Words by Jess Ralph
Underground speaks to Olli Hull, the London based artist and designer who is blurring the lines between fashion and the visual arts with his hand painted, graffiti embellished, upcycled garments and fashion imagery inspired paintings exploring themes of identity, consumerism and mental health.
Hi Olli! Could you introduce yourself and work?
I’m a London based artist. I’m a painter first and then I got into fashion design, upcycling vintage clothes and hand painting them – that’s kinda my thing, making clothes that are wearable art. The main themes of my work are queerness, my queer experience and with that mental health and self expression. I’m playing around with a lot of ideas surrounding my identity, working it out through my art and inviting people to come on that journey with me.
You’re both an artist and a fashion designer – could you talk about how these two practices inform and influence each other?
I see fashion, and my relationship with it, as a form of exploring my own identity and self expression. In that way, I do see it as an art form. To me fashion is not about keeping up to date with what everyone else is wearing, or following a trend. To me it is about using clothes, and styling, and appearance to visually express who I am.
You have a very strong visual language which is evident in both your art and clothing. What are your influences and inspirations?
Most of it comes through my sketchbook really! I started off drawing lots of different faces, and my inspiration came through fashion magazines and fashion imagery. I’d draw and paint who I thought were really cool models, or club kids with really strong eye makeup. People I found interesting to look at, or inspiring. Eventually, the motifs and symbols that stuck were developed into my visual language which is a mix of faces, big lips, disjointed body parts and eyes with makeup.
Could you talk about the importance of sustainability to your work ?
Upcycling has always been at the core of my brand. I never had a strong fashion education so I kind of started out accidentally, thinking about how I could play with fashion and clothes. I didn’t know how to sew or anything so I started by buying second hand vintage clothes and flipping them, turning them into something new. When my work started to get noticed, there were opportunities to move into manufacturing and mass producing things, but because I started from this place of sustainability, it never felt right to do that.
Also, through starting from that place, I met so many other creatives and learnt so much about the importance of sustainability. I think that the more people see others making fun art that’s sustainable, making sustainability cool, the more it spreads that message. I see a lot of designers doing that now, and it really gives me hope about where we are going with sustainable fashion, because we really can’t continue to go on with fast fashion and mass production.
Do you think that the fact all of your fashion pieces are a one-off changes the relationship between the garment and the wearer, and how the wearer values the garment?
I think that’s where it sits on that line between art and fashion. Like with art, when it’s replicated it loses that artistic essence and just becomes a product, a commodity – it stops being special or having that meaning. Also with unique pieces, it encourages that new way of thinking that we have to implement with our clothes and belongings, that we really have to look after them, view them as things that we have for a long time.
Your graffitied wedding dresses are real statement pieces, and also very powerful – you’re playing around with a lot of symbolism, traditional codes of gender and sexuality. Could you talk about the inspiration and message you wanted to give with these garments ?
It started during the first lockdown when I was still finding stuff to work on. I usually find the clothes I upcycle in charity shops, but obviously during the lockdown everything was closed so I found myself on Ebay, where I found all these wedding dresses – some of them super cheap. Ebay is like a graveyard of wedding dresses that are not wanted! I just thought isn’t this just mad? That people spend all this money on a dress that they only wear once. Also how we hold onto these traditions for so long, despite the fact they just do not make sense!
I think it also tied into being gay, you know with gay marriage in the UK only being made legal during my lifetime. I wanted to take these wedding dresses that had been disregarded by their owners and reclaim them, make them queer, make them loud and punk. Kind of like how queerness has to be reclaimed. A very fun, very personal project for me. I love seeing people wearing the wedding dresses, and the fun and confidence they have wearing them. It was really fun to subvert it, fuck it up.
You showcased at London Queer Fashion Week this September – what was that like?
It was my first time showcasing since I showed my first collection, which was in 2019 at London Fashion Week. I felt like I was re-emerging into the world as a designer. So with this collection I really wanted to show who I am now, post lockdown, and how much I’d grown both creatively and within myself. I think for that, Queer Fashion Week was really good because it’s in a community and a space that felt safe so I could really play around and explore. It was a really special experience, and definitely one I’d recommend for other designers to get involved in.
For you, what’s the relationship between punk and queerness?
There’s a rebellion to both of them. You have to battle against the expectations of who you’ve been told you are, who society is trying to force you to be, and rebel against that.
That is the essence of punk really, isn’t it? Rebellion, questioning the status quo and then creating your own identity.
If you think of punk fashion, it’s all cut up and sewn back or safety pinned back together. To me that really reminds me of my experience being queer. I found myself in my early twenties being quite confused about who I was, so I cut up my identity and sort of stitched it back together. I think that’s pretty punk.
Could you talk about your upcoming collaboration with Underground?
I was super excited when Underground got in touch as I had known the brand since I was a teenager, I had a pair of creepers and I loved them! I really like the ethos of the brand and their story, it felt like a really good match. It was really fun creating the shoes, and throughout the creative process I was thinking what does underground, and subculture mean to me? Like how underground existence is still here, it’s at Dalston Superstore on a Saturday night, or the Extinction Rebellion protests. That punk culture is still amongst us – it’s just moved.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve got a few collaborations coming up next year, which is really exciting! I had an exhibition last year called ‘Act Normal’, and I’d really like to have another art exhibition soon. I’ve been focusing a lot on the fashion side of things lately and painting is calling to me from a dark room – I need to go in there and turn on the light!