Antoni&Alison: Weird wonderful

British designers Antoni&Alison find inspiration for their clothes and art in things as prosaic as biscuits. Iain R Webb meets them
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There aren't many fashion designers like Antoni & Alison. "I don't think we're only fashion designers, or photographers or fine artists," says Antoni Burakowski, one half of the British design duo who have just launched their own website, which is part retail experience, part archive, part art gallery and part National Trust-style tour of their new HQ. "I think we have blurred the edges."

"There's a weird concept of fashion, people think it's this glamorous world but we've always believed in the work first and foremost," adds Alison Roberts. "Especially with me being really, really shy, I didn't want the fashion to be [about] me, and that's the same with the photography."

Although Antoni & Alison have been part of the London fashion scene for almost 20 years (they met in the early 1980s at Central Saint Martins where Burakowski studied fashion and Roberts fine art), having produced 37 collections as well as being involved in the Designers at Debenhams range, the pair are equally acclaimed for their fine-art photography and their work has been exhibited worldwide. Their conceptual approach sees them share similarities with Dutch design duo Viktor & Rolf, and at the same time, even though they would protest otherwise, their deadpan, ever-so British sense of humour puts them shoulder to shoulder with 1970s TV comedy couple Terry & June. "We're certainly nostalgic," says Roberts.

"In the beginning, when people used to laugh at our catwalk shows, that upset us, because it was never intended to be funny," says Burakowski. "But then we thought at least there's a reaction."

Having originally launched their label from a council flat, Burakowski admits to an inverted snobbery. "We were looking at the girls on the council estate," he says. "We were interested that they only had one Hoover to share and there was all this to-ing and fro-ing [between each others flats] and there was this Poor Cow/Up The Junction thing going on."

"We prefer to draw inspiration from a non-fashion environment," says Roberts. "And we loved that buyers had to come to our council flat to see the collection," says Burakowski.

Burakowski and Roberts have cultivated a professional marriage - in reality they each live with their own partners. Their new HQ in London's trendy Borough area is called The House of Mr and Mrs Antoni & Alison. And their relationship has provided the backbone for the business.

"We were inseparable," says Roberts. "We lived with one another, we worked with one another. That was more important than anything. Whatever we put our minds to, we could achieve together."

"It is also having somebody you trust to say, 'Actually, I think that that's a pretty shit idea!'" says Burakowski.

When asked what each brings to the label, their answers are typically idiosyncratic.

"I'm the sequin sausage," says Burakowski, referring to one of their photographs which features a sausage covered in sequins.

"He brings too much and I bring too little," explains Roberts.

"I want more and more and let's put more," says Burakowski. "And I'm like, 'don't ruin it'," adds Roberts.

It is this combination of Roberts' modesty and Burakowski's love of the outrageous that has determined their unique vision, be it on the catwalk or gallery wall.

"We always used to call ourselves plain and fancy," says Roberts. "It was the biscuit thing," adds Burakowski.

Ah, the biscuit thing. Antoni & Alison focus on the kind of objects that other people give little regard. A digestive biscuit or potato crisp might become a print on a skirt, a discarded china figurine given centre stage in an art work. Their latest installation piece, Cabinet of Curiosities, featured an old cupboard filled with objets d'art including a bandaged bunny and a lettuce.

"We use a set of experiments in our work and one is about making lazy art," says Burakowski. "From an armchair, you have to use whatever is around," explains Roberts. "So, a packet of crisps is the laziest thing to hand."

After 10 years in business, Antoni & Alison moved buildings and were unable to decide what to do with their burgeoning archive (they never throw anything away). The Victoria & Albert Museum swept in, packaged everything up and installed it in their Living Archive. The acknowledgement had a profound effect.

"It enabled us to put our fashion [output] more in a fashion place and put the art more in an art place instead of having it all muddled up together," says Burakowski. "But muddled up is something we also like."

"Yes," says Roberts.

"And we like to confuse sometimes," adds Burakowski.

Although at first glance there is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get overtness to their work (a one-word message T-shirt is a prime example), odd juxtapositions, visual jokes and shrouded symbolism are key. Another series of photographs, called Correcting Masterpieces, saw the pair embellish famous paintings with a brick or ham sandwich. This same ethos extends to the fashion arena.

"At our very first shows there were no clothes [on the models]," says Burakowski. These presentations also included slide shows and later films that contained an apparently random jumble of images. The accompanying soundtrack of amusing, often surreal observations was written by Roberts. A show, staged at the Royal Court Theatre, was in the form of a pseudo-Ibsen play, while another at the Cambridge Theatre featured roller-skating models and a Larry Grayson doppleganger carrying one of the pair's trademark picture handbags. These soon attracted a cult following.

"We did try and show it straight [on the catwalk] at the BFC [British Fashion Council] tents, and we just couldn't bear it," says Roberts.

Their latest project, the website, has been another labour of love. "The idea was our way of making a perfect vision of us," says Burakowski. So is their vision peculiarly British? "Well, we did once do a collection when we were French," says Burakowski. There really aren't many fashion designers like Antoni & Alison.