Nicola Moyne takes to the skies with aerial photographer Tommy Clarke to talk summer suitcase staples, his hot new collaboration with M&S Menswear and how hanging out of helicopters has propelled his career
The howling winds have whipped my hair into a matted mess and the toggle on my safety harness is slapping me in the cheek so aggressively I’m more concerned about facial scarring than the fact I’m currently 1,000 ft up in a helicopter, staring down a sheer, scary drop into the murky Thames. And all in the name of fashion… what else?
I’m at the London Heliport in Battersea to meet aerial photographer Tommy Clarke, who has just launched a cool summer collab line with Marks & Spencer Menswear. A former fashion and portrait photographer, this Brit talent now shoots landscapes from above. Seriously above. And his vivid aerial shots of beaches, salt lakes and bubbling geezers make earth look like abstract art. In short, he’s photography’s (slightly hotter) answer to David Attenborough, and his shots are taking men’s swimwear to new heights.
‘David Attenborough is actually one of the people who inspired me to start shooting landscapes,’ he tells me while we wait for the helicopter doors to be removed (gulp). ‘I wanted to create that whole Google earth thing myself – on the beach and unretouched.’
But Battersea is no Bondi – the beach where it all started for Bournemouth-born Clarke. It’s freezing and spitting with rain (so far, so Britain) and we’re taking a flight over London in a helicopter. Sans doors, naturally.
‘It’s the only way to get those vast, vertical-down shots. Plus, it’s kind of cool – I still feel a bit like James Bond when I do this; it never gets boring,’ he grins.
In fact, Tommy Clarke has been on more than 30 aerial shoots over the past 10 years and his portfolio of work delivers a stylish lookbook for summer. Think a kaleidoscope of dazzling azure-blue oceans dotted with superyachts in St Tropez, juxtaposed with abstract rust-red intersections in San Francisco and fluorescent-parasol clusters on the black-sand gems of Gran Canaria. Next stop? Iceland. ‘It’s an incredibly visual place to shoot – the blue lagoons and jet-black volcanic backgrounds really hit the mark. It’s been on my hit list to shoot for a long time now, so I’m doing a whole series there next.’
It’s clear that Clarke’s eye for colour and captivating compositions are key to his success – but hanging out of helicopters hasn’t done him any harm either.
‘I kind of started out when the whole hype around Instagram was building,’ he explains. ‘I was already a professional photographer shooting fashion editorial and commercial projects, but I wanted my photos to wow people without the need for filters or editing. I decided to hire a helicopter for an hour and shoot Bondi beach from above to see what I could capture. I put everything on the line for it.’
Clarke sold his wetsuit to help pay for the flight and recalls feeling mildly terrified of falling out of the chopper (‘the seats were made of this really slippery leather and I was just sliding around’), but the photos were incredible and have catapulted him into a new, adrenaline-charged career, complete with a London gallery opening in May. ‘They were my love letter to the beach.’
It was this initial love affair with the coast that led Marks & Spencer’s Menswear Head of Design, James Doidge, to Clarke. ‘I literally found Tommy on Instagram,’ Doidge tells me. ‘His photographs are so eye-catching – the abstract compositions and strong colours lend themselves to lots of different formats and I could instantly visualise them on a swimwear collection. They just evoke the feeling of a holiday.’
And so a seven-piece high-summer capsule collection was born. ‘It was completely 50/50 on the collaboration and the quality was key for me; it had to be there,’ Clarke says. ‘M&S is such a well-established British brand and that gave us a steer when choosing the final images. I love surfing in Cornwall, so my aerial shots of Carbis Bay felt like a good fit; I have this hope that one day I’ll see a guy on the beach there wearing a T-shirt and pair of shorts from the collection and it’ll all become real,’ he laughs. ‘Although it’ll probably be one of my cousins.’
Showcasing four coastal scenes from some of the world’s most stunning beaches, including Cornwall, St Tropez and Gran Canaria, the suitcase staples are a must for the men in your life. ‘They tell the story of summer,’ Doidge tells me as we climb out of the helicopter, still buzzing from the birds-eye views and thrill of the flight.
But having just spent an ‘average’ day with Clarke whizzing around in a Bond-esque H125, the collection pieces represent more than just a story – they’re your very own sartorial slice of the action, too.
The new M&S Menswear collection includes four Tommy Clarke-print swim shorts, two T-shirts and a pair of flip-flops, and will be available in selected stores and online at marksandspencer.com/l/men from 27th April. Prices start from £9.50. To check out more of Tommy Clarke’s work, visit tommyclarke.co.uk