judy blame: a diamond in the rough

As the inimitable alchemist of British fashion prepares for his work to be honored with an exhibition at the ICA, Judy Blame reflects on his life and career. From working at Heaven to surviving hell, from building the House of Beauty and Culture to...

by Paul Flynn
17 June 2016, 8:00am

Given the new visual language he invented after taking a pseudonym, not to mention the personal trauma that went before, it feels insensitive to refer to Judy Blame by his real name. It was the incomparable designer Antony Price who first called him Judy, when he was working the cloakroom of Heaven at the turn of the 80s. Judy's memories of Heaven are dotted with simple, camp glee. They were mad, happy times. When Richard Branson took ownership of the club he tried to sack Judy on sight. "God knows what I was wearing," he says. Staff uproar ensued. "All the bar girls, everyone said 'well, if she's going, we're all going!'" Judy was reinstated.

Because he was working in Britain's most prominent gay club and living with his first proper boyfriend in the 'Brixton Fairies', the infamous gay squats of Railton Road, SE24 which were split down the middle with Peter Tatchell-esque political agitators on one side, distinctly un-PC drag numbers on the other ("Of course, you know which side I was on"), his mother told him he was being watched by MI5. Judy's elder brother was applying for high rank in the British Forces. Having a sibling working the hat-check at Heaven and sharing hand-to-mouth digs with a stilt-walking performance artiste called Wendy Wattage was deemed a major security risk in the Army back then.

You might wonder, given the timing of his secular rechristening, whether the key reference for Judy was the legendary Ms Garland or the protagonist in The Ramones' song, "Judy Is A Punk." "Because I had a pill in one hand and a drink in the other and all this messy black hair, Antony would say 'There she goes! There goes Judy!'" It was all delivered in the spirit of the times, the shared acerbic wit of the old guard, at once derisory and welcoming to blossoming young capital gays. Besides gaining a name, a look, and a reputation for glorious disorder at Heaven, there was something more substantial germinating in the undergrowth for Judy. At a party for her 25th wedding anniversary, his mother pleaded with him to quit his job and his flat. But Judy was gaining more than his informal education and personal notoriety at the club. Like many at the time, his parents were not equipped to deal with their son's emerging sexuality. So he found another family who could.

"Being a mad nightclub queen," he says, smoking a cig, sitting in his lovely London flat, tucked just beneath Newington Green, "doing my coat-check was one of the best jobs I ever had." There is a sign over the fireplace of his living room daubed with the slogan 'We Are All Prostitutes', stolen from a gig by The Pop Group he attended during a brief spell in Manchester in the late 70s. In front of the fire is a selection of his work; impressive, weighty jewelry pieces, tear-sheets from magazines, sketchbooks, and personal ephemera, including used heroin foils he inexplicably kept and is refashioning into a mirror for a forthcoming retrospective of his work, his first ever solo show at The ICA. Judy's life has been punctuated by intermittent periods of drug and alcohol addiction. On a small television screen in the corner a DVD of My Cousin Rachel reaches its catatonic conclusion.

Heaven was the last traditional job Judy held down before his fashion life unfolded. "I met people like Derek Jarman," he says. "And if anyone's going to show you the possibilities of being an out gay man, then it's him. Even Antony, with all her bitterness." He laughs. "You're not going to see talent like that every day. I was so super-duper lucky with those people, and more. They lifted a whole generation of us up to their level of being out and proud, and proud of your creativity, and who you are and what you look at. Educating yourself, then passing it on. It was a golden era for that. They lifted a whole band of us out of the punk scene, which hadn't really found an identity for gay people and let us be creative. That's just how we were brought up, in a funny kind of a way. It was all about passing ideas on, from generation to generation."

One night in Heaven, Antony Price sauntered past Blame in the cloakroom and called out his new name once again. Judy! "I said 'who?' and he said 'oh, you girl'. Him and his friend Simon Foster, they'd always say it. 'There goes Judy! Falling around in nightclubs.'"

