The BoF Podcast | Baillie Walsh and The Art of Immersive Experiences

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Baillie Walsh calls himself a film director, but to me he’s a magician. Like hundreds of thousands of others who’ve made the pilgrimage to a purpose-built arena in East London, I was bewitched by the visual sorcery of Abba Voyage. Whatever you’ve heard, it’s more. Much more. In an era when there’s high demand for “experiences,” Walsh has mastered the art of full immersion. And that’s been the leitmotif of the career we talk about this week on the BoF Podcast.

Someone else who fell under the spell of Abba Voyage was designer Kim Jones. He hired Walsh to stage his Dior Men and Fendi Couture shows in January. Very different propositions, presented barely a week apart. Dior was majestic, and moving. The models passed solemnly in front of a massive screen featuring Gwendoline Christie and Robert Pattinson reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (it’s the iconic poem’s 100th anniversary, and Jones is keenly attuned to such cultural watersheds), while Max Richter played live. It was a symphony of shadows. Fendi, on the other hand, took place in a bright white oval, a futuristic space with a band of light which chased the models round the room as they walked. Light was the key to that collection for Kim, so Walsh let there be light.

Fashion is embedded in Walsh’s life and work, but so is music. He was formed in the London crucible that gave the world Boy George, Leigh Bowery, Alexander McQueen… he worked closely with them all. The hologram of Kate Moss for McQueen’s “Widows of Culloden” show in 2006 which later dazzled crowds at museum shows in New York and London? That was Walsh. So was the epochal 1991 video for Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy.” The song is a classic, the video scarcely less so as it follows singer Shara Nelson in one continuous tracking shot through the streets of downtown Los Angeles. That’s really Walsh’s career in one glorious nutshell: a technical feat which elicits a huge emotional response.

While he’s created films and ads for dozens of clients across the fashion and music worlds, he’s only ever directed one feature for himself, “Flashbacks of a Fool,” in 2008. He wrote it for his friend Daniel Craig, but it was released in the slipstream of Craig’s debut as James Bond in “Casino Royale,” which did no favours for what was fundamentally an intimate indie (however wide the screen). No one wanted to see Craig playing a fading star when he was so blindingly anything but. It’s found a second life on YouTube though, which means a new audience gets to experience the fool’s most thrilling flashback, which attempts to answer the question that bedazzled an entire generation of bright young things: How could you choose between Bryan Ferry and David Bowie?

It’s the sort of question Walsh would have asked himself as one of those bright young things. Now in his early 60s, he’s still asking himself questions, and it’s his search for answers which continues to illuminate everything he creates, from those scandalous Boy George videos in the early 90s to Abba Voyage in the 21st century, and even a sneak peak at Fendi in the 22nd. Walsh insists he’s never felt more inspired to tell stories. Look for the common threads and you’ll find emotion, of course, maybe some wide-eyed wonder… and surrender, too, because resistance to the craft of the magician is futile.

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