In a world that wants to stick everything in a box, fashion has become a theatre of good guys and bad guys, who can't easily escape their ascribed characters once they've been defined. As rumour has it, Karl Lagerfeld is snappy but nice, Jean Paul Gaultier is mad but fun, and Meadham Kirchhoff are difficult and mean. "I think people find it difficult, a) if you have an opinion; and b) if you care about what you do. This apparently makes you a dreadful, hideous person," explains Edward Meadham. "Maybe our contemporaries are happy to say yes to everything, but personally I find it much easier when people are direct. People think we're difficult all the time, people think we're terrifying all the time, but I don't think we are. If I really know I hate somebody I won't let them close enough to terrify them." Paradoxically, it's this kind of soundbite that has contributed to the British/French designer duo's formidable reputation.
Edward Meadham and Benjamin Kirchhoff are the genius madmen, whose fantastical universe of equal parts glee and gloom has created a reputedly impenetrable bubble around them. As London fashion myth foretells, they spend their lives isolated in their Haggerston studio, all angsty with only one another to keep them company, like some pair of Vincent Prices in that scientist's lab on the hill in Edward Scissorhands. As a public image it hasn't been entirely detrimental to their careers. After all, it's fascinating that clothes as rich and magical as theirs could spring from the minds of such apparently troubled people. But while Edward Meadham and Benjamin Kirchhoff are hardly a parade of family friendly sing-along fun, they are neither difficult nor mean. Ed wears pointy ghillies and loves to bake, and today he's gushing about the sparkly Christmas decorations being erected in the studio. Ben, in his signature sailor's beanie, is presenting a measuring cloth with which his mum used to chart his height growing up, and which he just rediscovered. Everyone in the studio is terribly polite and lovely in a way that doesn't exactly suggest daily terror at the hands of the designers in charge.
We've had emails from editors literally seconds before the show starts saying, 'I'm not sat in the front row. Obviously I don't mind because I'm not that way, but my job...' So we have to go out just before the fucking show starts to move them to the seat in front of themselves. God, get a grip. We've got other things to do! Edward Meadham
"I think you have a culture of designers at the moment that is about pleasing the journalists and the buyers and saying yes to everything. Saying yes to turning their entire collection into something else to fit the aesthetic of a particular store," Ben argues. "And fly to that store so they're physically present there," Ed weighs in. "I'm not gonna do it. I feel like it's my job to design clothes and that's what I'll do." Since he and Ben started their first label after graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2002, and particularly over the past three years, he's been doing that job with flying colours, channelling his tangled, often depressed emotions into ceremonious shows of breathtaking, intricate garments of the demi-couture variety. For a label that hasn't even made it to its teens yet, Meadham Kirchhoff's universe is remarkably defined, even if their aesthetic is ever-evolving. The womenswear, which Ed designs, lies somewhere between an Elizabethan-era kinderwhore and a goth in a girlie show, while Ben's menswear, which has sadly been on hiatus following the spring/summer 14 collection, morphs the surreal with a sick and murky take on old-world elegance.
Above all it's Meadham Kirchhoff's compelling sense of creative identity, which has earned them accolades and opportunities normally associated with much older brands. In late 2013 they launched their second collection for Topshop, which became the fastest-selling collaboration in the history of the highstreet giant, and just weeks later they presented a one-off retrospective show at the V&A. "I think it was very lovely to show it to an audience, who are not the normally invited fashion show audience. It was really the public," Ed says. Second only to the mythology surrounding Ben and Ed themselves is that of their die-hard fan base of teen girls, who'll write Ed excruciatingly personal letters and chronicle their love for Meadham Kirchhoff on various internet outlets. (They recently had to ask a particularly keen fan to add the word 'unofficial' to her somewhat overzealous Meadham Kirchhoff Twitter account.) While they're the first people to question the true extent of "this massive army of fans", it's perhaps this idea that has bred the designers' fervent inclusiveness and anti-elitism when it comes to their audience.
