With their towering mohicans, slashes of electric make-up and psychedelic patterned dresses, the girls of Louise Gray’s AW12 show looked like they had stepped out of some time warp Mudd Club. Turns out Gray, ever the iconoclast at heart, had pinned photos of seminal 80s punk band Rubella Ballet on her inspiration board for the season. And while the make-do-and- mend spirit o f punk infuses the beautiful chaos of her work, on closer inspection the garments are beautifully made and mean business. Similarly, Rubella Ballet, famed as much for their corrosively catchy punk classics like “Money Talks” as for their searingly Day- Glo stagewear, have always thrived on being different to the pack, and frontwoman Zillah Minx still prowls the stage with her unique mix of charisma and insouciance. The two avowed feminists gathered in Gray’s studio, and before long were excitedly talking up plans to collaborate.
Zillah Minx: I thought your show was fantastic. I showed it to my sister. I was like ‘Ooh! That looks like us!’ I was really flattered, because in the time I’ve been a punk and making my own clothes, a lot of people have copied me and I’ve not really gotten any credit for it. So it’s really nice when somebody says that they like it and I like the clothes they’re making as well!
Louise Gray: Yeah, imagine if you’d hated it – it would’ve been a disaster. (laughs) I remember the first time I saw Rubella Ballet: it was a music video (‘False Promises’) and it’s quite dark, and you’ve got a full 50s skirt that you painted. I was just like, ‘Ummm, what’s going on here? All of these things! And everything is lighting up!’
ZM: It was so hard to do that video. The black lights had only just come in, the cameras would only just pick it up. I think I’ve still got that dress.
LG: That was the first thing that I associated with you. I love it. Did you always make your own clothes?
ZM: Well, I moved to the East End when I was young, and everyone there followed fashion. You’d have to get what was the latest thing and I couldn’t always get it, so I started making my own clothes. So in the beginning, punk was about fashion, it wasn’t about bands, because there were no records that you could buy. That’s why it was about reggae, because a lot of people danced to reggae in those days. When punk really started was when the Sex Pistols were on TV – then everybody knew about punk. And people were like, ‘Oh, we can go to Seditionaries and buy clothes,’ and I didn’t because I couldn’t afford it. But that was the good thing about punk. You didn’t have to sew anything up, you could just safety-pin it! Which was really handy. So what I think it did is it made punk available, for everyone. Previous to the Sex Pistols most people just looked at you and were really shocked – they didn’t know what to say or what to do. They basically ignored us. But once the Sex Pistols were on TV, they just wanted to attack you!
LG: But did you kind of love that as well? That must’ve been part of the fun. You must’ve wanted to be rebellious too.
I think you can really tell from your music that you’re political – you’ve got things to say and you’re not scared. I think that’s a great message to give to women
ZM: And yeah, in those days people would hassle you on the street and say things. But the other side of that, being a girl, you’d think, ‘Fuck you. I’ve had enough of you saying anything to me. That’s why I’ve got my big boots on, that’s why I’ve got my make-up on. Because I don’t like you anyway.’ With punk it was about being able to do something for yourself.
It gave people like me the chance to get onstage. I’d never sung before, and we were able just to go onstage and enjoy ourselves. What about you, then? Did you find your own way into fashion?
LG: Well, I grew up in Scotland and I lived in the middle of nowhere, and I would see people on TV and I’d say, ‘I want to make that, how do I do it?’ I used to make my own clothes all the time and I had to force my mum to help me sew them together.
ZM: have you got photos of that? I want to see them! (laughs) I nearly brought you my designs from when I was ten! I’ve got pictures, and I did all these designs, and the funny thing is that years later I think I copied them!
LG: You went back and looked at your archive?
ZM: Yeah! So I’ve always been really into fashion. And also, the idea of turning up wearing something that somebody else has got on is a horror story really. I think that had something to do with the beginning, when everyone was creating their own image of punk.
LG: Because it could’ve been anything, couldn’t it? I love that you all seemed really into the sets as well, when you played gigs you’d always bring your own backdrops. I feel like you had such a big self-image.
ZM: We made our own backdrops. I think we had one that said ‘The Right to Live, Not the Need to Survive’ and things like that, and we’d have load of mad fluorescent things. Quite often, when I was looking for stuff, it was all about what material I could find so I’d look for things that would stand out. That was why we ended up painting our own stuff by hand. You know, people forget that punk was supposed to be about doing different things. It wasn’t supposed to be all the same, and people just shouting things at each other. If you look at the early bands they were all so different.
LG: I think you can really tell from your music that you’re political – you’ve got things to say and you’re not scared. I think that’s a great message to give to women.
ZM: Thank you. It really annoys me that 30 years on I’m still having to say the same things! It shouldn’t be about being a woman, it should just be about being in a band and doing your own thing. I don’t like the way that women today are treated. I don’t like the way people can tell you what to wear and whether or not you deserved to be raped. Fuck off, nobody deserves to be raped. It’s not about the clothes you wear, whether you get raped or not. So people like you and me have got to stand out and make the clothes we want to make and do the things we want to do and tell other people – we should be able to do it without it being a problem.
LG: I usually take my images from women that I think are muses, or that I fall in love with, or when the message is really great. I’m a feminist. And I also feel like I’m the woman who should wear my things. I just piece together the things I like.
ZM: I think it’s brilliant. Carry on doing what you’re doing! I like the fact that you’re doing your own thing, and it really stands out as different to everyone else.
LG: Yeah, you want it to be special.
ZM: And it’s nice to have a woman designing clothes for other women for a change, because you might know what we want. (laughs) I mean, look at the outfit you’ve got on, it looks great. You could wear it, it’s not just for the catwalk.
LG: How has east London changed since you’ve lived here?
I usually take my images from women that I think are muses, or that I fall in love with, or when the message is really great. I’m a feminist. And I also feel like I’m the woman who should wear my things. I just piece together the things I like
ZM: It’s different and changing all the time. But the worst thing about London now is there aren’t as many places to go for free. When we were doing punk gigs before, you could go out for free. You could go to a punk gig that was in a squat. It’s really expensive to go out in London now. I feel sorry for some people. How can they afford to get in, and pay for drinks and get home?
LG: I think you’ve got a whole new breed of kids who follow you now.
ZM: Definitely. The younger generation are getting to know us. You know, the difference when we first started was that there really was no communication. People used to write letters to me! Fan mail. So I used to write letters back to people. At the gigs, some fans have got younger, and some are still the same people. It’s kind of nice, actually, because we’ve been doing it for so long now. Even though we’re not financially successful, we are successful in the underground world – people still sell our records and know who we are. So in a way we sort of get this respect, which is really nice. And people tell us stories and stuff from 30 years ago, from when they came to a gig, so it’s quite a laugh.
Photo by Sarah Piantadosi