Words Gordon Ritchie
Portraits Kirk Truman
“Bloomsbury does feel like a classic part of London…”
“If you go along to Lambs Conduit Street there are classic pubs, classic restaurants, like the Italian over there. All round the back streets here – pubs, fish and chip shops. Things like that make it very much like classic London. If you know it really well there are lots of really interesting things, but it’s almost like a weird kind of in-between area.”
Enter the Interzone. A dark, wet, London night. A date with the future. The Beat That My Heart Skipped at The Renoir. Walking rain-soaked terraced streets beneath an umbrella from Queens Square hospital. Suddenly through the mist a huge monolith, a temple to Modernist architecture, rears up out of the dark. Concrete towers shoot into the heavy grey sky as torrents of raindrops pelt down. Like a transplant from a wrecked future it feels out of place. A huge, multi-tiered concrete ship washed up on Bloomsbury shores from an outer place; unknown, abandoned. The life-sign of cinema the only light.
From Dundee to Bloomsbury, the screenplay of Kenneth MacKenzie’s life takes in design courses in the North of England, classic London fashion label The Duffer of St. George, and the creation of his own label, 6876. 6876 aimed to smash down the seasonal sales calendar of the fashion industry long before the mega-brand disruptors of today, forging its own path, referencing insurrection, student uprisings, and underground activists, all in a minimal style. “The very first promotional pictures we did for 6876 were taken in here in The Brunswick in 1995. The photographer knew someone who had a flat. From then on I was always interested in the idea of it.”
In the first 6876 collection was a clean minimal take on the classic blue shirt. Covered placket, no visible buttons. The shirts laid the path for the pared-down aesthetic that the label developed as it moved, shape-shifting to a focus on, and a cult following for, outdoor rain-ready gear. North West mountain ridges and standing-only South Stand terraces. This was casualwear worn by casuals, edgy apparel for outside agitators, riot-ready for resistance against those who sought to reject true modernist ideals. “It just feels like a natural thing now to be in The Brunswick. It’s kind of a peculiar period. A lot of the things that I’ve always been really interested in and friends of mine have always been interested in. Brutalist architecture and a real hard form of modernism are starting to get a bit mainstream. I see myself as a real arch-modernist. I have that feeling now that modernism is in the hands of people who aren’t modernists. It’s starting to become a misquoted word.”
Transported up and into the interior of The Brunswick. The wind blows across the tiered residential steppes that look down into the barren grey valley of the new shopping plaza. Rainwater gathers on the paving stones. A hooded figure with purpose and attitude, dressed for the cold, the wind the weather brings. Brutalist expression, a stand against the established path. This is the right area. “A business partner in 6876, photographer Norbert Schoerner provided the introductions and contacts. There are only 12 commercial units in the whole building and they rarely become available. It was about 6 or 7 years ago and I jumped at it as I always had this idea that I would like to be in here. I always knew the building and knew about the history of it. When we got a studio here, everyone was like: it’s ridiculous, it’s the perfect place for your kind of miserable aesthetic,” he says with a smile. “It suits it well.”
Hidden from sight, high up in The Brunswick, Kenneth communicates from 6876 HQ with a group of friends, artists, and film-makers situated in similar concrete situations across the UK. They find common ground in Modern Studies, a subject a young MacKenzie excelled in and was inspired by at school in Scotland, and now an inspiration and reference point for artistic and aesthetic projects. Single minded, but with a healthy attitude to collaboration throughout the timeline of the brand. Japan called, as did Fred Perry, Rohan, Cash-Ca and Clarks, to receive transmissions of 6876 design code. The outdoor trail, hiking, biking and mountain apparel, ubiquitous now and still gaining ground, owes a debt to the influence of Kenneth MacKenzie and 6876.
“When I’ve been using things like Ventile, Harris Tweed or waxed fabric, I still like to challenge by doing it in a very modern, designed way. Going round day to day, you look at how people are dressing and look at what people are interested in. In some sense, I react to that. I’m going to go the opposite way. I reverted back to the early days. Designing the garments, I wasn’t quite sure whether they were ugly or not. They were quite brutal in terms of design, and maybe that’s a subconscious act, but the main thing was that it was a real reaction against the prevailing mood of nostalgia and faux-artisan culture, which felt really alien to me. My friend Scott King called it the Mumfordisation of Britain, complete with bogus folk music, while 6876 felt more electronic, more modern. The Brunswick is the right place to come up with that kind of design. I think it reinforces some things. There has been a bit of a reappraisal in Britain of Brutalist architecture and it’s got a lot to do with buildings like this and the Barbican. They haven’t always been that brilliantly maintained. This is a Grade II listed building. The stairs outside here, they got rid of them, but in the Antonioni film The Passenger there’s a scene where Jack Nicholson walks down those stairs.”
Since moving into The Brunswick, Kenneth has been an observer. As 6876 continues the resistance, moving forward in hard times for an independent clothing business, he has seen his immediate environment change. “I used to really like The Renoir Cinema even though it wasn’t very comfortable. Now they’ve changed it into The Curzon, it’s actually amazing in there, but it’s another aspect of changing the building, from its old, slightly more low-key style. There have been a lot of changes. Originally you couldn’t get in from the outside – that end was blocked off – but when they did the refurbishment a few years ago, they took that off. Before, there just used to be an Iceland, a noodle bar and some funny Italian caff with loads of football memorabilia. It didn’t really look part of this area of London.”
“We make a lot in England – small runs. It’s quite niche. Each thing has to finance the next. You want everything to sell really quickly, and it’s very hard work. There’s no way I could even produce 6876 without the support of my wife, especially, and my family and friends, plus the extremely loyal customers. The industry has changed a lot. There is a different generation, new people getting into the brand.” The cult of 6876 now engenders digital myths of superfast sell-outs as limited editions are released, and there is a parallel secondary market trading in increasing values. Critical acclaim lights up the Internet with each new release. Kenneth now teaches millennials at Central Saint Martin’s and Kingston University, and a day will soon come when the next generation will tell stories about the 6876 aesthetic and Kenneth MacKenzie’s influence, all sound-tracked by brutal electronic music and documented in stark colours. They will look back at 6876’s sparse, concrete environment and recognise its progressive, forward-thinking, modernist attitude.