They're as happy, Ben says, to read a show review by a teen blogger as they are to read the thoughts of an established fashion critic. "It's important because that 15-year-old will have a natural impact on other 15-year-olds." At a fashion week hardly known for its production grandeur, Ben and Ed's London shows are splendid pieces of theatre with old-school runway sets, movie soundtracks and an audience worthy of a rock concert, not least for the presence of said Meadham Kirchhoff- clad fan base. "I think shows are still important. The audience that comes to it is still important in the way that it was, but I just think now it's broadened. Fashion is one of the aspects of culture, and if culture reaches more people that can only be a good thing," Ed says, noting how it's the hierarchy and self-importance of show-goers that pisses them off. "Ben has had emails from people literally seconds before the show starts saying, 'I'm not sat in the front row and obviously I don't mind because I'm not that way, but my job...' And Ben has had to go out just before the fucking show just to move her to the seat in front of herself. God, get a grip. We've got other things to do."
Ed and Ben are as self-critical when it comes to their shows as they are about their collections, and while last season they could barely talk about autumn/winter 13 out of sheer hatred (the collection received unanimously praising reviews), it seems spring/summer 14 was a mending experience. "Well, I think it helped that I was a bit less depressed for a minute," Ed pauses. "Literally a minute," he laughs. Born out of a visit to the V&A's David Bowie exhibition, the collection drew on the contrasting aesthetics between the artist's Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke personas - orange wigs in tow - remixed regally with gilded Elizabethan opulence, which also saw the introduction of masses of black-work embroidery to the world of Meadham Kirchhoff. (This of course only being one of the world's most difficult crafts to master.) It's this kind of superior abundance, which has given their work the label of 'un-commercial'. "I don't believe that's true. Everybody's got it into their heads that what we do is un-commercial, yet we have just done a Topshop collaboration that sold out within the morning," Ed says.
If spring/summer 14 seemed like one of the most harmonious Meadham Kirchhoff shows to date, it wasn't all because of Ed's good spirits. With its anti-minimalist disposition in the garments themselves and the anti- nature surroundings of the desolate, ash-covered garden set, it unified two of the duo's, in this day and age, most controversial values. "Trash seems to have completely overtaken fashion and subculture and youth culture. It's nice and fun and all that, but I think it was important for us to remove ourselves from it. It's not to stop being too engaged with them, but just about presenting something that's different and something that felt closer to that moment in time," Ben says. As for the anti-nature element, it's a far more divisive story. "I hate nature at the best of times, and I especially hate it throughout the summer. I like artifice. I like cultivation. Nature is natural," Ed says, a slight hiss in his voice. "If the world ends tomorrow, I couldn't be more delighted, and people thinking that they can save the world is an aspect of the human being's self-obsession." If it's not what you expected from a man who's meant to love My Little Pony, Mary Berry, girly birthday parties and all that glitters, it's because the brilliance of Meadham Kirchhoff lies in their divergence.
If the obscurity, pessimism and decadence weren't enough of a contrast, you'll also find in their convoluted minds a devotion to traditional and perhaps slightly twee British institutions such as Fortnum & Mason and Penhaligon's, with whom the duo has a longstanding collaboration. In March, the perfumery is launching Meadham Kirchhoff's first fragrance called Tra La La, because it's "flippant" and avoids the cliche? of traditional perfume names. It smells like "the richest, most ostentatious person in the world," Ed explains. "I wanted it to smell like red velvet and for me it does," he continues, listing Schiaparelli's Shocking and Penhaligon's pervasive evergreen Hammam Bouquet as points of reference. "What you see here is a year's worth of Ed's perfumes," Ben smirks and points at a large tray of some thirty empty flacons on a studio cutting table. "I don't think anything should be used in moderate ways," Ed quips. "Princess Julia [i-D's Culture Correspondent] has always talked about Trojan [the late artist] being a perfume terrorist, and that's really how I've always felt about myself. The most impressive people I've ever met, I smelled them before I saw them."
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Paul Wetherell
Styling Julia Sarr-Jamois
Hair Chi Wong at Julian Watson Agency
Make-up Lauren Parsons at Premier Hair & Make-up using Chanel Le Lift and Summer 2014
Nail technician Michelle Humphrey at LMC Worldwide using Maybelline New York
Casting Melissa Thompson
Photography assistance Simon Bremner, Jack Snell
Digital technician James Naylor at RAW Capture
Styling assistance Raf Jaworski
Hair assistance Alexander Soltermann, Sophie Harris
Make-up assistance Cory Deking, Gillian Campbell
Nail assistance Coral Mitchell
Production Lucie Newbegin, Lydia Garde at M.A.P. Post production Tablet Retouch
Models Daisy Davidson, Rachel Fleminger Hudson
Special thanks to Pro Lighting London and MK2 Studio