UK-based fashion-artist Noki Would Rather be Known as a Modernist Culture Jammer Making an Impact

Words by Josh Jones
Photography by Morgan White

Heavily influenced by the Dadaist and acid house rave movements, UK-based fashion artist, and fast talking, true culture-jammer, Noki has been custom building his textile collage mash ups since 1996. One of the originators of London’s Shoreditch style, he’s infamous for his masks, and using the uniform of the rave as a focal point, Noki has waged a constant battle against rampant consumerism, landfill, and fast fashion.

Sustainability has been at the center of his message throughout Noki’s career. He has pioneered the use of old, but well-made, designer pieces to create something absolutely new through through his unique textile, CB – custom building – idea by “mashing up” unofficial multiple brands together to create a modernist “street couture” style.

Do you feel like the world has caught up with your art yet?

[Laughs] I’m going to have to start running harder and faster. I don’t know because everyone who’s protesting is still rocking out brand madness while shouting in front of cameras. They’re still agitating the big, multi-national businessman’s company while not realizing that what they’re protesting is, in fact, that. So I’m quite enjoying the fact that there is still that ignorance.

How do you feel when people call you a bootlegger?

I’d rather be known as a modernist culture jammer. I don’t like the fact that it’s become a trend for somebody to take a brand new T-shirt and just become the thing they say they are fighting against. I’ve had so many people tell me that they are still wearing a piece of mine that they got 20 years ago. They can sell it for ten times what they paid for it. It’s a symbol of their youth movement and they won’t let their son or daughter have it. That’s a T-shirt that was once rejected and thrown away but is now elevated into new aspects. That’s important to me, the elevation. I want to elevate for the future. Another reason I don’t call myself a bootlegger is because I don’t use cheap materials. I use the real deal brand, quality stuff. I celebrate the real manufacturing that’s done by the factories that produce this amazing sportswear that we all love. That’s not bootlegging, that’s custom building. I’m a custom builder.

What do you think about Gucci now having Dapper Dan working for them and brands embracing the bootleg culture?

Massive big up to Dapper Dan. Absolutely huge respect. I have always loved his work. He’s a definite elder who should be respected. I think that the irony of his position within Gucci is that it’s all about Dapper Dan, not really about Gucci any more. If he moved onto another brand he’d still be Dapper Dan doing it for them. I tell my students they don’t need a brand’s permission to collaborate. You can unofficially collaborate. Unofficial is the youth rebellion movement. There are too many kids out there that are too willing to jump on the corporate bandwagon straightaway, without realizing that they could become the new Nike or Adidas or Apple. It’s like trying to be pharaoh too quickly.

What’s your relationship with the likes of Nike, Fila and Adidas?

They used to love me. But they’ve got plenty more people trying to do Noki that they can court and do a cheaper version of it, without any of the artistic integrity behind it. Which is fine because I don’t need their permission. I never did. When I first started I used to take the great big, oversized American stuff that you’d find in the vintage stores, and I would cut and ruche it with elastic, and make it really girly. All of a sudden all these girls would be asking when Adidas or Nike had started making these cute dresses. I’d tell them it was a NOKI and “shhhh don’t talk about it”. It just spawned from that. There wasn’t such a thing then as an Adidas dress. I can’t even explain it, I suppose I rebooted a certain aspect of street-style apparel, what they call now “sports luxe.”

Do you think we’re at a tipping point in the way fashion is going?

I think people are kicking back in the sense that they’re in a lockdown, people have been dying all around them and their fancy jobs have gone. So all their egos have been trashed. With Covid-19 there has been a conveyor belt jolt, like the culture jammers like to say, in the system. If 1% of people that are in lockdown might be having an epiphany about what a horrible person they’ve become, then that is a good moment. It’s still a lot of people. Maybe those people are starting to catch up with me, they might be starting a new community that will understand where I was coming from. That’s why I recently created nokishop.com — it’s a way of getting together my portfolio and 25 years of fighting against things, using landfill as a visual aspect to get a point across that the rave was once a beautiful, utopian place and DIY is a very special space and time. Just to buy, buy, buy your future isn’t going to work.

Is that why you’ve changed your name to Dr Noki NHST?

