Charles Jeffrey and Jerry Stafford

In early April, we sent the following request to a broad range of fashion designers.

Given the current situation, we would like System’s next issue to focus on long-form interviews led by designers – conversations recorded via video conferencing.

Now feels like a particularly relevant moment to focus on designers, as the industry looks to you to lead fashion towards the future, to capture the moment, and, perhaps above all, to enable us to dream.

What would you talk about? It’s not for us to dictate this, because we feel the project could have an inherent Warholian quality – anything that you say becomes valid when placed in the time-capsule context of this document of the moment.

Many wrote back, saying they’d like to use the opportunity to connect with a friend, a colleague, a confidant, a hero, or another designer.

We’re extremely grateful that they did. And the least we could do to return the gesture is give each their own System cover.

Photographs by Juergen Teller
Creative partner, Dovile Drizyte

What do we talk about? Charles Jeffrey and Jerry Stafford - © System Magazine

In early April, we sent the following request to a broad range of fashion designers.

Given the current situation, we would like System’s next issue to focus on long-form interviews led by designers – conversations recorded via video conferencing.

Now feels like a particularly relevant moment to focus on designers, as the industry looks to you to lead fashion towards the future, to capture the moment, and, perhaps above all, to enable us to dream.

What would you talk about? It’s not for us to dictate this, because we feel the project could have an inherent Warholian quality – anything that you say becomes valid when placed in the time-capsule context of this document of the moment.

Many wrote back, saying they’d like to use the opportunity to connect with a friend, a colleague, a confidant, a hero, or another designer.

We’re extremely grateful that they did. And the least we could do to return the gesture is give each their own System cover.

‘ I love going running because
that is the closest thing I get
to clubbing right now.’

Charles Jeffrey and Jerry Stafford
in conversation, 12 April 2020.

Jerry Stafford: Hello, Charles!

Charles Jeffrey: Hi, Jerry! How are you doing?

Jerry: I’m fine. I’m in Biarritz. Where are you?

Charles: I’m at my boyfriend’s place next to Hackney Downs station. I have been in lockdown here for just over two weeks now. My studio at Somerset House is still open because it’s in a Grade I listed building that can’t officially close; as long as there is security, we can go in. I’ve only been going if I really need to for e-commerce, but we are all working remotely.

Jerry: So you’re not on your own?

Charles: I’m with my boyfriend, Julian; he is on the balcony, drawing. This is the longest that we’ve ever been in each other’s company, and it has been fine, even if there were a couple of times when we decided to have a day apart; that was very helpful.

Jerry: How do you feel when you wake up these days?

Charles: We’ve normalized it. We’re not over-questioning it. But I think the general emotion, the temperature, the pH level feels different. It’s more high-pitched, if that makes sense, higher frequency. I have never really liked working from home, the couple of times when I had to. I loved going to work at Hoi Polloi; there is something about a familiar space and I would draw things for the collection or bash out a lot of the initial drawings in one sitting, from morning right through to evening. I would have my breakfast, lunch, and dinner there. I was a bit nervous about being at home, because I have never really gelled with the domestic space. You can be so easily distracted, knowing that you can just go and make a cup of tea. I feel a lot more under a microscope here. Have I exercised today? What have I eaten today? I’ve got scales right next to my desk!

Jerry: What was the first thing you did today?

Charles: I was supposed to go for a run, but I didn’t. I had a bath, instead, which was quite nice! Normally, I wake up around 6.30am. I watch Sky News before Julian wakes up, as he doesn’t like watching the news. So Sky News with a coffee, shower, get dressed, and then I put on aftershave, weirdly, so I’m ready. Then I sit at my desk.

Jerry: Is having some kind of routine helpful in the present situation? Do you have one?

Charles: I think it’s very helpful. I have a lot more of a routine than I normally would because my usual working days are all so different, and I have to put on
a lot of different hats. I have a timetable that’s very regular, but in between that I do teaching, styling and artwork. I really love that variety, whereas now it is very similar every day. Even if I think about how I used to come into work; I would run, or walk, or Tube it. This is a lot more like a routine. I am more regular than I have ever been!

Jerry: Well, it suits you, sir! You look fantastic!

Charles: Thank you very much!

Jerry: How would you describe the atmosphere in London at the moment? How do you differentiate between the stark reality of the present situation and this almost surreal sense of alienation?

