LONDON, United Kingdom — The saying goes: a Jack of all trades is master of none. The age-old adage may well apply to many "slashers" but feels downright antiquated in the face of London’s new wave of polymathic fashion creatives. While the previous generation of London Fashion Week’s rising stars set out to build luxury ready-to-wear businesses with traditional wholesale-driven models, the new wave is taking a distinctly different approach, building accessible, personal, direct-to-consumer brands rooted in a wide range of overlapping creative pursuits straddling the worlds of photography, film, sculpture, illustration — and, yes, fashion design.
Matty Bovan, Claire Barrow, Charles Jeffrey and Jack Appleyard of Loverboy, and Luke Brooks and James Theseus Buck of Rottingdean Bazaar, are the colourful creatives making the biggest splash with their finger-in-every-pie proclivities. Most of them graduated from Central Saint Martins; all of them are social media natives and have become dashing creative debutantes with the help of Lulu Kennedy, who runs fashion incubation scheme Fashion East.
“They aren’t particularly bothered about being a designer working away on patterns endlessly,” says Kennedy. “You know, that really protectionist idea of the traditional designer? It’s less of a focus on luxury things. The previous generation followed a much more traditional trajectory, which is to be applauded, but it’s just not possible or necessarily desirable for everyone to do that.” Indeed, Kennedy underscores the new wave's more accessible, direct-to-consumer approach to both communications and commerce.
“Claire makes earrings, but to complement them there are artworks that she puts on her website that will sell out in minutes,” she says. “There are huge fans of hers who can’t buy a hand-painted leather jacket, but they can buy a pair of jeans or those earrings — if they’re quick — and they’re excited to have something without breaking the bank. They’ll still have money left for the weekend, to actually go out and wear it.”
They aren’t particularly bothered about being a designer working away on patterns endlessly.
Although Barrow and Appleyard hail from different stock, what is clear is that there was something in the water at Central Saint Martins in 2015. As the MA class grappled with the death of Professor Louise Wilson, it was subsequently mentored by her successor Fabio Piras, who encouraged Buck, Jeffrey and Bovan — and Brooks before them — to make their work personal and unpretentious. “It’s like, what is it you are actually producing?” reflects Piras in the latest issue of Love magazine. “Your product might be your activity as an entity, as a person. One day you do some styling, one day you do a collection, one day you can run a club. But they have to be able to sustain that, and [Charles] is. It only takes MAC cosmetics to meet Matty Bovan to understand that they have a can have a great visionary working for them. Rottingdean Bazaar, too — it’s creativity galore, isn’t it? I think they [all] have incredible validity because they are universal: they can communicate with the art world, they can communicate with the fashion world and they can communicate with the people who might even be laughing at them.”
When Mandi Lennard, the influential London publicist, invited Luke Brooks and James Theseus Buck to a Halloween party she was hosting at Hoi Polloi last year, they arrived with a gift: a badge with her initials spelled out in their pubic hair. “No, I didn’t punch them! I will love them forever for that.” As with Kennedy, Lennard worked with an older generation of London designers including Roksanda Ilincic and Gareth Pugh, and is keen to point out how pragmatic the new wave is. “It’s not enough to just be supremely talented, so when you see how they operate, as well as carry themselves when they are out, you know they’ve got what it takes. But they’re not in a rush for things to ‘happen’ and they seem a lot more grounded,” she says. “They recognise the industry is in flux. The days of fitting into a certain ‘department’ are less relevant — even the buyers get it.”
Indeed, Ruth Hickman, the buyer for Selfridges’ recently renovated women’s designer studio, was one of the first to tap these talents, dedicating an entire space to them. Indeed, earlier this year, she invited Fashion East to take over a folly between JW Anderson and Marni, and the result was a celebration of the incubator's illustrious alumni, many of whom contributed exclusive product at the request of Kennedy. As well as a deep order of Bovan’s and Rottingdean Bazaar’s colourful ready-to-wear, there were poster prints made by Claire Barrow in collaboration with photographer Eloise Parry, as well as zines made by Charles Jeffrey and Jack Appleyard. “They sold out within two days,” says Hickman, who has already made a replenishment order of the zines and is keen to point out that a couple of Rottingdean Bazaar’s accessibly-priced pieces have flown off the shop floor. She says that the hand-crafted sensibility and personal narrative feels powerful at a time of ostentatious branding. “The streetwear trend is so prolific in terms of logo mania and the new wave are coming from an authentic place,” she explains. “It’s a breath of fresh air and a reaction to that big business moment, which can sometimes feel a little mass.”
Although each of the designers are able to leverage social media into direct-to-consumer sales, major stockists are still an important part of introducing them to a wider audience — one that may have deep pockets but less of a grasp on the avant-garde. “We’re a big department store,” points out Hickman. “We can support these designers at a major level — it doesn’t need to be just small concept boutiques.” It also allows a physical space to emulate the theatrical presentations that they have staged at London Fashion Week, which are broadcast widely but inaccessible to most.
