Celebrities, Fashion and Beauty

Aries: can the London label make archaeology sexy again?

Aries: can the London label make archaeology sexy again?

Aries: can the London label make archaeology sexy again?
January 04
16:23 2019


What to wear for a jaunt to Stonehenge? Stout, sturdy shoes and sensible walking gear, as endorsed by the authorities at English Heritage, are the choice for most of the site’s 1.5m annual visitors. A smaller, less conventional crowd reach for flowing robes, floral headdresses and gnarly staffs — the get-up of the modern-day pagan. And now London label Aries offers a third possibility: streetwear, with a 2500BC twist.

For her latest collection, Sofia Prantera, Aries’ creative director and co-founder, has reached deep into Britain’s past. In “Wiltshire B4 Christ”, her sweatshirts, T-shirts and homewares come adorned with images of Stonehenge and Avebury stone circles, mysterious runic symbols and ancient pottery.

It’s more esoteric than the usual streetwear fare, and arrives thanks to a collaboration between Prantera and her old friend Jeremy Deller, the Turner Prize-winning artist. The pair cooked up the concept in 2017, when Deller was working on a project to mark 100 years since Stonehenge was gifted to the public. “If you go to Stonehenge you can’t really buy interesting T-shirts,” says Prantera, 47. “That’s how the discussion started: we thought we could do a few pieces for English Heritage.”

Deller appeared at Prantera’s Islington studio with a book of sketches inspired by Britain’s Neolithic past. The pair developed those ideas into clothing, merchandise and an exhibition featuring images shot by photographer David Sims at Stonehenge — a superior location wangled for the campaign by Deller.

“Stonehenge could be the greatest logo or trademark in the whole world,” says Deller, 52. “The silhouette is so recognisable — it probably has more recognition than almost anything in Britain short of the Queen. Stonehenge is a brand, isn’t it?”

And not just any brand, but one with almost universal appeal, beloved by artists and archaeologists, musicians and mystics. Right now, it seems to be working a particular spell on designers, who are escaping our grim present to reach back to a time of comforting rites and magical thinking. Sarah Burton replicated rocks from Avebury for a spring/summer 2019 McQueen show paying homage to “sisterhood, women’s milestones and rituals”, while London designer Ashley Williams dedicated her autumn/winter 2018 collection to Britain’s “monolithic marvels”, with catwalk models stalking past standing stones.

Built by Immigrants T-shirt, £95 © Photography: David Sims; stylist: Jane How

The Aries collection nods to Stonehenge’s protean, eccentric history — one top shows a flying saucer hovering over the stones, with the slogan “Stonehenge: built by immigrants” — and makes other connections of its own. Some T-shirts are tie-dyed, and one is splashed with a giant happy face, with standing stones for eyes. It’s a mash-up of Britain’s ancient history and the rave culture in which Prantera and Deller came of age, at huge (illegal) all-nighters in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Deller, fascinated by tribes and subcultures, has just made Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992, a documentary about that time. “Rave was another way of getting people to get in touch with the landscape, the land,” says Deller. “Most of the first raves happened outside cities, and to get to one was a form of pilgrimage, in a way. And rave has this pagan, pre-Christian feel to it, which was again something that these sites have.”

Will the collection “Make Archaeology Sexy Again”, as one tee proclaims? Perhaps. The Cerne Abbas giant, the mighty, club-wielding figure chalked into a Dorset hillside, features on hoodies, fleeces and crockery — with a special emphasis on his 26ft-tall phallus. “It wasn’t one of the original features in the design,” says Prantera. “I did keep thinking, is this going to work commercially? It’s puerile, but it’s got a power.”

Sexy Archaeology T-shirt, £70 © Photography: David Sims; stylist: Jane How

Prantera’s own label is replete with symbols — a temple, broken pillars — pointing both to the designer’s Roman heritage (her father is Italian) and to the grandiose mythologies of brands such as Versace. “We communicate so much with signs at the moment, like emojis,” she says. “Symbols are very direct and powerful as tools of communication.”

