Beautiful freaks: Iain R Webb on clubs, counter culture and unbridled creativity
The wonderful Iain R Webb, award-winning fashion writer and author of the book As Seen In BLITZ, sent me a whole essay in answer to an email I sent him a few months ago when I was after a few lines to use for a quote for an article. I decided it was too good not to share in its entirety, so he said I could publish it here. Read and be inspired…
IAIN R WEBB writes…
In the summer of 1980 I left St Martins School of Art, having studied fashion design, first in my class. Within a week I was last in the dole queue.
Despite unemployment and lack of funds London was an exciting place to be. The mood of impermanence and uncertainty ironically offered an atmosphere of unbridled freedom. We had nothing, so we had nothing to lose. Surrounded by like-minded creative souls our aim was true: to take on the Establishment. Like a blazing phoenix, an alternative scene emerged from the ashes of punk. The do-it-yourself ethos that had sparked punk’s original ethos had by now turned into tired stylistic clichés – spiked hair, mean stares and safety pins – and in its place a new landscape that featured one-night stand nightclubs (Blitz, Cha-Cha, Le Kilt, The Beatroute, WAG, Taboo), style-obsessed magazines (The Face, i-D and BLITZ) and a new line-up of designers, artists and filmmakers (Stephen Jones, Melissa Caplan, Willy Brown, BodyMap, Trojan, Leigh Bowery, John Maybury), all played out to a new electronic soundtrack provided by Kraftwerk, Spandau Ballet, Human League, The Normal and the Yellow Magic Orchestra.
BELOW: TROJAN IN BLITZ MAGAZINE, 1985 STYLED BY IAIN R WEBB, PHOTO BY PETE MOSS
The 1980s were a wonderful cocktail of contradictions. There were IRA bombs and a royal wedding, Live Aid, Fashion Aid and HIV/AIDS, the heinous Clause 28 and the fabulous N-N-N-Nineteen by Paul Hardcastle. In the 80s I got to meet my style heroine, Anna Piaggi and lost too many friends to the hateful drug; there was the threat of nuclear war and the arrival at British Vogue of the powerhouse that was Anna Wintour. There were nights spent in trashy illegal drinking clubs and pubs in less-than-salubrious parts of London to quaffing Crystal champagne at San Lorenzo and Le Caprice. I guess it was summed up pretty well when, as fashion editor of The Evening Standard newspaper, I was presented to Princess Diana at St James’ Palace before dancing with Princess Julia down Taboo.
I became a club kid when I arrived in London in 1977 – I went to punk venues like the 100 Club to see bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Buzzcocks, but also the gay clubs, where you were free to dress as you pleased without getting hassled. The friends I hung out with at St Martins – Stephen Jones and Fiona Dealey – were part of the Blitz club scene. And my best friend was a designer called Gregory Davis, who had a concession at the new Hyper-Hyper mega-store.
BELOW: IAIN R WEBB, GREGORY DAVIS AND FIONA DEALEY, CIRCA 1979
We were all Bowie fans and had originally attended Steve Strange’s Bowie Night at Billy’s nightclub in Soho. Strange, who acted as a post-punk Pied Piper for a hardcore of club kids, was a catalyst for change and the importance of his role is often overshadowed by the make-up and odd get-ups. Strange not only begat a new generation of club promoters and one-night stand nightclubs but the bright young things that flocked to his nightclubs – from Billy’s, Blitz, Hell, etc – weren’t just out for a good time posing at the bar (although plenty was done), they were also plotting together to overthrow the establishment.
We called ourselves designers, musicians, artists, photographers, filmmakers, make-up artists, writers and the like (none of these were job descriptions offered by the employment exchange). These nightclubs were a breeding ground of creative endeavour with the likes of John Maybury, Stephen Jones, Stephen Linard, Spandau Ballet, Pam Hogg, David Holah and Stevie Stewart (Bodymap), Cerith Wyn Evans, Peter Doig all collaborating on new outrageous projects. There was a mutual support system that was both inspiring and protective. It was a very supportive atmosphere. I guess the nearest thing now is what Lulu Kennedy has done with Fashion East, although the young designers now are much more focused on their business plan and brand management. Back then we really didn’t have a clue.
