The return of cult political fashion brand Vexed Generation

Its technical clothing was a response to increased CCTV surveillance, The Criminal Justice Bill and air pollution – now ‘London’s answer to Helmut Lang’ is making a comeback

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Vexed Generation archive
Vexed Generation x Puma, taken from the December 2004 issue of DazedPhotography Jon Baker Styling Beth Fenton

“I actually met Joe years ago at a wedding, he was taking the piss out of what I was wearing,” remembers Gill Linton, co-founder of vintage fashion retailer Byronesque. “I said, ‘What do you know?’ and he replied, ‘Well, I used to do Vexed Generation.’”

To those who were around London’s fashion scene in the mid-90s and early 2000s, there is hardly a better retort to being challenged on your style credentials. Launched in 1995 by Joe Hunter and Adam Thorpe, Vexed Generation was hailed by Calvin Klein as London’s answer to Helmut Lang, according to Linton. Despite neither having formal training in fashion design, the duo crafted a futuristic aesthetic with their clothes, while using them to challenge society’s ills. “The gloomy basement seems more like a setting for planning political insurrection than a fashion collection”, was once written of their store at 12 Newburgh Street. 

While the age-old question of ‘can fashion change the world?’ still persists today, for Vexed Generation, it very much could. Or, at the very least, it could provide the stimulus for discussion and debate. In turn, garments were crafted with facemasks that would protect against air pollution and unwanted attention from CCTV cameras, while they also created parkas with padded areas that could, theoretically, soften the blow of a police baton. For Londoners at the time, Vexed Generation was the perfect marriage of political angst and avant-garde style.

Launched this past weekend in New York, several of the brand’s archive pieces have been included in Byronesque and Opening Ceremony’s collaborative ‘Fashion Porn’ pop-up, which runs until the 23rd of this month. “We felt it was right to include them in the pop-up,” Linton explains. “We’re putting them alongside Raf Simons and Helmut Lang. The financial and emotional value of early Raf and Helmut Lang and Margiela, across men’s and women’s – because the Vexed guys also did womenswear – is huge right now, and Humberto (Leon) at Opening Ceremony recognises that. And he recognises that what the Vexed guys did – they were very much part of that peer group.” The invitation saw Thorpe and Hunter sifting through their old archives which, ultimately, convinced them to relaunch the brand for AW18.

The first iteration of the label was initially inspired by the fact £200 million was spent on surveillance cameras to watch over some of London's poorest boroughs. Two decades on, it seems that little has changed, when money can be found to prop up a deal with homophobic bigots in the DUP, but not to ensure that tower blocks in some of London’s most deprived areas are habitable. As Hunter and Thorpe see it, this current generation has never been more vexed – and they have something to say about it.

For those who missed the first coming of Vexed Generation, can you tell us a little bit about the brand?

Joe Hunter: We took urban surveillance, civil liberty, air pollution and The Criminal Justice Bill, as it was at the time, as our brief. We wanted people to be able to have as much mobility as they could in a city, and we wanted to maintain anonymity if people required it, and we also wanted people to have elements of protection, so we chose our fabrics very carefully. We were using high-tenacity ballistics made by a mill up north who were producing specifically for the MOD. And we tried to create some utilitarian garments and accessories which did all of what I first described. But more than necessarily the protection element of it, it was designed to promote and provoke debate.

How did that desire manifest itself in the actual garments?

Joe Hunter: Well, if you look at a garment like The Parka, which was part of our very first seven piece collection, some described it as ‘a parody of police riot gear,’ which it wasn’t – it just happened to work in that sort of environment. It was a double-ended fishtail parka with padding up through the groin, some chest utility pockets, a whole load of pads around the pelvis, the back of the kidneys, up the spine and over the head, with a facial mask designed for anonymity. And also slot-in a carbon filter, so you choose how clean the air was going to be.

Adam Thorpe: We spent a helluva lot of time trying to understand the space and communities of the types of people we were talking to, who were already involved in some sort of action, protest or (political) communication. Because it’s not right to just wander in and say, ‘Hey, we’re in Soho, we can shout louder than you.’ So we went and communicated with people like Justice, The Advanced Party Network, Reclaim The Streets, and a lot of people who were protesting for the good of everybody. We said to them, ‘Look, we would like to do it from our angle – we’re saying the same sort of stuff as you, we’ve got ourselves a central London space that we can communicate from,’ and our clothing was saying very similar sorts of things and the various bits of paperwork (and pamphlets) we put out at the time was all singing from the same songsheet.

