“Timeless design is all about the narratives, the historical and emotional value.”
Raf Reyes doesn’t make clothes, he makes art. It only takes one look at VERYRARE’s inventory to confirm – the London & Paris-based artist puts together ultra-limited collaged-out lifestyle pieces that are loaded with intertwined narratives. Beyond their aesthetic rarity, VERYRARE garments are designed with sentimentality in mind, sustainably and meticulously crafted to be lifelong heirlooms. Below, 23-year old Reyes unpacks his influences, the legacy of artwear, and his long-term role in flipping the fashion script.
You started out as a visual artist. What kind of work were you making, and what inspired you to make the shift towards design?
When it comes to Art, I’m from an artistic and commercial descent, with members of my family at each generational level deeply involved in either fine arts or trade. A lineage of creators, traders, innovators. My forefathers commerced drapes, distributed electricity nationally lighting up France and Egypt, some are even exhibited at the Musée d’Orsay (Desvallieres). My mother works with ceramics and does mosaics for a living, and I helped her in the studio as a child. As far as I can remember, I always tinkered with her stuff, touching new materials, sensing textures, collecting bits and scraps. I have it in my blood, in my DNA; and I really like to transcend plans. I hate to be ‘satisfied’, and I become bored very easily. Considering myself to be a multi-hyphenate and a new-Renaissance man (21st century is the New Renaissance in my opinion) it was only logical that I’d make the leap sooner or later. Rewind some 5 years from now *already*, and I was an undergrad at Warwick University. I was already on my own vibe/having a unique wavelength upon coming there, wearing my own creations non-stop and designing custom merch for a ton of student societies and events. That’s where/when a shift towards design happened. Being apart of many of the aforementioned societies (which were ran like legitimate businesses catering for thousands of students btw), I started out a simple digital designer blueprinting facebook covers and parties’ bracelets. Rising the ladder I ended up being the creative director of a plethora of them (a position most of them didn’t even think was necessary at the time). I also met my current- (and now longtime) managers @DarmoArt there (I’m represented by them, like an artist-in-residence at the Gismondi gallery, 20 rue Royale 75008 Paris). They believed in me and I gradually stepped up and the rest is history: I did many solo shows in galleries (galerie Gismondi, galerie Sellem, galerie Joseph Charlot, Le Purgatoire Paris etc.), museums (Musée Fluctuart), art fairs (CADAF), auction houses (Drouot), exhibitions of my works were held in the Ferragamo flagship store Avenue Montaigne in Paris and even my alma mater the Uni of Warwick recognized my talent a year after I graduated and enabled me to be permanently exhibited there in the main hall of their business school building (WBSS — see below).
You can read my full bio here but basically my main thing is 2D collage and 3D assemblage. The guiding principle in my work is impactful visuality & catharsis; very layered (like the substrata of my mind/consciousness), sometimes glitchy & maximalist. All the visuals (or ‘imprints’) on my works somehow are interwoven together, relating to one another and displaying many potential stories open to the spectator’s interpretation.
‘Keep Combing’ (Raf Reyes) ©Raf Reyes, 2021That was my shift towards Design as in ‘giving meaning’ to things, as in adding to what was already there. But the real shift with fashion design though happened when my uni homies were asking where they could cop/get them, and that got me thinking. It validated my urge to hone and perfect the VERYRARE blueprint; maturing it during all these years via the prism of art — because I was rising on the Paris art scene meanwhile thanks to my talent agency@DarmoArt/Gismondi gallery managers; …becoming a man of taste and a connoisseur is a blessing and a curse: hence why, upon launching VERYRARE, I couldn’t roll back to mediocre quality blanks and simplistic one-layer/print-only tees I first devised for my personal enjoyment/consumption. I was frustrated and dissatisfied from the fact that the people purchasing my artworks (exhibited in galleries, museums, Ferragamo flagship etc. and sold for tens of thousands) were mainly old white rich dudes. I wanted to appeal to a broader audience, I wanted my high school friends to be able to buy a Raf too. I wanted to transpose my art and my aesthetics and my composition skills to the fashion industry. When you think about it, the canvas for a painting is made of linen/fabric, and a garment is exactly that. Now I’m a postgraduate master’s student at the Royal College of Art (MA Contemporary Art Practice w/ Fashion studies) and I’m finally putting my vision out in the universe.
