Lou Stoppard: “The history of UK subculture is a history of men”

A new exhibition at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery spotlights the North of England’s influence and depiction in visual culture, attempting along the way to rebalance the topic's gender bias

The vast and varied regions collectively known as the North have long proved a febrile influence on British fashion and media. Buoyed up by a succession of pioneering musical scenes, the region’s industrial cities have developed their own aesthetic landscape. North: Identity, Photography, Fashion, a new exhibition at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery, delves into this rich cultural history.

No one wants to be the class they’re born into, especially if you’re middle class

Curated by the fashion writer Lou Stoppard and the academic Adam Murray, North hopes to unpack the clichés and tropes that often inform depictions of the area. Exhibits include work from fashion photographers such as Jamie Hawkesworth, Glen Luchford and Alasdair McLellan, garments from Raf Simons and Adidas, and art by Turner Prize winners Mark Leckey and Jeremy Deller.

Ahead of the show’s opening, Jocks&Nerds spoke with Murray and Stoppard about the fetishisation of the North, the relationship of class to Northern fashion and the masculine bias in depictions of the region.

In putting this exhibition together, what were the common threads that made something “Northern”?

Adam Murray It’s difficult to define something specific as 'Northern', but there were certainly some common threads, the fundamental aspect being location. Although there is endless debate about where, geographically, the North of England begins, Lou and I wanted to identify some key figures for in-depth interviews about the role growing up in the North had on them, and consequently its influence on their work. We were lucky to be able to talk to people at different ages and from different places, so the responses are diverse and enlightening.

As the project developed, other common threads came through, to do with reoccurring motifs and symbols. But all the while surprises would appear that would challenge our trains of thoughts and really make the diversity of the region apparent. This is why I think it’s difficult to label something as uniquely 'Northern'.

Lou Stoppard I think it’s not so much about identifying things as 'Northern' but instead looking for threads in the way that the region has been depicted – the things that people latch onto, or the motifs and tropes that get picked up and repeated. You see it, for example, both in the number of fashion collections that pay tribute to Peter Saville, the Hacienda or Mark Leckey, and in the regularity with which terraced houses, front rooms, washing lines et cetera crop up in fashion shoots made up north for glossy magazines.

Does fashion celebrate the North or fetishise it?

LS Both. But I think it’s not so much the North itself that is fetishised, more aspects of it – a certain brand of masculinity, or a nostalgia for a past time, for example. I do think there is a problem in fashion at the moment for, to use a cliché, 'poverty porn', which I suppose ties to some of our themes. That said, I think most of the work in the show is highly sensitive and warm in its depictions of the North – many people who choose to reference it in their work grew up there and have family there, so they have very strong feelings towards the area.

So much fashion about the north is still made and shown in London. How Northern can this model really be?

AM This is certainly a topic that I feel strongly about in my role as a lecturer in Liverpool. There is definitely a lack of infrastructure in the North to enable new creatives to base themselves if they want to work in some fields of photography or fashion. So in terms of the industry model, sure, this does not exist so much in the North. However, with the show, Lou and I are looking at regional identity and cultural representation and the influence that this has had on fashion and image-makers. Based on the work we have selected and the interviews with key practitioners who hail from the North, the link is undoubtable.

How much does Northern fashion reflect class, and how much geography?

LS You can’t escape class in England. It’s one of the weirdest aspects of our culture – we are all obsessed with it and obviously, whether consciously or not, it’s something that affects and influences designers and makers. Clothes are an immediate signifier of class and standing so of course it’s come into the show. I think you do see lots of examples of what I'd call class tourism in the creative feels. People wanted to take on a role that they didn’t have when growing up or experience a new style of dressing.

Nick Knight once said to me, when I was curating my first exhibition Mad About the Boy and we were discussing his years as a skinhead, that his involvement in the movement was partly due to this reason – no one wants to be the class they’re born into, especially if you’re middle class. Alasdair McLellan also discussed this with us about a lot of the work he’s done that relates to the North – he deliberately includes a lot of middle class motifs in his photos, I think in part due to the fact that lots of imagery from the North features gritty, 'working class' backgrounds. He does it quite deliberately, acknowledging the fact that no one really thinks it’s cool to be middle class.

You've talked about how images of the north are white and male. Why is that?

LS I think it’s largely because so much of it relates to music, subculture and sport culture – and those things tend to, in history, be male and very white. You see it with punk, or the teds, or mods. The history of UK subculture is a history of men. Name me one female subculture that gets wide press or analysis? I think that it’s a problem of representation – the white male protagonists of lots of movements are the ones who talk about their work and document it, then their visions and stories get taken up and retold and the cycle continues.

What were the most interesting things you discovered when you were going through archives?

AM For me, it was certainly discovering the Open Eye Gallery archive. They have such a fantastic collection of photographic work, most of which is from original projects that the gallery has commissioned. Being able to select work from this for the show was a real privilege.

A lot of the brands we associate with Northern style aren't themselves Northern. Why do you think that is? What does it say about Northern style?

AM The cultural imagination surrounding the North of England still has great cultural capital on an international scale. As we began to identify brands we wanted to feature, it was becoming more and more apparent that certain ideas of the North have power. This then gets commoditised and marketed so it becomes almost completely distant from the original starting point. At first these notions may seem unrelated to the work of designers such as Virgil Abloh, but actually such work has a far deeper awareness and understanding than a lot of things that would be labelled as Northern.

Northern fashion seems very male-focused, compared to fashion in general. Is that fair, and why do you think that might be?

AM The focus depends on context. Certainly in the style press – i-D, The Face, Arena Homme+ – that provided Lou and I with some of the core research sources, the focus is predominantly male and with a very celebratory tone. Recent occasions where focus is on female dress tend to be in different publications and much less celebratory; the prime example that comes to mind is Ladies Day at Aintree. The second result on Google search for this is a link to The Daily Mail with a carefully selected edit of images with a less than celebratory tone.

Clearly these are just a couple of examples and I wouldn’t want to make a sweeping generalisation. But apart from a few exceptions – the work of Alice Hawkins, for example – it is certainly very male focussed. Hopefully this exhibition will trigger some people to challenge this and new work, new representations and new points of focus can develop.

LS I think that the elements that get taking up by the fashion community tend to relate to casual culture or music culture, both of which, when you look at how they are documented, are very male. There is definitely a sportswear moment happening in men’s fashion at the moment, so those references to Northern England make sense. We’ve tried to consider gender a lot in the show – so hopefully, as Adam says, others will too.