If you follow enough fashion movers and shakers on Twitter or Instagram, you have likely seen every piece from the V&A’s new fashion exhibition already. If not, Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s opened last Wednesday and is well worth your attention. For those who lived through the 80s and early 90s, it’s a nostalgic meander down memory lane, but I think it will have more value for 21st century kids who want to experience the creativity and fabulosity of those hedonistic times.
Arranged on two levels, the ground floor displays some of the gems by celebrated British catwalk designers including John Galliano, Wendy Dagworthy, Antony Price and Michiko Koshino. The opening display case features the very same inflatable Michiko Koshino jacket currently hibernating in a trunk under my bed – a fine example of the theatrical pieces worn not just to clubs but for everyday peacocking.
The ‘Club’ focus is up a flight of steps, which you ascend to be greeted with a mirror asking the legendary phrase, ‘would you let you in?’ (This genius touch is in reference to the oft-quoted line doled out at the velvet rope to unfortunately attired clubbers by Philip Salon/Leigh Bowery/Trojan/Steve Strange – delete according to who’s telling the tale…)
This mezzanine serves up a more contextualised display of 80s clubwear. There are outrageous swastika-print tops (by Rachel Auburn, loaned By Kim Jones), bodysuits with phallic protrusions (designed by James Montgomery and routinely worn to Tesco’s by its owner) and the sophisticated body-con dresses that managed to leave something to the imagination by dint of their long sleeves and high necklines. (Bouji’s didn’t exist in those days and if it did, is not the kind of club referred to here.)
Inflatable jacket by Michiko Koshino
John Galliano suit with Stephen Jones headdress
Printed textiles by The Cloth
A wonderful Bodymap knitted dress
Rachel Auburn swastika top
Christopher Nemeth jacket made of upcycled post office sacks, loaned by Kim Jones
Vivienne Westwood dress with Keith Haring print
A key part of this exhibition is the Jeffrey Hinton-curated room of stills and original 80s video footage. An arrangement of 20 screens showing scenes gleaned from the DJ-filmmaker’s personal archive of catwalk shows and clubs, the rhythm of music and visuals is fast enough paced to be exhilarating but not overwhelmingly so. They help inject life and personality to the static exhibits. Photography of this room wasn’t allowed at the press preview, but there are snippets on Instagram. As Hinton explained “I wanted to show the nuances and the fun and energy of those days so I chose tracks with a gentler rhythm.” Having always taken pictures and filmed at clubs, there was a vast archive to choose from, a slow and emotional task considering many close friends have since been lost to AIDS. “For me it felt important to hold onto and protect these visual fragments as a tribute to those people.”
Other video footage projected on to walls are a reminder of the creative and carefree spirit of 80s fashion shows London-style, a world away from the polish of Paris or Milan. As a close-knit creative community (practically everyone claims to have lived in the infamous Warren Street squat), the London fashion set would rope in whoever was around to help realise their shows. Hence Michael Clark’s unforgettable balletic routines to showcase Bodymaps’s knits and jerseywear. Or the 1986 V&A auction of customised Levi’s jackets – a who’s who of cool 80s London camping it up with delightfully amateurish charm.
So what does this exhibition tell us? Post-punk London fashion was more concerned with artistic expression than commerce. Where today’s new-gen designers mix creativity with business smarts, their predecessors valued creative expression for its own sake (in many cases, the designers were still students so simply made what was cheap, from available materials). Unsurprisingly, many of those labels failed to last the distance but their legacy remains. The genius of Bodymap is evidenced through the many Instagrams from the exhibition opening party, not to mention their influence on emerging and established designers today. (Buy the exclusive T-shirt here.)
It’s also interesting to note how the social sharing boom of the last ten years has affected our notion of identity and self-expression. Outfits and antics were documented for personal pleasure pre-internet, not to construct a false sense of ourselves as we often do with social media now. While it could be argued that the flamboyant ‘peacocks’ of the Taboo/Blitz years were no more than attention seekers, this was mostly limited to their immediate peer groups, not the public and media at large. Talking to Hinton about today’s culture of constant in-the-moment documenting, we wondered if it could be time to make things smaller again, giving creative movements time to grow and be discovered organically.
It’s unlikely but that might be why this exhibition is missing the digital interactivity that could have given it an added dimension. With most under-30s hard-wired to Tweet and Instagram everything in sight, a digital hub streaming the conversations around the exhibition could have been a way to share stories beyond the physical boundaries of the V&A. In the absence of an official hub, I’d recommend checking out the #clubtocatwalk hashtag on Instagram.
Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s is at the V&A until February 16th 2015