From Issue 50 of Ten Men: In The Studio with Max Allen
Clown suit by Max Allen, cap by Noel Stewart; throughout accessories from the archive of Max Allen
“Sometimes, if I’m feeling like a knob head, I’ll call myself a post-drag pop artist,” says fashion and costume designer Max Allen. “I just hope you don’t put me down as a queer artist, please.” When I talk to Allen in his studio in Harringay, north London, he’s wearing a pair of sporty shorts and an off-white shirt that quickly comes off – his response to the heatwave the city is currently experiencing. The designer immediately admits he’s hungover: he spent the previous evening at the closing of The Pale Blue Door, a Dalston cabaret-esque supper club owned by his friend Tony Hornecker. This kick-starts an hour-long conversation about queer spaces, the tribulations of being gay, RuPaul’s Drag Race and fashion.
Hailing from Chesterfield in Derbyshire, Allen moved to London in 2008 to do his foundation degree at Central Saint Martins. “I loved fashion for what it was but I couldn’t tell you who the fuck Phoebe Philo was,” he says. Coming from a working-class family and having gone out partying since an early age, his arrival in the capital meant experiencing its many nightlife secrets. But Noughties London’s clubbing scene, with nights like BoomBox, had already peaked. His fellow students were less inclined to go out, being more focused on Fashion with a capital F. “They were obsessed with dressing like a chic 30-year-old instead of looking 19, which made no sense to me,” he says. That rebellious spirit, fuelled by a feeling of otherness, continues to inspire his world today – he did graduate from the fashion course, but prefers to call himself a Saint Martins dropout.
Instead of a year-long internship at a big fashion house (“I couldn’t afford it!”), Allen spent his formative years post-uni working on the doors of notorious gay spaces such as East Bloc, The George & Dragon, The Glory, Superstore and The Pale Blue Door. He might not have had a pompous creative director yelling at him, but that doesn’t mean his teeth-cutting was any less dramatic. “Trying to get 500 men into a 150-person-capacity club, all of them screaming and shouting…” That’s where he gets his attitude.
Shirt by Hysteric Glamour, trousers, cap and belt bag by Nasir Mazhar, feather necklace and boa by Max Allen
His entrance onto that scene came thanks to Lyall Hakaraia, the owner of Vogue Fabrics (today called VFD), who is also known for his intricate performancewear that has been seen on Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. Allen worked at the club during the nights and interned in Hakaraia’s design studio during the day, quickly becoming one of the East End’s nightlife fixtures. He still sometimes works the door of a gay club or two (“It’s an easy bit of money!”), but admits he officially stopped clubbing a year and a half ago. “As you get older you can’t carry on being a full-time hedonist, taking drugs and drinking. But you still have to involve yourself in the community somehow.” According to Allen, gay nightlife isn’t dying, though – it’s just the way people experience and get dressed for it is changing. “The problem is that there used to be a lot more people that had to go out in order to get their jzuzh to get attention.” Now, there are dating and sex apps, as well as social media, all of which offers instant gratification from the comfort of one’s own home. “But people are cockroaches and they still want to go out – they need to go fucking mental and get really fucked up.”
Throughout our conversation, Allen proves he’s a man of contradictions. With his strong views on the industry (“I think it’s egotistical to want to create a whole collection to sell because you want strangers to wear your clothes”), gay scene (“They’re all wearing a fucking harness nowadays”) and just life in general (“Parties aren’t really about having fun, they’re about going through something”), he is the antidote to the pervasive move towards being PC. Both with his clothes and his personality, he takes on the role of provocateur of contemporary society, which in turn allows culture to move forward. For example, when we talk about the presence of queerness on the London fashion scene (which he has already proclaimed to be dead), he is quick to roll his eyes. “If you’re selling a dress for £700 in Selfridges, that’s not fucking queer, that’s just a dress,” Allen tells me. But later on in our conversation he doesn’t oppose the idea of creating a collection of one-off pieces for the London department store. “I’m sure it could work, and it will work someday. But that’s not my goal.” The goal is to further his practice. He admits it took a long time to allow himself to be called an artist, but he wants to explore the openness of that title, and expand the mediums of textile and fashion into writing and performance work.
