Thursday, 8 August 2013

Their Own Special Creations

Alex Michon raids her dressing up box of reminiscences to review Club to Catwalk at the Victoria & Albert Museum, an exhibition full of fashion-tastic hedonism.

From Club to Catwalk flyer, styled by John Derry Bunce
(aka John Dairy Queen)

'That's the effect of living backwards,' the Queen said kindly: 'it always makes one a little giddy at first--'
'Living backwards!' Alice repeated in great astonishment. 'I never heard of such a thing!'
'--but there's one great advantage in it, that one's memory works both ways.'
'I'm sure MINE only works one way,' Alice remarked. 'I can't remember things before they happen.'
'It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,' the Queen remarked.’ Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

On my way to the press launch of the Club to Catwalk exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum my memories were a little giddy, having been involved in both the fashion and club scene of the time I was inevitably curious. The synchronicity of attending the event also struck me, having long ago switched from fashion to fine art I had recently begun to remember those far off hedonistic days of high camp, outrageous drag queens and drugs, and they were becoming the inspiration for a series of paintings and installations I was working on.

Making new work from old memories, forcing the past into the future, is a witches brew that must, in my mind, be kept conceptually simmering so that it does not boil over into self indulgent nostalgia. I assured myself that my visit would be in the spirit of investigating the source material for my work but really I was also hoping to bump into some old friends.

Apart from reference material for fashion students, sociologists and cultural historians I imagine that nostalgia is the stock in trade for an exhibition such as this, and whilst waiting for the launch to begin there were a lot of (smartly and demurely dressed) ladies of the press fondly remembering their own outrageous outfits from those days. “I was going to wear my Body Map dress but it just didn’t look right” was a recurring comment. I realised that I would not be seeing any of my old mates here, no John Dairy Queen or Fat Tony, Trojan, Leigh or Rachel Auburn. Unless they were no longer with us, they were invariably being creative in their own fields, and besides it was 10am; the friends I knew never ventured out until after 10pm and had little time to spend looking for the past in fusty museums.

The Louvre is like the morgue; one goes there to identify one’s friends.” Jean Cocteau

The exhibition is divided into two parts, downstairs is the Catwalk section. In the cabinets are clothes from some famous and also some long forgotten names such as Willy Brown, whose clunky modernist dresses are based on the Underground logo. Mostly black, red and beige A-line dresses, they recall constructivist paintings. Fabrics are mostly heavy cotton twill with lots of tabs and straps, and all the clothes are styled with the ubiquitous Doc Marten shoes. An 80s staple currently enjoying a style revival.

Modernist shapes with underground logo from Willy Brown

Another back in the day name Workers for Freedom recalls the communistical flirtations of the time. In their glass cabinets, in the hallowed environs of the museum, these clothes look like costumes from some 19th Century Russian play. There are lots of tailored jackets and coats, peg trousers and white shirts, navy and white and pin stripe are recurring themes for many of the designers.

One cabinet has a series of denim jackets customized by various designers for Blitz Magazine. My two favourites are the cutlery festooned jacket by Steven Linnard and a jacket completely covered in hairgrips made to look like fringing by Leigh Bowery. There is a great video of a catwalk event with celebrities such as Daniel Day-Lewis modeling the aforementioned customised denim jackets.

Betty Jackson is on show with some quirky, spotty dog, diamante brooches on tailored lapels. Katharine Hamnett’s achingly naff ‘political’ T-shirts with inane slogans are also here, I never liked them, simplistic box shapes and bright colours with 'Save the World' or whatever emblazoned on the front do not a revolution make. Nothing to frighten the horses here.

Hairgrip festooned jacket by Leigh Bowery

Walking upstairs the visitor is met by a big mirror with words “would you let you in?” inscribed on it. This must be clubland, and it is here that I finally meet up with a lot of old friends, albeit in photos and videos.

Straight away I spot a Rachel Auburn outfit: a cropped bolero type jacket with a huge, double peter pan collar and peplum frill which comes to just over the breasts, a pair of Y-fronts, cute, frilled over-the-knee white socks and Rachel’s trademark feather boa. The shocking thing is that the pink bolero jacket has a swastika print all over it.

I am transported right back to the studio in All Saints Road where I used to work as an assistant to Rachel and remember how cross I was at her use of this symbol on the clothes. Of course it was done for shock and controversy value, Rachel kept insisting it was an ancient Indian symbol, but we both knew how it would be perceived.

