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Words to Live By with Blondey McCoy

END. catches up with British artist, Blondey McCoy to talk 'Blondey' the brand, sobriety, and why 2018 has been an absolute rollercoaster of emotion.

"Was that only this year? I think you’re probably right. Fuck."

It's early December and tucked away in his studio, 5 or 6 stories above the fervent streets of Soho, Blondey McCoy can't quite believe how much has happened in the 12 months since we last met. While to some a year can come and go in a haze of status quo ("not much mate, you?"), Blondey lives his life in dog years. I have an IG-verified list of his 2018 achievements and, as we work our way through them, I get the sense that he doesn't pay too much attention to finite units of measurement like days or hours or years. Blondey has one mode and it's 'On' - everything else is background noise.

Having been a fixture of the UK skate scene long before he was old enough to buy cigarettes (he's quit those this year, on top of everything else) McCoy's youth has played out on iPhone and laptop screen: the unassuming star of his own coming-of-age classic, self-directed for the digital generation. Now in the latter half of his 21st year, and thereby officially an adult by anyone's estimation, Blondey's 2018 has felt like the action-packed conclusion to the cinematic masterpiece of his youth (my favourite scene was the one with the London taxi) and the audience has watched as he's segued from the youthful face of British skateboarding and rebellion to noteworthy London artist and designer, beginning a new chapter in his life and career.

One year on since we first spent a day with Blondey McCoy, he invited us back to his London studio to talk the highs of lows of 2018 and everything he's learned along the way.

Already a comprehensive example of new-age multihyphenatism, McCoy's 2018 began with the self-deprecating announcement that he was adding 'model' to his post-nominal designation. Sharing the news in an image with the modelling icon herself, Blondey revealed that he had signed to Kate Moss' much buzzed about new agency. In the caption, he pleaded with his followers, "Please don't laugh. I can't believe it either." 11 months on, it seems he still can't. “It was not my childhood dream to be a model and I wouldn’t class myself as a real one now.” Blondey explains, a strange smile on his face that tells me he's still not sure quite how to talk about Blondey the "model", “It's really Lev's [Lev Tanju, Palace Founder] fault in the first place that I was ever in any photos. He started a skateboard company whose clothes were of interest to people outside of skateboarding, and he needed someone young to take photos of.”

Representing a judicious selection of just 10 names, including Blondey, Kate, and Kate's own daughter, Lila Moss, The Kate Moss Agency was opened as an antidote to the waning relevance of traditional modelling institutions and signs only the creme-de-la-creme of crossover talent (Rita Ora and Gwendoline Christie who plays Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones join Blondey on the agency's roster). A contrarian to his core, it was the anti-agency ethos which encouraged Blondey to explore the offer to sign. "All through my teens, I said no to jobs and agencies, being in a picture for money or for the sake of it has just never interested me, " Blondey says. “People really have no clue about what you turn down, or what you’re offered: sponsored Instagram posts for happy Scandinavian sock companies, for example. I have never entertained the idea of doing anything like that or let anyone try and professionally push me into doing anything like that. I would eat them! Kate is an absolute joy of a person and is doing KMA for the same reason I'm a part of it; it's a very personal working relationship… there is so few of us, we genuinely get on and no-one is being whored out any more than they want to be. Surely that's the best thing you could possibly say about a modelling agency?” 

Having fronted campaigns for Burberry, adidas, and Palace since he was 16, and with a swathe of magazine covers and features to his name, it wasn't until mid-June that Blondey first appeared in a format that didn't feel like business as usual. Stepping out on the runway for Virgil Abloh's debut at Louis Vuitton Homme, Blondey's presence on the runway was it's own moment of contextual importance in a show which symbolised the destruction of longstanding separatist ideologies in fashion. Proving once and for all that streetwear is the new luxury, Virgil echoed this sentiment with his diverse selection of friends as models. Cast from a cross-section of the subcultures that shaped his youth, Abloh's inaugural collection was a collision of fashion, skateboarding, and hip-hop, with Kid Cudi, Playboi Carti, Blondey McCoy and Lucien Clarke walking the runway in an era-defining moment for the fashion sphere. "I think that Virgil being there signifies a real change, which is great. Fashion is somewhat dependent on change, after all” Blondey tells me, reminiscing about the show. "I didn't appreciate how much of a moment it was until it was over. I don’t have my ear to the ground at all so I didn’t know who a lot of people were, but it was fun doing it with Lucien. I liked being the British skateboarding duo on our Parisian holiday. It was really quite fun."

I've distanced myself from feeling like I have to be owned by just one world. This year's been about liberation for me.

Away from the modelling buzz, Blondey was more focused than ever on his first love - art - working quietly on a new show: 4 paintings commissioned by infamous fashion magazine Arena Homme +, a follow up to Blondey's cover story and 30-shot feature for the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue. Entitled 'All a Tremulous Heart Desires', the show was a commentary on the peaks and troughs of super fandom, exploring themes of pop-culture religion and modern-day idolatry. Curious to know if these new works were a reflection of his own experience with a life lived under the scrutiny of the spotlight, I ask his take on criticism, in particular, the claim he's gone mainstream this year. Crossing an unseen but immovable line-in-the-sand for some skateboarding puritans, vying to keep the subculture status of the sport alive. “Well, I certainly haven’t sold out, if that’s what some people might be insinuating? If you see something and it looks so bad that I must have been paid through the nose to do it, the chances are it was my idea in the first place and I did it for free,” he tells me with an ironic eye roll. "I spent my teen years feeling like I had to pick a side or pledge my undying allegiance to one thing or another, and particularly in the last year I really started to reject that pack mentality, it really doesn’t make me happy to have to share a popular opinion or belong to any one group or subculture. I’ll gladly wear a Supreme jumper with a Palace t-shirt underneath – I’m really not concerned about whether my fucking clothes are going to start a fight with each other. It’s so boring.”

