Despite the fact that I'm supposed to be at the vanguard of the tide of change that is engulfing fashion because I'm "a blogger" (heavy on the quotation marks there…), I've found myself thinking of what came before. Not because 'before' was necessarily better but because understanding the past has always helped me to understand the present. There's been a lot of backwards looking and anniversary activity going on lately, especially in London's underbelly of fashion. Red or Dead have notched up thirty years. Bernstock Speirs also celebrated their 30th. Now we have Antoni & Alison, a fashion duo that have had endured and existed throughout the years, without a massive amount of fanfare, which makes rediscovering their work now such a joy.
You'd be forgiven, particularly if you're not a Brit fashion obsessive, for perhaps not knowing who Antoni & Alison are. Actually, Antoni Burakowski and Alison Roberts themselves would chuckle, smile and happily sit you down with a nice cup of tea and tell you all about their madcap trajectory. That's exactly what I did a few months ago in their lovely 'house' in Borough (you can tour it online if you wish) where we sat down and properly talked. It was a frank chat about the way they came together, the way they work, the way they just get on with things, been honest all the way and as a result have an extraordinary archive to show. After an elongated process of chatting with them, shooting their archive pieces below and visiting their store, it's actually been a bit of a eureka moment - where you slap your forehead and go "Gee whizz! I can't believe such an amazing body of work exists!" Colin McDowell got it in one when he described Antoni & Alison as "jewels in the crown of London fashion" but that "the trouble is, they are modest thinking people with a totally unique aesthetic which modern fashion doesn't quite know what to do with."
The best thing about listening to Antoni and Alison talk was the way they interacted with each other which is why this blog post is going to read like a weird script for a play. Who better to tell their story than them?
Let's go back to the beginning when they started twenty five years ago, an achievement that even they can't quite believe. It was a time rather like now when economic recession should hamper creativity but in fact had the opposite effect. Fashion in London wasn't quite as starry and organised as it is now with business failures and lack of expectation feeding the atmosphere at the time. And so Antoni and Alison, with £200 in their pocket began their journey and never stopped.
Alison: It's quite an achievement because we started with £200. We started in the council house over there (pointing to a council house block nearby).
Antoni: We started off straight out of college. It was the recession and a great time to start something. Nobody expected you to be a superstar. You can grow slowly and it's an interesting way of working.
Alison: There was no New Gen back then.
Antoni: It was all the Old Gen. Or the little gens. Nobody wanted to know about us. People had just gone bust - people like Bodymap.
Alison: You had your Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood getting a strong foothold internationally. To be honest, fashion designer was a bit of a dirty word. It was a poncy word.
Antoni: We did this collection called "Be Happy" for a company in Paris and they hated it. So we decided to do it ourselves. So we made the collection and was planning on travelling around the world for a year. But then Hamish Bowles who was in our class and he said "You have to do another collection now!" So we've never stopped!
Alison: You could just be, quite naively. We'd do a t-shirt. We'd do this or that and there were no expectations.
When Antoni and Alison talk about who they're inspired by, they point out a few home truths about the way designers work by constantly comparing themselves to their contemporaries. Exisiting on the periphery of fashion makes sense for them when essentially, their girl also stands outside the party, peering inside.
Alison: We've always loved that teenage mindset where you can do anything with your life and we've always wanted to capture that.
Antoni: The girls we think of (when we design) is like how we were as art students. That memory of girls at college.
Alison: We followed this teenager around the Tate Modern. She sort of 'slid' her way around the gallery but she looked so cool She couldn't be bothered.
Antoni: Another was a girl on the bus!
Alison: And interestingly, it's not always a fashion person. People that don't think they're great are always the best.
Antoni: Teenagers that are trying are always interesting. I love that.
Alison: It's that spirit that isn't jaded by what's going to sell and what trends are what.
Antoni: We don't read magazines. It's an awful thing to say. But I don't understand looking at the past to make new work.
Alison: I understand moodboards in the high street. I never understand why in an originated-from-scratch designs there are moodboards consisting of other shows or designers.
It was brilliant to look at the masses of show imagery, catalogues and lookbooks that Antoni and Alison had produced over the years with some things looking like they could do with a resurrection today even if they don't like the idea of looking back and being nostalgic. Interesting tidbits such as Nicole Kidman starring in an Antoni & Alison collection film back in 2007 for their 20th anniversary was a big surprise. The film could only be shown once though so in a way it was great that they never put it through the marketing juggernaut that normally accompany celeb appearances today.
Antoni: Our work has always been an experiment, doing things from scratch. We have always designed from things that are completely unexpected.
Alison: We set ourselves this challenge of trying to find an original idea. We try to start from zero every season. You have experience and knowledge from the years that helps you but essentially we like to start afresh each season.
Antoni: We start with writing stuff. Words.
Alison: Then we have to get visual pretty quickly.
Antoni: For our 20th anniversary, we made a military piece of work. It was so orchestrated to make this thing. We made a film with Nicole Kidman. It was only to be shown once. It was called "Party Portraits" about a party where only one person turned up. All the photographs from it had her head blocked off because of her agent. That was something that was so hard to do. Then we did this really spontaneous piece of work that was so easy and it was an amazing thing to go from this very difficult thing to this freeform thing.
Alison: We always want to be very spontaneous.
