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MJ Harper AnOther Magazine cover AW20
MJ Harper is wearing RANDOM IDENTITIES

Cover Story: MJ Harper In Conversation With Stefano Pilati

Dancer, model and choreographer MJ Harper speaks to Random Identities’ Stefano Pilati and stars in beautiful collage of people, paintings and fashion by Katy England

Lead ImageMJ Harper is wearing RANDOM IDENTITIES

Art and fashion direction: KATY ENGLAND. Photography: BENJAMIN A HUSEBY. Painting: CHARLIE GOSLING. Floral still-life photography: FLORA STARKEY. Talent: MJ HARPER. Beauty: KENNY CAMPBELL.

The label stitched into the back of the clothes that Stefano Pilati designs under the name Random Identities is blank, bar a series of notches representing the letters of that name. The initial iteration of its logo was a black block, like a censor’s bar. Those are distinct, anti-authoritative statements from a designer who, now aged 54, has headed not one but two of the world’s most influential fashion houses: Yves Saint Laurent (as it was then known) and Ermenegildo Zegna Couture, following training at Giorgio Armani and the Prada Group. The latter two are based in Milan, where Pilati was born and raised. Today, he operates from Berlin, where he relocated in 2013 with his partner, Christian Schoonis. He established Random Identities in 2017, the name referencing a conscious eschewing of genders and seasons. This new project reflects Pilati’s mindset today, both in terms of his nightlife in the febrile club culture that Berlin is known for, and cultural shifts that make those concepts feel attuned to the times.

Random Identities’ catwalk debut took place this January, in a disused Florentine train station, comprising a mishmash of pieces – some already on sale, some toiles not yet commercially available. The models, drawn from Pilati’s circle of friends, were men, women, children, non-binary people, and Pilati in the closing look. Their passages were directed by MJ Harper, a Jamaican-born, Florida-raised classically trained dancer, model and choreographer. Harper danced with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York, before joining Wayne McGregor’s group in London in 2010. In 2015, he came to Berlin, where he and Pilati crossed paths. They have been inseparable ever since.

The relationship between Harper and Pilati is complex and multilayered. It is true that Harper is able to wear Pilati’s clothes with a panache perhaps only equalled by the designer himself: in their latest collaboration, a film titled Domestic (between wars), Harper moves from room to room in Pilati’s home with a grace and hauteur reminiscent of legendary mannequins of another fashion era. Yet, Harper’s personality is as important as his physicality to the creativity executed under what he dubs “the umbrella of Random”.


MJ Harper: Berlin feels like an island in the world.

Stefano Pilati: Yes, always.

MJH: And especially during these times. It’s been really tricky, because even before restrictions were limited or lifted, it didn’t really feel like what was happening was happening here. Just the way that the government dealt with everything, it’s been on another level. It’s really disorientating, actually.

SP: The lockdown started in Berlin mid-March, but it was a lockdown where you could go out on your bike, no more than two people, social distancing everywhere. It stayed like that for quite a while, and then they started to reopen bars, things outside, but the weather was glorious. So everybody was in the park. But I’ve been basically in lockdown, I’m not kidding, from March. I went to the Black Lives Matter demonstration, because the reason was overwhelming. I grabbed a mask and then, when I got there, I put the mask on, and realised that I was surrounded by thousands of people. Everything is compromised.

MJH: It’s 100 per cent bad. And you know what’s really interesting? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately – it’s going to take a long time for that to reverse. And even though we have physicalised this way of being and not being in a relatively short amount of time, it’s going to take a long time for it to be reversed, because there’s actually quite a lot of trauma in it.

Even if you don’t experience the virus first-hand, you experience the psychology behind it. I noticed that in myself. That choice whether or not to hug or kiss someone that you really, really love. It creates a physical tic, and it’s going to take a long time for that to leave the system. And then it will re-enter in a way where people feel relaxed and can actually be with one another again. And it’s fascinating, because we’ve been speaking about club spaces – the community around that here in Berlin is so important, and a big part of that is the fact that bodies and space are completely stripped of class and all these different things.

