“Cult is a word you would never say in Hollywood,” John Waters once said. “Cult means that [the film] lost money and three smart people liked it.” Though many would refuse to admit it, cult status is the absolute zenith of creative ambition. For truly provocative artists and designers, even the most glittering of institutional success will never compare to the eternal glory of becoming a cult symbol. Perhaps it’s the ancient romanticism of the impoverished poet, suffering at the hand of cruel fate whilst profoundly articulating such an experience, or maybe it’s the thought of future generations scrabbling for remnants of one’s body of work and simultaneously fantasising about a period that they were too late to get a taste of. Whatever it is, such a sentiment lends kudos and validity to an artistic repertoire with the benefit of retrospective marination. If money is broadly considered the epitome of vulgarity, cult status is the world’s most honourable currency.
Jonathan Hudson, generally known as JJ and even more widely known as Dr Noki, is a cult symbol of London’s creative landscape since the turn of the millennium. Having risen to prominence in the mid-1990s, Noki’s anti-establishment vision of shredded and spliced sportswear and second hand clothes, reinvented with a controlled sense of chaos and political intent, was an original take on culture jamming. The ideology was purported by media activist Kalle Lasn, who advocated the end of the ‘branding’ of America and a return to authentic culture. Like graphic artist KAWS and situationists such as Adbusters, Noki’s anarchic sense of sartorial collage was an articulate critique and comment on modern consumerism. Slogans and logos were flipped on their heads, subverting their original intention and calling into question our blind desire and, at the time, the increasingly pervasive culture of monolithic corporations and homogenised personal style. It’s fair to say that Noki challenged you to think before you bought, to consider the object itself rather than the name on its label—in most cases brandished on its surface. In this sense, his radically intertwined values and aesthetics were a dizzying amalgam of Vivienne Westwood and Christopher Nemeth; Banksy and Basquiat; sportswear and sustainability—a blend of high and low that elevated the everyday into the extraordinary.
A child of the 1980s, JJ grew up in post-punk Aberdeen and was influenced by his older brother from an early age. “My brother Joss would mix up clothes to suit him,” he told i-D in 2007. “He was the tribal style leader of his gang, who would wear grey marle jogging bottoms with odd coloured brothel creepers and layered ripped up band t-shirts.” The designer’s lifelong odyssey of customisation began when his grandmother gave him a Singer sewing machine, which was so old that he had to manually turn a handle to make it work. His first creation was distinctly Noki flavoured. “It would have been my mum’s sixties suede dark green jacket, customised into an 80s fringed style, for a Spear of Destiny concert.” After graduating from Edinburgh School of Art in 1993, his Westwood admiring adolescence took him to Brighton, the home of British bohemianism. Before long styling work at MTV—the apex of globalised pop culture at the time—came calling, finding the designer relocating to London.
The MTV years were formative in developing the designer’s gutsy approach. “I was surrounded by lots of hip hop gear in the wardrobes and heavy branding was everywhere,” he explained to Pop almost a decade ago. “MTV wanted me to use well known brands, but I couldn’t show the actual name on air so I used gaffer tape to cover letters up. Adidas became Aids. The Nike tick would turn into a smile with some Minnie Mouse eyes above it, and then I’d hole punch the t-shirt until it looked like it’d been involved in a drive by shooting,” he elaborated. “It gave me a reason to start analysing what sort of world I’d got involved in. I knew that there was this homogenisation going on; I considered myself cutting edge, but that blade was getting rusty and old. So to sharpen my edge up, I started to subvert things—changing the wording on sweatshirts, slashing things, ruching men’s t-shirts to make them more feminine.”
After discovering his knack for subverting sportswear, Noki embarked on making a mark upon London’s fashion scene, which was light years away from becoming the luxury fashion destination it is today. By the late 1990s, east London’s Shoreditch neighbourhood had become a melting pot of creative industries, courtesy of cheap rent and a buzzing nightlife. Magazines such as i-D, Dazed & Confused and Sleazenation set up base in the area along with a new wave of designers, photographers and stylists.
