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Fergus Purcell Creates 'Signifiers of Subculture'

Fergus 'Fergadelic' Purcell is the graphics guru who works with Palace Skateboards and created the graphics for the closely watched debut collection of the rebooted Marc By Marc Jacobs.
Fergus Purcell | Photo: Morgan O'Donovan for BoF
By
  • Rebecca May Johnson

LONDON, United Kingdom — Fergus Purcell is a man who embodies contrast. While his birth name sounds like a cross-pollination of Scottish and English aristocracy (his parents are Irish), his artist tag "Fergadelic" was inspired by 1970s black, sci-fi, psychedelic funk band, Funkadelic. When he opens the door of his airy North London flat, however, he's a tall, skinny white man with long, silvery hair and a baseball cap, wearing baggy pale jeans and the t-shirt of 90s death-metallers Morbid Angel, and covered with hundreds of homemade 'stick and poke' method tattoos (including O-Z-Z-Y across his fingers). He then pads into the kitchen in white socks (grey New Balance trainers, neatly removed) and offers this reporter a Yogi Tea or Earl Grey in a soft English accent.

His fluency in “the signifiers of subcultures” and talent for giving them fresh power in new contexts has made him a master of design for streetwear brands. His work doing logos and graphics for clothes at Silas and Palace Skateboards (among many others), helped to create cultish global followings for the British streetwear labels. “That stuff made people quite feverish,” said Purcell.

A lot of what is exciting about the language of t-shirts and what you've got on written on your leather jacket is that you're into it — and that's such a profound and liberating statement.

Then, in 2013, he caught the eye of Luella Bartley just as she was being brought on as design director at Marc by Marc Jacobs by new creative director Katie Hillier (a longtime consultant to the brand) — and just as streetwear was moving centre stage for a major fashion moment. "People at Marc Jacobs loved Palace Skateboards, especially Luella. Her kid goes to the same school as my friend Sofia [Prentara]'s kid and they were chatting on the school run, so that's how Luella found out I was behind Palace and she asked me to come and meet her," explained Purcell, who was tapped to create the graphics for the closely watched debut collection for the rebooted MBMJ. "They were really geed up that I was the one to do the job and when they presented me with their themes, it was just perfect; it was a blend of skateboarding, BMX and motocross.  Motocross was one of the things that I really wanted to focus on visually, because of the way those outfits look; they are an amazing canvas for graphics and the professional riders have the logos all over, as per the [MBMJ] collection really, so that was great."

MBMJ A/W 2014 | Source: Nowfashion.com

Purcell’s initial designs hit the right note, so much so that they expanded his brief: “First of all, I think they were only really looking for a couple of graphics and, in the tradition of a label like that, they would to make a couple of t-shirts, do some patches perhaps and then quite a lot of product, stuff like backpacks. I was happy for that to happen, but knew I could really get my teeth into the motocross theme and thought if I gave them enough stuff then hopefully it could get used quite widely across the collection. I sent over as much as I possibly could, and they got more into it.”

Surprisingly for a label with so much at stake, the process was relatively relaxed. “They sent me over little flat drawings, loose little hand-sketches — a nice informal way to do it — and I just plonked the graphics in. They used some more or less as-was. It was a real thrill to be that involved in the design process. They really trusted me and it was unprecedented for me to do something like that for a big fashion label.”

Purcell recognised that Marc by Marc Jacobs, a label for which he’d previously had a lot of affection — “when their stuff was good, I bought their nick-nacks and keyrings because I loved the branding” — had fallen somewhat by the wayside and that Hillier and Bartley’s job was to re-energise the brand: “I was very aware that even though it wasn’t billed as a full relaunch, the fact that Katie and Luella [were] going to be in charge, made it a bit of a rebirth. I wanted to help that phenomenon. I felt that there was loads of affection for Marc by Marc Jacobs out there and if they could just reconnect, people would be really excited. That was on my mind when I was doing the graphics — to do stuff that would convey a real sense of confidence and fun.” (Purcell has just finished work with Hillier and Bartley on the brand’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection, but, of course, is tight-lipped about what to expect).