Raf Reyes ©Raf Reyes, 2021How would you describe VeryRare’s visual style?
Two sentences shall do, and I’ve worked on them already for the website www.veryrare.co so I’ll just put them back here for the record. I reference Design’s history and signal its existence within the colliding worlds of archive and 21st-century fashion. Selected visuals feature different universes ranging from collector 90s aesthetics to contemporary sub-and surculture imagery; put on steroids or low-fi’ed for a fresh & reimagined clothing style, opposing ideas speaking to one another and are turned into very rare pieces. Super shortlisted into two adjectives: ‘cathartic’ & ’unapologetic’.
“I reference Design’s history and signal its existence within the colliding worlds of archive and 21st-century fashion.”
Which artists, designers and creative influences do you take inspiration from?
Can’t pick only one! The baseline of VERYRARE and my thinking is collage: aggregated thought and perspectives coming from a lot of different directions. When it comes to aesthetics-and-art-related topics, I’m someone attracted to the extrem(ities) for sure; for instance artistic currents wise, I’m first and foremost very attracted to Renaissance-style art (because of the rebirth of humanism & naturalism during this period, the prominence of the artist figure and the influence of greek-roman art + architecture, innovation in the techniques used, new ways to show perspective & depth etc.); on the flipside, I’m also drawn to Mannerism-style art, with their exuberant emotionalism & elongated human figures, strained poses, unusual effects of scale, lighting or perspective and vivid (often garish) colors; last but not least, maximalist Baroque style stuff and the dutch Golden Age/Antwerp school will always hold a special place in my heart — specifically, artists like Leo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt… This is it for my ‘old’ art inspirations, now, factually, I’m also influenced by contemporary art at large. To enumerate just a few, Van Gogh, Picasso, Magritte, Marcel Duchamp (Dada), Dali, De Chirico, Gauguin, Monet, Man Ray, Rauschenberg, Barbara Kruger (of course) for the tactics she used, appropriation with characteristic wit and direct commentary to communicate with the viewer and encourage the interrogation of contemporary circumstances. Collagists like Martha Rosler & Nigel Henderson, designers and architects such as David Carson and Tadao Ando, musicians-geniuses & polymaths-multihyphenates such as Kanye, Cudi, Asap Rocky, Virgil Abloh, Martin Margiela… the list goes on and on and on and there’s so many more I’d love to shoutout for their contribution to who I am today. In my humble opinion, originality is a myth, I think we’re all borrowing and remixing stuff out permanently. VERYRARE™ is the frankenstein-esque GMO’d brainchild of all my years of moodboarding (and studying), spewing out my own version of how I could make them—and me—proud.
