“I kinda need to be pissed off. I work best when I’m riled and annoyed at stuff…”
Flipping angry into action and fury into fashion since 2016: Joe Bowlcut seems anything but riled, annoyed or pissed off when we meet on Zoom one unremarkable afternoon in June. Having followed his wry, satirical and often risqué social media posts for many years, I didn’t anticipate such a chilled, calm and candid demeanour. But then nothing about Joe is what you might expect…
His drops often sell-out in a matter of hours and have become some of the most iconic bootlegs and flips dance music culture has seen in recent years. Yet he’s quick to admit there’s not so much as a spec of designer in his DNA.
He never had any plans or ambitions to get into fashion or streetwear. Yet his pieces have been sported by a whole range of high-profile artists, actors, celebs and personalities ranging from comedian Romesh Ranganathan to Sopranos star Annabella Sciorra.
He doesn’t even have a bowlcut hair-do.
“I honestly never expected things to go as well as they have, or even get this far at all!” he smiles. “Somewhere along the line we chose a path that shapes the next part of our life. That’s what usually happens, I guess. Like you, for instance. You must have decided to become a writer at some point, didn’t you? Or anyone who makes music. That doesn’t just happen over-night, does it? You make a decision and you pursue it. But none of that happened with me. I never trained to make garments. I didn’t go to art school. I was thrown out of uni. I had a plethora of jobs I hated, and my life was a series of hangovers from Friday morning through to Tuesday morning. I was living that cycle of going out raving and hating my day job. Then all this happened.”
His path imposed upon him via random chance and opportunities, rather than being chosen and pursued, even after six years of being at the forefront of a dance music fashion tradition that’s been part of rave culture since the very beginning, Joe sounds genuinely surprised to be doing what he does and humbled at how this part of his life is shaping out.
“At one point I got quite into clothing and at the time I was dating a designer,” he explains. “I told her, ‘I really like this t-shirt by this brand but it’s £300!’ She said, ‘I’ll make you one’. That was my first bootleg experience. I wasn’t prepared to pay a ridiculous price for something that should never cost that much, she designed it and got it made and it was like, ‘Wow, it’s that easy?’”
The strong whiffs of happy accident and prominent wafts of DIY spirit add to the charm of Bowlcut’s story. But the real zero-to-hero turbo boost came when Joe and his then-partner (who he continued to run the company with for three years, two of which after they’d split up as a couple) started circulating their first design – the iconic BBC / Bum Ba Clart flip. Connected with various DJs and bass music pioneers through his work as a promoter and years of DJing, Joe shared his t-shirt with a few key artists such as the loveable Steves from Kurupt FM (a kindred crew who represent Joe’s roots and south London stomping ground), jungle pioneer General Levy and highly acclaimed boundary-blurring beats/bass champion Sam Binga.
“Sam played Room One, Fabric and, without a hint of irony, he said he’d been asked more about the t-shirt than he had about the tunes he played. I think he might have been slightly pissed about that,” Joe laughs. “To have backing from that calibre of people, though, Bowlcut was off to a great start before we even knew it. Steves wore it at one of Kurupt FM’s first big gigs. Emails were flying in, we had to set up a Big Cartel online store very quickly. The logo was hand drawn. I set up all the socials, registered the company… And bam.”
Bowlcut Means Bowlcut
This was January 2016 and the whole of the UK was about to get hit with the biggest bam in recent history: Brexit. A political slurry pit that we continue to sink in to this day; tensions were high, division was rising and there was plenty to get riled, annoyed and pissed off about.
The perfect climate for Bowlcut to blossom, Joe got to work developing Bowlcut’s voice and range. Echoing the baffling perplexity of the political paradigm shift happening at the time, the brand’s irreverence and fuck-you spirit fit the times with poignancy. Within months of launching, Joe found himself being featured in The Guardian and being touted by The Fader as the summer 2016’s must-have brand.
“The whole brand and ethos was developed very quickly. Things were moving so fast we didn’t have time to overthink,” admits Joe. “The name was so ridiculous we thought it might work. You’ve got these brands like Supreme and Palace. Very powerful names which you buy into their confidence. But Bowlcut is the anti-cool. It’s so ridiculous it works. If you were a kid in the 80s and your parents couldn’t afford the barbers they’d put a bowl on your head and cut the front.”
