Exploring the Utility Paradox with Liam Hodges30 April 2019
END. visits Liam Hodges in his East London studio to talk utility, diversity, and whether or not the world is fucked.
Global futurist, Ray Kurzweil has a theory that over the course of the next 100 years, society will enjoy more than 20,000 years' worth of technological advancement. This theory on accelerating intelligence places us around 30 years away from reaching the tech equivalent of the singularity: an event horizon beyond which things will have advanced so far that humans, as we are now, cannot begin to fathom what the world might look like or how much we will have achieved.
We're not talking flying cars or Back to the Future hoverboards. We're not even talking people uploading their consciousness to the cloud and transhumanist symbiotes. We're talking technology so advanced that we can't imagine it under current paradigms - we literally don't have the words. The scope of Kurzweil's prediction is difficult to comprehend unless we place it in the context of how far we've come in the 30 years that have just passed...
1988: the Ford Escort is the most popular car sold in Britain for the 6th year in a row. Margaret Thatcher is the longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century and, although unemployment rates are falling, her destructive legacy on the British working class has bubbled to the surface. Rick Astley is topping the charts with 'Never Gonna Give You Up', but his cult-status as one of the internet's OG memelords is as far off as mainstream meme-culture itself because Facebook founder and Instagram owner, Mark Zuckerberg is just 4 years old. The Sega Mega Drive is only available in Japan, we're a decade pre-Google, and AI home assistants that can order takeout on command are the stuff of pure science fiction. It's the beginning of the end for Home Economics and the last vestiges of mainstream frugality and utilitarianism begin to fade, as consumerist culture shifts gear and we enter a new era of fast-fashion and throwaway consumption. 1988 was also the year that British designer Liam Hodges, who would grow up to become one of Britain's most exciting new exports, was born.
It's coming towards the end of London's long hot summer when we meet Liam's wholesale manager, Mike outside The Silver Building on the Royal Docks. A monolithic brutalist structure constructed in the 1960s, the building was operational as a Carlsberg and Tetley distribution centre until it was left abandoned and derelict for more than 2 decades. Home to an entire generation of squatters and venue to some of London's most hedonistic underground raves throughout the 90s and 00s, the building secured regeneration funding in 2015 to be repurposed by SODA Architects as London's latest creative hub.
"There's a few of us in here now. Craig Green is upstairs," Mike tells us of their new home in East London. "They're just gentrifying as far east as possible." He's likely right. Gentrification 101: bring the artists and the money will follow.
We make our way up to Liam Hodges' studio on the second floor and meet the man himself. Towering head and shoulders above everyone else in the room, Liam stands a staggering 6'6" and is representing his eponymous label's AW18 collection in head-to-toe black. On foot, his FILA x Liam Hodges Disruptors make his already size 12 feet look like monolithic brutalist structures of their very own.
The studio is intense, with almost 15 people working across pattern cutting, sample creation, archiving and beyond, with an ordered hum and palpable passion that brings the space to life. Filled out with young creatives of every kind, the studio populous is a microcosm of East London, with diverse representations of race, religion, nationality, gender, and sexuality existing with power in the pursuit of creation. The diversity of Liam Hodges' modest team is an example of true walk-the-walk energy: an integrity that is rare in the era of social media slacktivism, where many brands preach inclusivity in public but stick to the status quo behind closed doors. Liam Hodges' label is built on a foundation of far-reaching representation and diversity, and it's a firmly held ideology which filters through everything he does, from designing his collections to designing the team around him.
"It's not really something we've ever thought about too much. We're not here to play games," Liam says. "We work with street cast models, for instance, because that's the bloke I'm designing for. We don't want to work with only one type of person because there's this idea that they're what's "good" to look at. We want real people who can bring energy and personality because that's who the brand is. It's funny because we've been doing this right from the start and now there's all these conversations going on around diversity and people are getting really hyped about street casting models, but people have been doing this in London for ages. People don't exist as just one thing, so why would we want to present as if they do?"
You've spoken in the past about your decision not to go down the traditional Central Saint Martins route when you were applying to uni, because you didn't know if it would work for you at the time. What was your thought process on that?
I think 11 years ago when I was applying to university, it made sense for me to do fashion because it combined different parts of what I enjoyed at art college. There was the 3D element of creation, combined with some elements of Fine Art with the printmaking and the graphics and stuff and it was just what I gravitated towards. It was back when you had people like Carri Munden, Christopher Shannon and Aitor Throup starting to come out, and Kim Jones has just moved to Dunhill and done all those Umbro collaborations. Menswear was just starting to take this turn down the streetwear path that it’s very much on now. At the time I just remember looking at Dazed or i-D or whatever and I felt like that was something I understood and could get with. Then when I was looking at universities Central Saint Martins was very 'John Galliano this' and 'Alexander McQueen that'. Their focus was very much on producing the next textbook superstar fashion designer, whereas Westminster University just seemed like it made more sense and they might understand me and what I was about.
Your work is a melting pot of different influences - utility, workwear, hip-hop, subculture movements - which you pull together to spin into your own vision. Do you think it's important nowadays for designers to pull inspiration from disparate sources to create something that sets them apart?
