why nasir mazhar stepped away from lfw and opened his own boutique
Fantastic Toiles in Forest Gate is a community and creativity-minded venture in reaction to the commercialisation of fashion and homogenisation of the high street.
Nasir Mazhar's Fantastic Toiles. Photography Roxy Lee.
Nasir Mazhar made his debut in i-D way back in 2008 -- his first ever media interview, in fact, and the origins of many subsequent interactions with i-D -- when he was initially establishing himself as a brilliant maker of experimental head-pieces and hats. Working collaboratively at the time with hardcore stylists such as Nicola Formichetti, Thom Murphy and Jane How, as well as designers like Gareth Pugh, it was clear the predominantly self-taught skills and unique vision of this talented north London lad were going to take him to the top.
Sure enough, within a few years Nasir’s creations had attracted famous fans such as Madonna, and he quickly became one of the most exciting designers showing seasonal collections on the official schedule at London Fashion Week. By this time, he had evolved his work from headwear to an eponymous line that offered full head-to-toe looks -- including undies and bags. Mazhar’s work represented and reimagined that special, sexy, stylish kind of youthful, multicultural energy that can typically be found at the capital’s most fruity club nights. The soundtrack was grime -- before it went mainstream. The looks oozed modern, in-your-face city life, though were often typecast as streetwear, a description which didn’t quite do justice to their sheer inventiveness.
As a young designer, when it’s all apparently going so well, you can choose to adhere to the fast-paced, product-hungry, spend-a-fortune-staging-a-runway-show, supply-stock-and-then-wait-six-months-to-get-paid-by-a-department-store method of doing fashion business, in the hope this will all pay off, eventually, even if the pressure is making you feel miserable. Or you can choose another option, which is less high profile and faux-glamorous but arguably more rewarding. Several years ago, Nasir chose the latter by decamping to a studio in east London’s Forest Gate, selling limited editions of his latest work there and online, direct to his devoted customers, and undertaking exciting collaborations to keep himself creatively stimulated. He was free once more!
Even more fun is still to come, though. He and a gaggle of like-minded designers and makers have now come together to fill Fantastic Toiles, the newly-named and amazingly interior-designed Forest Gate studio-turned-shop. Needless to say, Fantastic Toiles is a community-minded venture. Its spirit of camaraderie and commitment to originality not only reacts against the capital’s increasingly bland high street stores and rampant gentrification, but evokes a long-gone era, in which young London designers and creatives from the 1970s to the late-90s, could easily stock and flog their wares in delightfully-chaotic, experimental, cheap-to-rent fashion outlets. If all goes to plan, Fantastic Toiles will join legendary spots like Kensington Market, Hyper Hyper, The House of Beauty and Culture, Sign of the Times and The Pineal Eye as go-to London spots for outlandish, one-of-a-kind fashion.
What was the main reason you stepped away from showing your collections at London Fashion Week?
There were so many reasons, but the main one was I felt like my work was turning more and more commercial and soulless, just to try and meet buyers’ demands of lower price points and commerciality. Once I realised that, I had to stop. Now, without a doubt, the best thing is that I don’t have to answer to anybody. I do what I want, when I want, however I want. That is priceless.
So, how did the concept for Fantastic Toiles first come about? And what’s the story behind that name?
Fantastic Toiles originally started as Nasir Mazhar’s Fantastic Toiles. We have always toiled in the studio, so we have always had tons of toiles laying around, often made in any old fabric that suited the weight and feel of the final garment. But because we always used whatever we had around the studio, we ended up with these random one-off pieces that were often much more interesting than the final product. I used to keep the best... and then I started thinking, ‘Why can’t we sell these?’ Otherwise it’s such a waste of decent garments and they are each 100% unique. The name Fantastic Toiles just came one day. The words fantastic or fantasy or fantastical is what I’m all about. That magical, fantasy world that I want to live in.
Who did you talk to about the concept for the new shop and what kind of advice or input did they offer?
When I started thinking about turning Fantastic Toiles into a shop I spoke to all of my friends. I’d been talking about doing a shop for ages and talking about how all us independent designers can support each other but, you know, these conversations are always flying around. When that thought started getting stronger and taking over my mind, I started speaking with Louise Gray and Max Allen, because they are both designers I really respect and love and I know they have independent minds.
Can you talk us through the look, feel and soundtrack of the shop?
I'm working on the interior with the really amazing David Curtis Ring [the London-based set designer, art director and artist who often collaborates with the designer Craig Green]. After I'd shown him some of my references, we came up with "Sleazy cyber opera house". We’re designing and building it together. I wanted the shop to feel like a theatre’s dressing-up wardrobe, filled with gorgeous costumes, wings, wigs, masks, stuff everywhere. The shop should make you think about dressing-up, theatre, craft, film, clubbing, DIY culture, recycling. Working on the sound for the shop is clubcouture [aka audio experimentalist Thomas Curtly]. Curtly’s a wild one. He makes these intense mixes -- it’s like going on holiday through music. I wanted the sound to be a mixture of clips from films, classic lines, comedy clips, laughter, soundtracks mixed with everything and anything.
Right from the early days of your career you have worked collaboratively with other creative talents. Is that spirit of collaboration crucial to Fantastic Toiles?
100%. I’m all for exploring ideas creatively but only with people I love and respect.
Are you producing specific new work of your own for the new shop?
I haven’t had much time to work on many new pieces because I’ve been making costumes for Ballet Lorent [the major contemporary dance theatre company in Newcastle] and hats for an production that Louise Gray is working on with the English National Opera. So, along with organising the shop and building it, there hasn’t been much time. But obviously we’ve got some new goodies from other designers!
Although Fantastic Toiles will promote and sell the work of a really rich mix of designers and makers, is there something which in your opinion they all have in common?
They all just do what they want. They’re all leaders, free and progressive thinkers and independent artists, who just give it to you raw. They are what makes London the best city in the world, for me. There’s a lot of love and support there.
Nowadays, what can a smaller, independent shop offer to people that a larger and more mainstream store cannot?
Better priced clothing for sure and also a much wider mix of styles. So often boutiques nowadays just feel like you’re on the high street. They feel so corporate and cold, like industry fashion, we offer almost exclusively one-off designs.
Finally, what’s the best clothes shop you have ever been to?
I came across The Pineal Eye [the avant-garde, Soho-based, multi-label boutique that ran from 1997 to 2007] years ago when I knew nearly nothing about fashion. It was almost too scary to go in there, but I just had to. To be honest, I never really knew what I was looking at there! It was like a museum. Really fascinating when you’re just beginning your journey into the world of fashion and arts. And Dog in Tokyo is mental. Every piece in there is one-off madness. I was like, ‘Who the fuck makes this stuff?!’
Fantastic Toiles: Railway Arch 434, Avenue Road, Forest Gate, London, E7.
Photography Roxy Lee