@Hey_Reilly’s witty, metamodern mashups of iconic brand logos like Fendi x Fila, pop culture and classic art goddesses Rihanna + Aphrodite, and vision of Céline Dion/Dior caught the attention of fashion houses cool and confident enough to enlist his subversive sense of humor. Colette, Marc Jacobs, Gucci, Moncler and, most recently, Fendi got hip and tapped the brandalizing disruptor to telescope powerful new messages of brand identity. The Impression’s Dao Tran caught up with the meme star to talk about the opportunities that grew out of his Instagram fame, working with the late, great Karl Lagerfeld, and social media platforms as places of learning and discovery and a force for good.
Dao Tran:How did you become this all-around creative artist/art director/designer/graphic designer?@Hey_Reilly: Truth, I left school with very few exams not really knowing what to do, but I always had an interest in art. Back then, a government-run Youth Training Scheme landed me an apprenticeship in the building trade, of all places! I went along, expecting to muck about all week and get paid for it, but part of the course was to spend one day a week at a local art college, and it was there that I suppose I found my tribe, meeting other lost kids, great teachers, and even people who called themselves “artists” and “designers”… which sparked an idea that I could maybe become one too.
With the help of some fantastic tutors I was encouraged to apply to Dundee University, and it was there that I had my first experience of studying fashion. Dundee was a great place to study with a strong art department and really great leadership; it was hard work, but it’s there I learned I really like to totally immerse myself in a project.
My tutors at Dundee pushed me to apply for a Masters at the Royal College of Art (RCA), which would have been totally unthinkable a few years earlier. Winning a place showed me how far I had come and gave me a lot of confidence to relax and enjoy the environment. Living and studying in London was a dream that came true – truly it was the time of my life.
At the RCA I learned how to express, refine and believe in my own vision, and have the focus and confidence to deliver it. Plus, I got to meet some of the most amazing artists and designers of our time –my degree was presented by Derek Jarman and Issey Miyake, a memory I have carried with me all my working life.
Dao Tran:You started with a t-shirt line? @Hey_Reilly: I started my first t-shirt label (called For Love & Money) with a friend of a friend, keeping it really tight with 5-6 designs to begin with, and I was lucky enough to be picked up by Dover Street Market. The range subsequently sold out, which brought me some press attention and offers of financial backing, which in turn led to Concrete Studio being set up with two other founders.
Dao Tran:What did you learn from working with Concrete Studio? @Hey_Reilly: Working with the team at Concrete was a real learning curve. We created, designed, produced and marketed three brands during my time: Reilly-branded t-shirts, which then grew to become SNCL (smile now cry later), a casual sportswear-inspired men’s collection; and Natural Selection, a denim brand made from high–quality Japanese selvedge fabrics.
Concrete taught me more about running a brand than simply by having a love of fashion – the need to have complete command of many different aspects, a head for business, be free to work all hours, to deliver on time, and to not mistake growing quickly for growing steadily, no matter how great you’re being told you are.
I also learned to be hard-headed when it’s needed, so I was able to walk away when other opportunities came along, poorer, freer and wiser.
Dao Tran:When you freed yourself up to start concentrating on your art – what did that look like? @Hey_Reilly: I constantly work and rework ideas for images, and have been doing since college, so when I took a pause from fashion production, it was natural to pick up that side of my work. For a while, I was happy to experiment and make art all day, and that period was such a luxury. I have always had agents and commercial representation for the graphics side of my work, and I had licensing deals and had been producing commercial work on and off, but I’d also been turning down commissions as I was so just too busy handling the business side of the clothing lines.
So in hindsight, just getting the chance to take a breath, refocus on the core of where my creativity comes from, and work solely on my art was exactly what I needed. Now I feel better balanced, and I can structure my time how I like, free to work on purely creative ideas and pick up client-responsive commercial projects again.
Dao Tran: Tell us about your IG account and what happened from there. @Hey_Reilly: I had been creating original digital work and sharing it on Instagram right from the beginning of the platform, and for a couple of years I was trying out different concepts in digital image making, playing with the unique Instagram format and layout. Often I was just using it as an online sketchbook, as a place to park ideas. Back then it was just all friends following me, then it eventually built up to 1000 followers – a huge milestone I remember!
Dao Tran:Was there a tipping point? @Hey_Reilly: Eventually I was contacted by Instagram themselves, which was kind of weird and amazing, the way it happened directly all through the actual app interface. They asked if I’d like to be featured as a “suggested user.” At first, I didn’t really understand which part of the app they were talking about, and then I thought it might be some kind of a joke! But after some research and asking around, I realized the opportunity and said yes. And then my followers instantly jumped VERY quickly, increasing exponentially – you could see them going up by the minute, which was a very strange experience. Eventually, the number plateaued around 40,000 followers, all in the space of 3 days! It was surreal, NUTS really, and fascinating too as it was such a uniquely modern experience, as modern as the idea of social media itself.
This massive new audience caused me to think in a slightly different way about the images I was sharing, to refine and play with the format, explore what works and what doesn’t, and feel for what matters and what doesn’t. It totally spurred me on to make more and more work for my audience, which I discovered I love doing, because the format, the discipline and the reaction all goes to support and encourage my work offline, too. And I’m still amazed and grateful that new followers keep coming. I realise I’m lucky, so I tried to use that luck to build my Instagram presence up to where it is today.
