Illustration by Daisy Lesson @daisyleesonart
What should appear on fashion designer Sam Nowell’s gravestone? From what I could tell after meeting him, I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a pilgrimage site to fashion devotees. I was very impressed by Sam. He is interested and interesting. On more than one occasion he rocketed off on an oration about whatever impassions him, be it an architectural innovation, a new technique he’s trying out on his sewing machine, or Kanye West. He also seems to know exactly what he wants to do, and how to do it successfully. Therefore, I’d say his drive and vision bespeaks not the Keatsian “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”, but more of a Spenserian “Whos divine spirrit needs noe othir witnesse then the works which he left behinde him.” As far as Sam is concerned, the clothes he makes should speak for themselves. But if not to sum up the creator, how to do it with the creation? It’s partly for this reason, to unpick the seams of his sartorial philosophy, that I organised an interview with him. So, let us go back in time, to the journalistic present tense…
A buzz-cut dyed half black, half white splits a sea of faces in twain
So here I am, in Camden Town, skulking outside The Spread Eagle on a muggy Tuesday afternoon in August. I’m waiting for Sam Nowell, a 22-year-old who is currently in the midst of an architecture degree and working at a practise three doors down. Sam makes clothes out of unlikely materials. Examples include a Charles-and-Di two piece fashioned from vintage fabric, and beer towels turned into a pair of trousers. All of his work is one of one, something which his website claims gives the pieces their “own aesthetic and story”. His stuff is at once witty, satirical and celebratory of all things British.
But where is he? I’ve already had to fight off two hefty blokes from taking the corner table, the vantage point I’ve chosen to sight my interviewee. Not that Sam’s hard to spot when he arrives. Like a conspicuous blip on a radar, a head that could only belong to the man himself – a buzz-cut dyed half black, half white – splits a sea of faces in twain. He moves easily, sporting a slouchy Fred Perry x Raf Simons cardigan with a plain white T and a string of pearls around his neck. On his bottom half he wears Prada shorts and Comme de Garcon Nike Air Max trainers. He seems to recognise me instantly, perhaps registering my anxious face and awkward gait; a lone teenager sat on the edge of a chair. Apparently unaffected by Covid paranoia, he sticks his hand out for a handshake. He seems relaxed, apologising for being a little late, explaining that he had by chance spotted an old friend outside the tube station. We settle down to our table, and I explain that the pub app isn’t working, so we’ll have to wait for somebody to take our order.
I notice a badge he’s wearing: The National Lottery logo, with the declaration, “It Could Be Me”. Sam wears it with the same gentle satire which infuses all of his work to date: “I love the sort of thing that it symbolises. It symbolises hope and wishing for a better life”. As if he can anticipate that I’m about to make a smart reply challenging if gambling really is synonymous with hope, he expands, “I don’t gamble and I don’t do the lottery”. Sincerity, but with enough room for irony. Perhaps this is how I should characterise Sam’s work. Or perhaps this is a conveniently open way to leave this paragraph, its self-conscious naivete implying that I will never find a satisfying answer to my question, nor should I seek to find one. Or maybe I’m being facetious for no damn reason. Regardless, let’s roll on.
We chat a little about the rings covering both his hands. One was designed by himself, and cast by a friend. Quite naturally, it’s a portrait of Kate Moss in front of the Union flag. Again, this seems to echo what Sam has been doing with his clothes. The Gallagher twins slapped on the front of a Burberry trench coat comes to mind. If Sam could design not only clothes and jewellery, but let’s say, phones and cars too, what would his house style be? Land Rovers with Her Maj’s face on the bonnet? “I studied Architecture,” He did. “As you’re probably aware,” I am. “I bang on about it in everything I talk about, it seems to be a frequent question which I get asked about.” Oops. “But, I think really learning about what architects were doing, like Corbusier and Thom Mayne and Ray and Charles Eames who were not only doing architecture, they were doing furniture, they were doing art, or they were doing jewellery. It was really interesting for me to see them apply their ideals to something else and it still being really recognisable as their design.”
“I think my house style would be very tongue in cheek, I really like that sort of humorous aspect to fashion.” And lots of other people seem to like it too. He has appeared on the popular YouTube fashion channel, PAQ; had his clothes featured at the Tate Liverpool gallery; ran a workshop in Selfridges, and was even asked by Wimbledon to make clothes out of their towels.
The rapper was supposed to wear Sam’s clothes but appeared in boxers. “Classic Slowthai,” Sam quips.
