As part of the lead up to the opening of the V&A exhibition, ‘Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s’, I was asked by the editor of V&A Magazine to write a personal recollection of the era. The following appears in the latest issue. The magazine cover pictured has been especially designed by Terry Jones, founder of i-D magazine. I presented an edited version of this article for my speech at the BLITZ Weekend recently at the ICA.
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.’
Photographer Michael Daks quotes these opening lines from Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens because they describe exactly his experience of the 1980’s.
“Margaret Thatcher, The Falkland war, Miner’s strikes, The Brixton riots,” remembers Daks, “and yet a period of great creativity in art, fashion, music and magazine publishing. Also the very best club ever – Taboo. RIP Leigh [Bowery].”
‘80s London was indeed two cities divided. There was the one inhabited by well-to-do Sloane Rangers, Hooray Henrys and newly emerging Yuppies and then on the outskirts of society lived a new breed of cultural terrorist – a group of creative souls and unashamed fashion freaks who at nightclubs like Billy’s, Blitz, Heaven and indeed Hell, plotted to overthrow the establishment over a Snakebite or Pernod and Black
At the dawn of the decade three magazines, BLITZ, The Face and i-D emerged that would kick start a stylish revolution and duly change the face of publishing and more besides, along with the course of many lives, mine included – between 1982-87 I was fashion editor of BLITZ. These alternative publications, created by young people for young people, offered a new order and a stage on which to present our collective ideas that illustrated more adequately the world in which we lived. They provided the opportunity to spread the word. Mostly we wrote about our friends who, inspired by the legacy of punk, were coming together to start bands, forming design co-operatives or simply calling themselves fashion designer, actor, filmmaker or artist. None of which were offered as career opportunities down the employment exchange. However, with the encouragement and support of the GLC (the Labour socialist run Greater London Council abolished by Thatcher mid-decade) young London made use of all manner of grants, benefits and handouts to fund it’s creative hunger.
At The Face writer Robert Elms championed the likes of Spandau Ballet (who broke the mould by playing gigs in unlikely venues such as HMS Belfast and the Scala Cinema), Blue Rondo a la Turk and Sade while Sheila Rock pointed her camera at Vivienne Westwood, Suggs from Madness and Leah Seresin from Animal Nightlife. Over at i-D the team turned the spotlight on their readership, instigating the straight-up fashion shot (recently made famous by The Sartorialist), that stylishly ambushed people in the streets and documented their look and lifestyle in an unpretentious fashion. The 1980s were all about being photographed. We dressed as if every day were a photo shoot and every night a party (it usually was). “I wanted to look like a black and white photograph,” says seasoned clubber Scarlett Cannon. We pieced together looks from a variety of sources (charity shops, jumble sales, a few designer threads knocked up by designer friends and the odd jacket from a lovers bedroom floor) into a post-modern collage of cultural, historical and ethnic references. Even religion got a look in.
“After punk there was a bit of a vacuum like what do we do now?” remembers milliner Stephen Jones, who, against all odds, set up his idea of a chi-chi atelier in the basement of the PX boutique. “Everybody supported each other. If John Maybury had a film opening we all went along because we thought it was our duty to go and we’d probably be in the film too. If Melissa [Caplan, fashion designer of Pallium Products worn by Toyah, Spandau Ballet and Steve Strange] did a show, everybody helped.”
“I had a club called Total Fashion Victim at the WAG club,” says fashion designer Stephen Linard, whose St Martin’s graduation menswear show introduced ‘real’ models onto the catwalk (including nightclub heartthrobs Christos Tolera, Darryl Humphries and Chris Sullivan) that not only captured the spirit of his clothes but also began the move away from prescribed beauty to a celebration of diversity and daring.
“John Maybury and Princess Julia were the DJs. I also did a club with Christian Cotteril called The Last Night Of The Titanic, in a seedy Mayfair Club that was being pulled down. It didn’t last long.”