Rachel Auburn being glam and getting ready DJing

It was whilst I was working with Rachel that I got roped in to doing the door at Taboo, the club where Rachel was DJing. Her set was on a Thursday night and most of Thursday was spent making her outfits for that evening. I had never been to the club – it was not really my thing. 

As a diligent assistant I would be in work bright and early on Friday ready to start sewing, packing and organizing her designs, which had begun to sell really well, especially in America. Rachel would stroll in very tired some time around midday and I would be a real square hassling her about orders and the suchlike. 

Leigh Bowery and Trojan would pop into the studio from time to time and I remember being told “we have got a job for you. You are going to do the cash till at the club.” I got the job, not because of my hedonistic nature or my outrageous dress sense, but because I was organised and trustworthy, did not take drugs and would not hassle Rachel on the following Friday as I now would be too tired as well.

From behind the cash till, where I remained all night, (two lagers at the most at closing time) I was privy to all the glorious dressing up, the celebrities (“My name is Billie Currie and I am from Ultravox” a punter once announced “Ok,” I replied “it is three pounds, fifty to get in.” – the cool celebrities would never try and get in without paying. I specifically remember  Lee John from Imagination would pay for himself and about twenty others without a single mention of who he was).

Trojan and Mark controlling the door policy at Taboo

Taboo was the ONLY club to go to in London, to be seen at, to get off with people at, to take drugs and generally misbehave at.

It was of course overseen by the wonderfully eccentric host, the really talented, extraordinary creation that was Leigh Bowery. Each Thursday he would outdo his previous week's outfit with more extraordinary fabulousness. But I cannot stress enough how brilliant Leigh’s design and cutting skills were. He was a master craftsman and skilled maker, and he was also totally unique. He never copied anyone. I did some sewing for him once and he was genuinely lovely and very appreciative of all my fairly limited sewing skills. 

Apart from the aforementioned hairgrip fringed jacket there is a wonderful coat of Leigh’s in the exhibition which was his “star coat" – the star is shattered and intricately stitched into the back in pieces, not just appliquéd on top. The seams of the star are an integral part of the whole. It was pure cutting genius and I am very sad now that I sold my own Star coat which Leigh had given me as an unexpected gift

Leigh’s friends Trojan and Mark would be doing the guest list at the front door, and for sure had I not been working with Rachel I would never have been let in, luckily I was able to make myself clothes from her designs, although my outfits were vastly underplayed. I wore a lot of ringlets back then (Rachel would use then to accessorise her clothes for fashion shows) very cheaply bought from Shepherds Bush Market, and I think meant for black girls, they were a kooky hair accessory that instantly made me a bit less square. 

I once made a long red velvet waistcoat with a bustle at the back which I called my “bunny girl” outfit, but mostly I would take something quite conservative from off the rails at the studio to wear. Rachel always looked wonderful with her film star blonde hair, her chutzpah, her ingenious way of putting a look together and her wonderfully applied make up.

David (Daisy), the lovely Leigh Bowery and Trojan – Stars 

My job was to take the money and hand out the tickets and then do the cashing up at the end of the night making sure that my till receipts tallied. I would rarely venture down into the club itself I had a job to do and so conscientiously would not leave my till. I made friends with the bouncers, who were extremely tolerant of all the freaks, and also with the wonderfully dour Egyptian manager Hassan, who oversaw all the madness on a Thursday night with a kind and patient nature. Of course the club was making money, but Hassan had on many occasions to persuade the owners of this 70s-style soul club in Leicester Square that we should be allowed to continue.

One of the best parts of this exhibition is a video installation by one of the Taboo DJs Jeremy Healy. In an endearingly moving gesture, he dedicates his installation to all those who died of Aids. Here in the installation, the exhibition really comes to life. Multiple screens show numerous scenes from the club, the drag queens, the beautiful boys, Leigh and Trojan in their many outfits, punters dressed up for a night out in all their own special creations. Yes it was hedonistic, it was outrageous and it was the highest of camp, but it was also incredibly creative, the craftsmanship was real, the ideas were genuinely new and there was an iconoclastic desire not to live or think backwards, but to always be moving forwards; to remember something that had not as yet happened.

Alex Michon

Club to Catwalk, London Fashion in the 1980s
V & A, SW7 
Until 16 February 2014

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