Luke brooks fashion designer
Rubbings taken from eighteenth and nineteenth century New England gravestones comprise Luke Brooks’ AW13 collection; a bewitching language of symbols, dates and inscriptions which both document the deceased and adorn the living. Luke’s Crayola on Tyvek garments compel us into a “murky realm” where aesthetics, spirituality and commerciality all have roles to play.
“I might think of myself as an artist,” Luke wonders, but he soon dismisses the suggestion of the label ‘fine artist’. In discussing the crossover between art and fashion, Luke can’t concretely establish where the parameters might lie. By dressing people in what is essentially the documentation of death, some may argue that his collection has the potential to operate within a fine art realm. “I wasn’t thinking about “big statements’’ or politics at the beginning,” he explains. “I was concerned with the idea in itself… as a process. I’ve felt that way about other projects. I hoped to get people talking, but I don’t have a manifesto.” Despite not placing his garments in an art context, Luke does recount having seen grave rubbings online which were presented as art pieces. Some of these were taken from children’s graves.
An MA group project lead Luke to visit the graves of famous figures connected to fashion. The group subsequently chopped down weeds, cleaned some of the stone and placed extravagant flowers on the graves. “None of us expected that it would feel so good, so poignant,” he recalls. The iconic illustrator and writer of children’s books Kate Greenaway featured amongst the visited, alongside one man important to the development of fully waterproofed fabrics. Luke remembers the grave of Marchesa Casati, an extremely wealthy and eccentric Venetian who eventually lost all her money and died penniless in a London bedsit. Her grave in Brompton is described simply as a “sad looking urn on the grass”. Something had been off; someone had spelt her name wrong or had written it out of line. “I guess someone had to pay for it.”
“I did use one with a skull but I coloured it in. I’m not really into skull imagery per se. Not in a blanket way but I think we’ve been overwhelmed by skulls in recent years.”
After his first gravestone tests in Hampstead cemetery (eerily finding one stone which bore his name), Luke decided to travel to the USA for his AW13 collection. It’s apparent that the aesthetic found in the New England gravestones played a big part in this decision, as Luke describes compelling examples of pagan-looking designs and faces comparable to African masks in isolation. He also likes having limits; New England put a focaliser on the millions of potential stones to rub with “findagravestone.com” acting as a tool through which to locate graves. One headstone from Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn, NY even dated back to the 1600s, having been transplanted there from an older cemetery.
Negative feedback seemed plausible as grave rubbing can be contentious. Did it feel tense? “There was only one incident in Maine when we were doing the rubbings in an ancient graveyard on the coast. It had a volunteer group who looked after it and there was one woman who told us, “You’re not allowed to do that here…”” Despite being legal in Maine, Luke tells me gravestone rubbing is illegal in other states such as Massachussetts. Although he didn’t visit, Boston has some of the oldest stones where access is limited because of strict opening times and the necessity often to book onto a tour. ”In Massachussets, some of them have things like mermaids and can be really quite strange… skeletons with hour glasses. Extravagant but crude.”
Photography Bryan Huynh (Bryan, your work is amazing! We hope you will see this small note from us <3 )
Art direction Luke Brooks and Sue-Wen Quek.
Working with Crayola in favour of official grave rubbing wax (yes – it exists), around forty resultant rubbings made on a light and maleable form of Tyvek became a capsule collection of eight looks. Luke puts the process down to gut feeling. “The others didn’t feel right,” he affirms, “Or when photographed they didn’t work well. The size of the stones dictated the size of the garments. Some of them had angel faces and I loved those rubbings but when I made them into garments, they just looked a bit too sentimental and cliché.”
“I think it’s got real legs if you can get the wearability factor right with original rubbings forming the actual garments. I see this idea as something I’ll continue to work on over time. The fact that you can keep on doing them but each one is different is really exciting.”
Is there potential to make multiple rubbings from aesthetically successful gravestones? Despite having repeated one stone, Luke acknowledges, “It’s murky ground, don’t you think?” It seems a unique challenge to put the garments into a commercial, reproductible context. “I felt funny about chopping them up,” he continues. “I could imagine a shirt or a coat but my idea for this small collection was that it would be the most simple way of communicating the concept.”
“For most of the time at college I was jazzed about the idea of being a super human crafter… I still care about that idea of virtuosity but it’s not about that as a focus at the moment for me. I felt a bit like I had painted myself into a corner and then at some point I realised that you can make an impression and communicate an interesting idea without having to do too much physically. The economy and challenge of that became really engaging to me and loosened up my ways of thinking about making clothes.”
This collection seems a step away from some of the labour intensive processes explored by Luke at college. As well as having focused on craft techniques in knit, paintings created by his father were used as fabric in Luke’s MA collection. “We’ve always made things together and now he’ll help me put things together.” Luke views his work for AW13 as “succint”, pointing out that the simple shapes and texture are not a world away from paint. It is, in part, about letting go of control and having certain factors decided for you.
“Isolation… that helps make something quite particular.”
Luke’s work and life feed off one another during long nights spent at home in isolation where he is left to fantastical thoughts. He mentions procrastination. “Sitting for days in the same spot.” Thinking? “Almost giving up. Being depressed.” Luke explains how even some of the simpler items from the MA collection have stories behind them, having been part of “a kind of hysteria and sense of delusion”. He rethinks; “Delusional is a bit off hand – I don’t mean to dismiss it.” In another article, Luke poses fascinating questions about what we would wear during a visit by aliens. “It’s lots of thoughts like that. My family talk a lot about supernatural stuff. It can be a real trip. With the gravestones, it’s like summoning the spirit of this person. Carrying this spirit with you… Not that I necessarily believe that in the cold light of day.”
“A spiritual tumble drier”
The idea of garments imbued with spiritual energy is charged. In terms of what Luke wears, he previously bought clothes mostly from charity shops which he likens to “a spiritual tumble drier”. Disconnected from pointed commerciality, they have a “purifying effect”. Mentioning his father’s self customised T-shirts and the items he borrows from friends, Luke also recalls tribal settings in which certain garments didn’t necessarily belong to one person and were sometimes assigned with supernatural or ceremonial properties. This feeds into Luke’s work through appropriation, connecting to the idea of objects containing memory. He explains how objects contribute their own individual impact and weight. I ask if his collections are trying to concrete these kind of abstract thoughts into a physical form. Luke affirms that the process works both ways.
In terms of what makes a collection moving, Luke alludes to the humour one finds in David Shrigley’s drawings. “That humourously deep and playful humanistic thing… Original… When we say original in daily language we often mean new, but to me that word also contains the idea of a feeling of where we’ve come from. The sense that we already know it and that perhaps an idea expresses something we feel, or a lot of people feel that hasn’t been said but was already there.” Is there a lack of looking forward in fashion? “I don’t like the word ‘forward’ in that way. I don’t think it matters about the direction.”
“When I think of someone saying ‘original’, it makes me think of cavemen and not just modern history and a sense of novelty. Dinosaurs. Blobs.”
We discuss the human perspective – a feeling of “awe and/or frustration” that in life there are many parts of the universe beyond our comprehension. “I know,” Luke replies. “Sometimes I compare my work to something not created by humans… Mount Everest or a leaf…and I feel really pathetic.”
Photography: Luke Brooks