And since it’s impossible for me to go to museums or galleries at the moment (because of the pandemic), I go back to basics. My day one inspo a.k.a the street inspires me: indeed, my block in Paris is full of stickers, tags, ripped shit, graffiti through/from which creativity sparks get revealed to me. Photography (notably Richard Mosse’s infrareds) and music (I’m listening to a lot of organica, nu garage, future garage, and chill/melodic techno at the moment). Lastly, the global community, humanity basically/ my fellow creative tribe inspires me beyond measure: I have like three accounts where I’m stacking the maximum limit Instagram allows me to follow, that is to say 7500 pages per account. Only following fellow designers and creators (my favorites being @Slimesunday and @Beeple_crap). I feel like I’m roaming the Internet too much. Tumblr, Pinterest, Wikipedia, the Vogue Runways archive, and Google Images are go-tos for me. When I’m not designing and piecing together the VERYRARE one-of-ones for my clientele, I basically either moodboard inspo out, dig through archive stuff, or organize my junk into folders arborescently, so as I can then retrieve anything at will. My computer and phones basically are the extensions of my brain at that point, storing my memory externally; mixing and matching, recreating something new with the old. Recently, I can’t help but put Daisuke Ohba first for his passionate depiction of abstract patterns, his use of pearlescent colors, iridescent as can be. Of course, Raymond Pettibon and Wes Lang deserve their special place too, for their cool mix of drawing and calligraphy (alongside Ed Ruscha, Warhol, Ramellzee, Futura2000, Basquiat — big inspirations of mine too). Hajime Sorayama’s chromed-out characters and “superrealism” wave his in, within which he says he “deals with the technical issue of how close he can get to the object” and Takashi Murakami for his superflat and maximalist kawai imagery, and Daniel Arsham for his fictional archeology new ⇄ old, how he blurs out the lines/boundaries between time and space, and how he uses cool architecture and pop culture principles and materials in his work. Lastly, writer-entrepreneur Bobby Hundreds’ book ‘This Is Not a Tshirt’ did hit me deeply, for its internet-led, brand-centric, renegade entrepreneurialism and Ablohian tourist-purist parallels.
You have said: “Our objective is to sell artwear, or even better just art, instead of streetwear and fast fashion” How would you describe “artwear”? How do you view the relationship between art and fashion? And what is VeryRare’s relation/affinity with the number 21?
Artwear’s OG roots stem from artists doing clothing. For instance, all his life Salvador Dali had a great interest for the world of fashion. His meeting with Coco Chanel inspired him to design clothing, such as the costumes for the theatrical piece, Bacchanale, and for the opera, Tristan Fou. In 1950 he created the special costume with drawers with Christian Dior. In the post-Y2K era, and as defined by UrbanDico in 2009 artwear is the following:
VERYRARE and Art are indissociable. Plain and simply, artwear = art you can wear. But to me, it’s really about tackling the following four points through the prism of Art history +schooling, and via being an artist out there in the post-2020 era (the year me and my elder brother founded the brand): 1. Unique: limited editions, each item/drop numbered up until ↑↑21; 2. Personal: your initials emblazoned on garment; 3. Premium: we make affordable street couture with irreproachable quality, 4. Non-fast-fashion: timelessness being primordial to me, I incorporate lasting thematics embedded in veryrare ℅ raf reyes artwear, and strong storylines/underlying narratives perspire from the pieces. Thinking deeply about it, streetwear definitely has mutated, that’s what Virgil Abloh was meaning when he said ‘streetwear is dead’. It’s now multifaceted and spurring new brainchildren: think artistic current/genre; giving way to other artistic currents/genres influenced by it. And artwear is quite different from streetwear actually; as far as I know nobody’s equalled me and my elder brother’s garmentry’s greatness + goodie galore offer in terms of referencing/going deep down into each of the visual’s at use (and the way they connect to each other on the garment — just like when analog/digital layers ‘sync’ when collaged together). I custom-make + hand-write on every goodie delivered to VERYRARE™ customers, for the smoothest and coolest customer absolute art experience; upon receival, a client can fully appreciate the extent of my involvement in every step of the process, and the unboxing he/she gets to enjoy is unlike everything else. V®R®®’s statement pieces storytell effortlessly thanks to my preliminary efforts to dig into their histories/signal their uniqueness via Design + cut & sew. Different deal, different feel.
As for our ‘lucky number 21’, it’s been the guiding principle for the brand. I was 21 when I really started to think I should launch V®️R®®. Our manifesto has 21 rules/points. Our productions/releases are purposely (ultra)-limited to 21 editions/drops; never restocking once that threshold’s hit. Our goodie galore holds close to 21 items/freebies inside. We have games wherein customers can win free pieces if they manage to assemble 21-pieces puzzles and/or get their 6-figures alphanumeric VR-iD certificate of authenticity unique code to have either a one or a two in it. The list goes on.
