c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

In the late 1990s, when Pascal Dangin was one of the few people who knew how to retouch digital images — fixing the folds of a dress, adding more sunshine — he was something of a genie in a bottle. A former hairdresser, he had taught himself to perform a new kind of magic in a world of artifice. It brought him wealth and the top fashion photographers and art directors.

Dangin (pronounced DAHN-jin) knew the value of enigma: If he was the subject of an article, he posed in the shadows. Darkness, which is central to photography, was part of his aura, along with his fuzzy hair and rumpled clothes. But nowhere were his intentions clearer than with the name he gave his company: Box Studios. Located in New York’s meatpacking district, Box’s facade is, naturally, black.

And so one night this fall, in a fancy restaurant in Paris, where Dangin. 48, had gone for the collections, it was funny to hear him declare, for this article: “No more being photographed in a cave. I want to be out in the open.” In fact, the spot he later chose for his portrait was the Staten Island Ferry.

Dangin wasn’t being cute. For months he had been preparing to split his business into two distinct entities. He would keep Box, which has expanded from images and small-press publishing to video and postproduction film work — Madonna is a client, as are directors Ridley Scott and Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha”) — and relocate it to a larger facility in Brooklyn.

But he also created a new company whose mission was to bring ideas to luxury giants like Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein. To Dangin, the industry needed to re-engage with powerful images, and it needed visionary art directors who could surprise and inspire. Within a month of the dinner, he had opened his agency, calling it KiDS.

“I really want to concentrate on branding,” he said. “This is where I think my future lies.”

To help, he enlisted Mark Fina, a former executive vice president and creative director of Grey Advertising, whose clients included CoverGirl. Fina had first met Dangin on a photo shoot in the mid-90s, when the latter was still doing hair. Ten months ago, they reconnected when Dangin made a pitch for a marketing tie-in between CoverGirl and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Instead of presenting his ideas in a web document, Dangin created an entire book.

“I just saw that he was seeing things the way I was seeing them,” Fina said, explaining his decision to join Dangin.

He added, coyly: “A lot of people ask: ‘Why is Pascal doing this? Isn’t he just a retoucher?’ I say, ‘Well, no, he’s a creator.’”

Fina acknowledged that some people drew a blank at the name KiDS, thinking that its target is juveniles. But, he said, “KiDS is really about keeping an open mind.”

So far the agency has snared Alexander Wang and Balenciaga. Last month, Dangin was in London with photographer Steven Klein to shoot a campaign for Alexander McQueen, a new client. But whether he can ultimately succeed may depend on factors beyond his control: mainly, the willingness of big brands to be open-minded in their media choices.

His timing, then, is worthy of note because the industry seems at a standstill, with too much work that looks familiar and not enough fresh blood. Despite the playful ring of KiDS, can a self-taught color maverick make a difference?

Although it would be an exaggeration to say that art directors supplanted designers in influence in the ’90s, it is true that they made people notice advertising and branding. Remember when a new Prada campaign could spark as much debate as a Prada show? Well, even if you didn’t know that David James was behind those decisions at Prada — or that Ronnie Cooke Newhouse was involved in Lanvin, or Peter Miles in Céline, to name a few top directors — it was a delight to ponder the images.

But today much of that pleasure has been soured by too many images, from print, social media, behind-the-scenes videos.

“Everyone is drowning in their own thing,” Dangin said.

Also, there are probably more bad pictures than good ones out there, just as there are too many poorly executed videos.

“First of all, they’re terrible editing cuts,” Dangin said of fashion videos. “People in the film business see this but not fashion. They accept this mediocrity, and it just amazes me.”

But, for now, people don’t have an expectation that fashion videos will reward their attention — the way, say, a beautiful print by Irving Penn would or the more contemporary work of stars like Steven Meisel, David Sims and Mario Sorrenti. Until fairly recently, people kept magazines to enjoy later, just as photographers took days to produce a handful of images and designers spent months creating a collection. But today the entire business, high and low, expects everything faster and is set up to reward those who understand that.

Dangin points out that Meisel, who does the Prada and Lanvin campaigns, among others, and whose editorial work appears regularly in Italian Vogue, was the first to have a big studio structure.

