A true renaissance man, Harris Elliott’s talents run through all facets of the fashion industry. He acts as a stylist, creative director and has also helmed his own accessories brand. His styling work has graced the pages of some of the world’s biggest magazines such as i-D and GQ and his creative vision has seen him dress celebrities such as Pharrell Williams, Dizzee Rascal, John Legend and Mark Ronson. His 2014 exhibition, Return of the Rudeboy, saw the culmination of his years of styling, highlighting his expert eye for what was going on in the streets. Fresh from the 2015 run of the exhibition in Japan, we caught up with Harris to discuss his illustrious career so far.
Tell me about a bit your formative years and how you got to being a self-described “visual storyteller”?
I studied interior architecture and design, but I was always more theatrical. I love juxtaposition, I love shapes, but I also love textures, so it was kind of inevitable that at some point I would work in the fashion industry. I thought I was going to be designing retail stores or interiors, but I ended up working with stylists and musicians and other visual artists. I’m in a position where my initial training, looking at the bigger structure of things, is just honed down into working with the body form.
Did you assist anyone? Was there any formative training or did you just sort of do it yourself?
On the fashion side of it I did it DIY, self-taught. I did assist; when I graduated I started doing window displays for small fashion boutiques. I just approached a few shops about creating visuals for their windows. Then I met Judy Blame, and he commissioned me to do headdresses for this show/presentation thing that he was working on for a big company. He then recommended me to Boudicca and I ended up creating some crazy metal hats for for one of their shows. That was kind of the convergence point where I was actually bringing in my structural training and fashion but being able to apply it together. I then started working with a number of music stylists for a couple of years on editorial, and was between fashion and music whilst I built up my career. I assisted for about three-four years until in 2003-4 I went it alone.
That was only 2003-04, but I think even now the whole landscape of celebrity has changed so much. I feel like maybe there wasn’t so much of a consideration for who was wearing what and them being well dressed in their everyday lives. Now obviously because of the Internet, we can see instantly what they’re doing at any given moment, which has given them impetus to want to look great.
It’s like the Truman Show now!
You’ve worked with so many names in your career. Do you have one that is most memorable, or one that you really enjoyed working with?
I did a project with Erykah Badu, that was a big highlight for me. And it wasn’t styling. I was curating the launch of this hotel in Amsterdam. It was an art hotel and they wanted a celebrity, and I said, “you don’t want a celebrity you want an artist, because this is an art hotel. You need someone who can appeal to their creative sensibilities,” so I worked with her. For me that was a convergence point, because I was working with someone I actually respect for their visual and artistic integrity, and being able to put it in a context which wasn’t just bringing a celebrity in for celebrity’s sake.
Exactly. And it’s almost a culmination of everything that you’d been building up to, because it’s architecture, it’s spatial design, it’s fashion and styling, it’s music….
Yeah, and she embodies all of that, the project embodies all of that. That was about two years ago, so that was one of the turning points where actually I could start pushing the point and mix the genres, because so many things that we do are so polarised – it’s either fashion, or it’s music. But we don’t live our lives like that.
What was she like to work with?
She was wicked. She’s got a kind of air about her, so at first it was a bit like Queen Erykah. Normally I’m not fazed by anyone. We got on so well, and post that began talking about doing other projects together, so that was great.
So let’s talk about Return of the Rudeboy. How did the idea come about?
Back in 2011, PUMA contacted me to work with them and a Jamaican team on the Olympics. It was Jamaica’s 50th year of independence at the same time as the Olympics in London so I was thinking about projects that could work with that. They brought me in as creative consultant to come up with concepts and visuals for the Jamaican team. So we just did this backstory and development and I worked with the marketing team, the Jamaican Olympic team themselves and did some work with artist Barry Kamen because he’d worked with them. Which is when the rudeboy concept entered my mind.
The following year I was doing a project with adidas, which Dean Chalkley [co-founder of Return of the Rudeboy] assisted me with. It was during this time that the dialogue we’d had together and things that we’d observed really culminated in the initial feeling and concept of the exhibition. We came up with the title, Return of the Rudeboy, and began fleshing out the show. Culture underpins a lot of my identity, I’m inspired anything – like an old man walking down the street – so the original plans were to start documenting a series of people and just see how it goes.
Was it about looking at derivatives of style now, and the things that people are mixing into their every day lives?
