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Jenna Young, the designer behind This is The Uniform, created her first pair of signature sheer tracksuit bottoms in 2013, an inventive solution to a no-budget shoot she was styling that caught the attention of Vogue’s Lucinda Chambers. Since then, she has designed six collections, showed them at Fashion East in London and at MADE in New York, and kept subverting many of our beloved clothing icons, from the tracksuit to the denim jacket. 

“Obsessed with clothing as a concept more than fashion,” she spent her time at university examining the concepts of rules of dressing, branding and identity, and how tribal elements are perpetuated in clothing. Reflecting on the reasons why we invest some items with specific notions of belonging, class, wealth and even political allegiance, Jenna naturally came to examine a symbol of her childhood and of the British working class –the tracksuit– combining it with refined fabrics and high-end craftsmanship to reinvent and challenge its assigned meaning. The constant dialogue and juxtaposition between high and low, cheap and expensive, couture and streetwear, as well as our personal relationship with clothing and an impressive work ethic are at the core of This is The Uniform, a brand that combines creativity and critical thinking without alienating its audience. Meeting Jenna in her South London studio, we talked about her vision and how This is The Uniform is planning to face a changing fashion industry.
How did you come up with your brand name - This is The Uniform?
It is something that I never questioned, funnily enough. I used to live in Deptford, where on Sunday on the bus you would have the African women dressed up in their beautiful batik outfits with their children matching, and that was their Sunday best. Then you’d have the other guy, sat on the other side of the bus, who was proper cockney London in a grey Adidas tracksuit, and that was his. It was the idea of using clothing as a uniform, and the name was a bit of a piss-take, "We’re going to make clothes and this is what you would be wearing – This is the uniform." It was always a bit tongue in cheek and that has been carried through in most of what we do. We find it important not to take ourselves too seriously.
You said that England doesn’t have a national costume, but there is a very lively folkloristic tradition. Have you ever looked at British folklore and its costumes for you work? Is it something you are interested in? 
We actually look at folklore for every collection we do, not just British but worldwide. It’s something that was brought into the brand two or three seasons ago, when we first started using smocking, embroidering and beading. We were looking at historic British costumes and the way things were made. I remember going to Kensington Palace, where there was a book on the rules of dressing, which it had more to do with military dressing than folklore, and it was literally down to, “there must be 5 buttons down from the first” and “you must show three inches of your cuff, outside your jacket.” These sorts of elements are all very informative in terms of every collection we design. We look at historic pieces that are smocked and embroidered, the fabric manipulation is unbelievable. We experiment with it and bring that element to what I see on the streets now, which is the tracksuit.
What about the colour red and the sheer fabric that keep popping up in your collections?
I love the colour, I love the aesthetic of it and I like its connotations – it’s very strong in my mind. Sheer always surprises me for its power. I can go out wearing this outfit (one of her signature sheer tracksuit bottoms and a shirt), with a fairly long shirt and not particularly exposing any areas of my body, and the reaction it commands is totally different from if I was just wearing this shirt with a skirt, showing the same amount of skin. It has to do with that layer over the skin, it’s quite provocative. I think originally it was there because it was a massive juxtaposition to streetwear. We started to work with jogging bottoms and we were really exploring how we could either soften or subvert their meaning – it’s that sort of binaries that I find really interesting.

