The cult 90s brand is back with its anti-authority designs – Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie meets the designers
Adam Thorpe and Joe Hunter have been meeting up pretty much every Friday for the last 25 years. In 1995, the two founded Vexed Generation, a brand more known among serious collectors than today’s casual fashion fans, but well deserving of the cult status it’s acquired. Fashion often responds to social and political concerns, and Vexed made this explicit – with tactical fabrics and hoods that provided near anonymity, its clothes confronted both a sense of distrust between the state and civilians and the realities of urban life in the 1990s. Intellectually, the designers were responding to issues like increased CCTV surveillance and the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill – which gave police greater powers over stop and search and was intended to curtail the raves that had defined British nightlife so much since the heady, MDMA-fuelled second summer of love at the close of the previous decade.
Vexed Generation’s return today – through a reissued collection of its most signature pieces, available exclusively through Farfetch and powered by vintage fashion experts Byronesque – feels fitting. We’re more surveilled today than at any other point in history, and the idea of CCTV cameras being the only ones watching us feels positively quaint. No one has made this more evident than Christopher Wylie, the fashion trend forecaster and whistleblower who revealed the widespread use of social media data by firm Cambridge Analytica for electoral manipulation. As someone who understands intimately the role that clothes play in both the formation of own identities and wider political systems (yes, what you wear correlates to who you vote for), who better to discuss why the time was right for a new generation to get Vexed?
Last month, Wylie sat down with the designers in London – this is their conversation.
Christopher Wylie: Why bring back Vexed generation now?
Adam Thorpe: When we packed up the first time, it was because it became too much like a business and less like what we were interested in doing, which was designing in response to the conversations we were having. Recently Byronesque were saying to us, ‘Listen, people are buying your stuff second hand. There’s obviously an interest in what you’re doing.’ That was quite interesting to us because some of the social scenarios that were dominant when we were designing seem to be predominant again now. In terms of distrust, fear between state and citizen... So we were like okay, maybe now is the best time to rejoin the conversation.
Christopher Wylie: Now the clothes remind me of urban community, of drill in east London, which obviously didn’t exist 25 years ago...
Joe Hunter: I’ve got an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old watching these drill videos online. I’m watching these guys in their groups all covered up and I’m thinking, fuck that’s an interesting aesthetic. The things we discussed within our designs were criminal justice, urban surveillance – we were responding to CCTV, air quality and civil liberties. If we look at what’s happening now 25 years later, all of those things have gotten worse not better and more and more insidious. The relationship between the citizen and the state has got so much worse.
Christopher Wylie: It feeds itself as well. The degradation between society and the person. Everything feeds on the environment.
Joe Hunter: We explicitly set ourselves a brief around this stuff. And that was the look that came out of it. In the same way, (the style of drill) is an aesthetic response to the environment of those involved with it. If clothing is a litmus test, a reflection of culture, what else does that tell us? If the environment is shaping people’s sartorial decisions in that way, what else is the environment shaping about these people? We think we have problems with gangs and stabbings, antisocial behaviour. Yeah, it is a fucking problem – but where is that coming from?
Christopher Wylie: When you first started talking about surveillance it was cameras, which still exist. London is the most surveilled place in the world. But now when you look at the notion of surveillance, surveillance is no longer a camera, it’s algorithms and databases. You’re constantly using the thing that’s watching you. You help it get to know you because you’re using it – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, even when you just look up things on your phone. When you Google things, email people, everything you do is tracked.
“London is the most surveilled place in the world. But now when you look at the notion of surveillance, surveillance is no longer a camera, it’s algorithms and databases. You’re constantly using the thing that’s watching you” – Christopher Wylie
Joe Hunter: We’re inviting those vampires into our homes. They can’t come in unless you bring them in.
Christopher Wylie: What’s interesting about it is that when you look at where we’re going as a society, if you think we’re surveilled now, wait until AI starts to integrate with our physical space.
Joe Hunter: That’s what we’re interested in.
Christopher Wylie: Not just physical space in terms of going on the tube, but literally your fridge, your children’s toys, the monitor for your houses, where your house talks to your car and your car talks to the road and the road talks all about you. You’re in it and it can see you. It knows lots about you but you cannot see it. So you don’t know what it’s talking about or what it’s saying about you. What do you do in that situation? It’s interesting because once you’re in it, it’s very hard to escape it.
Joe Hunter: It’s hard to avoid it. It’s really hard to avoid it. It’s like trying to get a credit card.
Adam Thorpe: If you don’t have much of a record they won’t let you get one.
Christopher Wylie: One of the things that I find so insidious about the evolution of surveillance is that the more private you are the more the omnipresent system assumes you are untrustworthy. Whether that is the police going, ‘You don’t have your ID cards, so who are you? What are you up to?’ Or when you’re applying for a credit card and you don’t necessarily have a concrete profile you’re a high risk person. What that does is that it removes the presumption of innocence, that rather than assuming that people are honest and trustworthy from the beginning because we don’t know who you are we automatically assume that you’re up to no good. I think the real difference between when you started and where we are now is that it’s companies that are taking that place and becoming that powerful thing.
Adam Thorpe: To some extent, we don’t know whether the companies are the state. The power has shifted. I think we all have a responsibility for that, how we consume information, how we look for and provide that information. But the work you’ve done around the whispering stuff is really interesting. About how you, back then, were able to whisper to people. That idea that I’ve seen you talk about when conversations in culture aren’t shared in public.