And I feel like we’re both yearning for that, because there’s something in that allowance that changes the way you engage with yourself and other people. So it feels a bit sad to experience these tics personally, and then to see that, collectively, we’re all trying to grapple with what it means to be severely disorientated.

Another thing we were speaking about recently, and it’s something that I’ve been asking myself constantly is, “How do you locate the body within this madness?” As you just said, even if you have your own personal structure and a rhythm and an understanding, if that conflicts with someone else’s, you can’t navigate it in a way you could have four or five months ago.

SP: It’s a new form of body language.

MJH: Yes, exactly.

SP: The body language that you had before was recognised by everybody. So if you were someone that always gave a hug, now, all of a sudden, you have that barrier. And you see people breaking that barrier, but you don’t want to. Both are valid positions, by the way.

Meanwhile, the knowledge of each other has been broken because, immediately, the other person becomes the one that doesn’t care. You are the one that cares, but you can also be the one that is paranoid. So by the time you have all this going on, you’re like, “OK, stay home.” It has re-established a new civic sense.

If you think about it, in Japan, for example, they don’t kiss, they don’t shake hands. They always wear masks. They’re always respectful towards others. I always saw it as pure civic sense. And I attributed that identity to the Japanese population because, in a way, I know that they have certain body language, but that doesn’t stop me from discovering their personality. To tell you the truth, here in Berlin it’s difficult. There is a civic sense ... Maybe now people go to the park, two by two, but they still go to a park with hundreds of people in it.

MJH: I think the virus has shone a light on our behaviour in such a way that you see that, previously, there were a lot of things that went unsaid that actually really needed to be thought through and processed. And, before the virus, there was this kind of veil that covered our reality in such a way that people were just in that hamster wheel doing their thing, surviving. And then it lifted and the lights came on, and it’s almost like all of the little rats and things didn’t have time to run away and they got caught in the middle of a party. And it was very scary.

Then you have questions come in, like, “What’s going on? How did we get to this point?” And I find that really fascinating, because just being in your body, as you are in your body as a dancer, you cannot help but constantly observe things. You’re constantly observing the way people hug, the way people interact.

SP: For me, it’s like dressing up.

MJH: And then being a Black body ... So I’m honestly seriously fascinated by this question, “How did we get here?” I’ve been hearing that a lot. Beyond the virus – accept nature, nature does its thing and will continue to do its thing – but beyond nature, from a human social point of view, it’s like, “What do you mean, how did we get here?” It’s been very clear for a very long time. And a lot of people have chosen not to see these things. And all of a sudden, we’ve been left with deep, deep, deep, uncomfortable truths that I think are part of the destabilisation process and the traumatic process that we are experiencing right now. I think that’s what makes it so vivid.

But going back to the point of this veil being lifted, I find that really fascinating. When the body is stripped of garments and you just have the flesh, what is there that’s speaking?

SP: We are vulnerable, for sure. We all got more and more vulnerable. And frankly, it also brings you to this sense of responsibility towards the world. Fashion shows, this configuration to keep them up ... We love fashion shows. But that will not be easy in the future.

MJH: The show we did in Florence was like a strange omen, in a weird way. We had this massive light passageway that defined a very misty space and then the bodies were going in and out of the mist – one minute you saw someone and one minute they were gone. And what was really interesting within that – and what I find interesting with the umbrella of Random – is the non-linearity of it. And we’ve noticed it’s what really triggers people – when I leave the house and I’m wearing something [from the label], if you go to the grocery store or take out the trash, it blows people’s minds.

SP: I created a monster.

MJH: It blows people’s minds because it disrupts all of these social conditions that we have just really eaten up from birth without even questioning. Why I bring this up is because, going back to speaking about the virus, I think it’s a question at large in society. I think we go through life being taught that we are linear beings – and we really aren’t. I think if you can hold space for that idea, you can also hold space for Blackness, for queerness, for all these themes.

