Gareth wears silk mohair crew-neck cardigan based on Century 16 cinema strip lights by himself
FASHION EAST’S newest arrival gave us quite the atrocity exhibition
words: Eilidh Nuala Duffy
self portraits: Gareth Wrighton
digital hotties: Zach Beech
GARETH WRIGHTON’S debut collection with Fashion East Autumn-Winter 19/20 called In the Pines: The Ballad of Meredith Hunter tells the story of contemporary Western society through recent traumatic events in a culture riddled with conflict. Although it references ‘60s Americana, it’s not really about America. It’s about the contradictions we all live with in our day-to-day. Online vs offline, folk vs rock, analogue vs digital, handmade vs machine made, realised through an industry which is unequivocally tied up in these dualities. The USA just happens to be the loudest and most recognisable contradiction we have hence its use as the perfect metaphor for Wrighton’s fascination with ambivalence. He’s just “obsessed with what’s going on over there”.
This December marks 50 years since the murder of Meredith Hunter by the Hells Angel Alan Passaro during the 1969 Altamont Free Concert. It marked “the end of the summer of love, the end of the failed hippy ideal”. The death of Hunter – a black man – was completely whitewashed. Released a year later, the Rolling Stones’ 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter was cut by the Maysles brothers so that he looked like a dangerous lunatic, armed and aiming to kill. Mick Jagger is shown the footage of Hunter being stabbed, apparently for the first time. David Maysles rewinds it to point out the black silhouette of a pistol. The next scene shows a man speaking to a police officer: “He pulled out a gun.” According to eyewitness accounts the truth is quite different. The Hells Angels were looking for a fight. One of them yanked on Hunter’s hair then a pack of them pounced. He was stabbed before the gun was pulled out. Regardless, Passaro was acquitted with his murder on the grounds of self defence. But this was the same hippy ideal as Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem or Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. A dirty, brain-busting, acid-fuelled utopia which didn’t always match up to the truth and gave a lot of people some very bad psychiatric problems. It was, by the end, pretty fucking dark.
“The idea is it’s 12 looks so 12 stories in a magazine”, Wrighton explains the premise of the collection. “The opening girl” named In The Pines, so-called after the Leadbelly rendition of the American folk song (you might know it as Kurt Cobain's Where Did You Sleep Last Night?) wore a Colorado mountain landscape knitted into a jumper to “set the scene”. What followed this look was Wildfire, a forest fire scene knitted into a jumper; then Sandy a nod to the Sandy Hook school shooting (also his drag name) masquerading as an unfortunate murdered festival-goer; Aurora whose mohair cardigan recalls the neon lights of the Century 16 cinema where in 2012 James Eagan Holmes massacred a room full of people enjoying the latest Batman movie; Bob, a nod to the first time Bob Dylan went from folk hero to electric protest prophet; Chelsea who donned a jumper depicting Chelsea Manning’s Wikileaks footage of laughing American soldiers firing on civilians in Iraq; Ruby, a school shooting victim with bullets placed strategically into her slashed backpack as though her execution had been paused in time; Aileen whose cap features a taxidermied bird pecking away at Christian ideals; Republican’t, “the Republican girl” wearing a Pepe the Frog cardigan embellished with guitar plectrums and a Make America Great Again-style hat; Crash Test Bunny, whose makeup suggests a bloody face; Mother Nature who looked more child soldier than hippy goddess; and finally Meredith wearing a latchet-hook rug jacket depicting pixellated plants.
Gareth wears knitted CHELSEA crew-neck jumper depicting American soliders firing on Iraqi civilians and Wool Garbadine NERVOUS trousers both by Gareth
Set to the soundtrack of Father John Misty’s When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay, Wrighton’s “magazine” is not so much a challenging read as it is one which we don’t particularly want to confront. Who else forgot about Chelsea Manning’s heroic act of justice and replaced her significance with the politically correct idealism of “trans icon”? He’s vomiting our collective amnesia right back at us.
