❚ In April 1982, Steve Strange orchestrated the first serious sortie by a wave of young London designers to the Mecca of the established fashion world. An act of folly – or a marker for international success? Either way, this show sounded the last rites for the New Romantics…
❚ “I don’t care if you ARE English designers,’’ the Stephens Linard and Jones were told at a club in rue St Denis, “you are too FLASH to come in here.’’ Streets famed for their prostitutes aren’t usually so choosy but the incident indicates how some damn Froggies still view us Roastbeefs. So kindly spare one ounce of sympathy for the intrepid club-host Steve Strange who was daring to stage an English fashion show in Paris – the very week after the spring collections had put French designers back in favour with the world’s press.
Christians being thrown to the lions was child’s play beside this sortie. As it was, Strange was calling his show The Best of British Fashion and who in France had heard of any of them?
Antony Price’s were the only clothes you could call conventional – you know, modest numbers like silk suits in Dayglo turquoise, of the kind that defined the Seventies images of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. “Convert the French?’’ hooted Melissa Caplan. “We haven’t even converted the English yet.’’ Linard pitched it about right: “It’ll be as much as we can do to give Paris a quick flash and hope we don’t get arrested.”
Anyway, Strange seemed to think it would help Visage’s album sales if he exported six of the designers whose looks were so much part of his image.
He’d cornered me only days before in the Embassy club and insisted that I just had to come along. With only his hands, he’d given an Oscar-winning performance of the show he’d got all worked out … lights rising to the sounds of The Anvil, guys swaggering out of a mist wearing nothing but jockstraps and a girl on the shoulder. It would be amazing, And the French would love it. People at home didn’t understand how enormous Visage are in France and Germany. The French simply adored him, he said, more as explanation than as boast, for we all know how nervous British papers get when trying to assess Strange, the man who built a career on being a poser. Mainstream journalists react to him the way Victorian society once reacted to French songs: to adapt Oscar Wilde, they find him improper and either look shocked which is vulgar or laugh which is worse – just read the tacky footnote that appears below.
So my curiosity was aroused. Here was a chance to put the Strange myth to the test. He wasn’t offering a record-company freebie so I could fix my own trip and then write what I wanted.
Any excuse to see Paris is enough. You can’t fail to track the crack there and, since you ask, the Bains Douches still steam and the Mona Lisa sends you a smile and the Jackson Pollock show is fab and there’s no beating a 30-franc lunch with an old flame in the Place des Vosges – which for readers who like their history in pictures is the city’s most romantic square where Cardinal Richelieu once lived and, why, only yesterday the Three Musketeers were carousing in that same corner cafe …
So why spoil the memory? I’ve no reason to tell you who snarled at whom about music (Astaire and Rogers had their backstage tiffs too) or who went cruising transvestites in the Bois de Boulogne or who consumed £70-worth of booze in one night in his hotel-room or who else we left paralytic UNDER the table in Le Palace’s exclusive Privilege club. I could reveal where Steve Strange really spent the night when he’d assured his entourage he was turning in early but a hack has to save something for the memoirs.
Strange’s true colours first emerged during rehearsals at Le Palace, a theatre-turned-nightclub restored to its Art Deco glory by Fabrice Emaer to become one of Europe’s smartest clubs since its spectacular launch by Grace Jones four years ago, with glitzy staff uniforms designed by the couturier Thierry Mugler.
HEY, WE’RE MODELS, NOT STRIPPERS
Some of our designers frankly had doubts about whether Strange could pull off a fashion show, or understood how models need quick changes and such. But Strange is one of nature’s self-starters. One minute he was on stage doing a Diaghilev and demonstrating the walks, then Mr Fixit finding drinks for the team, then playing Kenzo with pins in his mouth while stuffing girls into frocks. “Don’t forget there are four buttons to undo,’’ said Helen Robinson, designer at PX, Covent Garden’s home of the New Romantic look, and he didn’t. “Really tarty, Fiona?’’ Strange suggested for Ms Dealey’s bike-girls and she’d nod to him yes.
The first hitch came from the hired local beefcake. “No way,’’ said a Californian called Dan when he saw the leather jockstraps. “We’re fashion models not strippers. I don’t need 1,000 francs that badly – that’s mail-order stuff.’’ Some swimsuits were produced instead.
Francesca Thyssen and Baillie Walsh had volunteered to model but the rest were mostly French and American hired locally. Xavier who’d worked for Jean-Paul Gaultier during fashion week said HE was crazy “but not as crazy as Fiona” (one of the recent stars of St Martin’s fashion course in London) while nothing surprised Paula any more and Linard’s Railway Children collection of stripey Edwardian coats and frocks were really quite pastoral, she said. Cherie thought PX’s poolwear could have been more feminine and Gavry was distressed not to be wearing a Caplan but there was nothing his size.
Strange showed a robot strut to the models wearing Melissa Caplan’s popperwear and they went into it right away. “Bliss,’’ she said. “These models are so professional they’re going to make this show. I’m so happy.’’ To which Fiona said, “Put that on record – it’s the first time she’s been happy in her life.” (A bit of an overstatement since Melissa, late of Middlesex’s fashion course, had years ago made her name styling Toyah Willcox’s stage wear.)
