Trusting the Aries Instinct with Sofia Prantera

Subversive from the very start, END. sits down with OG streetwear icon Sofia Prantera to talk design dialectics, art as something superfluous, and what really makes a great graphic.

Trusting the Aries Instinct with Sofia Prantera
The first sign of the zodiac, known as fiery trail-blazers with an innovative spirit and a gut instinct to match, an Aries is never afraid to lead the way. Enjoying relative anonymity, when placed next to others in her field, Sofia Prantera chooses to forgo the furore of life in the public eye and to let her design work do the talking; a decision which has left an aura of mystery around one of streetwear's most compelling voices in an era of celebrity designers. And yet these quintessentially Aries traits read like a bite-size biography of founder and early-streetwear icon, Sofia Prantera herself.

Colliding 80s punk with Y2K; classic mythological symbols with reappropriated corporate logos (and everything in between) London-based label, Aries has never been one to colour inside the lines. Founded by tenured and respected voices, Fergus Purcell and Sofia Prantera, Aries was built was a resolve to dismantle firmly held ideas about what fashion and streetwear really are and what they really mean in a wider context.

Always a step or two ahead, Prantera's Aries has been juxtaposing ideas, breaking taboos, and remixing iconography into a subversive amalgamation of high-and-low brow references since long before these postmodern ideals were the design status quo on the runways of Paris and Milan.

An early pioneer of the global streetwear scene, Sofia's legacy and her back-catalogue of graphics, brands, and envelope-pushing ideas speak for themselves. Sitting down one afternoon, END. dives deep with Prantera to talk trusting your instincts, finding longevity in a contrarian industry, and why subcultures have never been more subversive than they are now.

A lot of my favourite work from Aries centres on remixing iconography from different eras and appropriating logos from other brands – what’s the story behind this combination of ideas in the pursuit of creating something new?

Cool question! After studying at St Martin's, my formative years in graphics and fashion were spent at Slam City Skates in the mid-’90s. That's where I learnt to use Illustrator and Photoshop. Skate brands at the time were repurposing corporate logos and I guess that's how it started. I learnt their structure and design tenets by tracing and repurposing existing ones. With so much communication happening on social media platforms these simple shapes appear to channel a deeper meaning, this idea that they can encapsulate a potentially complex concept within a few strokes is what makes them powerful. In a way, corporate logos have become the new signifiers, they harness the same power as ancient symbols, hieroglyphics, alphabets. By repurposing them you are adding to their perceived depth and recontextualising them.

Combining different facets of fashion and subculture has always been central to the Aries brand and in your original manifesto you spoke about combining a love of pureplay luxury fashion with the rebellious devil-may-care attitude of youth. Has designing at the intersection of conflicting ideas always been your passion?

When I design or develop new ideas, I think of them in terms of an argument. It’s like using dialectics; trying to arrive to a new conclusion by holding opposite points of view. The tension is really important. This is why working with other people is so vital for me. I need this clash of ideas to create something new.

Your background is in art – studying at art school is what brought you to London from your childhood in Italy – was it always your plan to pursue art through the medium of fashion design or did your route into the industry unfold organically over time?

I am slightly ashamed to admit it, but I always wanted to work in fashion. My father still calls me “the seamstress” without hiding his slight disappointment in me for not having chosen a more academic career. I like making products. I have struggled with the fact that art seems so superfluous. Although my view of it has changed more recently and I think it’s exactly its uselessness that makes it so interesting. In its best form, art is a need to create regardless of commercial value.

Relying on your gut instinct, maintaining a quiet confidence, and letting your work speak for itself has given you longevity that I think we’re seeing less and less of as ‘hype’ culture creates so many flash-in-the-pan success stories. Has it been easy to always stick with your instincts, or have there been times where you’ve wanted to second guess yourself?

