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Interview

Q&A: High Concept Character

published on 2 May 2018

The transcript of ART SCHOOL's live interviews and discussions from their two-day LiveStudio.

The transcript of ART SCHOOL's live interviews and discussions from their two-day LiveStudio.

Q. There can be beauty found in everything, of course. What does beautiful mean to you? And what does ugly mean to you? Then... strictly visually speaking, do you find anything in particular ugly?

For me - and I know Tom will probably feel the same - those two things overlap, very much, and particularly for Art School. I think we often are attracted to things that people would ordinarily take as being more ugly than they are beautiful. That's inherent to our work because queer people grow up with that instilled in their brain from a young age. A lot of people do and are suppressed from a young age and for us, I think it is about blurring that line anyway. I think our continued use of variance of colour palette and quite harsh tones like with this project for S/S 19, these acid tones that people would ordinarily think were a bit garish, to us really are uplifting and celebratory

Q. When did the concept for Art School as a fashion brand and queer collective, first start to form? When did you start to see elements of it coming together, even very loosely? Was it after your degree, during your final year, during your studies or even way before, in adolescence or childhood?

Art School came around because of me meeting Tom. We met when I was in first year and were friends for a long time before we got together. During that period, we met the most amazing community of people and I hadn't been exposed to that whatsoever growing up and I came straight from being taught at home into university. Until I met that group of people, I wasn't even really aware that we had a place in society like that. Then, as we worked on my graduate collection, it became more and more of a collaborative process. From the beginning, we always had friends wearing the clothes and it is a vital element - it just felt natural, it was never something we thought about, it just came around. Tom really worked solely alongside me for the entirety of my degree on that, so really during that third year, it really started to build to a point where we could see that we had something relevant to say. I think it's really important in fashion now - there's so many young designers being thrust into the industry really early - that unless you have something relevant to say, you are far better to hone your practice and wait until you feel like you have the right time to make that statement. And it just so happened for us that I felt - and so did Tom - that the right time was to make it then. And I felt quite frustrated with the ways that the queer community was being taken advantage of within the industry and the way that a lot of fashion reviewers - particularly in London - were kind of whitewashing it all into one thing. It poses its own difficulties, because we put ourselves up for a lot of potential criticism because we continuously evolve and change each season. But that's the definition of a queer person and a queer body and we continue to change what we're interested in and I think that's what makes fashion exciting - it doesn't need to be one thing.

Q. Are you starting to notice a shift in coverage around the brand now that journalists have had the time to get to know your values, ethos and process? Linking on from that, did you ever feel like your work was initially misunderstood?

I would say there is really the beginnings of people coming to understand the label more than they would have. And that's also true for brands like Vaquera and Charles because I've seen that process happen and evolve and they're a little bit further ahead than us. I think it does take a few seasons to show that this isn't a gimmick - we're not just doing this to get press, for the sake of it - it actually is a true reflection of what we want as creatives but also what we want for our friends and everyone else who works on the collective with us. I think it takes time for press to really understand something like this - particularly when you're showing under the concept of MAN. When you look at the design talent that's been through it - other than Charles who still identifies most of his models under a male spectrum, there has been an increased amount of women on that runway and I think at first it really did surprise people that we'd kind of completely cast that aside. But I think people are beginning to understand that and actually understand it being about the craft of the clothes. That was something I would always be upset about at the beginning, because you get whitewashed. As you're doing something that's so performative, all the models have so much personality, the clothes are secondary. And for me - being the one that's cut all the clothes, I do all of the cutting and we make everything in the studio - it's really important that people understand that we have as much craft to our clothes as any other label. It's just the way that we identify means that we show it in a different way.

Q. What are your thoughts on the idea that inclusivity can end up being exclusive? It is a worry I myself have had when trying to speak of work by yourselves and other exciting, celebratory brands in London. In your eyes, can someone who is not necessarily involved in a community still have a meaningful understanding on what is being produced by the community in question?

