The latest fashion exhibition at London’s V&A Museum – Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s – has rightfully put the spotlight back at a decade many dismiss as an era fashion forgot. Yet, just a quick glimpse at some of the outfits pictured on the V&A website and you’ll know why the 80s made such a lasting impact in London: New Romantic, Goth, Club Kids, High Camp – never again has subcultural style had such a direct impact on high fashion, including designers like Betty Jackson, Katharine Hamnett, Wendy Dagworthy and John Galliano.
Imagine my excitement then when I was offered to talk to one of the decade’s most influential style makers, Steve Strange. From his punk roots working for Malcom McLaren to hosting legendary club nights at Blitz and the Camden Palace, to forming 80s band Visage (their latest album Shameless Fashion has just come out), Strange has been at the epicentre of the 80s club scene.
Steve, have you had a chance to see the exhibition yet?
Steve Strange: “Yes I have! It’s such an important exhibition. People sometimes think it was all a bit of freak show but it wasn’t. We mixed classic styles with really creative elements, often home-made. It all had substance though, so many people who went to the clubs were artists, musicians, it was about expressing ourselves, a comment on London, even Thatcher if you like.”
Looking back, what was your favourite ever outfit?
Steve Strange: “It would be a Galliano and it would be from his degree show at St Martin’s School of Fashion, based on the French revolution, customized with a Steven Jones hat. It’s a Galliano with a ‘Jones a la Strange’ twist!
Do you still have any of the outfits you wore to the clubs or to perform?
Steve Strange: “No, sadly I lost everything in a house fire in the late 90s, I was devastated!”
Do you think a subculture like the 80s club scene can ever happen again given that fashion-wise nothing seems to be new anymore?
Steve Strange: “Fashion has always looked back towards history. The only designers that have been on the cutting edge have been those deconstruction fashion – trousers worn inside out, or made to look inside out – the methodology favoured by a young up and coming designer from Antwerp who dressed Visage on a few occasions, Frederic Jaquemann. Generally most of the big designers have always looked back and got their inspiration from history books.”
Back in the 80s, did you have a very strict door policy in your clubs?
Steve Strange: “I was noted for being the strictest door whore in clubland. People were very bored with the way punk had become mainstream – with the Mirror and the Sun telling people how to rip their clothes and safety pin them back together. I was part of the Bromley contingent, the original group, and we were supporters of the Sex Pistols long before they outraged the nation!
They swore and called Bill Grundy a pervert and it got so many complaints that the national press called them ‘Britain’s most filthy loudmouthed band’, but we’d been following them for a good three to four months before this. I was working for Glen Matlock, he saw my portfolio in South Wales, and sensed generally that I wanted to get out of this small town ASAP. He offered me a job working for Malcolm McLaren. He and the Pistols were doing the Anarchy in the UK tour and after the Bill Grundy incident, most of the venues cancelled!
I felt like I was definitely Vivienne Westwood’s muse for a bit and she gave me a job in SEX selling early bondage trousers, loads of stuff like that, and it really gave me so much inspiration for my own designs.
After the punk thing went sour, me and my partner were looking for a venue for really creative people, and we found our first club. The club got us known for playing great music – we were really getting into electronic things – and that’s kind of where Visage came in. We needed more electronic stuff to play and so we headed into the EMI studios and made some! We recorded four tracks and played them in the club.
Eventually we moved from Billy’s to the Blitz Club. The owner there let us even turn members away if they weren’t thinking in the same way as what we wanted for the patrons of our club. One night, I remember there was a guy who was from head to toe half white, half black and wearing flippers. I pulled out a mirror and just said ‘look at yourself’.
It was very much ‘club to catwalk’, and we had to make people think about what they were wearing, and make them be creative about it!
The press tried calling us loads of stuff, including the ‘Blitz Kids, even tried to refer to us as a nameless movement for a bit, but the reason I think the name ‘New Romantics’ stuck was that the clothing we were wearing was taken from history books, and we were basing our outfits on characters from novels: big ruffle shirts and cloaks and girls in bustles and little Victorian boots, so definitely harking back to the romantic era.”
Was there ever a point when you became aware that punk started changing into something different like New romantics/Club Kids?
Steve Strange: “Yes, I’m a huge Siouxsie fan and sometimes at their gigs the British Movement and the National Front started to be introduced into that scene. When the skinheads – who were out for a fight – started getting involved, it started making the scene really ugly and that’s when we started realising we wanted out. I think Siouxsie wanted to distance herself from that movement too. It had swerved off from anything we really wanted it to be.”
Club to Catwalk is on until 16 February 2014.