Pushing Boundaries: An Interview With Claire Barrow

text by Adam Lehrer

UK-based fashion designer Claire Barrow has always married art and fashion in a way that feels proper. While most fashion labels re-interpret graphics by their favorite artists, Barrow has used her garments as a vehicle for her own images.

Born in Stockton-On-Tees, UK, Barrow found herself seduced by the sounds and imagery emanating from her local record shop as a teenager. While her classmates listened to Top 40 and wore their school uniforms, Barrow listened to bands on the atonal side of the rock spectrum (from Slayer to Sonic Youth) and found her own style by deconstructing and adding flair to her own school uniform. “I would wear all these ‘80s earrings. I would put patches on. I cut my tie,” says Barrow. “Getting into music, I just preferred metal and punk. I was finding my own records and being fully immersed in it. Music became my entire life.”

Barrow moved to London in 2008 to study fashion. Even though she already was making pictures, fashion seemed a more realistic career than being an artist. “There was a fashion course at my college, so I did fashion.”

From the beginning of her practice in fashion, Barrow illustrated on the garments she created. Those images, steeped in iconography of radicalism and sub-cultures, have made her one of the most exciting designers on the London Fashion Week ticket since she debuted her collection at Fashion East for Spring/Summer 2013.

But Barrow is a tireless creative and it was only a matter of time before she would grow interested in seeing her imagery take life on canvas. The exhibit ‘Claire Barrow: The Bed, The Bath, and The Beyond” that was on view at London’s M. Goldstein Gallery from April 17 to 24 found Barrow rendering the most private aspects of daily life, from taking a shower to using the restroom, and examining the ways in which we renew and revitalize ourselves in lack of spirituality and religion.

Claire Barrow and I spoke over Skype to discuss the exhibit, but also what it means to maintain a fashion brand in this exhausting system, why she is re-evaluating her place in this system, and her hopes of uniting a whole world of creative mediums under the Claire Barrow brand.

ADAM LEHRER: So many of your garments can stand alone as artworks. Were you interested in being an artist before you became a fashion designer?

CLAIRE BARROW: No. I wanted to be a fashion designer. Fashion seemed more realistic than being an artist. I wanted to be trained in how to make garments.

LEHRER: Does the interest in fashion come from creating something with an application? You can wear clothes and engage with garments in a way that you can’t with art.

BARROW: I don’t think I thought about the bigger picture. I’ve always illustrated the clothes I’ve made. I’ve enjoyed it. But now is the first time I’ve ever done canvases, which is really fun.

LEHRER: I’m sure. How does it feel in comparison?

BARROW: I think it’s a lot more confrontational. When someone wears clothes, they can hide. Namely, it changes for each viewer and wearer. I present models with their hair and makeup done. There’s a whole [aura] around it. People take what they want from fashion and use it in different ways. Plus, people need to wear clothes. With art, they’re just looking at that one thing. People can’t really interact with it. They can’t interrupt it in any way. It’s different.

LEHRER: Does it feel more vulnerable to have your images hanging on a wall than it does when making clothes?

BARROW: It feels equal. It’s hard to make clothes because you have to worry about everything – the fit, money, time. I don’t know the art industry quite yet, but it feels like you always have to prove yourself in the fashion world. There are so many people trying to do it. With the art, I don’t feel as much of that. That might be because I’m in an interesting position, having my own gallery show now. It might be different for me.

LEHRER: Everyone always talks about this connection between fashion and art. Usually, it’s just a brand taking an artist they like and turning their work into prints. Whereas, I feel like your garment work has been a vehicle for art. Do you agree with that?

BARROW: Yeah, I think so. I want to be taken seriously as an artist. Each garment is a whole presentation with its own concept. The concept that I just did was the “retrospective,” which was taking references from every era from history rather than one. Each garment made up the bigger picture.

LEHRER: I know you are friends with Reba Maybury (editor of outsider art and body mod mag Sang Bleu). I follow all your friends’ Instagram accounts. Your fashion brand is tied to these more subversive projects. Do you feel like a part of a loosely affiliated collective?

BARROW: Yeah, maybe. I feel like it’s coming to the surface now. There’s always been a strong group. We’re also just hanging out together, doing whatever. So that’s good. I actually want to come to New York.

LEHRER: To live or to visit?

BARROW: To live for a bit, I don’t know. Maybe three months.

LEHRER: People associate New York with being the most commercial in terms of fashion. At the same time, we have these really extreme brands – Ekhaus Latta, Moses Gauntlett Cheng. There’s this whole new thing going on that might fit in with what you’re doing.

BARROW: I think I’ll come and hang out with some of those guys. London feels a little stale at the moment. But that could be me right now.

LEHRER: People always talk shit about the city they live in.

BARROW: I feel like people don’t like London anymore. It’s so expensive. There’s less opportunity for young people. It’s harder because we have to pay huge student fees now. We’ve got really shit government at the moment.

LEHRER: We’re in a similar boat.

BARROW: No, because Bernie will win.

LEHRER: I hope so. Also, about the show, I want to talk to you about what your idea was around the “cleansing aspect” of the shower.