Yes. In my opinion, I completely understand where this is coming from, because I do feel like - particularly in the way a lot of existing press are reporting about the idea of a queer movement - it's very much focused on making this into a trend, which I think is incredibly dangerous. I also think that thrusting young designers like ourselves and Charles and Eckhaus and Vaquera into these really big, heady spotlights, where people are talking about it in such grand terms is quite dangerous and can really exclude people from actually understanding it, which is why doing things like this today is really important to us in this early stage of our brand, because I don't want people to think that this is some kind of 'other being' that's away from everyday life, because all of us exist in the everyday. All of our models are friends or people that we know who have other jobs and from all kinds of life. And more and more, as we've developed the label, we're trying to include all sides of - not just our community, but outside of the community as well, because I think it's really important that this queer movement doesn't just stay within this idea of queer people wearing it. It's also open to anyone to interpret it in their own way. I think it's just a growing process to try and reiterate that to people that are viewing it from the outside.

Q. How important is comfort to you when creating your pieces?

Very important, specifically because we work a lot with the trans body and something I've been passionate about from the beginning is making people feel empowered and very comfortable in what they're wearing. Which is why we have such an intense viewpoint on how they feel and why we do so many fittings and it is really important to us that they really love what they're wearing and I think that's when you can tell that someone's happy walking down a runway - that they're comfortable in the clothes. We do a lot with the construction, particularly with the suiting, to make sure it's comfortable for trans bodies. Like using the bias cut, which is something that I've done from the beginning. When we started doing that with suiting as well as with the silk slips we do, it really clicked because it works with so many different women's bodies and it just felt like it was the right kind of statement.

Q. Do you see yourselves as the future of haute couture?

I would like to think that us and our movement might represent elements of the future of haute couture. I think there should always be a respect for incredible craftsmanship and that's something we're very passionate about with our own work. We work with Lesage in Paris, which is one of the oldest and best embroiderers in the world, and Hand and Lock here in the UK too. And those traditional techniques really need to be protected. And I think what is exciting is what brands like us and Charles Jeffrey are doing is really taking those things and subverting them in a new manner. So although it may not be - in terms of construction time - the same as a haute couture piece from Chanel, it certainly has the traits of a haute couture label.

Q. Art School clearly has an archive of references that it uses for inspiration and research. Are there any things in particular that keep reappearing on your mood boards and in your minds regarding inspo?

Yes. Really it's quite a fluid process, the way we pick our reference points. We put a sheet up for each model, right at the start of the season, normally the day after the last show - so that quick! We always have this bank of ideas that we want to get started on and then over the course of a month or so, we will build up each model's profile with relevant reference images. What's quite interesting is that myself and Tom have such different ideas of what we would want to bring to Art School. My background of things I was interested in was Isabella Blow and early Galliano and I got to see some of Isabella Blow's archive for my graduate collection, which was amazing. All of those really incredible remakes of historical costume that Galliano would do really interests me and the women that buy those clothes also really interests me. And Tom's really the complete opposite and is interested in pop culture and a mixture of modern references, 90s reference points, so really we always have these re-occuring things. With other designer's work - more than with a reference to a specific garment - it would be the mood of a show. So, with the dress we saw Josephine wearing earlier, there was - I think it's Galliano's '94 collection where they're all wearing these waify gowns - and this idea of this lost person felt really relevant for when we were opening up onto the catwalk last Spring/Summer. Those reference points from that specific collection continued to return. There's a lot of those haute couture references that continue to inspire us and I think you can see that within the piece we're working on.

Q. What would you say to young people growing up in the UK who dress in a queer manner regarding the balance of self-expression and personal safety? How do you feel about this issue?

That's something that I relate to. You see it every day. If you identify in a different way you are constantly open to attack. Myself and Tom have seen that first hand, as have all of our friends, including most of the people who model for ArtSchool. It's something that makes me very very angry, I always try and confront people about it as it's happening. It's a very difficult thing because when people say 'tone it down' they are probably saying it in a way to try and protect you, but having said that, we're also very lucky because we live in London. People are more accepting on the whole, and are less likely to have a go at you. If I had this hair colour in my village in Norfolk, you would get harassed so it's a difficult balance. I think you have to learn to escape in your own mind for a moment. Since I met Tom my confidence has grown so much because I was very very shy when I came to London. Meeting all these people, particularly ones who have supported us so much by walking in our shows, and Tom as well, it's really made me realise not to give a shit!

