Remembering Judy Blame
Long Reads 24.02.2018
Interview Mark Hooper
Photographs Mark Mattock
In memory of a truly unique talent, we reprint this interview with the great stylist and designer Judy Blame, where he looked back on his life, his inspirations and his ‘dodgy relationship with the general public’ – all told in the best way: his own words, with plenty of laughter and cigarettes…
Well, if you’re talking about attitude, I ran away from home when I was 17. This was ’77. I didn’t know what running away entailed. It started with the music and the visuals of punk rock. I just saw people with pink hair playing in mad bands and just went for it. At the time I was living in Devon, in the countryside, in a tiny little village, and I just knew something else was going on. I wasn’t really happy at college so I left. My parents were quite formal, my older brother’s in the army, the other one became a policeman, my sister’s a nurse. And I’d always been really creative; drawing, interested in clothes, films, music… And my parents just didn’t believe you could make a career out of being creative, because they didn’t know anyone who had, so I was under a lot of pressure to find a career – because all my other brothers and sisters were conforming.
So I saved up some money without them knowing, packed my bags, dyed my hair and… I did run away to London, thinking, oh yeah, punk’s happening, I’ll just walk down the street and meet lots of people. But London was quite fashiony – Malcolm (McLaren) and Vivienne (Westwood) ruled the roost in London, and the Bromley contingent and all that – it was a bit more snobby. I only stayed for a couple of weeks. And the only other place where I knew anyone – because I was definitely not going home – was Manchester. So I went there. And Manchester had a brilliant punk scene. There were a lot of bands, a lot of graphic people, a lot of creative people experimenting. We couldn’t really afford the Seditionaries clothes or whatever, so we would do the jumble sale, buy a suit, throw a bucket of paint over it, cut it up, join it back together with safety pins – it was much more homemade. It was better for me.
I think that’s where I get that attitude where you can use anything, it’s not a money thing, it’s a visual statement thing. I didn’t really know where to put my creative energy, so I put it on myself, basically – dressing up, dying my hair, making clothes. But I didn’t see it as a job or anything. I just saw it as… going to college without going to college. Education. Educating yourself.
It’s interesting how DIY everything was then. When you started off there weren’t even style magazines as such. These days even the newspaper broadsheets have a style supplement. It’s become boring, almost as if there’s a system that’s been set up for something that was once spontaneous.
There was just such an energy then. There weren’t that many people, really, if you think of the explosion that happened from it. There must have been about 800 in London and 400 in Manchester, and 100 in Liverpool… but because the bands traveled around, we used to see amazing bands together – like The Clash, Siouxsie, and The Slits – all on for a quid. So there was a lot of camaraderie around, especially in Manchester. The people I lived with, one was a guy called Malcolm Garrett, who set up a company called Assorted Images. Peter Saville was still at college. Jon Savage was up there a lot. And Manchester definitely had its own bands. The Buzzcocks. The Fall. This was everyday for us, so energy-wise it was really happening. Through Malcolm and people like that I learned all about Bauhaus – I’m not saying we were very arty, but it was the energy of the music and punk and the style – but also we were educating ourselves about other movements through the century, the way Jamie Reid was doing a Situationist thing with Malcolm… I learnt so much in those two years just by misbehaving. It was great.
There’s a lot of revivalism going on now of that time, but it feels like there was more thought and awareness of history invested in it then. I suppose we thought we were doing something new and different, so we were nicking what we liked from the past and shoving it into the future. The actual media has changed a lot now. Back then it was about photocopying your own fanzine and standing outside a gig and trying to sell 12 copies of it. There was a lot more word of mouth. There’s still word of mouth now of course – there always will be. But back then you really lived for that. Look at Terry Jones and i-D. It did start off as a stapled-together photocopy with a colored card cover. And now look at it. It’s really an established thing.
You’d drop dead if someone looked the same as you. We spent all day making sure we never looked like anyone else on the planet
I am very aware that I’m kind of part of that system, and I’m contributing to it even though you wish it could be kept a bit more secret sometimes… I’ve always had that punk attitude, but I did go through that New Romantic thing when I eventually moved to London, which I think suited me more. Even though I enjoyed the punk years, that’s when I started getting a feeling for shocking people even more with your appearance. And rather than when punk became New Wave and became more uniform, that New Romantic thing came from, ‘Well I don’t want to look like anyone else.’ You didn’t want to look like a gang. You’d drop dead if someone looked the same as you. We spent all day making sure we never looked like anyone else on the planet. A bit more individual I suppose. And then out of that scene there were a lot more talented designers, singers… again it came out of another small group of people and it was interesting to have been involved in both of them. It was still quite small and I quite liked that. I’d much rather go to a really small club full of really dressed-up kids than I would a rave with 8,000 people in it.