BELOW: CAROLINE HOUGHTON IN BLITZ MAGAZINE, 1986. STYLING AND PHOTO BY IAIN R WEBB
Throughout the 1980s you would plan your week around nightclubbing – going to at least three each evening, always ending up at the glitzy Embassy discotheque or some seedy illegal after-hours drinking club … the clash of the two worlds was tremendously intoxicating. The 1980s were all about being photographed. We dressed as if every day were a photo shoot and every night a party (it usually was). We would spend hours working out what we would wear to the clubs; making stuff during classes and the ‘getting ready’ was part of the experience.
The emphasis was all about looking individual, so that could mean dressing as a Catholic Priest or a Leather Queen. The scene celebrated diversity and embraced fantasy. We did not want to label ourselves with our clothes or otherwise. One week Steve Strange might be dressed as a Space Cadet, the next Little Lord Fauntleroy or Robinson Crusoe. My look was utilitarian, spare and genderless – skinny, rolled up jeans, an oversized leather or denim jacket and a Deerhunter headband were essential – but still extreme: I might accessorise my outfit with black ballet pumps and muslin drop-down stockings or a pair of tough biker boots.
BELOW: IAIN R WEBB BY DAVID HISCOCK
Clothes were worn either too big or too small (cue Misfit by Curiosity Killed The Cat). A cartoon silhouette was key. My personal wardrobe featured jeans (often ripped and torn), a Jasper Conran black leather jacket that had actually been worn by Nick Kamen, black and white striped jersey boxer shorts by BodyMap, a barely-there jersey vest that was cutaway to almost nothing, wide shouldered boxy jackets by Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto. MA1 satin jackets were also popular as we plundered Army Surplus stores for authentic finds. We wore clothes – anachronistic and nostalgic – that other people threw away, foraged from charity shops and jumble sales. Boyfriends and girlfriends shared clothes and make-up.
Customisation was key. The idea that you could personalise and individualise your look. I guess this culminated in the BLITZ Designer Denim Jacket project that I curated in 1986 when I invited 22 designers to each customise a classic Levis denim jacket. There was everyone from Richmond Cornejo, Rifat Ozbek and John Galliano to Leigh Bowery, Stephen Linard and Eric Bergère at Hermes. The project began as a editorial fashion story in BLITZ magazine and ended as a charity fashion show at a West End theatre starring Tina Chow, Patsy Kensit, Miranda Richardson, Nick Heyward and the best looking Brit pack model boys and girls. It became an exhibition at the V&A and transferred to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
The Blitz club and thereafter (see list below), was full of bright young things (myself included) that were part of a new counter-culture. It was the energy of these would-be fashion designers, writers, artists, make-up artists, filmmakers and photographers that needed a stage on which to perform. In 1980 three magazines were born that would turn the spotlight on this new army of dreamers: BLITZ, i-D and The Face. These magazines allowed us to present ourselves to the world in these roles and experiment with our ideas and concepts. The freaky, fabulous images that we created together merged fashion and art, questioned the accepted ideals of beauty and social status and enjoyed a sense of experimentation. Telling a story with pictures and words was all that mattered. We did whatever it took to get those ideas on the pages. Many of those original stylists, writers, photographers, etc are now establishment names.
BELOW: BLITZ MAGAZINE SHOOT STYLED BY IAIN R WEBB, PHOTO BY MARK LEWIS, 1987
Hebe Dorsey, the grand fashion editor of The Herald Tribune, wrote a very perceptive article about the three new style magazines – BLITZ, The Face and i-D in 1986. She described the new approach as ‘blissfully liberated with a lot of fun-poking at the Establishment.’ Dorsey noted how the magazines promoted the idea that ‘fashion is a happening’ and ‘no longer for those that can afford it’. She also observed that the styled shoots made Vogue look like ‘a string quartet next to a punk band’.
