Interview and shoot taken from HERO 16.
Charles Jeffrey’s world is triple-distilled through a core mission that goes something like: collaborate, express, and (“Oh my god!”) please enjoy yourself.
It’s a balmy Wednesday evening outside Jeffrey’s new studio in central London, where he has recently relocated from Vogue Fabrics Dalston (VFD), the dual-purpose space that has played the role of design studio and venue for his queer club night, LOVERBOY, since he was studying at Central Saint Martins. Having navigated the bowels of Somerset House, we pass that toxic-toned ‘bitch’ coat from the SS17 collection (“You know where I got that colour from? A plastic bag at the old studio!”) and into the heart of operations. The room is humming with focussed activity, everyone getting on with their role despite the hour – and the samples, drawings, mega heels and hardcore accessories (think chainmail) that are strewn over rails, desk and floor. Such fabulous chaos could be put down to having moved in just days ago, but you get the feeling it’s a natural state.
Jeffrey hails from a small town outside of Glasgow where he grew up with his mother, who wore “a lot of Westwood,” his teens spent shedding a shy exterior through school plays and the validation of close girlfriends. So it makes sense that everything he does is rooted in theatrics and togetherness; from his tight-knit team and gang of helpers – who scurried across the MAN runway at London Collections: Men SS17 scattering roses and white powder for dramatic effect – to the way he designs – “very quickly” – by playing with clothes on a body. This non-traditionalist approach made him the oddball interning at Christian Dior in Paris during his degree, and left him questioning whether he was cut out to be a designer in the traditional sense. Truth be told, he’s not – and that’s OK. In fashion, the term ‘one to watch’ is often attributed to one who’s known the right people, assisted at the right places. But Jeffrey’s overarching talent is for styling and connectivity, seeing his clothes in the context of a bigger picture that binds broad resources and makes magic happen. It was this skill that got him through university, turning one of his birthday parties into a safe and inclusive club night that celebrates all gender and sexual preference, whether you’re wearing a t-shirt or a ball gown. Dressing up and having a lovely time, like the Blitz Kids but for 2016.
Jeffrey’s industrious streak attracted the support of emerging design platform Fashion East, through which he’s gone from graduate to LC:M highlight. His colourful approach to the fashion show harks back to the escapism of 90s catwalks, channelling the restless energy of his generation into under ten minutes. For his first presentation, he threw the stale format out the window and took LOVERBOY to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, complete with dancing friends, DJ and cup-strewn stage. Since then he’s commandeered the catwalk, most recently for SS17 when he closed the MAN show with an exploration of the darker side of partying. By mining couture’s steeped history, Jeffrey elevated his drunk tailoring into beautiful pieces, all the while retaining his signature off-kilter accents. Disfiguring the obvious, to well beyond the nines.
Tempe Nakiska: You threw LOVERBOY last month, now that you’ve moved studios do you think you’ll keep it going?
Charles Jeffrey: A big part of me feels like we need to keep it going because we meet people through it, we can express things we can’t express through a runway. Though we’ve really taken over the space as much as we feel we can, it’s been a really great place for us to grow and start, it feels right for us to keep cramming all this energy into that space. It’s the only space in London at the moment that accommodates that queer identity that expresses itself in quite a floral way, you don’t really find it anywhere else with that kind of age group.
Tempe: There were the likes of BoomBox, but very different to LOVERBOY.
Charles: That’s what I came to London for, when I moved here it was partly because of that and because of Gareth [Pugh] too. Of course also to come to Central Saint Martins, but I remember looking at these nights through MySpace and thinking, “I really want to be a part of this,” and when I went to my first party in London at Ponystep I nearly had a heart attack, I was like, [in a high pitched voice] “Oh my god there’s Christopher Kane! Look at that guy’s outfit, like, Jesus Chriiiiist!” and I’ve got like, tin foil on my face [laughs]. Then that whole scene died down and became really streetwear, there was the whole Givenchy leggings and skirts thing, there was a lack of expression, McQueen died and Galliano got fucking put down, there was no icon you could aspire to be, or wanted to be associated with, it was this very drudge-y sportswear, a ‘cute look’. There were people in my class, like Ed Marler, people who kind of went for it, but I remember wanting to grow my hair long and be kind of skater-ish, it was all about Tumblr and I really missed having a place to go express yourself.