That’s what I like about Berlin. It still manages to keep things quite small – keeping the underground thing going on. New Romantic went overground really quickly. Probably because it was a depressed time in this country and people wanted … a few clowns. Or whatever we were. I don’t know quite what we were. [laughs]
After the New Romantic thing, and while that was going on, Nick Logan was starting The Face and Terry Jones was starting i-D, and the music became more eclectic – you’d go to a club and they’d play soul and mad disco and electro. It wasn’t so much, ‘Right, I’m a punk rocker and I only like punk rock music’ – people’s influences visually expanded a lot more. It went from mad drag to alien. So people were experimenting rather than trying to follow something. And musically punk got me into reggae and reggae got me into soul, and gradually, the older you get the more influences you start absorbing. Especially if you are a creative person, you want to absorb as much of it as possible. So it became more eclectic, and I started enjoying London then. And then gradually the Blitz club thing happened and I latched onto that, ‘Oh great, something new!’
And then came the magazines. I mean we always had fanzines in punk, but when The Face and i-D and Blitz magazines started up, there was somewhere where you could be. And it helped link quite a few people together, not just at a nightclub. Especially people like Ray Petri and Buffalo. Now there’s a man who had an attitude and he built a whole group of people around it – he was the lynchpin. It wasn’t just about looking cool, it was about music, hanging out. Galliano and a lot of designers, Leigh Bowery, all those people. It was quite together. I’m amazed sometimes when I think back: you’re standing in a nightclub and you think of the 200 people standing there. If you actually made a list of who was at a certain club you’d laugh your bleedin’ head off! Sometimes it’s not that many people that can start something quite big off. Because a lot of things are quite corporate now, and there’s so much media around, sometimes it loses its way. When it’s a small concentrated thing, there’s more of a direction to it.
Not that I worry for young people, because they’ll always have their own thing, but sometimes I think, ‘Is it too much? Are they actually learning everything or is it just surface?’ We really lived it in those days. It was dangerous sometimes going on the street because we looked so bonkers. Now you can channel-hop or go on the internet and it can be almost too surface. I always say I’m paper, glue, and scissors. I can send an email – hip hip hooray! – but before you had to get your hands dirty.
It’s quite hard to get past the gloss sometimes. It’s so glossy it’s almost reflective – you’re not seeing anything
But that’s another thing also that’s happened with the media: they can invent something now. Whereas before it was young people inventing themselves and the media covering it. Terry Jones and Nick Logan and all those people gave us a format to be in; a magazine. I started off making jewellery, so I was in The Face and I was a ‘Straight Up’ in i-D and all that. Whereas now it really is just about the advertising. I get bored with all these bi-annual magazines with glossy fashion stories that all seem to have hit on the same formula. It’s quite hard to get past the gloss sometimes. It’s so glossy it’s almost reflective – you’re not seeing anything. And things are so retouched for you now. Where are the scars and the spots? Where’s the reality, because it’s so beautifully polished.
I never close the door on being influenced by anything, and I can be influenced by a really great retouched photo, but I’m more likely to be influenced by a kid in South Africa photographed on the street with a car he’s made out of Coca-Cola cans. But that’s just me. It can come from anywhere. I’m not one of those who has to sit there every month with all my fashion magazines going, ‘What shoes am I going to wear?’ I’m not like that.
The media isn’t giving people confidence at the moment, it’s giving them a neurosis and scaring them the whole time. We know the media’s always been sexist, it’s always been homophobic; now it’s size-ist. It’s not encouraging people, it’s making them look at themselves and not feel worthy. But the brilliant thing about the fashion business is that there’s so many different people in it. And we all need clothes! And there are some geniuses around, so it’s quite a fertile arena.
If you can just give someone that extra inch of confidence, then that becomes a foot. Everyone has to learn from somewhere. Pass it on. You have to!
