To celebrate its 40th birthday, Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool is proudly opening its first exhibition of the year. North: Identity, Photography, Fashion—curated by Lou Stoppard and Adam Murray—is an exploration of the influence the North of England has on fashion and visual culture. Gathering photographs, artworks and fashion collections from designers including Raf Simons, Claire Barrow and Virgil Abloh, the gallery is transformed into a diverse hub of appreciation for the North’s rich cultural history. Glamcult was lucky enough to find out why the power duo chose to shine a spotlight on the region.
Let’s start with the most apparent question: why specifically the North of England? Was this a personal (background) interest, a subject that you simply kept running into in fashion, or both?
AM: Both! The regional identity of Northern England has been central to my practice and research for many years since I co-founded a photography collective called Preston is my Paris. Alongside this I have had a long running interest in the cultural and social value of fashion. I have long been an admirer of the work Lou has done with SHOWstudio and her independent projects so it was a perfect project to collaborate on.
LS: As Adam says it’s both. My parents are from the North of England, so even though I was born down South it’s always had a place in my heart and a certain appeal. Then I have a broader interest in how fashion relates to broader cultural and societal movements and issues—Adam and I both shared a desire to work on a project that looks at how place and space relate to cultural output.
Especially for those who may have never been to the North, what about the area makes it so inspirational for visual culture?
AM: It has such a rich social and cultural heritage. Some of the recurring motifs that feature in the exhibition have their roots in the industrial revolution period of the 19th century, but so many important cultural, political and social movements began in the north of England. Much of the work featured in the exhibition has inspiration from recent history, but as a recent series on BBC radio showed, the importance dates back centuries.
LS: Peter Saville has been kind enough to share his advice and knowledge with me over the run up to the exhibition, and he talked to me about how smaller cities can foster an intriguing ‘why not’ attitude, which I do certainly think is true in some cases in the North. You get vibrant scenes emerging.
In as few words possible, how would each of you describe the regional identity of Northern England?
AM: Endlessly interesting.
LS: Rich, varied but often united by strange common threads.
Your exhibition explores the way the North is put under the microscope by all sorts of fashion professionals. Did the outcomes of your research surprise you in any way? If so, how?
LS: I think we were both surprised with the enthusiasm of the artists and makers we contacted. Very quickly we realised that this is a theme that is very close to a lot of people’s hearts—the quantity of people who explore the North in their work or who are informed in some way by their Northern upbringing is overwhelming. You see that in the diversity of all the contributors we have featured in the show. I think in many ways this exhibition is long overdue—we were surprised someone hadn’t got their first.
While preparing this exhibition, did your view on the area change at all?
AM: A couple of years ago I wondered if the North of England had become quite a homogenised region full of very similar towns and cities. The more I travelled and explored for this project, the more I realised that each city certainly has its own characteristics and identity.
It’s surprising that not just British creatives, but also international designers including Raf Simons and Virgil Abloh have based work on Northern influences.
AM: Linking back to my previous answer, not really because the region has been so influential internationally. A city like Liverpool for example was once a trade port of the world. This industrial and trading function may have changed, but from that grew music, art and culture that is still recognised internationally.
LS: I think some of it relates to formative experience—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. I also think, currently, a lot of the ideals that fashion is obsessed with – casual wear, sportswear etc – relate to Northern culture. It’s apt that there is a spotlight on the region.
As curators, what are your favourite contributions to the expo?
AM: I wouldn’t like to single out anyone in particular because for me the joy of the show is bringing together such a diverse range of work that consequently creates great dialogue between each other.
LS: I’m thrilled to have such a range of people featured. To have contemporary fashion photographers such as Glen Luchford, David Sims and Alasdair McLellan showing alongside Turner Prize-winning artists such as Mark Leckey and Jeremy Deller and designers like Raf Simons and Paul Smith is fantastic. Then there’s all the archive and documentary material—amazing names like Shirley Baker and John Bulmer. I’m also happy with the international scope and the inclusion of Raf Simons and Virgil Abloh—the fact we are looking at how ideas of the North have spread far and wide.
We’ve included a quote from Tony Hornecker who is doing the set. He has dressed the third room with environments to replace themes and motifs that appear in interview films with some amazing creative people who helm from the North: Simon Foxton, Christopher Shannon, Gareth Pugh etc.
“What I found so encouraging about working on these films, and the scenes that they inspired in me, is of the universal need to leave home to follow our creative paths. Where and how we were brought up governs so much of all our creative processes. It’s inescapable somehow and what makes things authentic. That path can only belong to you.”