Tempe: The impact of the internet, and streetwear in a high end context really brought up that minimal movement.
Charles: When I was dressing that way it didn’t feel like I was expressing my sexuality in any way, I felt like I was squandering it a bit, being a bit cis and acting kind of straight. I didn’t know those terms like ‘cis’ when I was dressing like that, but I felt like I wasn’t being myself to the fullest.
Tempe: What made you want to swing back the other way?
Charles: I interned in Paris [at Christian Dior] and remember the Saint Martins lot, because we were all together we were dressing up a lot. We went to Alber’s [Elbaz, former creative director at Lanvin] ten year anniversary party and everybody looked fucking amazing in the Saint Martins crew, everyone had a different look and I really got off on that. We were in the lead up to going into final year and because that’s your first big body of work you want to express yourself, so when I got back I remember dressing up a lot more, wearing dresses… not in a ‘gender’ way, I think it was more in a Kurt Cobain way, but you know, having the opportunity to dress up. There was that feeling of, “Oh my god, this is my last year of being in such a creative environment – not in a work environment where I get told not to wear shorts.” I felt like I had an opportunity to really express myself one last time and that really came through in dressing, as well as the work. Actually for my MA, I got taken on by Louise [Wilson, former course director of the Central Saint Martins fashion MA] because of how I was dressed.
Tempe: Oh really?
Charles: Yeah, I was wearing a floral dress and a square felt t-shirt I’d knocked together, long hair with backwards cap, Vans and kneehigh socks. I walked in and put my portfolio down and she was like, “I bet none of that is in here.” And I was like “Hmm, it is…!” [raises eyebrows] pointing at pages and she was looking through and she goes, “That’s not what you’re wearing.” She asked me who my favourite designer was: I was really into Meadham Kirchhoff at the time and she said she could see that. We had a chat and I ended up being the only one in the year she said yes to on the day, and it really validated that idea of dressing up. And when we got asked to do the first club night I remember thinking how much I missed Ponystep and that whole vibe, and how I wanted to do something like that.
Tempe: That’s so often the best fun, getting dressed before going out.
Charles: Like that Leigh Bowery film [The Legend of Leigh Bowery, 2002] with them just getting ready the whole time. There was a time in my room where I had two big rails, mirrors in the kitchen, make up and it would be my door wide open and me and Jack [Appleyard, Jeffrey’s close friend and set designer, who also creates accessories for Jeffrey] wandering in between my room and the kitchen getting ready for ages. It’s such a nice feeling. You’re in that safe space and you’re charging yourself up.
Tempe: So that’s where it all started and then you kept the LOVERBOY night going through your studies.
Charles: Yeah I started it on my MA, we were on summer break and someone offered me the night because it was my birthday, then we did it again and I started to realise I could make quite good money from it, some nights I was making £1,500, so I could pay my rent and have some money left over for college. Before that I actually nearly had to drop out, even though I had a scholarship for my fees I had no money, I was working two jobs – in a call centre and in a bar – and I didn’t know how I was going to do the course. But the party came along and kept me going.
Tempe: And now you’ve come so far and you have Fashion East, how does it feel to have that kind of support?
Charles: It’s amazing. Beforehand, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with the MA, because after I went through the rigmarole of doing the collection we came to the conclusion that I didn’t necessarily work as a designer in the format that they work in an MA. So I didn’t see myself being employed in a design house, because they didn’t really work in the way that I was working. I was making lots of images, and styling a lot – I actually thought because I was more in that realm that I would go into styling, which is funny because I’m still doing that now, it’s my favourite thing. But on the MA we figured out there was a way for me to work that incorporated styling, and that worked with my illustrations and drawings. I remember having this conversation with Fabio [Piras, MA Fashion course director, CSM] about maybe doing something where we make objects and things and see how LOVERBOY does on that format. But then Fashion East offered me this platform to do it in a fashion design sense, they were really open and said I could do whatever I wanted, to see it as a chance to express myself. So when it came to my presentation, we were like, “Let’s rejig some of the MA stuff and show what we’ve been doing for the past six months but put it in a party context, out of that sterile MA way, in an art gallery format.”