The name stuck. Judy Blame was reborn.

Judy Blame is the great alchemist of British fashion. His superior skill is to make something out of nothing, to see beauty in the trash others might step over. There is something about his visual ingenuity that puts you in mind of the old British housewifery motto, to make do and mend. His is a sophisticated, often oddly luxurious and beautiful understanding of the significance of the multiple readings punk afforded simple objects, like the safety pin. It is not just his old heroin foils that are being turned into art for the ICA exhibit. Some crumpled shopping lists have been refashioned into badges. One says 'frozen peas' in his joined up imprimatur, written in blue biro. For Judy, the distinction between gutter and stars in aesthetics — sometimes, too, in life — is invisible.

For young fashion scholars, both in and out of academies, his name and that of his old, late friend Ray Petri's are the first they hear associated with the word 'stylist.' "I always considered my environment, or something that's going on at the time," he says, "It's never just 'handbag from look 32.'" He has seen a seismic change in the profession throughout his tenure. "It makes me laugh on Instagram. Everyone is called an 'art director' or a 'stylist' now. Is there anyone left to style or art-direct? Or do they sit at home and art direct and style each other?! Oh, I art directed getting out of bed this morning. I'm going to style the show I'm in. And it's because they've read a book and been to Primark. Oh, do fuck off."

I don't regret any of it. It's too late now anyway. And I did enjoy every bloody minute of it. But I wish I was more educated and I wish they would educate people now. I was lucky. I was bright, you see.

His creative relationship with Petri began not long after Heaven, when Ray would ask for jewelry pieces to be made for his pivotal work informing the luminescent new London taste barometer Buffalo, a line in the sand still drawn for British fashion. Judy was first written about in an article in Tatler ("strangely enough") about young, creative London. Perry Ogden took the picture. Judy was 21. "It was the oddest group of people. The Face did a thing on my rubber jewelry quite early on. And then there was Terry." Judy's decades-spanning relationship with creating imagery for these pages stretches back to a mutual trust established quickly, formidably, and magically with i-D's founder, Terry Jones. "You could take anything in to Terry. So we used to pop in and go, oh, look, Helmut Lang, this guy's brilliant, can we do a shoot with his clothes? They're fucking brilliant.'" Judy was the first person to shoot Alexander McQueen womenswear and the 21st century supermodel Jourdan Dunn for i-D. His association at the magazine is long enough to have weathered work with key photographers, father Mark and son Tyrone Lebon.

In the decade between the making of Duran Duran's "Wild Boys" video (1984) — which he cobbled outfits together for by taking scraps of wiring, rubbish, and plastic off the street, then fitting them by hand onto the dancers after spending a sizeable portion of his $1000 budget on speed — and the second Massive Attack album Protection (1994) — whom he introduced to the video director Baillie Walsh and graphics team Michael Nash, lending them the art angle Bristolian pals Portishead never quite found — there is barely a hemline of fascinating British pop culture that Judy did not finger.

He styled the jacket for Bjork's Debut with the photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino. "Bjork arrived the night before, called me up at the hotel and went, 'The airline's lost all the clothes I've come with!' She was literally standing in a Margiela satin nighty and a grubby jumper. She had a model of a boat and big heavy boots on and she says, 'This is all I've got...'" The two dots placed precipitously under her eyes were the work of Topolino ("one of my favorite queens, best make-up artist I've ever worked with"). Judy and Bjork swung by Martin Margiela's Paris atelier the day before shooting. "She wanted to look like a little furry animal. So we ran up to Martin and Martin hid because he was too frightened to meet her. Well, he's terribly shy."

When the eye make-up ran in another Mondino session, for Shakespear's Sister's Hormonally Yours, it was Judy who suggested keeping it, lending Siobhan Fahey some of the frozen, tearstained tragedy of a young Bette Davis, while wearing a John Richmond 'Sex' pullover. Styling at this level is subtle, iconoclastic, and ingenious. "I think I put a paper bag on Siobhan somewhere and this little ghost dress that I'd bought along." He makes it sound so simple. "I made Marcie [Detroit] wear my ring collection, so she looked really rich and haughty and Siobhan looked poor and raggedy."

