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Aries: ‘Click to Buy’
Aries ‘Click to Buy’Photography David Sims, styling Jane How

David Sims in conversation with Aries’ Sofia Prantera

As the two debut a book, they discuss the DIY attitudes of their post-punk generation, how rave transformed the 90s, and the photographic line between empowerment and exploitation

A model reclines in black and white, a colourful chicken shop menu photoshopped into her hand. A cheap wooden door opens to reveal a confrontational redhead clad in a pair of platforms and underwear accessorised with stickers. A man wearing only socks, shoes, and an elaborate ram’s head mask sits behind a desk as if he’s about to grill you in a job interview, while plastic boxes of fruit are stacked in a corner.

These are the strange scenes of London-based women’s streetwear brand Aries’ new book Click to Buy, created by photographer David Sims and graphic designer Fergus ‘Fergadelic’ Purcell, who founded the label with designer Sofia Prantera. “It’s the orgy in the minicab office!” laughs Prantera, who was behind the clothes and worked with Jane How on the styling. Tapping into the classicism which makes up a cornerstone Aries’ visual language (see: their temple logo) the images exist inside a warped Bacchanalian landscape thrown disconcertingly into a seedy 21st-century office space. But despite the occasional sticker over a nipple or an orgiastic undertone, the Aries girl isn’t just hanging around to be gawked at – she’s look right back at you.

Though Sims and Prantera have been aware of each other since working in parallel surf/skate shops in the 90s, Click to Buy is the first time they have come together on a creative project. To mark the book’s release – it launches on Tuesday at Dover Street Market – the two pulled up a chair in Aries’ east London studio to discuss the changing waves of youth and style culture they’ve borne witness to, today’s expectations of instant success and ideas of agency and empowerment when it comes to image-making.

How did you first meet?

David Sims: We met in West London during the 90s.

Sofia Prantera: He used to have a surf shop, Low Pressure, and I worked for a skateboarding shop, so we knew of each other.

David Sims: Believe it or not, everybody who was involved in what later became known as ‘grunge’ seemed to live in West London. Fashion wasn’t about universal success at that time, there weren't any expectations for fame and money. What would you say the ambition was?

Sofia Prantera: I don’t know, I was asked recently about how or why I started designing. I don’t even know if I ever planned on doing what I did. It just sort of happened. My ambition was to make a mark, to make things and produce things, so I think I fell in with the communities that enabled me to do that. That was at the time when you were at Low Pressure.

David Sims: I’d taken three years off from being a photographer. British fashion was much more backwater then and people’s careers didn’t really take shape until a good five to ten years into struggling to get some attention for what you did. It sounds preposterous now, doesn’t it? It was kind of a lottery, to see who would have a career.

“Rave was like a flood of meaning that sort of just washed over every tribe that predated it. It created a democracy which hadn’t existed” – David Sims

Sofia Prantera: But I think we were coming from a post-punk generation, which is where the influence of some of the DIY attitudes came from.

David Sims: Yes. But then rave was like a flood of meaning that sort of just washed over every tribe that predated it. It created a democracy which hadn’t existed – before, there was a lot of politics around who you tried to be. I know there were other counterculture movements that were fairly universal, like the first Summer of Love, and I think rave accidentally paralleled that. But then it was the drug that gave universal love for your fellow raver.

Sofia Prantera: I remember when I had just moved to London, walking into a club and having no idea what people were taking – just being cuddled and them saying, ‘Oh my God, you look so beautiful!’. The elitism that had been in clubs before was gone overnight.

Why do you think rave had that effect? What was the climate in youth culture that people embraced it so wholeheartedly?

Sofia Prantera: Ecstasy acted as a catalyst, creating a completely different atmosphere in the clubs.

David Sims: It just happened to fall in the right time with the music, and caught everybody up with it. It was a wild coincidence. But when you went to raves it didn’t feel like you were in somebody else’s pocket. It was just a lot of kids, it was a young movement – that’s why I think it was so free. People at the start hadn’t figured out how to make money from it. If you were a dealer or selling tickets to an event, of course, you were (profiting) but organisers actually wanted you to have a good time.

