Fashion Special: Danny Sangra
Writer-director Danny Sangra has a flawless hold on all the fashion clichés. Taken from shots 167.
Looking moody, walking slowly in monochrome… Writer-director Danny Sangra has a flawless hold on all the fashion clichés, and manipulates them to great comic effect in his extensive stable of quirky, stylish and very funny shorts. He tells David Knight how he manages to meet the needs both of fashion heavyweights like Balenciaga and Brioni and his own unique creative viewpoint
If Danny Sangra’s films are anything to go by, the fashion industry has more of a sense of humour than it’s usually given credit for. In Sangra’s award-winning film for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin 2015, A Fistful of Wolves, the then-chief buyer for fashion website Mytheresa.com, Justin O’Shea, takes the proverbial out of fashion ad clichés (while driving a Mercedes C111).
In Something Unpredictable for Carolina Herrera and Mytheresa, a bored model on a glamorous LA shoot is gradually confronted by the existence of several clones of herself – and the fact she herself might be one. And in Informale, his film for Ermenegildo Zegna, a male model is shot in glamorous locations while a female voiceover intones sarcastically about him being ‘a modern man’ and at one point talks directly to him. The final shot sees a tourist barging into shot to take a selfie with the handsome guy.
Fucking around with fashion
Sangra’s style is witty, playful, irreverent, literate, often surreal and always deadpan cool. He makes a habit of puncturing narrative convention, and he can skewer aspects of the fashion industry that some find annoying or objectionable. And he can do all this because he’s worked in and around the industry for years.
A creative powerhouse – he’s also an illustrator, painter, designer and photographer – Sangra has honed his distinctive style through an extensive series of comedy shorts, mostly self-produced, that demonstrate his considerable talent for writing and directing. Nouvelle Vague-style naturalism vies with whimsical metatextual comedy in films like 10am Margarita, in which freelance illustrator Joe struggles with a difficult client, while girlfriend Polly wins a competition to time travel to the year 1965; or in No F****** Around in Room 427, when Joe and Polly book into a hotel room which censors rude words, gestures… and body parts.
Sangra has collected all of his ‘personal’ films (including those for brands where he was given creative freedom) on his website Voltaville.
“The fashion films all stem from my short film work,” he explains, on the phone from his New York home. “Most of them exist in the same world, and there are recurring characters, but not necessarily the same actors playing the same characters. I’d say all my work is like a form of really casual science fiction. I like to throw in those elements without being very specific.”
One of Sangra’s shorts is actually called Casual Sci-Fi, about a man who attaches various pieces of cutlery to a pair of Karen Walker sunglasses borrowed from his girlfriend, which somehow allows him to see five seconds into the future.
The writer-director is currently putting the finishing touches to his first movie, Goldbricks In Bloom, which was mostly shot in 2014 for the princely sum of £35k. It’s essentially a feature-length extension of the themes and characters in his short films, with most of the same cast, as well as some new faces, such as Girls’ Zosia Mamet.
Half-Sikh, half-Jewish, Sangra grew up on a Leeds council estate, the son of a hairdresser mother who encouraged his love of drawing. His father, when he was around, watched Kurosawa and Kubrick movies – which made a big impression on the young Sangra. “They were the first movies that I remember.”
He went on to study graphic design at Central Saint Martins in London, but gravitated towards the fashion and textiles department, where most of his friends were students. Although he was getting work as an illustrator even before he left art school, he set up the knitwear label, A Minute Silence, with a fellow CSM graduate in the early noughties.
Film became another string to his bow when he directed his first music video for a singer friend. He got the funding from a design studio in return for him painting a mural in their office. “It meant I had lots of resources – a big studio, cameras, crew. My housemate said to me: ‘Do they know you’ve never directed anything before?’”
Despite this lucky break, Sangra did not make another music video for two years – and maintains an ambivalent attitude towards music promos even now – but he did start making little fashion films for his friends’ labels, something which gave him the creative freedom he’s treasured throughout his career. “I could do anything I wanted,” he says. “I could make something on a really shitty camera, and no one cared, so long as it was presented in a certain way.”
He began writing and directing his own comedy shorts at a prolific rate. Unencumbered by a polished visual style, he was unlikely to be competing for glossier, bigger budget fashion jobs, but this meant his work stood out on the crowded platform. “I was getting Vimeo Staff Picks for films that cost £50 to make, so I was being asked to write scripts, as opposed to receiving scripts.”
His writing talents weren’t recognised until he started to make his own films. “I don’t remember anything good coming out of my English lessons at school. I never felt particularly articulate,” he says. But now he finds inspiration everywhere. “I’ll see a photograph, or have an idea that I want to do something about. I love it when I hear a voice I find interesting.”
Sangra was mighty impressed by then-fashion-buyer Justin O’Shea’s ability to memorise a rather wordy script and really get into character for the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin film. “I loved Justin taking on that voice, which allowed me to write whatever I wanted.”
He got the chance to develop this tongue-in-cheek, pretentious character when O’Shea was surprisingly appointed to the role of creative director at Brioni, despite not being a designer. (O’Shea announced his equally surprising departure from the label as shots went to press.)
“People were wondering about Justin’s appointment,” says Sangra, “and he came out of the block saying ‘I know this is what you’re all thinking, so I’m going to own it.’ It was a smart move.” So Sangra shot a series of fun-poking shorts for the label. One has O’Shea meeting his designers in the Brioni office and acting like an arrogant know-nothing; another has him offering rock band Metallica – all in Brioni evening suits – ill-judged advice on how to be a better band.
As for whether O’Shea’s ability to satirise himself sets him apart from the rest of the fashion industry, Sangra observes that it’s not the true creatives who are humourless. “It’s the people who are scared of those people. They are worried about, well, just about everything.”
Sangra doesn’t seem scared of the fact that his work sets him apart. “I’m not the person who’s going to be making TV ads. I’m just going to make stuff I want to make.” In a digital world where his films can be seen and appreciated globally by anyone with a decent broadband, he’s not worried.
“What we call content, for want of a better word, is experimental again,” he says. “I see so much potential. Some kid is going to do something and everyone is going to hit the reset button.”