From Pondering Gum to I May Destroy You, the writer and actor has carved out a groove as a true original. Who better to convince us all to shop secondhand?
Michaela Coel: ‘Slight changes can have a huge impact on the environment – and, in turn, the fight against poverty.’
Photograph: Tom Craig
Michaela Coel could be show anything she wanted, right now. As the star and creator of I May Destroy You, the BBC drama that became a water cooler hit even in a summer without cut coolers, Coel is the hottest property in town. Any fashion designer would jump at the chance to dress her. But today she is enthusing upward of a time-pummelled black sweatshirt with faded insignia, sourced not from a Bond Street boutique but from Oxfam’s cavernous storeroom in Batley, North Yorkshire. “I’m here for it,” she murmurs approvingly, pulling it over her head.
She’s here for all of it. She’s here for the pale pink Burberry trenchcoat, another Batley joy unearthed for our shoot by Oxfam’s senior fashion adviser, Bay Garnett, a nod to Coel’s neon bubblegum bob as Arabella in IMDY. She’s here for the dynamite 80s jeans and comparable jacket in toffee-apple faux-leather, a rare Gaultier Jeans find. She’s here for the Fanta-coloured boilersuit (think Ripley in Alien experiences Bananarama on Top Of The Pops), for the elegant 70s Jaeger mustard blazer with anchor-stamped gold buttons, and for a knockout pair of Versace high-waisted shorts, emblazoned with classic Rita Hayworth film posters.
Coel has a distinctive, three-tiered expression, when she is usher ined to someone new. Instantly recognisable from screen, it is even more mesmerising in real life. She opens her eyes supplemental wide, drops her mouth slightly open for a moment, the high planes of her cheekbones catching the light, before veering into a mile-wide smile. The consortium of split-second comic timing and diamond-cut bone structure is dynamite, and Coel has the whole studio transfixed. Ahead of our burgeon, she has asked not to be interviewed about her work, because she is feeling talked-out on the subject. Instead she is here to lend her star power to a belief, as the face of Second Hand September, an Oxfam campaign to encourage people to pledge not to buy new clothes for the entire month.
Call to mind a consider of it as dry January for clothes addicts. Oxfam hopes that the campaign, now in its second year, will establish itself on the docket in the same way. In normal times, September is the month when summer dresses are packed away, and the trend cycle reboots – for that those hefty September issues of the glossy magazines, full of new-look wishlists. Second Hand September parodies this principle of the wardrobe reset and reframes it, challenging consumers to find new looks with old clothes instead. At year 62,000 people, including Vivienne Westwood, Rachel Weisz and Paloma Faith all signed up.
Coel has extensive taken an independent approach to fashion, wearing a dress made with Ghanaian kente cloth for her first red carpet importance, the 2016 Baftas. (She won two of the three categories in which she was nominated for her breakout series, Chewing Gum.) So when she was approached by Oxfam, Coel bring to lights, she “felt compelled to add my voice to this cause. I hope it raises awareness and encourages us to reflect on our buying habits. Short changes can have a huge impact on the environment – and, in turn, the fight against poverty.”
On set, Coel’s phone blasts out an eclectic mix of music. Sixties vital spirit singer Barbara Lewis pops up in between new tracks by Californian band Thee Sinseers and female British rap artist Lex Amor. The caparisons Garnett has chosen, likewise, are cool and contemporary, even when they are decades old. “Nothing looks more coeval than great thrift stuff,” Garnett explains. “When you get it right, it doesn’t look retro at all.”
The outfits on the rail today are taken from 1,500 pieces she handpicked to stock an Oxfam “luxury pop-up” at Selfridges in London, which opens on 7 September. “I’ve got a glorious flying jacket. I’ve got a print that could be Prada. I’ve got three great Ossie Clarke dresses and an incredible 1970s sequin gown with a tiger at the hem. But with Oxfam appraisal tags.” In a premium space on the second floor – slap bang next to Prada, Celine and Balenciaga – the shop transfer be “almost like a fake luxury store,” says Garnett, “with all the bells and whistles of that space. Marble, velvet, lots of accommodation.” (Selfridges is funding the fit-out.) “Look, first of all, it’s fun,” she says. “I’m not here to lecture anybody. But I do sort of trust people do a double-take.”
