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

Designers and photographers on why it's not so grim up North

Plus – watch a new film featuring Gareth Pugh discussing his Sunderland hometown

Over the course of the last few months, North: Fashioning Identity has been attempting to dispel the myth that things are ‘proper grim’ up North – or at least, as far as fashion and style go.

Curated by ex-SHOWstudio editor Lou Stoppard and academic Adam Murray, the exhibition explores the North of England’s impact on style, and features contributions from the likes of Raf Simons, Virgil Abloh, Peter Saville, Jamie Hawkesworth and Corinne Day – all of whom have been influenced by its distinctive aesthetics.

While many contributors have no connection with the North aside from a deep fascination and love for its style, many hail from the region itself, offering up stories as to how growing up or spending time there has inspired their work. One such creative is avant-garde designer Gareth Pugh, who grew up in the Tyneside town of Grangetown, Sunderland.

“The North of England is still very much the place I’d class as home, which is odd living in London for the past 18 years, but I just feel a deeper connection there than I ever have here. It’s somewhere that will always have that umbilical whiplash dragging me back,” says Pugh of his hometown, as part of a new film created for the exhibition. “For me, the geography of Sunderland, being on the edge of something,” (in this case, the North Sea) “really gives you a sense of perspective. It’s a great analogy for a lot of things, you know, the idea of the possibility and freedom.”

With the end of the exhibition in sight – it closes on the 4th February, so get your tickets before it’s too late – here we present Pugh’s film, along with contributions on the North from a number of creatives; including designer Christopher Shannon and photographer Nik Hartley.


“There’s a very definite work ethic that comes from the North, it’s a kind of coming together to do something, of people getting things done. Sunderland has a real celebratory quality to it, rather than being associated with this dour, post-industrialist town. It’s a town where a lot of exciting people that are excited to be part of this thing; it’s basically about people understanding or hoping that the best days of Sunderland are ahead of us. My parents and my parents' parents talk a lot about the good old days. We don’t build ships any more, so we have to find something else to build.”


“The North has influenced my work, because the North has influenced me. I grew up in Nelson, Lancashire in the 80s and 90s, and Northern values were instilled in me at home and at school. No one likes a big ‘ead up North, it’s fine to be the best but you definitely shouldn’t brag about it. Honesty, integrity and humility are prized above all other character traits. The greatest compliment a Northerner can receive is to learn that another Northerner said they were sound. I try and take photographs which are honest and beautiful; just like the North of England.”


“There’s a thread of influence in my work that always comes from Liverpool, even if it's not the central mood of the research or ideas. It was the place I first encountered style and clothing and brands. Reading all those magazines based elsewhere, I thought that leaving would influence me more – actually it was my growing up in such a particular city that has a had a lasting effect on my collections. Sometimes I tire of people asking me about it as my work is informed by many other things, but seeing it altogether in a gallery context has been rewarding. For a long time casuals style and sportswear was really sneered at in fashion and now it’s finally being celebrated and universally referenced. It feels great to have been pivotal to that change in fashion and mood.”


“I am originally from Poland, but I moved to Newcastle to study. I think the representation of the North is very much like fashion itself – one season it’s on top, another it’s forgotten. I wish some ideas about the North would change to be more positive. When in London for work meetings, some say ‘Oh, Newcastle looks actually like a nice city.’ I really don’t understand why someone would think otherwise. In Britain, everything is concentrated only in London, but there are people and beauty outside from it – beauty and honesty is what I try to show in my work.”


“I grew up on a daily diet of Coronation Street and my favourite character was Bet Lynch. She was the epitome of what I love about women – women who are audacious in their appearance, who don’t conform to a normal notion of beauty and who push what it is to be feminine. Some people may consider them tasteless but I am genuine in my admiration and my representation of these women in my work. Derrin and Demi-Leigh, the Liverpudlian girls that feature in the exhibition, represent all of those traits. To me it’s brave to walk around town in their rollers, to them its normal, I love and admire that.”