Red or Dead's 30th anniversary exhibition at the Dray Walk Gallery in Brick Lane was a pleasant surprise time warp, one that I didn't expect to enjoy as much as I did considering I've had a love/hate relationship with the brand. It began with pure enthusiasm in the mid-90s in my teen years when Red or Dead and its roots in Camden were enthralling to someone who grew up in Camden Town, petting punks' mohawks (my parents had a Chinese take out in the area, where neo-punks were frequent customers) and hanging around the market stalls ogling things that I clearly couldn't afford. Then as the brand went through various buy-outs and change-ups to become its present day incarnation, somehow the ethos of its original founders husband and wife Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway has ebbed away.
Therefore the exhibition was a chance to relive that early magic charting the history of the brand from its early history when Wayne and Geraldine started their 1982 stall in Camden Market, selling vintage clothing and original designs, born out of their generational love of DIY.
They launched their footwear in 1984, fixating on workwear boot styles and chunky round-toed creeper type shoes that soon got picked up by popular culture with the likes of Kylie Minogue and that 80s relic boyband Bros. wearing Red or Dead shoes. A look at some of the styles that were on exhibit and it's remarkable how they feel relevant today, particularly this pair of lace-up workman's boots with an exaggerated geometric welt sole that is crazily similar to the current crop of the Prada A/W 12-3 mens and womens catwalk brogues.
In 1990, Red or Dead ventured into clothing with an iconic motif that was inspired by a futuristically dressed young lady walking around in Paris. A space helmet was drawn over a postcard with a baby's head on it and so the Space Baby was born and it graced countless t-shirts and bags as well as Red or Dead's catwalk collection of plastic jackets and Dr. Martens-collaborated boots. Like the decade's penchant for the smiley face or the weed leaf, the space baby was some sort of insignia for irreverance and escape into a surreal world (drugs-fuelled or not…)
It was a revelation for me, learning about Red or Dead's foray into catwalk shows at early London Fashion Weeks. Their collection in 1991 called "Shopping" featured halter tops constructed out of biscuits and packaging made up into dresses. It was as if Red or Dead took the "quirky" attribute of British fashion and ran away with it.
I love some of the obscure references that Wayne Hemmingway and designers at Red or Dead took such as a gurner (someone who distorts their face) called "Treacle" who was found through the Uglies modelling agency and photographed to create a print. It was obviously also a reference to the after effects of acid taking.
Another unlikely reference for a collection was an eccentric English political activist who used to stand around Oxford Street preaching "Eat Less Protein". When I was growing up, it was the lone "End of the World" preacher and the hari krishna groups, who I remembered as characters of the West End.
Later collections featuring iconic portraits such as the Blue Lady and butterfliestook Red or Dead to wider fashion recognition as they were awarded the "Street Style Award" by the British Fashion Council. Funny how that award doesn't exist anymore, given that irreverant street wear which originated in market stalls or unconventional fashion routes isn't exactly rife anymore. It was an award that was consigned to a particular period of British fashion.
Notoriety dogged Red or Dead as their 1995-6 "New York Dolls" collection featuring deranged housewives playing with knives, needles and fake blood was attacked by the press, and earned Red or Dead the label of "the sick face of British fashion." The political correctness police of today would probably do the same thing but looking at the clothing without its catwalk context, it remains interesting to turn Britain's ugliest buildings such as Trellick Towers, Centre Point and Essex University, into an engaging print piece.
My later memories of Red or Dead began with the 2001-2 Eva wedge, a platformed flip flop that conjures up summers spent wearing flared hipster jeans, strappy tops that you bought 2 for ¬£10 from Topshop and pork pie hats. Their partnership with the shoe chain Schuh continues to this very day, who loyally sell Red or Dead designs.
The latter part of the exhibition covers the stuff that people might know of – Red or Dead's foray into swimwear, collaborations with Specsavers, Raleigh bikes and Bank Fashion - the sum of parts being that Red or Dead is a completely different beast from what it was thirty years ago, the way it should be. Today, a new audience perhaps completely unaware of Red or Dead's storied past latch onto the brand, attracted to the way it touts "British quirkiness", something that many other brands also trade off of. Its current product offerings don't hold as much weight with me as it once did but it's interesting that through tumultuous times and when other independent-spirited cult labels in London have faltered, Red or Dead still stand steady.
A little disclosure, if you're noticing something a little Instagram-ish slash "arty" about some of the pictures here, it's because I've partnered up with Canon to try out the EOS M camera (aka their first mirrorless model that has DSLR quality in a smaller body) which I'll be talking up in detail in due course. I'm having a jolly amount of fun with it and revelling in the fact that I've been doing press days and exhibitions with one singular Christopher Kane clutch. Not to say my bulky DSLR toting days are over but the Canon EOS M is certainly putting up a decent fight judging by the images I'm getting out of it. I'm especially becoming a sucker for the "Miniature" effect (as seen in the pic below) in the creative filters, which will surely feed other Instagram-addicts out there.