The boundary-pushing designer discusses going it alone in 2020, the importance of community, and what’s next for the London-based label
Eden Loweth’s most recent collection for Art School, shown this past June as part of London Fashion Week’s first digital edition, was titled Therapy. It was his response to what he calls a ‘traumatic year’, a period in which he split with longtime design partner and Art School co-founder Tom Barratt, just as the world was forced into confinement. Not only was he working alone for the first time, but also in isolation: all of the collection’s 54 looks would end up being made by Loweth in his London apartment by hand, an act of endurance and catharsis. “I think in a way that’s how I was able to get clarity over it, but also why it ended up being such a huge collection,” he says. “I needed to get out everything I wanted to say that rounded up the last four years of Art School, and then be able to move on from it.”
But even when he was alone, he wasn’t really; from the very first collections, Art School has been built on community, a recurring cast of friends, muses, and mentors – most encountered amid London’s queer nightlife scene – who appear season-after-season in the brand’s runway shows. Loweth calls them the Art School ‘family’, and in those first weeks and months they would call and check in on him every day, to offer guidance and support and to tell him to keep going. By the time it got to the fittings for Therapy in June – the first time Loweth had been in physical proximity with most of the people who would end up in the show – it was a moment charged with true emotion, a reason to continue what he and Barratt had started close to half a decade ago.
“It has been a really challenging year – I’m really proud of where things have grown from and it feels like there is a new life to be had from Art School now, which is really exciting” – Eden Loweth
“The fact that all these people have gathered together because they believe in what we are doing is so special. It’s so unique to what Art School is and why we resonate,” he says. “It’s so clear it’s not just about money or clothes, it’s also about community. That’s at the forefront of everything we’re doing.”
The resulting show was perhaps Art School’s most vivid portrait of community and kinship yet, brought to life by both old and new faces, with longtime mentors Cozette McCreery and Mimma Viglezio walking alongside a diverse cast of LGBTQ+, non-binary, and differently abled models, of varying ages, races, and body types. Many came from the communities hardest-hit by the pandemic. “As much the casting was an exciting thing to do, I think it also gives a profile to each one of these people’s voices,” he says, noting that many of those who walked had lost income from the closure of London nightlife. “I’m very interested in each person having a reason for being in the show and each one having their own practice or their own set of things that they bring to the table.”
Accompanied by an exclusive series of images by Hidhir Badaruddin, styled by Ogun Gortan – in which the Art School community is once again brought vividly to life – here, Loweth talks therapy, representation, and leaving 2020 behind.
Tell me about the shoot with Hidhir – how did that come about?
Eden Loweth: I worked with Hidhir and the team on casting – all the models came from within the Art School family, reflective of the last show but also a bit of a glimpse of what’s to come. It was exciting to see a different group of people casting their eyes on the collection, seeing the collection and the styling through their own lens. So even though we used my studio for it, I stayed out of it on purpose, so I could see someone else’s interpretation (of the brand).
So it’s half within your world, half how somebody else might see it from the outside?
Eden Loweth: Exactly. The shoot was also special because it features some of my mentors – Mimma Viglezio, who was the editor of ShowStudio, and Cozette McCreery, my closest mentor, who was also the designer for Sibling. They are very, very important to me and it was really nice to have them involved in the shoot. Both Mimma and Cozette are like mother figures – this year, as I’ve been questioning how I want to build Art School in my own way, they’ve been really instrumental.
They also both walked in Therapy, your latest show. Tell me about how that collection began.
Eden Loweth: The show marked a turning point for me personally, and for Art School, because it was the first show I did on my own after separating with my design partner Tom (Barratt). It was a very emotional experience. It has been a really challenging year – I’m really proud of where things have grown from and it feels like there is a new life to be had from Art School now, which is really exciting. And I’ve really got through the year because of these incredible women, and there are several more of them as well, a lot of which were in the show.
“(2020) has been absolutely cataclysmic for the queer nightlife scene in London; we are trying to work with people on the next show to support them and try to replace some level of income they’ve lost during this time” – Eden Loweth
How did you cast the show? Were most of the models people you knew already?