Q. Do you consider your practice to be a form of activism?

I think so! In the beginning, I would say that we probably hadn't realised what we were necessarily saying and that's what has been so great with Fashion East because they really gave us the chance to think about that properly. The last show was probably the most activism focused that we've done, just because it is quite depressing identifying like we do sometimes and we wanted to make a comment on that with the last collection. So, yeah, we are definitely activists.

Q. How important do you think intersectionality is in queer activism?

Very intense question! I think it's very important. Both Tom and I are very interested in feminism, Tom is a really passionate feminist. I think it's really important, particularly within our work because it is so cross-dimensional and there are so many different elements to it. Again, just like with pop culture, it is really important not to dismiss these things. Myself and Tom have really realised - quite recently - how important our role is as representatives of our community, not just as fashion designers. That's really nice but it also means that it's really important to us that we've really thought about these things properly and although at the end of the day we are selling clothes, it's so much more than that. It frustrates me when the focus is drawn solely on what you are selling. I think to be a modern anything now, particularly a modern brand where people are buying your clothes to wear on their backs, you need to have more than just pretty things to sell. It needs to have a really important social-political message.

Q. Is the term Queer insulting? A compliment? Who is allowed to use it and why?

The term Queer should be an uplifting term. Maybe it's been used in the past as a way to insult people, but I would like to think that gradually over time people are beginning to understand what the community that we represent is saying. I think queer itself, in my opinion, means everyone, all elements of the gender spectrum, all age groups, nationality, race, everything. I think it should be this melting pot of amazing individuals, and for us, that's what we enjoy doing - uplifting these individuals from all sides of this queer community and from all aspects of life. The last show, that casting that we did, we were so happy with because it represented so many different areas of that overall world. From all different backgrounds. For me, that's what I've always identified queer as meaning. It might not be the dictionary meaning, but that's what I would like it to be. What I find really interesting is that people can watch one of our shows and see themselves in one of the individuals, they might not be anything like them but they might be really enamoured by that person, or they may really identify with the way they dress. That's a conversation that I am constantly interested in.

Q. With the ever-increasing acceptance and interest for Queer culture, do you believe that the industry and society will continue being so accepting in 5 years time?

I don't agree that there is an ever-increasing interest in Queer culture, there's a lot of taking advantage of Queer culture going on at the moment. I think there's certainly quite a large amount of hijacking happening, particularly in fashion. Just looking at that disastrous Burberry show for example, which I just felt was completely offensive because there was no-one of queer identity in it. That's an example of that whole quite depressing movement that is happening. I think it will continue, but I don't think there are actually that many people doing things of actual worth that are coming from a place of queer community. For us, it's not about making money, it's not about having a mega-brand and it's never been about that. If we can see people wear our clothes and enjoy wearing them, we have enough money to get by and be able to do what we're doing, that's the most important thing for us. We're trying to stay innovative, constantly adapting to what we feel is going on around us, and we feel a lot of these people who are hijacking that overall message could do a lot by looking at the difference between queer and what they think queer is i.e Ru Paul's Drag Race or gay culture. There's a big difference between queer culture and gay culture. People don't often differentiate that. It would have been amazing to have seen a casting that was so unique in something like the Burberry show.

Q. The colours within your collections are always so strong! What is the Art School colour palette, and what influences it?

It changes quite dramatically. Tom and mine's personalities mean we are constantly attracted to new things, I really like the idea of there being thematic overlays to each collection and that really informs the colour palette. In the beginning, it was always about quite primary colours and that was because the way in which we used colour was this idea of pillars of colour throughout the collection which was inspired by Derek Jarman's Chroma, which is a diary of ideas on colour. Last season it took a change because we had a much darker mood; the message of the collection and the collection itself, so it was much more muted. This time, especially because we are coming to the end of Fashion East which has been so amazing, we want it to feel quite celebratory and uplifting and showing what you can achieve if you take an opportunity like we've been given. So, it's much more 'Pow!' There's neon colours, more silver, loads of silver - we like using metallic -, loads more Swarovski. It's a constant refinement, going back to different references, a lot of the colour-ways that are in the collection are also in the paintings that Dominic is doing and are from this ball-dress we did last Spring/Summer. It's white bed sheets that are twisted together to form this puff of clouds. They had these prints on by another artist called Pierre that were of monster sushi in acid colours. We like referring back to things and then trying to grow on them and make them a little bit more special than they were before. When I look at the collections next to each other you can really see that refinement each season.