Such impermanence and uncertainty shaped the ever-changing landscape and ironically offered an atmosphere of unbridled freedom. Thatcher’s unswerving monetarist economic policies saw unemployment rise sharply along with taxation. We had nothing, so we had nothing to lose. While Elms penned a cover story titled Hard Times, Judy Blame took to scavenging the Thames for materials for his outrageous jewellery, while fellow designer Christopher Nemeth turned postal bags into trousers. Nobody wanted to be labeled by their job description or their clothes. While you could wake up and dress like a Jewish rabbi one day or a rockabilly the next, equally you could make a magazine, a dress or a photograph or all three if you so fancied.
Critic Paul Morley enjoyed blurring the boundaries in the world of music “I had written for the NME and the first few issues of The Face, in the days when nobody paid. I had started ZTT, which was the conceptualising of a record label. One of the most wonderful experiences was when we put Art of Noise on Top of the Pops and presented them almost like an installation, as an object.”
“We instinctively knew about the look, the photos, the clothing,” he continues. “I could make the record, make the photograph, write about the record. The concept of the multiple CV started back then. Nobody had a fixed role. We were earning and learning at the same time.” Like many others, Morley’s aim was to disrupt the mainstream.
I had graduated from St Martin’s School of Art in the summer of 1980, and, after a few seasons working for Zandra Rhodes, I fell into the world of magazines. To get my work published I initially went wherever would have me, writing a music review for The Face dedicated to goth rockers Bauhaus and contributing a story on make-up to an early edition of i-D. In 1982 I contributed to BLITZ magazine before being appointed its fashion editor. BLITZ had originally been founded in 1980 by Carey Labovitch and her boyfriend Simon Tesler during their final year at Oxford University. Labovitch aspired to make, “a magazine that covered all the areas that my friends were interested in, from fashion to music, film, theatre, photography, design.”
“There didn’t seem to be any other magazines for our age group,” adds Tesler. “The only colour monthlies were bland like 19, Honey or Over 21. There was no Elle, no Glamour, no Q.”
The brief for BLITZ was wide open so one of the first stories I pulled together was called REVOLT Into Style. The models were Princess Julia, one-time coat check girl at the Blitz club (a job she shared with Boy George) and Kate Garner, one half of pop group Haysi Fantayzee. The story featured handmade knitwear by young designers including Bodymap and Nocturne. On a trip to pick up clothes at Kensington Market, the cavernous emporium that is said to have inspired Rei Kawakubo’s Dover Street Market, I happened upon a stallholder knitting new stock. In her voluminous skirts and rats tail hair piled high on her head she reminded me of the women who knitted at the foot of the guillotine while the heads of aristocrats rolled. There was a revolution happening so the analogy seemed appropriate. Photographer Jamie Morgan, who went on to be one of the key members of the Buffalo style-collective headed up by influential stylist Ray Petri, remembers, “This shoot used the attitude of the New Romantics, a mix between the Dickensian style of Haysi Fantayzee and the pirates of Vivienne Westwood.”
The shoot featured a fresh faced boy called Felix who, styled by Petri, became the iconic cover star of The Face. Petri’s vision presented men as objects of desire and mixed streetwear, conservative tailoring and ethnicity to create a look that was fresh and fearless, sexy and spiritual.
The advent of the stylist who approached fashion as an artistic construct was something new. Alongside the contributors to BLITZ, The Face and i-D (Petri, Judy Blame, Caroline Baker, Helen Roberts, Beth Summers, Simon Foxton, Mitzi Lorenz, Maxine Siwan and Caryn Franklin among them) were two thought-provoking arbiters whose importance is often overlooked. Michael Roberts at Tatler and Amanda Grieve at Harper’s and Queen added a subversive edge to their respective glossy titles. Roberts poking fun at old-school mores while Grieve (later Harlech) befriended St Martin’s graduate John Galliano and helped create the romantic whirlwind that shaped fashion for decades to follow. The images produced by all these stylists merged fashion and art, questioned the accepted ideals of beauty and social status and enjoyed a sense of experimentation. Their vanguard imagery often highlighted specific issues such as the superficiality of fashion and consumerism with humour.
“At that time there was a group of stylists who were as creative as the designers if not more so,” remembers PR Lynne Franks, who represented Bodymap, Katharine Hamnett and Wendy Dagworthy. “It prompted the question, what came first the styling or the clothes? It was very spontaneous, like playing dress-up.”
