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Social Impact: Championing multi-disciplinary collaboration, true inclusivity and human interaction through creative agency and community communeEAST.
We first became aware of communeEAST - and its pioneering founder Leanne Elliott Young - when their monthly IRL/URL bookclub descended on cultural venue The Curtain several months ago. Seeking to bridge the gap between the experienced online world and digital relationships with real-life interaction that breaks the mould of typical networking events. Their bookclub is just one way that creative agency communeEAST is challenging the ways we appreciate the relationship between art and fashion. Visiting the communeEAST HQ two months later in Clapton was no different to the creative vibrancy of the book club; neon poles, a kaleidascopic wardrobe and a projection of the communeEAST website into her living space set the tone for the conversation that was to follow. We started by asking why an entity like communeEAST needed to be founded.
“communeEAST was founded in Art Basel in Miami with a very good friend of mine Richard Nicoll, we were discussing the intersection between fashion and art; how there were very apparent crossovers but the parameters that you could practise them were very fixed. For example, for an artist to make fashion that was an easy transition to make, but if you’re a fashion designer making art that was a big no-no. There were so many unspoken rules on how you could operate in the industries.”
Do you think the creative industries have changed since then?
“When me and Richard started communeEAST, that was back in 2015. Now we’re in a time where those boundaries are crossed more often, we're in the multi-disciplinary generation which is something that’s not frowned upon anymore. It used to be that there were fixed narratives you had to adhere to as an individual which you couldn’t stray from.
The fashion and art worlds were really coveted areas but technology played a role that really opened up those spaces and started a conversation between fashion and art. Think about it: being able to reach out and talk to someone across the world sounds minute but is a massive step from what there was before. I wanted to disrupt this narrative: what does it mean to be an artist?”
How has technology been a part of this discovery as a creative community?
“Through connection— you can absorb inspiration from the people and the inspiration and sound and texture of their lives rather than looking to our peers. What would it look like if a scientist, an artist and a mathematician opened a kebab shop? It’s about understanding the humanity behind creativity and what technology has gifted to art and fashion.”
So, once you’d realised there was this space in art and fashion what were your next steps to founding the industry disruptor communeEAST?
“Well, next the question was how we could bring all of this creative flux and energy into a space, into a manifesto. We were looking at physical spaces for a while and were so excited about excited about how this could roll out. It was an extremely painful time as Richard passed away, so communeEAST had a period of quiet. I have and hold the manifesto we wrote for communeEAST which I have to remember him by; it was pictorial with long poetic statements, that formalised and clashed, ricocheting together on the page, it was so intense, wonderful and open.
2017 seemed a good moment to look at CommuneEAST again, as the processes and elements seemed to make sense within the sociopolitical climate.
Looking back at the manifesto is a process that’ s still going, our initial proposition to have the work and our projects a kind of exquisite corpse’, one that would be passed from person to person on an endless journey of new perspectives and collaboration birthed the S.T.E.A.M narrative we hold.”
And all of this is made possible through technology! Is the appreciation of technology and social media something that’s also part of communeEAST?
“communeEAST loves technology but we also question it and explore it; I think that’s what we inherently do: ask questions and solve problems. That’s what our word is fundamentally founded within at the heart; it’s a discussion, it’s questioning.”
Let’s talk a bit about the communeEAST IRL book-club, as it’s how we first became aware of you! What was the idea behind its conception? Why is it called a book-club if there are no books?
“I wanted to get everyone from this huge creative online space to meet up in real life (IRL), and I noticed that the only things my very broad spectrum of friends didn’t miss was their book-clubs, they all went and never missed a week.
So, we decided to have a session everyone attends like that so that we spend less time online and more time making eye-contact in real-time, more face-to-face communication. We found so many creatives, thinkers and actually amazing authors were creating work about this.
We have had Amelia Abraham- queer intentions, an IRL/URL debate on if printed matter matters. We delivered one IRL book-club with author and activist Helene Selam Kleih celebrating Him/His, which was used as a more creative session; where you could become a part of the conversation physically and emotionally book. The first edition of the book that was an in edited unedited collection of extracts regarding men’s mental health, so the book club session be and an IRL version of that, their thoughts and conversations, artworks and images all around men’s mental health streamed through the night, There' were reems of paper everywhere by the time we were done. So, book-club is where people come and talk, sometimes we have a panel or a workshop, take over the windows of the hotel, screen a film, but the audience is always involved. You can go see the LCF collaboration with us right now and the BA Hons Fashion, Styling and Production UAL London College of Fashion.”
