max allen is inspired by camp italian posters and vacations
The London designer tells i-D about making prints of JLo’s face, his love of Coke, and why it sucks that the fashion industry is still weighted in favor of the wealthy.
Max Allen’s work is a divine, vaguely hysterical mash-up of vacation souvenirs and references to pop culture at its most camp. It’s hyper colorful and fun, a revolt against fashion’s incredible self-seriousness. A conversation with Max encompasses both Liza Minelli and how fashion culture is becoming increasingly flat, because you have to be rich to work in an industry which expects people to work for free. He pays everyone he works with, with money he’s earned himself, in keeping with his principles. Max has outfitted London nighttime icons such as Princess Julia and Larry B, but says “I guess I do need a few anonymous rich clients every now and again so maybe I can afford a real holiday.” Don’t we all.
The inspiration behind Max’s collection, which is “A camp, fun, pop culture mix of fashion textiles and a bit of costume” came to him last summer. “I sat in my studio, doing a bunch of historical fashion research,[experiencing] my weird feelings of not being able to afford a 'grown up' vacation, and hanging around at these free raves on Hackney Marshes with creative kids who I'm too old to hang around with now!”
When asked what he wants to see more of, he says “More camp! More sex! More slouchy white suede pixie boots!” Sounds fabulous. Here are more of Max's bon mots.
Hi Max! Tell us about the slogan on your clothes, “Max Allen, Le Cognescenti/You'll get what you’re given?” I can imagine what you're saying, but what are you REALLY saying?
Hello! So, The word cognoscenti appears in the Liza Minelli song “Ring Them Bells” on Liza with a Z, which I regularly listen to in my studio. People often refer to me and my work as being “those who know, know” in an “underground” way, which is super flattering, but also can be limiting. It suits the narrative for creative London a little too well to have quasi-underground artists like myself to keep London’s ‘edgy’ appearance, while most of the industry seems to be happy sliding into homogenized mediocrity.
I don’t really think I’m underground, I just think I’m more conscious of what work I do or who I work for. I guess I’m more boutique! So I wanted to play with that. I prefixed it with some kind of made up French and Italian to play with this wonky continental glamour. It’s me subverting that underground punk image bestowed upon me into a bourgeois sounding shop you might find in Capri! “Max Allen pour le Cognoscenti!”
It would be a dream to turn my studio in a Haringey into a little walk-in studio boutique for the Cognoscenti, imagine House of Elliot but with a clientele of all my favorite hedonists, freaks, and stylish weirdos.
The “You’ll get what you’re given’ is what I want to exclaim, in exasperation, to stylists or clients with no budget and lots of direction! It’s referring to that fact that my work is 100 percent “me.” I work honestly and authentically, my product at the moment is limited by my means and situation, but you always get my full aesthetic. I’ve had stylists come to me with £20 wanting specific tailored trousers before, thinking that I’ll remake something super expensive for cheap, that ain’t going to happen! There’s a reason clothes cost money. But, if you come with a respectful budget that you can afford and understanding and interest in my process we can make something fabulous… you’ll get what you’re given!
Can you tell us about some of the characters you've created - the JLo bodice, the Italian flag leather jacket. What inspires these creations? Who is SHE?
When I was a kid, my mum took me on holiday to Italy, all over the motorway I saw these camp posters with a woman’s face on. At that time I think I’d just found out who Warhol was and was mega into pop art, I kept taking photos of the posters with a disposable camera. Anyhow, a couple of years ago on the internet this woman’s face from the poster popped up, and I asked my friend Nicola Mascia who it was. He told me she was Moira Orfei, the queen of the Italian circus. Every Italian knows her face from these posters, and I love getting attention from Italians.
Also once in Marrakesh I saw a stall that had used some giant image of JLo’s face from an advert to make their awning. They hadn’t chosen JLo specifically, it was just coincidental that a huge poster of her face was available to make a shade from the sun. I guess that image stuck with me, a crop of JLo’s beauty used for practicality. I like the idea that a corset, which is a functional, but sexy undergarment, could be made sexier by sticking JLo’s face there.
I think I’ve always been into what images people choose to wear, whether it’s political slogans, band names, or whatever, I’m interested in what you think the garment says about you versus what it really reads as to other people. I guess with my work at the moment, images of Moira Orfei, JLo, Rita Hayworth, Judith Chalmers, and Shirley Valentine just says I’m a camp old queen who loves the romantic idea of what a holiday means! There’s also a lilac spray painted print of Che Guevara hidden away somewhere.