Boy George's twisted Pearly King years were Judy's inventive handiwork. "Before I was doing work with Boy George, Ray was doing a lot of George's styling. He'd go, 'I've got to shoot George, would you make me this and that.'" The two connected further through the indomitable figure of Leigh Bowery, the force of nightclub and fashion nature. "He was quite ambitious, Leigh, in a non-conformist way. He was ambitious for himself. I think he did a lot of what he meant to. When he got into his stride there was nothing that could beat him. And he knew it. I really miss him just storming into a party. Showbiz."

Judy green-lit Kylie Minogue's ascendency to style magazine cover-star status here at i-D, in a latex corset. He later introduced her to Juergen Teller to shoot the sleeve of Let's Get To It. "I didn't know anything about I Should Be So Lucky and Jason Donovan. I'd see them on the front of The Sun. It wasn't the sort of thing I'd research. I wasn't one of those queens. She was a soap kid. But I liked her, as a person." He introduced her to the exceptional hair and make-up team, Sam McKnight and Mary Greenwell. "She couldn't believe that Mary and Sam had to go and do Lady Di in the morning and then come on to our shoot. Kylie was gobsmacked. 'Jude, Sam's just come from Princess Diana?!' So sweet."

Judy's most familiar muse Neneh Cherry worked with Ray Petri during the recording of her debut album, Raw Like Sushi, but when it came to scheduling her first single, the song that would take Buffalo from the underground to the world via MTV, and the album's release, Petri was too ill to see the project through and Blame stepped in. Judy can't remember exactly when he first met Neneh. "At a nightclub, dancing to our favorite reggae record? We'd probably just popped an e." He makes most of his artistic endeavors sound like glorious accidents in the retelling. "And a good time was had by all." None of it undermines the serious effect the work had on British pop culture. "Neneh was the first time that I was really working with Jean-Baptiste a lot. I did the big Pollution story for i-D and a few other key editorials. We were rocking by then. And we used a lot of that with Neneh."

Looking back over his work for the ICA retrospective, Judy has fretted over how much of the pivotal style backbone he gave British pop music to include in the show. He pulled out the contact sheets for Raw Like Sushi and quizzed Neneh about them. "We only shot four rolls. It's so iconic, the sexy hip-hop girl. So I said 'Cherry, can I put that in?'" He reserves a particular fondness for the video they fashioned together for 'I Got You Under My Skin.'" That video is probably my favorite piece I've ever worked on. Everything just clicked. We were there doing it for a reason. Ray was on his way out. We took him to Paris and he was too ill to even leave his hotel room, but we took him anyway and gave him his last weekend in Paris."

Ray Petri died in 1989, at the height of the British AIDS pandemic, a sobering bookend for the decade that began, carefree at the Heaven coat-check. "We were losing quite a lot of people at the time. It was difficult. It was quite confusing, that whole era." In his last months, Ray was suffering with Karposi's Sarcoma, the rare and easily identifiable skin cancer most commonly associated with AIDS. "I shall never forget as long as I live," he says, "Jasper Conran wanted Ray to go to his fashion show and Ray had a stick and a few Karposi on his face." These were vicious times. "We took a car up there, went in, took our seats and people just moved away. This is front row fashion people we're talking about. All of a sudden there was a gap, either side. I shall never forget [former Elle Editor] Sally Brampton got up off her chair and walked over and parked her arse next to us. Then [stylist] Debbie Mason walked over and parked her arse on the other side of us. Gradually, people that knew us were coming over and filling up the seats."

People like Anthony Price and Derek Jarman lifted a whole generation of us up to their level of being out and proud, proud of your creativity, who you are and what you look at. Educating yourself, then passing it on. It was a golden era for that.

