The emerging ‘artwear’ label is a hyperactive multiverse built on being real - and we’d like citizenship.
The first thing you should know about Raf Reyes, head honcho of streetwear brand VERYRARE, is this man can speak. He talks and writes with a sprawling, frenetic, shroom tea-stained tongue worthy of the Beat Generation, if Kerouac had swapped his typewriter for a lit-up Mac keyboard. The word count tool must shudder at this creative’s loquacity (his interview answers weigh in at over 4,000 words!) and we can only hope to god he isn’t disposed to keyboard RSI.
Which is actually an entirely great thing, as VERYRARE is very much worth talking about. In the outer layer of a nutshell, it’s a streetwear label based between London and Paris founded in March 2020, focusing on limited-edition tees and accessories. Its creator, Raf Reyes, started out, just a little surprisingly, doing BSc International Management at Warwick University. Soon, though, his taste for design took him to art fairs, auction houses and galleries across the world (we did the whole getting drunk in the park thing at Uni) before gaining a scholarship at RCA. While many dream of a place, Raf’s not been enamoured, as he explains to me in his unedited stream-of-consciousness:
“My scholarity there has been more of a hold-up than anything else since they haven’t delivered their promises (it’s supposed to be the #1 art school in the world lol), studios aren’t open, I barely had time to really delve into the things I fucked with at the very beginning of it (pre-covid era), and to be fair, my fellows are on a different vibe than I am,” he vents. “So it’s more like ‘ok you’re certi now, you have the paper, you have the legitimacy to be an even legit-er artist’. Anyways, it’s funny ‘cause they’re trying to compensate by having big guns run the company like Jonny Ive as the dean/chancellor, and very recently Virgil Abloh has just been appointed as a professor-to-be, and I can’t wait to discuss some new stuff with him (been doing some designs he liked in the past).”
Fast-forward to March 2020, and we’re at the birth of VERYRARE. The first thing to note, though is that there are two offshoots: “Technically my brand has two appellations/declinations: VERYRARE™ ℅ Raf Reyes and VR®® (like Raf Reyes lol, like a play on the copyright sign — as if I added my layer/interpretation on past creative juices flows/dwellings — and a nod to Martin Margiela with the double M — a huge source of inspiration for me).”
On a similar tip, there are myriad buzzwords and motifs found throughout VERYRARE’s online portal: the ViR®®tual stylist, with a retro player select; the VR™ siblinghood community; the VR-ID serial number to prove authenticity and the VOAT®® zine received by every buyer. If you’re a little overwhelmed, we don’t blame you: but it’s part and parcel of the brand’s charm that it’s already mutantly outgrown the products it sells, less a lot of fingers in pies, more tentacles dipped in Fanta Grape.
The seed that everything else grew from, though, is a focus on authenticity. Every single tee the brand sells is emblazoned with the buyer’s initials, with a unique VR-ID number being able to be verified online. It’s a bold move for such a nascent brand, but the thinking behind it is sharp. “Authenticity is the antidote to narcissism,” Raf says. “It is a deeper sense of self that provides an anchoring of one’s character (one that doesn’t change with trends); in matters of taste, authenticity also furnishes one with a clear sense of style.” While once at the heart of streetwear, realness has been usurped by wealthiness:
“Back in the days, one would have to travel to London for Maharishi, New York City for J. Money, Japan for Bape etc., wherein the cost of the airline ticket was worked into the retail sticker, and that supposedly made the piece you wanted to buy extra special. Streetwear, in the early 2000s was like a scavenger hunt. It still is sometimes with exclusive pop-ups and the opening of some brands’ flagship stores (cf. Kith and Supreme Paris tees) but the internet changed that a lot to be fair. Now, every exclusive brand sells globally through their online shops; the gray marketers, auction sites, and reseller apps are the messengers. Nothing is more ubiquitous than e-commerce. It’s now easier for your Grandma to click on a luxe designer’s dot com from her sofa than shop at the Urban Outfitters sale rack in a neighbouring town.
E-commerce has razed geographical hurdles, and the modern means of keeping your brand out of reach from ‘uncool’ customers is by pricing them out. This explains why streetwear’s high fashion crossover has gotten so appealing (four-hundred dollars T-shirts/three-thousand dollars jeans etc.) It’s no longer about how hard you searched for something, how well you researched the culture’s history, or how deep you dug in your networks for that hookup, it’s now about class difference: whether you can afford to buy into some movement. As in ‘do you want it for its exceptional design or because of how much it costs?’ (cf. ‘How Much Is Your Outfit?’ competitions, which aren’t of athletic skills or talents — not even games of style — but truly really of teenagers puffing and posturing by way of wealth inequality, comparing how much money they can spend on fashion). For the past several years, this has become the face and farce of streetwear.”
VERYRARE, on the other hand, is built on creating clothes customers want to wear rather than sell, flaunt rather than flog. “Some of it may pop up on reselling apps but the majority of it ends up where I want it: on customers’ backs,” Raf says. “Me putting VERYRARE’s buyers’ names/initials (emblazoned) directly on garment, our smart tag, and the interactive certificate of authenticity + VR-iD unique tracking serial altogether turn a physical product into a digital channel that opens the door to two-way communication between me/VERYRARE and them, wherever they are.”
