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Still from Boot/LegDirector Akinola Davies, Director of Photography Nathalie Pitters

Akinola Davies’ new film explores bootleg fashion

Making its debut in Basel last month, Boot/Leg takes a look at counterfeit goods and the culture that surrounds them

No longer relegated to market stalls or hawked from the back of lorries under cover of darkness, the last few years have seen ‘bootleg’ fashion – or at least highly stylised, meta takes on bootleg fashion – infiltrate catwalks around the world. Not only have the likes of Burberry, Balenciaga, Fendi, and Gucci embraced brash logos and so-wrong-they’re-right prints, in the case of the latter Italian brands, they’ve also joined forces with the bootleggers themselves.

Exploring the concept of counterfeit goods and their extensive connotations as part of short film Boot/Leg is artist Akinola Davies. Making its debut at Switzerland’s Art Basel last month, the film features a series of street-cast individuals and models and delves into the social, cultural, and class distinctions of those who usually adopt counterfeit goods into their wardrobes.

“It’s about the women on Kingsland Road in knock-off Chanel hijabs, and the rudeboys with luxury wallets in their pockets” – Akinola Davies

“The project is about communities and their codes, and their adoption of this ‘bootleg’ aesthetic – why people choose to wear counterfeit styles,” says Davies. “What’s the meaning behind it, and who controls and forges the narratives in popular culture are the issues I’m trying to unravel with Boot/Leg. It’s about worlds colliding: this time in the context of fashion and popular culture. It’s about the women on Kingsland Road in knock-off Chanel hijabs, and the rudeboys with luxury wallets in their pockets. Most of the communities that adopt these codes are often not who the brands are aiming their collections at. But what would happen if Chanel did a shoot with a woman in a hijab, or if Armani employed rudeboys to model in their campaign? Boot/Leg is an attempt at that conversation using the tropes of a high-end fashion shoot.”

Before Boot/Leg makes its UK debut as part of the East End Film Festival later this month, we caught up with Davies to talk about his references, his first trip to Art Basel, and why fashion is embracing the art of the fake.  

You’ve worked with the likes of Kenzo and Bianca Saunders in the last couple of years, and you’ve just made your debut at Art Basel. How did you get into art and photography?

Akinola Davies: Initially I wanted to be a journalist, so studied journalism at Brighton Uni, but realised pretty quickly I was more interested in photojournalism – I was convinced I was going to join the army and become a war photographer. Luckily someone talked me out of that, and I ended up hanging out with a lot of the kids at the art school in Brighton. I tried working for a few production companies in London, but wasn’t very good at just making the tea – I wanted to be creative! I saved up and enrolled on a filmmaking course in New York and when I came back, I met photographers Tim and Barry, who asked me to come in and help them out once a week in their studio. I went in every day and eventually I was shooting, editing, and producing, in this really unconventional way, and I loved every minute of it. So it started from there.

What story did you want to tell with Boot/Leg?

Akinola Davies: Communities create culture, they immortalise aesthetics, and make the mundane commodity a staple within the framework of their existence, and then in the broader existence. Who owns this? Why do these clashes co-exist? Boot/Leg came from an observational interest in human behaviour and identity, and the room we installed at Art Basel was designed to reflect all these thoughts.

Who are the people in the portraits, where did you meet them? How did you approach them?

Akinola Davies: Most of them were models from a number of different agencies – casting director Chloe Rosolek saved my ass many times on that. The older people are friends and friends’ parents. I really enjoyed working with people who weren’t used to the cameras, their reactions and discipline was so much fun to work with. 

Gucci sued Dapper Dan for plagiarising them in the 80s and Burberry are revisiting the check they tried so hard to distance themselves from two decades ago. Why do you think fashion has embraced the idea of the bootleg?

Akinola Davies: I don’t know really – but I think a lot of brands have finally caught up with the century we’re in. The common man has probably done way more for the legacy of many of them than they care to admit. Communities make a brand. If no one wears the clothes then you just have some constructed designs and fabrics sitting there. Whether or not the items are real or fake, the person wearing them is drawing attention to that particular brand.

Do you think it’s a good thing brands are acknowledging a different audience then?

Akinola Davies: Yeah, it’s good, I guess, but it seems a little surface to me at times, because it’s like “let’s work with and cast everyone we discarded for decades and say now were are even, right? Hooray for diversity!” That’s not how it works. That said, there are a lot of people working for these brands that are doing great work, and trying to turn these big, slow ships. The kids in the club always threw things together better than the wildest imaginations of those brands though, and maybe they’re realising it and now looking in their direction for inspiration. Fashion always comes from the street. Burberry should cast Daniella Westbrook in a campaign though, that would be something (laughs).

Have you ever owned any bootleg pieces?  

Akinola Davies: Not as many as I probably should have to be honest. I always wanted fake Burberry stuff, and I had some fake Wale Adeyemi print stuff back when he was poppin’. And I had some fake Versace shades and some Louis Vuitton bits too.

You just got back from your first time in Basel. Can you talk a bit about working with 1.1, the initiative that helped you with the installation?

Akinola Davies: I was approached by Deborah Holman (artist and co-founder) to do a show last year and initially I was really intimidated – I was surrounded by so many artists who show a lot in this context. Deborah and the team at 1.1 convinced me to step out of the frame of mind of not being an artist, though: the space welcomed ideas and mixed practices, they put on music shows, and they’re very supportive. They were super calm about the process and what we could do, and it actually felt extremely natural and inspiring to bring it all together. I worked alongside 1.1, set designers Joseph Bond, and my producer Moya Bradley on the installation and we had the most humbly amazing time in Basel.

What was the response to Boot/Leg?

Akinola Davies: It was great seeing so many people turn up that are genuinely interested in what you have to say, people responded really well. It snowed on the day of the show but still a lot of people came through to have a drink and check out this curious name they’d seen on a flyer around town. So it was good.

What’s next for you?

Akinola Davies: The film’s being screened at the East End Film Festival as part of a curated screening by AQNB. Then hopefully we’ll bring the exhibition to London, but we’re still working on that. I have a short film coming out as part of the V&A’s Fashioned From Nature exhibition later this month. I’m also writing a bunch of brilliantly weird scripts, and have a few longer form projects in mind. But yeah, more film – I think any context of making film for me is magic.

Watch a series of stills from the film below, and see it live at the Rio Cinema in Dalston as part of AQNB's curation at the East End Film Festival this weekend.