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Stefan Cooke - autumn/winter 2017
From left: Jake wears jacket Stefan Cooke, t-shirt Topman, jeans his own, shoes Camper. Stefan wears all clothes, shoes Stefan CookePhotography Andrea Artemisia, styling Gary David Moore

Stefan Cooke is the rising designer obsessed with boring clothes

Ahead of his fashion week debut, designer Stefan Cooke reconsiders the mundane power of overlooked, everyday items

This time last year Stefan Cooke was in the final, frantic stages of preparing his menswear collection on the MA Fashion Textiles course at Central Saint Martins – now, he’s preparing to make his debut at London Fashion Week Men’s as part of today’s MAN show.

Impressive, but not entirely surprising – a neat line of seemingly ordinary (yet illusionary) items like leather jackets, argyle jumpers and jeans reconstructed into soft, covetable skintight numbers, his graduate collection nabbed the prestigious L’Oréal Professionnel Creative Award, previously scored by designers including Grace Wales Bonner and Matty Bovan. Since then, and with the 2018 H&M Design Award now also under his belt, Cooke has cemented himself as one to watch amongst a new generation of young designers.

Cooke – all curly hair and charming, effervescent energy – marvels at it all from a pub in London Fields. “It’s nuts, I can’t believe it’s happened so quickly! It was funny coming out of education after so long, and suddenly having to think about registering a brand name!” Clearly he’s kept things simple, with an eponymous label.

He is surprisingly unflappable, with a sunny disposition, something he puts down to being the youngest of a family of nine: “I grew up on hand-me-downs, having to share a room with loads of people. I’m generally quite positive about things, but how else can you be?”

We picked Cooke’s brains ahead of his debut about illusionary clothing, the power of mundane, and running around galleries with fashion royalty.

How you feeling about showing at your first London Fashion Week Men’s?

Stefan Cooke: The past two months have taught me to keep doing what I’m doing, because people are vibing with it. I’ve been thinking ‘Oh my god, is this collection enough? Is it what I want?’ but I’m getting better at trusting my instincts and I’m really excited. I actually feel really positive.

What can we expect from the AW18 collection?

Stefan Cooke: We had such short amount of time to design it – winning the H&M Prize Award meant we could afford to go ahead – so they’re very real, honest pieces of clothing. There’s a real sense of wrapping up, with darker, muddier colours. It’s a lot more print-based; with mohair and snakeskin prints.

How has it developed from the MA collection you presented last year?

Stefan Cooke: This time my partner Jake Burt has come into the fold as my co-creative director, so we have his incredible pattern cutting. I think it’s a step in a more sophisticated direction. We’ve also got knitwear designer Kate Brittain (who has worked with Alexander McQueenRick Owens and Claire Barrow) to hand crochet and knit Icelandic jumpers that spiral up the neck. We’re pairing really synthetic pieces with knitwear that’s been handmade with such love. Working with Kate and getting to watch her come up with incredible designs has been great – she’s so good at what she does.

“I love taking mundane items and putting them in a different context. I’m not very wild! I’m quite rooted in reality” – Stefan Cooke

Your MA collection focused on ‘ordinary’ everyday items like jeans, sweater vests, leather jackets and trench coats. What draws you to ‘everyday’ dressing?

Stefan Cooke: I like clothes that are accessible and familiar to everyone – the kind you see day after day on the bus. I think sometimes they’re overlooked – but I love an item that’s been overlooked. When I was at CSM I’d watch guys on the Tube, who maybe used to have mohawks and now wear suits to work; the whole process behind the way we dress makes it really exciting. It’s great when people step out of the box and are totally nuts in their style. But I love taking mundane items and putting them in a different context. I’m not very wild! I’m quite rooted in reality.

Were you surprised when that collection won the L’Oréal Professionnel Creative Award?

Stefan Cooke: It was amazing – I wasn’t expecting it at all. And that’s not just me being humble; ever since undertaking my BA, and even getting onto my MA it was a struggle. So it wasn’t a surefire thing, but I felt like it was deserved. I’d funded everything myself without a scholarship, so it felt really good.

You previously worked as John Galliano’s research assistant – what was that like?

Stefan Cooke: It was insane, a very surreal experience. We spent three months hanging out in Paris in 2014, discussing, having dinner, researching, and going to markets and galleries. There was a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Grand Palais and we went on the day it was closed; they opened it just for us and we looked around it on our own. I was like ‘What the fuck is going on!’ I’ve never experienced anything like that, to have that unprecedented access. I was living with two of my friends, so after a day of feeling very glamorous I’d go back to the hovel and share a sofa bed with my friend and be like ‘’

It was brilliant to be with someone who has so much experience but is also invested in you. He taught me that nothing is off limits, anything you look at can be a reference. I thought he was maybe planning a comeback, but I honestly had no inkling it was Margiela. Maybe I was naïve!

What was the starting point for the latest collection?

Stefan Cooke: I wanted to take a step back from it being too conceptual, and concentrate on technique, especially developing the digital printing process I used in my MA show. I like my clothes to be really appealing but also non-referential, so people can take away when they want from it. It’s great when someone responds: ‘God, I had a jacket like that when I was 16!’

Do you think keeping clothes accessible is a challenge?

Stefan Cooke: When you speak to buyers or shop owners, they want clothes that are exclusive enough to be covetable, but with enough inclusivity to get people to buy them. That’s hard, because the person I want to design for is like me, and I don’t want to spend £3,000 on a jacket. I like to invest in something, but I don’t want to go crazy. The fabric I used (and shredded) in my MA collection was £1 per metre – it’s what you do with your hands to change it that interests me. I was able to create these illusionary garments, where people thought they knew what they were, but they were something else completely. It’s funny how that disparity between your visual receptors and touch receptors messes with your perceptions.

I chose to shoot my lookbook without people, because it feels more inclusive to see the pieces on a hanger. That way you’re not saying ‘This is who my clothes are for.’ I don’t want to think about target markets. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I’m not a global brand, but hopefully I can enjoy not thinking about that for longer.