Thursday, 21 January 2010
Alive and kicking in Buenos Aires: AY Not Dead
Above: send a balloon and make a wish at the AY Not Dead store launch party.
On a recent TV shoot in Buenos Aires I ended up filming at the launch party of the new AY Not Dead store in the Argentine capital's hottest area: Palermo Viejo. After three weeks trawling the BA streets in search of creative looks to snap I finally felt like I'd found my place...With the help of a few double espressos, the next afternoon I strong-armed the creative brains behind the operation, Noel Romero, into telling me the story so far.
For a designer of a label whose narratives scream proudly from their collection titles: 'Pray for Us', 'Les Fleurs du Mal', 'Le Freak c'est chic'...Noel Romero is surprisingly secretive about the origins of AY Not Dead's name: 'Some people think our name refers to a shady Argentine politician who got up to no good and is thought to have come to a sticky end after he disappeared...I prefer not too confirm or deny this stuff.' But as I chat with Noel in her neighbourhood coffee bar in Recoleta, it's not long before I realise that AY Not Dead's not short on romantic stories and, after all, when did a healthy dash of mystery not help the romance to blossom?
Above: AY Not Dead's Noel Romero in one of her own designs
Noel and a friend kicked off the label that became AY Not Dead under a different name on their return to Buenos Aires from Central St Martin's in 2001. Interested in creating prints, they discovered a batch of beat-up printing frames which they renovated and put to work producing commercial fabrics for more established Argentine designers to use. With the proceeds they gave birth to their first collection: 'Now I Love an Argentinian Girl' - an homage to the legendary Argentine rock band Sumo and an acknowledgment to their apprciation of being back on home turf after their training in London: 'We love London and still go back their nearly every year but that was a sign to everyone that for now we wanted to concentrate on Argentina'.
Above: a feel of London at the party and a selection of T-shirt prints from the AY Not Dead archive
It took a couple more years though until they started to really feel the love coming back to them. 'In 2003 we tried to get onto the Buenos Aires Fashion Week list but they turned us down'. Perhaps the elaborate stories they laced around their collections were too gothic for the taste of the fashion council at the time? Their early off-schedule presentations included titles like Rega por Nosotros (Pray for Us), a wry comment on religious fervour common in South America and the slightly macabre 'Fire in the Japanese Park'; neither particularly outlandish by European standards but perhaps a little acidic on the delicate stomach of the Argentine fashion establishment. Unperturbed they applied for fashion week once more, this time with the help of Noel's siblings. Their collection was a celebration of underground culture: 'Le Freak c'est Chic' and it went down a storm 'That's when we launched the label. We made a lot of noise at fashion week and finally got lots of attention from people'.
Above and below: AY not Dead's third store, now their sales outlet, Paradise Garage in Palermo Soho
Very soon Noel and co opened their first boutique in the venue of an infamous 90s rock club in the undiscovered barrio of Palermo. More outlets followed and by the time they were partying in the newest edition to their small chain the night before my interview, they had a lot more to celebrate: their womenswear collections are now available on the racks of Urban Outfitters and Selfridges in London and they have various movers and shakes from the states sniffing around too.
Above and below: looks at the launch party
So, what is it that's making the foreign buyers travel all the way to BA to knock at their door? At first glance their silhouettes and cuts don't stand out from a lot of commercial fashion that's available much closer to home. As Noel herself admits she's 'not so interested in the craft or the elegance of fashion'. For me, AY Not Dead's unique pulling power is the cultural depth of the designs and the fun with symbol-laden narratives season after season. In AY Not Dead's symbolic universe there's no distinction between high and low culture: everything's valid. This ethos has helped create Black Jesus, a fictictious band which released a real album for their collection 'Africa Meets Heavy metal' inspired by a poster of an African Jesus Noel dug out at Dalston market; a selection of jokey fake t-shirts of iconic European designers that don't sell their work in South America; and a collection of international tribal prints in Les Fleurs du Mal. It sounds like a cliche but the result is a line that could only come out of the long-term cultural crucible which is Buenos Aires, situated as it is so far from everywhere yet sometimes with it's back to the rest of the world and looking over it's shoulder. 'I'm much more interested in the social process of fashion. So I am always exploring that and the culture it sits in' Noel explains.
Above: Argentine designer and backer of AY Not Dead, Maria Cher
Towards the end of the interview I try to slip back to that mystery of the name, hoping by now I might have softened her resolve to keep things secret...'We were smoking a lot of pot at that time!' Noel confesses... I definitely don't make myself fully in charge of it!'. Fair enough...
Below: more partygoers at the AY Not Dead store launch
On the chalkboard: ManAboutWorld at fashion weeks...