From The Issue: Up At Night By Vincent Levy
Back when social-media personas were in their mere infancy on our Myspace pages. Back when living in east London was manageable – at least if you stuck to Sainbury’s Basics range on your weekly shop. Back when you couldn’t stream the latest movies illegally as no one’s connection was fast enough, and collecting VHS from your local charity shop just seemed cooler.
Back 10, maybe 12 years ago now, we all wore luridly bright, penis-clinging leggings, shoulder-heavy leather jackets, super-size tops somewhere between a T-shirt and dress and had really quite stupid haircuts. We sometimes wore giant glasses we didn’t need – sometimes even without the lenses. We often wore eyeliner and, if the mood took us, a heavy-handed battering of blush.
OK, not everyone. But within the bubble of art and fashion types I knew back then, there really did seem to be a lot of us. A sizeable population of young men all sporting this sort of get-up as a rough guideline, plus a whole lot more that’s much harder to describe. Strange DIY elements specific to the individual, such as mismatched shoes or a found object around the neck. It was a look that stretched the length of the 55 bus route, running from Soho and the University of the Arts central London campuses, to the seedlings of nightlife that scattered out from the major hub of Old Street and Shoreditch, up through Dalston and down along the Hackney Road.
It was apparently also happening in south London to some extent, but before the East London Line extension, this may as well have been another country. These are the places most would agree it all began, before making it into the mainstream, becoming watered down and spreading out into smaller pockets across the UK.
If you haven’t already guessed just what “it” is – and there’s a definite possibility, as I’m yet to drop the word Day-Glo – I’m talking about the small, but on reflection pretty important, movement known as nu rave. Honestly, even typing the name of this scene brings about a small fit of cringing. Never bandied around by those who were a part of it, or even roughly at the peripheries of it, these words have always sounded like a bit of a joke. But maybe that says something. Nu rave arrived when a generation of kids with internet access in their homes – myself included – began hitting adulthood. We were the first to have grown up with this touch-of-a-button vantage point, even if it was only operating at dial-up speed. We had a far greater choice than anyone before us, meaning the emphasis was increasingly on the individual, and a group label just felt inaccurate – just didn’t sit quite right.
Many remember nu rave as a more significant period of time than it was, and you have to wonder whether this has something to do with the ability of the drug of choice at the time – ketamine – to stretch an evening out. In reality, it was short-lived, lasting until it hit its dregs for a year at most. Its real significance was as something of a last hurrah for properly definable British subcultures and a tipping point into a new era of perpetual transience. Of moving on before anything too solid has begun. In essence, it was the start of the spin cycle we now find ourselves in. Something that’s best observed through our current use of social media. A place that increasingly feels like an infinite collage, or chain of borrowed visuals, where every link is given new meaning by whoever’s adding it. A place where whatever you’re communicating only really has to speak of you in that very moment. A fact that’s most true in the cases of Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and even more so of Snapchat and Instagram Stories, which are designed to vanish in a matter of seconds.
Generationally, we felt primed for nu rave, as the prefix of nu was already understood to mean nothing that new at all. Many of us had moped our way through a nu metal spell in secondary school – a pretty vague gathering of different elements from goth, grunge, metal and, less expectedly perhaps, certain parts of hip-hop. We’d already felt the freedom of this kind of combo deal, offering some sense of belonging with a certain amount of pick’n’mix. Nu rave’s grazing ground was even bigger and less genre specific. While the movement’s bedrock was electro and house music, there was an inclusiveness to what you might hear at one of the nights deemed nu rave that covered everything from electro- punk imports from the States to indie, new incarnations of disco and even grime.
The look was similarly maximalist. While the main cornerstones seemed to be elements of the 1980s and ’90s that many would rather forget, it was in essence a jumble sale or Google-image binge of old ideas made new through clashing and often outright messy combinations. You simply gathered up the bits that felt true to you, and in many cases wore variations of these with cartoon-character-like recurrence, in the hopes of becoming a fixture on Alistair Allan’s intensely airbrushed club- photography site dirtydirtydancing.com. And if you wanted this to be a stepping stone to wider notoriety, then you made sure your look surpassed the parodies of east London’s indie-mag cliques as seen on Channel 4’s Nathan Barley. After all, raising laughs from a total stranger in the street seemed to indicate an outfit’s success.
