16 March 2020

Quarantine by Dr. Noki

Written by Published in In Pictures

Dr Noki, rehabilitator of the ragpile, even turns the idea of the ikon on its head in order to create his name. He cuts, stitches and embellishes to reinvent not only the fibres of an unwanted garment, but moral fibre itself. Taking the mass produced and turning it into one-off creations, Noki’s work has been turning heads for more than 20 years. But it seems like it’s only just now that he’s getting started. Photography: Charl Marais, Styling: Dr.Noki

Sublime: Who is Dr Noki? Tell us all …
Dr Noki:
Dr Noki is a character created out of a magazine feature. In 2008, I did a presentation for Lulu Kennedy of Fashion East, and I made a conscious fashion effort – some might say faux pas – by creating NHS, or the Noki House of Sustainability. I created Noki 20 years ago as a personal rehabilitation of my love of The Brand, with a nod to its mindsweep through globalisation and its effects on us as a generation, disguised as entertainment.

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Originally it was an idea for a magazine. It was going to be the pictures in the magazine you’d be looking at; a reinvention of the past. The magazine was called Nokizine. What you’re seeing is two t-shirts sewn together. Imagine it as a magazine with one brand on one page and another brand on another page. The two t-shirts sewn together form the seam of the magazine. But now I’ve used contemporary rock band t-shirts mixed with old-school rock band t-shirts to achieve the same thing I did 20 years ago, and it’s a pleasure to see it reinvent itself. It hasn’t been rejected yet, so it’s probably more relevant now than it was back then. There’s a bigger audience looking for it, there’s a generation now that’s grown up with it.

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Most of my interns were five or six when I started. Now they engage with me at work. That’s great; they’re starting to see the fun in it, and that means it’s not so niche. When I first started, my work was very, very niche, it was very exclusive, I suppose; that’s fine when you first start. It’s a tight bubble you can operate within, but to extend your work, to make your message go wide, you have to engage with a bigger audience.

There are ragpile mountains, high mountains, and that’s where I collage my Noki efforts from. It becomes a colourful experience. It reflects the global information highway quite fully. It’s a bit like having the tv remote and flicking through at 100 miles an hour. That creates a new generation of mind, dealing with information, and I try to emulate that through what I make, hence it’s quite a hectic pattern, and there’s lots of information: branding, lettering, wording, but subverted so I can keep a contemporary nod to something that was once rejected and thrown away.

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S: How do you go about approaching the ragpile? Do you just dive in?
Dr N:
It’s a bit like deep-sea diving: you deep-sea dive, and you find wonderful things! The great thing about the ragpile is that you find cashmeres next to acrylics, next to wool, next to cotton, next to acetate. You start to see things that work that you would never normally see working when you go to the stiff world of Premiere Vision [a leading textiles trade organisation], where everything’s rolled onto its specific rolls, and fabric is for sale and it’s created and the stand only has a specific textile, or it concentrates only on a specific yarn.

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On the other hand, I am more interested in creating the one-off. Through the ragpile – I call it the new-world textile – the sustainable canvas is a way of making something unique, and it’s a nod to contemporary love and hate. The juxtaposition between the two is a very beautiful thing that I try and adhere to, and the best way I can possibly do that is to stick to creating one-off pieces. I’ve been delving into production lines where I mix dead-stock bales of fabric with customising techniques, and that’s been accepted very well by the industry. They can see a genuine evolution, mixing the two, and some people see it as a great way of introducing something.

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Noki is not necessarily everybody’s taste, I get that; it’s very much a youth expression. The industry’s not necessarily full of young people, because it needs an older generation to make it work and flow, it needs structure and it needs people to be strong. Because people are too quick to go, ‘I don’t get involved in fashion, I don’t like fashion, I don’t get involved in branding’. My experience is that people wake up, they brush their teeth with which brand? They drink which coffee? They use which make-up? Everybody’s involved in branding; it’s not about fashion garments per se, it’s about product.

