How surrealist design duo Rottingdean Bazaar are using inspiration from their surroundings

PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 April 2020

James Theseus Buck (dyed trousers) and Luke Brooks  (pink jumper) of Rottingdean Bazaar

James Theseus Buck (dyed trousers) and Luke Brooks (pink jumper) of Rottingdean Bazaar

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Surrealist art/fashion duo Rottingdean Bazaar have put the East Sussex village at the centre of their work.

Editorial image from Paul Smith by Rottingdean Bazaar, a 135-page limited edition book creatively directed and styled by Rottingdean BazaarEditorial image from Paul Smith by Rottingdean Bazaar, a 135-page limited edition book creatively directed and styled by Rottingdean Bazaar

Paris, London, Milan and…Rottingdean? The quaint East Sussex village may appear an unlikely style hotspot but don’t be fooled. Since one of Britain’s hottest young design duos set up a studio in a flat on the seafront – and named themselves Rottingdean Bazaar – locals have found themselves centre-stage in the fashion world. James Theseus Buck and Luke Brooks, whose surreal, inventive designs have drawn praise from titles ranging from Vogue to The Guardian, may work internationally but when it comes to inspiration, they don’t need to stray far from their own doorstep. Regular customers at charity shops including Parc on High Street, the Central St Martin’s fashion graduates have thrown themselves into local life since they moved into the village. They were so impressed by the work of the poetry group based at the Open Art Café on Nevill Road that they invited them to contribute to a book they made last year with iconic British designer Paul Smith. They filmed a video for style magazine i-D on Rottingdean bandstand – using dancers from the local Zumba class as models – and they asked children from Artpod, on High Street, to draw avant-garde performance artist David Hoyle for a photo shoot with Man About Town fashion magazine.

The duo are known for their outlandish work, which includes T-shirts pressed with stray socks and tights, badges made of pubic hair and dresses featuring life-sized, moulded replicas of garden tools. Pop star Rita Ora wore one such dress – decorated with a rake – to present the MTV Music Awards, leading the baffled Daily Mail to comment: “When you’re hosting but need to dig up your potatoes straight after.” Yet James says the village has been nothing but welcoming to the maverick newcomers. “Everyone here is so open and up for things. I think the majority are more ‘out there’ than people – especially the media - think.” The pair “strives to connect” and Rottingdean is happy to oblige. “We wanted to do something with David Hoyle and we thought it would be really interesting if the kids collaborated in some way,” says Buck, of their shoot with Artpod. “David’s work is really on the edge but they just loved him. They thought he was like a pop star.” It’s that enthusiasm that appeals to them. “There’s a real joy in the art club or the Zumba group, and we love what we do, so joining it together is brilliant.”

The decision to base themselves in the village was in part financial – Buck’s mother owns the flat now filled with the pair’s mannequins and art books; his grandmother used to run the village store that famously inspired dark comedy outfit The League of Gentlemen’s “local shop”. But Rottingdean has become integral to their identity as designers – and not just because they would have to change their name if they relocated. “I think when we first came here, friends assumed we’d move back to London eventually,” says James, slight and smiley in tie-dyed trousers and a woolly hat. “But when they visit they realise why it’s good for us to be here. We both work better with restrictions so its nice to be in a traditional village environment where there are only a few shops, only a few places to go.” Luke, whose hot pink outfit belies a quiet, thoughtful personality, finds living by the sea beneficial for his mental health. “The industry we’re in can be dangerous, and encourage you not to look after yourself. I’m quite self-destructive, so I have to pace myself. Here we can be quite domestic. We walk a lot, we cook, we go to the gym at the Marina. We try to be normal.”

The pair met a few years ago when one of their St Martin’s tutors, the artist Julie Verhoeven, invited them both to appear in a film she was making. “We found we had a lot of shared interests and similar views on ways of working,” says James. “Typically, at fashion college, you follow a formula of design, pattern-cutting, toiles, making. But in our own ways we’d both started to use found objects and had begun just making things off the bat.” Luke says he was told at college that he was not a designer. “That was a real turning point for me. It was a good thing to realise because it’s true that I can’t work like many of my peers and neither can James. I think what we do is almost us failing to be a fashion label and becoming something else.”

James Theseus Buck (dyed trousers) and Luke Brooks  (pink jumper) of Rottingdean Bazaar
James Theseus Buck (dyed trousers) and Luke Brooks (pink jumper) of Rottingdean Bazaar

What exactly they are becoming remains to be seen. Their last collection was at London Fashion Week Men’s in 2018 when they sent models down the catwalk in costumes hired from various fancy dress shops including Brighton’s Gladrags. Each model carried a “For Rent” placard listing the name of the costume and the shop it had been hired from. “We liked the idea of stylists turning up at fancy dress shops to use these costumes they had seen on the runway – and they did. The worm and the globe costumes from Gladrags were both hired out for fashion shoots.”

Luke adds: “I guess it raised questions about ownership. If a designer finds a vintage jacket and copies it for their collection, is that really their design? With the costumes, we were upfront about where they came from and that anyone could wear them. It’s an expression of how we enjoy clothes. We’ve never bought things from the sort of luxury fashion boutiques we used to sell to. Our favourite way of buying clothes is from charity shops, vintage shops, car boot sales…”

Since then, they have moved away from making garments to concentrate on styling and creating images. “I think we are artists but artists that work with fashion and media,” says James. “We were always a bit nervous about using that term but it’s more representative of the way we work.” Recent work, including a shoot featuring tiny replica sneakers worn on fingers masquerading as legs – continues to demonstrate their wry perspective on the world. “I think all the best fashion has humour in it,” comments Luke. “But it’s not something we do consciously. When we’re making things it’s really torturous. We never laugh. Yet the things we produce nearly always involve humour. We never discuss that though. It would be like explaining a joke.”

Editorial image created by Rottingdean Bazaar and close collaborator Annie CollingeEditorial image created by Rottingdean Bazaar and close collaborator Annie Collinge


Shop: Wolf & Gypsy Vintage in Brighton is our favourite vintage shop. It’s really well edited and thoughtfully put together with unexpected pieces like Fifties workwear alongside a Sixties sequin dress. There isn’t really another shop quite like it in the UK.

Editorial poster image made by Rottingdean Bazaar using 99p price stickersEditorial poster image made by Rottingdean Bazaar using 99p price stickers

30 Sydney Street, Brighton.

Restaurant: Seaspray in Rottingdean serves some of the best food we have ever eaten. We always take people there when they come to visit and no one can believe how good it is.

18 High Street, Rottingdean

Day Out: A couple of our friends live in St Leonards and when we go to see them we visit all the flea markets and charity shops there. We also like to cycle to the huge Sunday car boot sale at Brighton Marina. We’ve found some amazing stuff there, including a handmade clown costume that had belonged to a performer called Kirby Drill.

Walk: We really enjoy walking from Rottingdean to Telscombe Village, along Telscombe Tye. This summer we’d like to camp at the campsite there, Stud Farm.

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