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FLANNELS Insider: North: Identity, Photography, Fashion

FLANNELS Insider: North: Identity, Photography, Fashion

The North of England has always had a distinct and influential aesthetic. What exactly it has influenced, how and why are questions that a new exhibition, North: Identity, Photography, Fashion, tries to answer. Opening in January at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery, the probing and visually impressive exhibition curated by SHOWstudio’s Lou Stoppard and academic Adam Murray explores in depth the region's unique set of visual and cultural associations. We caught up with co-curators Stoppard and Murray to find out more.

Why did you want to put on North: Identity, Photography and Fashion?
AM: Lou and I were keen to collaborate on a project. The North of England has been central to my practice for years so I brought a very specific knowledge. Lou is interested more broadly in how fashion relates to culture and society and has previously worked on projects that explore these themes. We both shared an interest in the link between space and cultural output.  The time seemed appropriate now because as the exhibition shows, there is a proliferation of work that directly relates to the North of England. 
LS: I think it felt very appropriate timing wise. There is a casual spirit in fashion at the moment, particularly men’s fashion that draws extenstively on the casual culture of Northern England in the 1980s. Similarly interenational designers are, with increasing frequency, drawing on the North, be it Raf Simons or Virgil Abloh. Mark Leckey’s show is on at Momu – I could go on! In many ways this exhibition is long overdue. As Adam says, I have a broad interest in the link between space and cultural output. I think everyone is hugely shaped by where they grow up – the streets they walk, the clubs they frequent, the playgrounds they have those formative chats in. I’m also very interested in subcultures and style movements that tie to broader culture, whether that’s, say, music or sport. Finally, I’m fascinated by myths – stereotypes and ideals that grow and develop over time. I suppose this exhibition ties all of those things together. 

What are you trying to ask and explore through the exhibition?
LS: We are looking at the influence of the North on fashion and visual culture, considering also the way the North has been represented in a selection of fashion collections, images and editorials. It’s not an exhibition about Northern style, it's about how ideas and ideals of the North have grown and in turn spread.
AM: The intention is that the breadth of work presented both in the exhibition and on SHOWstudio will encourage audiences to really consider the themes presented.  I think people’s understanding of Northern culture is different depending on their own life experiences or the existing work that they have engaged with, whether this is academic or mainstream media.  I hope that North encourages reflection, new debate and ultimately new creative work. 

Who is contributing to the exhibition and why is their interest in the North so significant?
AM: I feel really lucky to have been able to work with such a fantastic range of artists for this show.  It seems to be a topic that resonates closely with everyone involved so each person has been very generous with contributing work.  The significant aspect for me is the variety of contributors; ranging from real icons of British culture such as Peter Saville, hugely respected designers such as Raf Simons and Christopher Shannon, prolific photographers like Alasdair McLellan and Alice Hawkins, Turner Prize winning artists Jeremy Deller and Mark Leckey, all alongside many other pieces of work. 

What are the exhibition’s biggest talking points?
AM: I would like the whole exhibition to act as one conversation starter.  Throughout the research process Lou and I were very keen not to present this as a set of conclusions, rather, it is a set of questions for reflection and discussion.  As visitors spend time in the show, they may well be able to relate to some of the themes, but some may find it quite different to their own experiences of Northern England.  Either way, it should be one big talking point. 
LS: As Adam says I hope there is something for everyone within the show. We are very thrilled to have a new film by Alasdair McLellan – an original commission for the show.

There is a casual spirit in fashion at the moment, particularly men’s fashion, that draws extenstively on the casual culture of Northern England in the 1980s. Similarly, interenational designers are, with increasing frequency, drawing on the North, be it Raf Simons or Virgil Abloh.

Why do you think it is that the North of England has been so culturally influential on the international worlds of photography and fashion?
AM: Since the Industrial Revolution the North of England has had a massive influence internationally, particularly within photography and fashion.  In terms of manufacture and industry the North was the centre of the world in the 19th century, which then lead to the growth of cities like Manchester and Liverpool.  From this wealth cultural institutions grew and with it brought education, politics and leisure to the masses.  The last 200 years has then this influence move away from manufacture to more cultural capital that is then exported around the world. 

Where is it in the worlds of fashion and photography that we can see the biggest influence of the North?
AM: In photography I think it is in social documentary work.  The exhibition features work by Humphrey Spender that dates back to 1937 and is an early example of English social documentary.  Beyond this there is a rich body of work that attempts to visually document British culture by photographers such as John Bulmer, Shirley Baker, Stephen McCoy amongst others.  This has had a profound influence on the image of the North of England in the cultural imagination as well as some of the more recent fashion photography. 
LS: I think in terms of fashion it’s very much on sportswear and casualwear. Northern Casual culture of the 1980s has a huge impact on so many designers from far beyond the UK – be it Gosha Rubchinksiy or Raf Simons.

How would you summarise the north’s present aesthetic?
AM: The North is so diverse and varied that it would be impossible to summarise this as a single aesthetic.  What is important is that this is recognised and the region is not dwelling in nostalgia, but is as rich for exploration as it ever has been. 
LS: I think one can spot certain motifs that appear again and again across imagery related to the North – and that’s something we wanted to explore within the show; how and why these myths and motifs appear. The exhibition features Spare Time, a 1939 short film directed by Humphrey Jennings and produced by the General Post Office Film Unit. Lots of the themes and scenes present - industrial landscapes, tight-knit communities, terraced houses, football fields, pubs, pies and brass bands – have, over time, moved from documented item to trope or useful visual code, highlighting the fine line between truth and stereotype.

Do you think that the North of today is as culturally and aesthetically influential on the worlds of fashion and photography as it ever was in, say, the clubbing heyday of the ‘90s?
AM: Sure I do, but the North of today is inevitably influenced by cultural heydays of the recent past so it was important that this was not dismissed in the show.  When you have so many creatives working on an international scale consistently being informed and referencing Northern England that inevitably it will still be influential.  The real success is when work has an awareness of this past, but aims to bring something new to the mix.  Spend time in any Northern town or city and you will find a vast array of cultural activity that is very different to periods more commonly looked at in mainstream media. 

What do you hope visitors will leave the exhibition with?
AM: Partly a sense of pride that the region has been so influential on an international scale, but also some motivation to continue this rich heritage.  Whether that is continuing to explore the region, or the independent, entrepreneurial spirit that features in so much of the work to start something new. 
LS: I hope the show speaks to people. I think so many fashion exhibitions show some kind of far-off, fantasy world that people can only aspire to or dream of. I hope people come to this show and recognise things that they experienced first-hand, songs they danced to, streets they walked, icons they adored, clothes they wore. It sounds simple, but I want it to mean something to people.

Image credits, clockwise from top left:

Lead image: Raf Simons AW 2003 Image courtesy of Raf Simons
Photograph by Stephen McCoy, From the series Skelmersdale, 1984
Photograph by Alice Hawkins, Derrin Crawford & Demi-Leigh Cruickshank in 'The Liver Birds' LOVE magazine, Liverpool, 2012
Photograph by Jason Evans, Untitled, Manchester, 1997_2
Photograph by Alasdair McLellan, Boy at the Saint Leger Fair, Doncaster, September 2005

North: Identity, Photography, Fashion opens at Liverpool's Open Eye Gallery on 6th January 2017.