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Scarlett Cannon Derek Ridgers 1981
Scarlett Cannon in 1981Photography Derek Ridgers

Iconic Blitz Kid Scarlett Cannon reflects on 40 years of fearless style

The legendary model and muse discusses her relationship with fashion, her evolving aesthetic, and her place on the Blitz scene

Rising out of London in the late 1970s, the Blitz Kids revolutionised popular culture as we now know it. Taking over a small corner of Covent Garden every Tuesday night, the likes of Leigh Bowery, Judy Blame, Princess Julia, and Boy George descended down the steps of the Blitz Club week after week to drink and dance, and see and be seen. More than just a place to get fucked up – though people inevitably did – the club became the nucleus of a new scene exploding with creativity in every direction, long before the city’s beating heart was homogenised by a tidal wave of Pret-a-Mangers.

It’s the aesthetic that blossomed within the walls of the space that is probably the most important and recognised element of its legacy, though. The Blitz Club was a place where anything went, where the lines between gender were obliterated, and where the wilder your look was, the better. From Bowery’s floral morphsuits and Boy George’s avant-garde (and immaculately applied) make-up, to the fact that the New Romantic movement was birthed there, its influence can still be felt on catwalks around the world even now, almost 40 years on.  

“With a shock of peroxide blonde hair and a strikingly unusual profile, Cannon considered herself an ‘ongoing changeable sculpture’ and morphed from a modern-day Jean Harlow to a conceptual human depiction of the New York skyline from one week to the next”

At the centre of all this was Scarlett Cannon, who even more than most was intent on challenging conventional beauty ideals through her subversive approach to style. With a shock of peroxide blonde hair and a strikingly unusual profile, Cannon considered herself an ‘ongoing changeable sculpture’ and morphed from a modern-day Jean Harlow to a conceptual human depiction of the New York skyline from one week to the next. Before long, the one-time wannabe hairdresser was treading runways for Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier, covering Vogue Italia and i-D, and appearing in the pages of Blitz magazine itself. In the years that followed, the model became a muse for countless creatives, including Derek Ridgers, Nick Knight, Iain R Webb, Derek Jarman, Gareth Pugh, and her dear friend, the late Judy Blame

Now, as curated by James Lawler and Martin Green, exhibition Scarlett Woman has thrown open its doors in Liverpool, with a series of artists, creatives, and collaborators all contributing old and new pieces in celebration of Cannon’s extraordinary legacy. Here, on the day after its launch, we caught up with the model and muse to discuss her inimitable influence on popular culture, living life on her own terms, and her ever-evolving style. 

Tell us a little about how Scarlett Woman came about… 

Scarlett Cannon: Martin Green and James Lawler are the curators and Martin is a very old friend of mine – I’ve probably known him for about ten years now. As DuoVision they started putting on some brilliant exhibitions about undervalued artists and creatives, and when Club to Catwalk was on at the V&A they had an idea for a show with me as the muse with lots of different work by lots of different people. Until this point I didn’t realise how lucky I was because I’ve worked with so many brilliant people over the years and it made sense to celebrate that this summer – it’s been 40 years since we were all hanging out at the Blitz Club. 

What’s on show as part of the exhibition? 

Scarlett Cannon: Gosh, where to start? I love everything in there so I don’t want to miss anything out! Some of it is from my own archive, and some of it is old, and then there are some special commissions, too. Mark Wardell was commissioned to do a new piece, and so was Boy George, and Sadie Lee did this fabulous portrait which is so special and ethereal, it’s otherworldly. And then there are the old favourites; there’s the Blitz Hermês headscarf, with all the beautiful pencil lines on it because that’s how things were done in those days, and the amazing photograph of me with my crucifix fringe that Thomas Degen took, that’s there in all its glory. And then there are also lots of personal bits and bobs, like pages from my scrapbooks which have been blown up so they’re huge. It’s weird to see people you don’t know poring over your ideas and thoughts, but it’s fabulous to see them up there. 

Was it an emotional moment, seeing all of it together?  

Scarlett Cannon: Oh it was majorly emotional! There’s a story to every single piece in there, and of course, a lot of the people in those stories are no longer here with us, so it was quite hard, wishing they were there to see it all. And then there was that weird thing of seeing the story of your life right in front of your eyes, because you don’t really think of it in such a way, do you? I was quite nervous when I first walked in, but overall it was a joy to remember all the amazing people I’ve worked with. 

What was it like being part of a creative scene that has had such a huge impact on culture as we now know it?  

Scarlett Cannon: Well, we were just working with our friends who most of the time we met in nightclubs and bars – I met Judy Blame and Michael Hardy when they were working at Heaven and we started Cha Cha Club in the back bar in 1981, and more people would come and you’d end up making friends with them, like John Maybury, and Hamish (Bowles), and Stephen Jones. I think perhaps the legacy we left is because we all got on so well and our bonds were totally authentic. When I speak to young people in fashion schools I always say to them ‘work with your friends’ and just do the things you want to do! Obviously back in the 80s none of us were sat there thinking that in 2019 people would be so interested in us, but I think we lived our lives truthfully and surrounding ourselves with the people we loved and that will always resonate with people. 

