South London Forever: Alex Mullins

by Hetty Mahlich on 26 November 2019

When we talk about designers, we often talk about where they're from: it seems the place you call home is inflected in your creative practice, whether you like it or not. While global fashion has its four major capitals, London itself has its own creative quarters: each distinct in attitude. This series of interviews will set the scene for some of London's brightest fashion talents working in South London; Phoebe English, Art School and Alex Mullins, as Hetty Mahlich speaks with them to explore how South London informs their unique creative approaches.

When we talk about designers, we often talk about where they're from: it seems the place you call home is inflected in your creative practice, whether you like it or not. While global fashion has its four major capitals, London itself has its own creative quarters: each distinct in attitude. This series of interviews will set the scene for some of London's brightest fashion talents working in South London; Phoebe English, Art School and Alex Mullins, as Hetty Mahlich speaks with them to explore how South London informs their unique creative approaches.

Alex Mullins

British menswear designer Alex Mullins re-thinks traditional workwear and tailoring by using the fundamental construction of the garments as the scaffolding for a myriad of references. Although recurrently drawn to the Wild West rodeo, the designer takes influence from all around him and incorporates a dense portfolio of graphics and prints. For A/W 19, yellow mohair scarves were inspired by a late-night sighting of a woman getting out of a cab wearing a yellow scarf- it turned out to be her actual hair. Mullins' latest collection featured signature warping, high-waist straight-leg trousers and tailoring, whilst a neutral palette of off-white and brown was electrified by fuschia pink Western-style shirts and suiting with bursts of buttercup yellow, bright white and indigo denim. The painterly Alex Mullins logo was re-worked and pasted across motor-cross wear. Although designed as menswear, the 21-look collection was shown on women, reflecting the wearable, calm openness often found within an Alex Mullins collection. In his abstract yet direct approach to design, Mullins often uses photography to make references to past collections. Most notable are Mullins' distorted garments- a process which he has termed 'double-take surrealism'- as seen in his A/W 18 and S/S 18 collections. Despite a certain nostalgia, each season the Mullins man remains a man of our time as he is conjured within new narratives, previously morphing from the artist navigating the city to one of a cosy chap on Sunday afternoons.

Following a youth spent in Fulham and an adolescence in East London, Alex Mullins is now based in Peckham. In the light of a well-deserved season spent off schedule, I caught up with the designer to speak on recognising the value in his work, authenticity, the Alex Mullins man today and how South London likens to the Wild Wild West.

HM: I wanted to start by asking about your upbringing in South London, where did you grow up and what was your experience growing up there?

AM: I guess I'm originally from Fulham, but I went to school near the top of Putney Hill near Roehampton. When I was a sweet teen I was hanging out a lot in Tooting, Balham, Brixton, Streatham and Peckham.

HM: I wonder, do you think to have a youth spent in South London has impacted on you as a designer or on your creative process?

AM: I think anything that you've experienced in your life will have an impact on your creative process, but I do think South London especially as it always felt quite exciting, even when I was a lot younger. It felt undeveloped and like there was a lot to explore. A lot of the corner-shops had nothing in them, so it might be there were five chocolate bars in there and all the other shelves were empty. They were all covers for something, for some other business, but I find that quite exciting. That still happens now on Old Kent Road, it's like the Wild West a little bit as there are no set rules. Do you know a place called Smoky Jerky on Old Kent Road?

HM: No, I don’t.

AM: It's a jerk chicken shop but it hasn’t got a menu and it hasn’t got any seats in it either. You literally go in and have to know the menu and all the prices to know what to ask for. It feels really exciting in that way because there are no real rules.

Alex Mullins S/S 19 Machine A

HM: You spent several years in East London, could you tell me a little about this?

AM: I lived in this place called the Carpet Shop in Shoreditch for four years. We were all paying about £250 a month to live there. There were five of us there and it was so cheap and absolutely run down and a lot of parties were being had there. That was quite exciting again because it felt kind of like a secret. In our fourth year there, Dishoom opened and Versus Versace opened on Church Street but there were still shit loads of crackheads and prostitutes knocking on the door all the time which was so weird. Afterwards, I moved South to Old Kent Road and I’ve been there ever since. I have a studio in Peckham, but I've got space with the CFE (Centre for Fashion Enterprise) in Mare Street. I'm partly East but also partly South.

HM: Having grown up in South East London, I feel there's definitely a fierce kind of loyalty Londoner’s have to the quarter they grew up in or have lived in for a long time. Did you feel happy to have moved back to South? Did it feel like coming home again?