It’s quite ironic, then, that the fashion press didn’t really get Wrighton this time around. Sarah Mower, grand matriarch of British fashion, Fashion East selection panellist and champion for emerging talent thought the collection was about “absurd things people get up to” in the “age of weirdness”. Naomi Pike of British Vogue didn’t read in to it too much but noted in a very sincere trend report that a knitted jumper from your granny might be the object du jour. Lauren Cochrane of The Guardian told me, despite being on the Fashion East selection panel, she’d not really looked too hard at the collection but really liked the “crafty element” to it. A WWD review remarks that the “two opening knits featuring bucolic scenes were”, simply “fantastic” darling. The fashionistas have their blinkers on. His scathing cultural comments have slipped right by them.
Even with the lack of criticism, buyers haven’t exactly been eager to purchase his work. You’d think that after sending a child soldier, MAGA-style hat and school shooting victim out into the microcosmic world of fashion it would be those precise reasons that clothing shops wouldn’t want to align themselves with his work. But to his surprise it’s just the pricing. He was “kind of looking for a fight”. A latch-hook rug coat which took 200 hours to make is priced at £4,500 wholesale. “Too heavy” was the general consensus. No-one would buy that. Knitted jumpers at £900? That’s a bit much. Someone once told me if you don’t want to sell something, you price it high. Looks like Wrighton doesn’t intend to sell at all.
Gareth wears knitted WILDFIRE crew-neck jumper by himself, suit and shoes Gareth’s own
That’s because flogging clothes isn’t really the purpose behind Wrighton’s work. His 2016 project The Maul, conceived when graduating from the Fashion Communication and Promotion Bachelor’s degree at Central Saint Martins, was a dig at the brainless overconsumption of fashion. Taking the form of an e-shop and downloadable video game “editorial”, it was, as he describes in the editor’s letter, “e-commerce as performance” complete with the catchy slogan nicked from a packet of chewing gum: “Excessive consumption may produce laxative effects.”
Wrighton uses fashion like a painter might use paint. He tells stories from the images he creates “about the greater society that we’re in via the medium of fashion”. In the case of In the Pines, the clothes don’t exist to make the wearer feel sexy or comfortable or any of those things that clothes often do, their purpose is to make you think. This collection clawed at the fashion system by using its most masturbatory and universally recognised format – the runway.
“I get this platform on schedule at fashion week and you think what am I going to say with this?” he explains. “I’m about save the planet so I’m gonna knit two jumpers, one of an idyllic landscape and one of a forest fire” he tells me. “It’s not me talking about forest fires” it’s hinting at the role of fast fashion on the environment. “I spent 200 hours on a coat that no-one can afford to buy, that’s what I’m saying about you, my floral print that’s disgusting when you get up close, that’s saying something about you” he spits. “You can’t go round preaching sustainability” in an industry which, according to a report published by the United Nations in September 2018, is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions and uses more energy than the shipping and aviation industries combined.
“That women and Nike thing, I can’t the way Vogue just bent over and took that up their arse” he berates. In a recent “partnership” (read: advert) British Vogue teamed up with Naomi Campbell to profile 10 young women all wearing The 1 Reimagined, Nike’s latest “female-focused collection”. A recent slogan in another “female-focused” campaign encouraged young girls to “dream crazier”. Nike is the company that pioneered the sweatshop model still in use today. Who’s telling the young women working in sweatshops to “dream crazier”? Not Nike. “The fashion press are just never gonna swallow what I want to say to them” he snarls, “you’ve all got blood on your hands”.
Elsa wears fur coat, model's own; Gareth wears bullet bra by himself and t-shirt and trousers, Gareth's own
We’re in Wrighton’s childhood bedroom in Watford. His room is pretty much a box filled with books, empty beer bottles and bits of life’s detritus he’s collected over the years. A bowl of crystals sit on the windowsill. A Nutella jar with his name printed on it takes pride of place next to a Mac desktop, perhaps sugar-high fuel for when he’s working on one of his video games. A Muji candle sits on his desk and a beaded revolver (fake) from his first collection Soft Criminal rests casually beside that. Lavender pillow spray is within grabbing distance from a bed, nestled amongst the chaos of a bedside table masked by a layer of dust. He’s been away, he tells me, and not had time to clean.
He’s taken out his desk chair so there would be space for two but now there’s nowhere to sit. We stand there awkwardly, chatting. He’s got a Batman comic and three magazines framed on his wall, all the more dominant now they’re at eye level: the September 1993 issue of The Face featuring Kurt Cobain by David Sims, the July 2006 Dazed cover by Damien Hirst and Rihanna’s December 2017 cover for Vogue Paris by Jean Paul Goude. He grew up on pop music and R&B. David LaChapelle’s music videos for Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani were his first venture into fashion “research”. At 25 he still loves it all.
