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DAZED - Benjamin John Hall - Bolade Banjo 2

Designing shoes inspired by government assassinations

Entitled ‘Laboratory 12’ and inspired by Alexander Litvinenko’s murder, Benjamin John Hall’s exhibition asks how far a country will go to secure its best interests

Japanese company YKK may be well known as the world’s largest zipper and fastenings manufacturer, but its recently-opened London showroom is looking to change public perceptions of the iconic brand. Located just a stone’s throw from Shoreditch High Street, the venue plays host to the works of experimental young visionaries; the most recent exhibition to open comes courtesy of Benjamin John Hall, a shoemaker-cum-inventor whose ‘Laboratory 12’ series is inspired by the covert assassination of Russian secret service agent Alexander Litvinenko.

Created alongside collaborators well-versed in the fields of wearable computing, material science and 3D printing, each pair of shoes in the collection is fully wearable yet not available for sale. These are not commercial commodities; instead, they are staggering examples of wearable technology which can perform tasks including radiation detection, sound recording and even remote ignition. To celebrate the exhibition – which is open for public viewing until October 15th – we reached out to Hall to talk government corruption, Soviet laboratories and the endless potential of modern innovation.

When did you first start designing footwear?

Benjamin John Hall: I started designing footwear at 19 years old and enrolled at Cordwainers to study footwear design at 20.

Is the balance between tradition and technology important to you? Why?

Benjamin John Hall: It is, certainly for shoemaking. If we had a mantra it might be ‘Respect the past but look to the future’. It’s important to understand how things have been made in the past; we use many traditional techniques but we employ these skills in the production of more advanced objects. We’re not really sitting in a basement toiling over a shoe that’s been made in the same way for hundreds of years. It interests me to apply these skills to make new things rather than the same thing over and over, that is the limitation of tradition. 

How did your involvement with YKK come about?

Benjamin John Hall: In 2012 I won the International Talent Support YKK Award and €10,000 prize. They have been supportive of my practice since then.

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the name ‘Laboratory 12’?

Benjamin John Hall: I came across Laboratory 12 through my research and was surprised how well documented these types of government-led research facilities are. Laboratory 12 was basically a KGB laboratory tasked with the research and development of undetectable colourless, odourless, tasteless poisons.

What was it about the assassination of Litvinenko that fascinated you so much?

Benjamin John Hall: Basically how easily international laws can be flouted by powerful people. For me it also highlighted a certain ruthlessness as a government objective; it was clear through the investigation that this was a carefully planned incentive. This led to the question: How far would or should your government go to secure its best interests? Through my research around geopolitics I came across a theory that states could be viewed as organisms and, like in Darwin’s survival of the fittest, if the state is not actively expanding then it is diminishing. So with this in mind, how far should your government go? It’s an interesting question. This led to further research around covert tactics employed by governments.

“If we had a mantra it might be ‘Respect the past but look to the future’. It’s important to understand how things have been made” – Benjamin John Hall

How long did it take for the collection to come together?

Benjamin John Hall: The design residency was meant to be for a year but it ran on into a year and a half. The first six months was purely research and hunting out the right people to work with, then a lengthy design development stage and final making.

Are there any methods of creating wearable tech that you’d still like to explore?

Benjamin John Hall: This project is an experimental work, and although the objects are fully wearable and fully operational the intention is not, of course, that they are for sale as a fashion item. It did occur to me whilst working on the project that, with the team I'd assembled, between us and our expertise we actually have the capability to make viable, commercial wearable tech projects. The funny thing is I’m not sure we could have found the funding or how interesting it would have been if it was simply to produce a commercial wearable tech outcome.

The inspiration behind your works is inherently political – do you feel the fashion industry has the potential to make a political statement?

Benjamin John Hall: I’m not sure I consider this work a fashion item as such because it’s not really for sale in that context. I also believe that fashion is a broad spectrum and that where people spend a lot of time, energy and love on creating something innovative, something conceptually orientated, it inherently is an expression of self which often is a reference to the world around us.