NOKI

The doc­tor will see you now

Neue Luxury - - News - By Os­man Ahmed

“Cult is a word you would never say in Hol­ly­wood,” John Wa­ters once said. “Cult means that [the film] lost money and three smart peo­ple liked it.” Though many would refuse to ad­mit it, cult sta­tus is the ab­so­lute zenith of cre­ative am­bi­tion. For truly provoca­tive artists and de­sign­ers, even the most glit­ter­ing of in­sti­tu­tional suc­cess will never com­pare to the eter­nal glory of be­com­ing a cult sym­bol. Per­haps it’s the an­cient ro­man­ti­cism of the im­pov­er­ished poet, suf­fer­ing at the hand of cruel fate whilst pro­foundly ar­tic­u­lat­ing such an ex­pe­ri­ence, or maybe it’s the thought of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions scrab­bling for rem­nants of one’s body of work and si­mul­ta­ne­ously fan­ta­sis­ing about a pe­riod that they were too late to get a taste of. What­ever it is, such a sen­ti­ment lends ku­dos and va­lid­ity to an artis­tic reper­toire with the ben­e­fit of ret­ro­spec­tive mar­i­na­tion. If money is broadly con­sid­ered the epit­ome of vul­gar­ity, cult sta­tus is the world’s most honourable cur­rency.

Jonathan Hud­son, gen­er­ally known as JJ and even more widely known as Dr Noki, is a cult sym­bol of Lon­don’s cre­ative land­scape since the turn of the mil­len­nium. Hav­ing risen to promi­nence in the mid-1990s, Noki’s anti- es­tab­lish­ment vi­sion of shred­ded and spliced sports­wear and sec­ond hand clothes, rein­vented with a con­trolled sense of chaos and po­lit­i­cal in­tent, was an orig­i­nal take on cul­ture jam­ming. The ide­ol­ogy was pur­ported by me­dia ac­tivist Kalle Lasn, who ad­vo­cated the end of the ‘brand­ing’ of Amer­ica and a re­turn to au­then­tic cul­ture. Like graphic artist KAWS and sit­u­a­tion­ists such as Ad­busters, Noki’s an­ar­chic sense of sar­to­rial col­lage was an ar­tic­u­late cri­tique and com­ment on mod­ern con­sumerism. Slo­gans and lo­gos were flipped on their heads, sub­vert­ing their orig­i­nal in­ten­tion and call­ing into ques­tion our blind de­sire and, at the time, the in­creas­ingly per­va­sive cul­ture of mono­lithic cor­po­ra­tions and ho- mo­genised per­sonal style. It’s fair to say that Noki chal­lenged you to think be­fore you bought, to con­sider the ob­ject it­self rather than the name on its la­bel— in most cases bran­dished on its sur­face. In this sense, his rad­i­cally in­ter­twined val­ues and aes­thet­ics were a dizzy­ing amal­gam of Vivi­enne West­wood and Christo­pher Nemeth; Banksy and Basquiat; sports­wear and sus­tain­abil­ity— a blend of high and low that el­e­vated the every­day into the ex­tra­or­di­nary.

A child of the 1980s, JJ grew up in post-punk Aberdeen and was in­flu­enced by his older brother from an early age. “My brother Joss would mix up clothes to suit him,” he told i-d in 2007. “He was the tribal style leader of his gang, who would wear grey marle jog­ging bot­toms with odd coloured brothel creep­ers and lay­ered ripped up band t-shirts.” The de­signer’s life­long odyssey of cus­tomi­sa­tion be­gan when his grand­mother gave him a Singer sewing ma­chine, which was so old that he had to man­u­ally turn a han­dle to make it work. His first cre­ation was dis­tinctly Noki flavoured. “It would have been my mum’s 60s suede dark green jacket, cus­tomised into an 80s fringed style, for a Spear of Destiny con­cert.” Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Ed­in­burgh School of Art in 1993, his West­wood ad­mir­ing ado­les­cence took him to Brighton, the home of Bri­tish bo­hemi­an­ism. Be­fore long styling work at MTV— the apex of glob­alised pop cul­ture at the time— came call­ing, find­ing the de­signer re­lo­cat­ing to Lon­don.

