Photography by Simon Archer Hurlstone
Words by Jocelyn Jeffery
Philip Colbert created fashion label The Rodnik Band, which plays with pop art to create dresses that replicate artwork like Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal. He talks about the tendency of fashion to take itself too seriously and describes discussions of collaborating on a philosophical fashion line with Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton.
Materialist: How did you decide to incorporate pop art into your designs?
Colbert: It stemmed from the fact that pop art contains bold, bright colors and ideas; it’s about communicating to people in a very direct way. I like that approach to clothing because the meaning of fashion can be hard to ascertain. Fashion can take itself very seriously so to make something that has a more humorous impact can result in a wearable item that has intellectual value. A satire with a Claus Oldenburg sculpture as a dress makes it accessible for anyone outside of the fashion clique. There is a fun art history reference there, whereas when it’s playing on the trends of fashion it is hard to put your finger on what the actual value is. Satisfying trends for trends’ sake is not particularly meaningful.
Materialist: One of the main problems with fashion and fashion criticism is the fact that it can be too self-referential so it’s refreshing to take fashion outside of the box. Do you view pop art as an easily identifiable branch of art for people without a depth of knowledge in the field?
Colbert: I love pop art in general but I do get slightly sickened by an Andy Warhol screen print. It is heavily repeatable so there is a lack of contact from the artist. But what I do love about pop art is the fact that it engages with the pop culture that we live in, which is without question the biggest influence in modern day life. I very much like things that have a sense of language and communicate directly. There are so many amazing pop artists like Claus Oldenburg whose work has complete intellectual value but also brings an element of surrealism and fantasy into everyday life. Simple things like his oversized cherry in the center of a city or a giant ice cream cone on top of a building, melting, play on perspective. This handling and translating of ideas allows for cartoonlike sets. It’s a nice mix of reality and animation and I like the sense of escapism that pop art can have.
Materialist: Do you find it important to merge art and fashion because they are both extremely reflective of the society that we live in?
Colbert: I was always more interested in art than in fashion and by getting into fashion in a random way I used the platform of clothing to express artistic ideas. It was my way of making it interesting for myself and also for the sort of woman whom I want to dress. I very much like the idea that my clothes are wearable art in a tongue in cheek way. Fashion obviously has a value and an allure but I’d rather it have a more artistic identity than a fashion identity.
Materialist: How did you get into fashion?
Colbert: I did philosophy at university and one thing lead to another and I found myself doing clothing. I was very much out of my depth to begin with because I had never trained in it. The more I got involved in creating a brand and selling clothes, the more I started developing my own thoughts on what I wanted the brand to be. If I can run a fashion label, anyone can do it. And I like that spirit because fashion can take itself very seriously. It’s a cliquey world so to come at it with a hyper whacky attitude, when things actually go well, is a powerful combination.
Materialist: Can you describe the collaboration you were in talks of working on with Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton?
Colbert: We did a series of interviews together for Vogue and we talked about the idea of doing a philosophical fashion line. It was a fun idea but it didn’t get beyond the conceptual stages.
Materialist: What does a philosophical fashion line entail?
Colbert: That was the challenge. The idea was to create a language of union in clothing. Clothing does already have a meaning, socially and historically. In a social context it represents several important ideas and movements. But I always assume that clothing is very psychological in the sense that people wear things to express certain ideas about themselves. Let’s say you did a lecture series of clothes and you created a building block, millions of different outfits. Say you had some template outfits in black and they were cut with a certain silhouette to represent seriousness and you’d wear those on a serious day. Then you could potentially accept certain additional ideas that would help you refine your mood that day. The challenge with the project was to map out a meaning, a language of clothing. Once it has been mapped out then one could have more fun with building a narrative.
Materialist: It’s challenging to translate that idea into the literal sense.
Colbert: Yeah for sure. In art, people do it all the time, create their own language. But clothing always has that challenge of having a practical use. Obviously fashion is an art but the reality of fashion is that it’s a cynical, hardcore business. To exist it has to operate in a very crude world of selling things in numbers and appealing to generic markets, which don’t necessarily always understand a sophisticated idea. People can definitely do very sophisticated things and be successful but not always can such things find a commercial audience. Whereas with art, you come up with an idea, and if people buy it once, the buyers buy it, and it doesn’t have to be resold 1,000 times. But with clothing there is always the need to be ultimately commercial. It makes it slightly more of a business challenge.
Materialist: From where does the British vibe of the brand originate?
Colbert: Even though I was born in Scotland, I still feel British in a way. I love Scotland as a country but I’m not a hardcore Scottish nationalist. London is an adopted home and what I love about England is that abstract cartoon-like language of the buses and The Queen. It’s a fun brand world – it has a strong identity internationally. When I was selling in America being from London was definitely the brand identity. So I thought well I might as well embrace that. Britain is easy to feel even when you’re abroad. There is a history of satire and humor in things so it’s nice to play on that. I like to playfully reference things like The Sex Pistols because they’re a fun example of a fashion/music cross over. It’s quite a progressive concept of creating a band and a brand together. So the joke band that I have alongside my fashion label plays on representing fashion in a more lighthearted way and breaking the mold slightly from the conventional approach.
Materialist: Can you explain the concept of the joke band further?
Colbert: The band concept came after I was selling at the store Barneys and I was like, ‘how do I make the label compete when it’s not known in America? How do I bring it to peoples attention in a guerilla fashion?’ I’d been thinking about the band as this amazing vehicle of travelling, touring and taking the dream and the lifestyle on the road. Fashion can be quite cynical in the sense that it’s often fake and contrived. So I did a world tour in 2009 of all the stores. I played in Barney’s, stores in Japan and in Comme Des Garcons. It was quite funny taking this spinal tap-like fashion band on tour and playing in dry environments like department stores. It’s definitely comical. There was genuine laughter at this gig (at Scotch in London) last night because I made a big step by getting a Japanese pop group to become my band. Previously my band was always just fill-ins: people helping out as the backing instruments. But because of that it never felt like a real band, it was more of a joke. So last night, even though it was still a joke, it was actually fluid and real. Also these guys brought a lot to the table because they were very funny. They’re kooky Japanese girls and they had pink wigs on and were wearing crazy sequin crab and beer dresses. One of them even did a back flip on stage. It was like a comedy show. They were coming up with all sorts of funny stories and their songs themselves were quite amusing. They’re about banal things like toothpaste and scotch tape and they sing in Japanese accents. It was definitely a funny marriage between the Rodnick world and these guys. What I liked about last night is that it wasn’t just dressing a conventionally pretty pop group through their record label for X Factor, which is all very contrived and boring like Blackberry communication. These were genuine girls with personality and spirit. They’re not conventional but they’re definitely cool, quirky and inspiring in fashion because they’re real characters.