Unpretentious and at home with ambiguity, Dom Sebastian’s answers are as plastic as his fashion. For someone who says “I don’t know” with uncontrived regularity, his conversation is lit up by the occasional one-liner dripping with the casual confidence of a young artist who knows his own worth, and doesn’t much care if anyone else does.
Going viral as a schoolkid with surrealist experiments on tumblr, he moved to London to study at Central St Martins in 2013. While still studying, his album art commissions included Hot Sugar, Bewilderbeast and Empress of; his sweats and caps were being stocked worldwide, and he counted Chanel, Nike, Camper and Puma among his clients. Despite his affinity for the unconventional, his graduate collection is still something of a curveball.
Whatever else it is, Gel Futures certainly isn’t pretty. Each of the five sets is unnerving in its own way, a little too experimental to be “attractive” but all the more magnetic for it. The most millennial of pinks forms a silicon stretch-vest that visibly clings; molten swirls of red and black on clasps and capes bring back the cool kid vibes of primary school; reptilian green, sky blue and (frankly offensive) banana yellow swirl on a series of sleeveless thermoplastic turtlenecks; misshapen heels and oversized shirts are emblazoned with primitive solar iconography. Described as “an exploration through silicones, plastics and polyurethane systems”, its aggressive tactility of spikes and perforations hint at fully-formed wearables that could be realised in the not-too-distant future, directing us to see the body underneath as equally protean and unfinished.
“I became a bit obsessed with silicone. The way it feels, how versatile it is how you can change its characteristics. Throughout the whole project I’ve been looking at how far you can push these materials, not just silicone but thermoplastic and polyurethane.” His graduate collection (and accompanying not-look-book) is an exploration of those materials and processes “…but the word “gel” for me is an overarching term for a lot of things. It links into the liquid photography stuff I was doing before and it’s also not just a physical thing – conceptually, in terms of sexuality, gender and appearance, there’s the idea of fluidity.” Sebastian is fixated on this plasticity, and I wonder if it’s a reach to see this preoccupation with retaining an essential shape and identity, while also defying definition and remaining in flux, as reflective of a queer relationality with binaries and boundaries. He nods emphatically. “There’s definitely that perspective as well.”
While the medium has changed, there’s an identifiable aesthetic running through Sebastian’s work over the last few years. I ask about his old tagline “visual subversion” – “subverting the idea of what something should look like, and developing that into something new” – and whether or not it’s still useful in relation to his current work. He pauses thoughtfully. “I still like that, it’s a nice term. Does it make sense? I don’t know. I guess it’s sort of my phrase, but I haven’t said it for about 3 years.” The best pieces reference his earlier visual projects (as his own recurring preference for the clear/millennial pink set seems to acknowledge) but despite the dissonance it’s somehow cohesive. In any case, there are glimpses of the “clinical yet surreal” juxtaposition that defined his early commissioned work: the same pre-occupation with immersive fluidity from the ridiculously insta-friendly “slime” series and Camper FW16 promo video, as well as the warm pastel gradient of his viral Holographic Melt series, cropping up in the new collection.
“That’s what I aim to do with all my work, to make it all cohesive even if it’s in a different area.” And then, casually of the project that brought some of fashion’s biggest brands knocking, “I don’t really like that Holographic Melt series anymore.” Considering it was well-liked enough to go viral, it’s fair to wonder why, but pushing for an answer I get a diplomatic response. “Lots of reasons. But it’s nice to see the impact it’s had.” That impact hasn’t just been restricted to tumblr – as well as recognising his own art on phone cases being sold at street-stalls in central London, Sebastian alleges his artwork has been lifted by some of the most recognisable names in pop culture.
“Let’s talk Katy Perry.” I venture.
He smiles, but the subject is obviously closed. “My lawyers are dealing with it.” I assume the same is true of SF9 – the K-pop sensation who allegedly used an image from the same series for their album cover for ‘Breaking Sensation’.
Moving on swiftly, I pull up an interview with Coeval, where he cites Marine de Van’s “In My Skin” and the New French Extremity movement as influences in his recent work, as well as commenting on the limitations and inherently ugliness of the body. Isn’t it a tricky line to tread between a body positivity rhetoric and self-love on the one hand, and the body-enhancement and bio-hacking aesthetic that’s so attractive to him on the other? He smiles slightly guiltily.
“I was thinking about this the other day. If I’m saying I hate the human body then people are going to be like ‘that’s not really the right thing to say is it?’ But I don’t really like it that much to be honest.” In terms of utility or aesthetics? “I guess both. Well, I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it that much. I can’t put my finger on it.” He sighs. “There is just something I don’t like that much about the body. I think that’s part of where this project comes from, seeing how I can enhance it or change it in some way. But then when we think about fashion, we’re thinking about embracing the shape and enjoying the shape, so I think in some ways I can appreciate it. It’s hard to say. It’s a line.”
There are subtle references to that line throughout the new collection. The icons on Sebastian’s website that link to the pieces in the new collection are all vessels – a commentary on the limitations of the rhetoric of utility often used when talking about the body, shifting the focus to how form changes as the scope of function is expanded. While these vessels are “the motifs of the whole thing,” the sun and spiral logos that crop up periodically are also “integral to the project” – and the indeterminacy of their end points aligns with the inescapable fact that as a fashion collection this project is technically unfinished. It’s why the Gel Futures publication is explicitly not a look-book – Sebastian only promises an exploration, and that’s exactly what he delivers.
If the collection had a showstopper, it would probably be the gif that first made me take a real interest in Gel Futures, and what Sebastian has to say about it (with a characteristically nonchalant shrug) pretty accurately sums up his graduate collection, too. “I was just kind of enjoying myself. I don’t know, it was just nice to feel the textures, the liquid and the plastic – quite an interesting experience. And I was wearing it as well.”
While it’s difficult to tell what’s wearable and what’s a prototype in the new collection, there’s no doubt that the choice to focus equally on the materials and the digitised presentation of the collection, as mediums to engage with in their own rights rather than as facilitators of a set of ready-to-buy products, is deliberate and considered. “I like that. When you look through all these publications , they’re all obsessed with ‘real’ and stuff that’s ‘real’ and photos of people looking ‘real’. I don’t know, I just don’t find that very exciting. Reality doesn’t excite me. I do want to make it all wearable eventually, though. That’s the direction I’m going in, what I’ve always been interested in.”
Sebastian has always worked resolutely on his own terms, which explains why fans are still waiting – 5 years since his last release – for new music. Despite millions of plays on his track ‘Vision’ (“it’s too trap for me”, he remarks in a bored voice), he’s only recently rediscovered his interest in music. “I’ve been experimenting with some new sounds. It’s definitely a case of trying to find your own unique sound, and I’m still working towards that. I don’t want to release any new music – or anything new – until I get to that point.”