Computer Arts Projects (Issue 130) - Underground Inspirations

Lawrence Zeegen investigates a growing global trend that sees designers and illustrators shaking up apparel styles and fashions: taking inspirations and influences from the underground, subcultures and streetlife and zeitgeist of their particular place on the planet…

There is an emerging global subculture that sees designers, illustrators and image-makers breaking free from the chains of commercial conformity, stepping out of their pre-set, predetermined existence and delving into the underground world of street fashion. For the first time the non-fashion trained designer can utilize their own raw talent; spot a gap in the zeitgeist and create designs for one-off, bespoke fashion pieces, limited-edition printed T’s or images for buttons/badges and baseball hats. And then rapidly through a network of online and offline retailers have their wares become what you wear almost overnight.

Technology has enabled radical renegades to challenge the norm – no longer can the fashion or textile designer remain one step ahead of the curve without these challengers for the title investigating and instigating new modes of self-expression through apparel design. Design it, print it, upload it, flog it and post it – simple as that.

The humble T-shirt has become the new canvas for a new wave of designers and unsurprisingly this brave new world of undercover urban street fashion has become a global phenomenon. Across Europe, North and South America and Asia; inspired by their own cultural map and references, their surroundings, their peers, their graphic influences they create works that reflect their place on the planet.

Forging their own visual signatures and styles; these are the designers and studios with one finger on the pulse and another finger in the pie. Here are the movers and shakers of the underground apparel elite, prepared to break rank and break free…

Singapore - Mojoko

Singapore is distinctly Asian. It is a mismatch of the shockingly modern and truly historical – where skyscrapers and huge shopping malls jostle for space with hawker food stalls and traditional temples. Multicultural is an understatement – where else can one experience slices of India, China, Malaysia and the Arabic world within a 10-minute radius?

And surprisingly for a place with a global reputation for cracking down hard on street graffiti and with a zero tolerance policy to chewing gum, Singapore has an amazingly diverse street culture. It is perhaps this clash of cultures – Chinese, Tamil, Bahasa and English that provide such a rich mixing pot of visual languages. And against the tide of bland commercial corporate design there is genuine evidence of an emerging underground design scene being showcased within the independent boutiques, galleries and pop-up stores now beginning to populate Singapore.

The urban backdrop of Little India, probably the most chaotic part of Singapore and a cultural counterpart to the harsh concrete and steel of the business district, is home to Steve Lawler aka Mojoko. Lawler doesn’t fit into any neat stereotype. With a past that spans studying and working at Fabrica, the Benetton-sponsored research and communications centre in Italy, and design and art direction for OgilvyOne Interactive in Singapore, he now divides his time working at Kult, on big brand projects and in editing and publishing Kult magazine, launched ‘to combat the very commercial scene here’, whilst running Mojoko – a small compact studio ‘covered in spray-paint and silk-screens with enough room for myself and an assistant’.

The move into apparel design as been a gradual one – Lawler, looking for outlets for his work and recognizing an ever-increasing interest in Mojoko illustrations, prints and paintings shifted production methods, in a very hands-on way, to creating a clothing brand. Currently just a couple of boutiques, Loft in the hyper-trendy Haji Lane area and the newly opened 8Q Museum, stock Mojoko – ‘this is really because I prefer to operate via live silk-screening,’ Lawler offers, ‘I’ll turn up at parties and flea markets and screen print in situ, customizing people’s jeans and T-shirts.’ This very manual approach is a reaction against Lawler’s previous incarnations as art director and digital designer – ‘after working at the computer for so many years, I guess I just yearned for canvas and silk-screen as a way of exercising my body, as well as my mind’, he reasons.

Mojoko’s images and designs are inspired and informed by the clash of cultures that surround him – ‘it’s the crazy packaging, the neon typography, the B-movie posters, the extraordinary juxtapositions – I’m just trying to make sense of it all, trying to create a sense of order and harmony’ – Singapore in an essence.

Netherlands – MAKI

The Dutch are a laid-back people; chilled out and open-minded is their default setting. Across the land there is an appreciation for art, architecture, music, literature and culture generally – mix this with a unique, slightly surreal, sense of humour and a lust for life, the fact that a burgeoning underground subculture of designers designing for apparel might well be expected.

The common meeting of minds in the Netherlands, where artists work with musicians and alongside writers, could easily have been the catalyst for the formation of MAKI yet it was actually the Art Academy in Groningen that brought Maathijis Maat, graphic designer, and Kim Smits, illustrator, together in their final year of study.