The Americans did think they were the bees-knees and Melissa had cut one of them down to size. “He said he was going to stuff a sock down his swimsuit and I said Oh, you probably need to. And he said, You really are quick with the sarcasm, so I said, No, I just checked out the talent beforehand and you were really low on my list.”
After two days of such repartee, you’re quite relieved to receive a dumb “Pardon?” from a taxi-driver.
Strange was up sharpish for his first TV interview the morning of the show and by that midnight he’d featured on each channel. All day a dozen photographers and three film crews zoomed up his nose and into his beer. Liz Taylor gets this treatment when she flies into an airport; Strange got it for two whole days. It was funny at first; if a spotlight caught him, he’d switch to autopose and a dozen shutters went “snap”. It was funnier still watching a topless model getting dressed – so great was the view through the lens that one cameraman fell flat on his back.
In the wings they videoed Beat Route host Ollie O’Donnell crimping, for which he had sacrificed our night on the town (“I’ve got my responsibilities, right?”). They shot Sade Adu clocking the models’ timing, they shot Lee Sheldrick counting the safety pins and they shot Fiona Dealey ironing “my sea, sand and oilslick collection’’ (a reference to her blue, beige and black Suffragette dresses). They missed Linard saying “I want the show to be really Vivienne – that’s a designer joke’’ but they caught hatmaker Stephen Jones altering some headpieces “for the Chinese girls – they do have very small heads”.
The cameras eventually found Rusty Egan, Visage drummer and Strange’s Camden Palace co-host, perched in his DJ balcony providing the show’s soundtrack. “Who wants to go on a stage?’’ he reasoned giving Whispers 1,000-watts’ worth and murmuring “I just wonder what they’re going to do to my album down there’’.
By 11 pm Le Palace was packed with the curious who, according to that day’s headline in the hip leftie paper Liberation, were about to witness the funeral of New Romanticism. Strange, it reckoned, with his obsession for fantasy, was out of step with the times. Yet by writing off a vogue, the paper ignored what has long been Strange’s central role, that of showman and apprentice eccentric in a great British tradition. Stephen Linard once said that, by the time Strange was 30, he would be the next Paul Raymond, the Soho stripclub millionaire. And out of all London’s demi-monde, Strange does remain the one host for whom all cults adjust their social calendars, as the jam-packed opening of his London Palace proved last month.
Liberation wondered whether he’d make a grand entrance at the Paris Palace on a golden trapeze but even the king of pose knows that OTT was yesterday’s style. He just stepped into a spotlight, said a few crisp words and suddenly that dream he’d described at the Embassy last week leapt into life.
The Anvil hammered away and the models marched through the pillared stage set. They were a bargain for their 1,000 francs. And the clothes looked a million dollars. Stunning. A French friend had warned us not to expect any applause “unless they really like you’’ and Le Palace’s ageing arbiters of chic proved no exception to Kipling’s remark about the French being badly fitted with relief-valves. They did just about let go – once for each designer. They laughed at Linard’s Railway Children and the Paris branch of Joseph later ordered some stock. They cheered Melissa’s organza wedding dress and she sold one straight afterwards for £250.
“It looked really nice, didn’t it?’’ said Strange doing a little dance backstage seconds before the cameras reached him, whirr, click, snap. The only escape was to pile into Privilege before we all turned to Celluloid.
Next day Strange was in the Champs Elysées winding down his limo window. “Night Train,’’ he whispered to a camera – you’ll see it in his next video. The cameras were turning. The French must simply adore him. Or something.
Text and pix © Shapersofthe80s
➢ VIEW ♫ Visage’s The Dancer – Yep, video footage showing the sexy 1982 fashion show at Le Palace described above. In between the models, the kids you see backstage are the designers themselves fitting the clothes and rehearsing in the afternoon… If you’ve got the DVD, there’s yet more footage on the video for ♫ The Steps (see clip below). Both tracks come from Visage’s eponymous UK Top Ten album of 1980
HOW FLEET STREET WORKS
You thought it was all champagne and freebies living life as Steve Strange? Well here’s an example of the short shrift the stuffy old media give to the Blitz club host and ambitious New Romantics generally.
Not for nothing were the Daily Express and Daily Mail renamed the Beast and the Brute in Scoop, the great comic novel about Fleet Street newspaper life, as true today as when it was written in 1938. I filed a story about Strange’s Paris fashion show to a London paper and have regretted it since.
Rewriting is common enough on gossip columns but here is what I wrote: “Strange’s audience gave the show a cool Parisian reception…” which meant Parisian cool, as in finger-snappity-snap. Here’s what the diary page actually put in print: “The French may adore Strange, though I can scarcely credit it. They certainly don’t like his show. I understand it met with a very cool reception.”
Eventually I collared the diary hackette who’d done this rewrite and told her how Strange’s entourage were now calling me a shit. “Then tell them I’m the shit,” she laughed. Did the diary have something against Strange? “He deserves a dose of caster oil,” quipped its toff editor.