Symonds Pearmain Blurs The Line Between Art and Fashion

According to collaborators Anthony Symonds and Max Pearmain, there’s no point in making a distinction.

Photograph by Nigel Shafran; Styled by Max Pearmain.

When the stylist Max Pearmain spotted a black T-shirt emblazoned with 1950s typography and an unmentionable part of the male anatomy on the cover of a 2013 issue of Love magazine, he was so intrigued that he tracked down its maker, the fashion designer Anthony Symonds.

Kate Moss was on the cover, and the story is that she spotted the T-shirt in the studio and insisted on wearing it,” ­Pearmain recalls. “Anthony and I met, and I was really in awe of what he was doing. After two years of getting to know each other, I finally twigged that he thought we should try doing something together—something that would be completely and utterly personal.”

The result is Symonds Pearmain, which has produced six women’s wear collections since 2017, presented in both ­fashion and art contexts: at London Fashion Week, in galleries, and, a few weeks ago, at the Frieze London art fair. From the get-go, the response to Symonds Pearmain’s ­idiosyncratic approach was universally positive. British Vogue described its debut as “the talk of the town”; i-D hailed the label as “the most buzzed-about brand for fashion insiders.” Spruce, sporty, and utilitarian, its latest presentation combined shirtdresses, suits, shorts, and jumpsuits in raw denim and crisp, joyously colored waxed cotton.

The pair takes an artful approach to customization, using materials as varied as packing tape, spray paint, and fruit salad.

Photograph by Nigel Shafran; Styled by Max Pearmain.

No one is more surprised by the acclaim than Symonds and Pearmain themselves, not least as their collaboration stemmed from a shared desire to experiment with playful and improvisational ways of producing and showing fashion, free from the creative and financial constraints of the commercial system. “There’s no great strategic plan,” Symonds says. “We’re taking it season by season.” And no, neither he nor Pearmain has any interest in clichéd debates about whether their work should be defined as fashion or art.

At 55 and 35 respectively, Symonds and Pearmain are of different fashion vintages. They were both born in London and grew up outside it: Symonds in Lewes, an East Sussex town near the south coast, and Pearmain in Norwich, in eastern England. They both came of age as style culture obsessives, and have oscillated between the art and fashion scenes ever since.

Symonds (second from left) and Pearmain put the finishing touches on a look made for London weather.

Photograph by Nigel Shafran; Styled by Max Pearmain.

Symonds started out by assisting three definitive British fashion designers of the 1980s: John Galliano, Katharine Hamnett, and Vivienne Westwood. He launched his own label in 1997, only to drop out of fashion in 2002 to study painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, in London. “I had this strange idea that art was a purer creative form,” he recalls. “But Bruce McLean, the artist who was running the graduate course, said, ‘Are you mad? Why are you trying to be an artist? You’re a great designer.’ Had I listened to him, I’d have saved myself a lot of time. I made some truly terrible art.”

After quitting Slade, Symonds wanted to design fashion again, but not in the conventional way. “I hadn’t made a garment for 15 years, and when Cabinet invited me to show with them, I was like, Why would I show clothes in an art gallery? But I didn’t have a better answer.” Cabinet, one of London’s leading independent galleries, sold his clothes, just as it did the paintings, sculpture, and videos of the artists it represented. More exhibitions followed, including one at the Artist’s Institute in New York. Symonds achieved something that Helmut Lang, Hedi Slimane, and many other fashion designers have aspired to over the years: being taken seriously in the art world.

Not that he saw it like that at the time. “I felt I was making this work and absolutely nobody else was interested in it, apart from a few esoteric individuals on the sidelines, and even they’d say, ‘But who are you?’ ” he says. “Then I met Max and realized that we had very similar interests and frustrations.”

The playful, modern clothes are made from materials that lend themselves to experimentation.

Photograph by Nigel Shafran; Styled by Max Pearmain.

Instead of sketching out concepts on paper, Symonds thinks about cut first.

Photograph by Nigel Shafran; Styled by Max Pearmain.

He and Pearmain had studied at Slade at the same time but weren’t aware of each other, as they were taking different courses. “Studying sculpture gave me an incredible foundation in critical thinking and theory,” Pearmain notes. “But I always knew that I wanted to get into fashion, so I interned at i-D, and it went from there.” He is now a sought-after stylist whose clients include Burberry, Chloé, and Paul Smith.

Outside Symonds Pearmain HQ.

Photograph by Nigel Shafran; Styled by Max Pearmain.

After joining forces, Pearmain and Symonds were determined to work on their own terms by celebrating the aspects of the fashion and art systems they enjoyed, and avoiding the rest. The collaboration enables Symonds to make clothes in the deeply personal, labor-intensive way that he loves. “I don’t sit there and make a hundred sketches a day; I’m a cutter,” he explains. “My work comes from an internal conversation about shape and fit. I’m amusing myself all the time by doing funny little things with cutting that probably don’t register much, until someone wears the clothes. There’s a particular way in which my clothes hang: quite precise, but modest, elegant, and modern.” Pearmain, for his part, enjoys animating Symonds’s work, as well as the endless conversations they have about influences. “I’m always collaborative—I think that’s the nature of the stylist,” he says. “And Anthony’s garments really come alive in a show.”

Symonds loves fashion shows too, and shares ­Pearmain’s nostalgia for the visual spectacles staged on minuscule budgets in the impecunious early years of London labels such as Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. They both love seemingly incompatible inspirations, from the 18th century to the 1940s and 1980s. (There are lots of frilly Lady Di collars in next spring’s collection.) They also enjoy toying with their audience by featuring bold patterns in one ­collection and austere looks in another. Even the choice of materials has an unpredictable quality, as they economize by buying dead-stock fabric at knockdown prices. The shows are run on a shoestring in borrowed spaces, which have included the London townhouse of the online retailer MatchesFashion and Isabella ­Bortolozzi’s art gallery in Berlin. Most recently, when they realized the ­auditorium they were using at Frieze London was full of inconvenient furniture, they simply bundled it all up in the middle of the room and covered it with plastic sheeting.

Blurring the line between fashion and performance art in a London Underground station.

Photograph by Nigel Shafran; Styled by Max Pearmain. Models: Lorna Foran at the Hive Management; Hope Morgan at Viva Model Management. Photography assistant: Stuart McCaffer.

So far, Symonds and Pearmain have funded their experiment by selecting a few pieces from the collection to be sold by MatchesFashion each season and taking orders from ­private clients. “Our financial situation is fine, but it has been hairy at times,” Pearmain admits. “We’re trying to be pragmatic and to follow our noses. It’s a merry tango.”