A discussion with the Creative Director of ACHILLES Clothing, Qozeem Lawal

Before studying at university, you hear stories. You ask parents, friends, older siblings, teachers even. There are certain myths that circulate around university. The drinking, the workload, the ritualistic consumption of beans on toast, the copious amount of sex, and of course, the drinking. There are as many myths about fashion. To debunk both myths in one fell swoop, let’s talk to a bard – Qozeem Lawal, Creator of Achilles Clothing Ltd. 

Qozeem and I swiftly became friends in the early weeks of first year through a certain disdain for the patterns we recognised. New students forming cliques with people they are likely not friends with now in an eager bravado that screamed ‘I need friends’ (be patient, people, you’ll find them). Those first conversations you had with one hundred plus people: ‘What’s your name, what do you study, where are you from etcetera, etcetera, etcetera’. And most importantly, the majority’s fits going from Abercrombie n Fitch to a floral shirt and Stan Smiths. 

Since then our angst has morphed into acceptance. 

What follows is a discussion of our experiences of the fashion culture in and outside of our Nottinghamshire bubble.

G: So, Nottingham… describe to me what you make of student’s fashion here.

  • Q: The second I arrived in Nottingham, I said to my dad ‘I can feel my fashion sense leaving my body’. I saw a bleak landscape; sad students getting on trams. I saw lots of art, lots of neeky folders, lots of wannabe arhcitects – but not much fashion, at least on the surface. Looking in deeper, there are some nuggets of gold. 

Imagine this: boy, girl – average students at Nottingham. What are they wearing?

  • Well, they both shopped next to each other at Urban Outfitters. Probably wearing the same thing because girls wear boy’s clothes anyway. They are wearing a champion sweater *gestures at my jumper*, maybe Dickies, Air Force 1s. Girls probably wearing a champion sweater too, pants from misguided with the stripe down the side of them or flairs and they are DEFINITELY wearing some white Fila Disrupters. My mum has those, that’s probably a bad sign.

Would you say there are distinct looks that large numbers of people adhere to in Nottingham? Or across the whole spectrum of students is the fashion sense very varied?

  • You could split it up into subjects. When you chill around engineering/physics buildings, you see these Mark Zukerberg looking people. Plain tees, jackets with pockets in them.

Shirts from Marks and Sparks…

  • Yes, basically. Moving onto the more liberal artsy people, you start to see hippie fairies like ourselves. You start seeing colours, rainbows, perhaps things that don’t make sense. There was one individual walking around Hallward Library (sorry if this is you, I really do like your confidence but I wouldn’t wear it myself), he was head to toe in black. What I mean by that is black cowboy jacket, black trench coat down to his ankles.

BTEC Dex the Freak…

  • BTEC Dex the Freak that needed resits. 

How much of an influence is vintage clothing within university?

  • Vintage clothing is the staple of fashion in uni. Without vintage, without your UO, uni students would be forced to be all like engineering students or would be forced to go all out expensive like the internationals: head to toe Balenciaga, Gucci, Valentino – all because their dads could afford it, lucky.

We have been seeing the re-glorification of Oxfam, charity shops in general, Cow is filled to the brim on those candy-coloured stairs everyday with students. Yourself, how much vintage would you wear?

  • Firstly, I don’t rate vintage shoes. They don’t tend to be in good condition. Plus, I like where shoes are headed at the moment. Vintage is a good place but it’s important to branch out. You use a vintage statement piece, that’s cool. But head to toe vintage is a bit safe: you think you’re not safe because you’re wearing vintage but this is old school, this has been worn before. You think you’re cool but you’re really not.

People were cool back in the 70s and 80s when they wore it. But so is fashion, cycle after cycle…

  • I just realised, there is no such thing as originality. Can you think of anything original? No. It made me sad. But so there must be an original art form, but perhaps we just copied nature.

Vintage clothing is a huge aspect of the fashion culture at university. Do you think there will ever be a place for it among contemporary high-end fashion? Certain brands, such as Ralph Lauren, obviously. But when you think of silhouettes, say from Ader Error, even small brands, such as Unknown, the silhouettes are very similar to something you could pick up in a vintage clothing store. But do you think there is any place for vintage in high fashion.

  • No and I’ll tell you why. Obviously, everyone has their ‘hand-me-downs’, people go steal things from their dads, myself included. But now that it has caught on so much, you have brands trying to commodify this increasing rush to buy old vintage pieces. They weren’t really high fashion pieces when they were realised but now, when they’re at their most expensive they are now considered high fashion. Then time passes, their last seasons and they dip in prices. Few years pass by and they become rarer and their prices spike up again and we say ‘boom, this is vintage fashion.’ That works for proper respected high-end brands, say Champion, Nike and Adidas. I don’t think anyone is going to be rushing a vintage Primark piece. 

But you could definitely blend the two. So for example, do you think you could rock Balenciaga Triple S with the rest of the outfit all vintage.

  • It could work. I feel like you see a lot of it today. A lot of modern trainers and vintage top and maybe, a fast-fashion lower half.

It would just seem, to me at least, at university: you have the people who can afford the higher end clothes, whether that is brands such as Gucci, Valentino or more down the streetwear route, Supreme and Palace come to mind, people with these clothes tend to be decked in it head-to-toe. There seems very little merging. Unless a streetwear boy finds a rare Polo piece.