Mixing, matching and merging styles, influences and self-expression is the backbone of MAKI’s output – ‘we’re mostly inspired by other artists,’ admits Maat, ‘we’ve a pretty diverse client list – from banks and newspapers to snowboard brands and online T-shirt shops.’ And it was online, through Threadless, that MAKI’s move into apparel design first occurred – ‘Threadless are fantastic; we try to keep submitting new stuff even now, it’s fun and because we sort started our career there.’

Now, much of their apparel output is sold online and the duo has a deal with David&Thomas, a cool Dutch online store, to create several T-shirt designs each month. ‘These are mostly funny shirts based simply on bad puns – not necessary the best designs, but really fun to make,’ they explain, ‘and we also work for Poketo, Funkrush and Weezer too.’ The MAKI portfolio continues to expand cross media despite their home-grown counter-culture aesthetic, creative approach and philosophy; skateboards, snowboards, sneakers, buttons, wallets, kid’s books, shop exteriors, clocks, underwear, posters, record sleeves, ad campaigns, packaging and even tattoos have all been touched by MAKI since formation in 2003.

Is it possible to work for mainstream clients, keep an underground sensibility dipping in and out of apparel design and remain in the loop creatively? ‘We work from home, a 1970s tower block on the outskirts of the city, and we move constantly from desk to sofa and this works for us – we live where we work and we work where we live,’ admits Maat, ‘we don’t chase being cool; though we’re out and about at openings, gigs, expositions, we’re heading tonight to a show of Zeptonn’s work, and we mix with other artists, designers, illustrators and photographers and there is a scene of course but, for us, designing for apparel is an extension of what we do…’ MAKI beautifully typify the Dutch approach to design – understated, cool, calm, sophisticated and all executed with a knowing smile.

East Coast US – Gluekit

Gluekit exude East Coast cool. Tapping into a zeitgeist, though, isn’t the motivation behind this studio’s output – ‘our name Gluekit,’ explains Christopher Sleboda, one half of the team, ‘references the cut and paste mechanics of historical graphic design processes – we’re interested in the juxtaposition and re-composition of elements, and how these can transform, challenge and subvert expectations and message, revealing the unanticipated.’ A complete philosophy rather than a fashion/fad-led fixation dominates the Gluekit rationale.

Not that Gluekit is a studio that takes itself too seriously – the studio catchphrase, indeed motto for life, is ‘Get Sticky With It!’ and this from a partnership that met whilst studying at Yale University. Perhaps it is exactly this mix of a carefully considered design philosophy and approach with the throwaway one-liner that gives the studio its fashionable edge.

Influenced by their urban surroundings in Guilford Connecticut, midway between NYC and Boston, Gluekit explain their love for creating designs for a wide range of apparel as an adjunct to their regular client briefs and projects – ‘We love brick motifs, graffiti, spraypaint blotches, scrawled type, neon colours, white type on black T’s, computer graphics, lists Kathleen, the other half of this husband and wife combo. Yes, meeting as students at Yale, then working together in partnership since 2006 has led to a life-long partnership earlier this year.

Gluekit are just one of numerous East Coast outfits that span graphics, illustration, photography and fashion – the look is urban, cool, with a hint of irony and a nod in the direction of the abstract with a vintage twist. And there is a national and international market for the wares of like-minded studios - ‘we like to keep it local,’ explains Chris, ‘but we’ve shipped to nearly every state in the US and are now finding that we have a network of customers across Russia, Scandinavia, Australia, Greece, Japan and Saudi Arabia.’ There is a definite thirst for East Coast cool, it would seem.

Gluekit are aware that they are ahead of their game, that the demand to keep moving forward, in terms of their creative output, is a constant pressure but aren’t letting the stress to remain a part of the current vibe dictate their next move – ‘we’d like to design some sweatshirts, since its getting kinda chilly here. Though creating something to wear, whether a shirt, or a button or a bag is always a way of creating a graphic conversation,’ explains Kathleen. And what does the future hold for Gluekit? ‘We’d like to be a B-Boy dance crew, moonlighting in the summer as a Japanese noise band,’ adds Chris. Watch this space.