I was very conscious of it when the first lockdown happened in the UK — everybody was on my case for masks. My art is not medically profound enough to engage with this serious situation, which, in a sense is the aftermath of war. Who’s not to say we’ve already been through World War III? Who’s not to say that our mobile phones aren’t the grenades and holiday planes aren’t the B-52s, the SUVs aren’t the tanks? All this stuff that is commodity-based, is exactly what war uses up. And now we’re in a pandemic. And that normally comes after a big war because there’s so much disease and destruction. My masks are not medical — they never were. They’re personal. I didn’t want anybody coming at me saying they’d got Covid while wearing my mask. I didn’t want people jumping on my bandwagon for a mask just because I’ve been doing them for 25 years. I was very conscious of that, and I knew it was wrong. I decided that to be Dr Noki NHS is diffusing a very positive thing that they [National Health Service] are doing for us, where I’m being positive but also subversive. So that’s why I wanted to change it to Dr Noki NHST. It would change from Noki’s House of Sustainability to Noki’s House of Sustained Textiles. I like it, I think the word “sustained” on a T-shirt can still work, whereas “sustainability” is your mum and your dad. I want to stay underground so I’m using the word “sustained” as my catchphrase within my wordplay.

Do you see yourself as a conduit then?

Personally it was how I felt because when I started I was walking about Shoreditch with these augmented, branded pieces on. I would wear a Stüssy T-shirt but I’d graffiti parts of it out so it would read Sissy. People would ask me why it said Sissy on my T-shirt and I’d tell them it’s because I was one. Now you’ve got the bootleggers jumping on the bandwagon. I feel like that’s a poison because they’re getting people addicted to buying their brand new T-shirts with their version of what they say is wrong, but they’re doing it the right way. I think hypocrisy is raging again and that really gets me. At the same time I’m noticing a really young, custom-build community. Especially [East London studio-turned-shop] Fantastic Toiles, run by Nasir Mazhar. He’s created a hub and I really want to big them up. For me, they’re the new [legendary London designer boutique] [The] Pineal Eye, who were the showcase of fashion art in London back in the day. I was very lucky to get my work there and Yuko Yabiku who ran it has always been a very big fan of my work. She told me once that Kate Moss and Jade Jagger were caught shoplifting Noki in her store. I love the fact that they were nicking it. Those pieces I would have probably got from the old dripping railway tunnel where Shoreditch High Street train station is now. Back then it was very different — the junkies, who we used to call the “Santas,” would fill up a duvet cover full of clothes, sell enough for a bag of drugs and leave it there as they ran off to get a score. I’d go there at the end of the day — and it was raw as fuck around there — and drag out all the branded stuff, go back to my studio, customize it and sell it to rich folk.

Did you want to create an impact?

Yes! That’s why it was so difficult for me to cut into my own personal T-shirts. I knew I would ruin my T-shirts that everyone loved me wearing, but I did it. And I was so relieved. I needed to do something that created change. Like the Dadaists did when they cut into books and manifestos, and they questioned wars with their collages and Duchamp doing his assemblages, and that’s where I wanted to drag myself back to. The beginning of the 20th century and understand that argument by doing it to myself. And that’s how I did it. By chopping up the words that I believed were more important on my body than I would read in books. I always loved Dadaism, I couldn’t understand it but you weren’t supposed to, and that’s what always used to confuse me. Now I get it. People ask what’s so special about a Noki piece. Well you either get it or you don’t. It came from a time when I took all the risks, I took all the flak. I was slagged off and then I got a piece in i-D magazine and [acclaimed photographer] David Sims photographed it on a young Giselle [Bündchen]. That was in 1998 and people were saying Noki’s in a magazine with his weird T-shirts. All it took was a bit of PR. Ultimately that was perfect because it played into the culture jam aspect. I felt like I’d culture-jammed into the fashion industry. I feel like I’ve taken all the risks so I’m not happy being called a bootlegger because I don’t think they take risks. I’m definitely happy that I’m part of the sustainability movement and my art canvas is definitely like a liberation uniform. I’m not part of making people an army of subjects for my inability to think better for the 21st century. Every time I put a scissor into a garment, it’s like I’ve liberated it. I’ve cut nostalgia. I’ve broken its control over me. When I sew them all back together again with opposing brands, I know I created a culture jam. And if it does find its way back to a secondhand shop, someone will pick it up and be like “what the fuck?”   @nokiofficial