New Exhibition Celebrates the Inimitable Influence of the English North

New Exhibition Celebrates the Inimitable Influence of the English North

The curators and creative minds behind 'North: Identity, Photography, Fashion' discuss the inspiration for the exhibition.

The curators and creative minds behind 'North: Identity, Photography, Fashion' discuss the inspiration for the exhibition.

Text: Sophie Bew

Taking the English suburban settings of fashion editorials by David Sims, Glen Luchford, Alasdair McLellan and Jamie Hawkesworth as their springboard, co-curators Lou Stoppard and Adam Murray offer North: Identity, Photography, Fashion—an exhibition that explores the vast and vivid influence that the North of England has had on worldwide visual culture. Opening on January 6, at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, North promises to question the inherent connection between our surroundings and our cultural output.

Photography is hung salon-style in the first gallery where, teeming with i-D covers, tracksuits, industrial settings and lashings of eyeliner, Northern English stereotypes at once abound and disintegrate. “Adam and I theorized that you could do a whole exhibition relating to images of women in curlers, or pylons, or lads stood in front of rural settings,” Lou explains to V. “I find these motifs fascinating—but, as cultural historian Dave Russell writes in Looking North, a book we considered during our research, ‘The real skill will be in learning to look beneath the clichés and habits of imagination that lie at the heart of these myths.’”

And that, Stoppard and Murray have certainly achieved. Pieces from Raf Simons’ Fall/Winter 2003 parkas, emblazoned with Peter Saville’s designs for Factory Records are exhibited alongside a glut of landmark fashion photography. Meanwhile documentary film features interviewing Northern-born designers (from Paris-based Gareth Pugh to Central Saint Martins alumni Christopher Shannon) are situated in screening rooms designed by Meadham Kirchhoff’s set extraordinaire, Tony Hornecker. Each area reflects each designer’s recurrent theme: be it Pugh’s local theatre or Claire Barrow’s regular nightclub. The influence bands like Stone Roses, Joy Division and New Order is crystal clear, while the entire collection is framed by the striped columns of a collaborative—and purpose-built—installation by Off-White’s Creative Director Virgil Abloh and Ben Kelly of Manchester’s Hacienda nightclub scene. Within these rooms the past, interweaves with the now—the North diffuses into the outside world.

Of this new architectural project, Abloh tells V: “The English Northern region has been influential and impactful to my personal canons of art, by way of music bands and, aesthetically, the work of Peter Saville and Ben Kelly in Manchester.” But it’s a distinctive sense of style, described by Abloh as “a mix of sportswear and ready-to-wear that has been taking place for generations,” that the American designer notes impacts on numerous designers’ collections today.

For British-born, LA-based fashion photographer Glen Luchford, such influence is “in the DNA, so to speak,” he explains to V. “Your education stays with you always,” he says and, though born in the South East—Sussex—the photographer still feels indebted to the influence of the North of England. “The post punk era, which I missed due to age, was predominantly Northern—Joy Division etc—so it was kind of a saturation of artwork, music and clothing. All in all it was just more interesting than what was happening in the south. The attitude was invigorating as Thatcherism took hold. I found myself in a huge bookshop recently and spent the whole time looking at a book of early Joy Division images. I'm just drawn to it. The juxtaposition of these artists emitting work from the ultra grey rainy banal backdrop seemed really compelling in the same way that Berlin appeals. The North, industrially, was in decline—yet the music seemed to flourish. I love that. I hope Trump inspires some great work from the kids.”

While the scope of these music industries evidently reaches far and wide—it’s the contrast between the North as "home" and the North as "idea" that plays throughout this multifaceted exhibition. The show’s co-curators describe the English North as akin to Rio or Paris—as bearing a cultural identity that can be universally understood, whether one ever visits the region or not. As Stoppard explains, “Familiarity is something we definitely wanted to play with, whether it’s familiarity with music or graphics, or familiarity for somewhere that was once home. For example, Raf Simons has his heart in the North because of his passion for New Order and Joy Division. Others have their heart there because it’s the streets they actually walked.” Motifs like industrial landscapes, tight-knit communities, terraced houses, football fields, pubs, pies and brass bands have, over time, “moved from documented item to trope or useful visual code, highlighting the fine line between truth and stereotype.” In viewing North: Identity, Photography, Fashion, one considers the political, social and cultural factors that geographically affect the art we make and the clothes we inhabit; we can infer, as Luchford hopes, that our political future should offer plenty of material.

North: Identity, Photography, Fashion is showing from January 6–March 19 at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool.

Photograph by Alasdair McLellan, Boy at the Saint Leger Fair, Doncaster, September 2005

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