Yeah because it’s more about the attitude, and the one thing that we’re both keen on is creating something that isn’t repetitive. If you look at punks, or mods, certain subcultures are so fixated on details, like your trouser leg has got to be this long, your parka has got to from this brand, it has to be a Lambretta from this year to this year, otherwise you’re not a real mod. But the true sense of the word mod is modernist, which is something that keeps moving on. So the reason we’re calling it the Return of the Rudeboy is that it’s about the attitude and the spirit. It’s an identity where men and women can actually have defiance for being themselves but there’s a sense of sartorialism that holds it together. It’s the attitude mixed with the independence, it’s not really about wearing particular brands from head to toe, that’s not Rudeboy, there’s no individuality!
You just took it to Japan – why do you think it translated to a Japanese audience?
I love the Japanese people, because they’re early adopters. In the West, as much as we think we’re super cool we’re still so back in the dark ages with so much of what we do. Obviously we create so many trends here – I’m not saying that we’re medieval in how we are – but they [Japan] see something they like and feel they can embrace it on face value, and then read the back story. Here we so often still need to be schooled or shown, “Is it cool?” “Is it on trend?” “Is it on this blog?” “Is it in this magazine?” They’re just like, we want to embrace it because we don’t have this here and we want to soak this up because it’s fresh. They purely love and enjoy culture.
So where was it, and did you do it with anyone in particular?
It was in the centre of Harajuku, which is traditionally the epicentre of Japanese culture and style. The exhibition was at Laforet, which is a five story department store and they’ve got a gallery space on the top floor. We had a number of sponsors, the main one being Takeo Kikuchi who was celebrating his 30th anniversary. He was one of the first Japanese designers to come to Europe, before Yohji and COMMES, but most people don’t really know of him.
He invited Ray Petri and the Buffalo crew over 30 years ago, and Ray styled the show and he was sponsoring the Return of the Rudeboy show. He also got me in to come and style and design pieces for his 30th anniversary collection in what we called Punk Royalty, mixing punk, mixing the queen, mixing 1980s Rudeboy. So, for me, the whole process of going to Tokyo was quite incredible.
Takeo completely embraces culture, whether it’s Buffalo, whether it’s mod, whether it’s Rastafarian, whatever, he embraces all these other cultures. He’s a 75-year old man and still the coolest man on the planet, wearing Nike Air Force Ones, so for me it was a real honour to work with him. We mixed street culture and it was a whole eclectic mash up of British styles through the ages, from black culture, to white culture and just throwing it all together.
You mentioned Ray Petri – is he a huge influence of yours?
Definitely. Just the sentiment of Buffalo, and for me it’s the sense that Ray was one of the first people to start putting black models in high fashion and mixing it up.
Where else are you taking Return of the Rudeboy?
There are conversations about the show going back to Japan later in the year, I’m in discussion about the show going to the States, probably to New York, but that’s TBC. Ideally Jamaica as that was the birthplace, at some point it’s got to be there even if that’s not the final journey. I would like it to go to South Africa which I find really inspiring. If we were to go somewhere like there, or to the States, ideally, we’d go a few months before and photograph local people, and then create a book and an exhibition that incorporates them. So it’s telling their story along with this bigger narrative about what’s happening.
How was it finding sponsorship?
It’s harder finding someone who properly got it. We went through so many headaches trying to find a sponsor.
After you’ve done London, was Japan easier because it had already been conceptualised and people had seen it?
Partly, there was an element of that it had been done so people could get it.
Whose style do you admire?
People like Mos Def. I’ve been a big fan of Bjork from day one, and I love Erykah [Badu]. People who are just themselves consistently, not as a seasonal or a trend based thing. I love brands like Haider Ackermann, and there’s a brand that I work with a lot called By Walid. Brands that have their own identity and do their own thing. David Bowie, Grace Jones are still awesome. If I was to pick my style dream team it would be Bjork, Erykah, David and Grace [Jones].
And lastly, who do you think epitomises modern style? If there’s someone who, in 2015 epitomises fashion, who would it be to you?
I guess it would be A$AP [Rocky] and I’m not even that much of a fan. I’ve just seen a shift where all the big brands like Rick Owens or Margiela, who would have never would have courted hip-hop in the past, have done because of people like him. He has been able to become an icon who crosses over from hip-hop – which is one of the strongest forces within culture generally – and the kind of brands that were all reserved for the fashionistas have since taken notice.
So it’s that point of hip-hop and fashion meeting. And hip-hop has inspired me from day one, in terms of the way that I work. It’s not necessarily been visually obvious, but the backstory of that “go-getter start with nothing” attitude has always appealed to me it. It moves things forward and created cultural icons. And then fashion changes because of it.
The post Highsnobiety Q&A | Harris Elliott Talks Return of the Rudeboy, Working with Erykah Badu & A$AP Rocky appeared first on Highsnobiety.