A big challenge for many YBDs (young British designers) is the cost of local, small-batch manufacturing, which results in very high retail prices for ready-to-wear pieces. Other product categories, such as accessories and objects, allow them to better control cost and create products that are more accessible to Generation Instagram. “We’d never want the quality of the ready-to-wear to be undermined, so the other product categories are a great way to address that, and then the kids are able to buy into it and the designers establish a loyal following,” says Hickman. What’s more is that this new generation, with their inherently creative outlook and lack of SEO-friendly following, offer so much in terms of potential collaboration for events and marketing content. Hickman adds that Jeffrey has created a playlist for the shop floor; and she is working on getting Bovan to do a make-up masterclass with MAC in the beauty hall; for Rottingdean Bazaar to do a badge-making class in the home department; and the Theo Adams Company, a dance troupe which has collaborated with Loverboy and fellow Fashion East label Art School, to do a flash mob on the shop floor. None of them are likely to launch a Mayfair boutique any time soon, but the potential for these young London creatives appears endless.
“I wanted it to say ‘I’m here’ — I am here. I am H-E-R-E — here!” exclaimed the coral-haired, magenta-browed Matty Bovan after his debut in September, as part of Fashion East’s line-up. Bovan has certainly arrived to a rapturous reception from the industry. He has been mentored by Katie Grand, who acts as creative consultant to his namesake label, and having worked with Marc Jacobs, he found himself starring in one of the brand’s campaigns wearing the illustrative prints he designed.
At his last show, each look shimmered with streams of disco diamanté, fluoro fishnets, sculptural clay jewellery and Kabuki beauty looks that took their cue from Bovan himself. A stellar line-up of supermodels strutted, and underneath all their jazzy styling were also printed T-shirt dresses with Victoriana leg-of-mutton sleeves, metallic leather jackets and chainmail bandeaus. “Swarovski is actually really heavy. This is incredibly time-consuming but it’s actually light so you can wear it for going out; these are good going out clothes,” he explained afterwards.
Bovan’s other notable ventures include the mannequins he made for Miu Miu’s resort presentation; an editorial he styled with John Galliano in LOVE; live fluoro decoration of one of Jo Malone’s boutiques; and a range of clay artworks and a sinister zine, ‘Yorkshire Rosé’, which are both sold at House of Voltaire. “I loved being able to work with them on making objects that weren't for the body — that's something I would like to push further and the idea of one-off is something I believe in wholeheartedly,” he says. “I'm not interested in mass production and repeatability at the moment.”
Based in his mother Plum’s garden shed in York, part of Bovan’s appeal is his colourful and witty social media stream. “I enjoy it for what it is, but I really don't take it as seriously as some people do,” he stresses. “Direct contact with customers is interesting and which I am defiantly all for. I have a lot of people approaching me via Instagram; it's how people get to see more than just the final designs; they can see a process of projects.”
Charles Jeffrey and Jack Appleyard
“I basically just want to be Anna Wintour!” shrieks Charles Jeffrey, one half of the creative duo behind Loverboy, a design collective and raucously colourful club night at Vogue Fabrics in Dalston, which doubles as its studio. Jeffrey is very much the visible face of the label, and considers himself a creative director who is not shy of delegating work he knows he is not the best at. “If I was someone who was focused on making the greatest pair of trousers in the world all by myself, I probably wouldn’t have gurning, shouting dancers at my show,” he reasons.
Jeffrey met Jack Appleyard, a London College of Fashion graduate, as a student, and the two have been collaborators ever since. “We’re often the antithesis of each other,” says Appleyard, whose background in set design is often employed to turn their club night into a fantastical space for east London’s queer community — as well on shoots for photographers such as Tim Walker. “One of us will bring one thing and the other something else, and we encourage that duality,” he adds. When the club night began, it was a mash-up of a photo shoot, utopic decor, and hedonistic costume party — and a way for Jeffrey to conduct primary research for his final collection at CSM. It soon got so buzzed-about that even FKA Twigs couldn’t get past the bouncer.
Both Jeffrey and Appleyard are now two of London’s most invited, and are a refreshing take on those who usually include DJ in their biography. Their last show had a fantastical narrative that was a mishmash of historical and sci-fi references. Elizabethan ruffles and 18th century tailoring and alien-like shapes and textures informed the collection, which Jeffrey described as “full fantasy” in reaction to the current political climate. The neat dandyisms were a contrast to the giant globular papier-mâché deities, made by Gary Card and displayed at Dover Street Market straight after. “It was about chaos and control — and the idea that we live in a post-truth world where nothing is real anymore,” explained Jeffrey after the show.