That same collaborative spirit lies through the consultancy and agency work communeEAST also offers. How do you approach projects with huge names like Selfridges and Frieze?
“When we work with companies on projects, we normally arrive and discuss weaknesses and problems in a quite a frank way [Laughs] But in all seriousness, we are there to help construct a better environment, so there is a need for openness, brutal honesties and sharing inherent weaknesses. It’s only after that we can actually start our work.”
What are your first actions when tackling something so complex and conceptual?
We always try to look at an IRL/URL omnichannel alongside an emotive communications strategy: restructuring how can they appeal to a wider deeper market.
How can you talk to a new audience and unite your own? Are you trying to market to a fantasy person that doesn’t exist? What actually are your sustainability goals? And basically, why do you exist? That’s always the tough one.
Whatever problems we identify, we always say, ‘let’s' solve it creatively’. The art direction and content production are where the magic happens, you can have the strategy but it needs to be reinforced by working with amazing talent, with the collaborators and makers. We can build crack teams for any discourse and context, by developing and delivering a succinct unison between strategy and creative cultural narratives.
For me, that means bringing in different talents to work with us on each project. Which is where our STEAM Narrative comes from: we want bold, objective viewpoints, not dusty opinions rooted in echo chambers.
You just can’t reach new audiences by working with the same people, it’s only together we can construct a legacy — no one person ever has the answer.”
I think that’s really important, especially in fashion and art; industries that infamously have a problem with diversity and inclusivity.
“That’s the thing, I never hire anyone who looks like me, and that’s a really difficult thing in this industry. Think about it: you and your peers all graduate at the same time, you got to the same pubs and panels, you follow the same Instagram accounts, you like the same photos, and before you know it, everyone you’re surrounded with are exactly the same. You can’t spend time with people that look and smell and taste like you. I suppose in that way, I’ve always taken the most difficult route, but you learn more and you get to a more plentiful place.”
With so many big names looking for a fresh new voice in terms of their communications strategy, do you think this is a symptom for a wider problem that the fashion industry has?
“We’re currently working with so many amazing clients to make lots of digital active spaces in-store, because brands tend to have the physical store, their e-commerce side and then their social media. They have this blurred space in-between, and they have no idea how to unite these areas together. How do we make something that stands outside the archaic beast of the fashion industry? Right now, the fashion industry is an archaic beast: you spend hundreds of thousands on a fashion show, the buyers go and make a speculative purchase for what the store wants in 6 months time and by then it’s already been consumed, gorged on, eaten, digested then regurgitated and spat out by every fast fashion outlet. I think involving technology, thinking holistically and digitally is the only way— then you have an emotive strategy that wins. It’s this blurring of IRL and URL and uniting these areas in an exciting way,”
Do you think that that’s the answer to making the fashion industry less archaic?
“It even boils down to the people: because I’m curating certain images through Instagram and I’m a deep thinker, the assumption is that I’m the from a particularly privileged background, and all we do is have all the lolz at events, but hard work, blood, sweat and tears are my secret sauce. It’s ‘the grit behind the glamour’ as my good friend says Judith Tully from the Centre for Fashion Enterprise always says.
I’m multifaceted, as we all are. I’m the daughter of an artist, which is a privilege in itself but was not a formalised route; my father was a tattoo artist, which came with its share of judgements.
Is that how you developed your love for art and symbolism as a young girl?
“When I was younger I actually developed love and talent of drawing and the arts pretty early on, my father’s tattooing was always happening in the background. He had his studio at home, there was definitely something in that. If you think about it, tattooing is art but in a very reductive kind of way; there’s a symbolism within it. You understand the narratives, emblems and symbols that people choose to live with and physically put on their flesh, in those days it was very much that.
For me, you need to be rooted in reality, you have to know what a fart smells like. You have to be in the gutter to look at the stars.”