Labels We Have Loved #1: Vexed Generation

Vexed: going beyond the confines of fashion

Vexed: going beyond the confines of fashion

In praise of fashion from the past which continues to inform fashion of the present.

Although fashion routinely peddles bland trends and lazy revivalism, every now and then something appears which feels startlingly modern and pleasingly subversive. From Westwood and McLaren’s converging of fetish wear and sloganeering in the late 70s, to the uncompromisingly unsexy work of Japanese mavericks such as Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo in the mid 80s, or the deconstructed anti-glitz of Martin Margiela in the early 90s; all have widened the fashion vocabulary to powerful effect and been subsequently referenced and rehashed by many other designers.

Back in the mid 90s, the designs and ethos of a small London label named Vexed Generation – formed by Adam Thorpe, formerly a science student and Joe Hunter, previously a graphics student – first began causing a buzz upon the city’s streets, once again showing that clothes can have meaning and value beyond mere surface effect or actual price. Disturbed by the infringement of civil liberties which the recently introduced Criminal Justice Bill of 1994 had brought about  (to finally put a stop to those pesky mass outdoor raves that had become so popular since the late 80s), as well as the increasingly intrusive use of CCTV upon city streets nationwide, Thorpe and Hunter set about creating clever sartorial responses, termed Stealth Utility, to these and other topical issues of the time (such as air pollution), despite their lack of formal fashion training.

A quest to go beyond the confines of fickle fashion

Various design innovations emerged from Vexed HQ, perhaps the most notable of these being the one shoulder rucksack which became ubiquitous – duly ripped-off across the globe by bigger named designers and naff high street stores alike – and prompted i-D magazine at the time to describe it as “the bag that ate the world”. Initially designed for practical reasons – to carry 50 records, in fact (everyone wanted to be a DJ in the 90s, after all) – it was a simple, square shaped backpack with a diagonal velcro fastener, complete with detachable mobile phone holder, that could be flung casually over the shoulder. Equally memorable was the Vexed Parka, in blast-proof ballistic nylon – sourced through the Ministry of Defence, no less – which broke the usual mode of Parka-style coats by featuring padding in strategic places to protect one’s skull, kidneys and nether regions, in the event of being attacked by riot police. Vexed’s response to CCTV snooping, meanwhile, was to create a hooded fleece that incorporated an intimidating-looking, identity-concealing, Ninja-style balaclava hood. (A good ten years before ‘Hoodies’ became a favourite buzzword of the Daily Mail, and David Cameron began banging on about hugging them…)

Needless to say, Vexed Generation didn’t open a bog standard boutique in which to showcase and sell these and other designs. Instead, they unleashed a unique retail space (in tandem to their website; launched long before much of the fashion industry caught on to the internet’s potential) which was low on budget but high on ideas and challenged the cliches of what clothes shops could be. Designed to confront, rather than seduce the customer, the shop at 12 Newburgh Street, which opened in the mid 90s, concealed its contents from the street outside with plastic sheeting across the windows (akin to the opaque glass of Westwood and McLaren’s Seditionaries two decades previously). Inside, clothes made from a tough mix of denim or parachute nylon, silk or wool, were displayed within a see-through cabinet; small holes in its side enabling slightly nervous customers to touch the garments.

No obligatory polished floorboards here: underfoot was a thick layer of white graveyard gravel, while walls were strewn with messages, depicted in ticker tape, that told of the latest civil liberty infringements or the newest statistics relating to UK air pollution. Slides and videos by a network of contemporary artists were shown in the store, further expanding the Vexed quest to go beyond the confines of fickle fashion, and – in hindsight – predicting the increased tendency of today’s boutiques to double up as micro art galleries.

Vexed Generation eventually moved to other premesis on Berwick Street, in Soho’s scruffy heart (the site has since been demolished by developers), and continued to develop their ethos – not least by working with brands such as Ruffo and then PUMA, in the mid Noughties. Thorpe and Hunter went on to successfuly develop other specialist product design and research projects, but at the time of writing it is unclear if Vexed Generation still exists. However, its presence is certainly kept alive on ebay, where the duo’s designs of yesteryear command steep prices from canny collectors and new generations of fans – vexed or otherwise.

By James Anderson