Christopher Wylie: What we can do now with the internet, where previously it would have been physically impossible, is that you can have a massive-scale conversation where no one knows that conversation is happening. Historically, up until the internet, when you say something to a lot of people you have to say it in public. You had to have a public forum where everybody would see and hear the same thing. People were aware of who you are and people could criticise you if you were misleading. The difference now is you can talk to not only that group of people in the town square but you can talk to hundreds of millions of people and none of them realise that you are the one talking to them. That’s what makes surveillance so much more insidious now and it’s hard to defend yourself from it.
Adam Thorpe: Things are so different today. Back then, we just wrote www.vexed.co.uk on a label and stuck it on the clothes – we didn’t even have a computer. We were like, at some point we’ll have a web address so we might as well put it in now. We were lucky that no one else had got it at the time.
Christopher Wylie: The idea that it was at a time where something like Vexed was still an available address.
Adam Thorpe: I have a weird feeling that I can remember a time when there were thousands of websites, rather than millions of websites. We were working with this lot called Omniscience, who were mates of ours that we’d met out and about.
Christopher Wylie: It’s an interesting choice of name.
Adam Thorpe: These guys were interested in how a lot of people were just bouncing around on websites not really paying attention to what the content was or spending much time on them.
Christopher Wylie: Nowadays we call that engagement.
Adam Thorpe: We were always quite interested in what happens if you do things differently. Take the shop – what happens if you block out the window? What happens if you don’t have any mirrors and you have clothes in a box? Rather than trying to shove things down people’s throats, what happens if you do the opposite of that? And with the website as well – we had this thing called information terrorist…
Christopher Wylie: Sounds like Cambridge Analytica.
Adam Thorpe: (laughs) Where you’d have these multiple choice questions that would say, like: ‘Is CCTV: 1. an opportunity to get on TV, 2. an infringement of your liberties, 3. nothing much to worry about?’ It didn’t matter what you clicked but it just asked you to engage with some content. At the end of that, it would give you a discount on some garments, like 15% or something. And if you just went click, click, click then it knew you didn’t take enough time to read it and the scene just went dark before your eyes. It wouldn’t let you back on for 24 hours. We used to like playing around with those platforms.
Joe Hunter: It’s called commercial suicide.
Adam Thorpe: For us we love clothes, design and talking to people and collaborating with people. It was a platform for finding out. What happens if you press this?
Christopher Wylie: It’s funny that you’re talking about when the internet was wide-eyed and bushy tailed. It was a place to find things out, as you put it. Now, content is targeted at what you want to see. Who wears your clothes? Then and now.
Adam Thorpe: Then, it was actually a surprisingly wide group of people. A lot of it came down to the fact that people that were interested in walking into a shop that had its window whited out. We used to sit on the bench across the street outside of a skate shop and just observe people as they came and went and listen to the conversations people had at the doorstep. We noticed women were more adventurous than men. It seemed often if a couple came up then the women would be like ‘What’s going on it there?’. I remember one conversation where the guy was saying, ‘You know I’m not going to go in there, you know I’m not going to go in there’, pulling her away.
Joe Hunter: The irony was it was a menswear collection but the space that was terrifying for some.
Adam Thorpe: The people who were wearing it were people that were interested in the space that asked the question really. It was people who were quite adventurous, quite questioning. That was the first wave of people and that was quite diverse, they were quite creative people. Then there were people that were activists and wanted to see different kinds of change. There were people who were creative and were interested in different aesthetics to experiment with. A lot of the stuff we made can be worn in many different ways. One of the interesting things was you couldn’t get the clothes anywhere else but the shop. When we first started out, that was it so there was this common experience you’re talking about. ‘Did you go down that piss smelling alleyway?’
Christopher Wylie: How have you had to change the collection to reissue it?
Joe Hunter: Time Out said we at the ‘vanguard of fleece technology’ – what that actually meant was that Vexed Generation had re-appropriated the textile known as polar fleece and turned it into a garment that didn’t look like a box and didn’t look like you’ve just been up the mountains...
Adam Thorpe: ...But in those days we thought like, ‘Oh let’s use recycled bottles, that’d be a decent way of keeping warm.’ Turns out microfibers escape from the clothes and out of your washing machine into the water supply and then into the mouths of fish. It’s a nightmare. We were a part of that problem.
Christopher Wylie: It’s really hard to not be a part of the problem.
Adam Thorpe: Well it is but you’ve got to try. When we were asked to reissue the clothing and fleeces and we had to make the fleeces as true to the original as can be, it was like, ah shit, how are we going to do this. We spoke to these guys Stop Micro Waste in Berlin and they told us about the Guppy bag.
Christopher Wylie: When you wash it in the bag?
Adam Thorpe: And it catches all the filaments. We’re issuing the fleeces in those bags to stop micro waste. Whoever gets the fleece gets the bag and can use it for other stuff too. This is part of having the conversations that are practical, some are more cultural.
“I’m thinking – are we an aspirational brand? I have aspirations for the world to clean itself up. I have aspirations for communities and politicians to be better” – Adam Thorpe
Christopher Wylie: Do you think people should collect your clothes?
Joe Hunter: No, I think they should wear them. My idea of collectors is that people put them in a special place where people collect things. How many people do you know who have a bedroom full of trainers in boxes? Have you come across Jonathan Chapman? He talks about emotional durability as a way of contributing to sustainability. If you design something that someone can fall in love with then they won’t throw it away as easily.
Christopher Wylie: Is that something you keep in mind when designing? What is it you want people to take away from your clothes?
Joe Hunter: Well, none of our stuff has ever been branded. it doesn’t have a lot of logos all over it and that’s because we think that the design should do that. The only thing to do is make it different by following your own perspective on something.
Adam Thorpe: I’m thinking – are we an aspirational brand? I have aspirations for the world to clean itself up. I have aspirations for communities and politicians to be better, and I have aspirations to see as many people as possible wearing our kit and talking to us and talking to each other.