“I never thought that fashion should be anything other than an emotional experience,” says photographer Nick Knight. “In the mid-80s it was suddenly about the poetic narrative in the clothes. Previous to that most fashion photographers just made pictures of women in clothes. Now it was about getting inside the mind of the designer whether that was Rachel Auburn or Yohji Yamamoto. The focus was on the clothes as a point of departure. It was about the artistic vision in the mind of the designer. And that’s what you were doing at BLITZ, Simon [Foxton] was doing at i-D and Marc [Ascoli] was doing at Yohji in Paris.”
Although I collaborated with Knight on several shoots at BLITZ he was soon seduced by i-D editor Terry Jones who commissioned him with a dream project.
“The big moment for me at i-D was when I did the 100 Portraits of London’s beau monde – you, Leigh, Bodymap, Michael Clark, Stephen Jones and all the others.” says Knight, referring to the series of black and white portraits he produced for the magazine that was reminiscent of David Bailey’s Box of Pin-Ups documenting the faces of the Swinging Sixties. “Doing those portraits galvinised things for me. I really hadn’t previously been out in London and discovering Taboo made me feel like I had a purpose to be there, it felt like it was a place for me.”
Knight wasn’t alone.
“In the 1980s the London scene was the point of reference. London had a creative energy that you wanted to be a part of,” says Stefano Tonchi, editor of W magazine, then editor of Westuff, an alternative style periodical published in Florence. “Fashion was no longer fashionable. Style was used to describe many areas of the creative arts that came together. It made for a new category. Music dictated a lot of the emerging trends and there was experimentation in both photography and graphic design but fashion was where these exciting changes were most evident. Think of the Bodymap fashion shows, they weren’t just about the clothes but involved music, graphic design and theatre.”
“When we left college we didn’t want to be an assistant for somebody. We wanted to do it ourselves,” says Stevie Stewart, one half of the Bodymap duo. “We were already selling quite an eclectic look, with tweedy things, tartan wool skirts and dishcloth knits. For the knits we had to make a jersey pattern and all of a sudden the jersey pieces became the clothes”.
“It was all about how you could express yourself, about being an individual,” says David Holah, Stewart’s design partner. “You wanted to wear something that you put together yourself. That idea of rebellion derived from punk.”
“We were definitely anti-establishment,” adds Stewart. “We weren’t going to show our clothes in the old fashioned way. It was also a question of resources or lack of them. We didn’t have big financial backing so we’d call on friends in film and dance, the Neo-Naturists, our mums or whoever. Remember Helen Terry wandering down the catwalk singing?”
“We were all friends,” says Lynne Franks. “The fashion editors, the photographers, the designers, the PRs – we all went out together, took drugs together and it was incredibly fun!”
Designers around the globe including Jean Paul Gaultier, Ann Demeulemeester, Andre Walker, Martine Sitbon and Eric Bergere, who was shaking things up at Hermes, looked to London for inspiration. When they visited the capital, they were thrilled to find their work embraced by style-hungry fashion freaks. The post-modern shift saw high fashion luxury labels coveted by club kids who took to wearing fakes found on rare trips Stateside. Some even wore the real thing.
“I was wearing Chanel chains, Gucci loafers and Hermes silk squares,” remembers Stephen Linard, who had become an overnight sensation in Japan. “Before we wore it, they were worn by old ladies and Middle Eastern customers. The punk rockers suddenly had money and decided to wear those
labels and style them in our own way. I made some bondage trousers out of Hermes scarves.”
The love affair was mutual. Gaultier made regular trips to London, hanging out in less than salubrious postcodes where he fell head-over-heels for the host of new models emerging from the streets and nightclubs. The owners of newly formed models agencies, such as Marco Rasala, Unique and Z, sold this new look to the fashion industry at large.
One such individual was model Amanda Cazalet who lived in a squat in Euston inhabited by creative types including Tom Dixon and Kay Montana. Cazalet was discovered in a pub in Kings Cross by a designer enamoured by her broken nose and shaved head. She looked magnificent but in the early days would often be sent on castings only to be asked if she was indeed a model? “It was embarrassing,” says Cazalet. “And then a fashion editor from the Daily Mail wrote a piece about the new breed of ugly models.”