He lives with his mum Stacey, dad Kim, brother Alun and ginger cat Elsa who he calls Biggy (she’s a bit plump) who has “a face out of a Beatrix Potter story”. She was picked up off the streets and is, I’m told, quite racist. As I’m saying hello she gives me a deploring look but stays put. If I was Ib (Kamara, Sierra Leonean stylist and close friend of Wrighton) then she’d probably have run away.
Since graduating from Central Saint Martins Wrighton has busied himself working with Kamara. Their project with South African photographer Kristin Lee-Moolman Soft Criminal, a collection of clothing and images which featured in an exhibition and fashion show at Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn, told the story of “three rival families” in a future South Africa who are all engaged in a murderous power struggle. Soft Criminal is “unfinished business”. He hopes to find the time to hack Grand Theft Auto San Andreas to dress all the characters in the collection. It’s more than just fashion, “these are costumes, these are characters in a world which doesn’t exist yet.” His creations are not simply “looks”, they’re people. Everything he makes is part of a parallel universe he’s slowly but surely building for his work to exist in. “It’s very [Quentin] Tarantino”, he explains of his cinematographic way of thinking. But filmmaking, he tells me, is too expensive so he uses video games as a tool to let us inside his world.
Gareth wears t-shirt and trousers, Gareth's own
Soft Criminal featured fake AK47s, some a lot more convincing than the revolver Wrighton now keeps in his room. When Soviet designer Mikhail Kalashnikov designed the first AK47, accuracy was sacrificed for ease of use. They’re not a great weapon for hunting animals but perfect for killing humans and have become quite popular with criminals and armies of child soldiers. Despite growing up amidst the civil war in Sierra Leone, Kamara hasn’t quite got away with their portrayal of the guns. Every Tom, Dick and Harry with an Instagram has something to say about those guns. The gallery freaked out about having them in the show. But the violent undertones in Wrighton’s latest collection have been totally overlooked. Kamara is black and Wrighton, white. You can smell the racism.
For such a soft spoken, gentle creature Wrighton (who’s a Gemini by the way, the star sign of those with a dual nature) is totally consumed by conflict. He’s “obsessed” with Lee Miller and Josephine Baker and how “they spent the same war but so differently” and believes “the greatest works of art came out of the Vietnam War” such as Michael Cimino’s 1979 film The Deer Hunter and the Rolling Stones’ documentary Gimme Shelter.
Wrighton blames our current lack of interesting Hollywood cinema on 9/11.“It’s all about avenging, it’s all about the disaster happened and then you solve it”, he cites Michael Bay’s Armageddon (in which Bruce Willis saves the world from an incoming asteroid by blowing it and himself up) as an “iconic work”. If the film was made post-9/11 he assures me it would be about how people live in the aftermath of the disaster. Now “the planes have crashed, how do we live after that?” It seems we’d all rather wait for something to happen and try to fix it afterwards. Want an example? Brexit. It’s a flaccid, mundane, post-disaster mentality. Plus no-one has bothered to make any real, girthy work in popular culture about our generation’s Vietnam, the Iraq War. In the Pines is, in his own way, an answer to that. “We’re complete nihilists” he declares, “I just don’t like when people start getting bullied and start getting killed”.
In true Gareth Wrighton style, he has no interest in continuing his label in an orthodox way. He’s more interested in creating folk objects, the garments and textiles in museums which apply couture techniques but lack individual authorship. His guitar plectrum cardigan, “that’s where that belongs”. He makes slow, steady fashion. His pieces might not last a lifetime but they’ll either biodegrade or stick around for long enough to tell the future a bit about the present. In a couple of thousand years when archaeologists dig things up he’s well aware that the pieces he’s made from plastic might still be around. The dog leashes in the collection, printed with slogans like NERVOUS, THERAPY DOG and SECURITY might prove confusing but present a pretty seminal picture of the time that we’re living in. His simple silhouettes? Precisely crafted with this in mind as well. “How are we going to look in the 2020s?” he wonders. It’s not up to him to decide. Wrighton isn’t about telling people what to wear, he’s just holding up a mirror. “Listen”, he tells me “next season is not going to be subtle”.