Luis de Javier and Betsy Johnson Are Raving Their Way Into Fashion

by Sophie Walsh on 19 February 2020

The emerging designer and his creative director talk queer raves, subcultural community and their collaboration on his debut show (over a pint and copious cigarettes).

The emerging designer and his creative director talk queer raves, subcultural community and their collaboration on his debut show (over a pint and copious cigarettes).

It’s the day before Luis de Javier’s debut show at London Fashion Week. In Covent Garden, a room full of models are having their final fittings and the excitement is palpable. Amidst the commotion, a model wearing a fantastic arse-less leather dress shouts, 'I feel like I’m going to the fucking Met Gala!' and indeed the promise of spectacle is already visible in the hints of the upcoming show scattered about the room.

Taking a much deserved break from the preparation, de Javier and his creative director Betsy Johnson suggest we go for a pint, and so we find a spot outside an upmarket chippy. 'Jesus, it smells just like home,' Grimsby-born Johnson laughs. De Javier sparks up a cigarette and throws the lighter across to Johnson, the pair being in unison in almost every regard.

Moving to London after studying in Barcelona, emerging fashion designer Luis de Javier has been working hard to establish a name for himself. “I grew up amongst a very traditional Spanish mentality” he tells me, “I started studying marketing because I thought that was the way of tricking my dad into me studying fashion, without being fashion or gay”.

Since relocating to the UK, however, he’s gone on to study Fashion Design at Westminster and has interned at Vivienne Westwood and Gareth Pugh, in the meantime discovering a network of like-minded people in the underground rave community, which has inspired his work.

'I’ve been blessed to form this queer raving community around me. We’re connected because we go to the same places and clubs, but it’s also a home,' de Javier says.

'It’s a family,' Johnson intercedes.

De Javier regards her warmly, saying, 'She was the first person I met in London.'

Johnson laughs. 'We met in a toilet at a rave. I have a video of the night we met, sitting on the toilet floor in a cubicle smoking a cigarette and blowing smoke into the toilet.'

Since then, the pair have stuck together like velcro. Despite becoming best friends, it wasn’t until September last year, during a showcase for emerging designers, that the duo decided to work together professionally.

'She saw something in me. She grabbed me after the show and said, "You are the next McQueen, stick with me," and look at us now!' de Javier exclaims.

Working on this show together has been a celebration of combined creativity, community and most importantly friendship.

Like de Javier, Johnson didn’t grow up in a fashion-focused environment. 'I’m not from a creative background - everyone was a plumber or a joiner growing up. I was so naughty as a kid, but now I get why, I just had so much creative energy that I didn’t know what to do with it.'

Going on to study Fashion Marketing in Manchester and rule a Depop empire, she later moved to London in order to pursue a career in creative direction. 'In Grimsby, what we do isn’t a job, it’s not a thing there, it doesn’t exist. The only way I describe my work to my mum is Ugly Betty.'

Despite living in London, more regional diversity and inclusivity in the fashion industry is something she strongly supports: 'I don’t believe in London-centric shit. I feel very attached to London but I don’t feel like London.'

Before she met de Javier and formed her circle, Johnson didn’t feel like she had found her place in the fashion capital. 'There’s two kinds of worlds in the industry. The key is wealth. I found that I was coming down to London and not really clicking with anyone. I was like, "What am I doing in this industry?" It felt shit but then I met my friends,' she says, referring to the queer raving community she shares with de Javier.

The pair give me the lowdown on the faction of queer ravers who are the muses behind their work. Forget Dalston or Hackney, Tottenham, it seems, is the place to be. Johnson reels off the popular raving venues amongst this crowd: Fold, Hotbox, and Adonis. Many of their friends also live in a warehouse complex together, an epicentre of creative energy that sounds not dissimilar from an art commune.

It’s oft said that subcultures are pushing up daisies nowadays, but not according to this duo. 'We’re rising from the dead, babe, haven’t seen the last of me yet bitch!' de Javier says, taking an exaggerated swig of Peroni. So, how do this subculture term themselves? Well, they’ve yet to settle upon a title quite yet. ‘Hungry fag hags,’ de Javier offers, but, changing his mind, simply suggests, 'Caring?'

There’s a contemplative pause followed by laughter.

'It’s not a very punchy name – "The caring raving gays",' Johnson inserts, going back to the metaphorical drawing board.

'It's funny. [Our group of friends are] very intimidating, especially as a group, and we’ve been told off inside the wider queer community - they call us the "vanity team",' de Javier says.

'It’s because when we’re out we’re feeling ourselves, we’re on the podium, we’re climbing on the speakers and in the cage at Hotbox,' Johnson explains, adding that, 'it’s not people who know us that say these things, it’s people with an outside perspective.'

They assure me, however, that despite the exuberant outward display of confidence, they are really just a support network of mates, providing each other with creative encouragement.

'Everything comes from a place of passion, love, excitement, support for each other - and absolute fearlessness because no one comes from money so no one has anything to lose. Everyone just throws themselves into everything wholeheartedly,' Johnson says.

De Javier concurs. 'It’s so hard. So many people have come to London and haven’t found their place. I think it’s just about being in the right place at the right time, but if you come with us, you are always going to be welcome.'

Their community, or rather subculture, has not only been a source of creative inspiration for its members, but also for major designers. 'This year, Gucci, Marni, all these casting directors for really big brands, they’re casting for concepts based on raves and they’re coming to us,' de Javier shakes his head in disbelief.

