I've been feeling nostalgic about my schooldays recently. Perhaps it's because of the poll-defying Conservative election victory, or maybe all the 17-year-olds actively giving themselves undercuts, or the fact that life back then – a period stretching from the early to mid-90s – was generally just a lot simpler.
Whatever the reason, I've been yearning for a return to that glorious, responsibility-free time in my life. So naturally I was delighted to hear of the second coming of Dready, the iconic streetwear brand featuring the bug-eyed, spliff-smoking Rastafarian of the same name.
Dready was as ubiquitous as the bowl cut in British schools during the 1990s. He could be found emblazoned on bombers, record bags and hoodies, doodled in the margins of exercise books and scratched into toilet cubicle doors. With a joint permanently dangling out of his mouth, the brand was about as rebellious as it got when you were 13. Owning a Dready piece meant you'd probably told your parents to fuck off at some point, and had maybe once got off with a girl: two of the most formative moments of adolescence.
Now the brand has relaunched with seven limited edition T-shirts designed by Florence & The Machine guitarist and original Dready fan Robert Ackroyd. The shirts use the late Robert Sidlauskas' original drawings, some of which have never been made public before.
Sidlauskas was born in Northampton to Jamaican and English parents. He conceived the Dready character in the late-70s as an alter ego, through which he could express his owns beliefs, hopes and fears as a Rastafarian living under the spectre of Thatcher and the Cold War. A shy, quiet man, he spent much of his early life in care, before finding stability with a foster family in Birmingham in his teens. The many diverse peoples he came into contact with growing up would provide inspiration for a troop of additional characters, such as Barley Corn, Guru and Natty Dread.
It was in The Oasis Centre, an alternative shopping hub in the city, that he first met Christopher Carpenter. The Oasis was something of a draw for creative types, much like the King's Road in London had been around the birth of punk, and Carpenter had a small shop there in which Sidlaukas liked to hang out and draw.
Recognising his talent and latching onto Dready as a potential urban Mickey Mouse-type character, Carpenter proposed a clothing brand. According to Sidlauskas' daughter Dionne, the artist saw this as "a perfect platform to share his thoughts and beliefs – peace, love, culture and unity, but, most importantly, family". He was only too happy to draw to order. "If I needed Dready on a mountain bike, he'd do it," laughs Carpenter now.
The brand became hugely successful, tapping into the current of unity and inclusivity running through British underground culture at the time, particularly in the rave, jungle and drum and bass scenes. But as with any successful idea, imitation was never too far away. Soon market stalls and high streets were flooded with pale, cheaper alternatives to the Dready brand – the likes of Herbie and Spliffy. Both Sidlauskas and Carpenter despaired. "The copyists pissed [Sidlauskas] off," says Carpenter.
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Carpenter switched his focus to mainland Europe – the brand was particularly popular in France, where it was illegal to depict drugs on clothing and Carpenter's reps were frequently arrested – before scaling down operations around the turn of the millennium as smaller stockists began to be swallowed by the internet. It's been ticking over online ever since. Sadly, Sidlauskas died from Crohn's disease in 2012.
I don't dare tell Carpenter that I had a Herbie record bag at school. For what it's worth, I felt unremittingly self-conscious when I wore it: it wasn't me and I knew it. I was paranoid about the drug references. I was imitating the big boys in much the same way Herbie was imitating Dready. I was a cheap knock-off.
Thankfully, when I speak to Robert Ackroyd on the phone from LA, where's he's preparing for the imminent release of the new Florence album and a "hectic" promotional schedule on both sides of the Atlantic, I find him in a confessional mood.
"I had the Herbie record bag – that's all I could afford in year seven," he tells me. "But in the plethora of weed-affiliated street brands back then, Dready stood out; it had a little more culture to it."
Ackroyd's interest in the brand was reignited by a glimpse of an old Dready bomber in a photograph. Disappearing down an "internet rabbit hole" he eventually got in touch with Dready owner/director Robert Wesley, and was soon offering to design a collection.
"I don't know how stoned I was when I suggested being a part of it, but they said yes, which is insane," says Ackroyd. "I spent a couple of weeks on it, put it in a drawer, returned to it and thought, 'Wow, this is absolute garbage; I don't know what I'm doing.' But then I realised I didn't need to redesign Dready. The best way to do it would be to focus on the artist. They sent over reams and reams of beautiful art – all these incredible comic strips, snapshots of Britain and West Indian immigration and the assimilation of that culture at the time. I'm a big fan of Robert Crumb, and they reminded me of his stuff." (There are plans for a book and a show to showcase the thousands of drawings Sidlauskas made over his lifetime).
Dready will be following the lead of successful streetwear brands like Supreme and Palace by slowly expanding to a full range (of bombers, hoodies and more T-shirts), and keeping it limited to avoid over-exposure. A whole new generation may soon be comparing Dready notes, while ageing ravers and kids who grew up on the original collections can look forward to a nostalgia trip. "I try to design stuff that I'd like to wear myself," says Ackroyd.
Inevitably our chat turns to the UK election and the renewed pertinence of Sidlauskas' message, one Ackroyd paid little attention to as a teen. "Back then it was about the image and the look. There were a lot of 'one world' messages going around. These were the days of [renowned jungle/drum and bass label] Moving Shadow and [promoters] Helter Skelter. That sentiment never really resonated with me. It seemed a little saccharine, an easy, flippant thing to say," he tells me.
"But people seem to be getting more segregated. It felt like we were getting somewhere, and now we have this bizarre propaganda of xenophobia and another five years of tyranny. England's such a cynical place, I'm not even sure if we want to hear these rebel stories any more. But it's a good time to have this message out there."
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