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“Take a knife and drain your life”, Bladee’s autotuned Nordic-accented vocals mumble in Be Nice 2 Me, cementing itself as the motto for a whole generation of drainers. 10 years on from the conception of Swedish-based artistic collectives Drain Gang and Sad Boys, the r/sadboys Reddit thread is still in the top one per cent of the forum, with fans sharing advice on how to edit draincore photos, how to create digicore music, how to dress like a drainer. If there’s one community that exemplifies, encapsulates, and defines the hyperactivity of online culture, it’s theirs. Having built a universe around their music from limited, highly coveted merchandise drops to Discord channels, they’ve created a unique subculture with an established set of aesthetics, language, and in-group markers of belonging.

In their decade-long careers of creativity that show no sign of letting up (in fact, the COVID pandemic only fuelled their popularity amongst the chronically online), it’s no surprise they’ve managed to inspire a drainer or two. Enter Cold Feet, the subversive airbrush fashion brand founded by London-based designer Francesca in 2020. 

Cold Feet started as a digital brain dump, born in a bedroom amid the pandemic. With a lot of time on her hands and a longstanding interest in drain culture, Francesca started an anonymous Instagram account as a place to post her Drain Gang-inspired digital sketches, hoping to reach out to other drainers and become an active part of the subculture she’d admired from afar for years.

“I got into Drain Gang and all that kind of stuff, like Yung Lean, at the age of 15, 16. I found the fashion and that world interesting, and it was different from other fashions I’d seen. I always liked the fact their following was obsessive and close-knit, like a proper subculture. It was all-encompassing, and I loved that: it was an identity. It felt really special to be a part of it at the time.”

Scroll far enough down on her Instagram and you can find her early digital sketches created on the free app Paintex: think disturbed cartoon bunnies; layers of y2k text-graffiti; the content noisy and colourful, chaotic and nihilistic.

“I actually originally called my account coldfeet2006 because I was 6 in 2006: Yung Lean’s username was 2001, and I just always loved how they’re obsessed with childhood and the nostalgia of it. On my laptop, I had a free app called Paintex, and it was just this random software where I’d draw really weird shit. It wasn’t for any reason – I wasn’t doing it to get attention from anyone or to get noticed. It was more like a diary or train of thought for me.” 

Creating the Instagram was originally a means of connecting to the Drain Gang community, but when they began interacting with and sharing her artwork online, and when Francesca encountered Instagram artists using airbrush on clothes (she names evilbone91 as a source of inspo), she realised her art “would look cool on clothes. And I thought, if someone’s wearing my art, it becomes a part of their identity.”

The Drain Gang inspiration is clear: like their visuals and merchandise, Cold Feet’s aesthetic, especially in its early days, is heavy on the molten chrome fonts, inverted colours, and clip art-style illustrations. I ask her if she still listens to Drain Gang.

“I do, just not as much as I used to. From 2017 to 2022, that was it for me musically, you know? I was 17 and depressed, and that kind of music speaks to young people in that mindset. Like people who are just a bit… Lost. It is sad music, like ‘Sad Boys” obviously. When you listen to it, the lyrics are poetic and sad. I was in the darkest place when I listened to that sort of music.”

Drain Gang’s stream-of-consciousness-style lyrics combine dark cloud rap tropes of drug use, depression and the suffering of what it means to be alive with a spiritual, mystical edge. The lyrics are abstract and enigmatic, allowing for the type of interpretative reading of ‘both loss and gain’ as Drain Gang’s de facto frontman Bladee explains, of ‘neither good nor bad’, whatever the listener wants it to be. At its core, it’s simply an unfiltered vulnerability, an openness, that speaks to a generation growing up in the age of the Internet.

“They’ll always influence me subconsciously – they informed me who I was from such a young age. For example, if someone is a punk, that will always be a part of who they are: it’s in their DNA. But I feel like it is bigger than just them now. The subculture has grown into a bigger tree with different roots coming off it that aren’t directly related to Drain Gang. And some of those roots have grown into trees and turned into their own thing. In my earlier stuff, you can see their influence. The characters, the text, and the fonts are what Drain Gang would use—the Blade City font. But interestingly, Claire Barrow’s album art, which was also a big source of inspiration for me, did for them. That was her art, and it became their aesthetic. She did merch for them, too. They didn’t invent the aesthetic, but they became the poster children for it, and they’re how I discovered it.”

Cold Feet’s designs have come a long way in a short amount of time: you can visually track how the person and the artist have evolved from the direct influence of Drain Gang. The older designs are messy and chaotic, featuring uncanny childlike sketches with menacing faces, which Francesca says was reflective of her mental health at the time. Her technique has naturally become more refined over time, but the actual subject matter is different, too. Her designs’ liminal space is more dreamscape than hellscape, with glowing angels, doves, and rabbits layered over her trademark tribal tattoo airbrushing. 

“ The stuff I’m doing now… it is kind of dreamier. Before, I’d go crazy, but I was in a dark place then, which you can see in my older designs. I’m a lot more peaceful now. What inspires me these days? I’d say just everything inspires me. Just being in London and Bristol… They’re both cities… And the UK is a dark, rainy place, cold, concrete, grey… It’s dystopian at times. It’s harsh. And I feel like that’s coming out in my work a lot. For example, this design I did, I took pictures of the street for it. I thought, ooh, I could make camouflage for concrete, for being in the street. I find the actual street interesting. The way someone has spilt their drink on the floor and the way it spread out, or the paint splat, or some warning tape attached to a fence, or a fence that got crushed by a car… I find it all interesting, the shapes that they make. These days, your environment isn’t just where you are location-wise but where you are online. For me, that’s Reddit and Soundcloud and the whole cloud rap subculture stuff we’ve been speaking about; it’s also where I live physically. My art is an expression of it all, and it just comes out as it’s being created, led by instinct.”

It’s a fascinating juxtaposition: the urban nitty-gritty with the celestial, almost spiritual artwork featured in Cold Feet’s more recent designs. They are so unique and specific yet so clearly randomly extracted from the creator’s subconscious that Francesca’s newer work reflects the drain ethos more than her angsty older stuff. For expression’s sake, expression is not good, not bad, not judgemental, just a pure form of catharsis for its creator. 

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