Sofia Prantera: It felt really free and peaceful and amazing. You’d make best friends with people you’d have never talked to before.

David Sims: I think also those proto-hippie values took a good 20-year cycle to release and to seem more acceptable to a generation. Walking around with no shoes on didn’t seem like an act of rebellion, nor did having sex in a field. The drug unlocked some of the philosophy that might otherwise have been somewhat slower to emerge.

How did that affect fashion?

Sofia Prantera: I remember I used to wear a lot of make-up, then all of a sudden I never looked at it again because it was so hot in the clubs. For fashion it was quite a crisis moment, I was at college during those years and when I graduated it was probably one of the worst years in Saint Martins history.

David Sims: Possibly because rave fashion was seen as utility – how could you design for that? It was just loose clothing.

Sofia Prantera: I did a sportswear collection and I remember in one of my critiques someone said sportswear will never be fashionable. I’ll never forget that! (Laughs) Then I think Prada Sport started about two years later. Fashion was very lost. I don’t think it was until a little bit after that – 92/93 – that it came back with people like Alexander McQueen and with you, David. It started to take shape in a different way. I think what you brought to someone looking at magazines was a completely different look for women, which wasn’t rave. It was a lot more abstract and changed the way women looked at fashion and I found that really inspiring.

“I think what David brought to someone looking at magazines was a completely different look for changed the way women looked at fashion and I found that really inspiring” – Sofia Prantera

David Sims: Well, I stopped raving – it was a conscious decision. My friends carried on doing it. They’d get on a coach at 8 o’clock and drive up to the Haçienda in Manchester and the coach would be waiting outside at five in the morning to bring them back again. For them, that felt like a pilgrimage. But there was a point where I couldn’t listen to the music anymore.

Sofia Prantera: It started becoming really commercialised.

David Sims: Yeah, as soon as it was on Top of the Pops I wanted to go back to the kind of music that drove me. I basically started listening to the Stooges again. I think probably the work Sofia’s talking about would have been inspired entirely by looking at as many images of Iggy that I could lay my hands on.

Sofia, you said David had a different way of looking at women. Could you put that into context with what else was out there?

Sofia Prantera: Well, at the time I didn’t really know which photographer was which, but I kept lots of your photos. The one with Amber Valletta in the army stuff and the Stella Tennant one which I love, where she’s wearing the weirdest latex.

David Sims: To be fair that’s all (stylist) Anna Cockburn.

Sofia Prantera: But there’s something about it. The thing about those girls was that there was something a bit shit about the way they looked – it wasn’t glossy. They were beautiful women but you made them look like you’d know them rather than like they were unreachable.

David Sims: My wanting to look for something tougher and more visceral at that point was maybe because rave had become so fluffy and generic.

Sofia Prantera: Growing up you’re always attracted by the beginning of something and the moment it gets exploited...

David Sims: ...It’s two years. All those big cultural shifts, those new directions in fashion, street fashion or whatever you want to call it, they only ever last two years.

Sofia Prantera: It was definitely like that with skateboarding. For me at one point skateboarding just became uninteresting, whereas at the beginning there was this amazing energy. It was fun and interesting but by the end of the 90s, the big businesses started moving in. Now I feel a bit like things get consumed by that so quickly.

David Sims: I’m intrigued by that. I think the expectation for people’s work now is that it’s going to very quickly lead them to success. For our generation, the endeavour was aimed entirely at the experience of doing the work. The journey is so compressed now. There’s this democratisation of skills that possibly means that it’s inevitable that shortcuts will seem far more attractive than the experience in and of itself. In our lives, you left school and it was like, ‘Now who am I going to be?’ You didn’t know if that was going to be a career; didn’t know it was going to create a future for you – that didn’t register at all.

