The influence of the North on contemporary British fashion is celebrated in a new exhibition, North: Fashioning Identity, at Somerset House. Co-curated by SHOWstudio’s editor Lou Stoppard and Adam Murray (the Senior Lecturer at Liverpool’s John Moores University) North investigates how the region has been depicted historically, and explores how the place and space of the area inform its cultural output. Having previously debuted at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery, North: Fashioning Identity at Somerset House will bring fresh insight to the capital.
Culture Trip: What is it about Northern style that you were interested in?
Lou Stoppard: The thing we’re really trying to do is get to the root of why the North of England has a particular aesthetic or set of visual and cultural codes in people’s minds. I think this is definitely the case – you see the same themes reappearing again and again in work; masculinity, music, domesticity, sportswear. I was interested in why so much of what the North is celebrated for is so male and, to an extent, so white. We wanted to showcase and question those ideas. There’s also a wider ambition to make a case for the interesting link between place and aesthetic, space and style. This exhibition is as much about identity as it is fashion or style.
Adam Murray: I am particularly interested in the cultural and social value of fashion. For me it is the one creative activity that everyone is actively engaged with everyday so combining that with a focus on this region is an effective contribution.
CT: As you see it, how has the North influenced contemporary fashion?
LS: I think, currently, a big thing is the influence of the Casual movement of the 1980s, which you see references a range of global designers, perhaps unsurprisingly given the vogue for sportswear. But the influence of the North across time is much broader than that and very complex – hopefully we’ve addressed that in the show.
AM: For me, there is a real sense that groups of people have been a significant influence. When people find a shared interest, whether a large or small group, often this is more influential that a single person.
CT: Why did you feel that now was the right time to create this exhibition? And was there anything that surprised you when you were putting the exhibition together?
LS: I think in many ways this exhibition is long overdue – we were surprised someone hadn’t got there first. Very quickly we realised that this is a theme that is very close to a lot of people’s hearts – the quantity of people who explore the North in their work or who are informed in some way by their Northern upbringing is overwhelming. You see that in the diversity of all the contributors we have featured in the show.
AM: There has been a lot of attention on the North even before Brexit with the whole Northern Powerhouse idea. More investment in and awareness of the regions outside of London should certainly be a positive thing, but I’m not sure how much this is investing into creative practice in the North. Hopefully this exhibition may contribute to this wider debate.
CT: In a post-Brexit era, how do you foresee the culture of the North feeding into contemporary Britain as a whole?
LS: I’ve thought about the Brexit question a lot as we’ve been installing. I guess part of the reason this show feels timely is in part due to the climate of the country right now –there’s a focus on regional divides, splits in ideas and lifestyle etc. We conceived the exhibition long before Brexit – the show has been over two years in the making – but that has increased our drive to look beyond the capital. You realise how huge areas of the UK can be overlooked and ‘othered’.
CT: What was your criteria when compiling the images and designers for the exhibition?
LS: Firstly I think we should say that this is a huge huge topic and it was exceptionally hard to edit. We’re confident in the selection we’ve done but obviously there’s always more you would include if you had more space.
AM: As Lou says, we wanted it to be diverse in a way that creates a dialogue between a range of different work. For example, we were lucky enough to be able to access the Open Eye Gallery archive, which features a lot of documentary photography commissioned by the gallery in the 80s and 90s. Placing this alongside contemporary fashion magazines and clothing creates a dynamic viewing experience.
CT: What do you hope to achieve with the exhibition, and what are you most excited about?
LS: I’m thrilled with the international scope – the fact we are looking at how ideas of the North have spread far and wide. Why is an Antwerp-born designer like Raf Simons – one of fashion’s most acclaimed talents – so intrigued by the culture of the region? Why is Chicago-born streetwear guru Virgil Abloh interested? I’m happy to be able to explore that. In terms of what I hope to achieve, I hope the show speaks to people. There is a climate in fashion exhibitions at the moment for the blockbuster, or the single designer retrospective. There’s certainly a place for these, but often I think these kinds of exhibitions show some kind of far-off, fantasy version of fashion 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, clothes they wore, clubs they visited, icons they adored. It sounds simple, but I want it to mean something to people.
North: Fashioning Identity, opening on 8 November at Somerset House, London