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Photography by Samuel Bradley

Judy Blame's Guided Tour of 1980s Counterculture

The creative polymath tells Claire Marie Healy about his spectacular new retrospective at London's ICA, revealing the stories behind his outré oeuvre

TextClaire Marie HealyPhotographySamuel BradleyPhotographic EditorHolly Hay
Lead ImagePhotography by Samuel Bradley

"I think I’ll still be fiddling with everything two minutes before the punters come in," says Judy Blame, adjusting the left bottom-hand corner of a boldly lettered zine two degrees to the right. I’m standing with the accessories designer, art director and all-around creative polymath a few days before the opening of his first major solo exhibition at the ICA, surrounded by the jewellery, clothes, sketches, editorials, artefacts and printed matter that have made up some three decades of thrillingly tactile inventions and interventions in fashion. Pre-installation, the objects are laid out carefully on tables like they are about to be raffled off; witnessed together, they make for a kind of alchemical atmosphere in the air.

For Blame, who started out as the non-conformist jewellery-maker du jour on the 1980s London club scene before rising as an industry tastemaker in his own right, the common theme of all his work has always been unexpected collaborations and combinations. Resisting the class system that governs fabrication through his continued use of found objects, his creations have always transformed other people's trash into treasure, forming a riposte to the very idea of luxury. "I didn’t notice until I actually physically did it," he describes of the process of how the exhibition came together, which began life as a book he had been working on with designer Kim Jones. "But there were certain threads that ran throughout the whole time I have been doing it, that you don’t consciously think that you’re repeating or pulling back again. So it was funny: certain colours I always veer towards, certain materials [that] always seem to come around again. I didn’t see it as a stop-start kind of thing, I saw it as just a big flow, really, which is my career."

The exhibition pays tribute to the peers and collaborators that have always been essential ingredients in Blame’s twisted world of creations: Ray Petri of the Buffalo fashion collective; Derek Jarman; Leigh Bowery; Christopher Nemeth; Kim Jones at Louis Vuitton; the like-minded artists with whom he set up The House of Beauty and Culture in Dalston in 1985; perhaps even "the two trannies from Brazil threatening to come to the opening, goodness me." "I don’t really sit there and map out a huge great strategy or plans, I tend to be a bit more instinctive about it," he says of this mainspring of collaboration. "You can’t do anything without team work, if anything I’ve learned that."

And how does he feel about displaying such manifestations of iconoclastic counterculture mere yards from Buckingham Palace? "Well I had a funny dream about the Queen actually," he grins. "She came to the opening and I had to walk her home. I was just being polite." 

Amidst the chaos of the install, Blame selects six of his favourite pieces from the exhibition's sprawling displays, and reveals the scandal and intrigue behind each.

Louis Vuitton Jumper
"Kim Jones wanted to do a tribute to a designer called Christopher Nemeth, who I had worked with in the 80s. I also helped liase with Christopher’s family, because Chris unfortunately isn’t with us anymore. So, I’ve just got such fond memories of doing it, there’s something really heart-warming about these jumpers. Kim used the rope print, [taken from] Chris’s drawings. He wasn’t copying the clothes, he was copying the atmosphere of them – not the patterns, if you see what I mean. I’m not sure it would have happened with Chris being still alive! But it was a healthy tribute. And Kim was doing it for the right reasons, out of respect. Everytime I wear it I do get a warm feeling, it’s all associated with Christopher, and it lives in this jumper."

Stockings and Pearl Necklace
"I love that necklace. One, it’s kind of got the pearly thing, which I really adore. I also just liked the fact I was using lingerie to make necklaces. It’s all made of silk stockings. I wanted to use them in a way where you weren’t physically wearing them how they’re supposed to be worn, and mix it with the pearls. It ticks quite a few boxes, it’s a bit naughty, it’s a bit maîtresse. Twin set and pearls. Very English. Uptight English."

Loo Chain Necklace
"This piece is made out of a loo handle, or flush! It really makes me laugh cause I made some for Christopher Nemeth’s shop in Japan and they have absolutely no concept what a flush was, because their loos are like robots with buttons on. So we actually sold quite a few! I don’t know whether they knew that they were loo handles bought on Whitechapel High Street. We actually made this one about two years ago. But it’s something that crops up every now and again, it’s not the first one I’ve made. I remember I used to wear them on my belt as a kind of chain when we were punks. Because of the way I collect things, it could be from anywhere, so if you don’t set yourself any rules – and there’s no point looking for it – you can stumble onto it and then you go ‘Ah!’"

Photograph of Scarlet Bordello
"This is my dear friend – Scarlet Napoleon Bordello is her full name. In the early 80s Scarlet started wearing my first pieces of jewellery, and we used to wear them out to nightclubs. It’s because of this glorious woman that I carried on doing the jewellery, because we always needed it in an outfit! And she just had the best look: a never seen before, never seen again kind of look about her. Her walking down the street, looking like that, with my big black beads on… It was just beyond. I suppose she became my first kind of muse really, isn’t that what they call ‘em?"

Birthday Present from Frick + Frack
"When we had a shop years ago called The House of Beauty and Culture, Frick + Frack used to make all the furniture and the lighting for it. They were really part of the team. I think they gave me this for my birthday one year, and it’s just a little intimate kind of collage. The glass is broken, and the frame’s broken, so they tied it together with a piece of string. It’s kind of one of my treasures, you know – certain things that you just keep with you. I’m not obsessive about it, I just like having nice things around, especially things that have got memories with them. It’s okay to pass them on, or if someone else discovers it… I’m not precious about it, even though I think they’re precious."

Framed Portrait of Jenny Howarth
"Jenny was pre-supermodels, around the time I started working with Christopher Nemeth, but she was one of the girls that was like a real It-girl of the time. She used to look the best in his clothes – apart from Christopher! Even though she was a girl, she just had this boyish thing about her and she just looked brilliant in Chris’s clothes. So we did quite a lot of work with her, she just became a friend of the family, and I’ve always adored her. We did a show in Japan together where Jenny was my fitting model with Chris’s clothes. I love this picture, it’s by Brett Walker. It’s just a polaroid he took in Tokyo, and then blew up the polaroid into a print. It’s literally just Jenny in her funny little model flat in Tokyo and he took the polaroid and snapped it off, and then we were all like ‘Oh my god...’"

Never Again: Judy Blame runs until September 4, 2016 at the ICA, London.