How are VeryRare pieces made? What materials and processes do you use? what’s the VeryRare ‘goodie galore’ that’s so talked about in your circles?
I use fabric as the blank canvas for my Art; having founded VERYRARE in March 2020, I went straight to cut and sew, high-end manufacturing, premium techniques — to mix street & couture, with a museum twist; to make art wearable and democratize what’s otherwise unaffordable. I’m sourcing fabric from all over the world and collaborating with fellow textile associates in France, Portugal, Turkey and China for now. I’m always on the chase for the best stuff in terms of quality (handfeel), durability and rarity/originality. For instance, this year I’ve been fond of and really loving towards the jacquard fabric (from Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834), a French weaver and inventor of the Jacquard loom). I do crewnecks and hoodies with woven tapestry and that’s something that’s been done since the dawn of times in the domain/field of Art with Bayeux, Gobelins and dutch tapestry too (that I’m the biggest fan of). We recently invested in our first-ever art-elier in Paris (Faubourg St Martin flagship). My crib was full of fabric, swatches, threads on the floor and pizza-like packaging boxes: it started to feel too cramped and counter-efficient ultimately, so the new + neighboring open space/studio remediates that. We just call it ‘the HQ’ for now and it’s where we make magic happen, as in it’s wherein VERYRARE’s statement pieces + goodie galores are put together. Altogether a showroom/backdoor inner courtyard shop and operations/orders fulfillment centre, everything done in-house. This is a major milestone for us as we continue to grow and people from all over the world support us.
“I have people DMing me, telling me how they love their clothes again with VR, and how artwear’s making them develop a true relationship with their statement pieces over time. This is what gets me up in the morning, and makes me want to wake up an optimist.”
When it comes to the idea of the ‘goodie galore’, it’s that I was dissatisfied with the current ways brands serve their customers. 99% of the times you order from the internet or in a shop, well.. you only get what you pay for. If you ask me the game/industry is tired, the dominant players lag behind when it comes to what’s really dope for us millennials, genY-ers, gen-Zers, incumbents became satisfied, and they feed us microwaved iterations of what they’ve been doing in the past twenty times already. I know for a fact (as I’ve been a customer before passing on to the other side — being a creator/producer) that we’re being money-sacked on the regular… and for what?! VERYRARE challenges that and takes an opposing position/stance vis-à-vis barely-cooked simplistic views on fashion. Right off the bat, I wanted my customers (whom I call ‘family members’ btw — for the specific reason that I’m trying to dissociate myself from mainstream brands — we’re not your regular indie guy/newbie brand//streetwear up-and-comer/wannabee) to get the feeling superstar models get when they receive pre-PFW giftings from high-end haute couture brands. An unboxing experience unlike any other. One that’s Art; more than just a mere fabric/cloth assemblage wrapped in a mailer. One you can flex on the rest of the world too, because it’s just above and beyond everything you know so far. The VERYRARE ‘goodie galore’ makes you feel like its Christmas every time you buy from us. Custom horoscopes, coloring books, calendars, stickers, puzzles, temporary tattoos, tamagotchis, keychains, trading cards, branded art handlers’ gloves, lenticular postcards and more.. Uniquely coined by *yours truly* and complimentary/on the house. My elder brother (and associate) often jokes/complains that I spend too much time devising these goodies, but truly really it’s the least of things; I’m paying back the end-purchaser with reciprocal love and effort (for believing in me and supporting he VR®® vision/endeavor). I must feel indebted towards them somehow and it’s in my nature to always compensate. In my opinion, VERYRARE’s value-elevating offer is one that’s crushing the industry standards by all extents possible, quality wise and quantity wise… as in… I’m still waiting for my competitors/other brands out there playing Santa like us (laughs)
Many people are moving away from fast fashion, instead opting for more sustainable options. How does VeryRare fit into this narrative?
