Saturday, April 05, 2014

From Club to Catwalk: 80s Fashion

Another exhibition I was very lucky to see in London this past January was one in V&A (it ended in February), dedicated to 80s Fashion. From Club To Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s explored the creative explosion of London fashion in that decade. Through more than 85 outfits, the exhibition showcased the bold and exciting new looks by the most experimental (and then young) designers of the decade, including Betty Jackson, Katharine Hamnett, Wendy Dagworthy and John Galliano. The exhibition traced the emerging theatricality in British fashion as the capital’s vibrant and eclectic club scene influenced a new generation of designers. Also celebrating iconic styles such as New Romantic and High Camp, and featuring outfits worn by Adam Ant and Leigh Bowery, the exhibition explored how the creative relationship between catwalk and club wear helped reinvent fashion, as reflected in magazines such as i-D and Blitz and venues including Heaven and Taboo.

For me it was like travelling back in time, re-living my teens, remembering things I had completely forgotten, identifying stuff I used to pore over in 80s magazines, seeing amazing clothes and remembering songs and events that marked my adolescence. Then it suddenly dawned on me: my teen years were encapsulated in a museum exhibition! I felt really old and odd at the same time. Luckily that feeling passed by quickly as I thoroughly enjoyed the outfits and photos, the texts and layout of the exhibition, which was minimal but thoroughly into the spirit of the decade with the bold graphics and colours. One of the best parts was a dark room with small screens all over, playing a slide show of photos from the clubs of that era, accompanied by the appropriate soundtrack. One could recognise all the famous (and not so famous) people of 80s London, even seeing together people one would not imagine had met. Below you can read about the concept of the exhibition.

The ’80s saw the explosion of the London club scene. Specialist club ‘nights’ offered opportunities for dressing up in the company of a like-minded crowd. Stevie Stewart of Body Map explained that ‘each group of people, whether they were fashion designers, musicians or dancers, filmmakers, living together and going out together had a passion for creating something new that was almost infectious’. Early clubs such as Billy’s, Blitz and the Club for Heroes were small and attracted a selective crowd. As the decade progressed, venues such as the Camden Palace and one-off warehouse parties began to attract much larger audiences. Although less intimate, they perpetuated the creative link between music, club and catwalk. This symbiotic relationship remained the defining characteristic of 1980s style.

In the early ’80s, London fashion began to create a stir internationally. Fashion shows took place in New York and Japan. One breakthrough event, titled ‘London Goes to Tokyo’, included many of the designers featured here and in the upstairs gallery. The inventiveness of London design owed much to the excellence of the city’s arts education. Colleges such as St Martin’s, the Royal College of Art and Hornsey College of Art offered advanced training in the fundamentals of fashion design, while also encouraging individuality. At night, young designers’ imaginations were sparked by a vibrant London club scene. John Galliano recalled, ‘Thursday and Friday at St Martin’s, the college was almost deserted. Everybody was at home working on their costumes for the weekend’. Designer Georgina Godley remembers, 'Young London was all about taking risks and creating something out of nothing through passion and ambition'.

Amidst the colourful extravagance of 1980s fashion, one label in particular stood out thanks to their pioneering approach to making and showing their creations: Body Map. The exhibition looked back at the DIY origins of the label with its two founders, Stevie Stewart and David Holah, and of collaborations with a young Mario Testino, Michael Clark and David LaChapelle, among others.

In July 1986, era-defining style magazine BLITZ published an issue featuring images of 22 Levi’s denim jackets that had been customised by some of the world’s most lauded designers – Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Katherine Hamnett among them. The jackets went on to be worn during a special evening of performance, and were displayed at the V&A. Apart from some of the outfits, there was a video of the show presenting the fashions, with each ensemble presented by a model and a group/singer. Patsy Kensit was one of the models! Below is Leigh Bowery's entry.

The variety of styles exhibited are credit to the diverse background and aesthetic of the designers back then and it also chronicles the transformation of British fashion from small, local and self-centred to large, international and global.

I am sorry for the quality of my photos but they were taken with my iPhone without flash and in a hurry until a kind lady from the museum stopped me! The catalogue accompanying the exhibition is a must for every fashion enthusiast and designer, with rare material inside.

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