No brand, other than the monarchy, has traded more successfully on its British heritage than Burberry. But with the nation going through a soul-searching time, any label rooted in Britishness must also look inward and reassess. For Christopher Bailey, the idea of what it means to be British in the 21st century is a question that takes up much of his headspace, especially now he’s fully focused on the creative output of the brand. Bailey revels in the new title of president and chief creative officer at Burberry after ceding CEO duties to former Céline honcho Marco Gobbetti in July.
For the September 2017 show, his first in his new role, Bailey was aiming to get to the heart of it. “I wanted to explore the different codes and identities, cultures, ceremonies and traditions that make up what it is, to me, to be British,” says the designer, who looked for answers in the social portraiture that has always fascinated him.
Studying the work of documentary photographers such as Dafydd Jones, Chris Steele-Perkins, Jane Brown, Janette Beckman and Daniel Meadows, Bailey found not one British identity, but many. All manner of class and tribe were put through his fashion prism, from the redoubtable women of Greenham Common sharing a cuppa round the campfire, to girls at an Oxford May ball in the 1980s, looking like drunken versions of Princess Diana, and original ’60s hipsters shopping for military regalia on Portobello Road. The tartan army of the Bay City Rollers also wormed their way into Bailey’s imagination, alongside King’s Road punks, baby-faced teddy boys and ordinary Brits picnicking in the rain.
“I suppose this collection celebrates the spirit of these photographers I have always loved – sometimes ironic, sometimes tender, finding the humour and the beauty and the pathos and the sheer glorious eccentricity of the British way of dressing,” says Bailey, whose own journey into fashion began with his teenage mania for music, which stretched from ska to obsessing over The Smiths, The Cure, Dylan and the world of the new romantics, with lots in between. “I have always been drawn to tribes and clans and how we can belong to something through style, music or art – or from the place we come from or live in.”
The result is an intensely tribal collection, full of clothes that are rich with meaning and thrill with familiar associations. “The British spirit is very particular and, in many ways, unique. It clashes together the traditional with the subverted irony with the starched, upright classics,” he says. From the cagoules styled over tailcoats and trench coats personalised with graffiti doodles to the patchwork Fair Isle cardigan coats, these are clothes that look like they’ve always been there, if you know where to find them.
And so to Dalston on a sweltering day, where the legendary subculture photographer Derek Ridgers is on assignment for 10 magazine: a preview of the collection ahead of its launch on September 16. He’s shooting it on a gang of “interesting” youths, one of whom, Lennon Gallagher (son of Patsy and Liam), is zipping himself into a pair of skinny trousers.
“Lennon’s great. But if my assistant Natalia hadn’t told me who it was, I would never have known,” confesses Ridgers after the shoot. “He was charming, polite and very posh – the complete antithesis of his father. In the afternoon, for some reason, Natalia showed him Kevin & Perry on YouTube. I find it hard to believe he’d never seen it before. I heard him say, ‘That’s literally my dad.’ I’ve never met Liam, although I did once see Patsy Kensit in a nightclub in the ’80s. I asked her if I could take her photograph, but she said no.”
Ridgers has dedicated his life to documenting British music and youth culture. He had a bird’s-eye view of the punk scene, skinhead culture and the new romantic movement, getting everywhere and somehow managing to take pictures that encapsulated the energy of the moment. “It was the transient nature of young people’s personal style that made me want to record it for posterity,” he says.
He has said in the past that his real genius was simply being there, but there is something different about his candid, brilliantly composed shots. No wonder his work resonates with a new generation of fashion designers and art directors inspired by the grit and authenticity of the fashion moments he was able to catch. As well as shooting for 10, Ridgers recently lensed a Gucci campaign and you can expect to find tears from his new book – In the Eighties: Portraits from Another Time (out in October) – on many designers’ mood boards this coming season. “It may well be that it has something to do with Gosha Rubchinskiy, but the fashion industry has, since the ’60s, always had an insatiable desire to copy whatever was happening on the British streets,” he says of the renewed interest in his work.