Along with MBMJ, Purcell currently has fingers in several fashion pies. He was design director of the much-lauded issue of Man About Town magazine starring a young Brooklyn Beckham in a subversive take on a school photo, wearing a Purcell-designed 'Quiche' badge. His own label Aries — a collection of playful, androgynous womenswear created in collaboration with his friend Sofia Prentara — is ticking over. And when we finished speaking, Purcell was off to play the role of fashion journalist and interview a designer from A Bathing Ape. But despite his current success, it's taken Purcell a long time to reach this level of traction and, aged 44, he feels like his career has "just started."

“I have always been a bit out of time. I studied at Saint Martins, but I am always slightly loath to give them credit because I got a third and I’d like to point that out! I started college in 1990 and as much as there was the sub-cultural stuff that I loved — underground things like skateboarding, straight-to-video movies and comics — I also loved the things that were happening in fashion at the time. Jean Baptiste Mondino’s photographs, Jean-Paul Goude’s ad campaigns that were on the TV and the mass-cultural corporate stuff was really exciting too — I didn’t see much difference,” said Purcell. “My conscience belonged more with the underground stuff, but aesthetically what you could do for corporations seemed amazing — reaching that broader audience and being pop culture.”

The development of Purcell’s signature graphic style was rooted in the tools available to him. “I loved computers when I did a foundation course prior to my degree. I’d sneak into the computer labs and draw with them. But when the first Mac computers arrived at Saint Martins, they were oversubscribed and it was easier to use felt tip pen and use the photocopier because no one was using it. And so perhaps perversely I went down that route. Letraset had started to get a bit cheaper too, so it was just a case of what tools I could get my hands on.”

But Purcell's preferred style was out of favour when he graduated. "People didn't want to know. Even i-D had gone to clean photography, which looked great, but it wasn't my thing, so I was out of time. It was cool that that was my journey; I just had to consolidate my style. I had to find avenues to connect to and be patient."

Out of work and on the dole, Purcell went back to Slam City Skates, a brand at the heart of the British skateboarding scene since 1986 and which he had worked for during high school. “I was paid for the first time with some stickers. I was spoilt because that was all I wanted to do from that point on, to be involved with something where I’m connected to the values of the movement I was making the visual for." And through sheer persistence (his frequent requests for graphic design work became an in-joke) Purcell eventually joined a project at Slam City that evolved into a new label called Silas, which went on to become big in Japan. “I graduated in 1993 and Silas started in 1998, so that was 5 years of just trundling along but trying to do things, being quite frustrated.”

Today, Purcell sees the return of streetwear, including logos and slogan-bearing t-shirts as, partly, a reaction to omnipresent irony of the time period stretching from the late-90s to 2010. "There was that whole Vice magazine culture of irony and of course irony is important, but when it became the abiding factor, especially in self expression, it was like a rudderless ship, people didn't know how to express themselves." In contrast, he regards band t-shirts and sub-cultural streetwear as affirmative: "A lot of what is exciting about the language of t-shirts and what you've got written on your leather jacket is that you're into it — and that's such a profound and liberating statement. If everything is about the ironic interplay of post-modernist references, then it becomes quite tired, quite quickly. I think the retreat from literal self-expression [signified] fear culturally — like a desire to not stand out or make a statement. I think the fact that it's come back is quite joyful."

And though Purcell’s own career path has been unpredictable, he is clear on his advice for young designers: “One thing I know is that you’ve got to find your own voice. If you’re going to have a sellable asset, it’s that. That should be at the forefront of your mind. Get in touch with what you want to say.”

Editor's Note: This article was revised on 12 June, 2014. An earlier version of this article misstated that Marc by Marc Jacobs had been rebranded MBMJ. It has not. Though the brand has undergone a reboot, its official name remains Marc by Marc Jacobs.

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