Manchester Girls: A Photographer’s Ode to the Resilient Women of the North

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Manchester Girls Dean Davies Vicky Olschak fashion style
Manchester GirlsPhotography by Dean Davies

“They were equal parts intimidating and vulnerable, and they had such a distinct sense of style,” says Dean Davies of his new series Manchester Girls, created in collaboration with stylist Vicky Olschak

God bless Northern women. Strong and resilient in their outlook, as well as their ability to withstand the elements, no matter how grim. Dean Davies’ recent photo series, Manchester Girls is a hyperreal snapshot of womanhood in the Northern city, which includes many sartorial nods to gaudy mid-00s fashion.

With thick patent waist belts paired with spindly stiletto heels for the days when you’re out-out, versus trackies and gargantuan hoops for the days when you’re just chilling with friends (on the street), the photos eerily mirror the youth of most Manc millenials – myself included. The uncanny nature of the posed portraits is largely owing to the styling prowess of Davies’ collaborator Vicky Olschak, who he originally met in 2013 after they discovered each other’s work at a national graduation exhibit. The pair will now turn Manchester Girls into a photo book after a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise £6,000 exceeded its goal with the help of 65 backers. 

Through the intimacy and playfulness of the portraits, Davies’ affinity to the North is palpable. This is not the first time he’s paid tribute to his roots: his photography portfolio includes shots of Sheffield’s goth community for AnOther, as well as portraits of the people of Birkenhead, Liverpool, New Brighton, and Salford. “I didn’t truly appreciate the North-West until I moved away,” he explains. “I began to miss its people, its architecture. I have vivid memories of playing on the street outside my family home, and of the interesting characters who lived locally.”

As such, we spoke to Davies about finding beauty in the ordinary and paying homage to the hometowns that made us.

Kemi Alemoru: How did this project come together?

Dean Davies: Manchester Girls was shot over the last two years and came about through Vicky Olschak and I wanting to work together on something close to home – I’m from Merseyside and Vicky is from Manchester. The two of us are very inspired by the North-West and its people, and through the series, we were looking to pay homage to our upbringing. [These images portray] the women and style trends of our adolescence, all of which has had a huge influence on the work we create today.

KA: Why did you feel the need to curate an ode to Northern women, what makes them so special to you?

DD: I wanted to centre the series on female friendship groups, inspired by those I grew up with. The women I grew up around have had a huge influence on my work – whether that’s women in my family, friendship groups I went to school and college with, or women from the local area. They were equal parts intimidating and vulnerable, they were women who were rarely seen away from their social groups, and had such a distinct sense of style. Manchester is my favourite city, and it has been a great source of inspiration to me, heavily featuring in my work over the last four to five years. What makes the city unique is its people, through their warmth and their inherent honesty. I cast all 13 friendship groups – 34 girls in total – who feature in this project; the girls are a combination of Manchester natives and those who have moved to the city. I was inspired by the idea of how a city can shape your identity, and how it becomes a part of you.

KA: To me, it looks just like my own youth in the city. How did you approach the styling?

DD: We had a number of discussions about style trends prominent throughout our youth, which Vicky then took inspiration from to create outfits for the girls. But I hope that people from elsewhere within the UK and beyond could identify with the fashion featured, and perhaps even see themselves, and their experiences of adolescence.

KA: Could you explain the film that accompanies these photos? It talks of the homeless community in Manchester, drug culture and has a nod to kebabs and the red-brick terraces around the city.

DD: Writer and director Dorny Sunday wrote a poem, which soundtracked the short film we created to accompany the launch of the project. To me, it says everything about the girls we were celebrating: their resilience, their love for the city and community, and again, their impeccable sense of style.

KA: How would you describe your style as a photographer?

DD: It is equal parts documentary and fiction. I am an image-maker operating within the context of fashion, and while I like my photographs to appear as if I have just walked past someone on the street and asked to take their picture, the images have been constructed. I like developing the character and narrative of the image.

KA: You’ve previously shot subcultures in nearby cities like Sheffield – why is it important that your work spotlights the style tribes and cultures of the North?

DD: I never really saw stories that represented me or my upbringing in fashion titles, apart from a shoot here or there, often shot by those with little or no connection to the region. It’s why I jump at any opportunity to represent the people and places of the region I grew up in, that have shaped me as a person and image-maker. While there is a lot to be said for work created by image-makers interpreting a new city or group of people, storytelling from real perspectives and experiences is inherently more honest, especially when it comes to people and style, and being able to identify with and spotlight style insights.

Head here for more information on Manchester Girls by Dean Davies and Vicky Olschak.