Charles: I benefit from running every day because I can go to different areas of London to gather that information. I find that the tension levels are very different in different parts of London. I’m in Hackney Downs, which is next to Hackney Central. It is very residential, and the main street is full of shops and I feel like the energy is fine there, with people social distancing and living their lives! I get this weird, visceral feeling like, ‘Oh, fuck this’, especially on sunny days. Whereas when I run to Central London, across the South Bank to the studio, to the Embankment or I go through the City, it feels super creepy, like the film 28 Days Later. It feels a bit dangerous, actually, like anyone on the street could potentially harm you. Julian and I walked back from Somerset House when we did some work there
and it felt a bit dangerous. This is when it first happened, so I don’t know what it’s like now so much.

Jerry: Dangerous in the sense that you could be the victim of some kind of attack that has nothing to do with the virus? A physical aggression?

Charles: For sure. I haven’t really received that much homophobic abuse in my time, even when I’ve put on certain looks, maybe because of my stature. But recently I’ve been with Julian, holding hands and I’ve been more aware of it. We were walking up Kingsway a week or so ago, and I felt quite scared to be in Central London. There’s a weird feeling in the air. I don’t know if that’s just me projecting stuff, and the circumstances are making my imagination wander…

‘London was so economically powerful and now that’s stripped away. You’re left with these empty buildings; just phallic sculptures that feel invalid.’

Jerry: I think these are very natural reactions. We are living out many different fantasies at this time, in the broadest sense of the word. Trauma engenders fear.

Charles: One has to be very mindful of how we describe certain situations, because of the gravity of what’s going on, but there is also a slight poetry to the
city right now.

Jerry: Is there one image that comes to mind? I run every day by the coast here as well, and every day I see something of its natural beauty, which has been wonderfully inspiring.

Charles: It’s like when you go to the ruin of a castle, and you are projecting what these people would be doing in this room or in this structure. I love that film 28 Days Later, especially the opening scene when he is wandering around all the tourist attractions and they are completely empty. There is a weird poetry to the city. It was so powerful as an economy and now that is all stripped away, and you see these phallic sculptures, these big buildings and they feel invalid. I’m getting a weird vision in my head of when you put a tooth in a glass of Coke and you see the Coke devouring the tooth, or when you see bacteria growing. I don’t know where
I’m going with this…

Jerry: I think that’s a great analogy. These symbols of economic power that have completely lost their meaning, and of course, London is an intense social hub, in which the club and bar scenes are such an important confluence for all kinds of social interaction. As someone who is very involved, how are you experiencing these social restrictions?

Charles: I’m finding it quite hard not being able to dance to music and be peacocking, because I think there is something so healing in that. I’ve realized how important it is to my own work; being seen and seeing other people and just being collective and dancing. Julian and I have been trying to do dress up and take photos of ourselves!

Jerry: Let’s come back to that later! There are all kind of clichés about this situation, like ‘crisis breeds creativity’. Has your creative engagement been affected by your confinement? Do you feel creatively challenged or, to quote another cliché, are you experiencing this as ‘a time of reflection’ or a slowing down?

Charles: Well, I’ve experienced all of those things over the past couple of weeks! I must say that I am busier than I thought I would be, because I have been getting quite a lot of illustration commissions. I think people are retreating to that as a form of content. We have been doing things in-house, like sending collections to photographers to photograph. At first I was stressed out about deadlines, but I’m mindful of my friends who are now furloughed without any work and there’s me being stressed about a deadline!

Jerry: But are you now questioning the demands of that system? Do you feel a new sense of purpose regarding your own creative process?

Charles: I have come to realize that being a really good communicator is still so key to my creativity. I’m very democratic in my way of working. Designing these collections that we’re arcing out for much later drops feels even more democratic now, because we have to think about the impact on people. I’m trying to get opinions from lots of different places: what do you think of this? Should we do that? Should we be more sales-orientated? There are a lot of conversations. I have come to realize the power of my own drawing and illustration, and how impactful that is on the work, and on Loverboy as a brand. You can talk about a jacket, and you can design a jacket, and you can come at it from all these different places, but it’s not going to be yours unless you achieve it with your own primary research. For us, print and artwork has always been a big driving force of what we do. And in terms of sales, the pieces that have my prints on them always do a lot better than other things. It’s made me realize how important my own input is as an artist or a printmaker. People want art; they want prints and drawings even for projects that have nothing to do with fashion.

Jerry: That’s great to hear! As someone who self-identifies in a really visual way, do you still feel that you are expressing yourself personally in isolation? Are you dressing up? Are you using make-up? Are you finding this is something that you do more for yourself or for another? Has confinement limited that self-expression, or has it challenged you to take it to greater heights?

