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Studio Visit: Alicia, AGR Knit

Alicia Robinson lives in a technicolour dream world of zesty weaves, lush textures and bold graphics, brought to life in her eponymous knitwear label, AGR. Founded in 2019, AGR boasts playful and experimental takes on knit techniques;  marrying psychedelic palettes with traditional methods handed down through the generations.

Alicia’s vivid creations caught the eye of Yeezy, A Cold Wall and Missoni, for whom she’s collaborated over the past 5 years before launching her own stable, and last year’s first capsule release with SSENSE.  

Described as a natural progression from this inaugural offering – her AW20 collection takes inspiration from both punk and grunge (think Cobain, Vivienne Westwood’s Seditionaries) – and the juicy flamboyance of Notting Hill Carnival – where in 2018 her designs splashed across the streets and social media alike.

The South London based designer spoke to us about her origins, production processes, how corona has affected business in 2020, and what’s on the ultra-bright horizon for the label. 

How did you get into knitwear?

So, my mum used to do knitwear when she was at university and then she went from studying it at uni to flying around the world, working in factories, making hand knitting patterns for companies like Rowan – which is a hand knitting yarn – and then obviously she had me and  then she passed on her creativity to me. I even used some of her hand knitting machines which is quite cute!

But why did you go into it? Parents teach kids a lot but it doesn’t mean you follow into it – so what made you do so?

I really found it quite therapeutic which was quite surprising as it can be quite time consuming and I can be quite a stress-head – and it takes quite a lot of patience, but I don’t know there was something about it – I just really loved the process of making. With knitwear you’re not just taking a fabric from a shop, you are making the fabric that then makes the garment, so you’re literally making something from nothing.

How’s the journey been as a knitwear designer – since the first capsule collection up to now?

The journey has been mad – before that I always used to do crazy collaborations with different people and fun projects and now there’s a different work rate. I mean I’ve always worked ridiculously hard, and long hours but you really have to work to a timeline, you have to be thinking about costs, which for me has been the biggest learning process as you’re going along. 

Most other knitwear designers or general designers with their own brands probably worked in a commercial position before that, and then on to their own brand. I did freelance knitwear for 5 years, I always worked in a bar alongside it and then went into launching my own brand. So I guess this is how people are doing it in the 21st century – aren’t we?! 

What is AGR’s brand ethos?

I would say it’s like ‘more is more’ – nothing is ever too much that’s just my personality which I sorta breathe through my brand. So whether that’s doing techniques on top of each other in one garment, or whether that’s fuck it attitude that I think really comes out in the brand. Or whether it’s not being not afraid to do anything and step out into any vicinity. Also, the person that I think would wear the brand is very self assured, very confident and willing to take risks and break boundaries. I think that’s really important – I will experiment with anything. 

What freelance knitwear consultancy have you done – what work that we might know of?

The most interesting bit I think people would think is working for Yeezy –  and that started off with Season 4 and went into working with them through Helen Lawrence and then working with them solely on my own. And then worked with them for a year and a half,  then more recently have come back on board as knitwear consultant on YeezyGap which has been great – that’s kept my super busy during lockdown and also supports my brand. I’ve got the chance to work with some amazing people through Gap and that’s also a learning curve all the time – even working alongside Mowa and Kanye himself has been such a good experience. But some other favourite people I’ve worked for in the past have been more London designers like James Long, doing his show knitwear pieces really put my name on the map and they were so experimental, so texturised, so much colour. That was amazing – you can have like completely free reign with some designers.

You also did something for Missoni back in the day? 

So with Missoni back in the day, that was one of my bucket list tick offs – like such a great experience. They called me out to do some consulting for a week, and there were a few London knitwear designers that went out to consult a week at a time, and we did samples and swatches – it was just an amazing opportunity to be able to work in their space in Italy. There’s nothing like it.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

 It would probably be to put your ego aside in certain situations and just ask more fucking questions. That’s the biggest thing when you walk into an environment or a studio and you’re not 100% confident with a task you’ve been given – you know if you’re in a internship or junior position sometimes you don’t just wanna ask the people next to you because you don’t want them to know you can’t do it. But you should trust the people that are in those studios because they’re there to help – but some people can be bitches – you just have to get past that as well – you know what I mean. And also to be more organised with the business side – accounts and whatnot – it just makes your life easier in the long run doesn’t it?

So what differentiates AGR from other knitwear-led brands? You always attempt – and make sure – you stick out from the mould, so what do you do?

I think my brand is really brave, AGR is a merge of my freelance and my brand coming together, with all the collaborations and along the way, they really gave the build up and the setting stone into my brand, which meant that when the brand came out it was already known in some sorta weird way. But also I think the way that we approach other streetwear brands – Nike or Converse – one of my biggest dreams was to work with Nike and that’s just coming true more and more, because I’ve worked it in to happening with affirmations. I think it’s definitely about breaking the boundaries of traditional craft – tryna move forward with different dye techniques or our new graphic mohair knits, that was a big thing this collection I became obsessed with. There’s a different obsession every season.

What were the main or multiple inspirations behind this collection? 

We went for a punky, grungy kind of tone, for Autumn/Winter – whether it’s the colours – and the mohairs – maybe if it’s the variation in stripes in Kurt Cobain’s mohair jumpers back in the day – that was a big inspiration.

But when it comes to the girls, you can still see nods to Carnival which I love when it’s coming through with the laced elastic pieces which has always been my statement – they’ve just been so developed, if you look at them they’re just so intricate and that took so many hours of programming and sampling.. I just think that really paid off. 

