Something Funny Happened to Me on the Way to Utopia.
A certain set of stylistic trends have been in a tangle. One feels compelled to find substantial identifiable links between them. I attempted to find one myself connecting Otaku with Steampunk but there’s something about looking for links that seems naive. I am starting to realize that the best way to convert the tangle into a synthesis at least in my own mind is partly by treating the matter of explicit connections as a sort of Buddhist Koan. The question is the answer. Or at least the tangle is starting to seem more like a mandala as long as I clear my mind of rational connections. I realized this (or the real possibilities of this new Style Koan began to reveal itself to me) while under the wing of Simon “Barnzley” Armitage in his neighborhood in East London. But before we get to that, let’s inventory the various throbs of a gestalt.
1. We’ve been fortunate enough to have acquired some fantastic pieces from the past century as we’ve built the Denham Garment Library.
2. We’ve been inspired by the focus on quality manifested by labels unabashedly copying heritage designs like Nigel Cabourn, RRL, Hellers Cafe, Stevenson Overall Co., Sugar Cane, Buzz Rickson’s, Real McCoy, Corona, Post O’Alls, Atelier la Durance, etc.
3. We’ve been inspired by at least the intentions of designers willing to add their own twist to this common basis like Kapital, Engineered Garments, Rogan, Mr. Freedom and General Research
1. We’ve had plenty of time to internalize the textural potential of rich traditional fabrications especially experienced in combination as from the likes of Paul Harnden, Form d’Expression, Casey Vidalenc, Dries van Noten, Vivienne Westwood and many others.
Again on the Archive
The folks I work with and I have our regular say about the importance of developing a archive. I worked with a woodcarver once. He had the most astounding array of chisels and often pontifiated on how profound an effect his unique assortment of tools had on the character of his work and on his personal reputation as an artist and craftsman. His own work was modern but his reverence for both the quality and the history of his chisels connected his day-to-day pursuit of contemporary expression to the pursuits of those who went before -some of whom had worked with the self-same tools he now used. Maybe the shape of a chisel also taught the shape of the cut it could make. -Just by examining it, understanding its potential and working with it in trail and error. We’re all consumed by our garment archives for similar reasons; Connecting our current work with the tradition its part of and teaching us the potential of each detail hidden in each piece we explore. The distinct make-up of our archives can predetermine the unique look and feel of our work like the hard won chisel sets would for an expert woodcarver. And it’s not necessarily about dogmatic purism sticking only to certain eras and certain countries-of-origin. In fact, that can operate more like something covetous than something creative. It’s about each of our idiosyncratic mixes that allow for the unique wiring together of our particular originality.
But I’ve ranted about all this already. -Shoulder to shoulder with the team at DENHAM as we continue to build our Denham Garment Library. And in other contexts like the recently launched View Network. It is also a belief we share with Barnzley and Joseph Corre whose unique garment archive occupies the basement of their A Child of the Jago shop.
Sichi who does graphics and art-direction for A Child of the Jago was kind enough to invite a couple of us to his art opening in Brick Lane. He had titled the exhibition Hello Utopia. I flew over to join him and the Jago crew. Sichi’s event was excellent. His illustrative handiwork informs the Daily Terror publications done by A.C.O.T.J.. When I describe it as a blend of satyrical british political cartoons from the Punch era, urgent jutting jetting spitting ink work by Ralph Steadman and a bit of nervous anti-heroism ala Egon Schiele I’m hopefully not diminishing it by reference.
Prior to the show the day had already proved to be a revelation.
Cross Pollination, Conceptual Fermentation and Tangible New Energy
I met Barnzley and his crew in a converted tube-car sitting on the roof of the building that houses The Child of the Jago store. How this train got to the roof I can’t say but it would’ve needed to be a very big speed bump to launch it that high from the ground. The train doesn’t hum on its tracks anymore, but it was humming with activity. Japanese fashion graduates recruited for their tailoring acumen working with Sichi and Barnzley on styles for their upcoming bid during London Fashion Week. After delivering his pair of honorary and long overdue Guildsman’s Tailor Shears he took me in tow and packed in the following events prior to Sichi’s opening:
1. Spitalfields Market
It was Thursday which is the designated antiques day at Spitalfields but it was late so we needed to make a b-line over the stand Barnzley considers the best of the lot. Run by Richard Dandler and his son Cosmo let’s call it “Dandler and Son” for want of official branding. Both Richard and Cosmo manifest superlative vintage workwear style with a wide stripe of both dandyism and boro raggedness. Think Peter O’Toole meets Peter Beard. Hanging out a bit with them I realized that this thing I sometimes talk about, a possible “Rural Tailor” aesthetic, is a living-breathing reality and it’s much cooler than I’d been picturing up to now. Mostly because it’s real and ambles along without copywriting or art-direction. When I asked Richard if he’s been feeling a gestalt in his own cash-register he said he had, but he also said people still don’t understand that; “you gotta pay extra for darning….”. Fantastic.