‘I’ve come from nothing. I’ve built up what we’ve got by being positive. To have to figure out what to do if all this went to shit goes against everything I am.’

Charles: It’s nice being together, and Julian loves dressing up and putting make-up on and stuff, so we are doing a self-portraiture project. We have been thinking about being creative with make-up and self-expression for that, but then my own personal day-to-day dressing is quite limited, as my wardrobe is split between two places! I’ve been quite samey-samey in the way I’ve been dressing to go to the shop, but there was one day when we got super dressed up and we did really well! I did a big, high brow – it was very Pat McGrath-esque – and I decided I wanted to go to the shops. I put on my gloves and went to our local Co-op to buy our groceries, because I just thought, ‘Fuck it – why not? I want to see how people react. I want to see if anyone is averse to it.’ I just wanted to gauge it. And, honestly, I went into the shop and there were so many people who just smiled at me, and the cashier was, like, ‘You look so lovely – you put all this effort in to come here.’ I was, like, ‘Yeah, well, fuck it – why not? We can’t all just be in our pyjamas all the time.’ That was a nice reaction. It would also be interesting to go for a run with a full face of make-up, sweating it all off and seeing how people react!

Jerry: There are pragmatic decisions to make and realities to face in terms of business models and choices at the moment, too. How are you addressing those?

Charles: I have been very mindful of all of these processes. When it first happened, we carried on designing the collection as normal, and I was kind of in denial about the whole thing, to be honest: ‘It’s just like the flu; it’s just a panic and it will be over soon.’ Sam, my colleague, called me in and said, ‘I think this is going to be a lot worse than we imagine, and we need to make a real emergency plan.’ And we planned right up to potentially going bankrupt and not being able to pay anyone. It was the worst week of my life, Jerry, because I see myself as such a positive person who utilizes that positive energy to draw myself out of things. I have come from nothing, absolutely nothing, and I have built up what we’ve got here by trying to be positive all the time. To have to figure out what to do if all of this went to shit, to project that thinking, goes against everything I am. But I would have been stupid if I hadn’t done it. I had to think about who I might have to fire! It’s making me emotional to think about it now. We had to make a plan and it was really difficult, but we have it in place now, if the worst comes to the worst.

Jerry: Have you had any government support? Are you on the receiving end of any of the proposals that the government has made for small businesses?

Charles: We are looking into it. There is a Covid-19 fund that the BFC have put forward. They liquidated a few prizes to put that together, and we are working with our accountant at the moment on approaching the government. We’re looking into everything! I know from my freelancer friends who are going through a similar thing that money isn’t going to be available to them for quite a long time.

Jerry: You built your business from nothing, but if push came to shove and Charles Jeffrey the fashion designer had to reinvent himself from scratch, who would he be?

Charles: I’m very grateful to be in the position that I am in, doing what I love and what I have wanted to do since I was 16. But I have always wanted to exercise my ability as a painter. Taking that thing I was blessed with and pushing it as far as it can possibly go. I watch all these documentaries about different artists and painters and their commitment to the practice. I would love to be a painter. There is also something so amazing about this audiovisual thing. I don’t want to make music per se, but I would love to collaborate with someone to make music, like Andy Warhol did with the Velvet Underground. I went to the Warhol exhibition just before lockdown, and those films of the time they toured with Andy Warhol to all these different colleges are fucking amazing!

Jerry: What other particular modes of escapism have you been indulging in to change your mood? Are there any websites or platforms that you’ve found

Charles: There is one I always fall asleep to called melodysheep because I love anything about space and the universe. There’s another really amazing audiovisual one of self-generated computer footage about concepts in physics. It’s always scored really beautifully, and it’s not got any formal narration aside from some text. There is one that describes how we are such a small chunk of this universe. It shows what it would be like if all of the stars burned out and we were in a universe of black holes! I love thinking about all of that. It’s so… existential!

‘We got dressed up to go food shopping. I did a big, high brow – very Pat McGrath-esque – put on my gloves and went to the Co-op. Fuck it – why not?’

Jerry: The word ‘unprecedented’ has become very loaded these days. How do you feel that an ‘unprecedented’ event like this will impact our value systems, at a time when our idea of normal life is now a thing of the past? There is much abstract talk about our future, but how do we turn this abstraction into action? How do you feel we can move forward in our personal lives?

Charles: It’s humanizing to listen to everyone’s different lived experiences. I hope this makes us more mindful about how we are all born human and equal. This virus has no social boundaries. I hope people become more empathetic. I hope people are mindful of these conversations and take time to gather information and not finger-point or politicize what is going on. Some people are too quick to use the crisis as an opportunity to criticize people and put people down. This is not the time for that.

