NOKI knows best: the punk artist on his new renegade fashion school

A fundamental figure in the London fashion scene, NOKI channels its anarchy and heritage into NOKI NESTT

It’s 9am on a Tuesday morning and JJ Hudson has been talking about the apocalypse for almost ten minutes. “I’ve been preparing for this for years,” he says. “I actually used to describe what I do as ‘Bunker Love’ because if we all end up in a bunker the only thing I’ll enjoy doing is creating custom clothing to wear while we’re stuck there. That’s if we even make the bunker. Otherwise known as NOKIthe king of Shoreditch or the father of the mash-up, Hudson has made an odd figure in fashion since arriving in London in the late 90s, his face completely obscured by a rotation of holey masks.

Sitting front row at the shows, he almost looks like someone who has cast a spell over a bank of clothes, granting a jumble of second-hand fashions the ability to move and stir. His own designs, forged from scraps, rags and scraps of old clothing, draw inspiration from the anarchism of hardcore and present a challenge of form that continues to inspire designers today. Conner Ives, BUZIGAHILLand Balenciaga are all indebted to Hudson’s violent twist on consumerism, where sustainability and illegal collaborations have been central to his practice. “I guess he just validated this crazy thing that happened in the 90s,” he says. And yet, despite his impact on fashion, he is reluctant to call himself a designer, demanding to be called, exclusively, a textile artist.

to have come to the side Judy Blame, lulu kennedyand the YBA Back when Shoreditch was little more than a barren wasteland, Hudson was instrumental in transforming east London into a creative honeypot, before working as a stylist for MTV and teaching in some of the most renowned fashion schools in the capital. “As a homosexual, I don’t have children but I have thousands of students who are like my children,” he adds. Although he has acted as a mentor for years, his next step is to formalize a “real business” fashion school, dubbed NOKI NESTT. “It wasn’t just about the technique of customizing clothes, it was also spiritual,” says former student nurse Naoya, who discovered NOKI in a Harajuku shop 18 years ago. “What impressed me was that JJ always asked me if I was happy. I found it similar to the teachings of Buddhism, which may seem like an exaggeration but, for me, NOKI is Buddha. NOKI is God.

“I want to be able to tap into my heritage,” says Hudson, a fact corroborated by his upcoming show with Jamie Reid at Rodhus Studios in Brighton. “He’s the punk godfather of collage and we’ve both fucked new systems. My art is finally starting to be recognized. The fashion industry trivialized it as clothing, but it was never just clothing. It was a liberty uniform. Below, we sit down with JJ Hudson to discuss the dangers of nostalgia, the legacy of AIDS, and his plans to create a fashion school like no other.

Hi Jonathan! How are you?

JJ Hudson: Please don’t call me Jonathan. JJ or NOKI it’s ok, only my mother and my bank manager call me Jonathan, it’s very strange. JJ’s story actually started when I was at art school in Edinburgh because my friend Margarita got drunk and started calling me that. I was like ‘you can call me whatever you want’ because I had been bullied into fucking and called all sorts at the time. JJ stepped in and my life changed. So what I’m trying to say is 30 years have been crazy and I’m obsessed with branding.

Apologies. How was Aberdeen back then?

JJ Hudson: It was the 80s, my brother was the kingpin of punk and I was his sidekick. He was a Psychobilly, so he had a bleached blonde flattop. He was the Billy Idol of Aberdeen while I was this geeky kid with big ears and a weird face. Obviously queer too but I didn’t know it then. I was taken care of by his thousands of girlfriends, they were my guardian angels. So I had an amazing education sneaking into all the hardcore clubs.

Is that where all your anarchism comes from?

JJ Hudson: I was captivated by the style – seeing clothes that had been ripped and torn by the pulling and shoving of a mosh pit. I think that’s where NOKI comes from, knowing what’s about to be accepted and authentic, because there are so many counterfeits, especially now. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, it’s part of a generation that gags with nostalgia because it is terrified of the future. One of my students is 19 years old and he came to me to buy Supreme skateboards when he didn’t know how to skate. He dressed like a 70s crooner, so I told him to take his flares and smash them with a sweatpants.

What’s wrong with nostalgia?

