Exhibition Review: "North: Identity, Photography, Fashion"
North: Identity, Photography, Fashion, Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool (January 6-March 19, 2017)
North: Identity, Photography, Fashion is an examination of the representation of the North of England and its cultural impact on fashion, both in the UK and further afield. Curated by Adam Murray and Lou Stoppard, the free exhibition is currently on display at Open Eye Gallery, an independent, dedicated photography gallery on the Liverpool waterfront.
The exhibition is separated into three distinct spaces, though material is recalled and referenced throughout. Gallery One features an abundance of photographs, largely portraits, hung in a salon-style display, including editorial images, documentary photography, street-style images, as well as photographs from the Open Eye Gallery Archive. Magazine spreads are secured open with large metal clips in freestanding, dark metal display stands and vitrines, designed by Theo Simpson and Alisdair Simpson. The soundtrack to Birkenhead-born Mark Leckey’s work We Are (Untitled) (2001), in which Leckey captures the mood of the house party, startles visitors as one of the protagonists loudly sings the chorus to Usher’s You Make We Wanna… out of tune.
In Gallery Two, garments, shoes and accessories are hung on racks. A painting of Happy Mondays lead singer Shaun Ryder as featured on the cover of the Manchester band’s 1988 album Bummed is mirrored both as a motif in Jeremy Deller’s work, Shaun Ryder’s Family Tree (2008) and on a jacket produced by Paul Smith for the label’s line R. Newbold, sold exclusively in Japan. Another Manchester-inspired R. Newbold piece on display is a striped shirt featuring the graphic “24 Hour Party People.” This is a reference to the movie of the same name, which chronicled the infamous Manchester nightclub, the Haçienda (1982-1997), co-owned by Factory Records and New Order. Ben Kelly, who designed the club’s interior, is quoted in the exhibition panel text: “The Hacienda never dies.” The visual language of Kelly’s interior design has been an omnipresent – if not unnecessarily protracted – influence since the club’s closure, inspiring projects and collaborations such as a pair of Haçienda sneakers and a clothing line produced in collaboration with Virgil Abloh, both on display in this room. The far-reaching influence of this relatively small region, as well as its significance to the practices of established and emerging Northern designers, is evidenced in works by both recent graduates, and established designers. Notable items include pieces from Raf Simons’ Spring/Summer 2016 collection, which was inspired by Mark Leckey’s film, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, as well as a jacket from his Autumn/Winter 2003 collection that features graphics from Peter Saville whose posters for Factory Records are on display nearby.
It is worth considering the dominance of menswear on display, and further, the dominance of male creative practitioners in this exhibition, despite the fact that plenty of the imagery and photographs in the exhibition feature women. The curators address this in the exhibition panel text, stating, "The aspects of Northern culture that are most regularly taken up by the fashion press tend to relate mostly to subculture, music, and sport. Therefore, a highly masculine, heteronormative and, often, oppressive white image dominates."
This text sits in reference to work from the photographer Alice Hawkins, who the curators have included as a means of illustrating alternatives to this dominant narrative. In this text, the curators refer to Hawkins’ great respect and admiration for, in her words, “women who are audacious in their appearance,” citing the character Bet Lynch of soap Coronation Street, set in Weatherfield. Likewise, the curators credit the work of street photographer Jason Evans as having “led to a broadening of depictions of beauty, people, place, and style within the context of the fashion magazine.” In any case, this exhibition is a broad survey, and as such, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect for these concerns to be further unpacked. Though male designers and creatives are typically well represented in both fashion exhibitions and fashion studies, menswear tends to be underrepresented. In that respect, the dominance of such material in North is certainly justifiable.
Gallery Three is upstairs, and brings a significant shift in tone. The space is dedicated to a series of interviews with designers and stylists from the North. These interviews were initially conceived by Stoppard and Murray and produced by SHOWstudio.com, an online platform for fashion film and for which co-curator Stoppard is the editor-at-large. Each audio interview is accompanied by a video by Jon Emmony, following the content of the speakers with screencaps from Google Maps, Street View, and image searches. The room is darkened, and features seven tableaux incorporating the interviews, designed by Tony Hornecker. Visitors are invited to inhabit the settings – a church pew for Milliner Stephen Jones; a single-seated cinema for designer Gareth Pugh; a bus seat and graffiti for adidas Spezial designer Gary Aspden. The videos are still available to view on SHOWstudio, as well as additional essays, installation images and information about the exhibition. The added dimension of the project’s presence online is a real strength of this exhibition; a sense of legacy that has reach far beyond Liverpool, and a platform for the project that extends pre- and post- the display at Open Eye Gallery.
Interestingly, this small exhibition points to many of the challenges associated with exhibiting fashion in a gallery context, and criticisms of the fashion curating canon. The situating of a fashion exhibition within a photography gallery is a potential challenge to visitors' preconceptions of what a fashion exhibition is and does. It is a departure from the garment-heavy displays often associated with fashion exhibitions, and presents a lesser-known narrative in a space, and city, not widely associated with fashion. Additionally, given the context of this exhibition within Open Eye Gallery, the curators do well to present a vast amount of photographs and still images without preferencing these over the garments, moving image works, and interviews on display.
The design of the exhibition in itself is almost set-like—a common trope within fashion curating—but here it is used rationally. Whilst Gallery Three is overtly conceived as a series of staged settings in which visitors can view the interviews with Northern creatives, the exhibition design of the ground floor galleries goes some way to encapsulate a sense of place and time without dominating the material and works on display. Steel-framed display units could be associated with Northern industry, while the white-tiled partitions are reminiscent of toilet cubicles at the club or a football locker room. A dilapidated park bench and tiny, obsolete Panasonic TV sets, whether or not they are quintessentially Northern, conjure nostalgia and add visual interest. The exhibition is supported by adidas, with a selection of shoes on display, which the curators dub as “a staple of Northern style.” These universally recognisable shoes are displayed beneath contemporary garments hung on coat hangers, as if for sale. This arrangement speaks to contemporary criticisms of displaying of mass-produced, readily available fashion objects in the gallery. Such concerns are symptoms of a persisting, uncomfortable relationship between fashion and commerce in the context of the gallery, harking back to Diana Vreeland’s Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983-84.
The title of the exhibition, North: Identity, Photography, Fashion is suitably open and accessible enough to draw visitors who are more interested in engaging with an historical or wider cultural examination of the North. In any case, the curators’ have undeniably approached the proposition of Northern style and influence from a fashion perspective. Although work from contemporary artists such as Mark Leckey and Jeremy Deller is on display, it feels as though it serves to contextualise fashion references. In reference to common tropes and conceptions of the northern aesthetic, Stoppard says, “It's an exhibition about myths and identity as much as it is photography and fashion.” However, the cultural implications of fashion are so broad that it could be argued that this myth and identity—and the perpetuation of this via photography and image making—is at the heart of what the study of fashion from a sociological perspective is intrinsically concerned with anyway.