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S: You talk a lot about branding in how you work. What is branding to you? What role does it play?
Dr N:
Branding is a really powerful thing. The naked truth is that we don’t walk about naked, so fashion involves itself in branding. It’s über-important in my work. Just look at the two hats on the front cover, from LA: I can add a bit of gaffer tape and create the word ‘laugh’ from ‘Lakers’, and with just the ‘L’ I can write ‘Love’.

It’s about making people read the right thing for the right reasons. Branding has overextended its welcome within a generation, and my audience finds it quite levelling and a fun extension on how you can’t help, they can’t help, I can’t help being personally attracted to brands and what they create.

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S: Do you feel that branding is a necessary evil of the fashion industry?
Dr N:
Life is evil! You know life is, from the moment you’re born to the moment you die. It’s been a struggle! It is the mortal coil, and those trinkets in between: if they make people smile, then brilliant! There’s a very interesting juxtaposition between the mind and consuming, and I’m really intrigued by that. If Noki’s a trend, then let’s have a one-off trend.

S: One thing that really stands out in the Noki trend is your masks, and the story behind that …
Dr N:
The mask was pretty much part of the original Noki. When I was doing it, I created Noki masks out of kids’ t-shirts. Branding is an inherent part of youth; you’re screaming for the Mickey Mouse t-shirt or the Star Wars or the Batman, all those things that kids want, and you’ve got the pyjamas and the lunchbox. When, at such an early age, you find you are accepted in the playground because you have those trinkets, there’s very little chance you’ll see another way forward without them. So I created the mask out of that position.

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The kid’s t-shirt, great! Because it’s a small t-shirt it fits the head. It was about making people pull away from something they would normally run to. I was sticking it on the face, which is the last place the brand should really go, and the viewer is very much rejecting of that face. It’s very much like, Arghhh! which is not a word they would normally say about the t-shirt’s first incarnation. Noki’s second incarnation is to put it on the face, so that the viewer wants to rip it off. They want to tear it away, they want to see who the human being is, for a change, which is the opposite of what the original intention was, which was for you to buy it.

That’s what Noki is: Noki is very much a brand subversion, another way forward. It’s a contemporary way of accepting branding, yet playfully working with it. It’s a constant, the mask. It’s probably the most interesting part of Noki, really. For the rest, I aspire to achieve a sexy silhouette, and the mask is never really very sexy, it’s very fetish, and there’s a fine line between sexy and fetish. The fetish is a danger zone, and sexy is a pleasure zone.

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S: Do you feel you dwell between the two worlds?
Dr N:
Yeah! I don’t know: I’ve never, ever in my life bought fashion and regretted it. Other things in my life I’ve bought. I’ve bought furniture, I’ve bought motorbikes and I’ve thought, why the hell did I spend that money on that? I’ve rented studios and wished I hadn’t. I’ve done lots of spending on different things, but I’ve never regretted a garment, even if I’ve worn it just once. We need fashion, therefore we need textiles.

But behind it all is a very gruesome history. I’ve watched White Gold; it’s a documentary about Uzbekistan, and in it you’ll find quite a scary story about a country that will give the Western world cotton guilt. It’s a true story. It’s a country where there isn’t even a generation upon generation upon generation whose grandparents haven’t lived in the same village. But the lake has disappeared. Their fingers are falling off because of the poisons; they’re pulled out of intelligent jobs like being doctors and nurses to pick cotton for their country, and if they don’t, they’re fined. That’s something I may have worn along the line – I may have worn Uzbekistan’s cotton, and I wouldn’t be an artist unless I let that emotion filter through into my work.

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S: From hearing of all that’s bad in fashion, how do you try to steer clear?
Dr N:
I don’t have to manufacture abroad. The rag is very prevalent in Britain. I’ve got backers that have a textile recycling company in West Ham. They recycle the new-world textile from London, so as an artist it’s a great way of regenerating rejection through Noki reinvention. It’s honest and it’s pretty instantaneous, from being thrown away to being reinvented to being in a Noki collection. It’s quite hardcore sustainable, I suppose, compared to some designers who say they’re sustainable or ethical.

