Conversation

Club Catharsis

London

5 January 2018

When the fashion designer Charles Jeffrey emerged from Central Saint Martins in 2015, he was credited with reviving a tradition of club culture within both London’s fashion scene and its nightlife. Evolving from the free expression evinced at his Loverboy club nights in Dalston’s Vogue Fabrics, Jeffrey’s designs and his collection presentations play as elated calls to arms. More than just commercial ventures, his shows and short films – replete with cacophonous energy and stark individuality – stand out as quasi-political acts: invitations to stay bravely joyful in the face of growing social adversity.

Jeffrey launched the Loverboy night in 2014 while still studying, partly in order to fund his MA in Fashion Design. A less mercenary interpretation of the venture, however, was that the night aimed
to provide a cathartic outlet and safe space for his contemporaries to celebrate the joys of dressing up. The party is now on hiatus, but went on to inspire Loverboy the brand, for which Jeffrey’s fellow partygoers remain a core field of primary research, as well as key collaborators in the media, events and wider ethos that has grown up around the brand.

The cultural and social significance of Loverboy is underpinned by the execution of Jeffrey’s work. The designer pairs his idiosyncratic DIY ethos with a growing interest in cut and quality. The garments blend bricolage and illustration; silhouettes sourced from historical costume, redeployed in contemporary garments; bold tartans and houndstooth suiting; T-shirts emblazoned with repurposed news headlines (“CHILDREN HIGH ON DRINK AND DRUGS”), as well as cut-up jumpers bonded with electrical tape and hand-painted trousers. The whole effect, from the garments upwards, is one of joie de vivre and speaks of an inclusivity towards outside influences and
new ideas.

It is an approach that the industry has quickly recognised. While still a student, Jeffrey worked as an intern at Dior, as well as winning Graduate of the Year and Young Designer of the Year at the Scottish Fashion Awards in 2015 and 2016 respectively. His brand is supported by Fashion East and has shown as a part of their Topman-backed Man initiative. For 2017/2018, Jeffrey has also received funding from the British Fashion Council’s Newgen scheme and has staged an exhibition with the NOW Gallery in Greenwich, London.

With community comes culture. Meeting in his studio, Jeffrey and I discussed working as part of a diverse team as well as exploring Loverboy’s multiple meanings as a brand, a moment, a movement, an invitation, and a term of endearment.


Susanna Cordner I thought we could begin by you telling me about where you’ve brought me.
Charles Jeffrey This is my first stand-alone studio. It’s in Somerset House and it’s part of a scheme called Somerset House Studios. They offer subsidised rent for spaces within this building and they’re trying to promote the idea of having these big, grandiose buildings as spaces for creatives. The idea is that by subsidising these studios, the whole of London can actually be concentrated in Grade 1 listed buildings. What we do here ranges from illustration, through to set design and fashion design. We do production and send the clothes out from here as well, so whenever that happens the studio is a bit of a mess – we chained the beast for today. But I think it’s important to have all the people who work with me in the same space together. Some of the most beautiful things we do here are the rehearsals for the shows. Recently, when preparing for the spring/summer 2018 show, we had all the dancers here in our rehearsal space being choreographed by Masumi [Saito] from the Theo Adams company. We had two rails of clothes, some of which were just bits of fabric we were using for making dancers’ costumes. I had two amazing interns at the time, who I briefed to make the dancers’ clothes using only three concepts – knotting, pleating and stapling. We wanted to react to the dancers, to see how they felt, and how they wanted their bodies to be covered. Over on the other side of the room you had [the set designer] Gary Card building all of his pieces for the show, with cardboard and paint going everywhere. There was such an amazing energy and it was all based on a little initial scribble that I’d done. I was in the middle just letting it all go on around me.

Susanna When people write about you, they often list the many strings you have to your bow as separate entities. But it seems that you’re looking for ways of stringing them all together.
Charles When I was doing my MA, it was really funny because I would come to tutorials with masses of stuff. I had a pile of illustrations, a pile of fabrics, and a book that I was really into. I’d made a zine, I’d made a toile, and sometimes I would get berated: “You’re doing everything but designing, you’re just kind of going through everything.” But I always thought it would
all come together in the end, and now I have the means of actually making the clothes. I’ve never
been good at pattern cutting. I had an understanding of fittings and details, but not the actual mathematics and putting in of volumes – the technical side of making clothes. I now have the most amazing pattern cutter called Naomi [Ingleby], who I know I’ll be working with forever. She’s knows how my brain works and is able to translate all of it. Having her on board has allowed me to actually do all of that stuff. It’s like having a Gulf Stream to put ideas through.

