Cowboy-mad Alex Mullins is the designer whose childhood obsession with the wild west has spilt over into his ever-expanding career in fashion design. A quick coffee swiftly turned into a full on breakfast with the designer, (who has previously worked with the likes of McQueen, DVF and Mr West), during which Alex spoke to 1 Granary about his inspirations and work ethic.
Let’s start off talking about your studies at CSM (BA) and the RCA (MA): do you have a favourite?
No I can’t say that! They were both very different. I think Saint Martins was about creativity and never really saying no to an idea, even if you don’t have the skill to refine it: you can do anything. But at RCA it was all about taking that creativity and refining it. Making it make sense and have a purpose.
I think it’s very important to go to a school that teaches you the fashion skill. When I first started at Saint Martins, I thought, “Why the hell do I need to make all that stuff? I just want to do drawings!” Then I realized that you have to know everything to be able to do the practice.
With an eye on the practice, how do you usually start your designing process?
I create a narrative. I kind of use my instincts and think about what I really want to see right now or what I think can be worn at that time. The better narrative I have, the easier it is for me to question “Would he wear this, is he not wearing that, how would he wear that?” I think you’ve got to have a reality there. For others, the muse changes all the time. For me, it’s always this kind of cowboy.
Where does that love for cowboys come from?
I really don’t know. It’s cowboys and Native America, actually.
Have you been there too?
To America, yes, I went to this bizarre bar in Arizona that was full of cowboys. You know when in these comedy films when you walk in and the music goes [makes scratching record sound] and everyone just looks at you. It was so weird.
What were you wearing?
I think I was wearing a checked shirt, [looks down] not this one. A checked shirt and jeans because I think I wanted to fit in?
Were they wearing hats?
Yes, hats! And the women were wearing fur and cowboy boots. Everyone had cowboy boots.
So Dolly Parton, in a way.
It was, yeah, but less extreme. More trashy.
So where does that obsession comes from?
The obsession with cowboys probably comes from what I saw as a kid and thought that that’s what masculinity was, for example the Marlboro man. It’s about this fantasy of masculinity, perhaps, and also with native America. The way they dress is very theatrical and quite outrageous. It’s very masculine while being flamboyant. It’s got rodeo style involved and music icons from the 50s. I like the balance of the character being masculine and the clothes being something else. And in my family home they had a lot of ‘ethnic art’. I don’t know, it sounds very weird but… I hate the world ethnic. But I wouldn’t want to describe it as ‘world art’. That sounds even worse! Like ‘world music’, I’ve got no idea what that is.
Is it something you want to continue doing?
Yes. The core of it is that Western clothes use a lot of Native American textiles. It echoes what I think about London and England. It’s like a multi-national place, a mixture of things and ethnicities, people and taste all in one place.
I think it’s very inspiring to just walk around town and take in all surroundings. It often feels like people don’t really do that anymore.
Have you seen Wall-E?
God, no I haven’t: it’s on the list.
It’s a silly animation. There’s a point in it where this little robot goes up to a space ship and everybody is really fat and they live in these hoover chairs. They’re just looking into screens; they don’t look at each other, there’s no interaction. Admittedly, I’m doing it as well, just staring at my phone. People don’t really look around themselves.
What Western movies do you like?
I am more into really old photographs. This way I can create a narrative instead of somebody else telling me what the narrative is. The early American photography is the most interesting, because they photographed these Native Americans who believed that photography would steal your soul.
Wouldn’t it be nice to do costume design for a modern cowboy film?
Yes, yes it would. Do you know anybody doing a film? Maybe I should just do a cowboy film. London Cowboy.
How do you make the prints?
Usually they come from silly little ideas that I play around with, develop and then see what’s best. I love ink and paint; it’s a very instinctive thing.
I’m more interested in how you can create something energetic than just having a garment with a print on it. I feel like this moment in time it has become very oversaturated what print is and how it’s used. Primark are doing is. It’s become so accessible. If you want to create a form of luxury, you have to do it in a very different way.
All my prints are about the artwork coming first. I have a huge fabric canvas, and then I put the print on it by screen, hand painting or ink. Then it’s cut from it, but in a way that you can’t see the exact print. You just see the lines, which gives a nice energy. It works well with the guy I design for, because it’s still a bit cheeky, but he would definitely not wear the garment if it had my little logo printed all over. Even if it would be a single big one on the back, I think he would struggle to wear it.
What stayed with me most, were the hats in your lookbook. Were they made out of cardboard?
Yeah, we have to be economical. Sometimes you just have a nice idea and there’s nothing you should do differently about it. The hats aren’t meant to be sold; they’re there to say something about what I have done.
I was talking with Seetal Solanki about being unique in this generation instead of being something else.
I think that’s true for quite a few people. It’s kind of like with that cardboard hat. There’s something about being so proper about things… I think that pretending to be proper when you’re not really, is very old-fashioned now. I think people are now more honest about their work and how we’re connecting to it. And also what it is about their work that connects them to themselves… I’m very deep this morning. Talking about philosophical elements of today’s fashions when asked about printworks…
Where do you go when you need a break from work?
Which is just down the road!
I like going to galleries and museums. Museums are a lot calmer than galleries. I think that what’s in a space, echoes the feeling of what the space is about. All the old stuff is quite thoughtful; after I go to the V&A, I can think very well. I’m getting philosophical again. But it’s got all of these old things that people have stared at for a long time and thought about when they’re looking at it, and thinking how beautiful they are. You feel that when you’re there. And when you’re at a gallery -on the other end of the scale- I think it’s an energetic space. It’s like ‘there’s an exhibition here! You’re here to see that! It’s only on for a limited time!’
It’s nice not to be entirely focused on one thing. I think with my work it’s a lot about balance, composition and spontaneous things. I really like the frivolity of having a small idea and just doing it. I think it’s quite fun. It makes me feel excited. It would probably sound like I didn’t really care, but it’s more about how a scribble on a paper can turn into something important. How a tiny little shitty thing can have a purpose. If I would have any advices, it would be to take just that, and develop it.