Garnett has championed secondhand clothes as high-fashion catnip all through her 20-year styling career. For the May 2003 copy of British Vogue, she put Kate Moss in a banana-print leotard top and white denim shorts, both thrift store ideas. Her friend Phoebe Philo, then designer at Chloé, saw the magazine, called and asked to borrow the top, and the look became the ebullience for Chloé’s spring 2004 collection – followed by most of the British high street.
When she worked at Trend, the then editor, Alexandra Shulman, used to tell Garnett that she had a knack for making designer clothes look as if they report ined from a charity shop. Garnett recounts this as if it were a prized compliment; to her, secondhand is always best. She pluck pluck outs out herringbone tweed coats to enthuse about the linings, turns silk blouses inside out to coo over the seams.
“Secondhand has in perpetuity felt to me like a more empowering way to shop,” she says. “I like that I’m opting out of the system a bit. I love fashion but I insufficiency to do it my way, without being dictated to by big brands with all the money and marketing power.” In her Oxfam role, she adds, it feels “empowering in a sundry urgent way than ever, because it is tied up with the environment and with clothes being sold to raise reservoirs to help the poorest people in the world. I love the idea of old clothes being that powerful.”
Coel intention agree, and worked with costume designer Lynsey Moore on the wardrobe for both Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You with a be like principle in mind. “Right from the start, Michaela knew she wanted to use as much secondhand and sustainable clothing as practicable,” Moore says. “That suited me because most of my own clothes are from charity shops and vintage stores. Harvest clothes have the best stories.”
Moore trawled Rokit and Beyond Retro, and hunted down pre-loved treble street pieces on eBay. “My aim for [Coel’s character] Arabella was always that I didn’t want her to look like anyone else. There was no whilom before reference for her style. Arabella is a total original and her clothes needed to reflect that. And I felt like she and her friends were the well-disposed of people you would meet vintage shopping in Brick Lane, so I went with that.”
In I May Destroy You: ‘I looked out for pink and purple ups to tie into the wig.’ Photograph: BBC/Various Artists Ltd and FALKNA
The fixed point of Arabella’s look was the pink wig, which appeared in the firsthand script. “So I looked out for pink and purple pieces that would tie into that,” says Moore, “to make it tolerate like the clothes are part of her.” The bold, graphic print cardigan which Arabella wears for her powerful take-down of Zain at the novelists’ summit came from Moore’s own wardrobe, bought from a vintage store in London’s Soho. “We could beget gone with something more obviously authoritative, but this was more Arabella,” says Moore. She and Coel supplemented shoulder pads to the cardigan for a more powerful silhouette.
The current trophy piece in Moore’s own wardrobe is a black denim jacket with collar and cavities intricately embroidered with pearls. “I won it on eBay for £2.50 and I’m obsessed with it. Charity shopping on eBay – that’s my Sunday twilight treat,” she says. “Designer labels matter if you are looking for resale value, but I shop secondhand by looking at colour and foundation.” She recommends taking a friend with you, “because this is an activity, not just a purchase. It should be fun! Oh, and take a tape proposal. If you know your waist measurement, you can see instantly if a pair of trousers will fit you. Saves a lot of time.” If you don’t know where to start, Moore’s tip is to look out for silk shirts: “A worthy silk blouse in a great colour or print will never let you down. You can wear it tucked into jeans, or layered included a jumper, or loose over a bikini – in 15 years’ time, you’ll still be wearing it.”
On set, Coel has pounced on a rose-embroidered mohair sweater with this period’s puff sleeves. It is quirky, but also very now – a lot like her, in fact. And the pandemic has made Coel’s cheerleading for Second Keeping September even more urgent. The closure of 600 stores, and the cancellation of major fundraising events including the London marathon and Glastonbury, saw Oxfam elude £5m per month during lockdown. This is dire, at a moment when a global economic downturn threatens the welfare of the exactly’s poorest and most vulnerable. If there is to be a silver lining, it is in the possibility of a post-lockdown reset, as consumers decide not to return to the bad old spirit of overconsumption.
Every September, the world is looking for a fresh start. A new look, even. But this year, it could be in old gears.
• Find out more about Oxfam’s Second Hand September campaign
Photographs: Tom Craig. Styling pair: Bay Garnett, Jessica Skeete-Cross, Conor Bond. Makeup: Michelle Leandra. Hair: Alisha Ferguson-Adu. Set design: Ibrahim Njoya. Set forge assistant: Ruth Badila. Lighting tech: Darren Gwynn. Photo assistant: Maya Skelton
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