East London – FL@33

Outside of Berlin, so urban myth would have us believe, it is East London that has the highest proportion of artists living and working within such a concentrated urban area. They once flocked to the area because of the promise of cheap rents; now they arrive to become part of a scene. Galleries, pop-up stores and independent boutiques have literally multiplied year on year and Clerkenwell, EC1, once home to the left-field fashion elite, has almost been vacated as the push further east has gathered momentum.

Clerkenwell, despite having lost its crown to the younger and altogether hipper Hoxton, can still punch above its weight. Here a slightly more mature scene, think aging heavyweight rather than upstart bantamweight, has gone from strength to strength. And it is Clerkenwell that is home to FL@33, a multi-disciplinary visual communication studio, founded in 2001 by Agathe Jacquillat from Paris and Tomi Vollauschek from Frankfurt.

The FL@33 sub-brand or sister company Stereohype – a graphic art and fashion boutique opened its virtual gates in 2004 and has gone about disturbing the peace by acting as a platform for a global list of designers and illustrators wishing to promote their work and have their artworks and apparel produced, featured and marketed. Vollauschek explains the philosophy behind the brand – ‘we are constantly featuring new and emerging talent and ensuring that we make frequent updates so guaranteeing that the Stereohype range remains appealing to its critical and demanding customers.’

Stereohype’s annual button badge competition and design initiative, mysteriously named B.I.O, invites participants to create ‘mobile mini canvasses’ and to date has resulted in over 500 different designs. Available to purchase online or through a network of tip-top stockists that include Tate Modern, the Design Museum and ICA in London, Colette and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the company has opted for cool outlets to get product to their customers.

Stereohype products are a creative outlet for a studio intent on working to a guiding principle of the ‘Power of 3’. ‘It’s a theory we learnt about while both studying at the Royal College of Art,’ offers Jacquillat, ‘it is simply the balance of intellect, skill and emotion and underpins our design approach’.

Equally inspired by both their immediate environment; ‘Clerkenwell is certainly an inspirational and enjoyable place to live and work in’, and by their regular travels abroad to Switzerland, Italy, France and Germany, for both business and pleasure, FL@33 maintain an enviable live/work balance. Neither leading a scene, nor following one – it is clear that Jacquillat and Vollauschek continue to forge their own creative direction.

Mexico City – Masa

Masa is Miguel Vásquez, born in Caracas, Venezuela and educated in his hometown at PRO Diseño Visual Communication School. However Masa is on the move and currently setting up his new studio in Mexico City, a distance of over 2200 miles from Caracus. This is an interesting move for Vásquez – ‘I began in Caracas as a self-taught designer, starting out by designing posters and flyers and very influenced by my late father, always himself involved painting, drawing and design, but Mexico is a great place for new opportunities, for a good quality of life, awesome people and a huge amount of local talent and new ventures going on’ he enthuses.

Masa, initially a ‘playground for creative ideas’ has grown to become a truly vibrant studio with high-standing industry status reflected by the global client list of impressive companies, for whom the studio creates visual solutions that have a strong emphasis in Latin American pop and contemporary street culture. ‘I work to blend forms and ideas and produce crossovers between urban and folklore references,’ explains Vásquez, and it is from the street that many of these references emerge.

Mexico City has street culture positively rising up from the dusty streets of the capital itself – the economic, industrial and cultural centre of the country; it is home to almost 19 million people, making it the 2nd largest metropolitan area in the Americas and the 3rd largest agglomeration on the planet. It is one big, bustling centre of culture – home to more museums and theatres than any other city in the Spanish-speaking world.

Masa’s ability to move seamlessly between self-generated underground apparel projects, influenced by his surroundings, and then resurface to produce graphics for Adidas, Burton, Nike or any other high profile brand is certainly paying dividends creatively. Whether it be the intense colour treatments or the use of radical and vibrant patterns or simply Vásquez’s unique drawing ability – there is a vibe within the studio’s output that is impossible to pin down to a ‘house’ style, yet the work exudes Latin style, passion and ethos. ‘Work in the things you like the most and love,’ enthuses Vásquez, ‘be the best and be happy with it, and by doing the best everything else will follow as a consequence.’ It is this lust for life that provides the lifeblood and inspiration for the Masa brand; self-expression meets self-determination and a creative outlet fast taking Mexico City by storm.

Lawrence Zeegen is Head of the School of Communication Design at Kingston University, London, a regular contributing illustrator to The Guardian Newspaper and the author of four books on contemporary illustration – the most recent, What is Illustration? (Rotovision) was published in September.