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Social Impact: Founding a one-of-a-kind space for the queer community of London and pioneering as a groundbreaking designer.
East London is more than a borough, it’s a living, breathing sprawl of culture; its people are in a constant cycle of discovery as they rotate from area to area that the cultural capital of the city has to offer. Although fashion designer and founder of venue VFD Lyall Hakaraia would say that Dalston has had its day in this cycle (for now), there’s no doubt that its cult status was thanks to his of his work that pioneered the area as a safe haven for the queer community.
A designer by trade, Lyall opened VFD - then Vogue Fabrics Dalston - after he leased a beast; a four-storey townhouse in need of some serious TLC. Two tonnes and several skips of rubbish later, we couldn’t believe his interior feast for the eyes was once a squat.
Taxidermy, vivid upholstery and an eclectic mix of decorations astonish and intrigue, as Bach from his radio breezed through a space that could only be in East London. We sat down with Lyall (and his cat) to discuss the story of the building:
“When people ask about what my personal style is, I just say to take one look at my house: it changes all the time!”
Can you talk us through the journey of this amazing house; from when you moved in to opening VFD downstairs? It must have been an amazing one!
“Before VFD opening, I always lived in the building, but when I took it over it was an absolute wreck: water damage, no working toilets… when I moved in there was dirt, dead cats, mattresses: you name it.
It took a while to get the space actually working and functioning because everything was absolute crap. Once the space was cleared it then became real for me: I’m now leasing a four-storey building! I wanted it originally for the ground floor; I’m a designer by trade and I’d been making clothes so I needed a home for my ten machines, cutting tables and fabrics.
But then there was the basement: it was decked out in pine, like some weird sauna that had really gone off. It took me a couple of years before we had a couple of people live there but were awful as tenants.”
So when did you decide to turn it into an inclusive event venue instead?
“Well, ten years ago at the time there were no bars open, we were here for before Dalston Superstore or really before anywhere else. So, I said okay let’s turn it into a disco! It was myself, my friend who was trans, another friend recovering from addiction and a set decorator who was a black woman in her fifties with three kids.
We literally got a skip with sledgehammers and destroyed the whole thing! Once we took it all the way back to the walls we just went from there. At its heart, VFD was founded as a queer welcoming space for people of colour and trans people. So, we started having parties for friends, which turned into people asking to have their parties there, which turned into running illegally without a license for a couple of years. Once we got our license, we’ve only grown since!
Why do you think VFD was such a success in the East London area? What about East London makes places like VFD thrive?
“Well, at that time to go into the west end to all the clubs was £30 in a black cab, but here you could have an amazing night for less than £30 and walk straight home without any fear because everyone lived in this area. It was a different time, that period when there wasn’t that friction between communities so people could walk home really safely.”
Do you think that kind of uniqueness has changed in Dalston in the face of gentrification?
“There are still some of pockets of interesting stuff going on but I think Dalston has had its peak; it used to be absolutely heaving on a Friday night but now it’s the Mare Street area that’s busy. Before that it was Hackney Wick, it’s part of the movement that people in this area make, they find places and go there and then they hate them and move on. That’s just how it goes, it’s nice that Dalston is quietened down, it means it’ll come back up again.”
Let’s talk more about your designing career. Have you always been a designer?
“I went to art school, but it was mainly painting I did back in New Zealand. I knew I didn’t want to stay there, so I spent a lot of time making money to get out. We weren’t celebrating our culture there, it’s part of colonialism that make you question your origins and heritage; it makes you want to move instead of staying and celebrating it. Nowadays, because there’ that recognition and celebration, that sort of talent brain-drain doesn’t happen as much, there’s now a lot of people going back now.”
When did you come to London?
“I landed in London on New Year’s Eve in 1990, so I got to experience London in the ‘90s. When I was here I did lots of bar jobs and restaurants, but I just thought, if I’m going to make a go of it with designing I needed to give it up. It’s what I always say: there’s enough opportunity in London to give up again and again and be okay. As long as you have conviction and realise there’s going to be hard times, there’s always going to be opportunities for you. I just needed to fully focus on my work, and I couldn’t do that with a bar job.”
Where were you living when you were doing that?
“I was squatting just up the road from here in Dalston, so I’ve actually been here for more than twenty years. There were seven skips of rubbish when we cleared out, we had a vegetable garden and a tree-house.”
You started off squatting, but went on to create an accomplished design career for yourself in this amazing building, was something like VFD always going to be a part of that?
“I didn’t always wan tot open my own venue, that just happened. At that point in my career, I was making clothes and designing which was my main source of income. I was working with Gaga, Madonna and Beyoncé.
My last big project was the Ms Carter Tour, I made a lot of intricate pieces for that, which is really my forte, but I decided to let it take a back seat after working with big companies. It’s working with record companies, managers, stylists, styling assistants, and the artist themselves, and then with the last 10% of the time you actually have to make the clothes! The Ms Carter Tour was 2015, so I haven’t done any huge jobs like that since.”
What have you been doing since then?
“In my opinion, the most important thing you can do in London is making connections and now in the six years since, I know everybody! [laughs]
I didn’t go to university or any of the fashion colleges here, so I didn’t have that network that you immediately get when you graduate. Instead, I was getting to Portobello Market at 6am selling tie-dye t-shirts and shirt I had patterned with potato-prints! That was the case for a lot of emerging designers back then; they made no money from shows, what was keeping them afloat was Portobello.”
What has been the highlight of your whole career so far?
“For me, the highlight of my career has been the whole learning process, I can now make a fully-tailored suit, a full-on Victorian corset, I can work with leather, silk; it’s learning all those skills that have made my career what it is. I’ve also loved working with amazing stylists like Patty Wilson and getting them shot by people by Steven Klein on amazing models; you’re then part of that conversation that made fashion what it today. That was amazing to be a part of.”
What’s in the future for you in terms of your designing and VFD?
“The idea at the moment is to restart the label, I have an investor so we’ll see what happens, but you never know: have you seen what the economy is like at the moment? [laughs]. I’m writing up a business proposal, so we’ll just have to wait and see…”