Susanna With fashion, people often only really think about the finished product, whereas you talk about collaboration and there being a natural creative network around what you do. Does that focus on the end result – to the detriment of talking about the network, the personalities, and the level of care and time that’s gone into a piece – frustrate you?
Charles I think people sometimes tarnish what we do with one brush, and see it as something that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of depth. But the time that’s taken for making all of these pieces is unbelievable. We have a factory; Naomi doing the construction; and we also have my friend Jack [Appleyard], who has a keen eye for putting things together. I myself spend a lot of time making sure the clothes have the right proportions, the right fit, the right fabric. Because of limited budgets, we work with fabrics we find in discount stores. So there are all these different nuances that happen during the process, and the performance of the show is curated too – there’s so much emotion that goes into being able to create that moment. I guess a lot of the time people are just seeing the product that’s been isolated by buyers in certain stores. When we did our first show, we had jumpers made with tape, which was our first time making that design as a series of production pieces. When we did them for the MA they were just there for that one moment to show the creative endeavour. But when it comes to actually showing that as a product, we needed to think about longevity and wearability. With those particular jumpers there was a level of care we put into the aesthetic of them and there was a degradation that was expected from that product. So we had to have a legal disclaimer saying that it was the intention of the artist that the jumper would degrade over time. I think people can look at that and think, “Oh, it’s just not made very well.”

Susanna I’m interested in how “Loverboy” gets used as a brand name, a club name, and as the name of your collective. I think you could almost call it a movement, and I definitely think that you could call it a cultural moment. Is that a deliberate method – are you hoping one day people will refer to your moment as Loverboy? Could it be something akin to punk?

Charles That would be a really beautiful thing to happen and if we were to have the longevity or echo of something like punk, I would be flattered beyond belief. But the terminology of “Loverboy” being used to describe a lot of things probably just comes from the evolution of language. It’s like how in texts, for instance, you’re always trying to shorten things, which in itself has a lot of power – especially when you’re talking to the press and describing yourself. I always like using the term “Loverboy” for people who are my mates. They’re loverboys. I love that and think it’s really fabulous. When I started doing a party it was an excuse for me to do work that wasn’t under the constraints of my MA and all the pressures of that. So when I had that opportunity, it was a chance to do loads of stuff I’d always wanted to: let’s do a little photoshoot, let’s make some bits of set, let’s put people in there. It was a really good way for me to cut loose and do something that felt normal and natural.

Susanna It started as more of an experiment rather than a platform?
Charles Totally. When I first moved to London there was an amazing night called Ponystep, where I loved seeing how people manifested themselves in the nightlife and how they DIY-ed their outfits – it was just an absolute ball. Then that night died down and the scene was a lot more about streetwear and people going to Effes and Alibi [bars in Dalston]. They were still having a really good time, but there wasn’t that element of dress-up. So when there was a chance to do a club night, I really wanted to go back to that original feeling of dressing up and being super creative. Originally, it was about finding a place for me and my UAL friends, but then suddenly there were all of these characters who I’d never seen before coming from the south London art school scene. They were fantastic creative voices and they all had the most amazing makeup and outfits – it was something I had never seen before. You had had a whole scene with Ponystep that was very slick, black, Gareth Pugh and PVC – which was a look in itself. But then I discovered this whole other look and I was like “Wow. There’s someone wearing historic costume with crazy makeup and devil horns.” It was fantastic and something that I wanted to show off. It was about creating a context that wasn’t constricted by having to be graded.

Susanna Your work is so site-specific: through the way you present your shows; because of its place in a social narrative; and through its association with this club scene you’ve been talking about. How does it feel if you see someone who has bought something off the hanger and it’s therefore taken slightly out of the context in which it was conceived?
Charles It’s really nice to see how people put things together, because when you take things out of context you see them in a flatter light perhaps. Putting on a bit of a retail head, it’s also interesting for the design process. Perhaps I can see that one person is wearing a jumper in a particular way, but their hands are not going all the way through the sleeves, so then let’s think about shortening that design. So there’s an element of analysis there. Through Instagram I also get to see people from all over the world wearing our clothes. We have a huge following in Korea and there’s a store in Japan called The Gent’s Shop that’s obsessed with Loverboy. They are just the most beautiful souls, these young Japanese punky boys, and because our brand has a lot of aesthetic elements that it shares with that scene, they’re obsessed with it. There’s also a woman from Korea who wears a lot of our stuff really chicly as well. There’s a noodle soup suit we’ve got, which is basically a grey houndstooth suit decorated with lots of different cords that you can knot however you like. She had tied it up in such a beautiful way; she wore it with a T-shirt and just carried herself with such grace. It’s really nice how that person can translate the things that we’ve put forward, especially when you go see how a woman wears our clothes. It’s a beautiful validation and a nice form of information for us to take on in our design perspective.

