This story is taken from Issue 18 of Highsnobiety magazine. You can buy the new issue here.
Twenty-five years ago, British designers Adam Thorpe and Joe Hunter founded Vexed Generation, a brand built on expressing its founders’ political beliefs and concerns about privacy through the products it made and the people who wore them. The label was ahead of its time, and especially prescient given today’s climate of digital surveillance — making 2019 the perfect time to bring Vexed Generation back.
In early 2019, it came to light that there was a serious security flaw in Apple’s Group FaceTime feature. An error allowed the caller to see the recipient even if their call wasn’t being answered, simply by adding themself as a third participant. This effectively connected a FaceTime call while the phone was still ringing, streaming audio from the device with zero input from the receiver’s side.
A security update was released by Apple shortly afterward, but the episode only added to ongoing public anxiety that we’re living in an era of constant surveillance. Smart speakers such as Amazon’s Alexa and voice assistants like Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri purportedly pick up on labels, keywords, and casual conversations, and feed them into algorithms that affect our search results. The items we browse online haunt us on unrelated websites through targeted advertising.
For the most part, society has become complacent about this consumer police state. Teens make memes about the government agents thought to be monitoring their smartphones, turning someone menacing and Orwellian into comic relief. Society has all but accepted the notion that agreeing to various terms of service gives corporations license to turn our everyday lives into market research, all to better iterate products and services and solve the issue of minor inconvenience.
In the ’90s, the UK’s sociopolitical climate wasn’t too far removed from today’s. Alternative urban news platforms such as Undercurrents covered the East London’s M11 link road protests, as well as social and environmental issues they felt were being ignored by mainstream media.
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 led to increased surveillance, with some £500 million (approximately $650 million) spent installing CCTV cameras in the decade up to 2006. In the ’90s, approximately 78 percent of Home Office (the UK equivalent of the Department of the Interior) crime prevention spending went on surveillance cameras, and today the UK is believed to have anywhere between 4 million and 6 million CCTV cameras nationwide — potentially one for every 11 people.
There was also a crackdown on public gatherings, parties, and protests — essentially a quiet war on events, subcultures, and direct action such as raves, squatting, and sabotage of fox hunts. Meanwhile, air pollution levels from transport peaked in 1990, leading to an increase in respiratory problems.
In short, there was plenty to be pissed off about, and these issues didn’t sit well with the UK’s creative class and youth. In 1994, it inspired Adam Thorpe and Joe Hunter to start a clothing label called Vexed Generation. Living in the poverty-stricken East London borough of Tower Hamlets, they experienced the area’s poor air quality firsthand, which brought their attention to the other pressing issues around them.
The project started as something community-minded. Thorpe and Hunter founded the label while on unemployment, with the idea to tap their circle of friends and pool their collective creativity. The result was a cult brand still remembered fondly by all the right people. Vexed Generation was even called “London’s answer to Helmut Lang” by Calvin Klein.
“It was about making visible the stuff that was less visible,” says Thorpe. “We weren’t particularly political. We just sort of came across it in our day-to-day lives and then started to dig around a bit more. We were quite surprised and angered by what we discovered.”
The Vexed Generation aesthetic combines extreme utility with a brooding color palette and brutalist shapes favoring clean lines. The Ninja hoodie, with its high collar designed to conceal the wearer’s face from CCTV cameras, was made of layerable cotton and fleece or armor-like leather. There was also the angular parka made of scuff-proof and fireproof military-grade nylon originally designed for NASA, with integrated padding at the head, kidneys, and groin — ideal for London’s cyclists in case of a fall, but also any anarchists or protesters who found themselves at the wrong end of a police baton.
“Their clothes weren’t just clothes,” says Gill Linton, CEO and editor-in-chief of Byronesque, a vintage shopping platform that connects consumers with stores selling ultra-rare pieces by the likes of Raf Simons, COMME des GARÇONS, and Maison Martin Margiela. She has a knack for recognizing impactul fashion items that encapsulate certain eras. Linton places Vexed Generation within a progressive era for London’s Soho neighborhood, noting how pieces like the Ninja hoodie became cult items among the city’s cognoscenti, including Mo’ Wax founder James Lavelle (who is profiled elsewhere in this issue) and The Chemical Brothers.
One of Vexed’s most memorable pieces is what Thorpe refers to as the “hands-free record bag,” with its square shape designed to accommodate 12-inch vinyls. The innovative cross-body strap was much imitated, and in 2018 the bag became an object of fascination for Kanye West, who has a blaze orange version made in the ’00s and licensed through Yak Pak. “I’m posting this to find who designed this bag,” he tweeted in August. “I love the whole vibe of this piece. Been trying to reach Joe Hunter and Adam Thorpe.”
“We weren’t particularly political. We just sort of came across it in our day-to-day lives and then started to dig around a bit more. We were quite surprised and angered by what we discovered.”
Beyond the ingenuity and avant-garde nature of the design, what made Vexed Generation stand out to Linton was the meaning woven into the clothes. They not only protected the wearer from the elements, but also functioned as a wearable form of subversion. Vexed Generation’s clothing was the anti-statement tee. If you understood the intent behind the designs, you didn’t need a graphic or slogan to express your ideals. No doubt, the street-ready garments’ cerebral appeal made them even more covetable to London’s most daring dressers.