Unsurprisingly, Raf is a mega fan of The Matrix, the leaping-off points for his views on realness. “VERYRARE’s motto/catchphrase/tagline is ‘Exit the matrix: become VERYRARE’. The Matrix is so much more than a movie,” he begins. “Neo’s power in the Matrix depends on the degree to which he has let go of his limitations. Similarly, in real life, our ability to affect change in ourselves is dependent on the degree to which we have ‘let go’ of our false beliefs and attachments to the illusions. Essentially, what I and what my art does is whispering you ‘go the extra mile, dig deeper down the rabbit hole, take the red pill, scratch past the surface truths’; it urges you to break free of the prison you’ve potentially built already for your mind.”
Hearing this kind of imperative, politicised discourse from Raf isn’t too surprising, especially if you’ve done a rave-whistle-stop tour of VERYRARE’s website. There’s actually a manifesto featuring twenty-one (“VERYRARE’s golden number / prism”) bullet points of brand values, combining to form ‘quattromotto’, an idea of quality, rarity, singularity and sustainability. “I wrote the (quintessential) VR®® manifesto very progressively. Each time someone wants to make a declaration of aims public, notably in the artistic or political context, they do so via a manifesto; it is used to kickstart something new.” A little bit Futurism and a lotta bit Beat, it codifies the brand’s many codes, motifs and concepts into a far-out document in itself worthy of a gallery spot.
While the manifesto may be a one-way declaration aimed at the reader, Raf wants to make the dialectic between consumer and retailer a two-way street, and give people proper bang for their buck with every single purchase. This feeling cooked-up the Goodie Galore, an insane out-of-the-box take on unboxing culture, featuring a bundle of art and design that every buyer receives with their order.
“When it comes to the idea of the ‘Goodie Galore’, it’s that I was dissatisfied with the current ways brands serve their customers. 99% of the times you order from the internet or in a shop, well.. you only get what you pay for,” he says passionately. “Right off the bat, I wanted my customers (whom I call ‘family members’ btw — for the specific reason that I’m trying to dissociate myself from mainstream brands — we’re not your regular indie guy/newbie brand//streetwear up-and-comer/wannabee) to get the feeling superstar models get when they receive pre-PFW giftings from high-end haute couture brands.”
So what does it include? Scrap that – what the hell doesn’t it? “It includes a custom collage or lithography done by me (side note my gallery prices range from 5 to 14K per artwork), and our unique 16-pager VOAT®® (‘veryRarest Of All Times) zine; custom horoscopes, coloring books, calendars, stickers, puzzles, temporary tattoos, tamagotchis, keychains, trading cards, branded art handlers’ gloves, lenticular postcards and more.. Uniquely coined by *yours truly* and complimentary/on the house.” The customer isn’t just a king, they’re a full-on God. “Ultimately, I want my customers to get a sense that they’re standing on the shoulder of giants, and that they’re themselves an integral part of this cluster of giants.”
Although VERYRARE, then, doesn’t shy away from making (a lot) of physical product, sustainability is equally not ignored. “I’m sourcing fabric from all over the world and collaborating with fellow fabric/textile associates/connoisseurs in France, Portugal, Turkey and China for now,” Raf says. “We have achieved way more than the average/benchmark/bulk of brands out there: whether it be via me 1. trying out hybrid blends of organic strands of cotton mixed with normal ones for the pieces, 2. using only 100% bioplastic packaging made out of corn, and 3. that each and every artwear design+proceeds for our pieces support the FORTHE PLANET™ association (at the end of every accounting year) already goes a long way.”
Crucially, though, Raf doesn’t want to create a sustainable-first that’s sole design and messaging is built around it being eco-friendly. “I want to change how people assign value and meaning to a piece of cloth. I want them to feel (and know) that they’re not alone; that they’re part of this large family of doers, DIYers & DIFYers (‘do it yourself’ and ‘do it for yourself’). The world right now is quite divided between the compulsive shopping side and the more conscious buying side, 100%-sustainable companies trying to mystify and greenwash the world at large, still polluting and replicating classics without actually delivering anything transcendental to the grand public.”
If you thought sustainable fashion was futuristic, though, you need to hear what this wunderkind has got cooking for the future of VERYRARE. “Timeless design is all about the narratives, the historical and emotional value. And with VERYRARE™, I’m heralding exactly that and more, I’m the paragon of the second wave, the black sheeps, the underdogs, the crazy ones in Apple’s ‘1997 Think Different campaign’ sense of the word; definitely seeing/envisioning in/on the long-run/term,” he says. He’s happy, too, to extend his horizons as far as physically possible. “I’m more into the 50/100 years time scale shit, envisioning a future wherein your statement piece has been passed on from generation to generation, like some time capsule that still glows like crazy, shining brightly or shimmering softly (depending of the use you’ve made of it).”
Your head’s probably aching a little now, but in a good way, like slurping up that Grape Fanta we spoke about earlier too quickly. It’s this that makes VERYRARE so exciting, a boundless, incessant, turbo-charged energy to innovate, design and mindfuck; to always surprise, never reproduce and always avoid the ersatz. If it sounds like Raf’s way of speaking has rubbed off on us, we wouldn’t be surprised – it’s testament to the virality of VR and how infectiously cool it is. Just, whatever you do – if you ever bump into Raf at a new streetwear launch in some drip-filled studio in LA, block out the next few hours to have your mind blown – you won’t regret it…