Susanna We’re talking about the idea of fashion as a cultural event: garments not just as products, but as an indicator of a scene or a life. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on fashion as escape.
Charles Whenever I used to dress up – even when just getting ready to go to St Martins – I would always try to portray some sort of a character when putting the clothes together. I think that element of dress carries through when you’re going to a club and meeting people who are so committed to putting forward a fantasy of themselves – along with all of the music, the people around you and the escapism. It transports you to this whole other level of fantasy and you can be whoever you want to be. In fact, all of the shows I was inspired by growing up, old [Vivienne] Westwood and Gareth Pugh shows, I saw for the very first time when in high school and they gave me heart palpitations. I was thinking, “Oh my god, this can be fashion?” Really, you don’t even view those shows as a catwalk – you’re just intoxicated. It’s like you’re reading a book and manifesting a scene from that in your own head. There’s an element of your own creativity that you give to it.

Susanna How did that play out in your own shows when you’re supported by Fashion East and NewGen?
Charles It’s a really good opportunity – you’re given a space to take over and an audience to look at your work. It’s an opportunity to be the best you can be. It’s not just about sending clothes up and down a runway – although there’s a poetry to that in itself – but also about bringing everything else in: let’s build a set, let’s have dancers that move to the themes of the show. People always want to come together to do something beautiful and to try to achieve a moment of creativity. I remember speaking to [the Blitz DJ] Princess Julia about how people are always happy to chip in with the club scene when they know it’s just for a joyous moment, and I think the same can be said about the shows that we do. Whenever I do a little callout on Instagram for people to come help, the people who come forward aren’t those you would expect. Our dancers, for instance, have always been a mixture of professionals and people who just want to be part of it. That energy
is key to the show, and it’s fine because it brings a texture to the dancing. Naivety and honesty are
so important to our work – it’s the idea of inclusivity.

Susanna I’ve noticed you only ever say “we” about your work. I think the first time you said “I” today was when you referred to your passion for Gareth Pugh and Vivienne Westwood. You talk as a collective.
Charles I kind of see myself as a catalyst. As the work and the brand develop there are elements we can be a little bit more in control of, but I do like to think of myself as open-minded and allowing people to work in their own way. I guess it’s a push and pull. There are some people who would never have the confidence to put themselves out there, but then you’re like, “Oh my god you’re so talented, you need the opportunity to do it.” So we give them that space through Loverboy.

Susanna Your work is always pinned to this particular scene that is associated with the DIY, much like the London clubs Taboo or Blitz were in the 1980s. The majority of the makers and personalities who were operating in Taboo or Blitz were making those pieces themselves, whereas with Loverboy, you translate the outfits into collections. There is a commercial drive. How do you reconcile those forces?
Charles We got to this stage where I had to design pieces that would be able to be produced, and which could lend themselves to going to Paris. We started with that DIY nature of making things, and slowly but surely injected wearable pieces that would work for sales. As I mentioned, I’m not the best at making and sewing, but the things that I do make manifest my own hand and my own tactility. Anything I make with my own hands ultimately has its own personality; anything that has my illustrations on it or any sort of artwork has that sort of DIY, homespun feel to it because no one else can do that. I guess you could see it as print design, as artworks inserted into the clothing. Even though it’s formed well and stitched in nicely, there’s still a concept that holds both of those worlds together.

Susanna The interesting thing with fashion being both creative and commercial is that it allows people to buy into particular moments and particular scenes as a consumer. The fashion show is the archetype of the way in which that world has been kept separate from most people – traditionally it’s been an exclusive space, although social media is changing that now. I think your practice is a democratic act within that, because I noticed that you released a short film just in advance of launching your last collection. Was that a deliberate move to give your public access to the collection before the exclusive scene got hold of it?
Charles For me it was more about a little tickle and getting people riled up. It lent itself to the sort of thing we did with the club night, which we always advertised beforehand with a series of posters. We would do loads of other bits of media that lent themselves to the buildup of the club night and getting people riled up about coming. That is always going to be part of the work we do. The collection trailer that we put on Dazed and the films we’ve published on Instagram Stories were done with my friend Karim [Boumjimar]. He was doing a makeup test and scribbling all over himself, so I suggested “Why don’t you just go outside and walk around Somerset House with your phone and start doing these weird films?” Ultimately, I see myself doing shows that loads of people could watch. I love the idea of Yohji Yamamoto and how he used to show his work to people in stadiums – although obviously I’m a long way off that level.

