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Backstage at Symonds Pearmain AW18Photography Nick DeLieto

Meet the maverick design duo behind off-kilter label Symonds Pearmain

Founded by Anthony Symonds and stylist Max Pearmain, the label just made its LFW runway debut as a special guest at Fashion East’s AW18 show

TextLiam HessPhotographyNick DeLieto

The story behind maverick design duo Symonds Pearmain is one of serendipity: Max Pearmain, editor of Arena Homme+ and stylist for the likes of Burberry and Calvin Klein, stumbled across an image of Kate Moss wearing an Anthony Symonds t-shirt and determined to track down the designer behind it. Following stints working under John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood in the 1990s, Symonds had quietly struck out on his own, relaunching in 2009 with commercial art gallery Cabinet to produce limited editions for collectors. An instant creative spark between the two led to the beginning of what has become one of London’s most intriguing design partnerships. 

From the beginning, the pair have operated in the grey area between contemporary art and fashion, refusing to sit comfortably in either category. Their first presentation in 2016, titled ‘Retail Baroque’, saw model and mime artist Lily McMenamy adopting a series of poses and performances based on female archetypes called out to her at random. This season, Fashion East director Lulu Kennedy, a long-time friend of Symonds, saw their potential to sit alongside her seasonal round-up of London’s most talented graduates. “I just thought they deserved a platform,” she says. “Anthony really knows his craft and together with Max it just works: it’s got immediate lift-off, it arrived fully formed.” 

Their desire to confound expectations began this season with their show notes, written by acclaimed video artist Ed Atkins: a hi-vis orange sheet, it warned ominously of sweat, dry-humping and tepid black gunk. “The idea of a press release to me represents so much about what’s pointless and depressing about fashion,” says Symonds after the show. “They’re completely artificial. I actually wanted to use another designer’s press release, but I thought we’d probably get in shit for that.” With all this talk of bodily horror and abjection, you could be forgiven for expecting a vision of dystopian gloom: instead the pair delivered their most upbeat and mischievous collection yet.

Hanging from the backs of the models – including label muse McMenamy, Edie Campbell and Lili Sumner – were both cotton prints of the press release and panels of kitschy cross-stitched roses superimposed with the slogan ‘World’s Famous Supreme Team’, a reference to the pioneering 1980s hip hop collective that reached international attention with Malcolm McLaren’s 1982 “Buffalo Gals”. Appropriately McLaren’s era-defining hit also served as the show’s soundtrack, followed by Jacques Offenbach’s “Infernal Galop” – popularly known as the Can-Can – for the final walk. It couldn’t sum up the Symonds Pearmain paradox more succinctly: eclectic, subversive, with a dollop of playful humour.  

Stripes and checks clashed wildly and were overlaid with baroque curlicues, all of it pulled together with the meticulous cutting that speaks of Symonds’ decades of experience. A continuing thread was their interrogation of fashion’s dictatorial approach to womanhood. “There’s definitely a feeling here of a more ‘put together’ woman, which means you enter this terrible hinterland of clichés and shortcuts about what it means to be a woman,” says Symonds. “We wanted to explore the idea of design matching your expectation, or falling short of it. Or maybe moving your expectation to the side.”

“We wanted to explore the idea of design matching your expectation, or falling short of it. Or maybe moving your expectation to the side” – Symonds Pearmain 

What compelled them to work with a more conventional runway format this season? “We’re interested in trying to slowly develop a model that has some kind of sustainable potential, rather than scaling up massively and ending up with clothes in landfill,” adds Symonds. “Really we just want to enjoy it.” The move from deconstructed sportswear to graphic, eye-catching separates also spoke of a more commercial outlook. Even though their editions, which previously came in sets of one or three, are expanding to runs of up to fifty pieces, they’re keen to specify this doesn’t change the philosophy of the brand. “We’re not looking to create some kind of false, Supreme-style market for it – at this early stage we just want to connect with people who are actually into it.”

Ironically, their favourite response to the new collection came from someone close to home. “With the show notes, I don’t know how many people read them, but the one person who asked us about them was actually Edie (Campbell). She’s the perfect example of the girl we’re really into, because she’s so switched on. She’s intelligent and articulate, but she also doesn’t give a shit – she does things totally on her own terms.” The Symonds Pearmain woman might be impossible to define, but in their eyes it’s what makes her so exciting. Confident and discerning, yes – but perhaps the most important trait is simply a limitless, shape-shifting curiosity.