Bradley Sharpe, Central Saint Martins graduate, talks to us about his graduate collection, which has been featured in many fashion outlets lately for his literal take on camp. Using tents, he has modernised the drama of 18th-century silhouettes. And drawing on the love rituals of gossip, sex, and flirtation, he explains how the elegance of the court is not too far from our modern reality of romance in festivals and clubs, and he shows how camping can be sustainably translated into camp.
For those who are unfamiliar, can you briefly tell us about yourself? What have you been working on, and what aspects of design are you particularly drawn to?
I recently graduated from Central Saint Martin’s class of 2020 studying Womenswear. Based in London, I’m now working towards launching my own brand, which is an accumulation of tipsy, sculptural womenswear drawn through storytelling. I’ve recently been challenging my responsibility of practising as a sustainable designer. For my graduate collection, I collected tent poles from festival-goers around London and manipulated them into volumes that mocked 18th-century gowns.
Before this collection, you were working with Marc Jacobs in New York. How did this prepare you for designing this collection?
Working with Marc definitely taught me how to better communicate a narrative. Something I’ve always admired about Marc’s work is his tangible interest in storytelling and taking his audience to a place in time or thought. Though it seems I only spent a short amount of time there, I learnt so much skill and knowledge from his team, who were so open to lending me their responsibilities to learn.
Being a young creative, one of the most difficult things for me sometimes is staying organised. My parents always taught me that ‘a tidy room is a tidy mind’; working for a big company like Marc Jacobs really gets you in the mood of this. There are so many people, which means so many voices and opinions. If you keep your desk clean and tidy, it sort of tricks you into just taking the day as it comes and being open to new ideas and responsibilities.
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As part of your new collection, you have constructed 18th-century-inspired garments using camping tents as a base. How do the design elements of camping tents lend themselves to these historical gowns?
Pretty much all of my research comes from my own experiences or things I have naturally seen. A year ago, when my collection was still in its development stage, I had been looking at 18th-century mantuas and sack-back gowns. I decided to walk to school one day and passed by a charity shop with a tent in the window. It just all made sense to me. I had been thinking of new ways to work towards creating these period gowns, and suddenly, it was staring right back at me. There and then, I decided that I was going to challenge tent technologies and materials to adapt to the silhouette of the 18th century.
Throughout my time at CSM, I had always struggled with how to accept my thought process and would think that all the puzzle pieces in my projects had to match. It wasn’t until final year that I embraced the fact that my ideas didn’t perfectly correlate or make total sense.
The garments you have made tend to have fewer frills than those of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe. What was the process behind this decision?
As a designer, I’d say my responsibility is to showcase my view and opinion to my audience. To directly inspire a Marie Antoinette gown with its excess in frills would declare nothing new to my approach. The point of my collection was to compare 18th-century courting rituals to the rituals I experienced whilst working at a sex club in London. You don’t see any frills, beautiful embroidery or cloth in a dark sex basement in Soho, London; you just see silhouettes.
You have described your collection as romantic. Can you tell us about the contrast between 18th-century romance and modern festival love stories?
I remember going to my first festival when I was 17 and being in total disbelief amongst the sea of tents. The sort of thinly shielded privacy that’s enough to keep you dry but not enough to drown your secrets and confessions. I remember walking home after a set, I had drifted away from my friends with a phone with no battery. I was literally just relying on everybody else’s phones that I could see lighting up through their tents casting shadows onto the nylon walls.
Everything in the 1700s was so planned out. Your parents probably would have had a plan for your future and you would have naturally felt obligated to stick to it. The courting events were essentially showrooms for the men in powdered wigs seeking a lover with a heavy bustle. Festivals are like a camp for a huge number of people who perhaps have a few things in common – music, camping/tents, and cool boxes packed with decanted vodka in sprite bottles, just to name a few. And I’ve heard of so many people who have met the love of their life there. And I’m sure there are some that would go to a festival seeking a lover – whether that be for a night or the rest of their lives.
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How does 18th-century courtship compare to nightclub romance?
In the 1700s, you still had gossip magazines, and it wasn’t a secret that there were one-night stands in your village or at least short-lived romances. People have and always will just love to gossip. I’d say that gossip is probably one of the only things left from the court that exists in nightclubs today. That, and probably the horrific pick-up lines most men would use to fornicate their wannabe betrothed.
Have you tried on gowns and experienced courtship as research for this collection?
I would love going to Angels or The National Costume Hire to try on all of their period gowns. I think it’s so important to go and see the things you are researching if you can. There were so many things I discovered through doing this, especially pattern cutting techniques and the tiny details you wouldn’t pick up on an image you’d find.
I also remember a couple of years ago, I was modelling for Alister Mackie’s The Leopard magazine wearing a custom Dilara Findikoglu gown. Brett Lloyd was taking the photographs, and the sound of the 18th century was playing through a Sonos speaker. It was magical and something absolutely clicked inside of me wearing that gown, making me just want to perform to the camera and embody what the dress was.
Before last year’s Met Gala, whose theme was camp, Anna Wintour stated that she hoped someone would take the theme literally and dress in a tent – would you define your collection as camp?
Having seen the varied reactions to my collection, especially those opinions of our beloved Karen’s of Facebook, it’s clear that some people find this to be shocking or ironic. I’d say the use of a tent in place of a traditional mantua is camp, but the technical aspects to the dress and the process of pitching the dress before you wear it is camp-er.
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You have cited the film Pink Narcissus as a reference point for this collection. Can you tell us more about this?
Pink Narcissus, in a nutshell, is a tale of a young man who lures men off the street into his apartment and dresses them up to act out his fantasies. The film explained a lot to me about cruising culture and this idea of going into a space where nobody knows who you are, to act out a version of you nobody would expect. Not to disclose anything too confidential, but a lot of the individuals who would come into the club would be the sweetest-looking on entry but you would witness them getting up to all sorts of debauchery up until the second the club closed. Pink Narcissus was the closest visual reference I could find that tastefully depicts my experience of working/being a fly on the wall at the sex club in Soho to my tutors.
Pink Narcissus is about daydreaming and escapism – do you think there is something surreal/larger-than-life about your collection?
I’ve always wanted to build characters as part of my work and let the clothes be a product of that. One of my goals as a practising sustainable designer is to make clothes that last, and a way of doing that is to make collections that force people to feel something when they wear the garment, or to behave or walk in a certain way. It’s always so interesting to see how people behave and perform when they wear my collection. It’s almost like an armour, you suddenly see the funnier side of life or you just feel like a fucking queen.
You are working on a new line to be released in 2021. What might that look like?
I’m pushing my graduate collection further, and that’s all you need to know.
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