Introducing the the modern-day anarchist inspired by British subcultures and politics
It has been recorded that only 36% of Britain’s under 24’s cast their vote in 2016’s EU referendum. Among the very few who did was Glenn Wigham, a Westminster fashion student who actively projects his vast political knowledge through the medium of design. Wigham is one of a rare breed of young political influencers within London’s upcoming fashion scene.
At the tender age of 21, Wigham has led a march through London’s Whitehall, become a member of Ace Cafe, the world famous meeting spot for Bikers, and produced a menswear collection rooted in social and political references.
Born and raised in Durham, Wigham grew up in the Labour-led northeast of England. Now based in London, his fashion design reflects his working-class, socialist upbringing. From the Union Jack flag to a portrait of Margaret Thatcher and a motif spelling “Born under the Brixton sun”, Wigham’s garments are infused with political iconography, often eliciting controversial emotions surrounding the images he prints.
With such distinct and strong beliefs, Wigham is a modern day anarchist and identifies himself as Punk – a subculture he believes to be non-existent without its anarchist attitude. We spoke to Glenn about his Punk-esque designs and his view on today’s political landscape.
Has there been a certain event when politics began to influence you?
Glenn Wigham: I wouldn’t say a certain event in particular directly inspired/influenced me to become political. I was brought up in a working-class household in a village where everybody around me shared the same political alliances and beliefs. Durham has always been a strong Labour stronghold in the North East, partly due to the socialist-based unions Labour has been allied with in history with the biggest one being the National Union of Miners.
However, times obviously change, and I grew up in an area that used to be prosperous and industrious. But, Thatcher put a stop to that and the coal industry steadily declined. So in a way, as I grew up and learned from my parents (who are stout socialists even though they won’t admit it) about the past, I started viewed my surroundings with the understanding that a lot could be different if certain events in history had had a different outcome.
However, going back upon my original answer I can say that one event did in an abstract sort-of- way cement my faith in left-wing politics – the night in November 2016 when, with a home-made flag and wearing my red beret adorned with Corbyn badges, me and my best friend led the million mask march in London through the centre of Whitehall surrounded by armour-clad police. That was a night I’ll never forget in a hurry!
How do you infuse political subjects into your work?
Glenn Wigham: I feel that clothing is the most basic visual form of communication that humans use. This has been the case for thousands of years. From the French revolution to Poll Tax Riots, clothes can politically separate different tribes of people into (usually) two opposing camps. For example, the simple act of placing a slogan/message onto a plain white t-shirt creates a wearable opinion, which is physicalised rather than verbalised. In a way, I think the message not only becomes stronger when made physical but the weight of it increases when observed by other people – thus propelling/spreading an idea forward.
When I undertake research into a subject for my own work, I always aim to understand the reason why something is an issue – why are humans reacting to other humans? Why did this happen? What were the effects? Usually I look at the subject as a whole and pick out certain aspects of it to be inspired by – this could be a flag a protester has made, the way a brick has smashed through a window or the words shouted over a picket line. The political message is conveyed through colours, fabrications and prints and even in the cut of a garment – police uniforms, for instance, could always inspire the pockets, collars or sleeves in a garment.
Your latest collection features political iconography such as the Union Jack, Margaret Thatcher, the Sun and slogans such as “Born under the Brixton Sun” – please could you explain what they stand for?
Glenn Wigham: When you look at a photograph of Margaret Thatcher, you don’t just recognise her as Margaret Thatcher; subconsciously you also associate her with what she stands for. Images have emotions linked to them – so bringing them together into a collage creates for me a sort of ‘mood board’ about the theme I’m attempting to convey through the clothing. So a photo of the then prime minister is a way of activating innate feelings for the observer, as well as the wearer of the clothes. I leave the interpretation open to everyone – some people hate Thatcher, others love her, so the final feeling triggered by someone viewing the iconography on the garment could be negative or positive.
This is a confrontational effect – made even more effective when language is drawn into it with a reference to The Clash’s 1979 song ‘The Guns of Brixton’. In a way, you could say I’m trying to paint an overall emotional picture of the Brixton Riots by linking iconic pictures together.
Is there anything happening in politics at the moment that you feel you could incorporate into your work?
Glenn Wigham: As we progress further into the 21st century, I really feel that planet earth as a whole is increasingly becoming a very unpredictable place to call home. England is currently in the grasp of yet another tiresome election, with party leaders once again trying to sway the public with false promises of a ‘better’ England. Across the Atlantic, America and North Korea are in a state of warmongering, whilst Russia threatens the rest of the world as we carry on in ignorant bliss. And the general public happily carry on in ignorant bliss, hopeful in the thought that nothing bad could really happen. Could it? I find it really unsettling that it’s become a normal part of every day life to see terrorist attacks on the news. Every week we see bombs blowing up shopping centres, crowds of people mowed down by Lorries and horrific pictures of suffering children beamed through the television into the comfort of our homes.
It might sound indelicate but as a political design student, I’m literally spoiled for choice when choosing something to react to in my work.
How do you feel the fashion industry is reacting to politics today?
Glenn Wigham: One good thing in the present-day fashion-scape is how politically aware fashion designers actually are, and how many (both young and old) take part in voicing their opinion through their work.