There was never a plan to be quiet, I don’t feel comfortable in the limelight and I only do what I do because I enjoy it. I think my career path was carved by things other than a wish to succeed - like obstinacy, stubbornness, and being single-minded and extremely social. I realised very young that notoriety wasn’t interesting to me and actually made me feel uncomfortable which is why I've never chosen to design under my own name. When I started my first brand - Holmes - fresh out of fashion school with the help of Slam City Skates, I decided to do so under the pseudonym, Silas Holmes: a middle-aged American man with a dubious past who hung out in downtown LA and played bit parts in adult movies. I guess it was lack of confidence. I was very young, but I always had this feeling that being female and Italian would be a hindrance to our business and I was probably right. The funniest thing was that we kept getting interview requests for him and we had to say that he was in prison. The world has changed a lot since then and so have I. Incidentally, I found a lot of the old Holmes graphics while tidying up yesterday: they really hold up to the test of time.

What was the thought process when you switched Aries from a womenswear brand into the unisex/gender neutral outfit we know today? Where do you stand now on the gender split in fashion?

My background is in menswear. My womenswear has been about creating those desirable menswear pieces for a woman because that's how I love women to dress. I grew up in Italy wearing brands like Stone Island and Chevignon and so I like to see women in what is traditionally seen as menswear or men’s styles. It was never a choice to do a specific collection for men; the clothes fit men and men like them so we have expanded our sizes and styles to accommodate that. A lot of my male friends, who know me from my past brands, were already wearing Aries and I think that section of the community demanded more. Right from the beginning, when Aries as an idea was first devised, it was a unisex concept, but it was hard to commercialise - the buyers weren’t ready - so we ended up making a women’s brand with unisex pieces. I believe the division of gender-specific collections is becoming increasingly redundant. For me, clothes are really a vehicle for an idea or culture and it’s about connecting with the people who share those ideas. So many women’s fashion environments don’t really connect with those references or see women’s casual wear as “elevated” enough – for me it’s often menswear departments, stores or floors where the culture is best suited to Aries.

Subculture and counterculture are absolutely central to Aries, but there's a popular notion that we’ve witnessed the death of subcultures now that everyone has the opportunity to curate their identity as an individual online. What do you think of the current state of subculture? Do you think it has a future?

The classic notion of a slow-burning subculture and its subsequent (unavoidable) commercial exploitation and move into the mainstream is over because of social media; everything burns too fast. But subcultures always started as a very individualistic. I think they still exist, not as fashion but as a counterculture. They are no longer generational and to survive in their original form they have to insulate against exploitation by being truly underground and essentially unattractive to mainstream audiences. Maybe this makes it more of a subculture than ever before?

Your field of reference is so diverse and extends far beyond the parameters of what some people might perceive Aries to be or where it sits in the market. I read that your final major project at CSM was on Stone Island and you mentioned earlier that those are the types of brands you grew up wearing, for instance. I’m curious, what are some of your favourite brands today?

I still love Stone Island. I love the process they use; they have amazing in-house experimentation and laboratories. I think, for me, process and effortlessness are the most important components in design. Learning, inventing, following and adapting processes is what makes an interesting product. This is happening less and less in fashion so I tend to admire companies like Patagonia or Arc'teryx more than high fashion brands. Although I do love Prada.

From Slam City Skates to Holmes to Silas to Aries, I feel like you’re almost the ultimate person to ask this question. Graphic tees have become ubiquitous over the decades as the ultimate streetwear item. What do you think makes a great graphic?

There's no formula for it, unfortunately. Again, it’s more of an instinct. When I see or work on a graphic, I know if it will be commercial or have more of a cult following or both - which is the best combination, but very rare. The most important part for me is it needs to feel effortless, simple, and have few colours. Ideally, just one as I don’t like digital prints. Also, I don’t like illustrator vector graphics, especially when auto-traced. I prefer Photoshop and I also really like hand-drawn graphics at the moment as they feel more real. My process might start with a slogan or an old image, scanning it or redrawing it. I very rarely do any graphics myself anymore, but I remember years ago when I did the Satan graphic which is still one of my favourites I went into a record shop in Portobello to buy a Santana album and the guy who sold it to me was super impressed with my choice of music, I had to confess I was buying it for the cover... I also think the t-shirt itself is super important: the shape, the wash, the cotton, the print - everything has to come together.