By Kaycia Ainsworth
For his second presentation at London Fashion Week, sustainable designer and artistic innovator Reuben Selby invited us to The Copeland Gallery in Peckham for a refreshingly unconventional runway presentation. Opting out of the traditional runway format, Reuben and his team of young creatives presented their immersive showcase, titled “The Will To Form”, across five days.
Visiting the showcase a few days before the launch of their new collection is a leisurely and informal introduction to the concept behind the showcase. “The Will To Form” is an extension and development of the brand’s ethos and body of work which is based on introspection and self expression, referencing an artist's underlying desire to create. “This is the first time it's been as literal as it is,” Reuben explains, “that's why there's alot going on, because you can't contain expression. Everything in the material world is an expression of something. I think that's where “The Will To Form” comes in - the desire to create something, and you'll do anything to express that throughout society. Finally people are able to express themselves and be who they feel like they are inside… that comfort to just articulate or display yourself or act in the way that you want to.”
As a part of their residency in the space, Reuben invited eighth artists to come and set up shop, taking part of the space to use as their own studio. The result was a gallery space laid out like an amalgamated nature’s trail of modern art and varying adjacent practices; used as a traditional artists studio, but with a sense of fourth-wall breaking informality, giving visitors the opportunity for multi-sensory interaction. Not only could we watch the artists create, but we could ask questions, stepping into their studio space and gaining context from the differences in the way they conduct their working environment. Painter Sam Wootton’s space resembled an ornamental magpie's nest. The ‘nest’ contained shoes, the ash of incense sticks, scrunched up tubes of paint, books, radios, plants, all laid on the floor beneath his artwork, acting as an educational collage, a crime scene style investigation into Sam’s mind and inspiration, presented for his audience's consumption. “In the least capitalistic sense, I feel it's a sort of brand building,” he tells us, “It exists alongside my work. It doesn’t necessarily elevate it, but informs it.” I ask Sam about the vulnerability of an artist opening up their personal studio space for public viewing in this way. “I'm an advocate for creating a gallery space that you would move through with the same ease that you would move through your own home or a party,” he replies, “That's why this exhibition was very important to me. I feel very comfortable here.”
The rarity of such a showcase, especially on the London Fashion Week schedule, is a structural innovation that will bleed out into the future generations of creatives, setting a precedent for the unification of art and fashion. As well as providing an exhibition and a fashion show, Reuben Selby have released collaborative t-shirts with the proceeds going to the charity of each artist’s choice.
“It's something that I've always wanted to do,” says Reuben, “To combine so many elements of art and bring it to fashion. It just feels natural.” Reuben is breaking new ground, not only by blending two industries known for thriving on intense tradition but also radically changing the vehicle of presentation. “Giving that fashion shows are so short, often it's very intense. People get very stressed because you have one day to install and pack down but we’ve had the whole week. We’ve been able to get acquainted with the space and I think that there's more energy infused into that space just from the right people being in there, making things and creating things - that's part of the essence that is going to translate into the show.”
The energy that Reuben is discussing is clearly signified by the clear mark embedded in the space by each artist. The immersive element to the showcase creates a sensory memory which leaves you with a connect-the-dots style manifestation of each artist's work when recalling it. The crunch of sand underfoot is Jamie Kirkwood; the smell of fresh mud is Adam Muscat. It is a stark contrast to the usual stiff-collared ‘observe and move on’ approach to consuming artwork that dominates the majority of the art industry and gallery spaces.
When interviewing Shaquille-Aaron Keith about his use of art as storytelling, his working space gives me an insight into that process. Surrounding his art work is a sofa, magazines, an old-style box TV and a Nintendo GameCube. His art consists of brightly coloured, impeccably detailed and surrealist visual stories with clear iconography. Shaquille discusses the open expression in his work, saying, “I’m working on a piece about gentrification, its something that’s a recurring action that is happening around the world, particularly in minority communities and I don't feel like anyones really made anything artistically that symbolises what that makes me feel like.” Shaquille tells us how his mum taught him to never compromise his dream and would take him to art lessons from a young age to pursue his talent. “My biggest inspiration was always the African art my mum had in our house, alot of Nigerian and Kenyan. Art without purpose is just a pretty picture, there's enough people making pretty pictures. I'd rather contribute to the storytellers.”
After four days of artistic energy pouring from the space, it's time for the finale of the showcase: the runway presentation. A carefully considered performance piece, composed by hotshot creative director, TJ Saw. Reuben and TJ first connected when TJ was scouted for Reuben’s modeling platform, Contact, when he was just fourteen. Now nineteen-years-old, TJ is one of the youngest creative directors to be working at London Fashion Week. TJ shares his concept for the project, explaining, “I see the show as a full introspective journey of self worth of value of life there are alot of elements to it. We have these four rooms all presented in order to create these four realms of the human psyche.” He goes on, “The models come into one room, the common space, where there is fluctuating lighting, projections and a lot of commotion. That represents surface level, reality and the rush of life. You go into the next, darker, earthier room - that's you coming across this darker side to yourself that may scare you and moving very tentatively through that place, and in this room specifically you have a dancer who acts as your guardian angel who is your physical manifestation of your will to form, that drives you and provides you with the energy to move forward. Into the next room which is colder, it's an area that is quite black. This is the idea of a blank slate, it's about nurture and your environment affecting who you are. You come through this into the main room which is this garden of eden, paradisiacal, turfed with grass and incredible plant structures and bright lights. That's the ecstatic mind, that's the point at which you've been enlightened and you realise you're incredible and what I can do is incredible. They all unite to go on this journey together and that's the finale.”
The collection includes earthy, muddy tones mixed with beige, cream and khaki. Loud pattern and rough denim fringe compliment clean cut utilitarian style jackets and trousers. You could wear this collection to a beach or to a bar, perfectly equipped for either pace of life, the clothes almost seem to be a commentary on the amalgamation of the two.
After closing the show we can't help but sit and wonder, what comes next? Now that we, as an industry and its collective audience, are beginning to blend the realms of art and fashion and are looking at these two giants structurally, what can be innovated to support these endeavors for future generations of creatives and artists? “I think a lot of work needs to be done to support initiatives like this,” says Reuben. “This week everyone has been coming up to me and saying why don't these things happen more? And it's just because there isn't the funding behind things like that which back creatives for creativity and nothing else. No one is making money out of this whole experience; it's just for the love of doing it. If other brands are going to go down similar routes then it would need to come from an organic and authentic place. Then you're not just taking an area of culture and glamorising it.”
As we delve deeper into the never ending pit of ‘how-to-fix-the-industry’ chat, Reuben shares with me how his philosophies for the future of the industry translate with the inner operation of his brand’s business practice. At an earlier point of the interview Reuben had told me that he “tries to have as little creative input as possible,” which I hadn't understood until I learned how he operates the brand as a platform for young creatives. “That's what's different about Reuben Selby and the brand, because everyone is non-hierarchical,” he shares. “I think the contradiction is that it's my name, so people are going to identify that it's attached to me, but I see the brand completely detached and just see it as a vehicle for other people to express themselves.” Coming away from the showcase, this was an element that really stuck with me.
As a brand, Reuben Selby are revolutionising the purpose of brands within the fashion industry simply by existing and operating in the way they want to as opposed to how they're ‘supposed’ to. The most fascinating thing, perhaps, is that the structures of an industry that we are told are impenetrable are being morphed and bent to allow innovation.