The fashion industry must seem a bewildering and unsympathetic place for individuals with a social conscience. With major brands such as Prada, Gucci and the French luxury group LVMH battling to guzzle up the apparently few remaining independent designers, the space left for genuine experimentation, not to mention politicization, is limited. Yet for Zowie Broach and Brian Kirkby, the London-based designers working under the label Boudicca, the challenge of creating new structural and ideological systems in which to create and sell clothing lies at the heart of their project. Not only do their delicately tailored designs refuse the traditional categories of 'ready-to-wear' or 'couture', creating an innovative hybrid of the two; Boudicca's ultimate ambition is to extricate themselves from the buyer-led marketplace and fashion calendar altogether and to sell to their clients and stockists at their own pace.
This irreverent approach to the system in which Boudicca works is symbolized by the name they chose for the label: the first Boudicca - or Boadicea - Queen of the Iceni, led a ruthless war against the Romans c. ad 60, after they had seized her land and raped her daughters. The mystery surrounding the warrior queen's place of burial has in turn created a further layer of mythology for the designers: when Broach and Kirkby started out in 1997, friends informed them that her grave lay under what is now platform 13 of Kings Cross railway station. Others have since suggested platform 6 or 9, but mythology by its very nature exists at one remove from the specificity of such details and the designers have adopted the magic, superstition and confrontational quality of the number 13 into their working systems. The mythical leitmotif occurs in all elements of their practice, from the number of outfits in a collection or the title of their website (www.platform13.com) to the intriguing number 13 badges worn by their numerous fashion editor devotees.
What is so gratifying about Boudicca is that their use of myth is not some empty corporate identity but a heartfelt statement of intent and that the passionate revolution evoked by their namesake is borne out in the collections they create. To call Boudicca's shows 'concept-based' in the traditional fashion industry sense is to damn them with faint praise. There are no Russian tsars capturing lost princesses, no claims to a 'return to deconstruction' here. Nor is it a coincidence that their heavily visual collections were initially displayed in galleries. Striving for spectacle, rather than a mere checklist of garments, Boudicca's collections are assiduously researched and intensely personal. Themes vary from the range of emotions experienced by an individual over a 24-hour period to the World War II mantra of 'make do and mend', which produced a series of interrelated garments, each cut so as to feature an element taken from another design in the collection. Autumn/Winter 1999's 'System Error' grew out of research on the solitary world of cult figure Howard Hughes. A single model stood on tissue paper (on which Hughes reputedly walked) to display 13 outfits designed so that hands could reach into the garments and hold the body inside.
It is for Spring/Summer 2002's 'Transition/The Corporate Deserter' that Boudicca's own political activities have received most attention. In the early stages of their research for the collection in July 2001 Broach and Kirkby attended the marches against the G8 meeting in Genoa, where they were deeply moved by the scenes of police brutality. The question of allowing the experience to inform their work posed a dilemma for the two designers, who were concerned that Genoa's injustice and raw brutality might translate as crass or heavy-handed in the context of fashion, which, after all, is one of the most global of industries. Their attempts to draw a boundary between the personal and the professional in Boudicca's approach to design were futile, however, as the power and urgency of Genoa fed into the project. 'As much as we tried to put it to one side', says Kirkby, 'it kept rearing its head in our conversation and our visual journeys.'
The result was an electrifying and unsettling experience for those who crammed themselves into the boardroom of the Great Eastern Hotel to witness Boudicca's vision of faceless, corporate automata awakening from their slavish pursuit of global capitalism. The sight of those models - some of them six foot three inches tall - creeping towards me in three-inch heels was unnerving. The combination of their outfits, resembling elegant uniforms befitting super-cool air hostesses, their 'Corporate Deserter' badges flashing like shop assistants' name tags, and Gillian Wearing's expressionless masks from Trauma (2000), with holographic lashes sparking under their eyeholes, compounded the machine-like, 'beautiful android' image.
Before 11 September Boudicca could never have anticipated how media-friendly 'Corporate Deserter' would be. The show was scheduled for the end of London Fashion Week, barely a week after the attacks, when rumours of collections being stuck in New York, of controversial items being pulled from shows and of magazines being withdrawn from issue were rife. In this case, however, Boudicca are anxious to distance themselves from the debate. In the present media climate, with journalists primed on Naomi Klein's No Logo and keen to speculate about the impact on fashion of the war against terrorism, the irony of Boudicca's political convictions being commodified and used to promote their esoteric designs is not lost on Broach. 'The reasons we were intrigued by the subject were deeper and more important than that', she explains; 'already I can feel us pulling away from the debate.'
This leaves me wondering whether such a bold stance against the industry in which Boudicca work will be upheld or indeed communicated in full by the very press they oppose and yet rely so heavily upon. When garments such as the pinstriped 'Corporate Takeover Jacket', seething with anti-corporate defiance, are merely captioned as 'Jacket', surely their intended meaning is lost and the way they are consumed significantly altered? At the very least, Boudicca's reluctant role in the dialogue concerning the morality of the industry allows their plea for ethical production to be heard.