Antoni & Alison has sort of always been cult; it’s in the way the designers – Antoni Burakowski and Alison Roberts – approach their work as much as it is a factor of the brand’s current vintage (it celebrates 29 years in 2016), and the ensuing quiet influence.
As the pair’s latest project proves, it’s also in the IRL concepts they entertain; in 2012 the London flagship on Roseberry Avenue welcomed Ye Olde Worlde Super Modern Tea Room, this week they’ve renamed the entire space The Antoni & Alison Department Store.
“The Building is beautiful and we felt it should be shared,” they assert when quizzed on the new development. “We thought the Tea Room would be perfect for this, and from there grew the concept of the ‘Department Store’, opening up the whole building for everyone to enjoy.”
If you’re somewhere in your twenties with a vague interest in fashion, then like Tatty Devine, Toby Mott’s handwriting and Tophop’s dalliance with Daisy de Villeneuve’s portraits, the Antoni & Alison of the early noughties will no doubt be a marked recollection.
The post-Katherine Hamnett, pre-Henry Holland king and queen of slogan tees, in 2011 they allowed Uniqlo unprecedented access to their back catalogue which resulted in an iconic line-up of tops boasting phrases such as ‘I Can’t Stand You’, ‘I’m So Very Bourgeois’ and the like; today their work focuses on the less vocal frock.
“Computers have made the biggest difference to our collections,” they assert of the fashion industry’s transformation from when they started out in 1987. “What you couldn’t do then, is very easily possible now. In 1987 we photocopied everything in black and white. Now, in 2015, we digitally print everything. To us it is like we were in a black and white film back then, and now we work in glorious technicolour.”
The latest collection, ‘Studio Frocks’, is the product of their surroundings: “We were working (on it) while our studio was being renovated. In the middle of winter with the windows wide open for the painting; we worked in collage as our fingers were too cold to do anything else.”
Until 2005 the label showed on schedule at London Fashion Week – then again between 2012 and 2013 – their AW13 show opened with a marching band, another was introduced by a voiceover from Burakowski. But initially they weren’t interested in the catwalk, pioneering the trend for the now terribly in-vogue presentation.
“It’s true that ‘presentations’ did not exist when we started doing them. We called them presentations because we were interested in a new way of presenting our work. Catwalk shows we felt were old fashioned,” they confirm.
“At the beginning, our work was very different, and a lot more text based. We felt we needed to explain it in a new way that felt right for us. We wanted a more close up and intimate way of showing our ideas. Our initial presentations didn’t even include clothes, we produced a slide show of things that were relevant to us, how we were feeling and what we were interested in at that moment. We wrote a script that we recorded and showed in the V&A’s lecture theatre. Those slide shows turned into films, and we incorporated clothes into the presentation, laying them on the floor or hanging them next to objects that inspired us… At first nobody understood the concept, but this made it all the more exciting to us to do.”
Decades later and they remain true to the attitude of Antoni & Alison. The department store is filled with objects featuring the pair’s actual handwriting (a mix of both because “certain words written by Antoni and others look better written by Alison”), while the wi-fi free tea shop features a ‘no choice’ menu of just tea (the lower ground floor holds a selection of archive T-shirts (!) alongside bags and scarves).
So why do they think a bricks and mortar shop is still relevant in 2015? Certainly they’re not alone, with the likes of a number of names* and Palace putting roots down this year.
“The department store feels modern, and reflects our brand throughout,” they decide, “When you’re behind the counter you can actually speak to customers.”
Words: Zoe Whitfield