However, he explains, 'even though in our community we feel very supported, we are also very secluded from real life. It’s like, this is what happened in Spain when the [Franco] dictatorship fell and there was a small community of trans people [who remained ostracised]. People were like, "What the fuck is this?" We’re still secluded. There's something very interesting for me about this.'

Johnson continues, 'It’s 2020. Everything is meant to be changing, and yet the mainstream take of what queer culture is is rainbow flags and shit. But [queer culture is] actually fucking chic.'

Redefining chic was something de Javier wanted to reflect in his collection. Banishing the stereotypical hot pants and cropped Liza Minnelli t-shirts, Luis has incorporated Renaissance inspired corsetry into the collection, alongside traditional tailoring created from sustainable leather. There is also an important sculptural element to the designs; horns protrude from bodices and wrap around the head, or spike up towards the shoulder blades, referencing Spanish matadors. Wing-like jutting folds on the upper half of leather dresses and tops are like a glamorous bat about to take flight.

Originally attempting to create these experimental pieces through conventional pattern cutting and draping techniques, de Javier found there was only so far this could be pushed and so sought alternatives. 'I was like, "How can I create these impossible shapes and patterns?" Luckily, my friend’s ex-boyfriend is a digital sculptor, and I was like, "Ok, you’re going to do this, and you’re going to do this cheap!" So he’s just worked his ass off and created these amazing pieces.'

The structural formation of the pieces are also interesting in the way they interact with gender. Using 3D scanners, bespoke pieces were created for masculine forms, however the model casting was mixed gender. With one dress, de Javier notes, 'I was really sceptical because it was initially fitted on a male body, but it was lovely seeing [model] Ciarda’s tits in that peck shape, it's perfect.'

The show's casting was, in fact, a key element to the overall effect, a strong thread of irony running throughout. 'We’ve got fuckboys [in the show], straight as fuck, partying in White City every weekend,' Johnson says. 'All my work is character based and tells a story. Every single person we’ve brought in, we’ve taught them how to become this character. For the fuckboys, it’s like, "[Imagine] your dad in a dress. That’s the vibe." That’s the point, we want people to think it’s a little bit bizarre, but also not bizarre at all.'

De Javier adds, 'We wanted the guy that would beat the shit out of me, to dress like me.'

The cast of characters also include members of the queer community and female friends, their beauty distorted by ugly yet powerful monobrows, sideburns and red eyes.

'I’m attracted to stories. I don’t even think I like fashion very much!' Johnson laughs. 'Art is what forces people to move forward, and when people move forward, policy moves forward. It has such a ripple effect,' she adds. 'I’m from Grimsby–the back end of nowhere–and I've been given some kind of voice in the industry. Same with Luis - we have been given power to tell a story and it’s such a responsibility to speak for my community.'

De Javier sits upright, in agreement. 'We’re blessed to show on such a scale. We had to make something that was a political statement, it has to be something that we fight for.'

The collection then, celebrates this growing community of queer ravers, bringing them to the attention of pop-culture in the heralding a new cultural era.

The experimental nature of the show has been a reflection of the risks taken throughout the entire process. A great deal of personal investment has been put into the project, but fortunately, their families have been supportive throughout the project.

'I quit my job, got a studio and locked myself in for two months. I was like, "Go, go, go, go, go!"' de Javier explains. 'I’ve been apologising for two months to my mum, and she’s like, "Shut up and give it a chance!" She’s so supportive. She was just in the fitting, lacing up a corset, and she bought us 20 avocado and toasts.'

I can confirm an enthusiastic Spanish lady was, indeed, offering snacks.

'You have to take those risks,' Johnson states. 'My mum said something that stuck with me last year, [during] one of the times I was sofa surfing. She said, "the worst thing that can happen is you end up back here."'

The pair have been playing the long game, and while work is fruitful now, it’s been a journey and, like most areas of the creative industries, money hasn’t come immediately. Johnson recalls, 'My dad only just gets it. He was in the army and then became a taxi driver to look after us, and he never got that [I wouldn't see money immediately]. I used to explain to him, "football players don’t just get signed to Manchester United, they have to spend years of their life playing football for free to prove that they’re good." This is me proving I'm good at football - and now I’ve proved it. I was like, 'I'm playing for Man U now, dad!" she laughs.

When the evening of the show finally arrives, there is electricity in the atmosphere. Storm Dennis is about to unleash its force on the UK, and, it being Saturday night, large quantities of vodka are about to be consumed by the populace. As the El Invitado show commences in an ornate room in the West Wing of Somerset House, murmurs of anticipation subdue. The sound of castanets emanates throughout a space bathed in red light and two men in nude thongs and stiff corsets glide out from behind stage holding hands, a homage to both de Javier’s Spanish heritage and a celebration of his London community. The pair enter a seductive Spanish dance as a flamenco guitar strikes up, its tempo picking up the pace as the dance eventually peaks in a climactic kiss, the two entwined upon the floor. The audience simultaneously reach for their phones, whoops and cheers covering the sound of camera shutters. This is only the beginning and yet the fever pitch overwhelming the room says it all.

De Javier and Johnson have spun a strong narrative for this collection, but it is really only the start of theirs. De Javier tells me to watch this space as: 'we’re going to put the collection in the Financial Times' How To Spend it!'

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