While the Tories continue to push the UK back to same gritty, divisive capitalist culture any 80s-born homemade haircut sporting kid grew up in, Bowlcut represents the perfect balance of realism and surrealism of modern pop culture; a memeified melting pot of references and messages that plausibly ranged from the sublime (designs celebrating Corrie’s Diedre Barlow and Barry Evans and Pat Butcher from Eastenders) to the ridiculous (essential messages like Boris Is A Pussyhole) The designs made you feel both proud to hail from the UK while still addressing the fact it’s currently being run by an increasingly brazen, greedy, corrupt and insidious government.
“When we first started I had seriously bad imposter syndrome. We’re not cool enough, we’ve not been to art school and all of that,” Joe recalls. “But then we got to a certain stage where it’s like, ‘Oh we can take the piss here. We can pay the bills, be serious as company but also take the piss out of these big brands and the government.’ It’s the perfect combination that gets me up in the day.”
And it is what gets Joe up in the day. Commissioning his ideas to designers allows Joe to focus on the practical business side of running a clothing company and co-running the Bowlcut Beats record label, which launched in 2020. But most of his time is spent creating, managing and posting the brand’s social media pages. The biggest shop window to the world, Bowlcut’s presence on platforms such as Instagram has become a key signature that’s at the heart of the brand’s success and authority; the tone and consistency of Joe’s online missives gives the brand much more status and clout than many other similar bootleg-styled brands.
Famed for finding the most fantastical, lewd and outrageous newspaper headlines, news snippets and poignant/apt content, Joe has developed a reputation for being one of the first out of the gates to capture, or comment upon, a moment of political, cultural or socio-economic significance. Like the clothing designs, they range from hard-hitting realism to total absurdity by way of wry, knowing smut. They’re the result of hours and hours of daily trawling through the murkier mires of the internet and social media.
“You’ve just summarised my job!” Joe laughs. “You know on passports and official forms you have to put down your official occupation? There isn’t a description or category for ‘Finding stupid shit online and maybe turning it into clothing.’ Perhaps in 20 years time it’ll be normal enough to be considered a job title? But at the moment I’m a social media guy who happens to be into music, keeps an eye on current affairs and doesn’t like particular politicians.”
It’s arguably much more than ‘being a social media guy’. Joe’s output is so strong and in such rapid supply, he’s had to get a second phone to manage it. “I look like I’m shotting gear,” he smirks. “But I had to do this because my phone is flooded with work things. I’m showing my family a cute pic of my daughter and the next pic is ‘Boris is a c*nt’!”
Above all, his posts unite many of us in a currently divided world. Just like its haircut namesake, Bowlcut is a great leveller and speaks to the mass majority of us who face the reality of low wages, long hours, endless side hustles, living on estates or in low income communities and forever being close the brink of food or fuel poverty.
“It’s interesting to hear you say that, because I don’t feel I speak on behalf of everyone. I can only say how I feel about something. But I’m happy it speaks on behalf of others like me,” Joe considers. “I mean come on… It’s a fucking scary time to be alive isn’t it? Ignorance is bliss and that’s definitely the case when it comes to politics and understanding how the 1% works. If you’re from an Eton or Oxbridge world, highly privileged, you don’t have to think about energy bills or the rise in food costs or what’s going on in Ukraine. Life is so much simpler. But with news at our fingertips, and technology being how it is, we’re all a lot more up to date with what’s happening in the world and I think it’s very important to keep up to date on things and know how much we’re being shafted. In that sense Bowlcut is for me more for me than anything. I get to vent at how ridiculous the world is.”
At points these vents have led to impressive progressive collaborations, too. In 2017 Joe worked with London Mayor Sadiq Khan and his team creating designs for the anti-knife crime Keep London Alive campaign. Meanwhile in 2020 he teamed up with social activist collective One Thousand Words to create a mural of his Bum Ba Clart design in Shoreditch as a statement about the BBC’s unbalanced coverage of Tory party.
“I’m open to any type of collaboration like that and I think there’s a responsibility for Bowlcut as a brand to do that,” Joe states. “Keeping up to date with politics has been something I’ve done for years. I was one of those guys going a job I hated, listening to politics on the radio. People would be like, ‘Where’s Kiss FM?’ I’d be like, ‘I don’t listen to it because it’s shit!’ I’d rather listen to what’s actually happening in the world.”
If politics aren’t buzzing in Joe’s ear, then there’s a high chance some type of electronic music is instead. Associated with UK bass music since the launch of the brand, Joe galvanised Bowlcut’s status in the scene in June 2020 with the launch of drum & bass label Bowlcut Beats. Two years old, 20 releases deep, and developing a reputation for championing new-generation talent, the label has been home to releases and remixes from the likes of Teej, Kyrist, Objectiv, Dunk, Trex, T>I, missledz, Jammez and many more, including the act known as Tall Order who made his debut on the label’s first ever release.