“We wanted people to be able to have as much mobility as they could in a city, and we wanted to maintain anonymity if people required it... But more than the protection element of it, it was designed to promote and provoke debate” – Joe Hunter

While it can rightly sit alongside labels like Raf Simons and Helmut Lang, there seems to have been a real anti-fashion ethos driving the brand. Would you say that’s fair?

Adam Thorpe:  I think that some of the aesthetics that are in Vexed – the concealment, the utilitarian values, the informed aesthetics of some of the stuff we were doing in the 90s – is pretty mainstream in many regards now. We would always just take the idea first which we wanted to communicate and start a conversation about and see where that led. And, at the same, trying to make it something that people would feel confident wearing. I think from that perspective, it wasn’t really in fashion so I don’t really see it as being out of fashion. It was more of a visual, sartorial response to the social issues that concerned us and we wanted to talk about. Clothing’s always about conversations.

The brand shuttered in the mid-2000s – did you still continue working together?

Joe Hunter: Yeah. For example, we were part of the Cop21 protests in November of 2016, and we were part of a bunch of activists who made some huge, inflatable cobblestones which originated in Paris, and derived from the May 68 Paris Riots when all the students threw cobblestones at the Old Bill. And the idea was to build something big, something that catches the eye and is hard to handle for one person – you throw that into a crowd, it’s not going to do anyone any harm, but if you try and bring it under control it causes a bit of mayhem. It was kind of a bit of fun, political angst, and, you know, we’ve still got a lot of beliefs around a lot of these issues, whether it’s environmental, social, economic or political. There are so many things our brains can’t switch off from, and we’ve been doing a lot of work based around different aspects of society, the only thing we haven’t really been doing is producing clothes as a way to voice our thinking – but that’s coming in again now.

Aesthetically and politically, Vexed seemed quite ahead of its time...

Adam Thorpe: We used to be big fans of Mondo 2000 and Wired Magazine and would put Vexed.co.uk on the back of our garments before we even had a computer, just because we’d been reading about the idea of a website, and thought ‘Ok, let’s stick that in there.’ Fortunately, the address was still there when we came to register it.

Joe Hunter: Most people didn’t have computers then, let alone the internet. Initially, a lot of the facts we used to respond to came from a friend, who worked for the Financial Times and had access to Reuters news text databases she could access as a journalist. You didn’t have open data around air quality like you do nowadays. So basically I’d ask my friend if she could find anything out about it and she was able to come back and let us know there had been 200 admissions to Whitechapel Hospital in 24 hours, mainly younger people and older people. And now when you look at the data, there’s 40,000 premature deaths from air pollution each year – 9,000 of them in London. It was only last month the mayor put out an alert saying: ‘Look, the air is poisonous at the moment, take precautions, especially if you’re one of the vulnerable groups.’ So these are contemporary issues.

Adam Thorpe: The first website we ever had was designed to communicate and try to interact with people as much as possible. And one of the things it stood by, in almost a commercially suicidal manner, was the fact that if you didn’t do some reading and interact with the site itself, and if you just wanted to go to the shop, you’d automatically be kicked off for 24 hours. It was an early idea, and was built by a genius who unfortunately isn’t with us anymore, but it was very much part of the whole philosophy. I don’t think I’ve come across another website doing that.

“Let’s face it, the easiest thing to say is that the world is ready for the Vexed Generation again. The world is full of the vexed generation” – Joe Hunter

How is the second coming of Vexed Generation going to look?

Joe Hunter: We’ve changed as people and designers – we did a piece for Louis Vuitton not too long ago and looked at it and thought, ‘Jesus, we like what we’ve done in the past, but this is the best thing we’ve ever done,’ and we had three months to work on one item, which was an absolute luxury. So I think we’re looking forward to getting on the design tables again as a pair, because we’ve done loads of stuff separately and together, but not just on our own together for quite some time. So that’s quite exciting for us.

And in a political sense, it seems like a good time for a comeback too...

Joe Hunter: Well, let’s face it, the easiest thing to say is that the world is ready for the Vexed Generation again. The world is full of the vexed generation. But from our perspective, it has been bubbling for a while, and we’ve been trying to find the time to get something going again. And then Gill gave me a call, which sowed a bit of a seed. It’s hard to get away from the feeling that we wanna come back, we need to come back, we’re not satisfied by enough. And, I guess, we’d like to see what people think about what we have to say.

Vexed Generation is relaunching for AW18. A selection of the brand’s archive pieces have been included in Byronesque’s #FashionPorn pop-up, running until July 23 at Opening Ceremony in New York. 

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