacked on to his personality simply because of how he looks. But I think I can gather, at least from the short time I spent with him, that Paris would much rather be seen for being a thought provoking visual artist than a pretty face. Someone who idolizes animated characters versus someone who’s attended parties with New York fashion royalty. And ultimately someone who enjoys being the person who can push through such superficial judgments. “I just like doing me,” he says. And as many times as we’ve all heard people say that before, I think with Paris we can all actually believe it.