What do you make of the London creative scene right now? 

Scarlett Cannon: I think there are pockets of amazing creativity in London, and actually I met a very interesting young man at an opening a few weeks ago who told me he and his friends have all given up social media to just focus on making things, and I thought that was brilliant. Back when we were running around the city, there wasn’t much to do, which is why we ended up creating so much art. We lived in council flats or squats or cheap bedsits and all the shops shut at five or six and there were only three TV channels, so we’d pick up a Super-8 camera from a jumble sale or whatever and just take photos to avoid being bored. Social media is great in a lot of ways, but it does take up a lot of time which could otherwise be spent on coming up with and executing wild ideas and entertaining yourself like we used to do. 

And what about fashion particularly?  

Scarlett Cannon: Well, I don’t think fashion is shocking anymore, but in a way that’s a good thing because it means people are freer to do whatever they want to do and experiment more. There are lots of designers I’m inspired and excited by: I love Charles Jeffrey, I wear a lot of his clothes, and I think John Alexander Skelton is a genius. Of course, I adore Gareth (Pugh) and everything that he does, and Matty Bovan is coming into his own from what I’d seen. They’re all very artistic and sometimes it actually feels like I’m seeing a piece of art evolving as opposed to a collection. 

“My style hasn’t changed a huge amount. I still love colour and wearing bright things, and every now and then I wear my skirts a bit shorter than is generally acceptable for a woman of 56, but I don’t care because why should I?” – Scarlett Cannon

When did you first become interested in fashion? 

Scarlett Cannon: I was always interested in fashion! I used to like going to jumble sales and the missionary mart – which was an enormous warehouse full of secondhand clothes – when I was really young. Old clothes in the 70s were from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and I’d pick up a bag full of stuff for like 50p and go home and put it all together in these mad combinations. I think I was about 14 when I found that place and it was really like I’d stumbled into Aladdin’s cave, I felt like I’d landed in heaven. And I could always be found in WH Smith flicking through Vogue when it came out. I could never afford to buy it, but I’d stand there and drool over Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler’s clothes. 

You worked a lot as a model and you’re good friends with Andrew Logan. Did you ever go out to the Untamed Fashion Assembly in Latvia? I can see you being very at home there...

Scarlett Cannon: I did! I went out with Andrew three or four times and it was a wonderful experience. In the early 90s Riga was of course still part of the Soviet Union, and these brilliant young art students would send these extraordinary collections down the runway and then you’d get up close and realise they were total rubbish – these terrible fabrics and trims, because that’s all they could get. In fact, I remember one designer used actual rubbish and it looked amazing! I love that spirit of making the best of what you’ve got, it’s very appealing to me. It was a funny old place, though. Nothing to eat, particularly if you were a vegetarian. I lived on cucumber and tomato and porridge for breakfast, that’s all there was for me! But they were beautiful trips – Andrew is such a joy.  

Scarlett Woman features a series of pieces from your own wardrobe. What other items of clothing really mean a lot to you and do you have a favourite piece you’d never part with? 

Scarlett Cannon: Not as many as you might think. I’m a bit of a hoarder and kept a lot of my very special things that I loved from the 80s, but in 2012 I needed a new kitchen so I sold a lot of them at various auctions (laughs). I knew I needed to let go. There are a few bits that I’ve hung onto, but the most precious thing that I’d never dream of selling is a set of beads Judy (Blame) made for me. I still wear them all the time: they dress up any outfit. 

How would you describe your style back in the Blitz days and how has it evolved? 

Scarlett Cannon: My style then was totally fearless, but I think mainly I’ve always referenced and had a love for old ladies, even when I was very young. I really noticed it when I was looking at the exhibition: there are lots of pearls and scarves going all the way back to when I was 17. I always loved that juxtaposition of being very young and wearing old lady clothes and twin sets and all that. And I do still love old lady clothes, but now I’m becoming an old lady it’s becoming a bit of a different story. My style hasn’t changed a huge amount. I still love colour and wearing bright things, and every now and then I wear my skirts a bit shorter than is generally acceptable for a woman of 56, but I don’t care because why should I?  

Age is nothing but a number... 

Scarlett Cannon: Exactly! I think most people just adapt their existing style as they get older, but what I’d never want to do look like I’m trying to look young. Actually, it’s quite a privilege to be getting older. A lot of my friends didn’t get to, and so I’m embracing the fact that I am with open arms. I think I’ve always been an old spirit on young shoulders, so it feels nice to be where I am now – I’ve finally grown into myself. 

Scarlett Woman runs until September 15 at The Gallery Liverpool. Admission is free.