When Sam isn’t making much sought-after clothes, he is appearing in music videos with famous rappers. If you watch the music video for Slowthai’s Body Bag, at one point you’ll spot Sam’s unmistakeable half-and-half hair. It’s something many would imagine as being a story to drop into every conversation for the next ten years. But Sam doesn’t see it that way. “[On Instagram] I was getting so much praise. I remember looking at my phone thinking, I fucking slave away behind my sewing machine and make stuff with my hands, my bare hands, and people blink and then not bother with it. And then I’m just in this music video which requires no talent and people are just losing their minds.” Sam is friends with Slowthai’s sister’s boyfriend. She was casting for the video and wanted criminal-looking people. A back-handed compliment, no? “Yeah, that’s the look I’m going for,” he jokes. The rapper was in fact supposed to wear Sam’s clothes at Reading festival last year, but appeared onstage in his boxers instead. “Classic Slowthai,” he quips, not sounding that bothered.
A member of staff, a tired-looking man in his mid-thirties, arrives at the table to take our orders. A pint of Guinness for Sam, and – for me? Do you do tea in pubs? Do you have jasmine tea? No? Oh… I’ll have lemon and ginger then, please. Thanks.
Our drinks arrive soon after, and with a foamy ‘stache gradually growing above his upper lip, Sam talks me through the recent epiphany he’s had on his sense of identity. It’s fair to say that Sam has always pushed British culture to the forefront of his work, something he has in common with Slowthai, explaining that “he’s very much pushing this style that I want to be a part of, celebrating what’s good about Britain.” But for someone who’s proud of where he’s from, it was only in his last interview with The Face magazine in which he said he was from Lymm, a village in Cheshire (“barely the size of Camden where we’re sat right now,”) and not his go-to, convenient reference point, Manchester.
“I’m very keen to see where I’m from now. And if they don’t know it, all the better. It’s nice to say I had this very countryside upbringing. It fits much more with what I’ll soon be creating.” This chimes acutely with me, as someone who hails not too far from Lymm. I tell him that I like to refer to myself as a northerner, bemoaning the fact that people from Sheffield, for example, would beg to differ. “Of course we are! North West, we’re from the North West.” I appreciate Sam’s specific sense of belonging, winnowing it down even to his small village.
He’s looking at incorporating aspects from his rural upbringing, canal boat art and football culture, into his very first collection. The prime drive behind this new project, however, is the desire to further legitimise his work. “I want to be taken more seriously as a designer. I want to show people that I can take a theme and design clothes around it, as opposed to getting lucky with things I found on charity shops.” He hopes to release it in November, “but don’t hold me to that.”
“I don’t do any of the drugs. It’s all clear up here.” I think: that’s vaguely disappointing.
And what about what he’s releasing at the moment? Is the elasticated waistband in his Vegas on Acid shorts a nod to the fact that lockdown-living has not been kind to the nation’s waistlines? He chuckles, “if you want it to be that. Big up the elasticated waist.” And has he ever been to Vegas or been on acid? “Neither of the two. I used to really romanticise America. In recent years I haven’t, I think I’ve gone in the complete opposite. I think England is fucking brilliant. And yeah, I don’t do any of the drugs. It’s all clear up here.” I think: that’s vaguely disappointing.
The interview winds up shortly after. He is to head home and work on his collection deep into the night. A couple of weeks later, I email him. There was one last question I wanted to ask regarding a caption on one of his Instagram posts: “I Have No intention Of Being Summed up Or Sussed Out.” Is this because it is facile to sum anyone up? Or does he in particular want to maintain a certain air of unknowability? And what about being summed down or sussed in?
Professional as ever, he replies promptly, “Hahaha It is facile to sum people up and more often than not it’s incorrect and only in the eye of the beholder – I wouldn’t ever want my work to be something that doesn’t exist on its own but is created by observers. I think the phrase stemmed from me not wanting to settle or be thrown into a category with similar people. The idea of people not knowing what I was going to turn my hand to really spurred me on to work harder and try different things. It kind of bred a new mantra that I would mutter, one that reads ‘I want to do everything I can and try everything I can’t’. Maybe I’m opening myself up to another question by telling you that.”
My eyes look down to the final line in his email,
“Regarding being summed down or sussed in I couldn’t possibly comment but the idea of it seems very appealing. Let me know if you ever manage to do either when looking at my work.”
I will, Sam. I will.