Tempe: You had a strong reception, was it encouraging?
Charles: I think so, it was nice to have that validation on top of what I’d done on my MA. Because I’d kind of come out of the MA, if I’m honest, with a bit of a lack of confidence in designing. I kind of felt like, “OK, maybe this is not for me, I’ll head down the styling route and see how that goes,” so then seeing people wanted to buy it and to see more from it, I thought, “If it means this much to so many people, and I was able to pull it off with no budget, then let’s just see how it goes.” One thing I will say about myself is I’m able to find and craft things, like the Savile Row project which allowed us to have those pieces in the [FW16] collection.
Tempe: You seem to be able to make things happen.
Charles: With a lot of stress [laughs].
Tempe: Yeah, and you work it.
Charles: Yeah totally, and when it came to doing the second collection that’s when I had access to a pattern cutter for the first time, Naomi [Ingleby], who’s fantastic. On the MA I would sit and do these line drawings and Fabio would be like, “It’s so fake, this isn’t you, what you were wearing just now is so much more refreshing.” So my sketchbook was literally just loads of self-portraits like this [motions to an image on the table], wearing stuff in different ways over and over again, and then we’d put it on a model so it was in another context, and they were my sketches. There would be times where I’d be like, “So we’ve got this jacket pattern, can we do it with the button like that” [moves his jacket button up so it’s skewed], “I really want it to look a bit drunk,” and I’d be drawing an illustration of it being a face and dribbling and Naomi would say, “Yeah we can do that.” I’d be like, “Really? That’s amazing!” With the MA they really push you to figure that out by yourself and then you get the support afterwards, and Naomi is amazing, and suddenly it felt like I was playing the role of a designer, we would be doing fittings and it was like, [sits back in his chair like he’s studying clothes on a model] “Hmm OK I think this has to be higher.” And then it started to feel real.
Tempe: You suddenly had a team of people there to help you create your vision.
Charles: Yeah, and I remember watching that at Dior, which was fabulous and great and incredible to be in the place you’ve seen in movies, it was another experience that made me lose a bit of confidence as a designer, because I find it hard to work in the way they wanted me to – to make loads of samples and fabric manipulation, they’d ask me to create volume and I’d be cramming lots of stuff together which isn’t very Dior, and I’m like, hammering things like “There’s your volume” [laughs]. I remember loving the woman who did all the castings and worked with the models.
Tempe: Has it been tough?
Charles: Oh god yeah. I’m this disorganised, la la person with a lot of energy, and sometimes I wonder how I’ve been able to get it this far and have all these people like Régine [Amichba, Jeffrey’s intern, who’s working next to us] and Arnis [Koleda, Jeffrey’s assistant]. Production is why you can see all these designers often just fall by the wayside, it’s absolute hell. You set aside so much of your time to focus on that and you almost lose touch with the product you’ve made because you make it so many times. That being said, the fact that you make it for other people and you see other people wearing it balances it out. The money side of things is hard but it’s slowly sorting itself out, the ideal situation for me is where I can be this sort of vibrating being that comes in and has a timetable that’s set and then hopefully we get funds. It gets hard but after doing two collections I know I want to have this brand, I want this to grow and to be self-sufficient. But I also want to be able to go off and do things that I absolutely adore doing, like shoots and styling, working with people, drawing and making things.
Tempe: Where do you see yourself in five years, this whole sphere getting bigger?
Charles: I’d like for us to be a niche brand that shows in London and that people are always excited to see, that evokes a certain feeling of London that’s been lost, to revive it. I’d love to continue to have this while expanding and working with people and different brands, maybe be a creative director for another brand on top of this.
“To have a story that informs the work is quite charming.”