SP: Yes, you find yourself.

MJH: You find yourself in a space where you can breathe and still not know the answer, but still navigate the question and confront yourself and bring yourself in front of people that can help push you and support you on your journey. That’s what’s interesting about Random. It’s interesting to see people navigate it, because it really throws people off, but not in a violent way. I think of it almost like a squid throwing out ink.

SP: The last show, in Florence, that was a very specific and special moment. And a little bit sad that it’s probably the last show that can be made like that. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think it’s going to repeat itself.

Fashion is seen as a business, as consumption, but I believe in fashion as part of the social fabric. I grew up with fashion that meant something. And then it became a business. And the meaning of it disappeared.

A person that wants to do fashion should accept the fact that, actually, it is something that nobody really needs, especially in this moment. Well, there’s always a better place to spend money, as a matter of fact. So if you do it, it needs to reflect that. And to reflect that, it needs to include everything that is around.

But in the recent avalanche of tragic situations, we planned to do something for the Spring/Summer 2021 fashion week, for menswear. A film. And then we started to organise it and the day we were actually ready to shoot, all of a sudden we were both confronted – me with my role, and you with yours.

MJH: It was really hard.

SP: It was hard. There were moments when we were even feeling like, “Should I be working? I don’t know how other brands are coping with this, but for us it’s very felt.”

MJH: For me, what has been painful continues to be painful, but was especially painful during those three days that we were filming. I had this tremendous sense of guilt that I was where I was, working with who I was working with, having the family and friends that I have around me. I’m thinking, “I don’t deserve any of this,” and purely because I’m a Black body going through a time where I have friends in the States that are going to the protests and are being faced with it in such a violent way.

And then I got to a point where I thought, “You know what? What you’re feeling is valid, and I understand why you’re feeling it, but you have to continue to be that thing that you never saw when you were younger.” And so I thought to myself, “Well, you’re doing this, you’re creating space for other people to see themselves within yourself, and it gives people hope, and it gives people a chance to reflect in some way.”

SP: I believe that being conscious of having a privilege is reflected in what you do with that privilege, because destroying a privilege is not really ... Yes, for what it represents in structuring, but for an individual, it’s about what you do with it. That is the most important thing.

How did we meet? It was like an episode of a Netflix show.

MJH: It was amazing. It was at a club, and the club space here is a sacred and holy space, and a dear, dear mutual friend of ours, who sadly passed away at the beginning of the madness that is this year, introduced us. It was very, very easy. And then I remember there was another night when we were both dancing in Berghain, and I think you said something like, “I want to dress you for the rest of your life.”

SP: I did.

MJH: And that same night, I was walking down the staircase and another really dear friend who, at the time, I had only just met as well and has since become a dear friend, David Calle, stopped me and said, “You know what? I’ve never seen him laugh like that with anyone else, and I have a feeling you should come to his surprise birthday party.”

So it happened from there. It just made sense. It’s really trippy, seeing the Random stuff, because I’ll never forget just being in the studio with you and Mac Folkes [then part of the Random Identities studio team, and a great friend] and playing around with it, draping things and just having these long chats that went on until odd hours of the morning, just literally talking and sculpting. Then, all of a sudden, I see people wearing it. It’s quite mind-blowing.

SP: It was very organic. We were talking about it the other day, actually. It’s very important when you build, because I’m very much alone in this moment – and so the proximity with you again, the synthesis, it’s actually really nice, because fashion wasn’t your domain but you were fascinated. I always feel that I pass something to someone in a way, and so this is all my experience, my taste, my everything.

Beauty: Kenny Campbell using K.colo(u)rs. Styling assistant: Lydia Simpson. Lighting assistant: Max Stürmer. Photographic assistant: Kristina Weinhold. Special thanks to Wolf Gillespie and Domo Sesto.

This story appears in AnOther Magazine Autumn/Winter 2020, which is on sale internationally from October 1, 2020.