Ridgers fell into documentary photography in 1971 by accident. He had wanted to be a painter, but was turned down by Slade and St Martins. “I got a job at an ad agency that had a camera account and my boss, an advertising genius called Kim Mukerjee, suggested I take one home, get familiar with it and it would help me write ads.” A music fan, Ridgers started taking pictures at gigs. “I just took a camera to the sorts of places I was going to go to anyway – gigs, festivals and the like. Once I started to get my photographs published, I changed my modus operandi slightly and started to look for places that I thought might attract my kind of subject. But even then, it had to be somewhere I wanted to go anyway.”
As well as being in the right place at the right time (he was there when punk venue the Roxy opened its doors on Neal Street, Covent Garden, in December 1976), Ridgers also has the ability to spot the most interesting person in a room. “Often, the people I want to photograph announce themselves in some way. They go around holding a metaphorical frame up around themselves. It might be a bit of a swagger or that they’re louder than everybody else. Sometimes it can be something less obvious, like the way someone carries themselves or something really fleeting. Or there will be an element of originality about them, a humorous detail in the way they’re dressed. There’s often great humour in British street fashion,” he observes – something Bailey would agree with. “There is a side to our culture that dares to be bold, to explore. Fashion is about moving forward, trying new things – this is part of our identity.”
It’s not always the gaudy show-offs who catch Ridgers’s eye, though. “Sometimes it will be someone who is very shy and hiding from the light slightly. Sometimes it will just be a sideways glance or something in the eyes, a reticence or an element of vulnerability. I find vulnerability particularly photogenic, especially if you can catch it in the real tough-guy types.” The more intimidating a person is, the more he wants to photograph them. “There will be an outrageously beautiful woman or an extremely hard-looking, aggressive bloke and I will feel some level of apprehension about even approaching them. When I get that feeling, I know I simply must do it. I make myself do it.”
Despite his role documenting so many different scenes, Ridgers never belonged to a particular one. “As a teenager I tried being a mod, a skinhead, a hippie and then a skinhead again. But I was not much good at any of them. I didn’t have the money to be a proper mod. I didn’t like fighting and I wore glasses, so I couldn’t really be a skinhead. And I lived with my parents, so I couldn’t be a proper hippie either. I was always so much better being an observer.”
People say no to being photographed far more now than they did back in the 1970s and 1980s. “My success rate in getting someone to stop and allow me to take their photo is no better than about 50/50. Back in the day, refusals were really quite rare,” he says. “Nowadays, no one really needs to have a photographer hanging around recording what’s going on, because people can do it themselves. Photography has become all-pervasive.”
Changing social attitudes have also impacted on his work. “We live in a far more multicultural society now and some people are coming from cultures where random males can’t just approach females and ask to take their photo. I get threatened with physical violence a lot more these days than I did, so I have to be more careful,” says the photographer, now in his mid-sixties.Youth culture, too, has morphed. When Ridgers began his career, it was made up of distinct but separate tribes who weren’t interested in mixing or cross-pollinating. “Nowadays, youth culture is huge, worldwide, and it’s a great big melange of everything together all at the same time. Anthropologist Ted Polhemus describes it as a ‘postmodern supermarket of style’, where anything and everything is on offer simultaneously. I couldn’t have put it better myself,” he says.
That’s Bailey’s experience, too, especially since he took his fashion shows co-ed. “We see so much more crossover than we have ever seen,” says the designer. “They’re buying across men’s and women’s collections, mixing high with low – with few, if any, boundaries between day and night, fashion or casual. It is, in fact, a very British way of being.”
If Ridgers has got any regrets over his long career, it’s that he didn’t work a bit harder. “On Saturdays, which is the best day for street photography by far, I was often at a football match. If I had my time again, I think I would have adopted a far more businesslike and professional attitude to my quest.” Like Bailey at Burberry, it’s a journey that has taken him into the heart of the British psyche in all its unique, mad, mixed-up tribal glory.
Photographer Derek Ridgers
Fashion Editor Tara St Hill
Hair Martin Cullen at Streeters
Make-up Pep Gay at Management Artists
Models Xavier at Select, King Owusu at Nii, Lili Sumner at Next and Franny at IMG
Photographer’s assistant Natalia Gates
Fashion assistants Nadia Dahan, Poppy Scarlett Norton and Joel Traptow
Hair assistant Adam Garland
Make-up assistant Dan Delgado Ortiz
Casting Chloe Rosolek Casting
Production Amma Amihyia at Bryant Artists and Sarah Appelhans at Unravel Productions
Shot at MC Motors