Last night, Brazilian marathon runner Vanderlei de Lima lit the cauldron to officially open the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics. In true Rio style, a spectacular carnival-esque ceremony kickstarted the games: fireworks? Check. Dancers? Check. Gisele Bundchen strutting down the catwalk? Check.
To celebrate the iconic sporting event, we’re revisiting our interview with London designer Bobby Abley whose FW16 collection was inspired by the Rio games, cue inflatables and vibrant plumage sprouting from models’ backs.
Interview taken from HERO 15.
In a time where uncompromised creativity is often a losing battle for designers, ‘commercial’ has become a dirty word in fashion – but Bobby Abley welcomes the challenge. The London designer has aced the balancing act, retaining his creative vision whilst also smashing sales figures. With an intelligent approach to design and direction, he’s achieved his dreams: the rights to use Disney’s assets in his pop-infused collections; the freedom to share his political perspective with the world, and having his work noticed by his favourite noughties pop-star, Christina Aguilera.
There’s a sense of bravery with Abley, which is exactly the word Vivienne Westwood used to describe his MA collection at Ravensborne’s graduate showcase in 2010. There’s also an air of businessman, strategically timing collections to drop at the times they’ll be most relevant – first SS16 with the latest Star Wars film (another Disney match up), and now with his bold FW16 collection, inspired by the excess of Rio di Janeiro and timed with the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. But strip everything back and you find a different kind of excess, one charged with integrity: FW16 sees Abley use his position to spotlight Rio’s urban housing crisis and the devastating impact the forthcoming Games are having on the city’s poorest communities.
Lukas Grout: So Bobby, you’re from Scarborough. What was it like for you up there when you were younger?
Bobby Abley: Honestly? It was shit. It’s a small seaside town with very little evolution. It wasn’t the greatest place to grow up… You couldn’t really be creative there without being tormented. I had shitty jobs to try and save money to get away.
Lukas: And you came to London to study?
Bobby: Yeah. At Ravensborne I studied the main fashion course and specialised in menswear towards the end, which is what my graduate collection was. We were quite fortunate in my year that Vivienne Westwood randomly came to our show and ended up coming back stage where she asked to meet with me. I think in honesty that got things going for me.
Lukas: She seems like a tough nut to crack. What did she say?
Bobby: It was how I imaged it would be like to meet the Queen. She said she thought my collection was ‘brave’ – which, coming from someone like that, was amazing.
Lukas I wanted to ask about your most recent collection which was inspired by a trip to Brazil. How did that all come about?
Bobby: Well I was in a relationship with a Brazilian for six years, and over the years Brazil became a big part of my life. I always wanted to do something based on it, but I guess I had put it off because I had other ideas that I wanted to do first. September  was the first time I went on my own, so I got to see Rio differently.
Lukas: So what was different?
Bobby: I saw how badly the communities had been damaged since the building of the Olympic stuff. I knew Brazil was corrupt, but I got to see it for myself this time – visiting families that had been affected…
Lukas: When you say ‘how they were affected’ – what did you witness?
Bobby: A number of different things, but for example, the construction for the games has wiped out the favelas [neighbourhoods] which are made up of very old tight- knit communities. They get by on very little but they’re happy – but a lot of them have been quite violently forced out to make way for… like, a car park. It made me realise that Rio was maybe considered a paradise back in its heyday, and it’s still an amazing city, but it will never regain that title of ‘paradise’ again. No matter how many times they have a World Cup there, or an Olympic games, it’s like they’re just covering up the cracks but not really fixing anything.
Lukas: So in regards to the collection, it just felt like the right time?
Bobby: Well, yeah. As well with the timing, I knew the collection would drop [in the shops] in the summer at the same time as the Olympics. There were examples too though, like when I was walking through one of the favelas and I saw this woman stitching a piece of old cloth. I asked to buy it from her and it turned out the design was a line drawing by her thirteen-year-old son. We ended up using it but I said in a meeting with the BFC [British Fashion Council] that I wanted the proceeds from that piece to go into a trust fund for her son.
Lukas: Was that a difficult process to set up?
Bobby: It’s a bit sketchy with Brazilian charities in regards to where money actually goes, but we got the Brazil Foundation involved who are quite open about what they do with donations. They spend a lot on education which is really lacking in these communities.
Lukas: It sounds like it was important to you your thoughts on this were heard.
Bobby: Yeah, but my collection changed quite a bit – like, there was a lot more truth in it with what I’d seen or been told, but I was advised by certain people not to put such honest things down the catwalk. I didn’t want to listen, but I understood why it was risky.
Lukas: You mentioned ‘risky’ there, and I assume you mean commercially? How influential is commercial success to your work?
Bobby It’s really important to me. I know a lot of designers that are really offended by the word ‘commercial’, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing or something you should be ashamed of. The goal for me is to sell clothes and to have people buy them.
Lukas: Who are you making clothes for in that case?
Bobby: To be honest, when I have my ideas I become a selfish designer. I work from a theme and create what would be my ideal wardrobe based on that theme. I mean, I wear the same shit clothes everyday. I go to town creating clothes I imagine I would wear.
Lukas: Christina Aguilera was also a strong theme in your last show… tell me about that.
Bobby: I’ve always loved her. I remember the first time I heard Dirrty, I was walking home in Scarborough and heard it blaring out of a strip club. I stood there next to the bouncer outside and listened to the whole thing… I didn’t even know who sung it, but I was obsessed.
Lukas: And it felt right reference-wise to blend her into the collection?
Bobby: Yeah. Everyone thought I was crazy but I said, if this won’t get her to notice me, nothing else will. After seeing the show, she started following me on Instagram and… I can’t say too much, but we’re in talks over a project which I’m so, so excited about.
all clothing by BOBBY ABLEY FW16; backpack by GARY CARD for BOBBY ABLEY FW16; necklace by O THONGTHAI x BOBBY ABLEY FW16 model MAX at SUPA; fashion assistants AMNAH HAFEZ and ANOINTED CHARIS; special thanks to THE IMPOSSIBLE PROJECT
Follow Lukas Grout on Twitter @lukasgrout.