step into the surreal seaside world of rottingdean bazaar
James Theseus Buck and Luke Brooks’ label may be shaking up the London fashion scene, but they don’t work in the capital. i-D visited their studio in the seaside town they call home.
"The willy at the end was a test for my MA collection. It has a daffodil cast into it," James Theseus Buck grins. He's describing one of the many intriguing and delightfully perverse craft objects that decorate the small studio-living-room of the flat he shares with Luke Brooks on the seafront in Rottingdean. Ten minutes from Brighton city centre on the bus, the little coastal suburb is the unlikely home of one of the most exciting new names on the London Fashion Week schedule, the couple's colloquially titled project Rottingdean Bazaar.
James and Luke exploded onto the scene last June, when their debut in Lulu Kennedy's Fashion East group show won that season's Instagram post straw poll among editors. Badge Taste - their series encasing ketchup sachets, fag ends, dead insects and words spelled out in pubic hair inside proudly shiny badges - epitomises the duo's surreal humour, and the accompanying set of white T-shirts, sweatshirts and dresses with sports socks, limp beige tights, dried flowers or balloons heat-pressed onto them announced their wider aesthetic intentions.
The designers both studied at Central Saint Martins for their BA and then MA degrees, under the legendary, late course director Louise Wilson, and both were selected for the career-launching final show. Luke was awarded the L'Oreal Prize for his collection of multicolour paint encrusted T-shirt dresses, and knotted, woven and crocheted garments, and James caught the eye of Kanye West with his raw-edged tailoring, pressed-flower details and innovative rubber casting ('daffodildo' included). He spent four months working on textiles at Yeezy in LA before deciding it wasn't for him. Kanye diligently turned up to the studio every day, he notes.
Two years apart at college, James and Luke knew of each other through mutual friends, but it wasn't until they both answered a call from the artist Julie Verhoeven that they got together. Julie wanted men with hairy backs for a video work about the book The Joy of Sex, "And we both fit the bill!" James laughs. They went for a drink afterwards and immediately came up with the Badge Taste concept.
Their second Fashion East presentation, this January, included racks of individually packaged care labels printed with absurdist instructions, like 'Fill in the stripes of a Breton top with a permanent marker', and rings made from Roman coins mounted in imitation Blu-Tack, alongside the clothes - ludicrously long socks felted onto wool blankets, tights twisted into words on jumpers, and genuinely ancient textile fragments heat-sealed onto T-shirts. The object elements led to inevitable questions about whether their work is an art project, but the designers are clear that it's the fashion game they're in. "It's very much about making something that can be bought and worn," James says. "That's why the garments are washable, and the price is affordable" (the badges retail for £30, T-shirts for around £200).
Lots of things on the high street aren't real, they're simulations dictated by high fashion; it's like a parody. But it doesn't have to be that way. Inexpensive things can be real.
When we meet, the designers have just finished packing an order for Henrik Vibskov stores, and their garments are on sale in a Fashion East pop-up at Selfridges. "I love the idea of our things being in somewhere like Selfridges," James beams. "And that Henrik Vibskov bought the pube Che Guevara…" - a T-shirt with the Cuban revolutionary's face recreated from pube clippings - "...that it's in a shop somewhere is really enjoyable". "It's much better in a posh shop than an art gallery," Luke agrees.
And why try to break into art, when there's plenty to do in fashion? "I feel like there's so much room for improvement," Luke says. "Especially at the high street end of things. Inexpensive things could be way more unique." So if a high street store offered them a collaboration… "I would want to do that!" Luke jumps in excitedly. "Lots of things on the high street are not real things, they're simulations dictated by high fashion; it's like a parody," James agrees. "But it doesn't have to be that way," says Luke, "Inexpensive things can be real."
For now, they're trying to find a better way to do designer fashion. Like friend and fellow designer Matty Bovan, who lives and works at his parents' house in York, James and Luke opted out of London. It's not a rejection of the capital per se, they love London, but it is a reaction against certain models of rapid and debt-laden growth for emerging talents promoted there. "We're trying to learn from what we've seen happen to other designers," Luke says, explaining the well-intentioned but often unsustainable pressure to finance expensive studios, and hire interns and eventually staff, on top of crazy London rents.
Originally from Hertfordshire and Brighton respectively, Luke and James prefer living in suburbia. "London has that thing of like wishing and dreaming, thinking, 'Something's going to happen to me if I'm in the right place at the right time'," Luke says. "For me, it's better to be somewhere like where I came from, and actually do work, not just hope that something lucky is going to happen." They find it easier to concentrate in Rottingdean; they enjoy midday strolls along the beach, and the walk over the hill to see Julie, a local dressmaker who does their sewing. "We hardly ever go to Brighton," Luke says, "Only to get balloons".
James and Luke say they don't really have 'goals' for Rottingdean Bazaar, in terms of growth. Keeping the project manageable - without the help of interns - has allowed them to be open to wider opportunities in the industry, like making the shredded flag masks for Christopher Shannon's autumn/winter 17 show, and shooting editorial for magazines (they recently provided creative direction for a Man About Town shoot with David Hoyle, posing him alongside kids from a local afterschool art club in Rottingdean).
Opening a physical shop is one dream they are determined to realise, inspired in part by James's grandmother, whose shop selling "knick knacks" on Rottingdean high street was the unwitting inspiration for the 'local shop for local people' in the TV series The League of Gentlemen. They would also embrace the challenge of translating the Rottingdean Bazaar aesthetic to the catwalk, but they are happy to continue doing everything themselves. "We have an amazing time coming up with, and making the stuff," James says, "That's the best part, and we're doing it already". Sitting down to a homemade apple and walnut salad in front of their studio window's uninterrupted view of the beach, it's difficult to think what more you could want.
Text Charlotte Gush
Photography Tim Walker
Make-up Lucy Bridge at Streeters using using Chanel Les Indispensables de L'Été and Chanel Blue Serum.
Luke and James wear rollnecks models' own.
Masks Rottingdean Bazaar.