“Hopefully I can retire to a beach from doing stuff I really love – that’s my mad plan,” says Fergus Purcell. Tall, long-haired and head-to-toe in tattoos, Purcell is sat in an East-London office talking me through his latest collaboration with Californian skate label KR3W. The result is a full capsule collection that highlights both the graphic designer’s ability to craft a visually intriguing motif, alongside his love of obscure, left-field reference points – a recurring theme throughout his work.
Having graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins, Purcell would go on to work with Slam City Skates, through which he would meet Lev Tanju — the founder of Palace Skateboards. As most people know, it was Purcell who reworked Roger Penrose’s eponymous triangle logo for Tanju’s now infamous clothing label, now affectionately known as the Tri-Ferg.
As a result his stock has skyrocketed in recent years, earning him a diverse array of clients. In fact, Purcell is something of a renaissance man in the world of fashion, with a portfolio that runs the gamut from Palace to Marc Jacobs via Aries, a womenswear line conceived in collaboration with Sofia Pantera. Yet, in spite of this relative fame, the softly-spoken Englishman has maintained the same independent spirit that became his calling card pre-Palace notoriety, and shows no sign of changing.
How did this KR3W collection come about?
They got in touch to see if I’d be interested, which of course I was, and then they sent a bunch of images over of stuff I’d done in the past. That was the place we kind of bounced off from. Once the vibe was established, they just let me do my thing.
I love that American Hessian aesthetic and, to me, KR3W always meant that. That’s a big part of what I want to do aesthetically, so that made me very keen to work with them. In addition to that I felt that their customers would be a completely new audience for my stuff, largely speaking. Very different to a Marc by Marc Jacobs or a Palace customer.
We really tapped into an English ’80s crusty-punk kind of look. [That movement] was really homegrown, really DIY, really anti-fashion in some respects but also really peacock – massive graphics on the back of denim jackets, you know? A real devotion to the aesthetics of things, and that’s really intriguing.
After a direction has been established, what is your work process like?
Once we’ve established a kind of mutual language, I go back to the drawing board and think about what I’m actually trying to achieve and really think about the end-customer and what they want from it. I’m very much thinking about how it’s going to look as a garment, rather than a graphic designer who looks at a T-shirt as a platform to put a graphic on.
I have to think of the intention, and what someone might look like when they’re wearing it and, more importantly, how they might feel. That’s really what’s in my mind first and foremost; trying to make someone feel good when they’re wearing it.
When referencing counter cultures like crustypunk, is there a balance that needs to be struck so as not to be exploitative?
I don’t worry about that at all. If someone ends up liking it, it has worked.
I don’t really think that anything, in terms of a visual, belongs to anyone — it’s all up for grabs to be played with. And that’s probably one of the most fun things you can do with the T-shirt medium.
On the one hand that means you get very played out, slightly stale, rip-off stuff, and that gets a bit macro — like a rip off of a rip off. And that’s fine, because it’s just a question of your taste. But that kind of interplay is endlessly interesting, and having a background in skateboarding culture…Skateboarding has been rabid in its consumption of anything outside itself, any imagery: fashion, corporate, industrial, American candy bars – you name, they’ve nicked it.
People sometimes ask me about that in relation to skateboarding, about how it should belong to skaters in terms of an aesthetic, and that’s fucked up because it’s the genre that has stolen the most!
Speaking of skateboarding, your Tri-Ferg logo must be one of the most recognizable motifs around, do you ever worry it will come to define you?
No, because if that’s the thing that ends up being a huge success then I’m lucky. You know, if it becomes a cliché or, as you say, something that limits me, then it’s amazing to have done it in the first place. It comes with the territory really. It’s amazing to have had something that resonates so much, that’s how I see it.
So you’re not interested in being “niche?”
Not at all, I’m into pop art. I wasn’t so keen on the last Daft Punk album, but I used to cite them as an example of people that did exactly what they wanted to do, created really quite a peculiar aesthetic and people loved it.
I’ve always been convinced that people out there are hungry. I just think of myself as a teenager and how curious I was, how ready I was to see something I hadn’t seen before that I didn’t need explained to me. And it’s not just a teenage thing, it’s a human thing: people are smart, switched on, curious – that will never go away.
That’s another reason I haven’t done more corporate stuff, because their ideas of mass consumership are really reductive and dumbed down. They think people won’t get this, or don’t want that, which is bollocks. So I’m on a mission to try and do the opposite.
That corporate world can be a very exploitative system for artists like yourself, but also potentially rewarding financially. Is there an alternative way?
Brands can be very cynical. I sympathize with people out there trying to be creative, doing their own thing and finding resistance. I would encourage anyone, if they believe in themselves, to persevere.
It took me a really long time; five years ago I was having a low point in my career. Well, I wouldn’t even call it a career, I didn’t have one at that point, despite having had success in the past. More than anything it was just me being stubborn and perverse, and sticking to what I was doing.
I think there’s the idea of being young, fabulous and successful, which used to be the prerogative of someone like a super-model, and now that’s almost the paradigm for any kind of endeavor. If you’re not 25, rich and good-looking, you’ve fucked it. And that’s really not true.
I think that lurks in a lot of people’s subconscious. Instead I found it helpful to think of the idea of the starving artist when I was younger. I mean that’s not a fun place to be, but it’s a useful archetype when you’re young and trying to establish yourself. If you’re trying to be a Kardashian then good luck to you, it’s probably never going to happen. But if you’re trying to be a starving artist, then you’re probably already there…
It’s a bit more of a realistic place to start from, so it helps you. It gives you that kind of defiance that I think you need to keep pushing.
During those low points, did you ever consider alternative careers?
My plan B was to get a job at the Post Office. That’d be alright, being a postman. I always thought that would be quite cool, getting to walk around and listen to your Walkman in the outdoors. I always saw those dudes, they weren’t stuck in an office with anyone telling them what to do, they were delivering birthday cards half the time so people are generally happy to see them. It seems kind of cool. But I’ve never done it, so maybe that’s all bullshit.
Do you often feel the urge to escape?
I love that idea, that I could work from wherever. I was travelling in India at the start of this year and was working for a fashion label at the time, which was an incredible contrast and super exciting, using cutting edge technology for work and yet being in a very primitive environment.
What do you have planned for the coming months?
In terms of Palace? More of the same, in that we’ll be doing more different things. I think we’ve always tried to play with and fuck with our own idea of what Palace is and step beyond anyone’s expectations. I’d hope so anyway. Now I feel like we’ve got people’s trust and their interest, and that’s an amazing place to be. It’s so exciting and we don’t take it for granted at all, because that’s then a responsibility. You can’t just stop and say: “this is us, we’re great.”
I’d love to get involved with doing some more music stuff. Some record covers and things like that. I tried to make inroads with that last year, but it’s strange. I found fashion a lot more porous; people are more open-minded and courageous. It’s interesting, isn’t it?
Being into pop art I would love to do something on a big scale within music and feel like I’ve got the clout from other things to take that on. But the record industry doesn’t seem to feel that way, so we’ll see. Watch this space…
Fergus’ latest collection with KR3W will be available to purchase from Slam City Skates this February.