Q&A: multimedia artist Alex Noble
On an unseasonably warm September day, I rap on the door of a low level industrial building in East London and am ushered gently into a tiny wonderland that is the work and living space of the artist and creative director Alex Noble. It’s hard to put a label on Alex, as you’ll get from the interview. His interests and talents span far and wide; from Diesel to Lady Gaga, his client list is a Who’s Who’s of cool. His room is pretty cool, too, chocka with his own art, vintage suitcases, books and objects, with wooden stairs leading up to a self-built platform bedroom: ‘When you go upstairs, there is a separation. If there wasn’t, I’d feel as like I was 24 again, making in my bedroom,’ he laughs. Bookshelves are peppered with Man Ray, Vogue, Renaisance art, Aubrey Beardsley, Tom of Finland and Marvel; swatches of fabrics from designers Giles Deacon and Basso & Brooke are reminders of Alex’s latest fashion venture, EMG. I covered EMG Cycle 1 earlier this year and the couture showcase dress he made for London Fashion Week’s Esthetica last month. The project is probably as close to Alex’s heart, if not more so, than anything he’s ever done. ’EMG is about using artistic practice as a force for good,’ he says. ‘It’s a way of people using their art as their voice to say how they feel about things and what they want to change.’ I asked Alex about work, life, inspiration, art, Lady Gaga and of course, EMG.
Bel: Tell me about your work with Formichetti and Gaga. Alex: I did my first commission with Nicola when I was 27. I was living in Mile End with an ex-boyfriend and the stylist Anna Trevelyn and she started assisting Nicola. I customised some denim bikini pieces for them that which ended up being shot on Gisele for the cover of V Mag. Nicola is brilliant in that his style is to mix high fashion with emerging talent, special pieces, customised stuff. About six months later, I start doing stuff for Gaga, for the videos and VMAs. I’ve made so much stuff for her; only 30 per cent has been worn. But it’s really creative. Nicola works with people he trusts and then lets them do their thing. It gives you freedom - and security. If people micro manage what you’re doing, they take away your self confidence. If you can just go with it, because someone likes what you do, it’s a much better experience.
Bel: What are your current projects? Alex: EMG. Everything else is job-to-job. I spent last year working on a big solo exhibition at the Londonewcastle Project Space called Creatures from the Kaleidoscope. Now, with EMG, things are plotting into the diary two years into the future.
Bel: What’s Cycle 2? Alex: Banner the Bomber. We’re using jackets, either secondhand or donated by celebrities. The message is about LGBT rights, gay rights; essentially human rights, which it holds in common with the issues created by fashion. Gay rights is something I feel passionately about and something I wanted to do more about beyond going to Gay Pride. What’s going to be beautiful is the effort that will go into creating these jackets. They’ll be embellished, woven, a collage of textile, depending on the artist. And we can exhibit them, use them as discussion pieces and then sell them to support organisations like All Out or Stonewall.
Bel: You’re thinking about the anti-gay movement in Russia or the African states. Alex: During the Winter Olympics, it was great to see how passionate people were about it when they were given it on a plate. I had this idea then because I knew that passion would pass but the problem is ongoing. The bombers will be going into fashion colleges and workshops, partnering with a big brand, to get people thinking politically about clothes and opening consciousness about what’s going on.
Bel: For Cycle 3? Alex: We’re giving Margaret Howell's end-of-roll cotton to modern fine artists to let them use as their dust sheets while they’re painting. They’ll have it for a year and, through this process, unique, completely random textiles will be created. Then the fabric will be used to make boiler suits using a Japanese 1950s zero waste pattern. It’s quite origami-like. They’ll be art pieces but functional and the money raised will go towards something environmental. Ryan Lanji, the curator, is picking the artists. That’ll be delivered in 2016. I’m trying not to rush things. It’s about structuring it and making sure everything’s delivered at the right time in the right way.
Bel: It must be tricky if you have a exciting new idea and you want to get on with it. Alex: I’m getting used to it. I’ve always had a lot of ideas; I’ve always done different practices. I first conceived EMG at the beginning of last year. By the end of last year, I knew I passionately needed to do it. So we did Cycle 1, the Salvage T’s. Before that, I was trying to go into couture. But t-shirts are things that people can understand, digest and buy.
