A gloomy, wet day at Buckhurst Hill station, out in suburban Essex. A black Audi is waiting for me. ‘Hello darling,’ purrs Lily Bling as I jump in the car. We exchange cheek kisses. Lily drives straight to his house. His outfit is low-key expensive: silk polo-shirt under a rainbow-knit sweater and grey sweatpants. Half-empty McDonald cups rest in the car’s drink holders. A saccharine smell emanates from Lily’s nonstop vaping.
“I didn’t want to go into gender with this project. It has become such a tokenised buzzword that people want to include into everything.”
You might recognise Lily from his Instagram handle @nosejob. His personal feed is an endless stream of selfies that highlight his extravagant, glamorous personal style. This includes but is not limited to: sequins, animal prints, lots of naked flesh (mostly his), leather pants, feather boas, thongs and heels. He’s often joined by BFF Daniel John Samson, a BA womenswear graduate from CSM. There’s lots of Lily manspreading or showing off his – let’s be honest here – immaculately round bum.
His captions are written in a vernacular that is all his own including expressions like ‘quaine’ ‘mi life,’ ‘fuck moi,’ ‘bless’ and ‘slaggy.’ His Facebook page overflows with posts composed of the same vocabulary. These are written in the spur of the moment, sharing his reflections, requests, and admirations for the likes of Gemma Collins and Katie Price.
Lily Bling is the nickname of Ryan Peterson, a twenty-five-year-old Central Saint Martins student on the MA Fashion Communication & Promotion course. The line ‘heiress to David Barry’ on his Instagram reveals his background. Lily’s father Barry Peterson is the owner of the clothing manufacturer with sale points at Debenhams. This accounts for the lavish lifestyle Lily is able to lead.
We drive up to an automatic gate between two miniature turrets. Behind it looms a massive mansion, with Tudor flourishes, whitewashed and red-bricked facades, and more turrets. A short gravelled driveway leads to a medieval front door. When I mention the size of his parents’ house, Lily’s exclaims ‘It’s not that big. It’s not!’ But I know from his Instagram stories that an immense garden – including swimming pool – lies behind the building.
Lily is giving me a preview of his final major project – LVLY by lily, a series of photographs that examine masculinity and glamour. A total of 34 men posed during a three-day shooting marathon. He’s also planning an exhibition that will showcase his work to the max.
Lily has already posted a few sneak peeks of his work on Instagram. These are portraits of men adorned in garments that are theatrical, ornate and dazzling. CSM student Harrie Freegard (@harriebradshaw) poses with an imposing headdress, not unlike a decorated bow on a Christmas present. Lily’s father – or Daddy Bling, if you please – rocks a pale pink sequined bodysuit and an overcoat in a hot pink graphic print. Lily shows me his own portrait. He wears a cream feather bomber, silver sequined disco pants and golden heels of unspeakable height. His head bears a crystal headdress that would make Cher green with envy.
The idea behind these images is to unravel traditional menswear while adding garments and accessories rarely worn by men. The pictures reference portraits in the National Portrait Gallery where the subjects wear the often-glamorous getup of their time. With his project, Lily wants to examine how wearing such clothes nowadays in the street would be seen as bizarre.
Lily’s project is an investigation of British male identity. Meanwhile, the stylist also references his own personal sense of style. ‘That’s why this project is so interesting to me,’ he says. ‘I feel there is a lot of me in it, but it’s me projecting my vision unto a wide array of men. It’s not a project about Lily Bling – even though it is.’
‘It just started with a nickname,’ Lily reveals about his social media persona. ‘I just like the idea of fun and fantasy and putting a bit of escapism into people’s lives. If you can do that with a phone and curate your life, there’s no harm in it.’ It began when Lily got the titular nosejob. ‘I wasn’t going to post it on social media. But then I thought it was a fucking lol thing to do. The second I posted my bandaged face, it made me do more lol things.’
Who is Ryan Peterson? He is a graphic designer who eventually developed a fondness for styling. He remembers that ‘from the age of six I would draw women all the time.’ Because he liked computers and Photoshop, he did a BA in graphic design. But it was not until he interned with stylists that he found his real niche. ‘I was like – okay, I need to be doing this. And I did it.’ Post-MA, he would like to freelance by styling for magazines, consulting for designers as well as ‘just being a visage.’
I ask Richard Dowker, the photographer of the portraits, what it has been like collaborating on Lily’s project. ‘I find it fascinating. When we talked about having a wide array of people, like gay, straight, old, young, different types of background, it was something I was really interested in,’ he says. ‘In British culture, masculinity is never associated with glamour. And Lily is the epitome of this masculinity and glamour.’
The photographer is talking about Lily’s style. It’s often extravagant, sparkling, and not easy to define as to gender. Yet in Lily’s mind clothing comes without boundaries. ‘I don’t pick something up and say I love it because it’s womenswear,’ he states. ‘I just love it because I love it. It should belong to anyone who wants to wear it and can wear it.’ An interview with i-D labelled him genderless, but Lily claims that he isn’t. ‘It’s the clothes I wear that give the impression I consider myself genderless. For the record, I like being a man. My cock is staying there, darling!’
He then turns serious. ‘I didn’t want to go into gender with this project,’ he confesses. ‘I’m not sick of this whole gender discussion, but it has become such a tokenised buzzword that people want to include into everything.’ He says he feels for trans people because they are being included so creatives are able to tick a box and not because they are good models. He experienced a similar urge in his own work, because ‘you need to show as many people as possible. But I have posted previews on my Instagram and they are all white. People are probably already talking about that, but there is a big range of diverse individuals!’
Lily’s vision chimes in with fashion’s fixation with gender and diversity. Other creatives such as Charles Jeffrey and Ibrahim Kamara precede him in defying the boundaries of identity. What Lily brings to the table is questioning why a concept like glamour is eminently regarded as feminine. It’s hard to even to imagine the British male being interested in glamour. Perhaps that’s exactly why the images in LVLY by lily are so enticing: we rarely see men like this. Apologies for the phrasing, but it requires a lot of balls to look this fabulous.
Lily also acknowledges the influence of Essex. ‘It’s obviously all about crassness and this idea of new money. I’m so interested in it. It’s something that has informed the way I present myself.’ That is certainly true for Lily’s social media. His feed is almost a spectacle of shameless, outrageous and overtly queer behaviour. Some people probably fancy it as too much. He remains unfazed by that idea. ‘I don’t care if people see me like this. It’s not something I am ashamed of, this is me. Instagram is just more fun to post something flamboyant.’
The puzzling thing about Lily is that for all the craziness in the way he presents and behaves himself, he is fundamentally just a genuinely grounded guy. ‘I can be a bitch. But as long as you are a nice person and not directly harming anyone, live and let live.’
He quickly corrects himself. ‘Live and let Lily!’
Words Marijn Brok
LVLY by Lily opens December 3 at Bistrotheque – 23-27 Wadeson Street, E2 9DR from 8-12pm