I was recently appalled at that recent study/detailed survey – sample population of 2000 – of women and men alike, that showed that fashion purchases see the light of day/are worn just 7 times (on average) before being discarded. That statistic exposes fast-fashion and the ‘barely-wear’ culture, showing the extent to which modern individuals have adopted a weird (that’s absolutely f*cked up to me) mindset when it comes to their wardrobe pieces. With artwear and the VERYRARE unboxing (every goodie custom-made by me, packaging made out of corn polymer bioplastic, 100% organic), we transcend this and flip the script towards better ways of thinking. I don’t sell clothes anymore, I sell art. Ultra limited statement pieces, named and numbered (21 editions/drops max) for your next 50 washes. Stuff your grand-children would rock proudly. To be entirely fair, I think that the bulk of the 21st-century fashion buyers is lost. People have been matrix’d out to not think for themselves and to act on impulse/desire; they’re addicted to stuff that they don’t even like and hold no emotional value with. With VERYRARE, I’m making them unlearn their previous ways, and re-learn the VR®® way (so the end-customer can regain his/her personal/emotional connection basically, lost & now found again). When you flex VR, you signal curated taste and proud co-creation of new narratives. Every day I have people DMing me, telling me how they love their clothes again with VR, and how artwear’s making them develop a true relationship with their statement pieces over time. This is what gets me up in the morning, and makes me want to wake up an optimist.
It’s also for these reasons that I wrote the (quintessential) VR®® manifesto. Each time someone wants to make a declaration of aims public, notably in the artistic or political context, they do so via a manifesto; it is used to kickstart something new, a new current, a new wave, a new way of thinking; to change the industry/status quo or present state of things. VERYRARE’s manifesto matured like crazy in my head for 3/4 years easily before I felt the moment was right + had the courage necessary to launch the brand. I wrote mine in 21 bullet points (VERYRARE’s ‘golden number’/prism, through which lots of things are done). These are rules that I promise to follow, to stand for/by. Without the manifesto, I could never have actioned what follows now. The main pinnacle of it though is VR®®’s ’quattromotto’ namely quality, rarity, singularity & sustainability: they’re the pillars on which the brand’s solid branding/DNA and line of vision rest; solid and timeless, the manifesto allows us slight deviations but forces us to remain true to our core roots.
What have been your favourite VeryRare designs to date?
It would undoubtedly be our newest woven tapestry jacquard crewneck ‘Black Sheep/Maverick Mentality’. A high-contrast Rebellion scene, order vs. chaos type shit. I was inspired by this Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés quote: “Do not cringe and make yourself small if you are called the black sheep, the maverick, the lone wolf. Those with slow seeing say that a nonconformist is a blight on society. But it has been proven over the centuries, that being different means standing at the edge, that one is practically guaranteed to make an original contribution, a useful and stunning contribution to her culture”. Right now, being a yout during the pandemic, I wanted to express that it’s ever-more important to stand by your ethos and values even when the world may seem against you and push you back, you gotta double down on your Self. It’s a powerful piece for sure. And as every house needs an emblem, something worth fighting for, something worth being represented by, ours at VERYRARE is composed of all the overachievers, the underdogs, the black sheeps and the ‘crazy ones’. There will be hills & hiccups along the way, but with the V®️R®® on, worn like an armor, nothing can touch you. The piece features a black oryx and black sheep figures on both sleeves, amongst some white ones, layered & eerily fusing with mainstage characters. Verso side is inspired by soviet thought control programs & analog censorship techniques (before Photoshop even existed). This piece shall put the OGs and the new Gs in accordance. ‘Black Sheep’ asks a plethora of questions subtly and implicitly s.a which side are You on? is there even a side to pick on? can’t we create our own side just like we create our own wave/moves in this universe?
