On the night before I left for Los Angeles, I stopped by the Club to Catwalk exhibition opening at the V&A, who are currently on an exhibition roll. In fact the whole year has been partitioned by exhibitions that neatly segue into each other from David Bowie Is to Met Museum's Punk: Chaos to Couture to an ode to Blitz magazine at the ICA in celebration of former Blitz Magazine fashion editor Iain R. Webb's brilliantly penned tome and back to the V&A for an overview of the fashion scene in 1980s London. Jean Paul Gaultier's big retrospective next year at the Barbican also follows up nicely to these movements and oeuvres that are hard to shake off. I say hard only that it's a specific time period of London that I can't help but romanticise and look at with rose-tinted glasses, precisely because I never experienced any of it. As I said before when I wrote about the parallels between the characters as documented in Graham Smith's We Can Be Heroes book and today's new gen hardcore dress-up kids, as a Londoner you can't help but be swept away by the mythology - real and projected. What came before in the 1980s may be a rollcall of designers, music ingenues, club svengalis and party kids - a cast of characters save for a few notables, who are largely forgotten by the wider public today but it's so important to see that what London enjoys today with its free-thinking creative microcosm and its designers finally reaping financial rewards, owes much to what came before when fashion simply wasn't that fashionable and when creative minds came together with shoestring budgets, DIY methods and a desire to have a bloody good time whilst doing whatever it may be - modelling/making/designing/DJ-ing/dancing/drinking.
Curated by V&A Head of Fashion, Claire Wilcox and Wendy Dagworthy, founder of London Fashion Week, former designer and now Head of Fashion at Royal College of Art, the exhibition is split up into two. "Club" on the mezzanine level leads down into "Catwalk" with mannequins throwing their hands up in the open air, like they just don't care upstairs, in stark contrast to the more regimented glass cases of the lower fall. The "Club" section groups up aesthetic and genre themes such as 'Hard Times' 'High Camp', 'New Romantic', 'Goth' and 'Rave'. The looks that transpire aren't as simplistic though as those categories suggest. A Christopher Nemeth jacket made out of post office sacks, a hooped gown made by Georgina Godley to enable you to move and the exuberant form-fitting knits of Bodymap, designed by Stevie Stewart and David Holah smack of individuality and in the cases of designs by underground luminaries and club fixtures such as Kim Bowen, Rachel Auburn and Leigh Bowery, their pieces (which look to have survived many a good night out - one part of the problem of putting together this exhibition) are costumes for the night only - when the only thing that mattered was dressing up for your peers and yourself. It's up on this mezzanine floor where the crossover between music, dance, film and fashion really come together as we hop from one club era to another. Just reeling off the names of the chronology of London's club nights/venues makes you exhausted - The Blitz, Hell, Club for Heroes, Mud Club, Wag Club, Taboo and then later raving it up at Camden Palace as we near the nineties with all its smiley faces and happy drugs.
There isn't necessarily an overt correlation between the club looks and the designer pieces downstairs in th "Catwalk" section, only that we can assume that the vibrant and creative club scene went hand in hand with the bold looks created by the fashion designers of London. Whilst the decade was rich with creativity and talent, it was a time when London's fashion industry was hampered by lack of business know-how or maybe even desire to be commercial. Vitrines dedicated to forerunners such as Jasper Conran, Betty Jackson, Paul Smith, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood represent the famous core of designers who obviously laid foundations for subsequent generations. Others such as Wendy Dagworthy, English Eccentrics and Timney Fowler have moved on to other endeavours or you had names such as Willy Brown and Chrissie Walsh who perhaps were designers rooted to their time, feeding off 1980s culture. The enduring visual messages are well illustrated by Katherine Hamnett's slogan t-shirts of course. Like the clubwear section, the catwalk looks showcased range from eccentric knitwear to high octane eveningwear with everyone in between owning their niche. Much like today then in London.
The burst of 80s fashion talent is best summed up in the Blitz Designer Denim Jacket project - a collaborative project to give designers such as John Galliano, Rifat Ozbek, Bernstock Speirs and Vivenne Westwood to the blank slate of a Levi's denim jacket. The customisation project grew into a extravaganza public show held in 1986 at London's Albery Theatre to raise money for charity. The concept sounds straightforward enough today in an age of customise this and collaborate that but it was a project that captured the fashion world's imagination back then as the exhibition of jackets went on tour to Louvre in Paris as well as to Barney's in New York.
"If you do not FEEL it in your heart, then it will NEVER hang correctly from your shoulder.
If you limit your life by the length of your skirt, then your sensibilities will reveal such.
DO NOT ask my opinion - instead feel fabric against your skin, and DRESS ACCORDINGLY…"
To accompany the exhibition, you won't find better insight than in both the aforementioned We Can Be Heroes book and also in Webb's As Seen in Blitz: Fashioning '80s Style, which I was really excited about when I met Webb out at the Bath in Fashion event. To summarise, Blitz (unrelated to the club night that was happening concurrently) along with i-D and The Face was part of the trio of exciting magazines that really changed the fashion publishing game. Actually "fashion publishing" is too rudimentary a category to put Blitz in. Way back when there was no "alternative" to mainstream titles, Blitz, set up by Carey Labovitch and Simon Tesler, with Webb helming the fashion tone, really did break boundaries that we now take for granted in fashion editorials. Gender bending, nudity, commentary on religion and race, epoch and subculture referencing and the mere idea of masking the clothes that they were shooting - Blitz did all of that and in a way that would influence future generations of industry biggies such as Katie Grand (who provided the foreword to the book), Simon Foxton (whose CSM graduate collection was featured in the mag) and Hamish Bowles, whose personal collection of sample sale Chanel is featured in the magazine from when he was a junior editor at Harpers & Queen. Traces of the publication on the internet are scant and physical copies are even more rare and so this has been the coffee table book that keeps on giving. Webb could have easily put together a back catalogue of imagery from the magazine and that would have been enough, given the fact that many people seen them before. Ever the consummate journalist, editor and writer, Webb has interviewed the models, creatives, designers, photographers, stylists, make-up artists and hair stylists involved on the shoots to give much needed context and background to the images. The list of interviewees is long and illustrious; Nick Knight, Marc Ascoli, Judy Blame, Stephen Jones, Marc Jacobs and Katherine Hamnett are just a few that have given words. There's also a brilliant back section of longer length interviews with the likes of Anna Piaggi, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Calvin Klein. The first three lines set out here from the Blitz Fashion Manifesto as writtein by Webb in 1985 as well as a shoot featuring a t-shirt, which reads "We are not here to sell clothes" just about sums up the fearless attitude of Blitz - something that has definitely gone amiss in today's fashion landscape.