Jerry: How will the gay community and its intrinsic web of social interactivity be affected? Do you fear for the hard-won freedom of certain communities, as governments threaten to curb civil liberties, restrict travel and movement, enforce medical checks and introduce more hard-line surveillance techniques?

Charles: For sure! I was speaking recently with Tim Blanks about the differences between the AIDS epidemic and this epidemic, and the relative quickness to action involved. At first, AIDS only affected marginalized communities and few people rose to their defence. This virus doesn’t have any stigma attached to it and it affects everybody, and it spreads a lot more quickly. I know we’ve gained a lot of traction regarding LGBTQ rights, but if our right to be able to live out our experiences in private is tampered with through this need for the government to check in on us, that might affect our ability to feel secure. Everything is so immersive with club life and sex, so I wonder how an app like Grindr might be affected. Could they shut it down by arguing that it brings people together and we need to get rid of that right now?

Jerry: In the age of what has been termed ‘surveillance capitalism’ by writer Shoshana Zuboff, and the growing use of behavioural data harvested from social media, do you think it might be time to resist many of these digital platforms and return to a more analogue way of life?

Charles: I think a lot of people were hoping that this would be a catalyst for them to put the phone and computer down and maybe pick up a book or try a new hobby, but, if anything, I think it has promoted the opposite. I mean, I have loads of books sat there that need to be read! If anything, I have been drawing a lot. Going back to that idea of wanting to paint, I think that there is something so important about being tactile with the materials you use. I think that there needs to be a return to this.

Jerry: Painting is definitely a return to something tangible and physical, but, ironically in an age when we should be resisting surveillance capitalism and the dangers of data harvesting, this crisis has led us to be even more dependent on digital platforms. They are becoming the only sanctuary for creative performance with a ‘live audience’. Can we resist the ubiquity of social-media platforms while maintaining an audience? How do you feel about having to navigate this minefield? Particularly as your shows are so much about performance and an engagement with the audience on a personal and often political level.

Charles: It’s definitely going be a challenge! One can think about alternative treatments, whether it’s a 360° film showcase on one model in a garment against green screen with a composited visual treatment, or an animated photographic collaboration with an artist like Tim Walker. There are so many things that we could do digitally, but I keep thinking back to the physicality of the claps that we do every Thursday for the NHS. I’m really latching onto the physicality of this action. I am hoping this crisis makes everyone think differently and we don’t just all jump to digital. I know we are sliding towards this idea of digital platforms, but I want to
figure out another way of doing things, which breaks that mould. I have this idea in my head of something travelling, something that is happening at a certain time, or something in the sky that everyone can see. It’s about space, again; like Halley’s comet or a full moon. I was looking at the full moon the other night and thinking how amazing it is because everyone can see it!

‘I wonder how Grindr might be affected. Could they shut it down by arguing that it brings people together and that we need to avoid that right now?’

Jerry: We definitely need to think outside the box in order to proceed from abstraction to action. Normal is not normal anymore. We cannot just go back to
something we knew before. It may be a slow metamorphosis, but there will be something that shifts radically. The Japanese have always had very codified forms of greeting, but how do you see our own physical and behaviour codes changing? It’s going to be a while before people are hugging again, so how do you feel that you will address physical engagement?

Charles: It’s very difficult. I’m such a gregarious person; I love a hug! I spoke with my local shop owner recently, an old cockney guy who had just got a plastic screen set up. He really didn’t like it. He liked being able to chat to the customer and he found having this bit of plastic in front of him difficult to deal with. I think there will be restraint, but there might also be a form of comedy we develop in our interactions.

Jerry: The world was already in trouble before the arrival of Covid-19, and climate change and habitat destruction have both been instrumental in the evolution of new viruses. How do you see fashion’s role in what will necessarily be a new world? How do we become active and responsible members of this new arena?

Charles: You have to see the potential in your own working environment, and how you can be inspired by the local, whether with the materials you work with or the labour. Obviously, people need to save money, and we feel that pressure, especially at this point in our development when we are about to expand. It’s about problem solving, and I enjoy that. I recently watched In His Own Words, the Martin Margiela documentary, and it was really fascinating to hear him talk about the potential he found in vintage pieces; how he reworked them, and how there was a need in the market for people to realize how design is a universal concept that
can be taken on board by everybody.

Jerry: How is your family up in Scotland?