Neneh Cherry's "I've Got You Under My Skin" was recorded for the Red, Hot and Blue AIDS charity initiative. The video was shot by Mondino, styled by Blame; the perfect congress of race, sexuality, fashion, pop and ethics that Judy had spent a decade staring deep at. "One of the reasons I love that piece of work so much is that, well, first there was Leigh who made the hood. The casting was great, kept really simple. Mondino's idea was beyond fabulous. But every single person working on that thing, because we had nada budget, because it was for AIDS, and we all stayed in the same funny little hotel, we kept it all to an absolute minimum. Everyone on that crew did it for the same reason, and everyone worked their fucking buns off to make it look like a 200 grand video on 200 quid."

"I've never really been great with my sexuality, to tell you the truth," he says, lighting a smoke. "Growing up, obviously, it was just never broached. I didn't really know what being gay was, for years. I don't know what I knew. I was very isolated." Most of his childhood was spent in Spain, in a gated ex-pat community on the outskirts of Madrid. The family moved to Devon just before he turned into a difficult teenager. His father's army buddy, Uncle Bob ("a massive queen"), lived in London and Judy was sometimes allowed to visit. Bob took him to record stores and clothes shops. Judy found a stash of Physique Pictorial magazines and nicked some to take back to Devon. "He gave me hope that you could live an alternative lifestyle."

His parents worried about Judy. When she found the magazines under his bed, his mother "tried to drum it out of me. She took me to the doctor and the vicar. Well, the vicar was a screaming old queen anyway and the doctor just took me out of school for a couple of days, which I didn't mind at all." When he took a part-time silver-service waiting job at a fancy local hotel, aged 13, Judy could at last see a light-bulb moment flashing in his mother's mind. "She thought, oh, career."

One night after a shift, the head waiter and one of his underlings took Judy aside and fed him alcohol for the first time. "I thought I was drinking Coca-Cola. I can't to this day drink Rum and Cola, the mere smell of it." The details are fuzzy because of the alcohol, but the unconscionable acts that followed remain crystal clear. The two older men raped their semi-conscious young assistant, just out of boyhood.

"I thought, is that what being gay is? I knew I was attracted to men. But is that what it means? Being raped, at a young age, when you're just trying to work it out? That really held me back." He told nobody. "My mother couldn't understand why I didn't want to go back to the hotel and work there because to her it was a really great job. She thought I was mad."

The episode came tumbling back in a therapy session during a stint in rehab. Judy doesn't think he has ever reconciled what happened that night. "I've never really talked through it. It's just something that happened to me. In retrospect, I never thought, 'God, that was the first time I drank. That was my first sexual experience.' I was in rehab for having a massive drink and drug problem and obviously that was the first time. Did I use those things to block that out? Is that why it became like a recurring theme, because you can't be happy and fabulous all the time?" It still casts an intermittent shadow. "There are times where I dive. In any addict's life, there are a series of triggers. Queens are good at blocking things out, aren't we? If it's not too fabulous then you just don't think about it."

If you look closely at Judy Blame's artwork over the last three and a half decades, new layers reveal themselves even after becoming such an embedded through-line in the mythology and history of British fashion imagery. There is a little smudge of darkness in the light, an abrasive tinge to the assemblage of found objects beyond the glitter in the trash. There is provocation, authority, depth. Becoming Judy Blame was more than taking a pseudonym given by a fashion hero as he ran around a nightclub, "pill in one hand, drink in the other." It was an act of self-reinvention that had to happen, to make do and mend.

As a stylist, I always considered my environment. It's never just 'handbag from look 32.'

"Thinking back on it, to when we all invented different names for ourselves, I'm sure that's got something to do with it," he says now. "I realized that there was maybe a link to it. The only thing that I've come to realize, is that a lot of these problems could be solved with more education and more support. It really pisses me off when governments demonize the things they don't understand. I watched it happen with AIDS. I watched it happen with drug addiction, alcoholism. Things that have been going on for years but the political stance and the media stance on it is one of demonization and segregation and fear, where in fact those aren't the tools to cure any problem."

