"I remember being at a New Year's party in Rome as a teenager and I'd arrived by myself wearing a pair of jeans. Everyone else was dressed up. I saw a girl in a skirt and really high heels and it just struck me how vulnerable she looked. I felt empowered in my jeans. As a woman, you're so autonomous in them. You can go anywhere in them. And there's just something cooler about being dressed down." I'm sat discussing the virtues of a sturdy pair of trousers with Sofia Prantera, founder of Aries Arise, the East-London based womenswear brand that's quietly been working its way onto the hangers of London's most discerning dressers. It was started in 2012 by Sofia, Luca of Slam Jam and Fergus Purcell, who you might know better as Fergus “Fergadelic” Purcell. The pair met in '93 while both working at Slam City Skates and formed an instant bond – over their love for comics. Sofia is adamant on my arrival in the studio that we don't take any pictures of her. "Who? Me! No, no, no, this is about the brand." Her lexicon is a Londoner's but her lilt is still thick with Italian. Naturally, she is dressed in the brand's signature patch-work denim and after she's fussed over me and made me a (very good) cup of tea, we slip into conversation.
"I grew up in Rome, but my mother is English; my father Italian. So my influences were always a clash of those two cultures." Her earliest memory of Italy is, "Going to Fiorucci to buy comics. My dad was really into comics and he got me into graphics. In the late '80s, comics were very important culturally and politically in Italy. They were rather extreme and adult. There was a strong history with comics and political involvement and Fiorucci used to sell them – along with pink creepers." So when Sofia met Fergus for the first time, who arrived with comics in hand – "I just fell in love with everything he did. Up to that point I hadn’t met anyone else who was as into comics. From the very beginning we discussed establishing a brand together." So how did the Italian teenager find herself in a basement off Tottenham Court Road surrounded by boys in London's most famous skate-shop in the early '90s? "My mum would come back from London with copies of i-D and The Face so I was aware of London that way. My sister and I were listening to post-punk and American punk music at the time, and she helped me shave my head and dye my mohawk pink." Encouraged by her mother, Sofia soon found herself in London in the middle of the Acid House movement. "I moved in with my step-grandmother, whose surveillance skills were pretty poor. I would go clubbing not knowing everyone was high at first. It was just so... hedonistic, and so trendy. These transvestite clubs, like Kinky Gerlinky and the Mud Club, were wild. Me and my best mate would sneak out at 1am and wait at the bus stop in the middle of nowhere, for a bus that sometimes didn't come. One time we were brought back by the police. We were having a great time."
Things settled down temporarily when Sofia enrolled at Central St Martins. "People were raving and high fashion was irrelevant, but you could see the seeds of Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan." The shadow of the grand Italian houses she'd grown up under was receding – "It was naff to wear those big brands; it was about music. Only with magazines like Dazed & Confused did it become relevant again." Aside from the "Paninaro style that was all big cropped 501s, puffer jackets and Timberlands" derived from American street-culture – that is often casually cited as the 'only' Italian youth-culture sub-culture to have existed – Sofia's introduction to Acid House, and London, was seminal, and the traces of the scene's aesthetic can still be found in her and Ferg's designs: Giant smiley faces, glow-in-the-dark demonic cartoons and splatters of iridescent rainbow paint. However, the cut and finish of the garments up close render the finished product closer to the couture process. "For me it was always going to be difficult to reconcile that high-low fashion balance," Sofia explained. "I decided I would incorporate trash culture (my love of graphics and skate-wear) with my appreciation for designer fashion via my methods and processes. The production costs have to be high and you have to work with really great manufacturers otherwise it folds into itself. I think one of the tricks is to use simple fabrics like jersey and denim and do it well. What we do is not mass produced; I'm mathematical with my cutting. I think that’s my being Italian; we don't do 'sportswear'." The two movements, high-fashion and streetwear, much as they are now, were forced together in the early 90's by an explosion of youth-culture and Sofia was stood at the collision point. "It was a really fantastic moment for skateboarding. We were invited to all the fashion parties – this was like ’93."
After working as a designer at Slam, Sofia went freelance, worked with other brands and had children. So how did she muster the guts to start Aries? "In 2012, when we started, 'streetwear' was a dirty word. People had seen it the first time around and weren't ready for it again. Or, so they said." Fergus, of course, is the man behind the illustration of the triangle that would forever change the fate of youth culture and street-culture in the UK (he is the myth behind Palace Skateboards’ infamous Penrose triangle logo.) The two met to discuss launching a brand and picked up where they left off – with conversations about those grand Italian fashion houses and their enduring passion for graphic-design and comics. "The name came first – he’s an Aries. The temple (the logo) is supposed to represent the old Italian labels, like Versace and Moschino. The graphics were then all about destroying the temple; rats and ruin and flies – and the fly became our logo – the death and decay and the resurrection. Out of that comes Aries Arise. It was mirroring what we were seeing – looking at those brands going through changes and new things coming out of that; the rose, signs of new life."
The duo's signature jeans (think bleached straight-leg jeans with giant hairy middle fingers painted on the calves with gold-leafing on the buttocks and furry lettering) have skewered each collection – but their AW16 line shows subtle signs of change. Dennis the Menace, furry bumblebee jumpers, and red silk trousers with ombre tassels stand out, as do military green knits and Withnail and I style large wool overcoats. The overall impact is a fresh take on a post-punk aesthetic. 'That’s what attracted me to streetwear: girls dressing like dudes. I wanted to look like one of the guys, not in any sort of try-hard way. I always dressed as a dude. If I could, I would shave all my hair off now," she beams. The brand has been stocked in GoodHood and Matches Fashion for several seasons now so I'm surprised by Sofia's response when I ask her where she sees Aries going: "I want it to be a proper brand." It is, I tell her – surely? I wonder if she's thinking of those monolithic brands she so frequently references but decides she's far too low-key for that kind of ubiquity. In a time where trends get killed off so quickly, I realise Sofia is after longevity. "What kind of jeans you’re wearing in a particular moment says so much. It's reflective of where you are in your life and what you're doing in that moment in time. No more lycra!" And we're back to where we started: denim. In a time when jean is King, Aries is queen.