Susanna Your work, particularly the last collection, felt like a form of rebellion against a very dour mood at the moment and at a time when many clubs are closing. Is the club scene something you see as providing a safe space for self-expression, and something we need to deliberately preserve at this moment in time?
Charles Having a safe space and going somewhere where you can be someone else is so important. When you’re going through the trials and the tribulations of the week and seeing all the things you’re subjected to – like today we had the Donald Trump statement on Charlottesville – you do start to think about what’s going on with the world. Sometimes you sit down and think, “Christ, there are actually race wars going on at the moment.” So let’s create our own concepts and constructs we can believe in and escape into. Ultimately what people want to escape to is peace
and love, but they also want to react against what’s in front of them, which is anger and hate. They want to do something fantastical and fun and out there. Having spaces in which people can exist in that way is so cathartic. Our shows put forward something that ultimately a lot of people don’t put forward – which is to take the piss and have a bit of a laugh. We did some T-shirts that were based on silly newspaper article headlines that somebody had sent me a blog about when I was having a bit of a stressful day. I just thought, “Oh my god, let’s put them on T-shirts.” I think some people saw that as a disregard for the political climate we’re in, but ultimately it’s comic relief. If someone sees that as disregard, I think they need to look at it in a bigger sense. I’m not here to challenge you, I’m here to make you laugh and have a good time. There will be politics attached to my work going ahead and these things will eventually come through when it feels right. But at that moment I just wanted people to feel good.

Susanna I think one could view your work as a political act. Let’s acknowledge the difficulties we’re currently facing and embrace joy. Joy is defiance.

Charles Not to disregard the thought processes and the seriousness that people need to feel and act upon, but my work is more to do with giving people a bit of support. A slap on the bum. Ultimately you’re going to need a smile on your face to tackle these issues. We’re still alive, we’re still breathing air, there’s someone out there who loves you, and that’s what you need to remind yourself.

Susanna You get held up as emblematic of your time, a look to the future in fashion, and also someone who is preoccupied with historical references. How do you balance these different temporalities?
Charles I remember having conversations with a friend and we were talking about how it’s interesting to see time as vertical rather than horizontal – past, present and future can all exist in one spot right here. Certainly, I’m visually stimulated by garments from the past, how they’re curated, and how they sit on the body. People used to dress in such extravagant ways. Why don’t we dress like that anymore? There’s an element of practicality, but other styles can still be practical. I remember watching Vivienne Westwood’s Painted Ladies from 1996, where she spoke about how men in the past, even if they were of large stature, still had clothes cut to sit on their bodies and give them some grace, whereas now they look like barrels in suits. There are so many designers who cut clothes really beautifully, but when you see someone directly reference historical garments people often snub it as costume. Actually, there are many volumes and cuts you can apply to tailoring and fluting and dressing that are so modern, and which can sit nicely in the moment. There are obviously an awful lot of rules and regulations that come from these past garments. Men were meant to dress one way, and women were meant to dress another: dress showcased authority
or productivity or whatever. With all these political statements attached to dress you can look at them and create a story. As we go along I’m interested in taking a few historical elements, analysing the politics behind them, and seeing how they can then become part of the story we’re putting down. But you can also look at historical references in purely visual terms and see how they sit alongside something else taken from the present – and see humour in that juxtaposition.

Susanna How do you select the periods and fashion moments that you reference in your work? You’ve had your dandies, you’ve had Georgians, you’ve had Tudors – which got quite “strumpet”. What attracts you first: the social story and the cultural event they represent, or the volume and shapes and how they can be juxtaposed with contemporary silhouettes?
Charles I’m a magpie for those kinds of things. I’ll find something in a bookshop and want to move forward with that and react to it. At the moment I’ve bought a book on Irving Penn, so obviously that’s going to be a mode of thought for the next collection. When we were doing the spring/summer 2017 collection, I was very interested in Versailles and couture. It was this idea of elevating something from the club dancefloor – what does that word “elevation” mean? I was thinking of couture and grandeur and then I started watching things about Versailles and the Sun King and it came from there. It became a world I was interested in.

Susanna I’m interested in clothing as social signifier. Part of my role as a curator, however, is to remove things from their context, so they can be preserved and looked at in the future. There’s something jarring about taking something away from where it meant the most. What do you think your clothes will mean when they’re removed from this particular moment?
Charles I think they’ll definitely showcase elements of craft and care in terms of how they’re designed and put together. It’s interesting to think about how it would be if we took away Loverboy and it was just Charles Jeffrey – what would those clothes represent if it was just one single voice? You could almost see them as costume or as historic pieces themselves. I guess what they represent to people is a myriad of things – it’s almost like a sponge and gains from what others give to it. It really depends on who has worn the clothes and the bits and pieces that exist after they’ve been worn.

Susanna Would you most like to see your pieces in a design museum or a social history museum?
Charles I think it would be nice to be in a social history museum, because Loverboy has so much to say and has had so much to say so far. To encapsulate that, and for it to be “full stopped” in that context, would give it the due it’s supposed to have and that I think it deserves. As much as I would also like to see it in a design museum, I think it’s in social commentary that Loverboy has had a lot more to say so far.