“It was the uniform of a very creative period,” says Linton. “You were no one if you weren’t down at the pub with a pair of PUMAs, pinstriped trousers, and a Ninja hoodie.”
Vexed Generation’s approach to operating a fashion label couldn’t have been more anti-fashion. It was very much a product of its time, when jaded Gen Xers championed “alt culture” and favored creativity on the fringes. Like many designers before them, Thorpe and Hunter had no formal fashion training, but what they did have was a staunch idea of who they wanted to be and what they wanted to communicate through their platform — and that’s what resonated with fans and among their inner circle.
Their unorthodox approach carried over into retail. The Vexed Generation space at 12 Newburgh Street in Soho was its own best-kept secret. The window was covered with white plastic sheeting and there was nothing to indicate what was inside save for a tiny monitor in the lower right-hand corner. Inside pumped music from jungle labels such as Sound of the Underground Records, which Thorpe once worked with on merch. If it weren’t for the single clothing rack inside, one could easily have misconstrued the place for a politically tinged art gallery or experiential piece. Like Vexed Generation itself, the store was a product of its environment and the creative community who occupied it.
“They didn’t give a fuck about the fashion system,” says Linton. “They did their own thing, and it was incredibly fresh and rewarding for people who were as creatively minded as they were.”
Hunter recalls a meeting he and Thorpe held once they had secured the Newburgh Street space. It sounds more like the gathering of a grassroots organization than a high-minded vision for a concept store. They invited people to listen to their idea for what the store should look like, what it should represent, and welcomed outside opinions and contributions. Thorpe says some volunteered to help with tasks like painting the walls, installing the sound system, and doing whatever else they could.
Those present were excited by the opportunity to channel their talents into something that felt authentic, a cause they believed in, not because they saw some potential financial payoff at the end.
“We weren’t there to make money,” says Hunter. “We didn’t know what it would do or where it would go. It was an evolution that was put into motion by a bunch of talented, like-minded people working from a philosophy that we structured. And so we were very fortunate in many, many ways.”
Vexed Generation’s philosophy meant putting integrity first. Thorpe and Hunter valued the purity of their work above all else and didn’t want to compromise, even if it meant they could make more money. That sort of anti-corporate mindset fit perfectly with the damn-the-man mentality that characterized the urban angst of Gen Xers. Today, a small brand blowing up is regarded as a dream come true, but back then, selling out was the corniest thing a hip underground label could do.
“We didn’t even know we were in business until the tax office told us we were,” admits Thorpe. As the ’90s became the ’00s, Vexed Generation’s team had grown to 15 people. It also moved its store from Newburgh Street to nearby 3 Berwick Street, an otherwise quiet Soho alley that was home to a few street vendors, a comic book shop, and other independent retailers. London continued to gentrify, and as the city changed, so did its consumers. Eventually, Vexed Generation’s dedication to its ideals clashed with what it needed to do to stay viable.
“It came to a point where pursuing that creative edge wasn’t the most commercial,” laments Thorpe. Its founders didn’t like the idea of becoming proper businessmen at the expense of sacrificing their design duties. “At that particular time, that wasn’t where we wanted to spend all our energies.”
Meanwhile, the pace of trends quickened as the rise of fast fashion fueled consumers’ constant demand for newness. Major chains copied items by luxury labels and independent designers like Vexed Generation.
In 2000, the label was represented by UK nonprofit Anti Copying in Design (ACID) in a case arguing that Badge Sales — one of many companies that had ripped off Vexed Generation’s signature single-strap bag — was selling a “virtually identical” facsimile of the courier bag’s design, harming Vexed’s sales. ACID helped Thorpe and Hunter to a settlement of £16,363 (approximately $21,000), but design theft wasn’t the only problem plaguing the label. Fast fashion could also put out a ton of cheap product at a rapid clip. It was a race Vexed Generation wasn’t equipped to compete in, nor did it wish to.
“The relentless turnover of the fashion industry was never what Vexed Generation was about,” says Hunter. “It’s actually got worse now. Come up with something new, come up with something new, come up with something new… it didn’t work like that for Vexed.”
For more than a decade, the label had stayed consistent to the same vision it started with. The thought of becoming part of a fashion system it stood against contradicted those ideals. At the same time, the alternative, subcultural mindset that informed Vexed Generation had infiltrated the mainstream. The most “alt” thing Hunter and Thorpe could do was give the brand a rest and focus their energies on doing what mattered most to them.
So they did. The label was put on hiatus and the two went back to the things that energized them most: getting more involved with community activism, education, and fostering the youth.
Hunter is a senior lecturer at the University of East London, where he specializes in fashion design and fashion futures, including trend forecasting and predicting the next big ideas that will shape the industry’s future. Thorpe is a professor in socially responsive design at the University of the Arts London. He also is co-director of UAL’s Design Against Crime Research Centre and the founder of UAL’s Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) lab. These initiatives have helped develop items such as thief-resistant commuter bags and PUMA’s foldable Disko bicycle, a collaboration with Biomega that saves space in small urban apartments and is eminently harder to steal than a conventional bike.