The MTV years were for­ma­tive in de­vel­op­ing the de­signer’s gutsy ap­proach. “I was sur­rounded by lots of hip hop gear in the wardrobes and heavy brand­ing was ev­ery­where,” he ex­plained to Pop al­most a decade ago. “MTV wanted me to use well known brands, but I couldn’t show the ac­tual name on air so I used gaffer tape to cover let­ters up. Adi­das be­came Aids. The Nike tick would turn into a smile with some Min­nie Mouse eyes above it, and then I’d hole punch the t-shirt un­til it looked like it’d been in­volved in a drive by shoot­ing,” he elab­o­rated. “It gave me a rea­son to start analysing what sort of world I’d got in­volved in. I knew that there was this ho­mogeni­sa­tion go­ing on; I con­sid­ered my­self cut­ting edge, but that blade was get­ting rusty and old. So to sharpen my edge up, I started to sub­vert things— chang­ing the word­ing on sweat­shirts, slash­ing things, ruch­ing men’s t-shirts to make them more fem­i­nine.”

Af­ter dis­cov­er­ing his knack for sub­vert­ing sports­wear, Noki em­barked on mak­ing a mark upon Lon­don’s fash­ion scene, which was light years away from be­com­ing the lux­ury fash­ion des­ti­na­tion it is to­day. By the late 1990s, east Lon­don’s Shored­itch neigh­bour­hood had be­come a melt­ing pot of cre­ative in­dus­tries, cour­tesy of cheap rent and a buzzing nightlife. Mag­a­zines such as i-d, Dazed & Con­fused and Sleazena­tion set up base in the area along with a new wave of de­sign­ers, pho­tog­ra­phers and stylists.

When pho­tog­ra­pher David Sims and stylist Anna Cock­burn shot a young Gisele Bünd­chen for her first ever edi­to­rial shoot, she was wear­ing one of Noki’s re­pur­posed Cham­pion sweat­shirts. The im­age cat­a­pulted a ric­o­chet of buzz through­out the Lon­don fash­ion scene and Ni­cola Formichetti, then a buyer at the now de­funct con­cep­tual bou­tique The Pineal Eye, picked it up ex­clu­sively. Ev­ery­one from Kate Moss to Naomi Camp­bell were quick to stock up on Noki pieces. Dr Noki came to de­fine the glory days of Hox­ton and its cool com­mu­nity of cre­atives, who em­bod­ied a free spir­ited era of youth cul­ture and a wider con­ver­gence of art, mu­sic and fash­ion. It all came to a grind­ing halt when the de­signer had a life threat­en­ing mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent in 2002 and sub­se­quently re­lo­cated back to Brighton to re­cu­per­ate, join­ing his fam­ily, lover and friends. To the fash­ion in­dus­try, Noki had sud­denly dis­ap­peared and the fickle fans of the provoca­tive la­bel quickly for­got the raw tal­ent that had so spec­tac­u­larly cap­tured their at­ten­tion.

Fast for­ward al­most a decade and Dr Noki had been given a sec­ond chance. In 2007, Noki re­turned— this time with a trade­mark sur­gi­cal mask re­pur­posed from a head­scarf— con­ceal­ing his face to the world and launch­ing NHS, a word­play on the UK’S Na­tional Health Ser­vice which ac­tu­ally stood for Noki’s House of Sus­tain­abil­ity. The name had a ring of House of Beauty and Cul­ture to it, ref­er­enc­ing the long for­got­ten craft col­lec­tive that con­sisted of John Moore, Christo­pher Nemeth, Judy Blame, Mark Le­bon and fur­ni­ture de­sign­ers Fric + Frack in the 1980s. Just like House of Beauty and Cul­ture, Noki em­ployed hand craft to protest against the in­creas­ingly mass pro­duced rag trade to high­light the gov­ern­ment’s mis­man­age­ment of re­sources and waste. If one was to con­sider NHS as an al­ter­na­tive to mod­erni­sa­tion, it could be seen as the same rad­i­cal method­ol­ogy used by Wil­liam Mor­ris and John Ruskin over a cen­tury ear­lier. To mark his re­turn, he teamed up with Lulu Kennedy, the founder of tal­ent in­cu­ba­tion pro­gramme Fash­ion East, to present his col­lec­tion at Lon­don Fash­ion Week. “Mod­els in­clud­ing Johnny Woo and for­mer Boom­boxer Jeanette hob­bled down the run­way, styled and power-wigged within an inch of their lives,” wrote jour­nal­ist Paul Tier­ney of the scene. “For all the trash- drag over­lay, it is more than ap­par­ent that there is real in­ge­nu­ity on dis­play here— a mul­ti­tude of de­tails that force peo­ple to sit up and take no­tice. Along­side sig­na­ture cus­tomised t-shirts, there’s an au­di­ble gasp at a pa­rade of beau­ti­fully rein­vented fifties prom dresses that look more Dior cou­ture than Hox­ton Square.”