In the last few collections there were new elements, such as fringes, denim, fishnets, and pleated skirts. Is it related? Where did you come from with these ideas?
We were originally labelled as a sport-look brand and when I first started it was almost like a project. What the brand actually aims to do now is to take pieces that are cult, such as the tracksuit and the t-shirt, but also the jeans or the denim jacket –pieces people already have a narrative with– and subvert that. So we started to work with denim, a workwear fabric, and mixed it with these really high-end silks and wools. I find the relationship that people can have with clothing really interesting and we try to fuck it up a bit, we try to subvert it.
It seems like you’re trying to slightly distance yourself from the sportswear-brand label, trying to move past it whilst keeping it at the core of your brand, so that people won’t necessarily associate it with tracksuits and reinvented sportswear.
With SS16 we really experimented with flared trousers, with a wider leg. It wasn’t a conscious effort to move away, it was a natural thing. As a brand, there is a real tendency to listen to advisers and stylists that have the view that continuity within the brand has to stay, and I totally understand that – at the end of the day we are here to sell as much as to make beautiful pictures, clothing and shows. But I think there is a point where we can keep that continuity and work with what we know, maintaining a brand identity, but can have the innovation and freedom to be able to explore new designs and ideas. It wasn't a massively conscious thing, but it has become something that I have to consider.
Blackpool and London – how do these two very different places influence your collections?
Do you know what, massively! And I didn’t really know it until one of my assistants told me. I think it was a couple of years ago when somebody asked me, "Are your designs based on your upbringing?" And I said, "No, it has nothing to do with me." Then someone from the team said, "Yes it does." I think from an outsider perspective it can be easier to see it. My childhood in Blackpool was incredibly different to London and it has been drawn upon a lot in many interviews. A lot of people have commented on the fact that it’s ok for me to work with the tracksuit and that I’m not culturally appropriating it because I wore it, but it has almost gone a bit too far. But yes, I still take a lot from Blackpool. It was a very working class, very white town and it still is, so arriving in New Cross in London was like – I’ve never experienced that cultural diversity. The amount of people, the pace of life – it was pretty horrific at first, really overwhelming. Now London also informs me, that juxtaposition is always there. London to me is the most inspirational place I’ve ever been.
It might be an impression, because I’m not a fashion designer, but it looks like there is also a friendly community of fashion designers in London. 
It’s interesting. When Caitlin (Price) and I first did Fashion East together it was hard for us to sit in the same showroom together because we almost had the same audience. But we still did and we still went out and got pissed together. I think at the end of the day it could be a reaction to what is a common experience at the moment. It’s a lot harder now to be a designer and to forge your own business, and we all know that we are fighting the same fight. It’s competitive, don’t get me wrong, but I think there is that community there, definitely.

“I find the relationship that people can have with clothing really interesting and we try to fuck it up a bit, we try to subvert it.”
What was the most difficult part of setting up your own business?
Money is hard, but I think that the lack of it, a cliché as it is, does force you to be creative and do things that you probably would never have thought of if you had the cash. There is never any down time. I’m constantly on, I probably work an average of 12 hours a day every day, seven days a week – and that’s the minimum. At collection time will be more and that workload is mentally draining. It’s a kind of love-hate thing though, because I love it and I feel privileged every day to be able to come to work and think, "You know what? I really want to bloody be here." It’s a massive privilege and not many people have that. But it’s draining and it makes me ill every season. When we get to Paris, all the designers are ill because we all stayed up for about three weeks. I think it’s mentally and physically quite abusive.
How do you keep your creativity going under this pressure?
It doesn’t always happen. I think there have been times when our collections haven’t been up to scratch, or times when we have put things out there that were not necessarily what I had envisioned or what I wanted. I think that is very hard as a designer, because normally it’s caused by scheduling and because you have to do a collection every six months. It’s got to be out there and it’s got to fit that seasonal criteria – we have to have that many coats this season because it’s winter. With what is happening at the moment, it’s not necessarily that relevant anymore, but I don’t quite know what we can do with it. This season we haven’t confirmed our show plans, because we are not sure about what we want to do yet and whether we want to be confined to that schedule. It’s crippling as a designer. What Nasir Mazhar was saying in his interview with Love magazine is really important – the idea of being able to produce when you want to produce and not have to think seasonally.
Many designers right now are thinking of going outside the schedule and finding a different way to work with it. I’m really curious to know what’s going to happen, not that much in terms of production or sales, but mainly in terms of creativity. I wonder what is going to come out from this seismic change
It has been on the cards for a while and there are reasons why it hasn’t happened yet, but I don’t think a lot of them have involved designers at all. It has been based on financial and economic gains of people within the industry that aren’t necessarily responsible for the industry. That’s very hard to swallow as a designer. Everyone is kind of shitting themselves a bit, but it’s exciting. It could be something really amazing.
Youth culture and subcultures are important sources of inspiration for you. Do you feel more like a spectator or do you actively participate in it?
Probably a spectator. The youth culture and subcultures that we tend to observe are dependent on youth. When you’re young you want to be part of something, you want to wear this and do that to fit in. That attitude, that sort of newness and freshness, can be lost or dispersed as you grow older, when you come to your senses. It’s quite odd but I think it’s very much about being a spectator. It comes into the idea of us taking those pieces that people have narratives with and work with them in a way that you would not be able to if you were living in them. Mods, rockers and those movements from forty or fifty years ago were political. I don’t see as much of it now, probably because things have become so diverse that there is almost a completely different form of the concept of subculture itself.

