A reaction against the socio-politically bleak environment of mid-80’s London, in 1984 Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj launched R.A.P London from a shop on Covent Garden’s Neal Street.
A streetwear brand before streetwear brands were commonplace (Supreme didn’t arrive until 1994), the label was an early champion for diversity, elsewhere merging fashion, music and art. Now, two decades after it shuttered, Real Artistic People is marking its return with a 12-piece collection and a stint at Dubai’s forthcoming Sole DWB festival.
“It was for the people in London,” says Hajjaj of the label’s inception, making reference to peers such as Soul II Soul, London Posse and pirate radio DJ’s. “London was at the beginning of a culture mixing (the city) with influences from people from different parts of the world. R.A.P was part of what was going on in London’s underground, from clubs and music to art and new food, so it represented this new mix. We all supported each other as we were the underdogs.”
Commenting on the label’s revival he stresses timing and Britain’s current political landscape as momentum: “It was all about timing. Due to what’s happening in the UK with migrants and the British exit, I think it’s a good time to put R.A.P back out,” he says, addressing the events that continue to unfold in 2016.
A prominent advocate Hajjaj’s work, having tapped the photographer for his recent group show ‘Made You Look: Dandyism & Black Masculinity’ – alongside the likes of Malick Sidibé and Liz Johnson-Artur – writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun similarly highlights the significance of resurrecting R.A.P, stating that “within the context of the times, the return of a label with a philosophy of diversity at its core can only be welcomed. From fashion to photography and back to fashion, Hajjaj’s work, in tandem with many other artists of colour, has helped change Britain for the better.”
In the 20 years since the brand last made a commercial appearance, both the word ‘diversity’ and the relevant conversation has undergone change and development. Today the former is considered a buzzword with both positive and negative connotations (fed up of its overuse, ‘Selma’ director Ava DuVernay described it as a medicinal word with “no emotional resonance” in January), while a renewed focus on BAME participants can be felt across fashion, art and throughout most cultural avenues.
For Hassan, the term remains chief in his intentions both for R.A.P and his artistic practice, the bulk of which marries references from Western and Arab culture (he’s long been described as Morocco’s Andy Warhol). “My work is even more about diversity than ever before,” he clarifies, “you can see this in my art.”
Comprised of six (updated) archive pieces and six all new garments – a mix of leather jackets, sweatshirts, tees and shirts – for many the collection will be their first introduction to Hassan Hajjaj, the designer. “It’s an unknown territory,” agrees Hajjaj, “but hopefully the history of the label will connect to a new audience.”
And the transformation of the streetwear scene, from a handful of labels to international trade shows and recognition from the mainstream? “The evolution has been major – there are so many street labels now,” offers the man who, circa 1987, was stocking diffusion line John Galliano and Levi’s 501’s alongside his own label.
“Back when R.A.P was around most new labels like 555 Soul, Giant Steps and Stüssy were more about a lifestyle that mixed music, skating and art and were still building so-called ‘streetwear’, whereas now it seems to be more of a trend to have a street label.”
Unsurprisingly for an artist whose career boasts multiple components, Hajjaj shot the look book that accompanies the collection himself, taking the images in east London council estates. “The models are not models, as R.A.P stands for Real Artistic People,” he tells Clash, confirming his involvement beyond the lens. “Moses Quiquine is the new generation – a musician and designer – and Nathalie Zangi Miller is a dancer. I want to keep this for the R.A.P label, not using models.”
Against a backdrop not dissimilarly bleak to 1984, Hassan is positive about moving forward: asked who the Real Artistic People inspiring him today are and he alludes to being spoilt for choice. “There are so many,” the artist says, “from designers, DJ’s, filmmakers, chefs, producers, locals doing good for the community, writers, capoeiristas, graffiti artists, musicians…”
Sole DXB takes place from 18th-19th November.