If you’re feeling the post-Met Gala punk burnout, we’ve got just the thing for you: As Seen in BLITZ, out this month, chronicles the New Romantic period in fashion, which directly followed punk. The book, as the title suggests, gives readers an inside glimpse into the early ’80s as captured in the pages of Blitz magazine.
Part of a trio of magazines that launched in 1980–which also included i-D and The Face–Blitz was the subversive fashion brainchild of university students Carey Labovitch and Simon Tesle.
Former Blitz fashion editor Iain R. Webb has combined his impressive archive of photos with personal anecdotes from the models, photographers, and artists involved with each shoot for this unique take on the history of the mag. Many of the images (including a rather unforgettable collage of Vogue editor Hamish Bowles in a Chanel twinset, a fresh-out-of-Parsons Marc Jacobs) haven’t been seen since they were first published in the pages of Blitz 30 years ago.
We hopped on the phone with Webb to get all the details on his new tome and what it was like to work in fashion during the early ’80s:
Fashionista: Tell us a little bit about how you got involved with Blitz.
Webb: I originally trained in fashion design at Saint Martins School of Art, but then decided I was more interested in the more journalism side of things than actually designing. One day, a photographer phoned me up and asked would I like to do a story for this new magazine that he’d been doing some things for called Blitz. The first story I did was used on the cover, then I started to contribute, and then they gave me more things to do.
Can you tell us what the atmosphere in fashion was at the time?
That early ’80s period was very much fueled by punk and the legacy of punk and the whole kind of DIY ethic. And the people who were involved at that time were people who’d come through being big Bowie fans and then getting into the whole punk vibe because it was about doing things yourself and creating your own scene, which then went on into the New Romantic scene.
It was very much economically and politically a wasteland, there was high unemployment and taxation, and I think that being young at that time, it was very much the sort of idea that we had nothing so we had nothing to lose. I think it really provoked risk taking.
What made the New Romantic movement different from punk?
It was the tail end of punk in terms of it being a new phenomenon and then the Sex Pistols broke up. So there were a lot of people, especially art school people, who had been into that but then were sort of floundering in a way, and didn’t want to get into the hardcore punk thing.
I think it was the birth of the individual. People assume that there’s a look in that very sort of flouncy, made-up New Romantic look, but actually you could be on the dance floor with a rocker next to you, someone dressed as a kind of existentialist poet, and then somebody dressed as Bo Peep. So it was a real contrast of looks all alongside one another, and that’s what was really, really exciting.
What inspired you to put the book together?
I hang onto everything, I’m terrible. So I’ve got all this ephemera from Polaroids to notebooks, and it makes a really interesting archive in itself. And as a magazine, it kind of slid away in the annals of fashion and history; when people talk about the new style magazines [from the '80s] they always talk about i-D and The Face.
I took the idea to the publisher and they really liked it. I was really careful that I wanted to make it very personal, so it was my story connected with Blitz magazine; that’s why it’s the five years, 82-87, whilst I was at Blitz although the magazine itself ran from 80-91. It ends as I go out the door and the new fashion editor comes in.
There’s a lot of major fashion players in the book long before they were famous, including a young Marc Jacobs–how were you guys discovering this young talent?
Well, this is how we met Marc Jacobs. We came to New York in about ’84 or ’85, and the first night we stayed at the Chelsea Hotel, because that’s what you did when you went to New York. It was really cool but of course it wiped out all of our money [and so we had to find another place to stay]. A friend introduced us to this guy John Badum and he knew everybody and he was like, “Come stay in my flat on my floor.” Then he said, “Oh I’ve got this friend, you’ve got to meet him, Marc Jacobs, he’s just left Parsons.”
So he called [Jacobs] up, and we were literally leaving Sunday evening and he came over on the Sunday morning. I did a little interview with him, we took him downstairs at the antique shops below at St. Mark’s Square, and we took him in there and photographed him with a model all dressed up in one of his outfits. And the rest was history.
We were all young at that time. It was very much that we were all starting out together so there was a huge support system, we were all really excited. We were writing about our friends.
There are so many incredible photos–do you have a favorite?
It’s really hard because going back through the archive was kind of incredible.
I love the cover image though—and that was something I fought for to be on the cover, because when I thought about doing the book originally it was very much the image that I thought should be on the cover, because I thought it summed up a lot of the ideas we were playing around with at that time. The model is a young lady called Scarlett Cannon, a girl who was on the door at the Cha Cha club. The headscarf she’s wearing is by Hermes; I love the fact that she’s got that Sloane Ranger look, but being so extraordinary with her square Cubist makeup.
[The photographer] told me that the background–which was me holding up a silk scarf–he wanted it darker so that it stood out, but because we didn’t have digital then, he penciled it all in, and if you look closely you can see all the pencil marks that he’s just literally drawn onto the print. I love that it’s that kind of lo-tech, that real sort of hands-on thing.
I hope something like that will inspire the young people coming through now to take a few more risks with things and do things in their own way, and have as much fun as we did as well.
What do you hope people will take away from the book?
Wooo, that’s a big question! [laughs]
There’s a fabulous quote in the book from a model, Amanda Cazalet, where she says that Blitz felt like a home for every little misfit and vagabond. That made me feel fantastic when I heard that because it didn’t matter about gender, sexuality, ethnicity, background, it was just about people being individuals. Fashion is quite a cruel industry, and nobody was out in our in-crowd.
So I hope that would continue through so that people have the confidence to do things outside the system, to kick against the traces a bit, because that’s what fashion needs–it needs individuals to have a voice and to have a vision.
Iain R. Webb is an award winning writer and Professor of Fashion at Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins. He now lives in Bath where he consults for the Fashion Museum and muses over his life in frocks at his blog Hope and Glitter.
The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London will be hosting a special exhibition the weekend of May 18 called We’re Not Here To Sell Clothes: the making of BLITZ fashion; details can be found here.
Check out these images from As Seen in Blitz; the book is available this month.