BoomBox is often remembered as the most important club night of this time, where queues at the height of its popularity snaked out and around its venue on Hoxton Square. My earliest, or at least best remembered, brush with the scene, however, came at a night that’s difficult to find any internet evidence of, as searching for it tends to throw up a long list of Chinese restaurants. All You Can Eat in name alone encapsulated the more-is- more mash-up of ideas that nu rave was all about. The first time I went to AYCE I must have been about 18 and still living with my parents in the suburbs of London. Though I’d stumbled on similar nights before this, including Nag Nag Nag and BoomBox’s earlier incarnation, Golf Sale, this was the first I’d discovered online and spent a long week at sixth form anticipating.
The ritual of getting ready for that night’s theme in a school friend’s boxroom – of really getting ready, in a way that’s as much fun as being in the club itself, was an entirely new experience. Not to mention the subsequent staring from fellow Tube passengers on the way there. And most satisfying: a night out once included an unscheduled stop from the Tube driver, convinced that the overbearing smell of my trousers – freshly spray-painted gold – meant I had been tagging the carriage. Really, it was the kind of look-at-me drama I’d been hoping for since catching bits of BBC documentaries about the new romantics, or maybe Leigh Bowery, when I was kid.
Nu metal had presented the idea of a bit of gender bending with black nail polish and lipstick back when I was 13 or 14, but after that I fell into London’s generic gay scene and its scally-lad, exaggerated ideas of straight- boy style. At a time when we all suddenly had barbered hair and Beckham-esque cubic zirconia in our ears, the opportunity to spend as much time getting ready as the girls did was liberating. At its most creative – in the milliseconds before high-street stores began cashing in on the idea of selling nu rave back to the kids with neon hoodies and a million varieties of garishly patterned jersey, it felt like something we’d all been waiting for. A euphoric flood of flamboyance and, in some respects, glamour to blow away the stuffy blokeish aesthetics ruling over the mainstream at the time via the rock and urban music scenes.
Nu rave’s intrinsic link to gay nightlife mirrored what’s often credited as its source of inspiration – New York City’s electro- clash movement. Brits seem to have been born with a dream of America in their heads since the 1950s, and the nu rave bubble, despite its absurd, decidedly British qualities, was no exception. Our collective notion of America was of course specific to the Big Apple, and also the 1980s. So much so that I remember one self-styled celebrity drag queen of the time – in reality more what we’d call a “door whore” – offering queue jumps to anyone who looked “more New York”. The “more” obviously indicating that what was happening across the pond was so much better.
Our shared fantasy of this was born from dodgy downloads of the drag documentary Paris Is Burning – the specific blend of street and theatrical dialogue still etched into my memory. Perhaps more impactful were the copies of early ’80s sci-fi movie Liquid Sky we always seemed to end up watching. Though we never fully grasped its alien/orgasm/heroin-binge plotline, what immediately spoke to us was the actress Anne Carlisle playing both male and female leads, Jimmy and Margaret, and the entire cast’s incredible succession of cobbled- together costumes – looks that offered boxy tailoring, shirting or otherwise trashy- looking early-’80s party dresses, with hasty cut-outs, jutting asymmetries and random flourishes of colour seemingly daubed on with paint. In the high-rise ex-council flats and office-block squats some of us were living in back then, coming down, or maybe still coming up, with a face full of geometric neon make-up, it wasn’t so hard to imagine you were living in Margaret’s Manhattan apartment block.
