END. spends a day in the studio of multi-hyphenate British creative, Blondey McCoy to talk skateboarding, Damien Hirst, and why you shouldn't care if people love him or hate him.
“It looks so Victorian today,” Blondey observes of Central London as we walk down the street outside his Soho-based studio, making our way to lunch at one of his frequent haunts. Along the way, we peer in the new Fiorucci store's window on Brewer Street before heading to check out the Eros statue on Piccadilly Circus – a cultural artefact which inspired one of Blondey's most treasured pieces from his archive at Thames. Both the store and London’s canonised billboard hotspot are alive with a neon-split, frenetic energy that is emblematic of Blondey's personality. And in each setting – as with anywhere in London – Blondey’s sense of belonging is absolute.
He’s right about London today. It’s a bleak morning in early January and the grey light, soft fog, and impassive drizzle do paint London in a particularly Victorian light. It’s an observation I’d never had made, though. The contextual specificity, the cultural anchor of space and time, the ability to draw seamless connections between x and y: this is a transportive language of Blondey’s very own. Having spent the morning with him, I’ve quickly come to understand that Blondey McCoy sees the world a little differently to most – and has an almost endless encyclopaedia of references and images in the recesses of his subconscious to paint a picture of the world through his eyes.
It is this seemingly effortless capacity to balance on the very tip of global culture and international zeitgeist (coupled with his London lad's fuck-you-I-wont-do-what-you-tell-me attitude) that Blondey translates through his art for Thames and beyond. A talent and relevance which has seen him work with some of the biggest names in fashion across categories from Palace to Burberry; a creative and cultural polymath whose talent, drive, and accomplishments belie his modest age of just 20.
In anticipation of the first drop of the Thames SS18 collection, Blondey McCoy invited END. into his studio for a retrospective look through his archive.
We arrive at 11am and ascend the narrow staircase to his studio, situated on the top floor of a storied Georgian townhouse. His home from home, a haven for the germination of his ideas, artwork litters the walls and books are piled on just about every surface. As we get comfortable Blondey’s assistant, Jess arrives with a packet of cigarettes and – idiosyncratic of his insatiable desire for fresh sources of inspiration – more books which Blondey had requested for his upcoming trip to Monaco to shoot the SS18 lookbook for Thames. He offers us a cup of tea and lights a cigarette as we settle down to talk. Before the questions get underway he tells us about a book he read on a recent trip to Sri Lanka called ‘The Book of Birthdays’. “It’s awful,” he says. “It tells you what kind of a person you are and how that’s dictated by the day you were born, incredibly accurately. Makes you feel like you have no control and that you’re exactly who you’re meant to be.”
END.: Talk to us a bit about Thames' beginnings. When you set out to do art did you know that the end game was to have a brand? Is this even the end game?
Blondey: This definitely isn’t the end game - I’ve barely gotten started! I think most kids make art when they’re really young and I've just never stopped, so my art predates Thames by as long as I can remember. It was in 2012 I started making Thames branded artwork. At the age of 14, my influences were so disparate and all over the place that my artwork didn't have a defining style. I figured the solution was to put a name to it, like signing a work but very obviously so that it all fits together. Thames was the only possible name because all I ever did at that point was skate Southbank, and the river divided my school from there so I spent all my time looking over it from one side or another. I wasn’t consciously creating a brand, it was just a way of keeping everything under one lid and because I was so obsessed with the skateboarding world I started making works which essentially looked better on t-shirts and stickers than on a wall. I was gradually and unknowingly building a brand.
END.: Do you think there is a definite divide between what makes good art to hang and good art to wear?
Blondey: Well, believe it or not, some people often don’t consider any kind of art an ‘art’ at all. I think the Absolut Vodka bottle was art even before the Keith Haring collaboration, and I think the same about window displays or tee shirts or kids toys or anything that doesn’t follow a strict blueprint and gets your head ticking in any way. I think decorative art lends itself to commercial products and more sincere or personal artworks like paintings are less suited to mass production. Whatever medium best carries the message, all art provokes and instils your belief in things: the intricate artwork of a banknote makes you believe it’s worth money; Cadbury’s use purple foil wrappers to entice children… and it works; a Francis Bacon painting might make you think of violent sex. It’s all the same to me.
