A few short years ago, a grassroots fashion phenomenon swept through social media, challenging the mainstream perceptions of who can be a designer, and who can own a label. I’m referring, of course, to the rise of independent streetwear labels. The reverberations from this movement have since impacted both mainstream and high fashion; think not only of Yeezy and Rihanna x River Island, but of Givenchy and Chanel producing streetwear style t-shirts and tracksuits. Jack Morrison, second-year History and Politics student at Oxford and founder of the streetwear brand ‘Light Work,’ was among the first to ride on the wave of social media hype.
Although he had always had a keen interest in fashion, Jack almost stumbled upon the idea of starting a clothing label. He describes the conception of Light Work in characteristic humble terms: “In sixth form me and my mate didn’t have any money, so because we were both interested in fashion we just started off creating t-shirts in my mate’s school – we used to sort of break in after school to use the heat press to print them.” After the first batch sold out immediately on Facebook, Jack realised the label’s business potential and created a website, after which, he says as if still in shock, “it just grew and grew” – since then production has increased tenfold.
“There’s lots of similar brands that do what we do, selling through Facebook. But we were one of the first brands to do it, at the same time when Wavy Garms and Basement first took off. That helped us because we were able to get initial promotion for free, reaching a huge audience straight away.”
Creating a website early on was a smart move – the Facebook wave eventually broke, and it now befits the brand’s image to use the platform of a sleek website. Jack is the first to admit that the democratisation of streetwear fashion by social media, which allowed the brand to incubate and flourish, has also been a hindrance in some respects. There is a glut of products saturating the market, making it difficult to stand out. I ask whether, like in mainstream fashion, there is a need to keep up with, or set, new trends in order to keep afloat. “It’s not really about trends, it’s about building the brand name and making it visible through lots of channels. You have to make the name desirable, so people want to wear it on their shirt.” There are many layers to cultivating this desirability, it seems – from the aesthetics of the website and photography, and the artist names associated with the brand, to that coveted je ne sais quois which it manages to exude.
Slightly dizzied by Jack’s knowledge of an industry which laypeople like myself can only glimpse from the peripheries, I ask him who his audience is. “It’s evolving at the moment. Initially Light Work was targeted at people aged 15-25, because that was what we knew. But the only problem with targeting them is that they have limited incomes, and that limits what we can produce. Now, by targeting a higher age range, we can challenge ourselves to produce better quality stuff, because if we’re asking the customer to spend more money, we have to produce something which is reflective of that price tag”.
As the aims of Light Work change, so too do its methods of promoting itself, which have matured and expanded considerably since the brand’s conception. As well as conventional promotion through magazines and their own social media channels, Light Work’s exciting collaboration with artists opens up many possibilities. Although he plays an active role in design concepts, Jack admits that he is “no good at art”. This led to the decision to foster relations with local artists. By commissioning art from young creatives and promoting their talent, Light Work functions as a social enterprise as well as a business. They are supported by UnLtd, an organisation in London, who provide mentoring and funding to social enterprises: “We work with artists in order to give them experience in the fashion industry, promote them, and advise them on the best ways to promote themselves. So, when we work with an artist or a photographer, we’ll tell them to create a website before we release the collection, so that when we do release the stuff people can follow you up and see what you do.”
This approach has led to an impressive lineup of collaborations, with artists such as Mr Phomer, Rebel Yuth, and Joe Monroe showcasing their work on Light Work’s garments. I ask Jack how collaborations benefit his business. “It is mutual gain. These artists find it difficult to get publicity for their work, especially because many of them are primarily using Instagram.” It is, Jack says, much easier to sell artwork if it is printed on a marketable product like a t-shirt. In return, the artists channel their thousands of fans and followers onto the Light Work website, giving the brand direct access to an audience already invested in the art, and, therefore, the garments.
This ingeniously simple model not only allows Light Work to stand out in the saturated online streetwear market, but also creates the possibility for an interesting artistic and political edge in the clothing it produces. When I ask him about the political potential of fashion, Jack’s answer is unpretentious: “We know we’re not going to change the world or anything with a t-shirt. But it is all about spreading ideas and reflecting on things that are happening around us.”
Although the brand doesn’t take itself too seriously, the artwork in the new collection deals with some heavy themes. “The capsule collection coming out right now is a collection of t-shirts on the theme of political events in 2016. We thought it was a crazy year, so we really wanted to create something which commented on it.” He shows me a selection of t-shirts, emblazoned with satirical cartoons and slogans on the theme of 2016 – Nigel Farage, the EU, Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump. The work is both subversive and iconic; if it were buried in a time capsule, it would capture the disillusioned spirit of modern youth, perhaps as the sarcastic use of the Union Jack captured punk.
To mark the release of this collection, Light Work staged an art showcase in London, showing the extent of its progression since its conception on Facebook: “It was a day where all of the artists and photographers we have worked with came together and showed their work. We had a photographer, and then, at night, a musical showcase. The theme of the day was 2016, and all the money raised went to our chosen charities, Black Lives Matter and Refugee Action.’ In addition, all of the money raised from the sale of the Black Lives Matter t-shirt will be donated to the charity. I ask Jack about his reasons for doing this and, not one for speechifying, he says “because that’s just what we believe in”.
What is the future, then, for a young brand which has grown so much already? First, they will focus on their exciting new cut and sew collection, which is increasingly conscious of the ethics and quality of production. “We always wanted to do cut and sew stuff from the outset, but we didn’t have the skills to do it, as we’re not fashion students ourselves. We moved into it this summer after I worked at Port magazine, where I was able to interview lots of designers to better understand the process we need to go through.” So, it’s kind of like the brand is maturing as you are? “Yes, exactly. It’s about building our own skill-set as we move into new things. All of the new collection will be handmade from scratch in London.”
With the exciting new collection launching this week, it is difficult to see what could stop Light Work’s momentum. Maybe Jack’s Finals next year? (Yes, he’s only a second year student – it’s sickening isn’t it).
For more on Light Work’s new collection, check out Light Work ’16, an exclusive editorial for Cherwell Fashion, or go to their website, http://www.lightworkclothing.co.uk/.