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Photograph by Stephen McCoy, From the series Skelm
From the series Skelmersdale, 1984Photography Stephen McCoy

How the north of England impacted style

A new exhibition, North: Identity, Photography and Fashion, will look at the region’s enormous influence on fashion and visual culture – here, its curators tell us more

Geographically speaking, the north of England is a relatively small area – but its influence on style, international style, is vast. It’s inspired everyone from Belgian Raf Simons to American Virgil Abloh, among other designers and image-makers from around the world. This, in part, is what’s going to be explored at a new exhibition curated by editor-at-large of SHOWstudio, Lou Stoppard, and academic Adam Murray, who co-founded photography collective Preston Is My Paris.

Opening on January 6 at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool (and in celebration of its 40th anniversary), North: Identity, Photography and Fashion will explore the rich and varied ways in which the region has influenced fashion and visual culture. The show will bring together work from Simons and Abloh, along with visuals by legendary art director Peter Saville and photographers such as Jamie Hawkesworth, Nick Knight, Corinne Day and Jason Evans.

“The north of England has not only produced a myriad of cultural moments and creative talents, it also serves as an inspiration to those who live far beyond England,” says Stoppard, who curated a hit exhibition exploring fashion’s obsession with youth last year. “Raf Simons finds beauty and inspiration in the Madchester-born graphics of Peter Saville, while Chicago-born designer Virgil Abloh is motivated by exports ranging from Oasis through to The Hacienda.

“It sounds simplistic, but the north certainly has an aesthetic in people’s minds, and this show attempts to unpick what that is by surveying the themes and tropes that appear again and again. It’s an exhibition about myths and identity as much as it is photography and fashion.”

Here, Stoppard and Murray discuss the exhibition, the questions they hope it raises and why the subject is particularly pertinent at this moment in fashion.

Why did you want to put on this exhibition?

Adam Murray: When Lou and I were developing the project, we were particularly keen for the exhibition to be first staged in northern England, so Open Eye Gallery was our first thought as it has such a rich heritage for supporting photography and culture in the north-west.  

Lou Stoppard: It felt like this project was deserving of a physical event – a place where people could come and reflect on the themes and visuals. It was important for us to do it in Liverpool, a place where the topics will feel particularly relevant. I’m also very excited about the current landscape of fashion exhibiting. I think there’s room to do complex, challenging shows that feature a mix of photography, garments and art. I know there’s a vogue for the blockbuster or retrospective at the moment, but shows like North – ones that say something about society or culture – are important. 

What kind of things are you trying to say or questions are you trying to ask through it?

Lou Stoppard: I think 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 mind. I think this is definitely the case – you see the same themes reappearing again and again in work: masculinity, music, domesticity, sportswear. As a woman 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. Is it about debunking myths? To an extent. But it’s also about celebrating them and acknowledging them. I think there’s also a wider ambition to make a case for the interesting link between place and aesthetic, space and style.

Who have you got contributing to it?

Lou Stoppard: I’m thrilled by the diversity of contributors. To have contemporary fashion photographers such as Glen Luchford, David Sims and Alasdair McLellan showing alongside Turner-prize winning artists such as Mark Leckey and Jeremy Deller and designers like Raf Simons and Paul Smith is just fantastic. Adidas are very kindly supporting the exhibition and it’s also brilliant to be able to dig into their archives and show some amazing shoes that have been popular in the region or inspired by it – as a brand they have such an important link to the north. I’m also happy with the international scope – the fact we are looking at how ideas of the north have spread far and wide. Why is Raf Simons so intrigued by the culture of the region? Why is Virgil Abloh interested? I’m happy to be able to explore that. 

“As a woman I was interested in why so much of what the north is celebrated for is so male and, to an extent, so white” – Lou Stoppard

Adam Murray: One of the most exciting elements for me was getting access to the Open Eye Gallery archive of over 1,500 prints, a lot of which were from projects specifically commissioned to explore Merseyside over the last 30 years. Some of the work we’ve chosen from this is by well-known photographers such as Ewen Spencer and Tom Wood, but it’s also an opportunity to display work that is rarely seen. There’s a particularly lovely set of images by Stephen McCoy shot in Skelmersdale in 1984. 

What are some ways that the north has influenced the world of fashion?

Lou Stoppard: I’ve spoken extensively to Peter Saville, the man who designed those epic sleeves for Joy Division and New Order, about this. He’s very kindly giving lots of advice on the show. He talks about formative experience and I think a part of that is key – so many of today’s most acclaimed creatives were teens when the Manchester scene was exploding, or when they heard the first few bars of Blue Monday. Things that shape you when you’re young never leave you. I also think, currently, a lot of the ideals that fashion is obsessed with – casual wear, sportswear etc – relate to northern culture. It’s apt that there is a spotlight on the region.

What do you think of the way the north is represented in fashion, generally speaking?

Adam Murray: Overall it is definitely something to be celebrated. The region should be proud that it still has such an influence internationally. While researching the show, Lou and I identified that there are certainly gaps in this representation, but this is more inherent in fashion as a whole rather than necessarily just relating to northern England.  

Lou Stoppard: I agree with Adam, I think the north is represented in a very specific way. It tends to tie into particular themes that are male, youth-orientated and nostalgic. But so often subculture and club culture are represented in similar ways. We’re addressing and questioning that in the show.

So much attention on British fashion and culture is focused on London. What do you think about that?

Adam Murray: Personally, I think it’s quite boring and lazy. Even with social media, the people working in media, fashion and arts still have power as gatekeepers to decide what audiences are looking at or listening to and I find it just gets repetitive. From a broader perspective, having worked in arts education in the north-west for over a decade, there is a clear lack of infrastructure outside of London to allow new creatives to develop a career here. Inevitably this means the exciting talent tends to end up in London out of necessity.

“We are looking at how ideas of the north have spread far and wide. Why is Raf Simons so intrigued by the culture of the region? Why is Virgil Abloh interested?” – Lou Stoppard

Lou Stoppard: I’ll be intrigued to see how many members of the fashion industry make the effort to travel to Liverpool from London for this show. The pace of fashion is so punishing that people can become lazy in their plans – if it’s not on schedule or served up in a key fashion city by a PR, people can’t seem to make the time. I do think that the industry is far too London-centric and being in a bubble is never a good thing.

What do you hope people come away from the exhibition with?

Adam Murray: I want this exhibition to be an opportunity for people to consider how the work of artists featured relate to their own life experience. Some audiences will no doubt feel a strong resonance with some of the themes, but for others there may be a sense that this is not their experience of the north. In which case, it may provoke a series of projects that develop a new representation of the region.  

Lou Stoppard: 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.

North: Identity, Photography and Fashion will be on show at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, January 6–March 19, 2017