Blondey's decision not to buy into the game of trying to please and appease is a healthy response to the increasing intensity of public life. The constant criticism, the 24-hour news cycles, the emergence of 'call out' and 'cancelled' culture, have all given birth to a new level of intensity in the public's stare. Popular personalities are now expected to transcend their humanity and become infallible idols worthy of worship at the Instagram-altar, the ferocity of such pressure often manifesting as a glossy public image designed to mask a turbulent private life - the recent loss of Mac Miller at age 26 just one of 2018's potent examples. Blondey's personal relationship with mental health and substance abuse is a subject that he's been particularly vocal about this year: a valued voice amidst a swelling youth mental health epidemic. "This has been my first full year completely sober. I gave up drinking last year on New Year's Day, but I didn’t give up the pharmaceuticals until last summer. I know myself; I find something from which I can gain some immediate relief, I become completely dependent on it almost immediately, and then I axe it and desperately search for a new way to fill the substance shaped hole. Is that really so strange?”

Following the success of his solo art show 'Us and Chem' in 2017, Blondey spoke up about the catharsis of creating art during a "three-month come down" after a period of dependence on prescription pills. Keen to introduce a new medium through which people could talk about mental health and addiction, Blondey announced the release of the 'Us and Chem' companion book in September. “It’s just that the show was really inclusive and about something that affects everyone. I wanted people to be able to take something away from it that wasn’t at an elitist price point,” Blondey explains of his decision to work on a monograph. “I had so much positive feedback from everyone and their mum while the show was on, I really just wanted to make something I could share with people for the price of a tshirt. To me, the point in making art is to interact with people and inspire each other.”

I’ll gladly wear a Supreme jumper with a Palace t-shirt underneath – I’m really not concerned about whether my fucking clothes are going to start a fight with each other. It’s so boring.

The buzzer rings through the studio while Blondey makes another cup of tea. “That’ll be the new stuff. It’s getting delivered to you guys tomorrow," he says. The new stuff he's talking about is the next drop of products from his eponymous new brand: a clear signal of Blondey's valued independence. "I have tried my very hardest, but it turns out I’m not much of a team player," Blondey jokes, but not really. "It’s something I never thought I’d do, but starting a ‘brand’ called ‘Blondey’ is taking the advice of everyone I’ve ever known. It’s just a way of slimming everything down and being able to apply the same level of quality control to everything I do – whether it’s art or clothes or skateboarding –  it's all coming out of the same studio and coming from the same person, without any interference. Calling it Blondey makes it personal and means I have to be really and truly proud of it. I can’t hide behind anything – any other names or ideas – whether it’s utter rubbish or gold I am truly and solely to blame.”

The other names or ideas he's talking about are the affiliations to separate brands which have characterised his design career so far - collaborations with adidas and Fred Perry, his Palace-affiliated brand, Thames. "The seasonal routine of the rag trade has never suited me. This is about taking a step out of that and just doing things the way that works best for me," Blondey explains, his desire for full creative control converging with a reticence to work under a system he doesn't believe in. "I noticed that the contrast in making artwork and making clothes was that all that really matters when I make art is that I am proud of it. With mass-produced clothes, there’s that big commercial element to consider: what colour sells best and where does it need a logo and so on and I’m really not very interested in that, it limits your creativity. Also, art is immediate, I love doing Blondey t-shirts because I can come up with an idea and have a product within about ten days. I am not fucking around sending a square centimetre of fabric back and forth from Vietnam for two years."

As Blondey begins bringing over samples of the new collection and talking me through the artwork, the conversation turns to the recent loss of his grandfather, Heni, at the end of October. A brief glance at Blondey's Instagram lays bare the fierceness of the bond he shares with his grandparents; hardworking Lebanese immigrants, whose simple principles and family values laid the foundation for who he has become. Far removed from the airs and graces of the London fashion scene which Blondey fell into as a teenager, Heni and his wife Salma, have been a place to go home to; a place where he's just their Blondey - an easy-going, South-Londoner who can live for days at a time on baked beans, hash browns, and builder's tea from his favourite café, Brunos. "My grandfather is my all time hero. He was such a unique person," Blondey says, passing me a photo of Heni. "Losing him has made me think of his principles and outlook on life. Whenever I am upset about something, I know what he would tell me: that it's all bollocks anyway. There's something really comforting in that. Losing someone close to you changes how you think about things and puts into perspective what little insignificant things we spend our lives stressing over.”

Testament to their place in his life, it's fitting that photographs of both Heni and Salma feature as artworks in the first collection for the Blondey brand. Each t-shirt has a unique message on the label; a personalised quote to reflect the message of the t-shirt. Blondey's personal favourite: you know fuck all about everything.

"Sometimes it's nice to just accept that," he says. "You can't fail if you do."

We decide to take a walk down to the new END. store on Broadwick Street - just a stone's throw away from Blondey's studio. As we walk, I ask more about the significance of the little quotes and messages that feature on each of the new t-shirts labels. A quirk of personality that feels like a deliberate way to put a personal stamp on this new line of Blondey-branded merch. I ask if Blondey has any words to live by for the year ahead.

"These are good questions. Hard questions, I must say," he laughs. “...I’ve always liked the Quentin Crisp quote, 'Never keep up with the Joneses. Always drag them down to your level.'"

I look forward to finding out where Blondey McCoy is going to drag us all next.

writerEuan Smart
|photographerZack Meays
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