JJ Hudson: It is melancholy. Don’t copy what the past has given you because that’s costume, not fashion. If you don’t break the rules, that’s not cool. People were disgusted at the sight of long hair, flares and tight leather jackets. These people weren’t accepted, they had to be part of some kind of disgusting cultural change. I want to be able to tell my students the truth and one solution I offer is to mix up clothes because you create a narrative shift. This is how I see my custom constructions: soft sculpture, collage and Dadaism. He tries to make sense of life as a confused mess.

Does this help explain why you launched NOKI NESTT?

JJ Hudson: Students have been coming to me for years, having seen my work in stores or otherwise parodied throughout the industry. They wanted to go to the source to learn how to custom make personalized NOKI clothes. And then the confinement was a time of major reflection. The apocalyptic movie was starting and we were stuck doing puzzles inside. And I had been preparing for it for years. Even in the 1980s, we were living through the AIDS crisis and the Cold War. I used to call my work ‘Bunker Love’ because if we all end up in a bunker, one thing I’ll enjoy doing is designing clothes to wear while we’re stuck there -bas… it’s even if we make the bunker. This is why I created the school.

You were one of – if not the first – to splice and cut your brand upcycling. How does it feel to see so many other designers taking inspiration from it now?

JJ Hudson: It’s mental. I’ve been doing Gucci x adidas or MM6 x The North Face for decades and I guess all these mash-ups just validated this crazy thing that happened to me in the 90s. From about 1996 to 2000 I was at heaven because no one understood what I was doing. People would say, ‘What’s your problem? Why are you merging all these brands? But I’m a raver and that was my uniform. I didn’t just want to wear Nike or Fila, I wanted them cut to pieces and made into this fucking hybrid piece of armor. I was doing things like erasing the letters from an adidas t-shirt so that it said “AIDS”. This meant that the brand was not just another company at the rave, but was advertising a safe sex campaign. It was quite sacrilegious, actually, because it was an emotionally terrifying time. Do you know my story about AIDS?

I don’t know, what happened?

JJ Hudson: Like I said, branding has always been my thing. In the 80s there was this actor called Rock Hudson, he was the epitome of masculinity but he happened to be in the closet. I shared his last name, so when he died of AIDS, I was bullied relentlessly. At 13 I became the disgusting gay kid, I was exposed and I couldn’t escape it. It was like being scarred in the worst possible way.

Do you think these experiences informed your anonymity?

JJ Hudson: You mean the mask? This is because I was famous in Shoreditch, which was a lawless village in the early 2000s. Seriously, if you wanted to eat you had to buy a Ginsters from a garage. It was this arid zone, a real forbidden zone. I opened The Bricklayers Arms as a youngster and it quickly became a mecca. That’s how I met the coolest of the cool, like Lulu Kennedy, who I worked with on Fashion East in 2008, she was a gambler at the bar.

Popularity isn’t necessarily a positive thing, though, and the mask continued because I didn’t want anyone near me. So people had to figure out what they liked about this monster (me) and why they wanted to stay by his side. The mask is more important than ever because our anonymity has been ripped from us thanks to social media. I always wear it in public as a way to advertise my art because I’m just a boy from Aberdeen who probably has PTSD from the 80s and I’m still dealing with all of that. It was terrifying. I still think I have AIDS. If I catch a cold or a sniffle, I immediately think I have it. And that’s part of the brand image.

Is the NESTT aiming to restore the melting pot vibe of early Shoreditch?

JJ Hudson: It’s about creating a new school out of the old school, yeah. As a homosexual, I have no children but I have thousands of students who are like my children. I used to teach at Ravensbourne and Kingston, and although I often thought ‘why am I here?’ I was brought in so that the children could observe the creativity of the street. That’s when I started Fashion Monster, a class I’ve taught all over the world that challenges students to pull clothes out of landfills and create a monster. It’s about facing our fears, our need for dopamine, shopping and consumption. There’s still a need for it, and I want to be able to leverage my legacy through it. The end game is to secure funding for a suitable school where sustainability can be real. Somewhere, students can learn, sell their pieces through the studio and parade during fashion weeks. That’s what NESTT is – building on a legacy.

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