Yeah when it got to Carnival that was a really big moment, people really recognised the brand.

That was really massive, the first one was probably 2018. I was working in a pub called The Beehive in Tottenham, and working in a knitting shop and doing freelance pieces and then I think Carnival was coming round and you guys asked me to make you outfits and ended up making like 10 outfits. I contacted Nike to support me in some way and they were like ‘That’s crazy we were about to reach out to you to do a project with TNs!’ and said we’ll support you – they sent me like 35 pairs of trainers. I remember unboxing in the kitchen like ‘Mum I made it!’ – I was so happy. That shoot was just so organic and Stefy (Pocket) did such a great job with the photography it was mad. 

So how’s the last year been for you as a designer of a young brand, as obviously it’s been corona with multiple obstacles. And you work with factories a lot, so how’s it been creatively for you and getting your clothes out?

It’s been really tiring, I’m not gonna lie, it’s been a massive slog – always learning. I hate to say this because obviously it’s a worldwide pandemic but it actually did some good things for my business and obviously it’s cost me a lot of money – and whether it’s time – I had to pay more to get fabrics from different places and obviously they weren’t gonna ship out. Even stupid things like Ubering shit around the country cos you couldn’t get across London – it cost thousands more pounds than it should have to get your collection. It meant that we missed a season because factories were so backed up which was really disappointing because Spring/Summer is always a good one for us. We made the masks which really put my name out there during the pandemic. I made like 20 and sent them out to friends, a couple of influencers and people in America – and next thing you know Anderson.Paak wears it the whole way through his music video which is mad! It’s been a great year. And then Yeezy hit me up and we started working together again – and then I’m very excited for next year and the next couple of months cos i think the coming out of the pandemic is gonna be the most interesting. 

But this year as well, I think I’ve started learning to ask for more help from people that I know – and then if you don’t necessarily know how to do something well, then pay for somebody who does because it’ll save you time and money. At the beginning it’s hard to say that cos you’re tryna juggle not being able to eat and buying yarn for your business but now things are a little – I’ve been able to take on an assistant, hopefully I’ll be able to take on one more – I mean at the moment she only works for me 2 days a week but things will start progressing in that way cos 2 hands are better than one. You also need to just rest as well.

What is your favourite piece from this collection and why?

I have 2 – ok we’ll stick with one even though there’s 3 versions. You see the cargo trousers – you’re gonna be surprised cos it’s non-knit! Can I tell you why it’s my favourite piece though? So last season with the cargo trousers were so nice so we really wanted to develop them so we worked with a girl called Stephanie Anchawa and she helped me with the dyes and prints. Then we went into lockdown so we weren’t allowed to do any of the dyeing and printing in her studio so she basically moved her whole studio to my mum’s house – we basically dyed 70 units of fabric for 70 pairs of trousers in my mum’s back garden which basically took 2 weeks because you had to  dye it, dry it then tie-dye it and lay it. But then it would rain so we’d have to cover it with tarpaulin and then tie it and wash it out. So those trousers have got blood, sweat and tears in them, I’m telling you. That’s why they’re one of my favourite pieces. But then after that, I think it would be – there’s an exclusive mohair knit for ssense which is really beautiful its the pink enlarged swirl.

What were the main references for this campaign? What made you go down this avenue?

So me, Troy and Jake were really going for old school Benetton vibes, you know those group shots ads and that’s why we had like 9 models, which is a lot for a first campaign but I really wanted a variation throughout the shots and then that group shot just bangs! Then it was kinda Benetton meets Versace campaign – but the other thing we were going for – I don’t wanna say ‘90s vibe’ but there was an element of that in there but I think that the shots – it was all about the stances and how the models are interacting with each other, whether it’s giving it a bit of depth. That’s why we bought in Soul Nash who’s a designer so that he could do the creative movement so we could get those shots and he really did an amazing job. He brought so much energy to the shoot and he was really keeping everyone happy and it was well worth it. 

Who do you hope your latest collection to be worn by and why? Obviously a lot of musicians have worn your pieces – where do you picture them wearing it and why?

Do you know who I’d fucking love to wear it? Koffee – imagine Koffee wearing a pair of my cargos in their new music video, that would be insane. Or Burna Boy in one of my mohair knits. It would have to be someone who’s confident in themselves – I just think of someone who’s got self assurance – that’s really what you need. Cos who’s gonna step outside wearing that colour palette.

So what’s next for AGR?

I’ve got something exciting coming out in January with a big sports brand that’s all I can really say. But next year we’ve got something really exciting, we’re tryna grow into AGR 360 Knit Studio so that’s gonna involve getting a bigger studio in South London – expanding – and also toying with the idea of having a second line – so you’ve got the high end stuff which is going to all the big stores and then a slightly more commercial side which you might’ve seen we’ve been exploring – with hats, bags, which is just a bit more ‘fun’ – little bits and pieces coming out of the studio on the side. Also we’re looking to expand with some massive machinery, to help the brand grow and tryna work out as a brand how I can be more sustainable in my making where I can shorten my lead times, help the brand financially, so we’re looking to invest in some crazy machinery which is super exciting, which will also mean I can do more community projects and hopefully partner up with some universities and colleges – that’s all to be confirmed. I just wanna be able to give back and teach more – so anything that enables us to do that is amazing. 

AGR’s AW20 collection is now stocked at SSENSE, Browns and HTown. 

Photography by Jay Russell.