For Deller, whose art has an approachable, democratic flavour — in an earlier Stonehenge project, he toured Britain with a life-size inflatable model of the site, upon which people were invited to bounce — clothing is a long-term interest. Last year, he worked with Helmut Lang on a capsule collection of pink hoodies, and in the 1990s, he designed T-shirts for London store Sign of the Times. Printed with tabloid headlines — “My Booze Hell” and “My Drug Shame” — the cult tees were reissued by House of Voltaire in 2016. “I like making things that people wear and move around in,” he says. “It’s just the random quality of someone buying something and then wearing it. There’s something a little egalitarian about that.”

Up to a point. Aries isn’t cheap — sweatshirts start at £170, T-shirts at £75 — but Prantera is committed to high-quality production. “As consumers, we’re more and more detached from the manufacturing process,” she says. “Even as a producer you can just send a drawing out and something comes back — you have no idea who’s made it. I disagree with that as a process. We manufacture in Italy in small, independently run laboratories. We know all our producers and the process the garments go through.”

Dude fleece hoodie, £352, and Snow skirt, £285 © Photography: David Sims; stylist: Jane How

Prantera has been in the streetwear game for three decades; as a woman, she’s something of a rarity. “Streetwear is a world that’s very closed to women,” she says. “I think that’s something I never wanted to admit to myself. But I’ve got two kids, a boy and a girl, and I’ve started to become more conscious of it. I’m quite a believer in tokenism these days, because fashion can really change the way people look at things.”

The release of Wiltshire B4 Christ comes after a year of intense growth for Aries. The brand was always intended to be unisex, but because buyers and shows remain bifurcated into men’s and womenswear, that proved difficult to achieve in practice. For a long time, men weren’t buying the brand. “I think people understand the idea, but they are set in their ways,” says Prantera. “‘Gender- neutral clothing’ is quite a new concept. There are some shops that go across men’s and women’s — but very few.”

It was only in 2017 that Prantera made a major pivot towards menswear buyers, with striking results. According Nicki Bidder, who became Aries’ first chief executive two years ago, the company saw 200 per cent growth last year. “That’s partly because we grew from a pretty small, non-globalised business, into something that is now finding an international footing,” says Bidder. “But unlike a lot of luxury brands finding commercialisation in streetwear, Aries is actually from the streetwear world. There are only a few people that are deeply respected in streetwear — and Sofia’s always been one of those people.”

Both Bidder and Prantera are wary of growing too fast — hence their decision not to seek out investors. “There’s so much investment at the moment, and it’s so much easier to get,” says Prantera. “The game is almost broken. The challenge of building something yourself is much more rewarding.” Her label may not last 4,000 years. But Prantera is in it for the long haul.

Can you dig it? How archaeology got hip

Designers from Aries’ Sofia Prantera to McQueen’s Sarah Burton have been beguiled by Britain’s stone circles. But they are far from the only creatives to heed the call of the ancients. A couple of years ago, Megan Fox — blockbusting star of Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — suggested that she was growing tired of the movie business. “I’ve always been into alternative history, antiquities, archaeology,” she told an interviewer. “I’ve always been really consumed by these deep mysteries that exist on our planet that can’t be explained today by science. They eat away at me.”

Her passion for archaeology finally bore fruit in December, with the release of a four-part documentary series, Legends of the Lost (pictured above). Joining forces with a host of tweedy academics, Fox investigated the lives of female Viking warriors and probed into the secrets of Stonehenge — whose stones, she suggested, may have healing properties.

If anyone knows a healing rock when she sees it, it’s Gwyneth Paltrow. Her Goop website suggests that a visit to Stonehenge is ideal at solstice-time — especially in combination with a stop at the Michelin-starred restaurant at nearby Lucknam Park hotel. Meanwhile, Sarah Moss’s slim sixth novel, Ghost Wall (Granta), begins with modern-day re-enactors observing Iron Age rituals in rural Northumberland — and turns into a taut thriller, widely acclaimed as one of last year’s best books. There’s life in those old bones yet . . .

The Aries capsule will be available at The Store X, 180 The Strand, London, as well as at Dover Street Market stores worldwide. The exhibition ‘Aries Jeremy Deller David Sims: Wiltshire Before Christ’ is at The Store X, 180 The Strand, London, from January 16 to 27; ariesarise.com

Sofia Prantera, Jeremy Deller and David Sims will be signing copies of the book ‘Wiltshire B4 Christ’ at Dover Street Mark New York on February 8

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