Andrew Ibi is a man of many talents. A person who clearly lives and breathes design in all its various forms, he opened the forward thinking retail space, The Convenience Fashion Store, started his own own eponymous label and has gone on to teach the next generation of talented designers through his lecturing at Kingston University.
We have been big fans of his work for many years. With two of his artworks hanging in our shop and the arrival of his new selection of hand painted sweatshirts gracing our rails, we thought it high time to catch up with Andrew to discuss creativity, embracing mistakes and the rewards associated with teaching.
How did your clothing line start?
My first love is design (actually that’s a lie, it sits behind football and music – but probably once was) and in 1996 I was graduate designer of the year. The path of a designer has to include some kind of sustained attack on the market to test the validity of your work. My first brand in 1997 was Ibi-Smith; collaboration with a fellow graduate – we were making all the garments ourselves and to be honest, any orders were painful. From 1997 to nearly 2000, I worked with Joe Casely-Hayford and learned the mechanics of running a business locally but with international presence and I also learned a lot about design and how ideas of contemporary value form. Invaluable experience. I set up a manageable concept in 2000 whilst developing the CMX line for Club Monaco in Toronto and New York – I was multi tasking. When Club Monaco was sold to Ralph Lauren – I had my first real business back in London.
Was it a natural progression from your art?
The art was actually a product of research, looking at artists like Basquiat, Haring, Beuys and Twombly. The illustrations formed as cultural commentary and became an opportunity to share knowledge, sometimes serious, sometimes light heartedly laced with wit and humour. Strangely, this time around, the art is a more valuable commodity and I treat it like a business in its own right. The imagery is often considered as large-scale paintings or wall drawings often conceived through a series of quick, fearless doodles or sketches. The Rudeboy Sound System was the last large scale, commissioned piece I completed, but my apartment is turning into a gallery of sorts.
A lot of people see distinct boundaries between different design/creative disciplines, your collections merge icons from sport, music, film. Is this breaking down of boundaries intentional? Are they your heroes?
They are heroes in the most part, performing a critical intervention in culture – the Cruyff turn, a tipping point for individual skill in the game or perhaps Coltrane’s Acknowledgement. They are all part of my experience as a human, but have shaped culture as we know it. It’s very South London when I analyse it, circa 1980-85, we were really creative as kids with style, how we played sport and what music we absorbed. I just pursued that concept further as a designer, effectively, it’s my sketchbook just expanded into items of accessible clothing. So the boundaries, in my world, are non-existent. I teach fashion, play Sun-Ra when I DJ and Lee Scratch Perry before I play a game of football. I watch Kung Fu movies and marvel at Arthur Ashe’s dismantling of Jimmy Connors. It’s all the same to me really. Politics play a huge part of the idea formation.
What are the criteria for making it onto one of your pieces?
Cult status (often political) and changing the course of history, protagonists and events that were are often overlooked or little known. The best pieces are never bought – they are often the most obscure. They communicate with a specific audience and fly over the rest of us. The reverse text imagery was great from the 2004 – they could be considered ‘selfies’ now. I still wear my Miles vs Jimi, it gets me every time I look in the mirror. I catch people trying to decode it too.
Each piece is hand painted, and stamped by yourself, how important is it that you are part of the process for every item produced?
The heartbeat of the brand is my physical labour, almost masochistic in its diligence and pursuit of the ultimate DIY product. Appearing naïve and accidental but really a process of sophistication and precision where content outperforms aesthetic. Hence the ultimate utility item, The Humble Sweatshirt at the centre of the product. People who have owned these sweatshirts in the passed – treat them like their favourite item of clothing, some precious about their care whilst others wear them until they melt or explode. Either way, I’m happy that the concentration I employ to produce an order does not go unnoticed. The stamping is like authenticating the work, a point of transition and transference of ownership. In the end, it’s the work ethic that creates a unique product that can’t really be replicated, hand processed products are far and few between when we look at modern culture. Mine aren’t terribly expensive considering there are often only between 10 and 30 of each piece at any one time in the world. The numbering is very important.
How many do you ruin? Or are the mistakes part of the process and outcome?
Very few are ruined, accepting that ‘there will be mistakes’ is part of the outcome and process. Sometimes I hope for errors – but I’ve almost perfected the technique so well that I very rarely misspell anything. I did notice a bad spelling error recently though, I just scribble it out and re-scrawl. The process of painting can be quite stressful if the illustration is particularly complex – replicating them over and over and being happy with them is tough sometimes.
What was the inspiration for opening the Convenience Store?
The Convenience Store was an idea that came to me over breakfast (or it could have been lunch), the point is, I’m always thinking about the ‘what if?’ It drives me creatively. In reality, it was also a market opportunity as well as the opportunity to create one of the most interesting, luxury and avant-garde retail experiences in the world.
How has the London retail landscape changed since the opening?
Retail has changed beyond recognition since 2008 (was it that long ago?); my considerations at the time were very radical, designed as an experience and an idea that, potentially, could corner a creative market from a product and customer perspective. Online was optional for a brief moment, and we were exploring the concept of destination. The Pop-up concept didn’t exist, guerrilla was a better term. Matches was called Matches, not Matches.com and Browns was not selling on Farfetch.com, in fact it didn’t exist. Tumblr was a newborn and instagram hadn’t been conceived. There was no Redchurch Street, no Layers, Hostem or Darkroom – three very successful, modern retail stores, two of which came to see my activity before opening themselves. The very pillars that now make up a huge percentage of brand and retail business was in flux. Retail was still vey much about bricks and mortar – the complete internet revolution had not hit the contemporary, luxury fashion market and the recession or credit crunch had not yet occurred. The drastic sale strategies that still grip the global market had not come to fruition. Not seeing the recession coming in 2007, however, was fatal.
You mention you went from shopkeeper to academic and now teach at Kingston University, how did this transition occur?
I’ve always been involved in teaching, about 10 years now, after The Convenience Store it was a good time to focus on knowledge transferal. I’m the Course Director of the MA Fashion at Kingston University now and treat education like I treat all of my business ideas. My students also need to see an active and engaged figure at the helm, still energised and excited.
What are the biggest challenges in teaching a creative discipline?
Communication and being able to leave your personal values behind and deal with the here and now. To understand that my reality, culture and approach may not be relevant to my students and that the reverse is also true. We have to find a point of reference where it all makes sense. Often we are walking a fine line between the ridiculous and the genius. But, in the end, design is narrative, cultural commentary and/or problem solving – if it’s good it speaks to us. The one thing that’s very difficult to articulate is taste – even more difficult to mark academically.
A huge, huge thanks to Andrew Ibi for taking the time to answer our questions in such detail. You can view his latest selection of clothing either in store or over on our website.