One of the things I learned from [influential stylist] Ray Petri was, if you can just give someone that extra inch of confidence, then that becomes a foot. And then they’re up and running. Everyone has to learn from somewhere. I learned off lots of brilliant people – I’ve been really lucky with the people that helped me. I still like to do that now if I meet young designers or young people, just to give them that bit extra – ‘That’s wicked, I love it.’ Pass it on. You have to. Ray was really generous. He was a bit older than the rest of us, and there was something about him. Through people like Mark Lebon and Cameron McVey, Jamie Morgan,I just started hanging out with them all. He just had a brilliant way of making everyone feel included, but still directing it. He was great with me. Even though we had really completely differing styles a lot of the time, he was one of the first people to say, ‘You should do it.’ I hadn’t really thought about styling, because I was trying to make the jewellery work, but then I thought, ‘I could do it, I love clothes, I love the visual thing.’ Everyone who did know Ray still really misses him. I can still bump into people 15 years later and I’ve never heard a bad word about him. And that’s quite unusual. He influenced a lot of people without being really boastful about it. Everyone really wants the credit for themselves now. He was really inspirational in getting a lot of people of colour into the modelling business; and people like Gaultier have always said he was a big influence.
I jump from fashion to music to whatever, and that’s what keeps it fresh for me. I’m not just in the fashion business – you didn’t channel it in one direction, you left yourself open to experiment with lots of different types of media. And then you learn ways of mixing them back in together. When I was doing some of my first shoots for i-D, I was taking something that wasn’t a fashion idea, but whacking it through a fashion editorial. There was one I did on pollution, one on recycling – I tried to do one on the homeless but that was a bit difficult. And I think I got a bit of that from him, from that time where you mix your media up and then try and invent a little thread of your own.
A lot of the time people don’t want something different, they want someone to say ‘Yes’. They don’t really want an opinion. Not dangerous enough for me!
People are a bit more self-obsessed now, so they’re a bit more guarded about what they’ve got. But I still find people that I think are amazing. I’m in a privileged position where I can now meet people who are my heroes. I loved working with Iggy Pop because I grew up with his music, so that was a massive moment for me. But I’ve virtually stopped styling now, because it’s so competitive, and it’s really bitchy, and there’s always someone that’ll undercut you. And basically they’re just glorified shoppers now. When I started it was Ray Petri, Amanda Grieve [later to become Lady Amanda Harlech], Camilla Nickerson, Venetia Scott – it was a small group of people but we each had our own individual style. Even now, I’ll still do the odd editorial story, and boy will it stick out. But I don’t see why I have to do one every month just to get an advertising job and then style some dodgy show in Milan. For loads of money! And kiss ass. It just doesn’t suit me. I don’t see the value in it. A lot of the time people don’t want something different, they want someone to say ‘Yes,’ rather than, ‘Oh that’s awful!’ They don’t really want an opinion, so it’s all this dodgy game of good manners or something. Not dangerous enough for me!
I’ve never been into mass movements – me and the general public have always had quite a dodgy relationship. I’ve always had – cliquey’s not the right word because it sounds exclusive – but I suppose I’ve always gone for the like-minded I suppose.
It helps having a funny name. It’s great on the phone when people say, ‘Can I speak to Judy Blame?’ and you go, ‘Speaking.’ You’ve got the upper hand straight away! Basically when I worked in Heaven nightclub in London, doing the coat-check, I had this mad hairdo that was a messy black, piled-on-top-of-the-head thing. I was messing a lot with gender at the time. So I could be wearing a pencil skirt and a shirt and tie, mixing all that up. And this designer called Anthony Price used to come down and he and his friend used to joke about me – they didn’t know me but they used to see this odd character wobbling through the nightclub, pill in one hand and cocktail in the other, and they nicknamed me Judy. I didn’t know this for months. And then one day I finally met Anthony and he called me it to my face. And I’d just started doing jewellery and I didn’t want to use my real name – it didn’t mean anything to me really – and another friend of mine, Scarlet, came up with the Blame part. I didn’t think it would be a permanent thing. I thought of it like a B-movie actress that dies in a car crash after making three movies – that’s how I felt about it when I invented it. But it kind of stuck. [laughs] Unfortunately!
Reprinted in loving memory of Judy Blame, with the kind permission of Jörg Koch of 032c magazine. Photography courtesy of Judy’s friend Mark Mattock, with thanks.