What’s behind fashion’s fascination with club culture?

Club culture is big news in fashion right now. But is there more to the trend than nostalgia? Maya Singer investigates.

Like any tight-knit industry, fashion has a language. As vocabularies go, ours isn’t particularly specialised. Where fashion patois shines, however, is in the flamboyant expression of sensibility. You know what I mean: ‘Working it!’ ‘Major!’ ‘Dying!’ I pretty much just roll my eyes at those kinds of catchphrases. But there is a fashion coinage I can’t avoid, because it speaks to something essential to what I do. Feeling. As in: “I’m not really feeling those shoes, can you try the other ones?” Or, “I’m sort of feeling chintz florals right now…. Am I crazy?”

‘Feeling’ isn’t a word unique to fashion, of course. And fashion people probably didn’t invent that usage. But ‘feeling’ is an especially apt word, in fashion contexts, because it really is descriptive. If I’m on a shoot and the stylist is trying a look with a pair of shoes that aren’t working, it’s not that I think the shoes aren’t right. I feel like they aren’t, the same way I feel I’m attracted to someone, or not.

The main way I use ‘feeling,’ however, is to describe that tingly sensation that something is in the air that there’s a trend about to make landfall. For the past year or so, I’ve been feeling club culture. Not the present-day club scene, which I know virtually nothing about, but club culture from back in the day: I’ve been looking at footage of kids at raves and photos from legendary Manchester club The Hacienda, and reading vintage copies of Blitz magazine online.

Can you feel it?

And I’m not alone in my fascination with the club. This week, the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London is opening the exhibition From Club to Catwalk: Fashion in the Eighties. A show with a similar theme is being planned for the city’s Institute of Contemporary Art later this year. And more than a few of the recently debuted inter-season ‘resort’ collections revealed the influence of ye olde club scenes: Jonathan Saunders, for instance, took his colour palette from the cover art that Peter Saville created for the Pet Shop Boys and New Order, while Giles Deacon referenced the Hacienda, working in acid house colours and translating the space’s industrial aesthetic into screw and bolt graphics.

So why are we all ‘feeling’ so clubby right now?

“It’s about the energy, maybe…?” suggests Deacon, when asked why he’d revisited his old clubbing days this season. “I mean, the image I had in my head was of that girl I used to see, rocking around in a dress and a pair of Air Max or Gazelles,” he continues. “There was something about that relaxed attitude that felt fresh to me. And maybe even necessary...”

“What I mean is,” Deacon adds, “is that it wasn’t just about, you know, nostalgia.”

There’s no question that Deacon’s Hacienda homage is informed by nostalgia. But I agree, there’s more to it than that. Or, more accurately, I believe there’s more to the nostalgia itself than meets the eye. Deacon may have a sentimental attachment to his memories of driving around to illegal raves in the North of England, but I don’t; I never did that. But listening to him talk about those days – about piling into a car with a few friends, and roadtripping to the outskirts of some small town, merely because they’d heard a rumour about a party – fills me with a sense of yearning. As does chatting to Jamie Morgan, the photographer and former Buffalo collective member, when he talks about going to clubs in London in the 80s.

“The thing about these clubs was that you couldn’t get in to them unless you looked absolutely amazing” Morgan recalls. “And when I say amazing, I don’t mean, you bought some ‘fashion’ look off-the-peg, from a store. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that you brought your own individuality to what you were wearing, that you put some effort into it. The more outrageous, the better. There was a doorman, Tim,” Morgan continues, “who used to do this thing of holding a mirror up and asking, ‘would you let you in? Because I wouldn’t.’”

“That,” adds Morgan, “would never work today. You go to a club now, it’s like, ‘money talks.’”

Morgan’s era of club-going is the one in the spotlight at the V&A. Tribute is paid to Boy George, and to Leigh Bowery, whose elaborate get-ups made him an icon of the London club scene in the 80s. According to Morgan, the fact that both Boy George and Leigh Bowery were gay was incidental; in his recollection, the club was the place where all different tribes of creative types came together.

Two tribes

“There were tribes, like I was part of this Buffalo tribe,” Morgan explains, “but the thing that united everyone was that we were escaping boredom. We were bored by the mainstream, and we wanted to create a world outside of it. And we’d congregate at the club, in our looks we’d put together, to mingle and appreciate each other. It was very free, in that way.”

‘Free’ is a word Deacon uses, too, when he talks about the rave scene. And he, likewise, describes the rave as a place where self-creation was respected, and a space where all different kinds of people came together in a positive way.

I suspect that the feeling of longing I have, hearing these stories, and my feeling for the club, has something to do with all that. It’s hard not to be attracted to the concept of the club as a Temporary Autonomous Zone, as the American anarchist thinker Hakim Bey described it: “…a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to reform elsewhere… before the state can crush it.”

But I also think there’s something more matter-of-fact at work. I’m not a utopian, at heart, and I don’t think the curators at the V&A are, either. And the more I talk to Morgan, and to Deacon, the less rose-tinted their recollections of their clubbing days become. They understand the difference between their own happy nostalgia, and harsher reality. But what we all share, and what we all seem to mourn the loss of, is subculture. The key element in Deacon’s stories about going to illegal raves, for me, is the idea that a huge gathering of people could come together through word-of-mouth. Anyone throwing a party at an abandoned warehouse now would probably be promoting it on Facebook or Twitter. Likewise, those tribal fashion identities that Morgan talks about have been subsumed. We live in the age of the international hipster, in which street style trends go global in an instant, and mainstream in a flash. The hardest thing to be, today, is underground.

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