AM: Absolutely. There's something different, you're right there is a loyalty about South London. I don't know whether it's the way the landscape is mapped out or because in East London it doesn't feel like there's a particular core or cause to where you are. In Peckham for example, or even in Tooting, Streatham or somewhere like Elephant and Castle, there’s real community cores in these little pockets of villages. I’m so happy to be South. As much as it's nice to have a studio in East, I just much prefer the people and the community and the authenticity of South. It feels more honest.

HM: Do you feel that creatives are moving from East London to South London?

AM: Actually, I don't really necessarily feel like that. I know that a movement of designers is probably going to be, something's happening but I don't really know what kind of area they go to. Deptford maybe, but I have noticed people are moving further East to Tottenham and Seven Sisters. A lot of the people that I know who are East- it's difficult to get them to South London. All the South London people are always moving around everywhere, they don’t just stay South. I don't think that the designers who I know in East would move South and it's quite nice if the South doesn't get too ruined!

HM: For your A/W 14 collection you spoke about a modern-day cowboy figure working as a struggling artist understanding his relationship to the city. Looking back at how you have moved between East and South London, how do you feel one's relationship to the city changes?

AM: I think that something that I always really appreciate when I see other people's work, is a kind of authentic weirdness or sense of confidence. I think that's definitely something that I feel is in South London, whereas in East London it is almost for someone else, it is for other people sometimes. In East you’re being confident for someone else, not just because you are confident or weird, you know? That's kind of the difference.

Alex Mullins S/S 18

HM: Each season you always speak quite specifically about the Alex Mullins man and the wardrobe you’ve created for him. If you had to give South London a wardrobe which collection of yours would it be?

AM: A/W 16. It was about waiting for the bus in the rain when you’re bored, about how your mind can drift off. Being wet and in the rain, things falling with gravity and melting, feeling really soggy. I think that's quite fitting for the moment right now!

HM: You didn’t show a collection for S/S 20, could you tell me why?

AM: I realised after my last show in January - which I really enjoyed - that I wanted to take a bit of time to reflect on and really appreciate how much I've done over the past six years. I'm in my 30s and I don't really feel like I've got anything to prove or ego to satisfy. I'm not in a rush to say something again. I also felt under pressure to follow these rules of an outdated and oversaturated fashion system with expensive three-minute shows, spending money on one-use samples. Last December I had to clean out one of my East London spaces to move it all to the South London space. There's so much waste over the last few years, stuff that you couldn't really resell, or custom fabrics or scraps of amazing digital print. I felt like I needed to re-evaluate what that all means now. It felt so wasteful and like I was on a hamster wheel.

HM: We last saw the Alex Mullins man for A/W 19, where is he now?

AM: In regards to where the Alex man is right now, I think he’s in a bit of a chill zone! If I was going to be doing another collection at the moment I would feel like I'm having to compromise a lot. There's obviously lots of pressures from different stores and I got to the point before where I felt I was doing it for someone else, which is just not the point. Right now I'm looking back at all my previous work and I’m like fucking hell there's so much stuff! There are so many ideas and I'm really proud of myself for doing it all. These last 10 months have been so great to change the way that I work, I've really realised and appreciated the value in what I've done and what I will continue to do.

Alex Mullins A/W 18
Alex Mullins S/S 16

HM: Anything exciting you are working on that can tell me about?

AM: Since January I've been doing the costume for a new TV series which I'm not allowed to say anything about, but it should be coming out in the middle of next year. It’s a dystopian future type of thing. I'm also doing fashion consultancy and I've been teaching since before I had the brand which I think is really important to keep doing in order to stay connected to what the newer brains are saying and to what their perspective is.

HM: Without giving away too many secrets, what are your top three spots in the South?

AM: There's Yadas in Peckham which is super cheap- bring your own booze and delicious. Everyone always says Silk Road in Camberwell, it’s so good. I also like the Hermit’s Cave in Camberwell. Have you been to The Chateau yet?

HM: Is it the one where you go down the stairs under Angels & Gypsies?

AM: Yes! It’s really fun. It’s the only gay bar in Camberwell. It was a Catholic-themed Peruvian restaurant before, and that's why it looks like a church inside! It's typical of spaces in South London, it kind of makes you laugh. I also used to love the bowling alley in Elephant and Castle, but I think that’s closed down now. I went last year and we tried to play a game but it kept breaking every 40 minutes and then we’d get moved to another lane. So we ended up being in there for about five hours, drinking slushies from the slushy machine. I don't know what's in them but it's so potent, I don't really remember leaving to be honest! It was just the kind of place where I think people would be smoking inside and not give a shit. Again that kind of lawless, Wild West-like area.

Explore

Re-see

Re-see: Alex Mullins S/S 18 Menswear

19 July 2017
Alex Mullins talks through his S/S 18 collection with Lara Johnson-Wheeler in this unique take on a re-see.
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