JJ Hudson has been waging a personal war on mass-produced fashion for over a decade. His subversive label NOKI (an anagram of IKON) is famous for taking brand-name garments and – with the help of gaffer tape and scissors – mutating them into one-off DIY couture pieces. For the last two seasons, Hudson’s NOKI – House of Sustainability runway collections have forced the press to sit up and take notice. But now NOKI is a legitimate fashion fixture, is the 37-year-old publicity-shy Scot finally growing up? Don’t hold your breath.
Are you an artist or a designer?
I see myself as an artist: NOKI is one big work-in-progress installation. I can’t design to save my life. I’m terrible at pattern cutting. Customising has made me feel as near to being a designer as I ever will.
You often wear a mask at public events. How important is your anonymity?
It’s crucial because I’m not doing this to be famous. I worked at MTV styling presenters so I’ve been in that zone and it’s not pretty: I watched normal people become commodities. It was there I started mucking about with t-shirts in the styling wardrobe. MTV wanted me to use well-known brands but I couldn’t show the actual name on air so I used gaffer tape to cover letters up. So Adidas became Aids. The Nike tick would turn into a smile with some Minnie Mouse eyes above it and then it’d hole punch the t-shirt until it looked like it’d been involved in a drive-by shooting.
Have you always worked with discarded materials?
Yes, as far back as my graduation collection. I did fashion design at Edinburgh School of Art from 1989 to ‘93. The screen-printing department were throwing out all the old gauze. I found a huge pile of this mesh lying about; it had amazing painted graphics all over it. So I used it to make big dresses for my show.
Is recycling an economic or ethical decision for you?
Originally NOKI was going to be a subversive magazine. I had a few meetings with people but it was never going to work so I treated t-shirts as pages of this imaginary publication. I’d cut and paste things down with gaffer tape; I never even thought about it coming off in the wash. Because it was all an experiment I wasn’t going to buy a new t-shirt for £25, cut it up and get it wrong. I’d rather go to the bargain basement.
There were some innovative knits in your last show…
I worked with a 52-year-old master of crochet called Dr. Hook. I met him in a juice bar in Brighton, where I live. Together we developed a new textile, which is called DNA yarn. A lot of it is shredded up Calvin Klein, Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger clothes. Dr. Hook normally does really fine stuff like baby and wedding shawls but he made big, sculptural shapes for me. I wish I could knit but it’s one of those arts and crafts things that I just can’t do.
Is your basic ideology anarchic?
To me cutting up a t-shirt is the same as smashing a McDonald’s window. But anarchy doesn’t help anybody; it just causes problems. I can be more effective working within the fashion world, rather than outside it. A lot of people presume that I’m anti-brand, but I’m not. I’m an Eighties kid so I like all that. My work doesn’t come from a place of hate… I’m using things that I love.
Is NOKI – House of Sustainability (NHS) a departure for you?
It’s still subverting brand names but moving it into a serious fashion game. I want the NHS to prove that a sustainable product can be as high-end as a Fendi leather jacket. It’s me growing up, basically. I see myself as a doctor of customisation: old rags come into the NHS knackered and broken, they get repaired and leave totally new.
Where do you get all your second-hand clothing?
My fairy godmother has come in the guise of a recycling plant called LMB. It’s a family-run business – with no political agenda – that recycles metal, paper and plastics as well as rags. They deal with thousands of tons of brand-name waste. It all comes in on a conveyor belt and they let me pick out whatever I want. The whole NOKI silhouette starts to come together right there and then. Now I’ve got my source locked down, ideas are infinite. This summer, LMB are also opening a shop on Brick Lane and they’ve given me my own NHS floor there.
Do you think major fashion houses will adopt sustainable materials?
The consumer is a lot more clued up and big firms will have to catch on to it at some point. Everything comes to a conclusion and ultimately eats itself. The ship will sink. And I’ll be there in a dingy… gaffer-taping for dear life.
Photography: Aitken Jolly
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #13, April/May 2008