Max Allen's clothes are tailored to women AND their wallets
You know this story already, you’ve heard it a million times. It’s the one about a gay boy growing up in a small town who trades football practice for sewing class. Who, unable to relate to his school peers and parents, turns to magazines like i-D and The Face and is introduced to a world inhabited by Judy Blame, Alexander McQueen and Pete Burns. He learns about Boombox, club kids and most importantly, Saint Martins, and begins planning his escape plan to London, where he can finally be himself.
That is not designer-cum-drag-queen Max Allen, who grew up in a village called Matlock Bath in the Peak District (population: 753). Unlike the stereotype, Max claims he has never hidden who he was and had a liberal mother that was very supportive of that. “I think I’ve never really understood how to be normal,” he says, gesturing wildly. His arms are a trail of tattoos; a buta, some barbed wire and a faint red lip-stick kiss. “Looking back, I could’ve made my life so much easier by not wearing five different belts and having weird hair all the time but that was what made me happy. That was the only way I could see myself dressing.”
Today, Max is wearing a giant orange Comme des Garcons jacket that cost him £500 and an army print cap that looks like it cost him 50p. I caught him on a lunch break and he’s absentmindedly picking at a plate of chips. “There was nobody around me, I just dressed how I dressed. I guess magazines were where I saw other people but it comes innately from myself.”
During textiles class at secondary school, Max assimilated fashion knowledge from his teacher, the only person there he didn’t think was a ‘fucking idiot’. “I was able to research into Westwood or whatever at school and for a birthday treat, my mum would take me to a museum or an exhibition in London. I didn’t see my dad much but he would leave me in Camden and I could buy shit there. That was how I accessed fashion. In some ways my awareness of being Othered has made me able to deal with shit from other people in later life. After you get over being a freak it just becomes natural.”
By the time Max got to Saint Martins in 2008, Boombox was over and a new generation of fashion students were rebelling against the club kid culture of the early noughties. “I walked in thinking everyone was gonna be like me and I was surprised because everyone was really fucking plain. There were literally people wearing designer handbags and Ugg boots, which was a weird fucking thing for me!” This didn’t stop Max, who became notorious for his long mullet and cynical wit by day and increasingly more DIY looks by night.
“You don’t rebel from rebellion by dressing like a 30-year-old. That really bored me, so I started to characterise certain things about myself.” 20 inches of synthetic hair and 4 inches of Dream Matte Mousse later, and Max Allen became a fixture on the East London gay clubbing circuit; Fridays at Metropolis and Saturdays at The Glory.
Max’s drag and designs are two sides of the same coin. One night he might show up at The Queen Adelaide wearing a fringed, tie dye t shirt and a few weeks later Princess Julia is photographed in Ibiza (of all places) wearing a shredded jersey dress of a similar design. “I like to work with someone for a reason and I like to see people wearing it. My worst nightmare is having to raise my prices to market something only rich women I don’t know can afford. I want to design for performers and club kids and I’ve been doing that since becoming freelance. The only problem is, you have to justify being anti-fashion with self-promotion and that’s why I use Instagram.”
The exchange between club and catwalk has existed since the 80s, when nights like Blitz and Billy’s exploded onto the scene. Soon-to-be-discovered talents John Galliano, Steve Stewart and Leigh Bowery would spend Thursdays and Fridays working on weekend costumes that later helped reinvent fashion and influence magazines such as i-D and Blitz.
This symbiotic relationship remains a defining characteristic of the 1980s, but has metamorphosed through the digital era where, more often than not, theatricality is found on Instagram rather than club smoking areas. Max’s relationship with social media is understandably complicated and though he respects the reach it gives him as a designer, he is wary of online personalities. “When I started going out, you had to dress up and physically go to a space in order to create notoriety for yourself. There might’ve been a club photographer there but now with Instagram you can take a picture from home. I mean when I went out there were just more freaks out. There are so many kids online doing crazy looks that I’m obsessed with, but when I meet them they have no personality because they haven’t had to develop one. I had to physically get out of my shell and my fear when I started going out at 13 because I needed to find like-minded people and I didn't have that online community.”
I can think of a landslide of people Max might be referring to, but one in particular stands out: @salvjiia, whose digitally-warped drag and 255k followers got him hired as a makeup designer for Rick Owens’ AW19 show, without ever leaving his bedroom.
Today, Max describes himself (in inverted commas) as a socialist designer. “You can come to me with £60, like my friend who I customised a coat for with embroidery and it took me a day. They wanted the coat fixing, whereas Princess Julia wanted a dress and she came to the studio really open and supportive. She has money and she knows that I need money.”
This is honourable for a designer who has already been commissioned to make pieces for Camper, MIA and Lady Gaga. “Basically, I’m working on a body work at the moment in order to show people what I’m working on so they can choose from that. People freak out when you say they can have whatever they want. But I like to work within a budget because we can still make something showy for £20.” Customers looking to invest in a piece by Max can only do so directly via the designer himself - he is not stocked anywhere and only makes custom pieces.
The spotlight on Max’s work seems slightly incongruous with his talent and I wonder if it’s Max’s non-conformist attitude to running a business that has kept him from being featured in the numerous articles about ‘up-and-coming young creatives’ or if it has more to do with his party life-style. “Perhaps.” He tells me sceptically. “I’m starting to be aware of that. Like all those comedowns I had or all the parties I went to may have got in the way of my work but I wouldn’t change it for the world, they were amazing. The only reason I’m making work now is because I’m fully ready and I want to.”
Young designers fresh out of university would do well to take note of Max’s self-assurance, his mistrust of the BFC and their fashion system. “That’s what I see from a lot of young designers; they aren’t ready. They come straight from art school to try and sell a dialogue or a brand when they haven’t really done their fucking time. So yeah, it’s benefited me massively but it would be nice now if I didn’t have to repackage my work so neatly to sell to those stylists who are perhaps nicer.”
Max may seem completely barmy, but all too often creative vision is compromised by the business of fashion - it takes a brave designer to colour outside the lines. "However," he adds, "I have been talking with my therapist about wanting to be a cute boy with a grey t-shirt, Ikea furniture and a nice boyfriend."
"I think I've never really understood how to be normal"
"There were literally people wearing designer handbags and Ugg boots, which was a weird fucking thing for me"
“You don’t rebel from rebellion by dressing like a 30-year-old. That really bored me, so I started to characterise certain things about myself”
“My worst nightmare is having to raise my prices to market something only rich women I don’t know can afford”
“I had to physically get out of my shell and my fear when I started going out at 13 because I needed to find like-minded people and I didn't have that online community”
"People freak out when you say they can have whatever they want. But I like to work within a budget because we can still make something showy for £20"