BARROW: I feel, personally, that I don’t hold onto anything sacred. I don’t have many beliefs. The only one I kind of have is self-preservation. I worry about social situations. It’s this social thing, rather than religion. I don’t have that much faith. But it’s not pessimistic. The characters in it are quite cute, and I wanted it to feel quite cute. It’s quite commercial, like cartoons in an advert or something like that.

LEHRER: So you’re not religious or spiritual at all?

BARROW: No. But I hate saying that. It makes me feel really sad and guilty. My parents made me go to church every day until I was 12. Some kids saw me going to church and started picking on me about it. It was weird.

LEHRER: So the shower is cleansing yourself of all the bullshit around you?

BARROW: It’s cleansing yourself of yourself and getting reborn every day.

LEHRER: You said your first reference was the anxiety of modern British life. Where do you think that anxiety is rooted?

BARROW: Social. People worry about being accepted, being normal, and fitting into a certain social scene. That seems like the main concern for young people right now, rather than worrying about what’s going to happen to them after they die. Now, we know everything, so it’s all about worrying about yourself.

LEHRER: That’s interesting. Now that we know that we’re going to be dead, all we worry about is who we are when we’re alive, who thinks we’re cool. Running a fashion brand and putting an exhibition together at the same time is a ton of work. Where do you think that work ethic comes from?

BARROW: I know how hard it is to do the two and continue making something good. I work as hard as possible. I don’t take it for granted. I haven’t had a family that has gotten me into places. I came from the north and I’ve tried to make it on my own.

LEHRER: I just read an interview you did with Eloise Parry in Heroine Magazine. You two talk about bonding over a Slayer patch. It got me thinking about your work. Aside from a few designers, when brands reference underground subculture, it’s always the same stuff. A Peter Saville graphic here, a Bowie reference there. You seem to really know music and subculture. Do you ever feel at odds with your interests and what most high fashion is trying to express?

BARROW: I think if you know about subculture, you know what people are not going to like and what you should use. One should respect that genre and subculture. People will be like, “Punk fashion: that’s what I’m trying to do,” and it doesn’t look punk anymore. But that’s a good thing! That’s real punk, rather than going for something that looks like “punk.” That’s real subculture.

LEHRER: When you look at Chris Brown wearing a studded leather jacket, you think, 'how punk could a studded leather jacket actually be?'

BARROW: But that’s the thing. ‘70s punk fashion isn’t punk anymore. Being punk now is being creative and new. It’s trying to push boundaries.

LEHRER: Do you think the Internet is collapsing subculture, combining and spreading it out? Do you think it’s a good thing that the focus is more on the individual? Like, someone can go online and find out about every type of music and decide what they like.

BARROW: I think so, yeah. I think it’s hard to create and be a part of a subculture now. It’s all nostalgia. There’s no music subculture now that has come from completely nothing, maybe Trap. It’s all about the individual. I think it’s a shame not to be an individual in this world.

LEHRER: You seem like someone who likes to fill up her head with different culture. Have you always been like that?

BARROW: Yeah, ever since I was 14. I was very quiet. My parents only liked popular culture and chart music. I started dressing quite strange at school. I would wear weird things with my uniform to dress it up a bit.

LEHRER: What were the first metal and punk bands you liked?

BARROW: I used to really like Carcass, when I was like 16. That was quite strange. One of them is from where I’m from. I liked New York Dolls. I liked Black Flag. I liked Sonic Youth. All the classic ones, I think.

LEHRER: To me, it seems like the name Claire Barrow could be associated with a wide scope of creativity. It couldn’t just be a fashion brand. It could be art. I know you said you want to do performance. Would you ever see your end game as the name Claire Barrow being associated with a whole dearth of culture and creativity?

BARROW: Yeah, that’s what I’m going towards now. I’m actually skipping a collection. That’s going to be weird. Everyone’s going to be mad, which is fine. That’s my life. I just want to do a bit of everything, honestly. And that’s so scary. It’s hard to make any money if you haven’t got a set job. But I want to go into different areas now.  

LEHRER: The fashion calendar feels like it’s going to collapse anyways.

BARROW: I don’t know if it will. People say it, but how could it actually collapse?

LEHRER: I know. People keep buying clothes.

BARROW: Half the fashion industry consists of these really commercial brands that no one’s heard of, but they have really rich customers. To rich people, there’s no problem.

LEHRER: There are so many amazing designers coming out of different cities. It’s a tragedy that we have this calendar that doesn’t seem conducive to new talent.

BARROW: The biggest problem is the new talent. How can you fund it? Let’s see what happens. That’s kind of why I want to take a break, to figure out that sort of thing. How could I do a couture thing where I only show a few pieces? It’s kind of a way to get your power back.

LEHRER: Did you find that painting for art gave you more ideas for fashion?

BARROW: It's made me feel the opposite. It’s given me more ideas for art.

Click here to visit Claire Barrow's site to view current collections and stockists. Text and interview by Adam Lehrer. Photographs by Flo Kohl. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE