"People in real life like weird shit."

“I’d never really given it much attention to be honest,” Toby Leigh recalls of the faux Burberry check, the subject of his latest project: a photo book titled ‘Berberry’.

“Around 2006 I suddenly started seeing the pattern everywhere. This coincided with right wing tabloid media coining the offensive term ‘Chav’. Their subsequent obsession with the culture surrounding the ‘phenomenon’ meant that ‘Berberry’ check was suddenly in the public domain and seen as more than just the preserve of the rich.”

Images like that of Eastenders actress Danniella Westbrook (and daughter) doused in the Haymarket check, and a pre-Instagram Jenner family (also in matching prints) summed up the mood, a result of the early noughties aesthetic from the British fashion house thought up by then new Design Director, Christopher Bailey; the fad trickled into the mainstream and cheap fakes maintained demand.

“It was really funny watching the luxury brand squirm as the pattern gained in popularity and was used in more and more ludicrous ways,” Leigh continues. “I began to realise – as I collected more and more images – that the pattern had become the ubiquitous symbol for anyone wanting to give something a luxury feel. I think it also taps into a sort of global obsession with British heritage on some level.”

Burberry’s ad campaigns of the era, shot by Mario Testino, both glamouised the print and made it cool: oh there’s Kate Moss in Burberry underwear, Liberty Ross in a check mini dress, Naomi Campbell in a tartan bucket hat. Subsequent campaigns have refrained from using the check in such a pronounced way.

Shot first exclusively on a digital point and shoot, later on an iPhone, Leigh’s images span a decade of the blackmarket’s best wannabes, DIY efforts and OTT knockoffs. Less Dapper Dan reappropriates Gucci for Harlem, more ‘exactly how far can we take this’, the project’s transition from accidental hobby to book came about after Toby showed his collection to his brother Leo: “he just said ‘you should make these into a book’, simple.”

Newly released – the launch party takes place on Thursday – the book has been produced in collaboration with independent publishers Ditto Press, and response so far has been positive. “People seem to really respond to it,” the artist asserts, “I think the sheer volume of images makes people laugh and there’s a disbelief about how out of control the phenomenon has become.”

Quite. One of Toby’s personal favourites is a picture from Serbia where a whole building has been covered in the infamous check. “I actually didn’t take that photo,” he admits. “I’d heard about this building in this tiny town called Vranie. I spent two weeks on the phone trying to find someone who could speak English in the tourist information office in the town. Eventually a very nice guy called Nebojsa agreed to go and take a picture for me; it’s a great shot.”

“The most furtive ground for pics was the Souk in Marrakech,” he later divulges. “That’s where I found two of the best shots: the Calvin Klein pants with the ‘Berberry’ check and also the shot of a guy selling knock off watches out of a ‘Berberry’ clad briefcase. Gold!”

An illustrator by trade (It’s Nice That has described him as “the wittiest retro janus-faced illustrator around”), his interest in subverting convention is nothing new; for the 2012 Olympics he produced a series of canvas bags, in official games colours, with phrases like ‘I’m renting my flat to a fat American family’, ‘they’re all on steroids’ and ‘it only took me 3 hours to get to work this morning’.

“I like things that make me laugh and I like making other people laugh. I grew up reading things like Viz and Robert Crumb and they had a massive impact on my work,” he observes. “Most of the time, subversive stuff chimes more with what people actually think. Maybe not in the sanitised world of media and advertising, but people in real life like weird shit. Just look at your Facebook feed! The slogans on the ‘Olympic’ bags were just things I heard real people in London actually saying in the build up to London 2012.”

Unlike Margaret Thatcher’s wardrobe, which the V&A politely declined to showcase at the beginning of the month, his bags are now part of the museum’s collection. How does something like that happen?

Explains Toby: “The bags gained a lot of publicity during the games as we were virtually the only people who dared to design anything related to the event. You might remember that LOCOG, who ran the games, took an extremely draconian approach to anyone they considered to be profiting from the Olympic brand: one guy who owned a bagel shop was told to remove his window display of five bagels arranged in the shape of the Olympic rings FFS!”

“After it was all over, the V&A were collecting as many objects as they could related to London 2012 for their permanent collection. These objects are kept in storage in the museum, but at some point in the future they will choose to look back at London 2012 in some capacity and I’ve very proud to have been a part of the story. Especially as I was basically taking the piss out of the whole thing,” he finishes, with a smile.

Inside ‘Berberry’ you’ll find all sorts of objects decked out in the check, first used to line trench coats in the 1920’s: mass produced clothing, birthday cakes, cars, tattoos, wheelchairs, iPhone covers and toilet seats are all in there. But has the curator ever adopted the print himself? “Can’t say I have.”

Words: Zoe Whitfield



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