The uncanny is that subjective sensation triggered by something which is at once familiar yet alien. It is the unsettling evocation of the past in the present. Stefan Cooke’s MA collection is a manifestation of that feeling. “I think it is easy to forget that clothes are made for the body, they are to be experienced with the senses, worn and used,” he states. “As soon as you change one aspect, say something like the material, it creates an entirely different sensation… I wanted to create something quite dark and weird, that you can interpret in any way you want to.”
It was only just over a week ago that the textiles designer was awarded the L’Oréal Professional Creative Award alongside Gabriele Skucas at the Central Saint Martins MA Fashion show, following in the footsteps of designers like Ashish, Jonathan Saunders and Matty Bovan.
Often misinterpreted as a commentary on British culture, Cooke’s graduate collection simply took inspiration from normal everyday items of clothing, pieces that you’d find gathering dust in an average male wardrobe or for sale in any charity shop. “I chose clothes which have been reproduced so many times that there is no design in them anymore.” Cooke explains he wanted to reinterpret, revitalise and elevate these mundane items of clothing into pieces that would not seem out of place either on a catwalk or in the context of an art gallery or museum.
Assisted by his team, Cooke subverted these pieces of clothing by replicating them in unusual ways. Several garments, including a pair of jeans, a leather jacket, a trench coat and a cricket jumper, were collected, photographed and digitally manipulated by Cooke, then transposed by means of digital and sublimation printing onto synthetic materials. The long-sleeved tops are shredded polyester, the chainmail-like jumpers are made of plastic, and elastic is woven together to create the jackets and the coat. The bandage-like bodycon trousers are also constructed from elastic, coverstitched together. Glimpses of the body are revealed through the distressed polyester or beneath the coverstitching; the body provides the silhouette as even the woven pieces fit intuitively.
“I chose clothes which have been reproduced so many times that there is no design in them anymore.”
The unconventional choice of materials completely warps the sensory experience of the clothes for the wearer. The garments are no longer as functional or comfortable as their original counterparts, they are instead familiar yet strange, anonymous ghosts of the images of the clothes that are printed on them. “I was trying to create this boy that you’ve seen so many times but you don’t know at all,” says Cooke. “It was about trying to create that stuff that everyone knows, that you don’t have to look at twice.” This anonymity was reflected in the lookbook, which Cooke shot himself, with the clothes not on a model but hanging on a rail in a photographic studio. The decision was made to save money, but the results are mesmerising: the looks hang ready and eagerly, waiting to come alive as they are pulled and styled on to a person who lurks just out of shot.
Cooke is full of energy and wisps of fluff from his moulting dusty-pink mohair jumper catch the late-afternoon light, as he enthusiastically gesticulates whilst talking through his collection.
Originally from Crawley in West Sussex, Cooke spent most of his spare time between Brighton and London, especially whilst completing his fashion and textiles foundation at Northbrook College. Self-admittedly quite naïvely, Cooke arrived at Central Saint Martins where he studied BA Fashion Design with Print and consolidated his passion for experimenting with print and textiles. “It’s funny because I never really saw myself as a textiles designer, but now I realise that I definitely view fashion in that way, and everything is really geared towards that.”
In his placement year Cooke first interned six months with Walter Van Beirendonck in Antwerp before heading to Paris to assist John Galliano with research in the run up to his appointment as the creative director of Maison Margiela. Both experiences offered Cooke a fresh perspective on his work and left him eager to return to CSM to produce his BA graduate collection.
“I never really saw myself as a textiles designer, but now I realise that I definitely view fashion in that way, and everything is really geared towards that.”
Throughout his BA and alongside his Fashion Textiles MA (partially funded by a tuition fee bursary) Cooke has worked part-time to support himself, he currently works three days a week at a yoga studio run by one of his eight siblings. During his first year at CSM he started working as a fit model for MA students, granting him fly on the wall access to the studio and a unique insight into the course. “My MA effectively started five years ago in terms of learning, I feel like I have come in full-circle,” he laughs. “Although I was just the body in the room, doing fittings for Craig Green, Hampus Berggren or Nicomede Talavera, I overheard and learnt a lot. The quality of their work really shaped the way I approached design.”
Cooke has continued to work with Green, walking in his shows but also interning for him. “It’s strange because I remember first meeting him about a week before the show, doing the fittings, the show and then celebrating with him,” he recalls, “At the time I thought it would be amazing to be in this position and do the MA and have that kind of opportunity open to you. So to then be in that position after five years is great.” Although struggling with bouts of self-doubt, he admits: “From the get go as soon as I started the course I felt like I had a strong footing, in terms of knowing what was expected of me.”
When asked about what he wants to do next he answers pragmatically: “I just don’t want to put myself in a position where I’m not enjoying it anymore, because I realise how much I do enjoy designing and I don’t want to sacrifice that for anything.” There are whispers of exciting projects in the pipeline, but in general Cooke is keeping an open mind: “I feel like I’m on the cusp of something exciting.”
“I almost wanted to go out with my collection and explain where it all came from, but what you learn on the MA is that you’ve got to get an idea across in 30 seconds and it has to be so people can take away anything they want from it.”
Although the tongue in cheek sense of humour that jumped out of Cooke’s BA collection continues to pervade his clothes, his references are now more nuanced and subtle – woven seamlessly into the concept. The clothes cannot be perceived passively, but demand a sensually discursive relationship, warranting a closer look to be properly understood. The idiosyncrasies can be easily overlooked in a glance on the catwalk or scrolled past on a phone screen. “I don’t feel like I’m one to throw my ideas at you, or to make you look at my work, I want you to notice it if you feel like it but I’m not forcing you to think about it,” concedes Cooke.
“I almost wanted to go out with my collection and explain where it all came from, but what you learn on the MA is that you’ve got to get an idea across in 30 seconds and it has to be so people can take away anything they want from it – British heritage, trompe-l’œil and all this stuff which wasn’t particularly at the core of what it was,” explains Cooke in response to the reactions to his collection. “But I’d prefer people to take away something and whatever they wanted, rather than to forget it.”
Like art, Cooke’s work is open to interpretation and that’s the beauty of it. Subjective and perceptive experiences lie at the heart of the clothes he creates and they are not easily forgotten. They stick with you, like that uncanny feeling.
Words Helena Fletcher Images Courtesy of Stefan Cooke