Growing up in London in the 2000s, brands were so important to everyone I knew. From classic Nike 'Just Do It' bags to Gucci belts, everyone was determined to prove their individuality in one way or another. But my school was strict about uniforms and routine, so we were forced to think outside the box in order to show our creative flair. Without the cash for high end labels, it became second nature to be as outlandish as possible with your style using what you could afford. You might not have been able to buy that coveted designer bag, but as long as your white Air Forces weren’t creased and your Blackberry Curve wasn’t too scratched up, you were alright.
The way I saw working class people, particularly Black and Asian kids, interpret fashion and incorporate their heritage and culture into what they wore always amazed me. However, as I grew older, I noticed that this aesthetic we had created for ourselves was being appropriated by many high fashion brands. My series Back a Yard captures just how much this demographic influences popular culture, and how often it goes unrecognised.
Tracksuits have always been a big part of my wardrobe and have now cemented their place in the sports-luxe hall of fame. These days they're a trend-led staple but years ago those who now lust after the latest Nike tracksuit wouldn’t have been caught dead in one. Those who did sport them were negatively stereotyped, and often labelled as [insert insult of your choice here]. But whether you were called a chav, hood or threatening, the sentiment towards trackie wearers was clear – unless, that is, you had hundreds to splash out on a designer tracksuit. If you were visibly affluent, you avoided those stereotypes. Now, this false urban (I shudder every time I hear that word) working class aesthetic is being monetised, with labels and celebrities adopting the idea that 'slumming it' and appearing poorer than you are is cool.
Working with designer Georgia Borenius, the two of us created three bootleg high fashion tracksuits which cost about £20 to make. I wanted to show how effortlessly stylish real working-class kids are and reclaim a look that has been demonised for as long as I can remember. I took a lot of inspiration from Harlem designer Dapper Dan, who altered designer fabrics into his own garments, making these brands more accessible to those in his community. He was eventually shut down but has recently partnered with Gucci to open a boutique to sell his original designs. It’s crazy to think that we’ve gone from a time where Dan’s contribution to popular culture was overlooked to it finally being recognised and even dominating the most recent Met Gala.
I wanted the images to be as authentic as possible so I shot the project in London, using the people I grew up with as subjects for each image. We met in their local area, where each person chose which tracksuit they wanted to wear and then we worked together to style it in a way that they felt suited their personality. Each young person had a unique way of wearing the tracksuit, which meant I was able to capture moments of self-awareness, overly exposed attitudes and clashing environments, while also subtly addressing social issues around minorities and their visibility. Their united dress code is used to emphasise their joint desire to stand out in their surroundings, which is what many of them have been doing their whole lives. One of my subjects, Whitney Burdett, who grew up in west London, believes that working class people often get left behind when it comes to the fashion world. "The impact that young working-class people in particular have on fashion trends is often neglected when it is adopted by a brand," she says. "These trends then become inaccessible to those who inspired it.”
Fashion is meant to be fun. We should all be able to express ourselves however we deem fit (although I draw the line when it comes to white middle-class people in durags) but credit needs to be given where it’s due and boy, is it overdue. What we wear has so much to do with where we come from, which is why we need to stress the importance of creating more opportunities for those whom the fashion world currently looks down on. It should be pretty obvious that creating more diverse spaces will ultimately benefit fashion brands long term, but we are yet to see much of this.
Working class fashion has always been intricately linked to the way we’re perceived in society, the hierarchy very much built upon flashy tags and cash. It’s great to see these styles being adopted by popular culture, but it’s important to make sure we acknowledge the privilege some people have of being able to wear a tracksuit without the inconvenience of being stopped and searched by police because yours has triple stripes.