From terraced houses to brass bands, parkas to New Order covers, the northern look has embedded itself in popular culture.
A new exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, which is curated by Showstudio’s Lou Stoppard and Manchester-based academic Adam Murray, aims to explore this identity and its influence across fashion and design. It is also celebrating many of the designers and artists who have come from the north and gone onto international success, including Gareth Pugh, Stephen Jones, Christopher Shannon and Mark Leckey, all of whom have work in the show.
For anyone who has lived in the north of England or loved the area from afar, it features some real treats. There are the inevitable, but brilliant, graphic designs of Peter Saville and Ben Kelly, which sum up the eras of Factory Records and the Haçienda and still remain remarkably fresh today. Casting further back there are images from the Open Eye archive and a film from 1939 produced by the General Post Office Film Unit which features classic northern scenes of industrial landscapes and pubs. These are then shown alongside more contemporary shots of street fashion from photographers including Alasdair McLellan, Jason Evans and Elaine Constandine, many of which have become iconic in their own right.
Stoppard and Murray have worked on the exhibition for the past two years, but with the recent political shake up of Brexit, a show examining the area seems particularly pertinent. “This show does feel timely,” says Stoppard, “in part due to the climate of the country right now – there’s a focus on regional divides, splits in ideas and lifestyle etc. We conceived the idea long before Brexit but that has increased our drive to look beyond the capital. You realise how huge areas of the UK can be overlooked and ‘othered’. I’m really proud of the range of places featured in the show.”
Certain themes emerged while the duo researched the work to feature. “One thing we found is the influence is very white and male dominated,” says Murray. “A lot of the work was looking through magazine archives. We started from 1980 when The Face and i-D started. Particularly in those two magazines, most of it’s London forever, then there’ll be this odd year when all of a sudden they’re obsessed with Manchester, and the people that are pictured are the Liam Gallaghers of the world, in a very macho, celebratory way.”
If you grew up during the era of ‘Madchester’ and the huge influence of bands including The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses, it’s difficult not to also feel a sense of nostalgia when viewing the exhibition, for the carefree sense of youthfulness it provokes. There are contemporary images and designs on show, but it is dominated with work from the past.
“I wouldn’t say that as curators we wanted the show to feel nostalgic,” says Stoppard. “If nostalgia is a driving force behind some of the work on display, it is not nostalgia for past eras or traditions but instead a longing for youth, freedom and formative experiences. Early influences, from favourite songs to adored items of clothing, often form the starting points for the later work of designers and image-makers, hence why those even not from the north find inspiration in the cultural output of the region. 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.”
So what of the cultural scene in the north today? Is there a new generation of creatives and designers producing work from the region? Murray says that he still sees most of his students forced to go to London to find work. “I think a lot of people would love to [stay in the north] if they could. But in order to do that, they need a job or they need some sense of opportunity. If you’re in fashion, the industry is almost all in the south apart from a few of the ecommerce places.”
“I think the north is just as culturally relevant as it ever was,” says Stoppard, more optimistically. “I think it’s just up to the gatekeepers – press etc – to realise this and report on it. Fashion and the creative industries, especially media organisations, can exist in a bit of a London bubble – it’s important to look outside of that once in a while…. There’s so much going on in the north, it’s just up to everyone to notice it.”
Murray hopes the Open Eye exhibition will also prove inspirational to a new generation of artists and designers, and might also provoke them to buck against the pervading image of the north. “Hopefully it will motivate people to do something,” he says. “Either to recognise it and enjoy it and celebrate it, or if a 13 year-old comes and they can’t relate to any of it, then hopefully it will motivate them to do something that they can relate to. Because most of the stuff that’s in the show has grown out of going against what had gone before, but using some of those influences and ideas that had started before them.
“It would be interesting to know what a 15 year-old thinks of it, or how they would identify their north now. And to do this show again in 40 years would be fascinating.”
North: Identity, Photography, Fashion is on show at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool until March 19; openeye.org.uk