Folk interviews Claudia Donaldson of NOWNESS
Claudia Donaldson is the editor-in-chief of NOWNESS – the global online video channel owned by LVMH that showcases an exclusive film about contemporary culture every single day of the year. Whether it’s about art, design, fashion, beauty, music, food or travel, NOWNESS collaborates with both established creative powers as well as exciting young talent. We recently had tea with Claudia to find out more about her busy life.
Hello Claudia. Can you start by telling us a little about your background?
‘I started in the television industry as a researcher, worked briefly in PR, before I started working as a journalist for the London Evening Standard. I was then at Wallpaper* magazine for several years until I left to have a baby. I was then asked to join a small team of writers and producers to launch NOWNESS in 2009. I was commissioning director and a brand consultant at that point until I was appointed as editor-in-chief in 2013.’
How did the idea for NOWNESS come about?
‘LVMH approached Jefferson Hack - the executive creative director of NOWNESS to launch a media brand as part of their luxury group - and he invited me to join him. At the time there wasn’t anyone out there doing what we were doing. And, in many ways there still isn’t. We were making films and producing a level of content in the digital realm of arts and culture which felt pioneering at the time - 9 content categories, an exclusive film every day. We’ve built a model, a channel, that’s a go to both in and outside of the creative industry and of which we’re really proud.’
How would you define NOWNESS?
‘NOWNESS is an arts and culture video platform premiering an exclusive film every day. We make films with the best people in the creative industry, the most exciting film making talent, both established and emerging and have a unique and recognized point of view to telling a story. We disrupt and we subvert in our approach to mainstream topics in a way that elicits online debate.’
Who would you say your audience is?
‘Almost a million viewers come to the site every month, initially the majority were part of the creative community but that audience is rapidly broadening – yes, they’re abc etcetera but I suppose I’d call them ‘culturally curious’.’
Are people more ready for video content compared to a couple of years ago?
‘Definitely. We launched as a video channel because people want to watch videos over stills content online and video travels in a way stills can't. I grew up in magazine publishing; their cultural relevance being constantly challenged - I love that there are more new exciting magazines today than ever before so I think they are hugely relevant, however the pace and dynamic of the digital landscape is unquestionable and it’s a very exciting place to be.’
Tell us a bit more about returning series such as ‘In Residence’ or ‘Define Beauty’.
‘During the time I was an editor at Wallpaper* I was immersed in a world of architecture and design which I was very influenced by. I wanted to translate some of what I'd learnt into film for NOWNESS. There were no beautiful, interesting films online with architects and designers which weren’t just talking heads and practice profiles - so we made our first film with Rolf Sachs 2 years ago and In Residence was launched. They’re really personal, intimate films, which explore the more every day aspects of design - a deliberate diversion from the typical lifeless house presentation piece. We run an episode every month and have built a global series both in terms of talent and audience - it’s been brilliant watching it grow.’
What about ‘Define Beauty’?
‘Define Beauty was a campaign we ran last summer based on challenging preconceptions around beauty. We decided to ruffle a few feathers and not make a bunch of films about lipsticks and mascaras but to explore the dysmorphia people have about their appearance and body. We asked five directors to choose a thematic we had defined around beauty. We talked about body hair, the thigh gap, cosmetic surgery, albinism. One of the films was based on a conversation with Spanish film collective Canada who I wanted to work with. I asked them about what beauty meant to them, and they replied: “a really beautiful woman makes us think about sex”. An apparently basic response which resulted in months of us talking and developing ideas with a great short film at the end. I wanted to allow them (Canada) to explore how they felt on the subject using NOWNESS as a platform. This kind of open, honest opinion within the films provoked a huge online debate and brought a million new viewers to NOWNESS.’
Does this mean the series might be continued?
‘Yes, the 2nd campaign starts in June. The response from Define Beauty was remarkable - it really got people talking. Everybody has an opinion because it’s something everyone can relate to, it’s something everyone has an emotional response to. It inspired a really strong feeling of community in NOWNESS and engaged our audience in a much more personal way for the first time. This is something we’ve continued to develop and allow to define our editorial strategy in general. We want to know how people feel.’
What kind of artists do you collaborate with?
‘There is a strong culture at NOWNESS of supporting emerging talents and being very proactive about searching out young people who are making interesting, new work. We help them incubate their ideas and provide them with a platform to speak. We also promote and support established filmmakers; feature directors for example who want to engage in a digital space. We allow them to explore a part of their work they don’t get to do otherwise. Ideas aren’t just developed within the film making and photographic community; there are writers, stylists, choreographers even subscribers to our channel who have pitched great ideas in the past.’
Is there someone you would still very much like to work with?
‘Hmmm.., the list is long. My current crush is Baillie Walshe, but there’s Gondry, Vincent Haycock, Mark Romanek. I’d also like to work with Canada again - we’re discussing a weeklong site take over later this year.’
What is your team in London like?
‘At the beginning we were a very small team - there were just five of us, now we are twenty. Although there are more of us now we work very closely together - I know it’s corny but it really does feel like a family. We also have a bank of editors-at-large based in Europe and Latin America, they in turn have stringers who pitch to them - so our network is global and it’s constantly expanding.’
Was it a conscious decision to be based here?
‘London is a fantastic city in terms of arts, culture and music, there is so much going on here - so it makes sense. Although the team is based in London, our commercial team is based in Paris and the majority of our audience is based in the US so we feel international, global.’
How would you describe your role?
‘My role is to produce great films and define the editorial strategy of NOWNESS. I have a great editor who runs the day-to-day, allowing me to focus more on the long-term picture in general. I travel a lot for work - fairs, festivals, shows. I’m lucky, I get to see an awful lot and meet some brilliant people. I even get to take my children sometimes, it’s a dream job really.’
Coming from a print background, were you always into film?
‘I’ve always enjoyed film in a really basic, uncomplicated way - you know, going to the cinema, studying a bit at university - no profound insight or knowledge just an enthusiasm and knowing what I like. Being at NOWNESS has been a massive learning curve, both in the art of filmmaking, film production and creative and editing. It’s really taught me how to edit. I’m still a mag hag, less than I used to be admittedly - the go to’s aren’t the go to’s anymore - but I do get excited when the new issue of World of Interiors is on the newsstand.’
What was the biggest change going from print to online?
‘The thing about online is that everything is constantly changing and evolving at lightening speed - it’s a very dynamic space. It took a while to re calibrate coming from print publishing, there is a sense of urgency attached to everything so your way of thinking and working becomes very different. You have to make decisions very quickly and accept compromise without compromise. That’s been the hardest part.’
What have been the most inspired by lately?
‘I saw Osipova in Balanchine at the Royal Ballet a couple of weeks ago - shhttp://legacy.folkclothing.com/wpe was incredible. The pain, the commitment to excellence, the mystery of the ballet - I find it totally compelling. I also love watching the orchestra and how they all flirt with each other during the boring bits.’
How do you ever get away from work?
‘I go on holiday and switch off my phone.’ Thanks so much for the lovely chat Claudia. Watch the short film that director Jonas Lindstroem made for NOWNESS featuring Founder of Folk Cathal McAteer here Photography: Anton Rodriguez Interview & Text: Femke Schoonus