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Since being almost embarrassed to tell people what she did when Aries started in 2010, Sofia Prantera and her brand have shaped the rise of streetwear as we know it. Rooted in skate culture but with the agility and grounding of a luxury atelier, Aries has that rare ability to engage multiple audiences without having to compromise. Alongside names like Palace, it has amplified the influence of skateboarding by building on fashion’s obsession with subculture attitude. Once upon a time, no one wanted a printed T-shirt anymore, now streetwear designers head up Paris couture houses.
The authenticity of a label like Aries is what people respond to, whether they’re collaborating with Turner Prize winners or sportswear giants. “It’s not about trends,” she says. “It’s about having the courage and ability to experiment. I tried working at other brands, but I was always too anarchic for them. Companies that make a difference, no matter what they do, are independent.” The only voices Prantera listens to come from the wider Aries community.
As an in-house designer for Slam City Skates in the 90s Prantera belonged to the diverse family based at the iconic London store, made up not just of skaters but fashion boys, bands and rave casualties. Before co-founding Aries years later with illustrator Fergus Purcell, she ran two first wave streetwear spin-offs from Slam - Holmes and then Silas. Other than Prantera herself, what ties the stories of all these brands together is how important the community around her has been in defining them, with the Italian-born designer curating, editing and driving things from the centre. An inclusive network of creators that spans generations, instrumental in propelling skate culture into the mainstream.
“Where it goes now I don’t know because everything is so integrated, but that doesn’t really matter,” she says. “It’s all about friendships, enjoying what you do, and making sure that the atmosphere where you work together is as important as the product, you know?”
Preparing to navigate Aries through another lockdown, Prantera discusses her Wikipedia approach to designing collections, the true meaning of community today and why Aries won’t be dressing women in shrunken pink T-shirts any time soon.
Q. When you worked at the original Slam City store in Neal’s Yard was the community around the shop a big influence?
We’ve been talking about this a lot lately because we have a new girl interning who’s a serious skater. I was always into sportswear at college but I wasn’t involved in skate culture until I started at Slam. Through my college years I was really involved in clubbing and rave was just happening, but I loved the way that skateboarding seemed more like a family. And, it was the first time I met people actually from London, everyone I met until then seemed to be from somewhere else, but Slam was a very London based scene. With skateboarding it felt like it didn’t matter where you were from or what you did, so long as you were into skating.
Q. Do you think that the extended family around skating has become more diverse and inclusive today?
Well, I think it was always very open. The weird thing was that people on the outside felt it wasn't. A lot of my friends wouldn’t go into Slam without me. Lots of people into fashion wanted Stüssy and X-Large but felt intimidated by the young guys hanging out. My husband rode for Slam and he was one of the worst! There were lots of stereotypes within skateboarding itself, and the humour could be very un-PC. I know it can be difficult for the new generations, especially of women skaters to not find some old skate videos offensive. That humour wouldn’t be allowed now, but at the time it was a form of rebellion. It was a very male scene, but it wasn’t exclusive and I never felt discriminated against.
Q. So was that kind of misogyny something that really defined the first wave of streetwear at the end of the 90s?
Labels like X-Large, Foundation and my first brand, Holmes, were all about empowering girls. But then skateboarding was hijacked by corporate streetwear companies that stereotyped women with those shrunken pink T-shirt kind of looks. That’s when I lost interest in the culture. Being packaged up like a bimbo doesn’t feel powerful and unless is counterbalanced by more empowering imagery it comes across as exploitative especially if all the businesses are run by men. But now a lot of women like myself who started around that time are becoming influential.
Q. Have you always found working as part of a bigger group of creative people more inspiring and productive?
Oh yeah, because everyone involved brings something. Fashion used to be about big personalities and a quasi dictatorial vision. Well, my approach has never been like that because I think everyone has something to add and I’m just the editor. I call it the Wikipedia approach, there's a curator and then everyone brings different talents and something unique to the business. You have a vision, but everyone can add to that and it’s up to you to direct them. I worked like that at Silas and actually I think it pissed some people off back in those days because it was almost too egalitarian. Every idea is valid, what matters is how you execute it. And we can do that to a very high standard at Aries because we've got the experience.