The ICA exhibition is the first time Judy has really paused to look back on his work, ergo his life, to consider its worth, to release for a moment from his propulsive charge toward making a brighter visual future by reclaiming some of that which has passed, to cast his eye over the mess and make of it something beautiful. "Yes, I'm proud of it," he says. Of the drink, the drugs, "I don't regret any of it. It's too late now anyway. And I did enjoy practically every bloody minute of it. But I wish I was more educated and I wish they would educate people now. I was lucky. I was bright, you see."

In 1984, Judy Blame became a b-side. "We did a fashion show, funnily enough at The ICA," he recalls. The forthcoming celebrations of his glorious life in fashion will not be the first time Judy Blame has exhibited at the hallowed art space on The Mall. He was part of the show Performing Fashion. "Leigh Bowery and Rachel Auburn did it, Scott Crolla did it, Dexter Wong did it. It was a group show, in the theatre bit and it sold out. It wasn't the best thing we ever did, to be honest. But it was pretty riotous backstage. That was Leigh. Anyway, Martin from ABC came to one of the performances. My models were wearing Marks and Spencers y-fronts and vests and huge pieces of jewelry and it was kind of… ugh. But they saw something in it and I ended up as a b-side."

For Judy Blame completists, the song Judy's Jewels can be found on the b-side of ABC's single Vanity Kills (1985). Judy found the gold suit Martin Fry wore in ABC's "The Look of Love" video one day in part-time member and style magazine scribe Fiona Russell-Powell's living room. Sharing some of Fry's handsome proportions, he wore it for a night out. He doesn't know whether Fry and Russell-Powell were involved at the time. "Fiona was very involved in lots of things. No comment."

In Summer 2006, the magazine .Cent devolved an issue to Judy's editorship. The issue is packed full of memories and new work, tributes from the great and the good, notes from Rei Kawakubo, Sue Webster and Tim Noble, exchanged words with his great hero, Yoko Ono. In it, Roland Mouret is quoted: "Judy Blame is such an icon in the fashion industry, especially for me when I was reading i-D when I first came to London 12 years ago, that he should be on a postcard with the Queen or on those souvenir mugs for all those tourists as the representation of the shape of British fashion."

On June 29, Judy's work will be exhibited for the first time solo at The ICA, cutting a dash through British summertime, footsteps from Buckingham Palace. During the course of putting the show together, he's learned to quantify some of the scale of his work, the breadth and immensity of spending a life in thrall to the new. He's not one for gushing, Judy. But he's even allowed himself a little moment of personal pride in it all. "Oh, I've had my moments," he says, with a friendly little cackle. "This time I don't want a b-side. I want a symphony." 

(Top Image) i-D, The Madness Issue, No. 034, 1986. Photography Jenny Howarth. (Bottom Image) i-D, The Collectors Issue, No. 328, 2013. Photography William Baker.

i-D, The Fun and Games Issue, No. 020, 1984. Photography Monica Curtin.

i-D, The Dangerous Issue, No. 080, 1990. Photography Jean-Baptiste Mondino. (Inset) i-D, The Positive Issue, No. 100, 1992.

i-D, The Travel Issue, No. 093, 1991. Photography Jean-Baptiste Mondino.

i-D, The Positive Issue, No. 100, 1992.

i-D, The Visionary Issue, No. 092, 1991. Photography Juergen Teller.

(Left) i-D, The Artist Issue, No. 107, 1992. Photography Mark Lebon. (Right) i-D, The 300th Issue, No. 300, 2009. Photography Tyrone Lebon. 

i-D, The Conservation Issue, No. 037, 1986. Photography Mark Lebon.


Text Paul Flynn
Photography Juergen Teller

Paul Flynn
judy blame
the ica