Bel: This ethical dimension to your work may come as a surprise to some people! Alex: It’s always been something in me but I’ve been focussing so much on my career. There were a few years when I was constantly working. What strikes a chord with me is that I make all my own pieces. Production happens here so I’m very aware of what goes into producing beautiful objects. And I’m aware that people don’t necessarily have a respect for that or the people who do it. When I’m paying £120 for a metre of embellished fabric from Soho, I think, I know where this is made and I really don’t think the people who made it got that much. I got to the point where I had to think what my work meant and if I could use it more effectively.
Bel: Does creativity has a value on its own? Alex: It creates part of our culture. In the moment, in the context, lots of people are creating and making things, art works are being exhibited, fashion’s happening. It’s in ten years time when you look back and you see the cultural value of things and what they helped create. There’s so much created now, it’s hard to decipher.
Bel: How would you describe yourself? Alex: The easiest way is multimedia artist. Maybe it’s creative director - but I make everything. It’s hard to say when you don’t do one thing. It changes all the time. In some ways, it’s easier to do one thing; you accelerate faster.
Bel: But you could say all areas inform each other. Alex: That’s true. You have an idea and it can turn into a dress, a film or a painting. Or all of them all together. In the purely creative way, everything feeds off each other but, in terms of industry and work and success through commissions and getting higher fees, it’s a bit harder …
Bel: How would you describe your aesthetic? Deconstructed, reconstructed, elements of dissection, rich colour … Alex: My work comes from a lot of different places. Doing the art show was interesting because I had to pull together all this imagery I’d created. I was looking at this imagery of women I’d conjured up. I’m interested in ideas of objectification and how it happens. Someone said my work has sadomasochistic tendencies but, when I’m making imagery of women, there’s always a story. If they look vulnerable or objectified, it’s part of the bigger discussion about the power women have. in some of my art work, they’re goddess figures. I see beauty in the darker side of things but without being morbid and macabre. I’m interested in chrysalis and cocoons and manifestation and change but also art nouveau, art deco, science fi, pop art, branding and fonts and mixing them all together.
Bel: What are you reading? Alex: I always have three or four books on the go. There’s one called the Devil’s Dictionary from 1847. It’s this weird satirical social commentary. I’m also reading the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. She’s basically a capitalist anarchist. I’ve been having weird conversations recently about capitalism being really anarchic.
Bel: Collaborations. It sounds like having people around is important for you. Alex: When you really collaborate with someone and there is that prolonged discussion, it’s nice. It’s about community within creativity.
Bel: Are there people you turn to to touch base? Alex: In the last year, Ryan Lanji has been really good to talk to. There’s been moments when he’s given me a really hard time about my plans. Then a week later, I’ve been like, Ryan’s totally right.
Bel: Is there someone you’d like to work with? Alex: Jean-Paul Goude, the photography director for Grace Jones. He does all the Chanel perfume ads. I love all that imagery from the 1980s. I love his vision, his humour and his vision of fashion, which is very escapist. It’s got a great energy. And I’ve always wanted to work with Grace Jones. Growing up, she was a massive icon. I remember looking at the record sleeves of her and Annie Lennox, extremely powerful alternative women breaking the mould. I also adore Bjork. And I’d love to do costume work for a show or an opera, an extended piece where you could go into the character and story, working with interesting choreographers and set designers.
Bel: What does fashion mean for you? Alex: It’s hard to talk about fashion as a singular thing. There’s so many parts to it - the business, the consumer side, design. As a kid, I was inspired by the romance and the fantasy but now that’s all been shattered. When you look into where everything comes from and how it’s made, it’s a complete illusion. Is it escapism, is it fantasy - or is it damaging?
Bel: Do you mean the cycle where you create the desire for something but by creating that desire, you also create dissatisfaction? Alex: It’s thinking that material objects will give you happiness. But it’s hard to see the dream when you know the nightmare reality. I describe myself as a costume designer now. I only buy secondhand. I haven’t bought new clothes for two years, apart for a pair of chinos in New York which were covered in Loony Tunes. It’s been a conscious decision. I was starting EMG and I was, like, you’ve got to walk the walk. It’s called retail therapy but a much better therapy is knowing you’re not supporting unethical production. I find it much more rewarding finding something really cool in a charity shop. It’s unique and it’s cheap.