So while Vexed Generation the label has been all but defunct, its ideals and design-focused philosophy have lived on. Thorpe and Hunter worked on the PUMA Disko bike with Biomega, lending design input and knowledge of cyclist behavior and theft techniques alike. It was a way of carrying on Vexed’s legacy of making items that are true products of their environment.
The thing about good ideas, though, is that they never really go away. It just might take some time before they’re rediscovered. Hunter and Linton met at a mutual friend’s wedding. Linton remembers wearing track pants and vintage cowboy boots, an outfit that caught Hunter’s attention. The two traded good-natured barbs about fashion before Hunter talked about his history with Vexed Generation. Linton was quick to express her fondness for the label.
A few years later, Byronesque had launched, gaining enough steam that it was able to throw open a pop-up at Paris Fashion Week selling rare vintage designer pieces. Dubbed #FASHIONPORN, the event was so successful that New York City boutique Opening Ceremony tapped Linton to host another in the Big Apple. So in 2017, Byronesque rounded up more than 300 pieces that summarized the best of ’90s design for the New York edition of #FASHIONPORN. It included Nicolas Ghesquière-era Balenciaga, Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Helmut Lang, Maison Martin Margiela, and, for the first time, the Vexed Generation archive.
“We think, ‘Has it had an important impact in culture?’ That’s more interesting to us,” says Linton of how she chose the pieces that ended up in #FASHIONPORN. “And culture, to be honest, is fashion. Vexed is a perfect example of that.”
What attracts Linton to Vexed Generation and other labels that have made true fashion grails isn’t that the pieces are especially timeless or classic. In fact, she calls those two terms “fashion marketing bullshit to sell clothes.” Rather, she is attracted to the intent and staying power of the designs. Seeing the reaction to Thorpe and Hunter’s archive made her realize how much more relevant their clothes are to today’s world. It was the perfect time to resurrect the label.
“They were very anti-establishment and they weren’t just going to sit back and allow shit to happen,” Linton says. “There is a generation who are behaving in a very similar way. Look at the million marches that are happening around the world. People are saying, ‘I’m not going to put up with this.’”
Vexed’s newfound relevance is no surprise to Thorpe and Hunter. In the spirit of designers who physically age but never actually grow old, their shared passion for implementing design as a way to solve modern problems has adapted with the times. Thorpe mentions the faultiness of facial recognition technology and Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower who revealed how Facebook user data was being used to influence voter behavior in the 2016 US presidential election.
The problems items like the Ninja hoodie were designed to address — loss of personal privacy, protection from outdoor cameras — have grown even more complicated and insidious. One could imagine one of Vexed’s concealing garments coming in handy in front of a webcam, for example.
“The clothing, in a way, was a warning,” says Thorpe. “Saying if we go in this direction, then this is the clothing that responds to that situation.”
Hunter points out how the advent of social media and its ability to build a sense of community and communicate certain ideals aligns with the vision they had for Vexed Generation’s retail spaces. Those experimental installations weren’t explicitly made to sell clothing, but rather inform people about the conditions that inspired the designs.
“They were all about communication, congregation, community spirit, and community exchange,” says Hunter. “People used to come to our shop and not spend a bean and they weren’t kicked out. We’ve always been inclusive.”
Earlier this year, Vexed Generation returned with an 11-piece capsule collection in conjunction with Byronesque and e-commerce platform Farfetch. The all-black collection is made ethically and sustainably in the UK, with 60 percent of it manufactured in London. The fabrics have been upgraded with the environment in mind. For example, the Ninja hoodie is now made using 100 percent recycled fleece and comes packed in a wash bag made in collaboration with Berlin-based nonprofit STOP! MICRO WASTE, an organization dedicated to preventing microplastics in clothes getting into the oceans via machine washing.
“In order for us to be able to create a conversation and ideally build a community that can converse in the same way as people on Facebook and Instagram, we need to do it quickly,” says Hunter. “The best way to do that is to work with someone that’s got a huge reach.”
Other items include Vexed’s cross-body square backpack and the padded nylon parka. These pieces aren’t only getting exposed to a whole new generation, they still resonate with previous ones, too. Linton says James Lavelle recently picked up one of the new parkas and loves it. But Thorpe and Hunter aren’t as interested in revisiting the past as they are building toward the future.
Thorpe thinks one of the most positive things about today’s fashion industry is how much easier it’s become for individuals and small groups to express themselves creatively through multiple platforms. Depending on how the Farfetch project pans out, there are plans to empower more people to design and make their own clothes through Vexed Workshop maker labs. These would help aspiring designers think about things like patents, connect them with factories, and teach them about the basics of fabric, construction, and the manufacturing process.
“Our nemesis is the world of fast fashion,” says Linton. “We think the way to stand out now and encourage people to stop buying so much crap is to make special things on a smaller scale.”
“We didn’t know what it would do or where it would go. It was an evolution that was put into motion by a bunch of talented, like-minded people working from a philosophy that we structured.”