Why the Coke logo as your name?
I guess it could be some reference to Pop Art or a comment on capitalism. I’ve used it for ages, I think really just used to drink A LOT of Coke.
So many people play with that Coke font, I’m not doing anything new. I just like that it’s clear, simple, and slightly humorous. Almost everyone in the whole world can recognize the Coke logo, and as bad as it is, it’s a pretty much universal treat. I guess to me it’s a little luxury that’s affordable to most of the population.
Who do you design for? Who would you like to be wearing your clothes?
This work is totally designed for myself. I wanted to make some work for myself to wear, that makes me happy and that might inspire people to come order similar things. Everything is one-off so I really design specifically for each client. I don’t have heaps of time and money so it’s important that any thing I made with my time I can wear, it’s my joy.
I’ve never been interested in an anonymous rich person wearing my work down Kensington Road or up the Rue Saint-German… but putting Larry B in a massive dress I’ve made out of a couple of bike tires and 20 meters of polythene taffeta on windy day in lower Clapton is a fucking joy, or seeing Kevin Le Grand screaming profanities down the Kingsland in an ‘ACAB’ gown I made her is such a buzz. I guess I do need a few anonymous rich clients every now and again so maybe I can afford a real holiday.
What was the inspiration for the collection? It's like a very baroque souvenir shop in tourist Greece collided with some African royalty. Or, as you put it, imagining a holiday you can't afford.
I spent a lot of last summer trying to get my freelance business rolling, I admitted to myself that I was going to be more broke for a while until it gets together, which meant no holidays. So whilst sweating away in my studio in August, I started to notice how people perform their holidays. All these August fashion holiday groups you see, curated teams of ‘friends’ who seem more like colleagues, a designer, a couple of stylists, a photographer, a cool Berlin DJ, that kind of thing. On these holidays where they seem to just share each other Instagram stories of them sat in a villa looking anxious checking emails!
Previously you might have come back from vacation with a tan and holiday t-shirt, now there’s other factors in how we prove to the world how we enjoy our lives. Is a holiday to relax, is a holiday an experience, or, is a holiday a cultural badge to wear to show where you fit in society?
Compared the energy of this bourgeois performance of holidays with the fact I was attending these raves that the amazing Hotbox London team threw on Hackney Marshes, these fucking insane gatherings of kids making absolutely everything from almost literally nothing. A trip without being able to take a trip. A large part of my work and life enters around hedonism and what that means and creates.
Who are your models? Why did you feel like they encapsulated the Max Allen mood?
Theo White consulted, styled and cast this, he has his own talent agency now so he knows what he’s doing, I love all his vision. My only specification was “aspirational good looking boys with gorge hair” (being bald I want to live vicariously through other peoples follicles). Theo cast Luey and Loshh, and one girl who didn’t show up, but it worked perfectly on just the two boys — both are wonderful.
My first choice is always going to be Luey. He is a powerful young contemporary gay man and I’m fully about that energy. Intelligent, emotional, funny, and, fit as fuck.
Why do you think the fashion industry thinks people should work for free?
It’s crazy that that is even a question still, why should anyone expect anyone to work for free? Perhaps people think that because it’s a luxury business, therefore it’s a luxury to work in it? Imagine if I opened a restaurant and hired a team of waiters and kitchen porters to work for free 12 hour days just because I believed in the vision of my own business? It’s bullshit and kind of egotistical if you think about it.
What would you like to see more of in 'fashion', whether that be the industry or just walking down the street?
I guess in fashion and in art I would like to see more effort put into balancing social mobility, it’s a massive problem especially in London’s art and fashion scene. There is so much good talent being wasted as opportunities are unfairly divided, and really it’s why there is such a lacklustre ‘culture’ being fed to us — it’s being created by and for wealthy people.
And walking down the street?
More slouchy white suede pixie boots!
And you know what, fuck it, more creative opportunities for me, Max Allen!
What era of historical fashion should we be inspired by right now?
I’m not going to tell you what should inspire you, but I know I'm vibing art deco mixed with electroclash right now. Imagine Clarice Cliff as the forgotten member of Chicks on Speed.
Styling and casting Theo White
Photography and collage Waj Hussain
Hair Sky Cripps-Jackson
Makeup Theresa Davis
- max allen