With ‘Imp of the Perverse’, former A-COLD-WALL* designer Elliot Long explores conflicts of the psyche in a theatre of dreams and destruction
“We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss—we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain.”
– Edgar Allan Poe, “The Imp of the Perverse”
In an 1845 essay, Edgar Allan Poe theorised that all humans have self-destructive tendencies, that the imp of the perverse – that temptation to do something merely because we feel we should not; the impulse to jump – is inside each of us. “You’re standing on the brink of something that you know is wrong, but you have that burning desire to do it regardless,” as designer and creative director Elliot Long puts it.
It’s this idea that lends its name and premise to Long’s debut collection for his new label Parabola Works, which he founded after leaving the design team at A-COLD-WALL* where he worked alongside Samuel Ross for nearly three years. Last week, Long showed the collection in an industrial factory in Bow, with a presentation more theatrical, performance art than typical catwalk show.
The performance began from the moment guests entered the eerily deserted, low-lit factory where they were greeted by a model pulling apart live crickets, limb from limb, behind a pane of glass; a prolonged sequence which ended only when, sometime later, a second model silently poured wine into an overflowing glass and then smashed the bottle over his head.
Discomfort levels sufficiently heightened, guests were led downstairs into a cavernous warehouse space set up with long wooden benches. Then it was showtime. Set to an expansive, at times chilling, original score of strings and electronics by Akira Woodgrain, models including Hélène Selam Kleih, Sonny Hall, and members of the Parabola design team screamed, crawled, cowered, chased one another, and slammed themselves against walls before being brought together by the imp himself in a climactic grand finale.
If that sounds in any way provocative or visceral, it’s because it was, and purposefully so. For Long and his team – including The Box’s Reginald Robson who masterminded the performance, translating Long’s designs and character concepts into a narrative of movement and body language – the intent was to get a reaction, to draw out emotions. “Which we did get. I saw people crying, I couldn’t believe it,” says Long. “People want to be brought into a world, whether or not they find it a bit over the top. I just want to connect with people, I want to make them feel something.”
The collection itself, seven women’s looks and eight men’s, comprised immaculately considered tailoring adorned with ruffles and lace accents; fluid, wet-look dresses created from thermosensitive material that molded to the form of the body over the course of the show; twisting denim that contorted and consumed the models. And throughout, the motif of burning, of dark consumption.
Each look was conceived as a whole and designed around 15 characters. Long spent months fleshing out these complex individuals, each representative of some conflicting aspect of his psyche and many born from the struggle that he, and many people around him, face in trying to break away from that burning desire for the brink. From Fickler, the erratic, narcissistic character played by Hall, to Yawn, a chasm that lusts for something more, these characters span the emotions and lived experiences of Long; emotions that emerged from a period of intense introspection and which culminated in one big exorcism of a performance. We spoke to Long to find out more about the collection, his conceptual approach to design, and how his love of natural chaos informed the work.
Elliot, congratulations on the show! How are you feeling about it now that the dust has settled?
Elliot Long: I’ve done a few shows before and a lot of the time afterwards I feel very dejected, I often feel like things could have gone better. But with this one I had confidence in the craftsmanship and the story behind it. We really tried to do something disruptive. For some people it might be too much. But for me, it’s better to have people leaving than to come out of it thinking ‘oh that was alright’. I really wanted to pull out a lot of these emotions with a performance that was so interactive and visceral.
Is there significance behind the name Parabola?
Elliot Long: Parabola for me is about the curve, I’m obsessed with the form of these curves. I love fluidity, I love how you can accentuate the human body using those curves. Parabola is the most prevalent curve you find in everyday life, the most naturally occurring form in nature. It’s a trajectory. If you kick a ball up in the air, however it falls, that’s a parabola. We try to pay attention to these organic forms, the natural order of things and the natural chaos.
There’s this beautiful natural chaos in everything, even in how we think. It’s so inspiring. And if you can find the balance, it’s a really beautiful thing to align that chaos, or at least to understand it and acknowledge its presence. When you just push it to the back of your mind, that’s when it really starts to fester.
Where did the inspiration for the collection come from?
Elliot Long: For this collection I was trying to work through some things that were in my head. I started writing to and from these 15 characters that I felt were playing a part in my decision making and my thought processes.
Then, as a team we really explored them through the design process. People were really open and down to get into the nitty gritty. It was an emotionally taxing process, but the amazing thing was that everyone – whether or not they have suffered through certain things I have – found they have felt the same things. It was so amazing to be working with people who suffer the same struggles, we were all very open with each other. It was a family affair, it really was.