In early 2017 I created a series of images as a group, images that played around with well-known brand logos in a process I called “brandalism.” The series was titled FAKE NEWS, and these caught the attention of a few fashion creative directors and stylists, and to my delight many of them even reposted my work, including Silvia Venturini Fendi, Kris Van Assche (then Dior), Alastair McKimm and Julian Ganio, and a new phase in my career kinda kicked off from there – as along came Fendi…
Dao Tran:You’ve described your collaborations with Fendi and Moncler as dreams come true. Were there other personal milestones along the way? @Hey_Reilly: Working with Sarah Andelman was a big one (founder and creative director of Colette), now heading up Just an Idea. Not only did she give me the windows of Colette to design, she introduced me to Marc Jacobs (a personal hero of mine).
Through that I freely collaborated on a REILLY FOR MARC JACOBS capsule collection, produced for Hypebeast’s first ever HYPEFEST. The tee shirts were used on the Tomo Koizumi collection, the first on-schedule show for New York Fashion Week Fall 2019, styled by Katie Grand.
I also got to work with Sesame Street to help celebrate their 50th Anniversary. This was a project very close to my heart, as I have always been into cartoon characters, puppets and animation, and I totally loved those furry guys when I was a kid.
Dao Tran:How was teaming with Karl Lagerfeld and the Fendi team? What did you learn from that experience? @Hey_Reilly: I fulfilled a lifelong dream, to win such recognition and work with your idols. Karl, Silvia and the team at Fendi were phenomenal, kind and attentive, open and sharing to work with, and I feel very privileged to have been part of their great story. But more than that, to meet and be with them, to be so well looked after, really to feel a part of the big Fendi family, was simply phenomenal.
Visiting the headquarters in Rome and Milan and seeing the amount of effort that goes into creating just one catwalk show was an amazing experience. I had a no idea of what it would be like, so I was surprised at the positivity and support for each other. I spend most of my time in front of a screen alone in my studio, then to jet off and be a part of the gritty, hard-working, ultra-focused creative spirit, and being included as part of a large team – if only for a little while – felt very inspiring. It was like landing in a dream really.
Again, I’m aware of how lucky I was to get the chance to work with the late, great Karl Lagerfeld and Silvia Venturini Fendi, on both the men’s & women’s collections, and I’m so proud the reworked Fendi branding I made for Instagram became the central part of a global phenomenon of the Fendi Mania collection.
Dao Tran:Did working on these successful collaborations inspire you to revisit your t-shirt line? @Hey_Reilly: I was constantly being asked if my images would be available to buy on clothes and tees again, so when I was approached by new business partners with a different perspective on business, the timing felt right.
I am dipping my toe back into designing and producing fashion, I missed that side of the business. It’s great seeing your work on clothes, seeing the way the message of the image takes on new layers when it exists out in the real world, walking around on real bodies.
Dao Tran:What are you doing differently this time around? @Hey_Reilly: Mainly by building trust, and going slower, which means I have more control and can enjoy the whole process more, and I can just concentrate on the image work, and take it as it comes.
Dao Tran:Speaking of revisiting, how was it lecturing at RCA after having studied there? @Hey_Reilly: It was tiring, inspirational, and even quite touching to be back there. I was asked back to the RCA by programme director Zowie Broach & Brian Kirkby to help mentor and critique their students, and in a lovely way it felt like coming home! It’s exciting to meet and talk with students again, to feel their enthusiasm, so I hope they got as much out of it as I did.
Dao Tran: What do you try to give the next generation of image makers and tastemakers? @Hey_Reilly: It’s good to be able to share your experiences with other creatives, and hopefully it’s useful to help find, refine and foreground their own point of view. I wanted to remind young students this is their time to be truly free to explore, experiment, to really open up; to work through the good and the bad ideas, and above all to lose yourself in working hard. To feel that youthful desire to push out into the world, to make people sit up and pay attention was a treasure.
Dao Tran:Digital has obviously been a big part of your success. What do you want digital to help you do next? @Hey_Reilly:
I suppose Digital technologies have not only been the toolbox I use to create my work, but also the platform for presenting it, the conduit for sharing it and the message board for finding collaborators, too. I don’t spend a lot of my time thinking of how this world will develop, but I suppose I try to focus on being positive when I’m in a digital space.
Lately, digital platforms have made me more aware of social issues around inclusion, cultural sensitivity, sustainability and the environmental impact of fashion production. I hope we can move beyond just dropping buzzwords to learning and acting in a more informed way. Though I can’t say I know much, let alone suggest any answers, I think it’s important to argue for social media platforms as places of learning and discovery, and use their reach and potential as a force for good.
Dao Tran:What are you working on now/what are you looking forward to next? @Hey_Reilly: I’m excited that a few great collaborations are due soon… of course, it’s all hush-hush for now, so keep watching. I am looking forward to a holiday! But also finding new dreams along the way, hopefully!
Dao Tran: Thank you for taking the time and good luck with making those dreams come true!