Coat dress by Jonty K Mellmann, vintage T-shirt talent’s own, trousers, hat and boots by Max Allen,
vintage handbag by Louis Vuitton customised by Max Allen
Without taking a breath between his audacious statements, Allen always adds a touch of sarcasm to what issues forth via his soothing, husky voice. Translated into clothes, those extreme opinions are reflected in his hysterically colourful designs. Most of his clothes are one-off pieces that use prints that reference pop culture or are garments that he has sourced from charity shops and markets and upcycled. Fashion week obviously isn’t a context Allen even wants to be associated with – instead, he uses Instagram and wild nights out to show off his creations. With his work mostly being commissions from drag queens and party animals, as well as looks for music videos, he has a list of devoted clients – his friend the nightclub legend Princess Julia being one of the most dedicated. Scrolling down his Insta profile, you can find a corset covered with the face of Jennifer Lopez circa Jenny from the Block and a Josephine Baker-like bikini on which, in place of bananas, dangle old CDs and homemade pom-poms.
When it comes to his personal style, a lot of it is a reflection of his own design work, interjected with vintage pieces and special designer finds he’s collected throughout his life. Chunky jewellery and vintage jeans are put with his neon, tie-dye, shredded tees and mesh dresses. “I’ll make something for myself that I think is really chic but is really just a pair of old gloves that I’ve painted or a T-shirt with the back cut out. In my head, when I’m out eating in some posh restaurant with my friends, I feel like I’m Lady Mary from Downton Abbey but really I’m just wearing a raggedy outfit.” Alongside a few prized Comme des Garçons pieces, his favourite item is a Bernhard Willhelm jacket with clashing prints. “I gave the shop owner a blow job in the stock room in Berlin – it was a long time ago. I got it at cost price, for £500.”
Jacket by Comme Des Garçons, vintage hoodie by Adidas,
skirt, jeans and earrings by Max Allen, belt by Helmut Lang
There are no taboos in the world of Max Allen. When asked about his take on this year’s Met Gala and its camp theme, he brushes it off instantly. “It’s rich people in fancy dress. It’s grotesque and of no interest to me – wealthy people making fools of themselves.” It doesn’t take long before he starts talking about his interpretation of camp and its relationship with fashion. “I bring my gayness into it massively – of course campness is part of it, too. But fashion isn’t intrinsically about being gay.” That doesn’t mean he stays away from introducing sexuality into his designs. For example, last year he created a limited-edition run of faux souvenir handkerchiefs printed with words clearly critiquing modern-day gay clichés – “That Greek island where all the self-consciously fashionable Berlin gays go each summer. I think it’s called Anafi?” Being able to harness the freedom to dress outrageously while simultaneously feel sexy came with maturity and age for Allen. In his early twenties, he felt overlooked because of the idea of masculinity. “But after turning 27, you understand how to give it off for a gay man. Like, you can walk around with bangles and still shag a guy with a beard. Those guys will fuck anything,” he says.
The hyper-awareness of gay culture today makes Allen one of the most exciting names in fashion right now, despite the fact he’d probably hate to hear it. When it comes to the homogenisation of the gay communities his response involves highly elaborate drag looks, usually accessorised with a mustache and an intense eye. “Often as a gay man, when you choose to be flamboyant, people ignore the fact that you have a boner underneath it all, and we need to stop putting those two together. I’m not here to liberate you, I’m here to have sex and have a nice time.” Does he find now-mainstream programmes such as RuPaul’s Drag Race catering too much to that heteronormative idea of queer entertainment, too? “It’s still about drag queens and entertaining gay people. They still shit around, talk whack – RuPaul’s Drag Race is at least entertaining to gay people, too.”
Corset and choker by Lyall Hakaraia, trousers and gloves by Max Allen
He’s covered in tattoos, but the one that really stands out is the clown on his chest. It looks like a version of Pennywise, but his holds an axe in the air and has a large, erect penis poking out of his check one-piece. Coming from the underground, Allen is fighting for the purest version of what it means to be queer through social commentary and truly fabulous costumes. But as society moves on and being gay becomes more widely accepted, the evolution of gay identity follows, too. What happens when being gay actually becomes OK? “I’m sure gay men will become really fucking boring and I’ll hate it all,” he laughs. “Our culture is good because of all that fucked-up fuckery. That’s a dichotomy, isn’t it?”
Photographs by Elliott Morgan, Fashion editor Max Allen. Taken from Issue 50 of 10 Men – BOYHOOD, MAN, EVOLVE – on newsstands now.
Vintage T-shirt talent’s own, top by Max Allen, skirt by Josephine Jones, hat by Noel Stewart