“I’ve got to mention that I didn’t realise how much work was involved in running a label!” admits Joe. “I had to bring some people on board. The first artist I signed was Tall Order and he’s now part of the label team along with Jamie Bashington. They’ve been integral to the development of the label and become good friends. Ben (Tall Order) is so talented, it’s mind blowing. He’s about to sign music to one of the biggest labels in drum & bass. I’m so hyped for him.”
The hype goes both ways as both Ben and Bashington share the same appreciation. “Joe’s been super supportive since I first sent music to him,” says Ben. “It’s been great to part of the team and help develop the label and support new talent. We all help each other out and do a bit of everything as a team. It’s mad, we all get on even though we’ve never actually met in real life.”
“We’re really invested and the label’s come on leaps and bounds,” says Jamie Bashington who’s been involved in drum & bass for years in a variety of capacities ranging from MC to agent. “We’re approaching it like a formal business and have releases lined up for the next six months. We just want to release good music. We don’t care about subgenres, we just want to reflect how good the music is right now. The label is for the people just like Bowlcut Garms has always been. Everything that Joe’s done has been incredible. I love the zero fucks attitude he has. Everything he does is for the people. He loves making sick things for people to go out and wear and represent how we’re feeling about things and what we love. He’s very vocal with his political views and I love that. I love that confidence.”
But it’s not all bangers, politics and playful clothing designs; beneath Joe’s confidence is a tension and pace that he describes as being right on the edge. Juggling a global clothing brand, the social media content and the label with his own personal life and responsibilities as a young father leaves Joe very little room for error or peace. “It’s the duck syndrome isn’t it?” he notes. “The duck looks chill on the top of the water but underneath the legs are kicking like crazy.”
Firstly there’s the fact his designs are very close to the legal edge. Behind the scenes he continuously fends off regular legal notifications from big fashion brands he’s gently chided with his designs.
“They seem to think I’m trying to take their customers away from them, which is preposterous really,” says Joe. “No one has ever said, ‘Oh I want that t-shirt but here’s piss-take version here for a tenth of the price, I’ll buy that instead.’ It happens all the time. I tend to take the designs off for a month or two then put it back on sale. One brand I will proudly say can go fuck themselves, though, is Marlboro. They actually sent me a letter saying I was actually encouraging children to smoke!”
Joe also finds himself on a similar razor’s edge with Bowlcut’s social media and earlier this year had a scare when his accounts were shut down for allegedly sharing fake news. “It was an article I took from The Daily Sport about Boris Johnson being with a prostitute and not washing his hands. I read it and spat my drink out it was so ridiculous,” laughs Joe.
“I posted it and my account was shut down immediately. I mean, it’s clearly false information! It’s satire. To have that swiped away – excuse the pun – was horrible. Social media is my main means of marketing but losing the accounts wasn’t just about selling clothes. It’s a lot more personal. To lose all the DMs and conversations from six years was frightening.”
Eventually Joe was able to reinstate the Bowlcut social media accounts, but it’s left him feeling wary about how he does business. “Every time I post something I have to do a check. Who’s it going to piss off? Who might report it? It has taken some of the fun out of it. We’re at the mercy of the Metaverse and treading on eggshells. So that was a wake-up call. I still was able to feed my family and pay the rent, but I definitely felt the aftershock of it.”
Not one to let a negative situation get in his way, Joe’s now spending more time on his next move. As well as managing all things Bowlcut, he’s now invested in another venture in fashion that’s still driven by DIY spirit but a little more legitimate, a lot more high end and not quite as risky as Bowlcut. Entitled M.S.H.D (Make Something Happen Daily) it launches in earnest later this year but their products have already been sold in mainstream outlets such as Topman and ASOS.
“For the first time in my life I’m not doing something that’s a bit fuck you. It’s a proper clothing label with a friend who’s been fashion industry for a long time. I’ll have to re-code the side of my brain that writes in capitals and swears,” Joe laughs before assuring us that this doesn’t mark the end of Bowlcut.
“I have wondered at times if the end of Bowlcut was nigh,” he reflects. “But as long as people are engaging with it, and I get the feeling it’s wanted, then it’ll keep on going. I’ve just always got this thing in the back of my head that something is going to get shut down or go wrong. It takes broad shoulders sometimes, but to be honest, I live off that excitement. Plus there’s always something out there that pisses me off!”
Something tells us Joe will be flipping angry into action and fury into fashion for a long time to come…