A couple of weeks ago I bumped into accessory designer and stylist extraordinaire Judy Blame at the opening for David Robilliard: The Yes No Quality of Dreams at the ICA. It was great to catch up with Judy (his recent projects include working with Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley on the new MBMJ line), and reminisce old times. But I was most thrilled to hear that he has finally got it together to compile a book dedicated to his life’s work, to be published in 2015. I will keep you posted when I hear more. I know I can’t wait to see the results.
Meanwhile, here is a profile of Judy that I wrote originally for The Independent Saturday Magazine, February 2005. A version of this story also appeared in the New York Times T Style magazine. The photograph shown here is from one of the first features I put together as fashion editor for The London Evening Standard in August 1987.
Why buttons? “Mainly the variety of styles – old and new. They are functional as well as being decorative, and because I’m in love with good hand sewing and thread. They are extremely traditional and I make them modern.” Judy Blame, 1987.
Photographer: Mark Lewis. Model: Tania Coleridge. Make-up: Stephanie Jenkins. Hair: Tim Crispin.
“I don’t know what it is about England but we’re really good at accessories”, explains jewellery designer Judy Blame. “When we haven’t got the money we have to use our imagination. I did used to go and scavenge at the River Thames. I’ve never been formally trained at anything so I didn’t have any fear about using something that wasn’t a classical jewellery material.”
There is little that is classic about Judy Blame and the objet trouvé accessories he designs. Yes, let’s clear one thing up straight away. Blame is a man.
It was back in London’s clubland during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a place inhabited by all manner of fabulous freaks (Boy George, Steve Strange and Leigh Bowery among them), that fashion designer Antony Price gave him the nickname Judy. “I always say it’s because I had a pill in one hand and a drink in the other,” says Blame self-mockingly. Then friend and fellow nightclubber Scarlett [Cannon] came up with the Blame. “We thought it was like a trashy B-movie actress.”
During this period Blame was at the centre of London’s hedonistic nightlife. It was a wild time when a group of like-minded, image-conscious souls who had become disillusioned with punk rallied together. Dubbed the New Romantics, their ethos was the desire to be recognised as individuals, to be different, to be special. They wanted to stand out in the crowd, even if the crowd were dressed as nuns or space cowboys, Robinson Crusoe or Rob Roy.
Blame (born Chris Barnes) ran away from the Devonshire countryside at seventeen and was instantly drawn to this bright shining nucleus of creative souls. He was soon hosting a nightclub called Cha-Cha along with Cannon and Michael Hardy aka Maria Malipasta, which became a favourite with the capital’s would-be demi monde.
“Me and Scarlett couldn’t afford a new outfit every week so I had my David Holah chemise [a long, plain muslin dress] and we just used to make a new piece of jewellery each week”, says Blame. As the weeks went by so the ‘jewellery’ became more over-the-top: vast necklaces made from industrial chains, rubber, buttons, cigarette packets, coat hangers or rope.
“I started using materials that weren’t normally used with accessorise design, me and the other genius, of course, was Tom Binns”, says Blame. “I always feel like I still had the punk ethic but we were trying to make it more glamorous”.
Twenty years on and Blame’s creative ingenuity continues to inspire the world’s leading fashion designers like Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons who is collaborating with him on several projects.
“I liked his work as soon as I saw it, so it was a natural thing to ask Judy to be part of the Dover Street Market project”, says Kawakubo, referring to the store she opened in London last year. “For Homme Plus, Judy’s sensibility was perfect for what I was trying to express, the combination was perfect. I like people with a strong and unique vision, Judy has both.”
Like so many of his stylish British contemporaries, at the beginning of his career, Blame lived on the edge, blankly refusing to compromise his avant-garde vision of arch-glamour despite an obvious lack of funds. Small budgets demanded big bravado. He took to transforming himself, from ghostly pale aesthete (a latter day Jean Cocteau, all beret and pan-stick make-up) to a wild, hairy Buffalo Bill character. Today, he looks clean-cut by comparison with shorn hair and dressed in T-shirt and jeans. As we sit on the bare board floor of his brand new flat in North London (“the furniture’s coming next week,” he explains), surrounded by plastic boxes filled with the odds and sods he uses for his jewellery, he surveys photographs of his latest designs: shocking pink plastic toy soldiers on gold chains comissioned by Kawakubo for her menswear line.
“I’ve always rated the Japanese for turning fashion a bit on its head, so I was thrilled to be invited by her to do something because she has that anarchy that England does have and which is obviously my backbone”, says Blame in a voice that belies his punk leanings: part soft West Country, part grand (to the point of being regal), with a touch of a Johnny Rotten sneer.
Fittingly, the safety pin, the iconic punk accessory, has become a constant in his designs, whether decorating a beret, scarf or outlining a jacket collar.
“You know, it’s such a beautiful piece of design, but if you use it in a different way, I never tire of it”.
Blame’s extraordinary take on glamour still looks shockingly new today. In essence his designs are little more than a muddle of everyday objects.
“It doesn’t have to be diamonds and gold or bling. It can be anything as long as you feel proud and you know you wanna wear it”.
“There was one [necklace] when I first started and I literally made it out of string. Just a ball of string dyed in a different colour with a few wooden beads in it”, he laughs.
Back in the 1980s, although he sold his work through ‘The House of Beauty & Culture’, a raggle-taggle design collective, which he formed with fellow designers Christopher Nemeth and John Moore, Blame found it difficult to turn this chaotic concept into serious commercial fashion. Instead, his magpie aesthetic inspired him to turn his hand to styling, encouraged by famed Buffalo stylist Ray Petri and photographers Mark Lebon and Eddie Monsoon, who has photographed Blame exclusively for this story. He worked for the now defunct Face magazine and still has a long-time association with i-D.
“Judy Blame is legendary,” says i-D publisher Terry Jones. “Through his unique vision he has that magic intuition that has been a major contribution to the history of i-D magazine…His prints and slogans along with his brilliant jewellery pieces have made him an inspiration”.
Not surprisingly his work did catch the eye of image-hungry pop stars. Boy George contacted Blame when looking for something to wear to the Grammy’s in 1983. In his biography, Take It Like A Man, the singer remembers: “I…picked out several pieces of garish gold neck jewelry, and a pair of razzle-dazzle earrings. Five minutes before we went on air I still couldn’t decide what necklace to wear, so I wore them all.”
“And then had a photograph taken with Joan Rivers and Joan Collins standing either side of him,” says Blame, “it was the campest thing you’ve ever seen in your life!”
Another camp follower and Blame fan was entrepreneur cum showgirl Susanne Bartsch who, in the 1980s, promoted London’s most avant-garde designers tirelessly around the globe, staging madcap fashion shows while wearing little more than a corset and feathered headdress herself. In his own way, Blame cannot praise her highly enough.
“It was funny that it took some Swiss bitch from New York to come to London, take it away from London because everyone was ignoring us in London, put it on in New York or Tokyo and then everyone in London sat up. No one was taking any notice but the minute it was taken outside, then everyone took notice”.
Blame’s latest glittering gold and cream pieces made from pearls, woolly pom-poms, buttons, stars, shells, plastic six-pack holders, a Lurex evening glove and a magnifying glass (yes, really!), hang from discarded champagne corks fixed to the wall in the basement of the new Dover Street emporium. In the middle there is a child’s teddy bear covered in flesh coloured plasters.
“It’s not being run of the mill, it’s being different and I think there’s always room for that,” says Blame. “You can invent more of your own look with accessories and I think that’s why I’ve always been attracted to them.”