Q. And was recreating that kind of community something you set out to do at Aries, or did it just happen organically?
I wonder about that. If you look at fashion houses it’s the house that has the knowledge and experience, then they bring in other people with new ideas. I really like that; you have young people who bring ideas, but you use the existing knowledge and skills in the company to execute them. There’s so much design and development going on here all the time that our newer staff learn and improve really quickly. My first assistant got a job in Paris after working with me straight from college. Design is about ideas, but it’s the process of developing those ideas that makes them great. Everyone is creative, it’s just how you develop and apply that creativity.
Q. Is that why it feels so important to give people from more diverse backgrounds the opportunity to work in design?
I think so. We’re trying to introduce scholarships and give people from different countries and cities and backgrounds the chance to do things they never would have done otherwise. We never give interns menial jobs or make them start in the warehouse. Not everyone gets the opportunity to do work like this, it’s such a privilege, you know. So, I think it’s good to be shown from a young age, it opens up new ways of thinking about life.
Q. How do you feel about the way people use the word community now, does it describe the people surrounding the brand?
I actually got a complaint from someone the other day accusing us of exploiting their community, because of a competition on our Instagram. What community? The community that buys trainers? Is that a community? Community should be the people that are keeping something sustainable and independent. We’re a sustainable business, we pay people well, everyone enjoys coming to work, our supply chain is treated with respect, and we know who makes our clothes. We don't have investment; the money comes from what we sell, and it’s reinvested. It’s not just the clothes, it’s the intent to do something sustainable that makes a community. But I couldn’t fit that all into a DM!
Q. Do you still find yourself learning a lot from working with this rising generation of creators?
I’m all about learning, it’s the only thing that’s exciting in life. You know, everyone is here at the moment, but it's a weird time because no one is doing much because of COVID-19. That's why we don't want to close the office during lockdown, because this is the only social life we get, and it’s so important to everything. The business is always changing, so we’re learning all the time, especially about communications. I’m interested in learning coding for social media right now, because if we can’t do events it’s all about being online.
Q. And does skate culture still have the power to inspire you in the same way as it did in the 90s?
It's much less distinct now because skate has seeped into mainstream culture. But my son skates, my husband still watches videos, and there’s a lot of nostalgia in that for me. I love watching the Jeff Grosso “Love letters to skateboarding” videos. I’m still interested, but it’s more integrated into culture in general.
Q. How do you explain its influence on the wider fashion industry and role in the rise of streetwear?
I think there were key crossover moments, like that AW14 Marc by Marc Jacobs collection when we introduced Fergus, who did all the graphics, to Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley, who designed it. Skate-inspired streetwear was still so uncool for people in fashion at the time, and that collection was seminal, because we are all friends and it came from a similar place to brands like Aries and Palace but it introduced it to a fashion audience. I think that was really influential, even though it went over a lot of people’s heads, and it started something. Now you have Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton! It’s all completely cross-contaminated these days, like Lucien Clarke having an LV pro shoe, but things like photographer David Sims shooting for us really caught the attention. We did a book together and fashion industry people were shocked that someone of his caliber would even bother. But he was always involved in skating and surfing, and always had an eye for rebellion, which is what he saw in Aries.
Q. Does that subversive attitude help define the kind of people you surround yourself with at Aries today, then?
You know, everyone has kind of ended up here by chance. It’s about fitting in. We have a lot of skaters working as freelance graphic designers or photographers. It’s been very organic, and we’re small enough that people can approach us. I’m quite autistic in the way I work, I like designing and sitting down at my computer and doing graphics on illustrator and photoshop. But I’ve realised that I can trust people to do that for me now. I am learning to give people more responsibilities., Nicki who runs Aries with me is always pushing me to let go of more, it’s the only way the business can grow. The only problem with employing young talents is that sometimes they can be quite difficult to track down. I haven’t worked out the best way yet. Some of these guys are still sharing rooms with other skaters, and they come in hungover with two black eyes and we have to send them to A&E. Or they bring COVID-19 into the office because their roommates don’t want them at home. They say we should tell them off more, but we can’t, we are not their parents!
All photography: @aidancushway
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