Do you think clothes can be political? 
What I was always fascinated by is their ability to communicate. It’s the first thing that you see, before someone even open his mouth, so in that way it’s incredibly powerful. I’ve read so many books that would go as far as to proclaim that a cardigan could bloody talk. But in a way, clothes can say everything about a person. It would be wrong for me to say that clothes can’t be political, but it’s problematic in the fact that it is an extremely commercial item. It’s a very multi-faceted question. For example, what we did last season was a reaction to something current. In England there is a supermarket called Kwik Save, which was probably the first one to launch its own brand in the ‘90s, called No Frills. It had white packaging with big black printed letters on, with no colour. It was my ultimate shame that my lunch box was black and white at school, because it was a massive signifier of the working class or of being poor. Later, this packaging almost became iconic. It’s so graphic and so aesthetically amazing that it almost became the exact opposite. That sparked a reflection on branding and identification. Last season we also had very little money, so we spent the majority of it on very few basic but beautiful fabrics, whilst the rest of it was for acetate ribbon and seatbelt straps. We used large plastic tape to fix darts and pleats together – it was a real reaction to the current situation and recession, and also a reaction to fast fashion. I thought that it was quite funny that we were using polyester nylon strappings to create a jacket that took maybe a hundred-and-something hours to make – I've almost taken the piss out of Primark you know? The thought was, ‘’if you’re going to whip up a top, we are going to tape it together.’’ That was our message and in a way it was political. But I do think it’s troublesome because, at the end of the day, fashion is a commodity.
References to British culture and its working class are deeply embedded in your brand. How would you describe Britishness to someone who was born and grew up in another country?
We work with it all the time and yet trying to pin it down is really hard. My idea of Britishness is very affected by where I grew up and what I experienced – for me it was growing up by the sea and eating fish and chips, or smoking fags and drinking tinnies when I got a bit older. It’s on a very basic personal level. We always concentrate on the working class because it’s what I know and who I am, but I do feel that quintessential Britishness has become harder and harder to define, which is very interesting. That’s what is so inspiring about London. The amount of people that I’ve met and the things that I’ve learnt since I’ve been here is amazing. Even within our studio team, we had Chiara, who was Italian, Bella, who was South Korean, Abby, who was from Birmingham – even within the studio we had this fantastic mix of references and dialogues.
What is your proudest achievement up to date?
I work incredibly hard, I’ll say that without even flinching, and I think my biggest achievement is loving it. I think it’s massively important to enjoy what you do and to be fulfilled by it, and that’s what I’m proud of because I am. It absolutely fulfils me. It kills me seasonally, every September and February I’m half dead, but it’s a massive privilege to able to do what I love. Setting up the studio and working with a team is also one of the most important things that I’ve done, because I didn’t start like that, I was very much on my own. I’m proud of being able to work like this. It sounds a bit cheesy but working in this industry is like nothing else.
What would you like to achieve with your brand in the next few years?
I think I’d like to be really reactive to what is about to happen. Whatever is going to happen, it would probably change the face of fashion and the face of the industry, commercially and artistically. The aim for us is to be innovative and have the mind set to accept things, work with them and push through. For us it’s about maintaining the creativity that we’ve got and being able to look at things a bit differently every time.

Annachiara Biondi
Justyna Fedec

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