I’m obsessed with the idea that something always means one thing somewhere and another elsewhere. Like cats being gods in Egypt, but lunch in China, and cows vice versa in England and India. Or taking a ready-made item like a hoover out of a house and into a gallery like Jeff Koons did without really changing it at all and forcing people to look at it differently. I don’t think there’s a single object in the world that’s safe from reinterpretation, I think anyone that reckons they absolutely know what art is or isn’t in 2018 is a closed-minded grown up.
I’m sure it would be exhausting to only create work from the deepest, darkest corners of your subconscious. Very often something doesn’t have to mean the world to you, it just looks good. Choosing to mass produce that and share it all over the world on a t-shirt, rather than waiting for a gallery to hang the original on a wall sandwiched between two strangers' work for a thousand people to see is just a modern way of presenting work. I’m not very tech savvy, but I used to make stickers and lay them out on an A4 piece of paper so that the opposite ends met to create a pattern when scanned and tweaked or whatever on my mum's computer. In a case like the Beth Tweddle graphic, I think to take that small newspaper clipping and rehash it into a repeat print on something wearable makes it a more impactful piece of art. Early Thames was sort of a collection of happy accidents where the art I was making just worked better as clothing.
END.: Is that still how you work to this day?
Blondey: It’s changed a bit now. When I started doing Thames properly with Palace they had much more of a clue about what sells (and what looks great but won’t sell). We started with 24 pieces per season, but I used to have so many graphics at the ready when the time came to hand them over and I wanted every item to feature a different artwork. Merchandising and range plans taught me to recognise the importance of sticking to a specific theme and editing stuff down. Less can be more in that sense. My first few art shows were essentially just orphan Thames artworks that never made it onto the clothes. It’s been a peculiar case of art evolving into clothing then organically turning back into art you hang on a wall. Does that make sense?
My first few art shows were essentially just orphan Thames artworks that never made it onto the clothes.
END.: Tell us a bit more about Thames' affiliation with Palace – how did it come about and what does it mean for you?
Blondey: My relationship with Palace started when I was about 14, just from skating at Southbank. At the time people like Chewy and Rory and Karim were there every day and it was just a case of right place at the right time and they wanted to give me boards. I was doing Thames then, but it was just a shirt here or some stickers there. People had stickers on their boards at Southbank and you could buy Thames in Slam and the Supreme stores, but that was it. I took a pattern to a tailor down the road and Lev Tanju saw me wearing the shirt and basically asked if I wanted to do Thames properly there and then. He was generous and saw potential in it and very nicely asked ‘what do you think of doing it properly with us?’. I suppose it legitimised Thames as a brand. It takes a lot to run a company properly, even coming up with a certain number of graphics per season and art directing the lookbooks, let alone reach out to shops about stocking it or keep on top of press around it. There was also no financial pressure, Palace was already doing so well at that point and they just liked what I was doing and wanted to help Thames realise it’s potential by letting me focus on the art. That shirt is still one of my favourite things we’ve ever done, probably because it has that memory attached. I’m eternally grateful for everything Palace has done and is doing for me.
END.: Would you say that skateboarding is linked to your creativity?
Blondey: Absolutely. Skateboarding taught me self-confidence and not to need people’s approval to be who you want. Perhaps a little too much. A hundred skaters can do the same trick, but they all do it differently. I always find that amazing. It’s cliched to say, but there are skaters who look more fluid falling off their board than others who are doing the most technically advanced, horrific tricks and robotically making them every time. I think British skateboarding has often been a case of style over substance when compared to American skateboarding. I used to skip school to go and linger in the old Slam store until I could muster up the courage to talk to the people who worked there. I remember the board wall was an absolute beauty and none of the artists seemed to have GCSEs or anything, but they had their own style and didn’t seem to care what people thought of it. Whether that was the case or not, I’ve carried that mentality with me through everything. I’d feel saner having a good bash at ten things than studying for ten years to be told by an unelected mentor that I’m good enough to do one.
END.: Do you think that skating has given you the mindset that it’s okay to fail?
Blondey: I would sooner say that it’s given me the mindset that persistence is everything. Skateboarding is one massive game of trial and error and even if you’re naturally gifted you will fail 99% of the time and break bones. But that’s what makes the 1% of attempts you roll away from rewarding enough to keep at it and bring that trick up to scratch. There is a real work ethic attached. I suppose more importantly it just taught me not to seek constant validation from people and to set my own standards, which is pretty paradoxical to youth culture now with social media and whatever - but that’s another can of worms.