Their work is rooted to observation of life, wit and the ability to laugh at themselves and at fashion. They group up their collections into different time stages and gave them titles such as "We argue" or "We decide to do one thing well." and "We have too many ideas". They are like epochs in an artist's life and actually it's very easy to liken Antoni & Alison's way of working to the way artists do but they're very clear about the distinction between the two disciplines. With words and frank statements though, they have created a language that they can easily translate from fabric to other media, such as the china they have created for their new tea shop. It's on a garment though that their words have the best visual impact. Their plain speaking is precisely what endears you to them.
Alison: I feel very strongly about this because I did fine art in college. I always said that fashion and art cannot be the same. As for a piece of clothing, it cannot be absolute art. With our way of working, it sometimes close and sometimes the intentions are the same but just that clothing is worn, it ultimately cannot be art.
Antoni: It gives you something you want to achieve. Once you've achieved then we'd surely stop? I love the fact that we have to make a piece of work twice a year.
Alison: We're intrigued as to who would wear our work.
I always love observing the push and pull between partnerships. Both Antoni and Alison have their own life partners but they are absolutely married in their work relationship and even after thirty years, enjoy each other's company immensely, admiring the differences between themselves.
Alison: The second we met, it was an instant thing. We were like "Ok, see you tomorrow!". I was so pitifully shy and Antoni was so flamboyant. I find it incredible that the two us found each other.
Antoni: I still get quite excited to see Alison every day.
Alison: We're really opposites. Antoni wants more and I want less. And then I let him have more so then it's always too much.
Antoni: I always want more glitter, gold and more of everything. Or a biscuit on top of something.
Alison: Then I want to take the silly biscuit off. You're extrovert and I'm the introvert and that's the way it is.
Antoni: I'm like a big fancy biscuit and you're a rich tea.
Alison: I'm that plain. My favourite thing in the world is a cream cracker.
My burning question to the duo was how they saw themselves in the context of London fashion. They're not necessarily at the forefront and have, just as they say "quietly got on with it" but does it bother them? Apparently not. They're not deliberately telling fashion people to fuck off but they aren't giving mainstream press what they want, cooing in their ears or keeping bang up to date with trends. Individualism for the sake of individualism is never great but when the work is truly as charming as Antoni & Alison's is, you do wonder whether you're standing alone in the corner thinking to yourself "This is bloody great..." or whether everyone else just hasn't taken the time to properly look at their work.
Antoni: We quietly get on with our work.
Alison: One day, hundred years after we've died someone might say this body of work is fantastic.
Antoni: We make the work but we can't get involved in the "social" aspect of the collections. It's not about us going out there but about people finding us. It feels honest and true that way.
Alison: We want to fight for our voice but not shout at people.
Antoni: We've always been thought of as young designers. Even now, people are shocked that we have twenty five years behind us.
Alison: We're based in the land that the world forgot. We are getting better at being our own worse enemies. We are guilty that people think that we're a bit anti-establishment. It's a soft anarchy.
Antoni: It's not a "Fuck fashion!" thing. We're more trying to gently say "Why don't you look at things like this?" like turning a t-shirt upside down for instance.
Alison: We're growing though. Once you've done a season, sometimes you think "Right, next season we'll get it right."
Antoni: We spent 25 years together making clothes. We love fashion. Lots of times we've not liked it. At the moment, we're really liking it and really enjoying it. The minute you become fashionable, you become old-fashioned. That's the scary thing about fashion and the genius thing about fashion.
Alison: It is really down to someone walking into the shop going "I like that. I want it. I'll buy it."
Antoni: There's no swishy campaign.
I, for one am glad that there is no swishiness about the work you get. Swishiness quite quickly turns into arrogance and frankly hearing brands self congratulate themselves gets boring. Antoni and Alison's happy go lucky attitude, despite their vast experience, feels fresh. They readily admit that they make mistakes along the way but that they can be turned into positives.
This is just the tip of their very extensive archive though, which they'd like to really sort through and put into order. Just looking at these stills below from their early short films, which they made as vignettes for their collections, you can't help but marvel at how ahead of their time they were. Fashion films may feel like they've had a short history but what Antoni & Alison were doing was just completing their vision with spontaneous forms of expression be it through photographs, films or performances. They could sift through all of that to get quite a juicy exhibition but that's something that they'll probably get into later on.
Spontaneity seems to be the key word to take away from all this. I don't want to sound like I'm reliving someone else's era, reminiscing about what was so great about the good old days, without having lived it myself. It's reassuring though to see that people are still out their, fighting for their voices, their own way of doing things and not changing at 180 degree spins to suit the current climate of the industry.
The pertinent reminder though of all this backward looking talk is that Antoni & Alison very much exist and if they'll allow it, they deserve to be feted loudly even if they themselves object. Wearing the pieces from the last ten years of Antoni & Alison collection demonstrated their pervasive relevance, if you are that girl that they talked about - the girl sliding around galleries, the girl moping around college - I suspect there are plenty of them that have yet to see Antoni & Alison's clothes. Maybe they should discover it for themselves, which is exactly how I personally found the label, through their store on Rosebery Avenue in London. Their printed dresses, knits and tees are also online for those not in London.
Presently, I'm sure any Londoner will enjoy Antoni & Alison gift to the world which is the Ye Olde Worlde Super Modern Tearoom, in their shop on Rosebery Avenue. They do tea. They do coffee. They do two types of cake - plain or fancy to represent the dual personalities and they do a super modern biscuit which will be appreciated for its genius qualities hundred years from now, probably much like Antoni & Alison. Oh, and there's no wifi. You get a pencil and a pad and that will do very nicely.