I don’t necessarily think it’s important because there are a lot of great brands who just pick one thing and do it really well, but I think for me the eclecticism is where the erratic parts of my personality come out. It's about reflecting what I’m interested in and it’s also a reflection of the information age and how people absorb and process things now. Before the internet, you would buy into a subculture and you’d know the bits you needed and get those. Now, because everyone is so aware of pop culture and everything through Instagram and stuff, people are self-curating much more and bringing lots of different elements together. People have the ability to be so many different things now, so I reflect that with the brand. That’s what I think anyway.
Why do you think utility and function-first aesthetics have become so popular over the last few seasons?
I think it’s just down to the fact that people want to wear clothes that make sense and have function. Everything we do is always quite grounded in 'real' clothes. My tutors used to say that I was quite commercial and it offended me a bit at the time, but it’s actually a good thing because at the end of the day you do have to sell some shit and if you can create something that works properly then that matters to people.
What does utility mean to you?
For me, utility comes from everything needing to fulfil a base level of need. Even just simple things, like every pair of trousers need to have pockets that work. We’ve never put a zip on anything, just for decoration. If it doesn’t have a function, then it’s not there. I think with our brand there’s a lot going on, but it’s not for no reason. We use our graphics to tell a story but in a functional way. Everything serves a need.
How do you carry that idea over into your approach to collaboration?
Getting collaboration right is about going into it with a view of what is this for? Why are we doing this? When we collaborated with FILA it gave us the chance to do trainers for the first time and also gave us access to a lower price point. When we do collaboration it has to have utility to us in the sense that it gives us access to markets or expertise that we don’t have access to ourselves. We have a couple of new collaborations in the works, which should be good.
You explore themes of utopia and dystopia a lot in your collections - twisted distortions of life as it is now - what is it about those ideas that interests you?
I think it just goes back to the idea that we’re in a time of change and entering the unknown. It’s funny because we’re always trying to be a positive brand with positive messages at the core. Whether that’s framed through a conversation about a dystopian future, we’re always focused on the idea of opportunity in the chaos. We want to be a brand that promotes a modern idea of aspiration that goes beyond just a fiscal idea that the more money you have the better your life is. We want to champion people who are doing their own thing, no matter what’s happening in the world that might get in their way.
Do you think the world is fucked?
I hope not.
What excites you about the industry right now?
I guess the most exciting thing is the number of opportunities there are because no one really knows where fashion is going at the moment. It’s sort of in a state of flux, which is scary on one hand because there isn’t a well-trodden path to follow, but on the other hand that opens up the opportunity to forge your own path and do things your own way, on your own terms. I think change is always good. It’s a case of ‘in chaos is the birth of opportunity’ or whatever. I think that’s an old Chinese war proverb I read once, ha.
Who are you designing clothes for?
For me and my friends. Or people I want to be friends with. It’s for anyone who gets it and understands it and feels empowered when they wear it. We try not to overthink it too much. It’s meant to be fun, right?
We head outside for a cigarette. As we talk, the Emirates Air Line cable cars throb cyclically overhead. Touted by Boris Johnson as London's missing commuter link between the Royal Quays and the Greenwich Peninsula, the novel mode of transport opened during the 2012 London Olympics and enjoyed in excess of 10,000 users a day - a figure which has now dwindled to just over 2,000, with critics estimating the cable cars are losing £50,000 a week. They add a strange sense of foreboding to the evolving skyline, somehow managing to look like they were built in the future and the past all at once, and their own utility is a question that hangs in the air - like the cars from the cable.
As he smokes, Liam reflects on five years that have passed since he launched his label straight out of fashion school - presenting his first collection at LFW just three weeks after graduation. "I think in any business there’s a sense of planning from A to B and loads of shit will go wrong in between, but what makes you carry on and sets you apart is how you make your way around it. How you dodge, dip, dive, and just make it fucking work. That's part of what's interesting about being in London, having to survive here makes you more creative in a way because you have to be inventive in planning your future."
There's a strange paradox at play when we think about utility and how it relates to some of the most coveted fashion items to hit the market in recent seasons. Utilitarian, by definition, is the pursuit of creating something designed to be useful rather than attractive, but our interaction with clothing is all-but entirely predicated on aesthetic appeal. Perhaps part of Hodges' comfortability existing within one of streetwear's biggest paradoxes is that he's a myriad of paradoxes himself. A gentle giant. A lovable rogue. A utilitarian and a hedonist.
Liam spoke of fashion's current state of flux, and how he operates within it and it feels as though so much of what makes Liam Hodges' label resonate is the clear sense of where it's coming from - the times, lived experiences, and subcultures that helped shape it - combined with the unknown of where it might go next. 30 years of change and advancement, distilled into each collection to give us the blokeish functionality of a Ford Escort; the analogue charm of a Sega Mega Drive; a deft commentary on political turmoil and classist struggles. All counterbalanced with an Instagram feed and digital footprint to rival the best of them; a keen understanding of contemporary and future trends; and - most fundamentally - the clothes real people are looking for.
Regardless of where we might end up 30 years from now, my bet is that Liam Hodges will still be relevant. Not just because his garb is grounded in durable clothes equipped with the necessary utility, but because they look damn good, too.