As model Amanda Cazalet says, I think BLITZ magazine and the clubs we inhabited were a home for ‘misfits and vagabonds’. We were outsiders living on the edge of society who wanted to craft our own alternative culture. It was a very unifying vision. We shared an ethos – we were all working together to make imagery that used fashion to reflect the world in which we lived. Hence the raggle-taggle bunch of models and the lost-and-found clothes picked up from charity shops or a boyfriend’s bedroom floor. There was little or no money involved so everyone was there because they wanted to be part of something that felt genuinely exciting.
BELOW: SIBYLLE DE SAINT PHAILLE IN BLITZ, STYLED IAIN R WEBB, PHOTO BY SAM BROWN, 1985
Throughout my career in fashion I have always been more interested in the ideas between the seams rather than the labels or price tags so I guess the ‘We’re Not Here To Sell Clothes’ image at the start of my BLITZ book, where I scrawled on the model’s T-shirt, pretty much sums up my entire ethos. This shoot captures both the hangover from punk and the futureworld fabulousness of Bladerunner, the hopeless and the hopeful. From Punk biro-ed slogans to hip-hop spray painted graffiti, I have always loved to write words on clothes (a look now popular again with young designers) as it was all about making a personal style statement, getting your message across, writ LARGE in BIG, BOLD, SHOUT-IT-ALL-OUT slogans and mantras! This was also a favoured methodology of super-stylish Ray Petri who would cut out words from newspapers and pin onto his models.
BELOW: BLITZ MAGAZINE SHOOT STYLED BY IAIN R WEBB, PHOTO BY MARK LEWIS, 1986
I hoped the readers would use the pictures as a springboard for their own creative efforts rather than slavishly trying to copy the looks. A hairdresser in the book pointed out that I made my career out of telling people to reject buying into fashion. Would I be allowed to do that today when the editorial pages in magazines are so fuelled by the demands of advertisers? I’m not sure, but I do believe that having a singular vision and strong, particular voice is still deliriously desirable and can capture the imagination of even the hardest nosed businessperson. If they are clever they understand that they are in the business of selling dreams alongside the bags and shoes…
The eclectic nature and anti-establishment ethos of 1980s fashion has an obvious appeal today. It mixed the hard-edged and hopelessly romantic, the slick alongside the unraveling and undone.
The raw, DIY legacy of punk provided a template for something very organic and hand-made that has a tremendous appeal in an era of cheap, mass-produced fashion that, just like fast food, offers little hope of sustenance. The fall-out of the New Romantics allowed us to dress up in our flamboyant dreams that defined a new beauty. We found beauty in the unexpected and ugly. Nothing was taboo. No-one was left out in our in-crowd.This is a very seductive and powerful proposition for a generation that has grown up on a diet of homogenised fast fashion, marketing and cool branding.
BELOW: IAIN R WEBB and FIONA DEALEY c.1979
There are obvious similarities between now and then; the broken economic and political landscape combined with mass youth unemployment, homelessness and hopelessness. I think there is now a yearning for a counter culture that is not only concerned with fitting in with some sad ‘in or out’ column and desperate celebrity shenanigans. There has to be something more.
I really hope that our 80s legacy via my BLITZ book and exhibitions such as Club to Catwalk will resonate with a new breed of fashion freaks and inspire them to go out and be creative, however they may choose to do that. I just hope they have as much fun as we did!
CLUB CULTURE: During the late 1970s/80s we would go to: 100 Club, Billy’s, Blitz, Hell, Maunkberry’s, The Embassy, Le Kilt, St Moritz, Le Beat Route, Club For Heroes, Bang, Adams, Copacabana, The Wag, The Dug Out (in Bristol), Scandals, Sombrero (Yours or Mine), Daisy Chain, Heaven, Cha Chas, Dirtbox, The Bell, The Mud Club and Taboo among others. In Paris – Club Sept, Le Bains Douches, Rex and Le Palace. In New York – The Saint, Area, Pyramid, Limelight, Palladium, Tunnel, Danceteria, Nell’s and Xenon.
WORDS: Iain R Webb
IMAGES: Via Iain R Webb, as credited
The Very Simon G
30 November, 2015 @ 10:20 am
What an amazing article!!!! An amazing insight into the ’80s club word. Wish I was old enough to have experienced it all! lol x