Tempe: I’m interested to know what you were like growing up, as a teenager.
Charles: I was so self-conscious. When my mum and dad split up we moved out to Scotland and were in this really poor area, my mum was really fighting for us to survive. So I grew up gay, in central Scotland, obviously with lots of support from my family, but I was a bit fat, a bit spotty, I was really shy. But I still pioneered how I wanted to look, in growing my hair out and wearing eyeliner, if people bullied me it made me want to do it a bit more, and when I was slightly older I got validation from the girls I was hanging with and became more boisterous and confident, I was doing school shows, being the centre of attention.
Tempe: There’s this mood of anxiety that often comes through in your work, like the comedown themes for the SS17 show. I think that feeling of anxiety is intrinsically tied to our generation, is it something you’re channelling consciously?
Charles: Definitely. Going back to teach at Saint Martins [Charles teaches at CSM] you can actually see that with our generation there’s this absolute need to succeed and to be this big grand person and if you’re not, there’s not much respect for the smaller facets, there’s not the feeling of wanting to just explore oneself, and to just respond to that, and own that. It requires a validation that’s outside of social media, which I think we operate with LOVERBOY sometimes, we give them that space to be that person. Going into tutorials, students struggle to start working on something because they’re so in their head about it, and I’m like, “Just do something, don’t think about it, just go away for a week and do anything. Even if you spat on paper for a week, just give me those sheets of paper and we’ll work from that.” I think people need to have that freedom.
“With our generation there’s this absolute need to succeed and to be this big grand person and if you’re not… there’s not much respect for the smaller facets, there’s not the feeling of wanting to just explore oneself.”
Tempe: It’s a nice point about students being stuck in their heads, this generation has been conditioned to think a) we can do whatever we want and b) we will be the best at whatever we choose to do, and there’s a big feeling of pressure that comes from that, it’s intoxicating.
Charles: And I have it now too, feeling like I have to design a certain way to respect a certain method in the industry. So I just work really quickly and that’s valid because it’s what I do and it works – and I think that’s where the anxious feeling comes in.
Tempe: Parties represent a kind of escapism for young people, do you think that feeling of freedom is necessary as a release?
Charles: Yes and no, because it’s a very extreme escapism, I think there are people that can handle it very healthily, they go and put a bit of lipstick on their eyes and go out and really express themselves and dance, but there are some people that really go for it, there’s the underlying drug thing too, so you see the two sides of it. I think often people do it to escape all of this pressure and all of this anxiety that’s associated with living in London, just by getting absolutely fucking trashed. But then there are the people that have just worked really hard and come for a boogie. I remember before [LOVERBOY] when there weren’t all these other queer nights that are happening now I’d come out of the weekend feeling like I hadn’t had a chance to express myself, and you go into the week feeling really uninspired and there’s nothing organic there. There are lots of beautiful nights out there now too, like Rad Festa, that has a whole different energy, and Sassitude, which is more Riot Grrl, and every time I go to Sink the Pink I have the most amazing time.
Tempe: Do you think there’s a fresh energy in London?
Charles: Definitely, I mean sometimes I feel like there’s too much going on. There’s always somewhere you can go where you can put make up on and look a certain way, which is really nice because it wasn’t always like that, but now I know that most weekends you can go somewhere looking absolutely fucking fabulous. There’s something to be said for that. There’s a nice energy that’s happening, and you can see it in people’s work as well.
Tempe: Do you feel like there’s a bit of a shift happening in fashion that reflects that new energy? Embracing that outrageous streak as opposed to the minimalism we’ve seen in recent years.
Charles: I think people want to tell a story now, but not in a way that’s respecting the context of the fashion show so much. There are brands that have come to the stage that are so design-led and postmodern where you’re wondering what it even means to people anymore. But I want my work to have a bit of a story and to feel real, I want it to have some truth to it, and I think people are getting that more now. Many of the Saint Martins lot I finished with, and designers from other schools are showcasing a character coming down that runway, they’re doing a set and creating aspects to the work that aren’t just fashion. Like Grace [Wales Bonner, who came into Fashion East at the same time as Jeffrey], we actually started at the same time.