How did you translate these character concepts and the writings into tangible looks?
Elliot Long: So Yawn, for example, has the obvious connotation of tiredness, boringness, but the etymology behind the word is chasm, it’s that gap. For me, the chasm is almost that lust for something more. And that informed the way it was styled, those negative spaces, the way the clothes were falling off, those jeans are twisting around, they’re contorting, consuming her.
The reason some of the pieces are so maximalist is that they are very character-based, very emotion-based. So you’ll find in some of the more recessive figures, the more introspective figures they are way less adorned, the pieces are less in your face. The design process was based on words and emotions and forms that we found that really connected with us.
Is there one look that you feel sums up the collection?
Elliot Long: Fickler, I made that as the first look of the collection and it was a very key part. For me that look really sums up the contrast in the collection. The tailoring is very form-based. It’s very well-fitting, there’s a lot of classical sartorial elements in there. We created a fully tailored suit, fully canvassed, everything is pick-stitched. All the lines of the layered pieces were all very thought out and considered. So, the ruffle of the shirt runs straight through to the placket line into the ruffle of the blazer. The seaming on it is very geometric and very ergonomic.
For me, Parabola is about that kind of consideration combined with the darkness. The sharpness on the collar, the darts – the external darts are like blades. The organza at the bottom of the trousers are really ruffled up to look like smoke. The lace that covers that torn white knit fabric. There’s this idea of Bacchus, this idea of overindulgence but also romanticism and whimsicality that I thought we really brought out of it in the peak of the slight curves and the height of the lapels as they point out. So we combine those two elements – the human feeling and form with this dark, sinister twisted romanticism. Natural chaos.
“There’s this beautiful natural chaos in everything, even in how we think. It’s so inspiring. And if you can find the balance, it’s a really beautiful thing to align that chaos, or at least to understand it and acknowledge its presence” – Elliot Long
What was the aim with the performance?
Elliot Long: Being the debut show and the importance these characters have to us, we really wanted to make something that would draw emotions, that was disruptive. Being conservative is not what people want to get excited about. I loved how people got awkward upstairs, they were thinking ‘is this it?’ You got these highs and lows, like you’re on a rollercoaster.
And then you walk downstairs and you’re entering almost a world, you’re really going through the feelings that the 15 characters were based on. I wanted people to walk in there and feel like they were walking into our heads (laughs). That’s what I worked on with Reginald as well, he really understands how to draw out those emotions through movement and from a character sense he really brought those together. And then the cast really took the ball and ran with it.
I was important to me that these characters are applicable to everyone and I think that’s the amazing thing about it, I think a lot of people connected with that journey. This is not just something that is about me or about Reginald or about what’s come out of our heads. This is something that can really be reflected and that’s amazing to me.
For me, the show was such a great springboard, a social experience, for working out – can we get that emotion out of people? Has our design process worked? Can we get people that passionate, that emotionally inundated with our ideas through pure visceral performance?
Have you started thinking about what the next collection will look like?
Elliot Long: We started designing for it a few days ago! The inspiration for the new collection is this really crazy concept of tensegrity. And I really want to keep working around the characters that we currently have, building on them and follow the evolution of how they come to resolutions. On a material level, I’m focusing on jersey fabrics. I find it so interesting how they are seen, especially in British sartorial culture and especially my age group.
We are also going to be furthering our work into other disciplines. The next show will be much more layered, it’s going to have a wider array of discipline work. Reginald is with us from the beginning for this collection as well. That’s the thing about Parabola, I’m so inspired by the people around me. We all start from the same concept and then we let people run with it, we let people keep developing it. I feel like the real importance of this is we have a really amazing team of people who we trust fully with the ideas we’re coming with. That’s why I think we can pull out slightly more, we can add more layers and more depth to what we do.
What do you hope for the future of Parabola Works?
Elliot Long: I want to create something that’s more than just a fashion brand. An entity that is really able to draw out emotion from people and have a transformative effect. I hope to keep making amazing things with my family and really moving forward every single day. I have this unshakeable desire to just be the best, all of us to be the best. We need to keep improving, keep expanding on this really wonderful thing that we can do here.
For me, Parabola Works is a collection of people who we trust and we love and we come up with these hypotheses, these ideas, these characters and stories. It’s really about building off of this and working out the ways we can make this into an entity that really is disruptive and also reminds people that there is fun to be had!