Sofia Prantera: But London was a cheap place to live then. I think that people see the outcome as their goal now instead of the process. When I’ve worked with you, I’ve found that your process was completely different from other photographers, it felt like you were constructing an image rather than capturing a moment. Slowly, slowly there was this coming together – and then an image would form that was not there in the first place. It just felt like a big birth! (Laughs)

“It’s controversial to say nostalgia is relevant, but it’s driven absolutely everything I do” – David Sims

David Sims: Like giving birth? Jil Sander used to say that. She used to go, ‘Oh, it’s like having a baby, no?’ And I didn’t really know what she meant. I always supposed that it was a criticism...

Sofia Prantera: No it felt more sort of – like suffering – like something creative should be.

David, can you talk about your process?

David Sims: There has to be feeling – and that’s why music’s good. If I don’t have music it would probably be more or less impossible for me to be productive. With a certain choice of sound, I can just disappear quite happily off into what is otherwise just purely a cerebral place. If someone doesn’t get the music right on set, I get very frustrated!

So do you give them a genre? Or a year?

David Sims: There’s like default playlist that if they’re really in trouble and the boat’s sinking they just press play on that! (Laughs)

Sofia Prantera: ‘Just give me the Stooges!’

At what point does the music come into conceptualising a shoot?

David Sims: I can literally think, this is what I want to say at the moment, this is how I feel. Then I have to find the song before going to the studio. Most of what inspires what I do is a sort of misremembered event in my life. I’m good at writing myth around myself and I might think of myself as having more emotion at one time, so I tap into some of what the echo of that is. I have to research the soundtrack for that.

How do you do tap into that without dwelling in nostalgia?

David Sims: It’s controversial to say nostalgia is relevant, but it’s driven absolutely everything I do. What I’m looking for, I suppose, is a moment in time... Today, people are struggling to understand this complete avalanche of information that hits us by the minute, so there is a sense of harking back to a simpler time. Mine’s not the sort of nostalgia that goes, ‘Oh, life was better then! Why can’t we go back to those values?’ I’m not that person. I’m looking for a characterisation of something and knowing that if it will occur to me that the same feeling will occur to someone else. I mean, you can look at what I do and say, ‘Oh, it’s rubbish’ – I get that. But, for me, it has to contain something so secretive and so personal that it doesn’t necessarily communicate. If you think a picture is going out to a thousand pairs of eyes, at least, it will relate to the way that someone else feels. So you can put little kind messages and codes in your work.

So your version of nostalgia is more about recapturing an emotive context.

David Sims: Yeah. All great work relies on the formative experiences of the artist, I think. But we haven’t talked about Jane yet and she had a big part to play in the book.

Sofia Prantera: To be honest I wouldn’t have done it without Jane. She gave me the strength to push things in ways I wouldn’t have felt confident doing on my own. She knows how far you can go without it looking terrible! I remember sitting with Jane and she said, ‘Sofia, you can really push it with David and it’s never going to look tacky’. I think there’s something about your images that’s never, ever exploitative or never too overtly sexual.

I felt that when I was looking at them – even when there’s that sense of the Bacchanalian, the Aries girl holds her own.

Sofia Prantera: She’s empowered, yeah.

“Jane (How) gave me the strength to push things in ways I wouldn’t have felt confident doing on my own. She knows how far you can go without it looking terrible!” – Sofia Prantera

David Sims: Those are the moments that you kind of create the circumstance, you piece together the possibilities but it only ever becomes a success in my mind when that moment occurs all on its own. It ceases to become something that you have a grip on. In itself, I think control is a really unhealthy aspiration. So what you try to do is bring enough certainty to a situation so the happenstance can occur without something falling apart. It’s like I’m waiting for the person to take over, you know? That’s quintessentially what I think gives a meaning to a picture because it’s actually beyond the realm of your control at all, you know, it becomes a performance.

Sofia Prantera: That’s what I found really really interesting working with you. I think you see it as something normal but I don’t think anyone works in that way.

David Sims: You know, these photographers who had these infamous reputations for being a bastard to their subjects... that’s just not my bag at all. 

Sofia Prantera: I think it’s what makes your images so different.

David Sims: It’s very important for me. I would primarily always want the woman in the picture to be the figure in charge. They’ve got to be the strongest character in the story.