“And you see the result,” he said. “He’s able to shoot a lot. He created the blueprint of photographers today — he and Annie Leibovitz.”

Both photographers have worked with Dangin, who additionally designs gallery exhibitions.

This hyper-industrialization of style simply reflects a booming global market for images and, of course, luxury products. Given those conditions, and pressure from brands to push moneymaking accessories, Dangin asked: “And how can you do great images all the time? It’s just not possible. So everything gets diluted.”

Choosing his words with care, he added, “It’s probably time to be suggestive, and arresting, as far as a brand is concerned.”

Dangin is passionate and shrewd.

“He’s a super-streetwise guy,” said artist Roni Horn, a friend. “And he’s got this extraordinary skill set, not just for manipulating images but also this worldliness.”

But, as his friends lovingly concede, he’s a man of excess enthusiasm. It isn’t a question of believing him so much as knowing which of his many plans will come true.

“Pascal always has a lot of ideas,” artist Philip-Lorca diCorcia said. “I wait until they actual materialize before I get too excited about them. He’s spoken to me about everything from having a book store to selling art.”


And what did he think of Dangin’s opening a creative agency?

“I think two things,” diCorcia replied. “One, it’s more power to him. And, two, half the time he thinks he can do a thing better than the person doing it.”

Horn has heard Dangin say he wants to be a sculptor.

“What do you do with that?” she said. “I’m waiting for him to evolve, is all I say to him. Pascal is long-term.”

She added, echoing what others say about his instincts: “He has almost organic insight into the whole, the big picture, and can work his way back to the details of realization. That’s the easy part for him. The thing that engages him is bringing the whole thing together.”


In any case, Dangin’s decision to open KiDS is in part financial. Many photographers now do their own retouching. And while book publishing is a creative outlet (his imprint is with Steidl), it is not lucrative.

“If I were him, I would do the same thing,” said Fabien Baron, one of the most successful art directors, with clients that include Calvin Klein, Dior and Chloé. “Pascal knows that there is automatically an end to his color thing.”


Asked whether he thought Dangin, a friend, could be successful in his new role, Baron said, mildly: “I have no idea. I knew he could do the film thing, but an agency — I don’t know if he can do it. But he wants to be in there, he should try. He has opinions.”

The two are now competitors, so Baron has reason not to really comment.

But the fact is that what Dangin proposes — a return to those “arresting” campaigns of the ’90s — is something that sounds good in theory. It isn’t at all clear, since he plans to utilize his existing relationships in the industry, how he will be able to pull that off.

Baron explained: “The clients are in a different space today. They don’t want to take risks. They want to see the advertising campaign before it is shot. It’s not like 10 years ago. That’s finished. You have to bring the clients so many references. So everyone’s work is referenced. There is not one picture that is new, let me tell you this. And the clients don’t want a new picture.”

He added: “When you go into a meeting and people put millions of dollars on the table, they want to know what they’re getting. The lighting, the color of the carpeting. The one who wins is the one who executes those boards to perfection.”


With so many fingers jammed into so many pies, Dangin may be underplaying his real strength: film. As more and more fashion campaigns shift to film, and with a decided need for better storytelling, that seems an opportunity. Of course, he will have to persuade clients that values like narrative are worth the effort.

Baumbach, who has worked on three movies with Dangin, said he had helped bring out the look of “Frances Ha,” which was shot digitally in color but was meant to evoke both film and black and white.

“Our focus was: How do we make this movie look the most what it should be?” Baumbach said. “Pascal is just great at that. I love him as a guy and I love talking to him about film.”

He has worked on trailers and commercials for Ridley Scott’s company, RSA, including a gorgeous Bacardi ad. RSA is one of the largest makers of commercials in the world, with clients like Coke and ESPN. Its president, Jules Daly, said that while RSA would continue to work with traditional ad agencies, she would like to collaborate with KiDS.

“It brings us back to the creative idea, and to think about where the world should be going,” she said.

Meanwhile, after years of freely sharing his ideas with art directors, Dangin may find that the fashion playground is suddenly not so hospitable. After all, as diCorcia wisely observed, Dangin’s mobility in that clubby world has always depended on not being a threat to anyone.

“I imagine if he gets bigger, those attitudes might change,” diCorcia said.

In fact, it’s probably already begun to happen.