Eden Loweth: We have this core group of Art School models, recurring characters who always set the mood of the season. I always pick from them first. Then we do a general casting of young kids and people that I’ve met in the last six months that I feel are inspiring; people that I meet through Instagram, through nights out, through friends. (For this show) there were a lot of other amazing characters – like Alison, who is a local councillor from Dorset I met because she had bought something of ours on Matches, who then emailed me asking for something in her size. I just had a feeling that she’d be an interesting person, so I stalked her on Facebook and found her, and we’ve become good friends since. And we had the incredible models from Zebedee in the show, too.
Tell me about Zebedee – how did you encounter what they were doing?
Eden Loweth: It’s run by Laura (Johnson) and Zoe (Proctor), it’s an incredible agency that is for differently able models across all genders. I met them while I was working on an APPG paper for the Houses of Parliament with Fashion Roundtable. I ran after them on the street and hounded them afterwards! (The models from Zebedee) experience so many of the same things that queer people do and the mirroring of that really interested me.
How do you think the Art School community – a lot of which are part of the queer community, too – have been affected by this last year and the pandemic? You’ve met a lot of your models through nightlife, which is now shut down…
Eden Loweth: I mean it has been absolutely cataclysmic for the queer nightlife scene in London; we are trying to work with people on the next show to support them and try to replace some level of income they’ve lost during this time. But ultimately it’s going to be devastating for queer people – not just the pandemic, but the government’s disastrous lack of support for queer nightlife and nightlife in general, and also its disastrous support for any person who falls into any category outside of a cis male or female body. When we are facing the pandemic and the effects that’s had on business, on personal finance, it’s been made ten times harder for trans people – they’re also having to battle the NHS on accessibility to medication. With these things, I think I have a responsibility, as do others who have a platform where we are able to speak to a large audience. Change can only happen if enough people are behind it.
What was your own working process like this year? How did it feel to work on a collection through lockdown?
Eden Loweth: Working on Therapy was done in isolation – the studios were closed because it was right at the start of the pandemic in the first lockdown so I spent two months at my flat, where I live on my own, working on it. I think in a way that’s how I was able to get clarity over it, but also why it ended up being such a huge collection because I needed to get out everything I wanted to say that rounded up this last four years of Art School, and then be able to move on from it. It was cathartic, which is where it got its name.
Was this the first time you’d experienced fashion as a therapeutic process?
Eden Loweth: I think there have been periods of that in the past, like with Fashion East where it felt like it was falling into place. But I think with this one, in particular, it was so self-reflective for the first time – it was not just about the unity of people involved, but it was also about my own outlook as an individual, as a person that has been through quite a traumatic year.
So much has been said about this year being a moment for change in fashion. Do you believe fashion is actually changing?
Eden Loweth: No, because I fear that what is happening within large-scale corporate business is a want to go back to normal and that is something I’m actively fighting against. I think we are very lucky in this country to have an amazing group of young designers that believe in their own individual community goals – people like Bianca (Saunders), Bethany (Williams), and Charles (Jeffrey) – but when it comes down to it, the only way things will change is if people like us are put into these roles in larger business. Otherwise, the industry will just go back to the destructive way it was prior to COVID. It frightens me when I hear the words ‘go back to normal’ because back to normal is what’s been causing all these problems in the first place.
“It was not just about the unity of people involved, but it was also about my own outlook as an individual, as a person that has been through quite a traumatic year” – Eden Loweth
What advice would you give for people starting out in fashion? How can you hold onto your values?
Eden Loweth: I think two really important things – one, get experience. I worked the whole time I was in university as well as studying. So I worked for Claire Barrow and then for Marta Jakubowski, and then I went on for three years to work for Grace Wales Bonner. It gave me the foundations for a brand – without that time at Grace’s I would never have been able to have the knowledge or the confidence to start my own brand out of university.
And then second, I think try to find mentors – people who you trust, and can give you advice. Young people are sometimes too proud to ask for help, but for me, especially in the last year, it’s been so important. Having that foundation of people around you is the way you can really grow and lay the right foundations yourself for what you want to build.
Looking forward, what’s next for Art School in 2021?
Eden Loweth: We’re working on the new show which is being recorded in January and will premiere at London Fashion Week in February – it’s the biggest show that I’ve been able to do. We are working with Katie Grand which is really exciting because she really is one of my idols – it will be kind of the direct opposite of the things we investigated in Therapy. It’s going to be an investigation into the mechanics of fashion, the people that have supported young talent this year and a further investigation into a broader community of people that represent Art School. And it’s going to be in one of the most famous landmarks of London! It’s very exciting.