It’s a bandwagon people are jumping on because it’s the new buzzword, and I’m very well aware of that. That’s why I called it the Noki House of Sustainability, and from that it’s become a fun brand, a piss-take on the NHS. I come from Scotland, but I see myself as British. What I aspire to do is leave a legacy behind that can entertain generations, who can either buy a Noki or they can do DIY and customise it themselves. I’m throwing ideas out there. Not everybody can make things, and that’s not a negative; some people can, some can’t. People say you must hate the high street, but I don’t really because they create ragpiles, which are great. It’s what I make Noki from.

The high street kind of democratises the idea of design. They’ve lowered the price on design; they’ve cheapified it. For instance, Topshop has second-hand shops within its umbrella, and that’s a slow-burning nemesis because it’s a second-hand garment that’s sold in a shop that sells generic clothing. Some people will wear it to a party, but their friends can’t run to Topshop to buy the same thing! And that’s how one per cent is going to become two per cent and three per cent. Style should be a slow burner; it should never be a quick, instant hit, not good style, anyway. It should be worn with pride, not prejudice.

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S: So with all these different influences, what does it mean for Dr Noki to collaborate with other people, and not just the ragpile?
Dr N:
Inadvertently, Noki does collaborate with every brand in the world but as a focal point, I’ve collaborated with Adidas and Kickers, and this season I worked with Chloé on the catwalk, with Hannah MacGibbon. It’s great because in this day and age, where everybody’s taking brands and going mental with them, Chloé’s a very chic brand. It’s French, and it does what it says on the label, and that’s a very interesting zone.

Some people see it as negative. I don’t; I see it as a very beautiful brand ident. Not many things are chic any more; lots of brands are really quite gaudy and disgusting these days because there’s a new generation of consumers, quite ugly souls who want to wear fashion, and they want it more fast and furious and quite intentionally disgusting!

Chic is maybe the new mental, and I’m very proud to be part of the collaboration. I worked with Adidas and did the Oink Not Piss boot that was a regeneration of textiles from all over the factories, the dead-stock piles of fabric. That was an interesting one in itself because it brought focus to piles of leftover textiles. When they’re collaged into the boot, which was made in Germany by artisans and then it sits in the glass cabinet of the Adidas presentation showroom, that’s a proud moment, it sticks in there. It’s a one-off; it’s a very strong product we’ve created.

The Kickers collaboration was called the Kickstand. It was created from second-hand biker jackets; again, the new-world textile was used in creating it, and because it comes from a non-generic beginning, it means those boots are one-offs. Most people don’t see that, but I know, and people that are in the know, know. That’s the important bit, and when people who aren’t in the know find out, their smiles are even bigger.

2012 is going to be a very interesting year, with the Olympics, and the focus will be on Britain and fashions changing. Esthetica is a very interesting platform; Anna Orsini from Esthetica and Barbara from the British Fashion Council are championing me through those channels.

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S: Talking about the future, what can we expect from Dr Noki? What’s in the pipeline?
Dr N:
The pipeline is to take the Noki House of Sustainability and create new collections based around different textiles. I have one called Noki Noir Pour Dandy, Noki Noir Pour Dandyette, that’s based around dark textiles. There’s a new one coming out called Noki Genetics that’s based round sportswear and denim. Then from that, Noki Orange? Noki Blue? Noki Rainbow …? In the ragpile, that’s what you get: a rainbow. It’s fun to pluck colour combinations out and use. The best way to take Noki is to departmentalise it through textiles and colour and make it into a range that is not so hectic, not so imposing, not so violent, and fit it into a lifestyle that people can make their own. Give people something that’s worth collecting, something that’s worth eBaying, something that’s just worth more than it was when they first bought it.



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