However, it wasn’t long before Cazalet along with Martine Houghton, Barry Kamen and Mimi Potworowska were modelling on Gaultier’s catwalk. Such was the designer’s delight at discovering androgynous looking Houghton that she appeared on both his womenswear and menswear runways.
“There was a huge surge forward collectively at that time,” says Cazalet “like it had been in the 1960s I guess, when you felt anything could happen. Especially in fashion.”
And so Cazalet, who perfectly represented this new imperfect beauty, would awaken in her squat and by evening be parading before the world’s fashion press in Paris. By the end of the decade she was kissing Madonna in the singer’s Justify My Love video.
The music and club scene was crucial to British fashion’s creative maelstrom. Throughout the 1980s it was possible to plan your week and your wardrobe around the club calendar. The list was endless: Blitz begat Hell, St Moritz, Le Kilt, The Ghetto, The Circus, The Batcave, The Wag, Club For Heroes, The Camden Palace, Cha-Cha, White Trash, The Mud Club and Le Beat Route. “But while we danced to electro Kraftwerk and The Normal we also liked a bit of disco down the gay clubs like Bang and Sombrero, ” says Princess Julia. And indeed, the same crowd could be found hanging out in the upmarket Embassy and Maunkberry’s, or roller- skating at Global Village before it was transformed into Heaven (the largest gay club in Europe). By the mid-1980s the fashion industry was mourning its losses from the devastating HIV/Aids epidemic and formed the charity Fashion Acts, while BLITZ, i-D and The Face came together to design a T-shirt bearing the slogan, Fashion Cares.
On the catwalks things were unravelling too. Rachel Auburn and Leigh Bowery stitched together designs made from discarded second-hand clothes. The look shocked New Yorkers when it sold in Bloomingdales with designer price tags.
Bowery became a techno-coloured pied piper hosting the ultimate hedonistic nightclub experience where nothing was Taboo. As pantomime costumes and drug addled antics fuelled the partying, on any Thursday night the dancefloor of Taboo resembled the seething bodies of Dante’s underworld, although it was more likely a choreographed dance routine from the latest Bodymap show, orchestrated by Michael Clark and Gaby Agis still wearing their Lycra bodysuits fresh off the catwalk.
By the tail end of the 1980s the lunatics had taken over the asylum. A slew of magazines had emerged specifically targeting the new style savvy populace and everything came with a designer label, including bottled water. i-D and BLITZ had been feted with exhibitions at the V&A, the stylist had become a career option and thirtysomethings dissected their lives over macrobiotic dinner parties in their newly acquired apartments furnished by Ron Arad or pencilled lunch dates at Joe’s Café in their Filofax. “You could find me hanging out at the Soho Brasserie doing some serious networking,” remembers Daks, “or at The Groucho Club, Fred’s, Café de Paris or The Zanzibar.”
Meanwhile, Thatcher’s government were running scared of diversity as we marched in the streets against Clause 28, the amendment that sought to abolish the ‘promotion of homosexuality in schools’.
Like Daks, for me the 1980s were a cocktail of contradictions. There were IRA bombs and a royal wedding, Live Aid, Fashion Aid and HIV/AIDS. Getting to meet my style heroine, Anna Piaggi and losing too many friends to the hateful drug; the threat of nuclear war and the arrival at British Vogue of the powerhouse that was Anna Wintour. I guess it was summed up pretty well when, during London Fashion Week, I was presented to Princess Diana at St James’ Palace before dancing with Princess Julia down Taboo.
And then, in September 1989 Rifat Ozbek presented a catwalk show that is fashion legend, unveiling an all-white collection of upmarket rave club clothes – sequin sweatpants, satin and organdie hooded bomber jackets, sparkling rucksacks, baseball caps and high top trainers. It was a moment of pure clarity that appeared as a panacea to all the madness and mayhem that had gone on during the decade. A cleanser to welcome in the New Age Nineties. A new Nirvana. And we were left with even greater expectations.