“ENKI is an Australian label that produces handcrafted eyewear designed for enlightenment” reads the about section of their website. For a humble label dedicated to sunglasses, its path to retail has by no means been a normal one. With campaigns set against some of the world’s greatest icons, the brand has come to make a name for itself not only for its designs, but for a controversial approach to marketing. Exploring concepts of nudity, revolution and enlightenment, it was only a matter of time before the creative minds behind the now famous campaigns landed in an Italian prison (and before that, a prison in Egypt). Founder and photographer Jesse Walker believes we should look beyond the frames of systems we’re taught to believe in, and ICON Street Editor Roberto Malizia sits him down to understand the approach.
ICON: You guys have a wild way to promote your brand, mixing fashion with a naturist form of art. Can you tell me about the origin of this “marketing” idea, and whether the shock value was intentional knowing it would create headlines?
Jesse Walker (JW): Thank you so much! We like to do things differently. Initially the shoots weren’t meant to be marketing concepts, I just happen to love the countries we end up in. I’m obsessed with ancient world cultures and of course travelling, so that’s what takes us to these places. But, yes, for sure our photography has turned into full-blown campaigns, and presents a way to market ENKI with cut through. We’re definitely known as the most controversially creative brand on the planet no doubt.
ICON: Is there a particular deeper message you want to send through your photos? And what did you want to achieve through your campaigns?
JW: We’re just doing what we do. I’ve never followed any rules as such, only my own. However, the message is very much “rebellion” and I wanted to reach a point of chaos in the minds of the masses. People are so obedient to their system. They can’t even think for themselves. It’s a huge issue here on this planet.
ICON: You guys have been arrested quite a few times already. What has been the craziest experience so far?
JW: Well, there have been so many, especially in Egypt, but probably the last trip to Rome. We were arrested outside the Vatican by the Vatican police, spent a day in jail and had our Airbnb apartment raided after they got into [Belgian model] Marisa [Papen]’s phone and googled her. All of our photos came up and there was an article about one of our Turkey shots selling for 90,000 euros to a collector from New York. They were going crazy over how it sold for so much. The very next day, we were out early morning shooting in a taxi in front of Piazza Venezia when an undercover officer started banging on the window asking for documents. I distracted him by talking to him while Marisa put her clothes back on. I could sense he was hesitant to apprehend us, so he was calling for back-up quite frantically. We could see the police speeding towards us and, as they pulled up to park, I looked at Marisa and said… “RUN!” We ran straight across the massive highway with scooters and cars screeching. We hid in the back streets for a few hours, and could see the police coming and going searching for us. It was really intense.
ICON: These days, nudity is largely more accepted as being connected to art, but you guys still seem to be constantly misunderstood. Why do you think you are considered offensive and controversial?
JW: I guess a lot of the time my shoots with Marisa are in front of a mosque or church or some kind of ancient site, so that really triggers people. We love to shake up people’s belief systems. Like I mentioned before, people are so programmed by what they perceive as right and culturally correct all the time, forgetting that these systems have an agenda, have been and still are, responsible for endless amounts of human suffering. All of it really needs to be re-evaluated, and people need to start looking inwards and worshipping themselves instead of externalising.
ICON: What’s next for Enki Eyewear?
JW: Well, always insanely beautiful imagery, of course. We just shot with an incredible model, Mel Palummo from Australia, who will be up on enkieyewear.com soon. But as far as controversial stuff with Marisa Papen, you’ll need to wait and see, as we always have concepts ready to go.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED ORIGINALLY IN THE APRIL 2019 EDITION OF ICON MAGAZINE.