Looking North

Open Eye Gallery withVirgil Abloh and Ben Kelly’s installation

For the past few years, London’s galleries have been hosts to some incredible fashion exhibitions, luring visitors from every corner of the world to pore over their sartorial treasures. With the dawn of a new year, however, a new city is emerging as the latest fashion destination. From January 6 until March 19 2017, Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery is showcasing North: Identity, Photography, Fashion, an exhibition curated by SHOWstudio’s editor Lou Stoppard and Adam Murray, a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. Prompted by the impact the North of England has had on fashion, music, design and art the world over, as well as the clichés associated with the area, the exhibition explores and challenges these dominant themes, asking the visitors to come to their own conclusions. The heritage of the North is unpicked through photography, historical films, interviews with its artists and designers, garments, fashion magazines and music, highlighting the impressively far-reaching influence of the region, one which is seldom acknowledged, ignored even, in the capital city oriented fashion world.

“Liverpool is tiny, but it has a lot of impact.” – Christopher Shannon, designer | A view of North: Identity, Photography, Fashion

With Stoppard and Murray not being full-time curators, the organisation of the space is free of restrictions and preconceptions of seasoned professionals, allowing for a fresh take on the potential of exhibitions. The rooms have a relaxed vibe, a coolness about them, which one can already sense getting off the train at one of Liverpool’s stations and walking through its streets to reach the gallery. It feels very authentic, honest and respectful in its representation of England’s North, a much welcome relief from the sometimes derogatory mentions the area gets in the media. Walking through the exhibition, admiring the prints by fashion’s favourites Jamie Hawkesworth, Alasdair McLellan and David Sims while being slightly amused by Alice Hawkins’ genius portraits of Northern teen girls or perusing the editorials in i-D, Arena Homme+, Vogue and The Face, all inspired by the visuals of the region and displayed in custom-made Sheffield steel vitrines (not a single detail escaped the curators), one starts to question the lack of credit given to cultural centres outside of London. Even musical legends such as Morrissey, The Stone Roses, New Order and Oasis, who have conquered the world with their sounds, (and who rightfully have their own pride of place within the exhibition) grew up and formed within the North’s energetic environments. No one can dispute that the talent which hails from and is inevitably profoundly influenced by the North of England enjoys great stature worldwide, yet their origins are often forgotten. Fortunately, North brings the talent home again.

“There’s tons of beautiful girls in Liverpool that aren’t WAGs with caked on make up.” – Thom Murphy, stylist | A view of North: Identity, Photography, Fashion

The magnitude and the wealth of visuals the North provides the world with becomes even more apparent upon entering the fashion gallery. Garments from the Belgian Raf Simons, German adidas and American/Milanese/Ghanaian Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh all clearly show signs of the North, emphasising its crucial and international role. On display are various versions of the adidas Samba and ZX trainers dedicated to Northern cities. Elsewhere, an Off-White knit pays tribute to the Gallagher brothers, while a Raf Simons Autumn/Winter 03 parka with a print of New Order’s ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ album cover designed by Peter Saville hangs nearby. The parka can still be bought online, though it does fetch $20,000. Who said the North wasn’t fashionable? Add the giant steel columns created by Abloh and Ben Kelly, the designer of Manchester’s iconic Hacienda nightclub, interior of which was a starting point for this installation, which, complete with Abloh’s signature chevron, dominate the facade of Open Eye Gallery, and the North of England is firmly secured on fashion’s radar.

“The most Northern part of me is my sense of humour. That more than anything is the thing that has endured and what I use in my way of dealing with people. But I’m not a professional Northerner.” – Simon Foxton, stylist | Raf Simons parka from ‘Control’ Autumn/Winter 2003

“Some things I explore in my collections relate to my life in the North-East. There’s a sense of real life, because things aren’t so aspirational.” – Claire Barrow, designer | Mark Szaszy, Corrine Day – Diary (Extract) (2012)