  • If you have the money to wear everything from Italian or French designers, you’re not going to go out of your way to buy a vintage piece. There is also a cult following with a lot of these brands. 

To any budding first years out there, attempting to ‘find themselves’; perhaps after a summer trip to Asia; what fashion advice would you give to them?

  • First things first, look what you’re bringing to university. You should have at least one thing that no one else with have. Step out of your comfort zone but make sure you can adapt to what you’re wearing. Sometimes, even if someone tells me that I look good, but I’m not comfortable, I’m not feeling it, something is itchy – whatever – that reflects on how you carry yourself. 

How would you describe your own fashion sense and how has this manifested into the thought processes in designing your own clothes? 

  • My fashion sense is two years delayed. Ever since I started a fashion brand, I have not bought myself clothes. Why invest in someone else’s business when I can invest in my own? Number 2: I have a couple of key pieces which can make any outfit shine. I have one coat which I know George has been eyeing up the moment he stepped in here…

It’s his pimp coat. He’s the Cruella Deville of black men…

  • So if I want to stun anyone, I can do. But nowadays, my outfits are more practical. The more pockets the better, tactical vest etcetera. I know fashion is headed in that way, but I have a lot of things to carry anyway. If I look better carrying them, all the better.

How has your fashion sense manifested itself into the designing of your own clothes?

  • It hasn’t. At all. My clothing is based off what I wish my fashion sense was. It’s about what I find interesting, in art and architecture, painting. I love all forms of expression, not just fashion.

What’s the biggest influence then? Classical art? Or is that one of many? A specific designer?

  • It’s not any designer. It’s a mood really. It’s that mood when you’re on holiday, it’s the sun making the back of my neck black, it blaring down upon some ruins, it’s that peace and serenity you lull yourself into. You don’t have to check the time, you just exist in an eternal moment for a little while.

You say that, but your designs can be a little dark at times…

  • That’s just what I find cool. I think of landscapes and I imagine what clothes would look good in photographs against those landscapes. I’m a visual person, I wish I had the time to get more into photography. Luckily, taking photographs, making promotional videos, are a big part of running a brand. That’s probably my favourite part of the creative process. Creating the whole vibe and look with the clothes. That’s what people look for in a brand. People buy blank garments with a little logo on them because they’re buying into the brand, the mood and the vibe that has already been established. 

Would you say some people are not aware of the surrounding aspects of a brand before they buy it? Supreme, for example… how many people do you think buy it purely because they’ve seen other people wearing it?

  • I rate around half the people who wear it know that it is a skate brand. I think more people know it as simple streetwear. The people who are a little bit aware of the idea they’re buying into, I think it happens naturally. When you’re interacting with the brand, looking at the website or the promotional material, in an idealised way you could tell what sort of individual they’re trying to get at.  

How important do you believe it is to imbue a brand with its own narrative?

  • Sometimes no narrative is required. For example, brands will make Yeezy inspired clothing for the people that can’t actually afford Yeezys and that will sell. But sometimes, if a brand is to have longevity then often a brand needs to transcend simply fashion. You think of Ralph Lauren and it isn’t just a name, he is a figure.

You don’t see him, you see the polo bear too…

  • Exactly. It wasn’t a narrative, it was just a mood. After speaking to a manufacturer who pressed me into creating one, I got that mood into words. Essentially, my middle name is Achilles and I, as a Greek, am interested in Greek mythology. Now Achilles is known for having a flaw but he is also remembered for being a hero. I am trying to make people understand that you can be open about your flaws and get over them but you can still be considered great. 

What are the difficulties that you have faced trying to begin a venture of this ambition whilst juggling the responsibilities of university?

  • The biggest one is financial issues. My last drop was nearly £700 for the clothes alone. Then you have to factor in everything else, posting, web-service, URL. Time isn’t as big an issue as you might think. I do most of my designing in the summer holidays, painting, shooting etc. That’s when I have done my drops because that’s when I have the most time. I have a backlog of designs that are ready to go. But there are so many other things that go into running a brand, running a business. You have to know laws, HMRC, Companies House, know taxes. That bit was the most mentally straining.

Do you think, now in retrospect, that university may not have been the best path for you to take with a view to you achieving your dreams, or are you content with your decision?

  • Personally for me, no way. What an L. What a mistake. The issue is, we are not taught simple things like land lords. Often we’re extorted. All I get on my lecture slides is a random quote – I miss a lecture and that’s what I’m left with. I guess you can say it’s an experience, you have independence. But it’s not that deep, you don’t need university to experience independence. Living by yourself isn’t all that. All you do is cook. And then you realise your cooking is nearly killing yourself. And then you start to order a kebab. And then the kebab man knows your name. And then he’s asking you how your mother is. 

And now, a few words of inspiration, because I called you a bard and I know you like to give them, as if you’re some low-level Martin Luther Junior…

  • There is no wisdom for fashion. For life, there is no such thing as ‘If it’s meant to be, it will be.’ The truth is, if you want something then go and get it. Don’t be passive, be aggressive and chase up opportunities. 

You can imagine your own *mic drop*. 

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