Tempe: It pays testament to Fashion East as a platform for young designers.
Charles: That’s the thing, when I spoke with Lulu [Kennedy, founder of Fashion East] about what I wanted to do she was like, “Oh that’s fine, just do what you want.” There’s people I work with like Gareth [Wrighton] who does all of our images – he’s this fantastic imagemaker and had made this video game for his final project – Lulu approached him and suggested he translate it into something else.
Tempe: So then he made the film for your SS17 show?
Charles: Yes, we worked on it together with Jordan Hunt [who made the film soundtrack].
Tempe: I loved the Dolby Digital sound effect throughout it, it was so creepy.
Charles: Yeah, yeah yeah! Oh my god that was so good. I wanted it to be super cinematic and for it to be in three chapters: about ascendance, then this out of control aspect, then for this sense of the comedown.
Tempe: The collection feels quite elevated with the tailoring, it’s beautiful.
Charles: That was it from the get go, after the first collection I was like, “I just want to elevate this now,” I kept saying the word ‘ascendance’, it was about lifting it. I was thinking about couture and respecting people who pioneered shapes and worked in a certain way that was about elevating the woman, and putting that onto a man.
Tempe: The corset look was amazing. I think people often forget there’s a whole history there, of men wearing a certain kind of tailoring that’s traditionally associated with women, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Charles: Definitely, we looked a lot at the 18th century, then at Beau Brummell [the iconic Regency figure and dandy known for his progressive fashion], though his was obviously a more stripped back version of that style. We looked at Louis XIV, we were researching a lot into Versailles, I was thinking about how we could project that grandeur in our own naïve way.
Tempe: How about last century’s couturiers, how did you perceive them in the context of the collection?
Charles: There were all these ways of looking at how couturiers had worked, like those in the’50s who were super strict with women and ones who were a bit more romantic who came beforehand like Balenciaga. It’s more about this freedom of projecting a look on somebody.
Tempe: How did you go about channelling that feeling, but in the context of your own narrative?
Charles: We brought in lots of our existing shapes, and clothes we had been wearing also, and created this quick, immediate, shoot-like environment where we would put things together and try and make these shapes based on the files and files of our research and references. By doing that and having these photographs of trousers that were taped to look a certain way, or jackets that were nipped in, we had some of these really raw elements that ended up continuing into the collection. Then I started drawing. For me I always have to have that styling element, it’s like live sketching. We were working with Woolmark and so had access to scabal wool, which is like butter in your hands.
Tempe: This theme of togetherness runs through all your work, in light of recent events like Brexit and so much social and political uproar is that feeling of unity something you’re aware of?
Charles: I’ve always had to work with people to make things, it’s always been about this idea of community. When Brexit was announced we were in the showroom and we came together to talk about how it would affect us as designers, when there’s a crisis all you can do is go through it together. When Louise Wilson died, we as a class came together and really fought to show that we were still running ship.
Tempe: Which designers have always been the ultimate for you?
Charles: For me it’s Westwood, she was the first designer I really warmed to, my mum wore a lot of Westwood and my dad would always buy her a pair of shoes or something as a treat at Christmas. But growing up I remember seeing [John] Galliano’s stuff, and seeing Gareth’s [Pugh] stuff and being really obsessed with that, and that was one of the reasons that I moved down. Also Gaultier, his shows. But then I’ve always gone back to Vivienne’s tailoring, she’s always been a really massive influence for us. Westwood always wants to come from a place of culture, and that’s the reason [her archive] is so timeless, because it comes from all these ideas of intelligence, righteousness, morality, and the paintings – you go to the Wallace Collection and you can see where she has got these things from.
Tempe: And that character-driven approach aligns with what you’re doing today.
Charles: The projects I would do well at when I was studying were always ones that had a story element to them, where I could create characters. To have a story that informs the work is quite charming.
Stay tuned for Charles Jeffrey’s MAN show at London Fashion Week Men’s in June.