When photographer David Sims and stylist Anna Cockburn shot a young Gisele Bündchen for her first ever editorial shoot, she was wearing one of Noki’s repurposed Champion sweatshirts. The image catapulted a ricochet of buzz throughout the London fashion scene and Nicola Formichetti, then a buyer at the now defunct conceptual boutique The Pineal Eye, picked it up exclusively. Everyone from Kate Moss to Naomi Campbell were quick to stock up on Noki pieces. Dr Noki came to define the glory days of Hoxton and its cool community of creatives, who embodied a free spirited era of youth culture and a wider convergence of art, music and fashion. It all came to a grinding halt when the designer had a life threatening motorcycle accident in 2002 and subsequently relocated back to Brighton to recuperate, joining his family, lover and friends. To the fashion industry, Noki had suddenly disappeared and the fickle fans of the provocative label quickly forgot the raw talent that had so spectacularly captured their attention.
Fast forward almost a decade and Dr Noki had been given a second chance. In 2007, Noki returned—this time with a trademark surgical mask repurposed from a headscarf—concealing his face to the world and launching NHS, a wordplay on the UK’s National Health Service which actually stood for Noki’s House of Sustainability. The name had a ring of House of Beauty and Culture to it, referencing the long forgotten craft collective that consisted of John Moore, Christopher Nemeth, Judy Blame, Mark Lebon and furniture designers Fric + Frack in the 1980s. Just like House of Beauty and Culture, Noki employed hand craft to protest against the increasingly mass produced rag trade to highlight the government’s mismanagement of resources and waste. If one was to consider NHS as an alternative to modernisation, it could be seen as the same radical methodology used by William Morris and John Ruskin over a century earlier. To mark his return, he teamed up with Lulu Kennedy, the founder of talent incubation programme Fashion East, to present his collection at London Fashion Week. “Models including Johnny Woo and former Boomboxer Jeanette hobbled down the runway, styled and power- wigged within an inch of their lives,” wrote journalist Paul Tierney of the scene. “For all the trash-drag overlay, it is more than apparent that there is real ingenuity on display here—a multitude of details that force people to sit up and take notice. Alongside signature customised t-shirts, there’s an audible gasp at a parade of beautifully reinvented fifties prom dresses that look more Dior couture than Hoxton Square.”
By then the word sustainability had entered popular vernacular and a debate surrounding ethical and environmental sustainability had started to infiltrate the industry. Noki made it central to his label, collaborating with charities that aimed to reduce waste. “My fairy godmother has come in the guise of a recycling plant called LMB. It’s a family run business with no political agenda, that recycles metal, paper and plastics as well as rags,” he explained of his process. “They deal with thousands of tonnes of brand name waste. It all comes in on a conveyor belt and they let me pick out whatever I want. The whole Noki silhouette starts to come together right there and then. Now I’ve got my source locked down, ideas are infinite.” When asked about his thoughts on the ecowarrior movement, however, the designer was suitably subversive. “I’d like to think of myself as the dark side of green. I don’t make pretty a-line skirts and cotton gingham t-shirts. I’m first and foremost an artist who just channels his work through fashion. I’m not interested in boring fashion—I do it to be really super avant-garde. I’m not one of those tree huggers either. I love nature and the rest of it, but I want to be contemporary and honest about doing something modernist for the future.”
Whereas most fashion designers veer away from the ‘a’ word, Hudson has always courted the art world, citing his one-off production as a means of artistic practice. “First and foremost, I’m an artist,” he told Pop. “Everything I make has a story behind it and a reason for being. I’ve been described as chaotic in the past, but in fact there’s discipline and a passion behind everything I create.” Much like haute couture, which exists not for profitable gain but for the spectatorship and germination of ideas, Noki’s individualistic offering was perhaps the virtue that anchored his label to commercial failure. That, and the seemingly low brow nature of his garments due to unglamorous provenance. In hindsight, the designer’s skill is clear to see, but at the time was overshadowed by a generation of London based designers such as Christopher Kane and Roksanda Ilincic, who were eager to crack the luxury market. “Some of my contemporaries at the start were like, ‘Why are you cutting up old t-shirts? I could do that’. But they tried it and failed miserably. It’s like Galliano and his bias cutting. A lot of people thought they could do the same, but it takes somebody who actually understands the fabric and the shape of the body.”
Today, Noki continues to work on one-off pieces in his preferred British seaside town. His name, amongst those in the know, has become synonymous with a time in London that narrowly avoided extortionate rents and a conservative government induced ‘Age of Austerity’. One can almost imagine that success would somehow have seemed contradictory to what he does, somehow diminishing the sense of activism and protest emitted from each one of his radically reworked garments. Then again, that’s what makes Noki a cult symbol—one that will be remembered by generations to come.