Menswear and womenswear runways alike have seen a touch of Paris Is Burning and Liquid Sky by way of nu rave in recent seasons. While you might argue the look is more simply an ’80s revival, through the digital prism of contemporary social networks – where many of us now view the majority of our fashion media – it’s easy to find a twist of this mid-Noughties moment to proceedings. The flashing, fidgeting montage that is our Instagram feed alone easily resembles the overload aesthetic you once saw in the few outlets that were associated with nu rave – websites such as KCTV, AYCE’s streaming channel and what was unofficially the scene’s dedicated magazine, Super Super.
Two brands that are massively popular on Instagram and immediately cast my mind back to the ballroom battles of Paris Is Burning and the dead-eyed gyrating of Liquid Sky’s nightclub scenes – as well as my generation’s imitations thereof – are Hood by Air and Vetements. You could easily pair two lineages here, as Hood by Air’s founder, Shayne Oliver, became a part of the House of Ninja – a vogueing group formed by one of Paris Is Burning’s central characters, Willi Ninja – at an early age. Vetements also share a certain austere quality with Liquid Sky, and coincidentally, both Demna Gvasalia, the label’s head designer and co- founder, and Liquid Sky’s director, Slava Tsukerman, hail from the former USSR. However, what the two brands share is a more wholehearted idea of the “anything goes” approach my friends and I had scratched the surface of in about 2005.
Here, genres completely blend, as suiting and eveningwear are married with oversized hoodies or something resembling tour merchandise, which then might be teamed with Stetson boots or streetwalker heels. A melting pot in which subcultural codes blend to the point of losing nostalgic distinctions, and the boundaries of what’s men’s and what’s women’s disintegrate. The Instagram fandom that surrounds these brands – and brands that are moving in a similarly fluid or neutral realm, including the likes of Luar by Raul Lopez, Eckhaus Latta, Moses Gauntlett Cheng, Vaquera and Charles Jeffrey – seems to present a digital version of the dressing- up playground I had so valued. LGBT, straight or undecided, it seems a safe place to experiment with identity, with the added benefit of no longer being held back by geography. Jeffrey in particular – who has just shown his third collection through the MAN show at London Fashion Week Men’s – looks to be carrying some part of the nu rave baton. The MAN show is held with the support of Fashion East – the young- designer initiative that helped launch the careers of Gareth Pugh and Henry Holland, who are often closely associated with nu rave. Jeffrey also throws his own infamous club night, LOVERBOY, as a key part of his creative process, which he recently imported to New York for a one- night-only blowout. It proves that, while social media may have brought about the end of anything that definable, its sprawling nature can open up other exciting doors.
Looking at LOVERBOY pictures is sort of reassuring. Perhaps it was the after effects of having too much of a good time, but I always remember nu rave being tinged with a slight last-chance sense of sadness. We’ve a tendency, as we get older, to become more cynical about the benefits of new technologies and especially their effect on our creativity. We imagine individuals becoming slaves to it all and gradually divorcing themselves from human interaction. In reality, it might simply be enabling something far more inclusive. Simply a quicker way of coming together. Seeing images of another bunch of twentysomethings of indefinable gender, daubed in face paint and having a bloody good time, is reassuring somehow. While the flashbulbs of a club photographer have largely been replaced by the warm glow of smartphones, they’re not necessarily making anyone more self-involved. And wasn’t there always a certain element of that anyway? Isn’t that what dressing up has always been about? Apart from getting off with one another, isn’t that what has always kept us up at night?
1) Suit and shirt by Balenciaga
2) Shirts, scarf and apron by Raf Simons
3) Waistcoat by Balenciaga, brooch by Samuel Gui Yang
4) Suit by Gucci, shirt by Craig Green
Photographer Amy Gwatkin
Fashion Editor and Text Vincent Levy
Hair Jonathan de Francesco
Make-up Megumi Matsuno
Models Hebe Flury at Premier, Richie and Tabby at IMG, Nico, Gabriel and Ralph at Nii, Christ Tydings and Kish Patel at Elite and Timi at Tomorrow Is Another Day
Taken from Issue 45 of 10 Men, FLUID UNIQUE BRAVE, on newsstands now…