Q. You have so many inspirational and fascinating queer figures who walk your shows! Who are the people you would still love to dress?

It fluctuates and changes. Obviously, we would love to dress Judy Chicago. Really for us, rather than being focused heavily on celebrity... That's a part of what inspires us, there are some real cultural icons that we find really interesting that a lot of people dismiss. We've dressed Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian - I love that whole movement of Instagram celebrities, it's a really important part of how people see the world now. It can be really diverse, there are people from all walks of life but equally, we're constantly inspired by people we just meet, that are ordinary people that we recognise something in, that we think deserve the right to have a voice. There are some new people walking in the show that we're really excited about that we've kind of just found out and about.

Q. Your S/S 19 collection will be your last at Fashion East. What are your plans for your departure, and looking to the future what are you looking to achieve with Art School as a business?

This collection and moving forward is a real step up for us, we've processed everything. Fashion East has been an amazing opportunity for us to really be able to investigate all the different areas of the brand that we are interested in, both directly within clothes and outside of that. Like our collaboration with Dominic, and other artists and other designers that we constantly collaborate with; that's one of the foundations about what Art School should be and is about. Post Fashion East, obviously we will be showing in January, we'll be doing our own stand-alone presentation, but also both me and Tom really enjoy collaborating on other projects too. Things like the LiveStudio, but also things within dance or theatre. I think it's this continuation of developing a world from Art School and ultimately that's what makes people want to buy into the label. From a business side, we drop throughout the season, not just once so there is a constant. We want to get to a point where there is a constant succession of new and fresh pieces available for people to buy. More and more it shouldn't be about these really high-end pieces that close off a community that want to buy into it. We're really trying to develop that, particularly with a lot of the stores we already work with, on how we can achieve a really good price point for people that want to buy into it but don't have very much money... Like me. You have to have a game plan I think. We've worked ridiculously hard to get this far. When we leave Fashion East it needs to be about it moving into a new era but something that's equally as innovative as what we've tried to do already.

Q. Is the piece you’re creating from your current range or is it a new design? Can you explain the process and materials you’re employing?

The piece that we're making is a full look for the next collection, that will be shown in a few weeks time with Fashion East. Basically, the way in which we work is that we work backwards. So, we start with all the casting and make a mood for the season through that. We then create the looks based around them and their personalities. Each season they evolve, as we evolve with our friends who wear the clothes. This one is completely new, completely new techniques we’re using, and it acts as a signifier to everything we are trying to achieve with the new collection. The look also includes 25,000 Swarovski crystals, which are individually threaded to create this waterfall effect. It’s something we started last season, but I really think it’s a signature now - we use the Swarovski in different ways and this is a new way of working with it really. Over the top is going to be a wrap-around - a high-concept wrap-around - which is based around these Judy Chicago references. Judy Chicago is a female artist from New York, she’s amazing, iconic, and we really began looking to her for a lot of reference points for this collection. So that's the table-cloth wrap-around that goes over the top. I really like that contrast of fabrications between something so glamorous and showtime as the sequins with this workwear fabric; that’s something we did for my graduate collection so it feels nice to revisit that.

Q. Pop culture has its role in queer culture. Has Art School ever directly pulled from pop culture during their design process?

Constantly! Tom wrote about pop culture a lot when he was studying and I think it would be stupid to ignore popular culture. It goes back to what I was saying about the Kardashians. I think they are absolutely amazing and people bash them too much. They inspire a whole young generation of women or teenagers, or young girls on Instagram who find them inspiring and that's the equivalent of what we're doing in a queer sense. Stupid to ignore that. I love Kris Jenner, if I could be Kris Jenner in 35 years time I would be very happy. Visually...Specifically visually!

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