Designers like Walter Van Beirendonck and Rei Kawakubo are famous names that have always used their designs to tell the world how they feel. The best example of a political designer is of course Vivienne Westwood, who always has something to say with each collection she churns out. But this is where I feel the fashion industry falls short. ‘Fashion’ can only do so much as a reaction to the political landscape.
Fashion itself has an ultimate goal of putting money into people’s pockets. This to me can tarnish a designer that uses politics for material gain – a designer t-shirt that reads “capitalism is wrong” that costs £500 is such a hypocritical concept. The catwalk show is a creative way of responding to a political mood or feeling, with clever examples being that of Charles Jeffery and Claire Barrow .
But I honestly feel that In order for a brand/designer to successfully argue a message in a way that is politically correct and acceptable, they must find a way to do it that doesn’t directly result in material gain. For example, you cannot design a collection inspired by the homeless and then sell pieces from it for hundreds of pounds. If you do, you should give the money to the people who inspired the collection in the first place.
Are there any subcultural individuals who influence the spirit of your work?
Glenn Wigham: It’s strange for a student who designs menswear to admit that my ultimate muse, the inspiration behind nearly everything I do and create is actually infact, a woman.
The woman in question is Emma Goldman. Emma Goldman was one of the most prominent anarchist writers and activists of the early 20 th century. The way in which she lived her life and devoted every ounce of her being to spreading and promoting the anarchist cause makes her a complete role model for me in every way. She was once called “the most dangerous woman in America”, despite being a Russian immigrant in “the land of promise” – an ideal which she heavily disputed. Furthermore, she was the first female anarchist to attract vast crowds of working men and women to her lectures across the United States, and faced heavy opposition from the government and authorities from every angle as a hated member of the anarchist left.
She fought tirelessly her entire life to promote fair and equal rights of the poor and working classes, before being deported to Soviet Russia. Disillusioned with Lenin, she fled and carried on her work across Europe, even having a hand in the anarchist-syndicalist Spanish revolution in the 1930’s before her death in 1940. Goldman’s spirit inspires my own design motivation, where I use my work to raise awareness about important social issues that need marking out.
Another individual who inspires me is John Lydon, AKA Jonny Rotten. As the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, John was the face of punk during the late 1970’s. His voice, dress, attitude and stage presence onstage was like nothing ever seen before – the way he jeered and twisted whilst roaring out the anger-infused words of his songs makes him, in my opinion, one of England’s greatest heroes. He endured lots of attacks from royalists, traditionalists and other bands during his time as the lead singer of the Pistols, before their break up after only one year. I admire him more for what he did next – rather than give up and go back to a normal life, he re-invented himself as the singer of Public Image Ltd, who literally created the foundations for the Post-Punk genre in music and fashion. without John Lydon, Punk would never have probably happened in the same way, that is if it would have happened at all.
Do you feel your aesthetic and sensibility mirrors the ethos of punk? If so, how?
Glenn Wigham: The initial ‘ethos’ of punk has been pulped, diluted and appropriated a hundred times over since the long-gone days of The Ramones blasting a two-minute song over a sweat-drenched crowd. In my opinion, the ‘ethos’ has evolved since the 1970’s into a vast kaleidoscope of forms, with each one having its own set of rules and morals. Punk today is measured on a scale, from the extreme, drug- loving leftist crust-punks who won’t wash for years, to the squeaky-clean straight edge hardcore punks who jump around in Black Flag t-shirts.
For me, punk’s most primeval, basic form when stripped of tartan and safety pins is simply having this feeling of difference. It’s knowing that you’re different to everyone around you and actively stimulating this feeling through the way you live and interact with the rest of the non-punk world.
The clothes and music really are, when put into perspective, a very small part of what punk actually is. At least that’s what I think. If punk is a feeling, a state of mind, most of my friends could be classed as ‘punks’ despite not having Mohawks or a Doc Martens.
Punk for me is a voice inside your head that shouts out in anger when you see inequality, a voice that tells you to not stand in line and do what everyone else does. It’s about being an individual within a society of roles, and not fitting into one of them.
Therefore, as I knowingly and actively associate myself with this subculture, my work is naturally punk whether I want it to be or not!
One thing I really hate about ‘punk’ is the stereotype that it exists in and reinforces – you don’t need to be walking around with dyed hair and tartan bondage jeans to be a punk. In fact, people who do this aren’t really understanding the principles of what it is to be punk at all. In relation to my work, when I highlight various issues and create wearable art based upon human events, which are political, my work then takes on a ‘punk’ persona that allows it to be classified as having a ‘punk’ aesthetic.
Do you prefer the style or attitude of Punk? Or both?
Glenn Wigham: I feel that the concept of ‘punk’ has been around for centuries. Only in 1976 did it finally get a set of clothes and a soundtrack. As I mentioned earlier, punk in its true form doesn’t need to have a style.
The ‘uniform’ of what is known as punk style/fashion (mohawks, patched jeans and leather jackets) are simply visual identifiers that I use to mark myself as a ‘punk’ in society. The act of dressing punk is physical way of showing the outside world that you identify with the subculture, a way of stating “I am part of this tribe through my dress and you are not”. For me, the feeling inside of me that makes me punk can be classed as an attitude, so overall I’d say I prefer the attitude. You can be a punk without the style. You can’t be a punk without the attitude.
Words by Emily Gallagher