There are many other gems scattered around the exhibition space. A small Panasonic TV from decades past screens an extract from Corrine Day’s diary, where the late photographer reminisces about her shoot for Dutch magazine in 2001 titled ‘A British Summer: Blackpool 2001’ featuring Kate Moss, George Clements and Rosemary Ferguson. A 1939 short film named ‘Spare Time’ documents the people of Sheffield, Manchester, Bolton and Pontypridd in the in-between times when they are not working in the towns’ famous industries. Watching the movie sat on a park bench, headphones on, you get sucked in, almost feeling as though you are in the film yourself, observing the goings on, being a part of the daily Northern life. Yet the biggest surprise is upstairs. The room is transformed into an old, seventies maisonette, complete with lace curtains, a floral print armchair, a bed with an embroidered throw, a giant wooden cross, shaggy carpet and old rotary dial telephones prompting the visitors to pick them up, revealing sound bites by Northern creatives such as Stephen Jones, Christopher Shannon, Claire Barrow and Gareth Pugh in which they look back at their upbringing and the importance of the North of England in their life and work. It is a charming corner to relax in, take a trip down memory lane, meet the locals and ponder on the importance the North of England has on the country’s image. Perhaps just this little refuge in a twenty-first century city is a reason enough to return for another visit. As Gary Aspden remarks in his interview upstairs, “all roads lead back to the North.” This exhibition is a testament to that. So do yourself a favour, brave the almost five hour long round trip from London and visit the Open Eye Gallery. Believe me, it is worth it!

“I still think that people from down South don’t understand people from up North. And it is this huge cultural, class and every-which-way divide.” – Stephen Jones, milliner | A view of North: Identity, Photography, Fashion)

“I feel still very much connected to where I grew up… it’s a huge part of who I am. And I think in that it’s the Northern work ethic, that’s also something that is quite important.” – Gareth Pugh, designer | A view of North: Identity, Photography, Fashion 

Sources:

‘North’ on SHOWstudio.com

Shoes: Pain and Pleasure Review

Heels by HM Rayne

Heels by HM Rayne

Adidas sneakers collection

Adidas sneakers collection

As the title  – Shoes: Pleasure & Pain – indicates, the V&A’s latest exhibition aims to grab the viewer’s attention. If not through the appeal of footwear itself, then by the suggestion of eroticism that is underlined further by the choice of Helmut Newton’s provocative image ‘High & Mighty’ of 1995 as both catalogue cover and poster. This photograph shows supermodel Nadja Auermann awkwardly scaling steps in shoes that are so vertiginous she needs not just crutches, but two burly male helpers to make it to the summit.  This photoshoot has been controversial – since its first publication there has been comment about its use of imagery of disability for a fashion spread. By using this as publicity the museum is therefore courting media attention and aligning the show with sex and fetish as key themes.  This may entice visitors, but what of the content and curation itself?

From the displays focusing on eroticism and shoes

From the displays focusing on eroticism and shoes

The exhibition is split into two parts – and that difficult central space in the Fashion Court is put to good use. Completely reimagined, the downstairs area is clad in deep purple – velvet drapes and deep pile carpet soften the interior and mute sound. It is a sensory experience to walk through the dimly lit galleries, conscious of the feel of the fabric, even if one may not touch. This is heightened by the contrasting bright red of some of the displays – and gives the effect of a louche boudoir, or peep show. In turn, the themes focused upon explore consumers’ and wearers’ desire for shoes, and span a wide historical and geographical period to underline persistent connections between shoes and sexuality.  It is no surprise that risqué lingerie brand Agent Provocateur was part sponsor of the exhibition: its ad campaigns and underwear mirror the sensory overload here.

Climbing the stairs, the mood changes completely, the visitor enters a clinical realm of brightly lit white space, that signals the exhibition’s shift from emotional connections to shoes, to focus on designing and making, before it twists back again to look at obsession, via several avid shoe collectors’ most treasured footwear wardrobes.

Manolo Blahnik discusses his work.

Manolo Blahnik discusses his work.

This area shows everything from the shoes’ component pieces, to digital 3D designs and intriguing insights into functional, sports shoe design versus heel prototypes for fashion shoes.  If downstairs reinforced the idea of shoes as items of lust and myth, then here, one is opened up to the process of creation, with videos showing key designers, including Manolo Blahnik explaining their approach.  The fact that Sex and the City raised Blahnik’s name to international notoriety denotes another aspect of shoes’ status in recent years – as a staple media-trope of female desire and excess. And while this exhibition certainly plays to this idea, it makes clear men’s interest in shoes too, in relation to sexuality, but also obsessive collection and fetishisation of another kind – as demonstrated in one man’s collection of box fresh sneakers.

As with many of its fashion shows, entertainment plays a prominent role, and the exhibition is not short of spectacle. However, this is underpinned by a strong foundation of research and a desire to provoke visitors, not just to be dazzled by the array of beautiful objects, but also to think about their creation and cultural meanings.