Charles: Thank God, they are all OK. I’ve got grandparents who are in their eighties, and my nan has got Alzheimer’s. My grandpa is a fiercely independent man and has always had a very strong routine and now that has been jeopardized because he is in a high-risk category. My mum has been absolutely phenomenal. I think she puts a brave face on, as she has lost her job as well. I have been chatting to my family a lot more than I have ever been. I mean, we have always communicated, but now I call my mum two or three times a day, speak to my sister and message my dad. My dad is in Dubai, so it’s a different set-up there. But even speaking with him is a whole other situation. I recently found out that my dad isn’t my real dad. My biological father passed away last August, which I only found out a couple of months ago. His son and daughter didn’t know I existed; I was, like, this ‘affair baby’. But they made contact with me and we’ve been chatting!
It’s this weird EastEnders storyline, if you will.

Jerry: The idea of family and community has always been at the heart of your work, whether it be the collaboration we worked on together for Matches and its
traditional ‘waulking’ folk songs, or your most recent collection influenced by horse festivals in the Orkneys. It is such a part of your creative ethos, and particularly important now when an idea of togetherness will be the driving force behind our future. As a Scotsman and a member of the queer community, do you think this has always underscored your work? And will this crisis strengthen your belief in these ideals and carry you forward?

Charles: It’s definitely made me realize the power in community, and how that can transform one initial idea into something much more powerful that we can all share and value. With the ability to take a traditional approach stripped away, we face a really interesting challenge at Loverboy to find new ways in which we can achieve that. On a professional level, my team and I have been able to communicate effectively through Zoom, but I have been mindful of keeping in touch with my friends who are DJs or who have club nights. We are getting back to the core of what everyone stands for, rather than the end result being a product. I want to reiterate what Loverboy stands for as a brand. Designers like Rick [Owens] and Craig [Green] have these ideas and worlds they have created that are intrinsically
part of their product, but they do many other things. I am really interested in seeing how these people are going to react to the situation. I’m watching all of my contemporaries doing little projects, like Dilara [Findikoglu], who is doing all of these interesting things about how to wear Dilara at home. I was listening to [trend forecaster] Li Edelkoort on the Business of Fashion and she was talking about how education is going to change, because instead of people flocking to London for a fashion education, they will be going back to their own countries and learning their own, traditional ways of making clothing – different techniques, construction and embroidery, skills that have been lost and muddied over time. It’s going to affect much more than just a brand’s output. All those students who have been robbed of their degree show will have to be more mindful about how they communicate themselves as designers.

‘I miss dancing. I miss going out. I miss getting dressed up and going to see my friends of an evening. It’s such a big part of my personality.’

Jerry: So Charles, what are you up to this evening?

Charles: I am going to cook. I’m really in the mood to cook. I think I’m going to do a nice roast chicken.

Jerry: This crisis has driven us back into the kitchen. What are your isolation recipes of choice?

Charles: I have so many! I’m really lucky as my mum is a really good cook. I can’t remember her formally teaching me anything, but I just do what she did. She
was always good at soups. Two guys in a flat get through so much food. A roast chicken in a night! I do a nice Spanish omelette.

Jerry: What kind of music are you listening to? Is there music that is actually healing? I’m listening to Joni Mitchell.

Charles: I love Joni Mitchell.

Jerry: She is helping me through the whole thing.

Charles: I think the Grace Jones album Nightclubbing is a great album to put on in the evening. I love listening to classical music. I love French expressionism. I
love piano. I love a lot of techno, and that is what I run to. I love running because that is the closest thing I get to clubbing right now. I like repetitive music, and
running is really good for unlocking ideas. The best mixes are by Honey Dijon; there’s one like an electronic thundercloud in a cave. When you are running you get goosebumps and run faster. It’s amazing!

Jerry: Music is such a powerful federating force at the moment. What is the one thing that you are really missing?

Charles: I miss dancing. I miss going out. I miss getting dressed up and going to see my friends of an evening. It’s such a part of my personality.

Jerry: Who would you like to hug today?

Charles: I would like to hug you!

Jerry: Oh, thank you!

Charles: I can’t wait for our nights out again.

Jerry: Neither can I!

Charles: I tell you one thing – we are going to be so much more aware and present in those moments. It won’t be so casual anymore. We’re going to be so aware of it all. I think we’re going to be crying.

Jerry: I think there is going to be a lot of crying.

Charles: But how beautiful is that going to be? Think of the emotion! I think we should bottle that mentally when it happens and really remember it. That is
what I want to try and do: just be super present in those moments.

Jerry: Definitely. Thank you, Charles.

Taken from System No. 15.