Q&A: Tom Phillips


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Exposure: The Edun Campaign from The High Low on Vimeo.

If you flick through a fashion magazine, you’ll see the latest gritty-fabulous Edun campaign, shot on location in Uganda – it stands out in a sea of gloss. We wanted to know who made the images for Ali Hewson and Bono’s slouchy fashion line. The answer: Exposure, a New York creative agency. We sat down with creative director Tom Phillips.

How did you get involved with Edun?
Exposure started working with Edun about five years ago now. We were lucky enough to work with Ali and the rest of the gang, pretty much since the start. The relationships started out of [our] London [office] and then we started working with them here in New York about a year ago.

That’s about the time that they were bought by LVMH – did you notice any difference?
It’s always been exciting working with Edun. It’s really interesting working with all the new momentum that came from the partnership with LVMH.

Tell us about meeting Bono and Ali Hewson.
I guess I was a little nervous walking in. But they were very involved, engaging and they had very good ideas. So in many ways it was a lot more refreshing than other situations you find yourself in where people are quick to pull the idea down. They were very positive and supportive. It was good.

Ali and Janice Sullivan, the CEO [of Edun], were with us in Uganda. They saw what we were shooting while we were there as we were capturing stuff. Then we came back and presented to Mark Weber [CEO of LVMH] and Bono. Then I was thinking, God, I hope these guys like it but luckily they did. So that was good and exciting.

How did the Uganda campaign come about?
Bridget Russo, Edun’s marketing director asked us to pitch some ideas around better brand imagery for Edun. The imagery had to be used across retail, advertising, online. We were creating a bank of assets that could be used across the brand for the season.
Edun, as a brand, is intrinsically linked to Africa. They grow their cotton in an area of northern Uganda called Gulu. So we wanted to create some fashion imagery for the brand that was grounded in the mission of the brand. We came up with this idea of creating some very celebratory fashion imagery shot in Africa, alongside which we could capture a documentary film that looked into the mission of the brand and the work they do with the cotton farmers in Gulu.

Did you cast local models?
We cast one girl from New York and one guy and girl from South Africa. Where we shot in northern Uganda there are no modeling agencies. We contemplated street casting because there’s an abundance of magnificently beautiful guys and girls [in the region]. We looked into street casting but it was tricky. The infrastructure wasn’t there and you can’t just show up and start handing out cash.

Why not?
Because it doesn’t provide a long-term solution to the problems that are in a place such as Gulu. The Gulu district came out of 20 years of conflict which saw almost the entire population displaced into IDP (internally displaced people) camps. What you’re seeing now is those people are essentially coming out of refugee camps and moving back into society. Edun are very much about putting trade back into Africa. If you just go in and dump a load of cash it’s very hard to manage. To do it through trade, not just aid is a long-term solution.

What were some of the challenges of shooting in Gulu?
The heat. The rain. When it rained it really rained. Also travelling around and getting there. We flew into Kampala [Uganda’s capitol] and then we had a six-hour coach journey up to Gulu. The hotel that we were staying in was fine, it was a great hotel but it was rudimentary. It wasn’t The Mondrian in LA or Soho House in New York. So the infrastructure that you’re used to having when you shoot in LA or London wasn’t there.
We were in some pretty out of the way places as well. Some of the areas we were in, they were fairly unstable still. There hasn’t been any actual conflict in the areas we were in for a while but we had to be careful after sunset. You have to be aware of the security of the crew.

Much of our clothing is made in the Third World and this campaign tells you that. I feel like in fashion it’s a myth where things come from.
Yeah, of course. In fashion, with whatever brand you’re working with, they’re built on myths. The reason why we were in Africa is because Edun works there on the ground, it made so much sense for us to go there.

What do you think when you see the Edun images in a magazine?
There’s a freshness about it. The photographer Neil Stewart did a fantastic job. He worked extremely hard. I think he captured a range of imagery that to me is different to everything else that you would see in a glossy magazine. A lot of the high fashion brands are a lazy in some respects as there’s a little bit of a formula and they keep pumping it out.
I think that LVMH were very brave and showed great vision to commission and to get behind this shoot. It was a big leap of faith. I’m really glad that they did because when you see those images, it was worth it.

Editor’s note: The video edit and the Q&A edit differ simply because some words work better on the page than in video and vice versa. Enjoy.