Back to the FUTURE
The optimistic, vibrant, cut-and-paste style of 1980s clubwear is all over the streets, catwalks and our Instagram feeds. So go ahead and express yourself – just like they did in the good old days!
The look: customised bomber jacket, slouchy tracksuit bottoms, androgynous haircut, graffiti-print backpack.
But what year is it, 1985 or 2015? It could be either.
To many a fashionista in the 1980s, the nightclub was a catwalk, a place to dress up and let go, in clothes you could move freely in, that were expressive but not too precious. Right now, fashion is looking back towards the hedonism of those years, as our streets, catwalks and Instagram feeds are filled with nostalgic takes on Eighties clubwear.
Perhaps it’s the natural cycle of interest: we’re used to youth subcultures being reappraised every couple of decades, after all. But there’s also a nostalgic mood in the air – arguably a result of the hyper-modern feel of our times – demonstrated by the torrent of archive imagery flooding social media feeds and infusing today’s club kid uniform.
On the A/W 2015 catwalks, expressive nostalgia brought older streetwear references to a new audience, as catwalk designers plundered their personal archives for halcyon memories of their nightclubbing youth. “Raf Simons at Dior, Alexander Wang at Balenciaga, Kim Jones at Louis Vuitton – all of them, as designers and cultural consumers, are interested in streetwear,” observes Marcus Agerman Ross, editor-in-chief of style magazine Jocks & Nerds. “Raf Simons famously looks at teenage angst, Kim Jones often references British subculture, and what Alexander Wang is doing at Balenciaga is very much about appropriating sportswear silhouettes.”
This season, Kim Jones at Louis Vuitton paid tribute to the 1980s artist-designer Christopher Nemeth, using his hand-drawn rope print extensively. Stylist extraordinaire Judy Blame adorned Vuitton’s MA-1 bomber jackets with customised bricolage brooches. Matthew Miller’s heartfelt collection featured patched, collaged fabrics, and Christopher Shannon and Marc by Marc Jacobs used graphic slogans as cultural commentary, a throwback to 1985 and Katharine Hamnett’s political slogan tees. Over at Moschino, the audience felt the vibes of New York via hip-hop jewellery and upbeat graffiti prints. It was loud, vibrant and vocal. And to those who’d been there the first time round, it felt like déjà-vu.
An eclectic, DIY scene
“The early Eighties was hugely exciting. These androgynous streetwear looks had never been seen before,” says youth culture expert Fiona Cartledge, whose legendary club nights and boutique, both called Sign of the Times, are the subject of a recent book (Wild Life Press). “Mixing tailoring with sportswear was a new thing, championed by Ray Petri, an important stylist at the time. His “Buffalo” shoots in The Face magazine were an inspiration for Jean Paul Gaultier, a big fan of London street fashion.”
The UK economic crisis and a strong art school culture, which
encouraged a give-it-a-go spirit, gave rise to a new DIY ethos in
design. Cash-strapped fashion students would apply their art to
everything, from the clothes they wore to the furniture they sat on.
The most influential designers, including Katharine Hamnett, BodyMap,
Vivienne Westwood and Christopher Nemeth, had a knack for turning the
utilitarian into the desirable, while Ray Petri was famous for cutting
out words from newspapers and pinning them to his models.
From punk slogans to hip-hop style graffiti, we loved to write words on clothes, a look being appropriated by young designers today.Iain R Webb, professor of fashion at Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins.
“Customisation was key – the idea that you could personalise and individualise your look,” says Iain R Webb, professor of fashion at Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins, and the former fashion editor of 1980s style bible Blitz. “From punk slogans to hip-hop style graffiti, we loved to write words on clothes, a look being appropriated by young designers today. It was all about making a style statement, getting your message across, writ large in big, bold, shout-it-all-out slogans!”
The self-expression of this particular period has a strong resonance with today’s young fashion crowd. “The eclectic nature and anti-establishment ethos of 1980s fashion has an obvious appeal today. It mixed the hard-edged and the hopelessly romantic, the slick alongside the unravelling and undone,” says Iain, whose book As Seen In Blitz (ACC Editions) documents the era. “I think there is now a yearning for a counterculture that is not only concerned with fitting in. There has to be something more.”
In the competitive fashion industry of today, the idea of setting up a label with just a few customised jackets and a fistful of optimism seems naive, yet undeniably seductive. “Socially, you can see parallels to that time,” says Fiona Cartledge. “We are coming out of a long recession, with fashion students who are unable to find work instead starting up their own labels, which is very exciting. What’s different now is that they are using social media to get a presence and build their fan base and image.” Cartledge points to Nasir Mazhar and Gosha Rubchinskiy as examples of designers whose “just do it” approach has won them authentic followings. They are also growing their own multimedia universes, marrying fashion with music and club culture in a raw, organic way.
A crucial component of the 1980s scene was a similar intermingling of art, fashion and music, with style crossing over effortlessly from art school to nightclub and down to the streets; artists who emerged from the graffiti scene, such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, were the toast of New York’s downtown clubbing and fashion set.
Fashion writer Dal Chodha is the editor of Archivist, a magazine that explores designers’ archives and personal collections. “Certain clubs were so linked to fashion because they were places to look at wonderful, colourful characters and take in the utterly sublime madness of it all,” he says. “I love that fact that so few pieces from that time exist any more. Because they lived! They were worn and worn out. BodyMap’s archive is not only garments on hangers – it’s a monument of sweat, music, life and love.”
So how is the energy of the 1980s being chanelled by today’s designers and fashion fans? The mix and mash-up approach is certainly alive and thriving. From an obsession with customising and personalisation, to gender-blending and “athleisure”, everything feels like a personal work of art in progress. And former acts of rebellion, such as rainbow-hued hair and tattoos, are now quite acceptable forms of individual branding.
For the post-internet generation, it’s not just a physical expression. The copy-and-paste approach bridges both online and offline worlds. “Young people have always reappropriated the good bits of the past. It is just so much easier for them to do this now, thanks to the endless scroll of the internet,” says James Anderson, contributing editor to i-D magazine, and associate lecturer in fashion communication at Central Saint Martins. “But where they’re more genuinely expressive and advanced in the 21st century is in how they communicate and create through the use of technology – perhaps more so than through their actual clothes or appearance.”
So keep clicking through those Tumblr photos of old fashion shoots, club nights and shows, and keep re-posting them on Instagram with your emoji of choice. It doesn’t really matter what the medium is, because it’s the message that counts. And the message of the moment is clear: find your inspiration, then go ahead and express yourself!