Vexed Generation is a small shop in a street just behind the garish colours, retro music and tacky nostalgia of Carnaby Street. The window is covered in white plastic sheeting and the only clue to what lies behind this uninviting facade is a fuzzy image on a small monitor cut into the bottom right hand corner.
The interior is even less user-friendly. A large transparent tank, reminiscent of a hospital incubator or nuclear laboratory equipment, contains a single rack of garments that can only be reached through holes in the sides. Ambient drum and bass rhythms waft through strange, aquatic-shaped speakers. Light bounces off white, convex walls while the crunch of white cemetery gravel underfoot is faintly intimidating, inspiring a feeling of anticipation in curious punters seeking a more imaginative shopping experience. Ticker-tape lettering around the walls spells out alarming statistics on asthma, air pollution, civil liberties and the impact of the criminal justice bill, providing a context for clothes that have more to do with personal protection and urban angst than fashion.
Downstairs, the gloomy basement seems more like a setting for planning political insurrection than a fashion collection. A series of slides show people kitted-out in masks, webbed gloves, padded jackets and trousers. Some of the clothes look like futuristic armour against a poisonous environment that is no longer able to sustain life, but they are equally a reflection of our contemporary urban surroundings. A television monitor transmits grainy footage provided by Conscious Cinema, who act as an alternative news service by videoing riots, demos and direct action events. Someone is engrossed in a Sony Playstation while a Japanese tourist is trying on an outfit, surrounded by a tube of plastic.
The inspiration for Vexed Generation came from direct experience of London's air pollution levels last summer and research on civil liberties that led to the discovery that £200 million was spent on surveillance cameras to watch over some of London's poorest boroughs. Instead of succumbing to apathy, Joe Hunter and Adam Thorpe the co-ordinators of this retail-gallery-public-access space chose to communicate their concerns through the production of clothes sold in a controlled context. The fashion industry itself certainly holds no allure for Hunter and Thorpe, and selling clothes is just part of a broader intention to encourage links between like-minded people, artists and musicians who want to pool resources and use the space. There is already a growing library of slide and video contributions from over 20 artists on view.
Imaginatively constructed on a shoestring budget, Vexed Generation is something of an anomaly in a fashion industry obsessed with looking backwards. Unlike most stores in the area, full of bright, sexy, feel-good fashion, most of the clothes in Vexed Generation aren't instantly attractive. Hunter and Thorpe's limited collection of tough street-wear incorporates traditional hard-wearing fabrics, like denim, with the latest synthetic fibres, to create state-of-the-art work-wear that is stylish enough to appeal to fashion-conscious youth. (Demand far outstrips production even though the clothes are intended to make the wearer conscious of the harshness of the urban environment.) There are shirts made from parachute nylon and trousers in a mix of silk and wool that shimmers like mercury under lights. The Vex Parka is made from ballistic nylon, coated with the same stuff that makes wet suits waterproof. It's hard to the touch and takes a long time to wear in but, like the best utility clothing, lasts for ages. But it's not all bleak, there's a bold sense of humour running through the collection. The Union Jack has been pixilated and placed on a T-shirt in a witty attempt to rid the emblem of its negative associations and reinstate it as a graphic image. Reflecting Hunter and Thorpe's tongue-in-cheek attitude, it works well as an ironic fashion statement and a piece of subtle subversion. But the black industrial-strength back-pack, with capacity for 50 albums, 20 cigarettes and a mobile phone, has to be the essential accessory for the vexed generation.