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Exhibits Examine the Subcultural Roots of London’s Fashion Creativity

In London, two exhibits pay homage to the raw, rebellious and deliriously inventive energy of the British capital’s creative underground, which trickles up to the catwalk like nowhere else.
An installation at From Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s | Source: V&A
  • Suleman Anaya

LONDON, United Kingdom — "There is this incredible compression of creative activity in London. Fashion designers here are connected through the bars and clubs and, importantly, the art colleges to people in other practices. In that sense, the art schools feed into fashion here, which is a very different dynamic to other cities," Gregor Muir, executive director of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, told BoF.

Indeed, London is quite unlike Paris or Milan, Europe's other major fashion capitals, where in recent weeks, several designers presented collections that in one way or another found inspiration in a range of artistic and cultural activity. In Milan, Miuccia Prada invoked Chicano and South American street art in her brilliant blast of knit dresses, worn with leg warmers and sandals, while, a few days ago at the Paris shows, Dries van Noten seemed to quote no less than Goya and Velazquez, two titans of Spanish painting. Yet as effective as these collections were, their cultural references seemed to lack conviction, perhaps because they were so completely disconnected in time and space from the houses that designed them.

In contrast, the collections created by London's best designers have long felt more closely tied to the city's own contemporary cultural output. "In London, there is a proximity between art, fashion and music that is unique," continued Muir. "It feels very real and very urgent; it's not strategic, but seems to just rise up [from the city's subcultures to the catwalk]. That was very true of [Alexander] McQueen, but also applies to people like Giles Deacon, Louise Gray or JW Anderson, who are similarly inspired by what is around them — and what is around them in London happens to be very creative," added Muir.

Muir is the curator of "A Journey Through London Subculture: 1980s to Now," one of two exhbitions currently on view here that examine the connections between the British capital's history of vibrant sub-cultures and its creative output — particularly fashion — past and present. The other is the Victoria & Albert Museum's "Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s," which focuses on the famously heady decade and proves that some of London fashion's most powerful creative currents originated in clubland.

The effulgence of London's subcultural scene in the 1980s is legendary and it's no secret how intertwined the city's fashion and music scenes were at the time. These were, after all, the years when a young George Michael donned a politically charged Katherine Hamnett "Choose Life" t-shirt in Wham's video for "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and when people like John Galliano, Stephen Jones and Boy George were partying at nightclubs several nights a week, taking the fine art of dressing to new levels of ingenuity.

The premise of "Club to Catwalk" is simple: the decade was a crucial moment when the professionalisation of designer fashion in London — the first London Fashion Week took place in 1984 — coincided with the rise of a colourful DIY club scene. Without the bombast of the V&A's recent David Bowie exhibition, but similarly effective, the exhibition unfolds on two levels. Highlights on the ground floor, dedicated to runway fashion, include two menswear looks from John Galliano's "Fallen Angel" collection from 1985, as well as a series of denim jackets from 1986, when Blitz magazine commissioned a group of 22 British designers, including Vivienne Westwood and Leigh Bowery, to customise denim jackets provided by Levi's.

Organised around the various style tribes — from New Romantics to Goths — that took hold in London during the 1980s, the show’s second level is dedicated to the outré looks worn by club-goers. Here, several seminal fashion labels are featured in special, lovingly illustrated sections, including Body Map, the design duo known for their bold looks, often involving stretchy materials and in-your-face graphics, that continue to influence designer collections today.

London’s arty club nights, including Blitz, a weekly everything-goes party run by musician Steve Strange, as well as the legendary Taboo — frequented by many a fashion student from London’s Central Saint Martins, who often arrived wearing theatrical outfits they often spent days designing for themselves — are also brought to life. In particular, the creations of performer and promoter Leigh Bowery, who hosted Taboo, make an indelible impression.

“The 1980s was a special decade for the way in which the capital’s club culture influenced fashion design. In some respects, clubs served as mini-catwalks for designers to try out their designs,” Kate Bethune, assistant curator at the V&A, told BoF. “John Galliano once commented that Central Saint Martin’s was almost deserted on a Thursday and Friday because everyone was at home crafting outfits to wear out at the weekend.”

“Different clubs in the 1980s attracted distinct tribes: The Blitz club was associated with the New Romantic movement, with clubbers donning theatrical pirate costumes, outfits purchased from the trendy PX shop in Covent Garden, flamboyant homemade creations and anything in between,” she continued. “By contrast clubs such as Heaven and Leigh Bowery’s Taboo were associated with gay culture and provided a platform for androgyny and experimentation with provocative ensembles and dresses for men crafted from lamé, PVC and Lycra.”

Some of the names in the V&A show also appear in the ICA exhibit, which extends over the first floor of the Old Selfridges Hotel, a cavernous, vacant space just off Oxford Street in the center of London. Through more than fifty vitrines curated by London-based artists, filmmakers, designers, architect, creative collectives and club night organisers, the exhibition weaves a thread through the many sub-cultural movements that have flourished in the city over the last three decades. And, in a way, this show is about tribes, too.

But the ICA encompasses a much wider array of figures, from House of Beauty and Culture — an 1980s collective known for the scavenging the banks of the Thames for detritus it could then transform into art and fashion and sell at a shop in Dalston that rarely opened — to the organisers of late-night Dalston sweatbox Vogue Fabrics and fast-rising fashion designer JW Anderson. And unlike the V&A exhibit, which limits itself to the more anarchic, experimental early years of London's creative explosion, "A Journey Through London Subcultures" doesn't shy away from the moment when 1980s counterculture was co-opted by commercial forces.

Importantly, the show also makes clear the cultural debt that many of London’s contemporary fashion designers owe to the subcultural movements of London's recent past. For example, the exhibition draws a clear line from the club night Taboo to designer duo Edward Meadham and Benjamin Kirchhoff, whose entire Autumn/Winter 2012 collection for their label, Meadham Kirchhoff, was devoted to the club.

Both shows also raise important questions regarding the future of London's position as a creative cauldron. The majority of the art, fashion and design featured in the ICA and V&A shows sprung from a raw, do-it-yourself ethos that was itself rooted in a reasonable supply of affordable housing. Bodymap designers Stevie Stewart and David Holah actually started their seminal project in a squat. Similarly, radical milliner Stephen Jones recalls living in a squat with Princess Julia, a former deejay and model who is now the music editor of i-D magazine.

Needless to say, London is a very different place today than it was 30 years ago. It’s often ranked amongst the most expensive cities in the world and is most certainly out of reach for many artists and designers, who struggle to pay the capital’s high rents. But Muir suggests that, despite the challenges, the continuing gentrification of London, driven in no small part by international wealth, might actually strengthen the city’s subcultural activity, not weaken it.

“Despite, or maybe because of the influx of international wealth, London artists and designers continue to see their roots in counterculture. Some of the beliefs associated with a resistant culture still hold fast and are important to this generation as they were to previous generations; they simply express it differently.”

What's more, digital media offers interesting new outlets for creativity, he suggested. “Today, London artists and fashion designers have an extraordinary ability to work with the endless stream of images and culture in this post-internet era."

"The world has become more fractured, there are many more means of communication," he continued. "But what London designers bring to the table is much more than the school of creativity that says ‘Let's grab an old art book and work a look around that.’ It’s about actually engaging with current culture.”

And that, he thinks, isn’t set to disappear anytime soon.

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