Writer and fashion editor Iain R Webb talks us through the inspiration behind the vitrine he curated for our Off-Site Project A Journey Through London Subculture: 1980s to Now.
In keeping with the spirit of the exhibition I wanted to trace the inspirational trip counterculture has taken by referencing imagery that I originally produced in the 1980s to provoke new content. The starting point for my vitrine was a page torn from BLITZ, a photo shoot that I styled when I was fashion editor of the magazine (1982-1987). The fashion editorial was called No Nukes Is Good News: One Choice, No Choice. Each photograph showcased neo-couture accessories created specifically for the shoot by London’s new breed of designers, including accessory designer Judy Blame and shoe designer John Moore, who were each creating pieces from the detritus found about them in the city. The pair’s mud larking adventures are cited elsewhere as a source of inspiration for the narrative of this exhibition.
The story was prompted by the pervasive threat of nuclear war. Having seen the film Bladerunner I was totally seduced by its doom laden futureworld landscape – a hybrid melding of the technetronic vibe of urban Japan with the raggle-taggle shabbiness of post-punk realism. This story featured five Asian youths (including cult DJ and S’Express founder, Mark Moore). Throughout the story the young men wore bondage trousers and drapey robes; barefoot with black roses in their even blacker hair, the mood was purposefully dark and menacing yet somewhat spiritual. During the shoot, in a spontaneous moment, I daubed a slogan on a white T-shirt in black paint: ‘WE’RE NOT HERE TO SELL CLOTHES’. I loved to write on clothes (a throwback to my punk roots) and still do. It was a message from my heart, emphasising that these images were intended as more than just a catalogue of clothes from the catwalks. This was not about selling a look; it was about trying to say something. This picture encapsulates my ethos as a stylist and my interpretation of fashion as a creative endeavour rather than purely a commercial enterprise. It is still a powerful image that has resonated throughout my career and I often return to it to refuel my soul. No matter the path trodden, from the alternative counterculture of BLITZ and i-D to the establishment grip at The Times, I have always attempted to weave other such messages within the fashion images I have produced, hoping that they might move people beyond merely flashing the cash. The purpose has always been to inspire or provoke, engage or enrage.
The other items in the vitrine bring this message up to date. I copied the slogan onto a blank white T-shirt found at the back of a cupboard and hand-embroidered this with black thread. I purposefully ironed creases into the T-shirt and tacked these into place to emphasise that this was a garment not intended to wear. Alongside the T-shirt I have placed a pincushion, which I created from found antique lace doilies. Into this, to underscore the subtext, I pinned another missive, NOT FOR SALE. The fourth element in the vitrine is a small knitted Ban The Bomb sign. This object references another image from the same fashion story that featured the five young men with faces contorted in horror painted with the same symbol. I like that the medium is humble and homely and more normally associated with Women’s Institute handicraft evening classes than a mode of protest.
During the 1980s the magazines and clubs were interwoven. Many a fashion story was dreamed up on a banquette in a nightclub. For the most part the clientele was a small group of people, the same faces, same places. It was an incredibly creative milieu and a very supportive atmosphere. We were always collaborating on different projects, be it a fashion show for Melissa Caplan or Stephen Linard or a film for John Maybury. When I started constructing my shoots for BLITZ it was only natural that my fashion freak friends would figure, so Scarlett Cannon modelled, Princess Julia did make-up (and modelled), Bodymap would lend some clothes and Stephen Jones would make a hat.
We were outsiders living on the edge of society who wished to craft our own alternative culture. It was a very unifying vision. We had nothing, so we had nothing to lose. But we shared an ethos – we were all working together to present our collective ideas and create imagery that reflected more accurately the world in which we lived.
The title of my vitrine alludes to the concept of the stylist, which emerged as a reality at the dawning of the 1980s as fashion fell from favour and was rechristened style. The fashion editor who presented new designer duds to their readers in a dogmatic way, expecting them to be slavishly copied, was no longer relevant for a new breed of iconoclasts. A new sort of stylist was suddenly able to showcase their ideas in a trio of new magazines – BLITZ, The Face and i-D. The roll call included Ray Petri, Helen Roberts, Caryn Franklin, Amanda Grieve (now Harlech), Caroline Baker, Beth Summers, Maxine Siwan, Simon Foxton, Mitzi Lorenz and Judy Blame among them. These stylists, and those that have come after (such as the super-talented Panos Yiapanis), not only put together clothes pulled from a fashion house but also elements that do not have a designer label or a price tag. Many of the clothes I featured in BLITZ were sourced from charity shops or pulled from friend’s wardrobes. Found items that often other folk have thrown away or something knocked up specifically for the shoot. These are often credited in the magazine as ‘stylist’s own’. I added the bracketed POA, the abbreviation for Price On Application used by art galleries and estate agents for something ridiculously expensive, as an afterthought comment on the continued conversation between value and worth; how in this day and age, everything, everyone appears to have a price tag.
I was thrilled to be invited by Gregor Muir and the ICA to take part in this exhibition and the process has been extremely rewarding, not only reinforcing my alternative standpoint but also reaffirming my faith, my belief, in the power of subversion and importance of anti-establishment subculture. It is heart warming to know that the same driving force to challenge the status quo and shake up convention is very much alive in a new generation of bright young things who are still not here just to sell clothes.
Iain R Webb
If you want to find out more about the radical fashion from the pages of BLITZ magazine, Iain is curating an exhibition at Paul Smith in Mayfair this November:
'You're Ugly and Your Mother Dresses You Funny'
22 November - 13 December
Paul Smith, 9 Albermarle Street, Mayfair, W1S 4BL
As seen in BLITZ: Fashioning ‘80s Style is available from ACC Publications.
Visit Iain's blog at hopeandglitter.wordpress.com
This article is posted in: Exhibitions