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Experimental feature
Knit menswear by Sibling

Even though London Fashion Week is now big business, with Burberry and Tom Ford showing in the next few days, what keeps the city thriving between ready-to-wear seasons is its ever-evolving subcultures. London’s underground creatives have long existed on their own terms, and have been hugely influential across generations, particularly to the city’s designers.

Often these subcultures go unsung but just opened is a show that illuminates many of the deep-seated inspirations for the city’s ready-to-wear shows. Organised by the ICA, the off-site exhibition is called A Journey Through London Subculture: 1980s to Now, an attempt to draw together the different strands of art, fashion, design and nightlife that have ignited the city by subverting it.

The premise is simple. Sixty London figures from different disciplines and generations have each been given a vitrine to do with as they wish. “It’s not an exhibition, it’s an experiment,” says Gregor Muir, the director of the ICA, who came up with the idea for the show. “You’re not seeing things in a precise single timeframe. We want to connect the past to the present, and make it possible for people to join the dots themselves.”

Muir cites the 660,000 visitors to the 2011 Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York as evidence of an untapped audience for radical ideas. “It’s an unofficial culture, one that’s not represented in museums and commercial galleries,” he says. “There’s a need to explore things that were previously seen as in flux or of the moment.”

Last Saturday, contributors were invited to the sprawling exhibition space – an abandoned hotel behind the back of Selfridges – to install their vitrines. “It’s a series of photographs I took at a Warren Street squat in 1979,” said the director John Maybury, whose film for Alexander McQueen’s new collection has just gone online. Maybury was studying art at Saint Martins at the time, and had planned to use the photos of his fellow squat dwellers such as Boy George and DJ Jeremy Healy for his degree show. “Then I abandoned the whole lot and did something else. They’ve never been shown before.”

Designer Julie Verhoeven

Nearby is a triptych of vitrines to represent the found objects (buttons, champagne corks) that were among the materials used at the House Of Beauty And Culture, a now hugely influential early 1980s east London shop and collective that included accessories designer and stylist Judy Blame, shoe designer John Moore, and furniture designers Fric and Frack. They worked in Dalston, now London’s Brooklyn, but then a desolate part of the city with an air of doomed romance. “We all thought we were going to die anyway,” said Alan Macdonald, then half of Fric and Frack, now a production designer for films such as The Queen. “We just assumed we were HIV positive. It was a chaotic time.” Indeed, some, such as John Moore, did not survive.

Princess Julia, a DJ and writer who has helped to organise the show, and who was recently photographed by David Sims for French Vogue, has filled her vitrine with artefacts from nearly 40 years of engaging with London subcultures. “There’s a constant regeneration in London,” she said. “There’s no nostalgia to this. All the stuff from then is totally relevant.”

Vitrine by nightclub entrepreneur and model Scarlett Cannon

After the impact of the Aids crisis, art picks up the thread for much of the vitrines covering the 1990s, documenting early appearances from artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas before they found fame and infamy. The ebullient mood of the time is represented with a bone-decorated vitrine from St John, the London restaurant that brought offal on to the plate and into popular culture. As the show progresses to cover the new millennium, fashion comes to the fore with vitrines from designers such as Giles Deacon and Julie Verhoeven, and collectives such as Lulu Kennedy’s Fashion East.

Setting up the exhibition

“There’s a wilful and incendiary spirit that links the generations from the 1980s till now,” says Kennedy, who has helped the careers of many of the designers featured in the show, such as Sibling and Louise Gray. “There’s no particular concept of time, everyone’s too busy making things happen.”

Particularly strong are the young artists, such as Eddie Peake, who’s recently been signed up by Jay Jopling’s White Cube; Prem Sahib, who’s just opened a solo show at Southard Reid in Soho, and George Henry Longly, who is staging a performance piece next weekend at the Serpentine Gallery.

They work separately but together they run a nightclub. “We’re all artists, and we just wanted to do a party for us and our friends during Frieze in 2011,” said Longly.

Tellingly, after five weeks of public talks and events, the ICA’s Subculture show will close on the final day of next month’s Frieze Art Fair. Opening during London Fashion Week, closing with Frieze, the span of the show reveals how London subcultures run alongside, and occasionally infiltrate, the mainstream. Many remain underground by choice but London’s strength is its diversity; from the traditional mainstream to the underground creatives who wilfully follow their own path.

‘A Journey Through London Subculture: 1980s to Now’, until October 20, The Old Selfridges Hotel, 1 Orchard Street, W1H 6JS www.ica.org.uk

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