By then the word sus­tain­abil­ity had en­tered pop­u­lar ver­nac­u­lar and a de­bate sur­round­ing eth­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity had started to in­fil­trate the in­dus­try. Noki made it cen­tral to his la­bel, col­lab­o­rat­ing with char­i­ties that aimed to re­duce waste. “My fairy god­mother has come in the guise of a re­cy­cling plant called LMB. It’s a fam­ily run busi­ness with no po­lit­i­cal agenda, that re­cy­cles metal, paper and plas­tics as well as rags,” he ex­plained of his process. “They deal with thou­sands of tonnes of brand name waste. It all comes in on a con­veyor belt and they let me pick out what­ever I want. The whole Noki sil­hou­ette starts to come to­gether right there and then. Now I’ve got my source locked down, ideas are in­fi­nite.” When asked about his thoughts on the ecow­ar­rior move­ment, how­ever, the de­signer was suit­ably sub­ver­sive. “I’d like to think of my­self as the dark side of green. I don’t make pretty a-line skirts and cot­ton ging­ham t-shirts. I’m first and fore­most an artist who just chan­nels his work through fash­ion. I’m not in­ter­ested in bor­ing fash­ion—i do it to be re­ally su­per avant-garde. I’m not one of those tree hug­gers ei­ther. I love na­ture and the rest of it, but I want to be con­tem­po­rary and hon­est about do­ing some­thing mod­ernist for the fu­ture.”

Whereas most fash­ion de­sign­ers veer away from the ‘a’ word, Hud­son has al­ways courted the art world, cit­ing his one-off pro­duc­tion as a means of artis­tic prac­tice. “First and fore­most, I’m an artist,” he told Pop. “Ev­ery­thing I make has a story be­hind it and a rea­son for be­ing. I’ve been de­scribed as chaotic in the past, but in fact there’s dis­ci­pline and a pas­sion be­hind ev­ery­thing I cre­ate.” Much like haute cou­ture, which ex­ists not for prof­itable gain but for the spec­ta­tor­ship and ger­mi­na­tion of ideas, Noki’s in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic of­fer­ing was per­haps the virtue that an­chored his la­bel to com­mer­cial fail­ure. That, and the seem­ingly low brow na­ture of his gar­ments due to unglam­orous prove­nance. In hind­sight, the de­signer’s skill is clear to see, but at the time was over­shad­owed by a gen­er­a­tion of Lon­don based de­sign­ers such as Christo­pher Kane and Rok­sanda Ilin­cic, who were eager to crack the lux­ury mar­ket. “Some of my con­tem­po­raries at the start were like, ‘Why are you cut­ting up old t-shirts? I could do that’. But they tried it and failed mis­er­ably. It’s like Gal­liano and his bias cut­ting. A lot of peo­ple thought they could do the same, but it takes some­body who ac­tu­ally un­der­stands the fab­ric and the shape of the body.”

To­day, Noki con­tin­ues to work on one- off pieces in his pre­ferred Bri­tish sea­side town. His name, amongst those in the know, has be­come syn­ony­mous with a time in Lon­don that nar­rowly avoided ex­tor­tion­ate rents and a con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment in­duced ‘Age of Aus­ter­ity’. One can al­most imag­ine that suc­cess would some­how have seemed con­tra­dic­tory to what he does, some­how di­min­ish­ing the sense of ac­tivism and protest emit­ted from each one of his rad­i­cally re­worked gar­ments. Then again, that’s what makes Noki a cult sym­bol— one that will be re­mem­bered by gen­er­a­tions to come.

Photo by Mor­gan White.

Photo by Mor­gan White. Photo by Mor­gan White.

Photo by Mor­gan White.

Photo by Mor­gan White.

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