Cyborg Beauty

Enacting a perverse alliance between fashion and transhumanism, 3D-artist Frederik Heyman’s compositions bring together a broad array of multimedia practices. His cryptic digital campaigns feature moving and still-life imagery of mechanised bodies and human centipedes dressed in ready-to-wear, daring ideas that have placed him at the forefront of computer-generated fashion campaigns.

Heyman won the 2019 Fashion Film Award for Best Animated Brand Film with his video for Gentle Monster. He also created a campaign for Y/Project this year and, most recently, debuted Burberry’s latest sneaker with a 3D campaign in Seoul. 

Madeleine Holth spoke to Heyman about disrupting antiquated ideas of beauty, exploring the extremes of the human form and how fashion will adapt to a digital future.

The standard of what is considered a beautiful image has changed drastically in fashion media. Your work seems to be a part of this change. What do you think happened that allowed artists to reshape the antiquated standards of covers and campaigns? 

I believe that up until a few years back we had the impression that fashion imagery had to be exclusively fashion photography. The purpose was to translate the models and fashion in a language that was specific to fashion. It existed only in its own bubble. In the 1990s you could see fashion crossing over with art. It became more performative and conceptual, and used more and more references from the art world. I believe that the pioneers of change in fashion photography sparked a revolution back then. They started looking at the bigger picture, a wider range of possibilities.


You work is so heavily influenced by the human form, by its limitations and its extremes. Where do you start when creating a campaign? Do the clothes even matter? 

It really depends. I don’t see myself as a fashion photographer. I see my work as digital installations with large narratives. If I work with a brand, I love to implicate their values in the story. I always start with a dialogue with the creative team of the brand, to get us all on the same level about the world we want to depict. We think of the overall shape of the story, so I can get lost afterwards in all the endless details. Clothes are obviously essential in this process.


You’ve managed to merge this technological aspect we’re seeing evolve all around us with fashion. Where does that interest in technology originate? 

I always had a preference for installations and performances with a technological twist. The interaction between man and mechanics. Over the last few years, I’ve been really influenced by transhumanism. I’ve been reading a lot into it. The desire to overcome humanity, which is happening all around us.


The augmented bodies and the sometimes frightening aspects of your imagery play a leading role, it’s what drives it and makes people look twice. Where does this idea come from, of augmented bodies, and human centipedes like the Y/Project campaign? 

Y/Project was amazing to work on. Glenn Martens was really open to pushing it. It was inspired by their jewellery collection, which depicted Kamasutra scenes. I came up with the idea of creating a large cloud of mechanised bodies having intercourse with each other. At first sight a loving scene, but revealing they are mechanised and controlled by an external spectator. You see in each frame an actual person operating the human dolls, which depicts their playful human desire rather than cold repetitive machinery. This makes you question their motives.


Are your images your way of predicting our future? 

No. I always say they are part of a speculative present. Which is also the title of my most recent work. I don’t feel the need to illustrate a future vision. It’s what surrounds us now, rearranged in an alternative reality and questioned through a dialogue with technology.


You’ve worked with everyone from DUST magazine to Gentle Monster and Burberry to name a few. You must have picked up on a common denominator whilst working for these brands? What lures them into working with you? What is enticing to them about having a 3D image rather than a live model? 

I feel brands are more and more interested in working in the virtual world. I think, on the one hand, it’s an inevitable development. On the other hand, it has to serve its purpose. You don’t have to work with 3D simply because it’s a nice hashtag on your post. The reason for working in the digital world has to be that it has a different creative reach than reality. The options are endless. Also, it will never be the same as working with a live model.


In university, my graphic design teacher asked us to Google “fashion cover” and see if we could spot any similarities. All of the fashion covers by big corporation publishers looked the same – hands-on face, close up or cropped at the thigh, muted colours and serif fonts. I’m curious to see what brought you into the world of fashion image, considering the nature of your work? 

I studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. It was a very close community. I was in close contact with the fashion department back then. I started to collab with the students and did enjoy the crossover. In my mid–20s, I did fashion photography besides my practice as an artist. I always loved to balance in between them. At some point, I was fed up with it, for the same reasons you mentioned. Everything looked so similar, and clients basically want you to repeat a successful formula until you burn out. It’s not about creativity. I wanted to reboot and was inspired by some pioneers in digital media. I wanted to create a new visual language for myself, a platform on which I had was not limited by space, time, dimensions or budget and could push my fantasy and narrative as far as I chose. That’s when I taught myself 3D.


What is the Frederik Heyman team like? Is it just you or do you too have a stylist, retoucher, photographer and so on? 

Creatively, it’s me on my own. I love to be in control. There was a time when I was dreaming about meeting like-minded artists that could join my studio, but it was never fruitful. It’s hard to find people that are on the same pace and understand your creative process or are able to create with the same signature. There are many technical people I collaborate with, such as 3D-modellers, 3D scan studios and VFX people. I don’t claim to be a top 3D designer, but I do know how to visualise my thoughts and ideas as I imagined them.


How much of your creations are your ideas as opposed to what a brand asks of you? Do they solely trust you to come up with an idea or is it pitch-based? 

It’s a bit of both most of the time. We usually set up a general framework together, then it’s up to me to create the concept and to colour in the details between and outside the lines. Some clients have more restrictions than others.


What is the overall visual language of a Frederik Heyman image according to you? 

I like to think it’s the details, the layered narrative that makes you look twice. I go through different phases, but I think the overall mood stays the same.


Do you think fashion advertising and campaigning is headed towards a 3D future? Will what we have now with models, photographers and stylists become the odd one out? 

No, I think the basic formula will stay the same. I do believe fashion, as well as design and art, are always in the need of new visual stimuli. In our time of social media and the over-saturation of imagery, this whole 3D vibe is something very appealing. This is just a technically more evolved form of photography with an extra dimension added, simply because technology allows us. But this will also pass. You will still need a good stylist and make-up artist, even if you work on a digital model.


What do you think future fashion campaigns will look like? 

The digital world is always a replica of our present. It’s an extra layer added to our reality that tries to mirror and optimise the physical world, fictional or real. Fashion campaigns are always a mise-en-scène of a polished world they want us to believe in (even if they want it to seem raw). I believe this process will always stay the same, but that’s not a bad thing. Being an artist is about creating an alternative view of reality.

Written by Madeleine Holth for TANK Magazine:

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