Lastly, my newest collection’s ‘Fallen Angel’ statement piece channels the power of Cabanel’s artwork I love so much; thinking about the painting, it’s just so powerful. The quiet fury and resentment in the ‘fallen angel’’s eyes, the single tear for his loss, hands clasped together in an effort to control these intense emotions boiling inside while being scorned by the angelic cohort above… This V®️R®® statement piece draws parallels with our era and ourselves (as protagonists) – barely containing our Anger in the aftermath of critical times’ events; when we think everything’s doomed (hence the ‘Lost Paradise’ alternative title) when, in reality, it’s not. The metallic blue drip stands for the angels’ blood poured from uptop (heard it was blue-colored), the exlibris woven is for the personal connection between You and the Piece, and the butterflies (at the back) are symbols for hope & new beginnings, an emblem of the brand.
What is your vision for the future?
I want to change how people view a piece of cloth. I want to change how they assign value and meaning to it. I want them to feel (and know) that they’re not alone; that they’re part of this large family of doers, DIYers & DIFYers (‘do it yourself’ and ‘do it for yourself’). The world right now is quite divided between the compulsive shopping side and the more conscious buying side, 100%-sustainable companies trying to mystify and greenwash the world at large, still polluting and replicating classics without actually delivering anything transcendental to the grand public. I feel like we need less ethical consumerism and more consumer activism: responsible brands that hold themselves accountable, treat everyone with respect, make products that last, pay everyone fairly, don’t mislead their customers, work hard to reduce their impact, treat their suppliers as partners, aren’t scared of unions, and pay their damn taxes. You look at the greatest streetwear designers and they stand by the same principles than me. They all paint a cohesive story with their work, substantiated by experience and credibility. To me, it’s never mattered how financially viable an idea might be, how popular a brand gets in the mainstream, for whom the blogs are shouting out. After the hype dies (and it always does), it’s the emotional repercussions that bestow a legacy: it’s like that Maya Angelou quotation: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’. I couldn’t tell you the most popular sneaker to drop last week, but I do remember every Undercover piece I’ve worn and loved, the inside of the original OG Colette store in Paris, and my first X-Large OG Gorilla hoodie, because of how much culture and narrative were attached to the brands and their offerings. Nowadays, it’s all about the celebrity associations and price tag, but timeless design is all about the narratives, the historical and emotional value.
“I want to change how people view a piece of cloth. I want to change how they assign value and meaning to it.”
With VERYRARE™, I’m heralding the second wave, the black sheeps, the underdogs, the crazy ones in Apple’s ‘1997 Think Different campaign’ sense of the word. I’m seeing/envisioning in/on the long-run/term. Upon making their first VERYRARE™ purchase decision, my customers progressively will grow with me, gradually knowing what they’re embarking themselves into. They become part of the VRARE family, knowing there will be hills and hiccups, subsequently vouching to be sticking with VR®® through the ups and downs. Ultimately, I want them to get a sense that they’re standing on the shoulder of giants, and that they’re themselves an integral part of this cluster of giants: previous question was about my influences/inspirations, I feel like I somehow owe them, and my sole purpose in this life is to carry them over & add my contribution, my metaphorical ‘stones’ to the Creative Empire built by humanity (so far), the very artistic-aesthetic-intellectual-philosophical grand edifice constructed by society (at large). That’s why I put so much effort in referencing, recollecting, shoutout-ing and spewing out all my inputs out in the complimentary VOAT®® zine (coming with every VERYRARE™ purchase, part of our goodie galore we offer complimentarily with every purchase) and the accompanying storylines in the webshop’s items thumbnails/dropdown menu descriptions. It’s a way of giving my thanks: I’d be nothing without them. Lastly, I will resolutely make popups happen, and there are some festivals’ booths/partnerships in the planning that I can’t disclose for now. We definitely need more IRL interaction and I intend to deliver. And since I dabbled in the events industry during my undergrad years, long-term wise, I’d love to host some type of VR®® boiler room too, creating absolute art installations prone to entering psychological states of Flow, peace of mind, joy & happiness via synesthesia, intersecting fashion with music in perfect symbiotic osmosis.