Their label has been just shortlisted for an upcoming fashion award, which could mean a major round of funding. “It takes a lot of money to make things cheap too,” says Jeffrey, acknowledging that the most loyal Loverboy devotees often can’t afford the clothes. It would also allow the label to diversify into other areas with more momentum. “We’re in a world where we do have to appreciate the power of Instagram and social media, and you are expected to create and give content. And I kind of feel like there’s maybe a wave in the fashion world right now that’s not just about the product, it’s about the universe you create, which helps see the work that we do not in one particular format, but in a much bigger picture; it helps communicate and amplify it.”
Although her roots are in fashion, these days Claire Barrow identifies herself as an artist. After graduating from the University of Westminster, Barrow began posting images of her hand-painted leather jackets on Tumblr, which quickly caught the attention of customers and, eventually, buyers. She showed as part of Fashion East, and then became one of the six designers supported by NewGen and sponsored by Topshop. In the last year, however, her focus has shifted. A debut art show at M. Goldstein in London propelled her into the art world, and now a collaboration with Melissa, the eco-conscious Brazilian shoe brand, has led to a two-story exhibition in Covent Garden that involves film, sculpture, music and costume. “I wanted to do all of it myself,” she says ambitiously.
A certain level of collaboration, however, was essential — and it happened in the form of working with director Joseph Bird and commissioning musicians Kenichi Iwasa and Taigen Kawake. Projections of life-size dancers and performers amidst the recycled mannequin sculptures dressed in Barrow costumes create an immersive environment for the viewer. “The sculptures aren’t real but they are physically there and the projections are fake but they’re real people,” Barrow explains. “It relates back to social media and our lives online, which are careful representations of ourselves.”
Barrow has recently made a capsule collection of found items with screen printing for a Japanese retailer, and continues to make limited edition pieces that she sells through her website. “I feel very free now,” she says, adding that it’s easier to pay her rent than when she was a part of the London Fashion Week schedule. “I am not knocking what I was and I’m not saying the fashion cycle destroys creativity, but for me, it is the right time for me to be working on projects like this and have the freedom to make my own art.” She is friends with her peers, but feels there is less collectivism amongst London-based designers at the moment. “We don’t buy designer clothes or think about fashion in that way so much. We’ve never seen fashion as luxury fashion — we have always experienced it as different ways of expressing ourselves,” she says. “It’s always been about a story, rather than being in the system or trend. But I think it might be this anti-luxury thing we have all connected with.”
Luke Brooks and James Theseus Buck
Based in the seaside village of Rottingdean, Luke Brooks and James Theseus Buck elevate mundane objects into highly technical, yet seemingly absurd objects. Having both hailed from a textiles background, the duo has since launched their own label — but are keen to not define it too much for fear of being pigeon-holed. “We’re just really interested in the idea that we can work with anyone and anything,” says Buck. “When we began, we were interest in things that were product.” Rottingdean Bazaar stemmed from Badge Taste, a project that is essentially a simple concept: taking an object, whether that’s pubic hair or cigarette butts, fruit-flavoured condoms or dead insects, and making it into a badge. Frozen in time, each of these mundane curiosities became a repetitive motif on the wall of their debut presentation last year. “We’re drawn to objects with an archetypal sensibility,” explained Brooks at the time. “We are trying to communicate ideas and we want it to be beyond fashion and art as a sort of middle ground.” Their fairly-priced garments range from sweatshirts with balloons, socks and underwear sealed to them by a technical heating process, to T-shirts with iron filings patterned by magnets and sealed onto the cotton, and even garment care labels that have bizarre instructions such as “buy a blue T-shirt from a Bulgarian seller on eBay” and “fill in the white stripes of a Breton top with permanent marker”.
“It’s about how we value clothes,” explains Brooks. “We find it exciting when we make something that looks easy enough for anyone to do, even though it is quite technical. We would love to do a show like ‘Art Attack!’” Their literal sensibility also stems from avoiding representative narratives. “You just want to use an object instead of representing it and that’s what we’re interested in doing at the moment,” adds Buck, who previously worked on Kanye West’s design team.
“Our generation is taught to be quite sceptical of big companies... and even the creative parts of those big company jobs are just not there anymore,” he continues. They admire Stephen Jones for his flexibility to work with everyone and anyone and continually getting on with the job at hand — and they, too, have collaborated with other designers, notably making shredded face masks for Christopher Shannon’s most recent show. “It is just the two of us and we don’t have interns or anything. It feels really uninterrupted and we’re not taking on more than what we can cope with.”
As well as selling on their own e-commerce platform and at Selfridges, styling and art direction has allowed the duo to wittily express more conceptual ideas, such as temporary tattoo clothing and shaving foam clothes. They also both teach and work with a children’s art group, Anthropod Arts, in Rottingdean. As for social media, a view of their accounts will be both equally amusing and inspired, but they’re not in a rush to emphasise it too much. It shouldn’t be a validation, especially when you’re a student,” cautions Buck. “I mean, people will like a cat on Instagram.”