I’d feel saner having a good bash at ten things than studying for ten years to be told by an unelected mentor that I’m good enough to do one.
END.: There's been a lot of fallout recently about fashion's appropriation of skateboarding culture and style, what's your take on it?
Blondey: It's boring. Skateboarding isn’t a subculture anymore - at least not in America. It’s as normal a thing to do there as playing football is in the UK. I think culture clashes are what make the world bearable. Variety is what keeps things interesting and we cant go setting double standards as supposedly liberal people. Everything’s up for grabs if you ask me. You know, I couldn't care less about football or tennis or cricket, but I don’t feel like I’m pillaging their culture by wearing the kit. I could waffle on about this all day without making any sense, but I basically think everyone should do whatever the fuck they want.
END.: Thames already has some pretty high profile collaborations under its belt - with Fred Perry and jewellery designer Stephen Webster - how did they come about and what do you think about collaborations in general?
Blondey: I suppose my collaborations have been quite high profile, but they’ve never been commercially driven or born of a desire to be deemed cool within a new market. I’ve never wanted to whack my logo next to someone else’s for the sake of selling double the amount of product. I have always worn polo shirts from Fred Perry so when I wanted to make Thames polos and they were reaching out, it was an obvious yes. I’ve always wanted to see Thames’ name in gold but had I not befriended Stephen - a jeweller - it wouldn’t have happened as a collaboration. I think a great collaboration is about creating something authentic that neither brand could have made on their own. The next Fred Perry shit is so good, I’m really happy with it.
END.: How do you think about success as an artist?
Blondey: I think it can be detrimental to an artists vision to measure success in terms of popularity or sales. Damien summed it up better than I ever could in Venice before his big comeback show. Everyone was asking ‘are you worried about whether it will be successful or not?’ to which he said ‘of course not, I love it so it already is a triumph.’ And I love that. I think any work that the artist can look back on and say they created it for themselves and they genuinely love it - even if no-one else does - is a success. Now more than ever I think people feel the need for constant content and constant creation. It’s so much nonstop and people are forcing out things they have to convince themselves they’re happy with. It’s mania! I’m ambitious and take a lot on, but nothing is leaving this room unless I'm happy with it. In my life, I’ve always been either depressed out of boredom or stressed out of hyperactivity. Having experienced extremes in both, I can safely say I prefer the latter. Being busy and doing work is what keeps me happy and sane and successfully being both of those things is success enough for me.
END.: You've collaborated with Damien Hirst for your latest solo art show 'Us and Chem', why do you think you two work well together?
Blondey: He creates art for himself and not for anyone else. It’s that skateboarders mentality again. 'Treasures' was just dubbed ‘the worst show of the century’ or something ridiculous like that, but he believes in it and is genuinely proud of it as he should be! People hate that he is, but he’s funny and he doesn’t care about them. I’m not funny, but I don’t care if people hate my work either.
In my life, I’ve always been either depressed out of boredom or stressed out of hyperactivity. Having experienced extremes in both, I can safely say I prefer the latter.
After our interview is over, Blondey takes us up to the roof to a panoramic view across London and I quickly realise that it's not over after all. "Art comes from other art," he explains as we teeter on the edge of the building's roof, peering down to the busy street below. "Nothing falls out of the sky."
As morning turns to afternoon, he shows us more pieces from his archive - each accompanied with an anecdote or a story which reveals a hidden meaning or deeper significance. We have another cup of tea, another cigarette and talk about another idea, another show, another collection, another collaboration. It becomes clear that Blondey's assertion that this is just the beginning for him was dead on. One thought leads to another leads to another and before you know it you've been to New York City, you've been to the 1980s, you've been to a tribute night for The Smiths. Gone to Disneyland and back. Heard the sinister-true story which inspired Peter Pan. Borne witness to a staggeringly accurate Hugh Grant impression.
We say our goodbyes and, as we emerge back onto the streets of Soho with our heads swimming from the whistle-stop tour through Blondey's boundless catalogue of stories and ideas, I remember what Simon (Brand Manager at Thames) said to us about Blondey when we first met earlier in the day.
"He's got this charm about him. He can talk to anyone about anything," he said. "That's just Blondey, though: there's no one else like him."