Richard’s focus is vintage workwear and tailored military from the European continent. After spending time with dealers in Tokyo, Paris, New York, Berlin and Hong Kong it was exciting to see a thoughtful departure from the US military and workwear obsession. No discounting those areas, on the contrary they’re also an inspiration, but that ground is more than well covered.
2. Cresent Trading London Ltd.
Next stop it was to harass Philip Pittack at his Crescent Trading space. Specializing in end-runs of British made menswear fabrics leftover from the ongoing tailoring trade on today’s Savile Row. The harassment came in the form of my intentionally mispronouncing the word “Guanaco”. I kept saying “Geurnica” and insisting that there was no such thing as Guernica wool. Under the pressure of my obvious ignorance Philip sputtered and grabbed a ladder and climbed up his stockpile to pull down a bolt of Guanaco. 800.00 sterling a yard. “Makes cashmere feel like shit…” he confided. Again. Fantastic.
At this point I should mention that Joe Corre and Barnzley sell some of Dandler & Sons vintage in the basement of their shop, and they use ultra-rare New Old Stock from Crescent to produce their own collection.
3. The Golden Horn Cigarette Company
After expressing an interest getting the lowdown on the new Duffer store, Barnzley jumped on the phone, called Eddie Pendergast and organized a preview since the store wasn’t to open until the following day. When we arrived Mr. Pendergrast was saying goodbye to Barry K Sharpe of Sharpeye fame. I knew both their reputations but hadn’t met the before so I was a little star-struck. Apparently Pendergast uncovered the original storefront signage reading “The Golden Horn Cigarette Company” while renovating the space’s facade and decided to it intact despite his new concept being called; “Present”.
4. Pied-a-Terre d’Maharishi
Finally to Sichi’s opening. As if this half-day submersed in the emerging new London menswear scene couldn’t any more get symbolic, on the way to Brick Lane Barnzley insisted I cancel my hotel reservations to crash at his place. Barnz currently resides at the apartment that had been outfitted by Hardy Blechman as part pied-a-terre part hospitality suite for friends of Maharishi, or at least that’s how I understand it.
Sichi’s Hello Utopia show was the anchoring event holding me in place as the waves of East London’s menswear movement rolled up against me and it performed that roll admirably. The sinuous style, ernest attitude and overall sense of Bon Ami proved just the ticket, epitomized by Sichi’s work itself of course.
My respect for Barnzley and Corre’s work should be evident from the small assistance I’ve tried to provide them in their current endeavor. I have been an unabashed fan of Maharishi, Sharpeye and Duffer and my tastes are such that I’d been waiting to meet Richard, Cosmo and Philip without realizing they existed. Witenessing them in their element and seeing the particular passion and specific finesse manifested by Barnzley, Joe and their team of consiprators at A Child of the Jago actually tangibly increased my heart-rate. A renaissance mixing streetwear, sartorial flair, utility vintage and tough contemporary practicality can certainly be felt as you stumble about those East London streets. These are are topics on which I’ve recently postured and prattled but the thin substance of my affectations were clarified by the degree to which I was genuinely surprised to see these things in their dynamic physical form. With or without my attention, it turns out it’s all very real.
While still on the high of that very brief dip into Barnzley’s pool I happened upon a reference to something called Newgate Fiction. Newgate is an infamous London prison. An all but forgotten component of the literary apparatus helping to indoctrinate the moral hegemony of the Victorian Age, a sort of almanac called the Newgate Calendar was published and was the second most popular book (after the bible) to be found in the average household of the time. The Newgate Calendar chronicled the lives and inevitable punishments and sufferings of Newgate Prison’s most notorious inmates. This rogues gallery provided writers of the time with a cast of colorful characters in their own works. Some which were presented as full biographical treatments of particular criminals, and some which were adaptations. Dickens’ character Fagin from Oliver Twist based on a famous fencer of stolen property, Ikey Solomon, being an example. But the list may as well include Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd.
Anyway, these characters had no shortage of dangerous street edge and the charisma at the heart of their popularity certainly had more to do with their individual style than any desire for the public to sign-up for the moral I-told-you-so of the period’s class system. Their stories may have been published as cautionary tales in an attempt to create broad piety, but I’m guessing that intention was subverted by the irresistible appeal of their punk personalities and the extravagance of their sartorial idiosyncrasy.
East London obviously still throbs with this history so maybe it’s always been more Newgate Fact than Newgate Fiction after all.