Before Machine-A, EUFORIA or The Pineal Eye, there was Sign of the Times. An independent, multi-label store which stocked and promoted young London designers, its first incarnation was opened in Kensington Market during the acid house boom of the late-80s. By the early 90s, another Sign of the Times outlet opened in Hyper Hyper, followed by a standalone boutique in Covent Garden. Clubbers, stylists, DJs, artists and pop stars flocked to buy the giddy mix of clothes, accessories, fanzines, toys and mix tapes. They also flocked to the regular Sign of the Times parties, at which the likes of Leigh Bowery performed on stage and DJs such as Andrew Weatherall and Mark Moore whipped up the dancefloor.
Sign of The Times, a new book published by Wild Life Press, captures the heady spirit of the era, up until to Sign of the Times' closure in 1996. It features an array of previously unseen archive photographs by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, Rankin, Marc Lebon and myself, among others, as well as interviews with some of those who were there at the time.
Why did you open Sign of the Times in Kensington Market?
Sign of the Times was born out of the rave scene. I literally had the idea on the Shoom dancefloor in 1988, during one of Danny Rampling's inspirational sets. I had worked in Kensington, Portobello and Camden Markets throughout the 80s. I had my own vintage stalls at the markets and sold to others, but it was acid house that really inspired me. It was so open, exciting and creative.
What were you selling there?
I really wanted to capture the energy of what I was seeing around me at Shoom and the big raves as well, into a shop. I wanted Sign of the Times to feel like you had entered that club atmosphere. It was a complete reaction to the designer shops that ruled at the time, which were intimidating and exclusive. I sold my own designs and then it snowballed as everyone started bringing in stuff to sell, we were quickly flooded with clothes, accessories, zines, tickets and flyers for parties, which created the buzz.
I wanted to embrace the values of rave - DIY, creativity, openness and acceptance. When the recession hit at the end of 1991, the rave scene was tailing off and people wanted to dress up more. We printed a flyer -- that's how we communicated pre-internet -- saying, "New designers wanted now", and we met many of our young designers through that. I would also go up to interesting looking people at clubs and ask them to make clothes for the shop - when you have an open door policy you attract talent.
Can you describe the Sign of The Times parties...
The parties were also born out of the recession. A friend of mine, Paolo Sedazzari, suggested we do a party to boost income. We did the first one at the Diorama Arts Centre near Regents Park, which immediately sold out in advance. We went on to do many parties over the years at the Brixton Academy, The Iceni in Mayfair, the Vox in Brixton, Stringfellows, even in Ibiza. As we had a crazy mix of styles in the shop I would mix up the music too, with DJ's such as The Chemical Brothers when they first started, to Don Letts, Andrew Weatherall, Mark Moore from S-Express, Jon Pleased Wimmin and Harvey. Clubbing was integral to the shop as everything we sold related to it.
When you then opened the Sign of the Times shop in Covent Garden, what was the launch party like?
We had the official launch party with Bjork, who did it for free, at the start of Fashion Week. We had a Blackpool theme and window display. Bjork officially opened the shop by jumping on a sandcastle. Some footage ended up on a Bjork video shot by Stephanie Sednaoui.
Can you describe the mix of clothing you were selling by then?
Designer-wise, we helped start Joe Bates, later of Sibling, on his way by introducing him to Bjork and he made clothes for her first tour. Karen Savage was a very good seller for us as she was doing feminist inspired imagery, which coincided with the Riot Girl movement. Joie Readman started off the 'babydoll' trend of 1993, with the pink and fluffy look being a reaction to the dark black and rubber clothes that were being worn at clubs like Love Ranch in 1992. Jeremy Deller, who took many of the pictures of the parties and worked part time in the shop, started a T-shirt label called Suburban Genius and created the now notorious tabloid inspired "My Drug Hell" T-shirts, which were bought by many-an-excessive pop star as an ironic joke.
Run us through some of the well-known faces who used to shop or hang out at Sign of The Times...
Bjork, Pulp, Primal Scream, Nora Lydon, Dee Dee Ramone, Paula Yates, John Galliano, Michael Clark, Pete Burns, Paul Weller, Nina Hagen, Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld, Kylie, and so many more. There wasn't this hysteria around celebrities that there is now and people would just give them a second glance - no one would take their picture. People like Isabella Blow and Mario Testino came in. And Lee McQueen, who was going out with one of our designers, Jimmy Jumble, and would come to the parties. One time we even made Take That carry delivery boxes downstairs! Stars were always popping in for a chat, it was no big deal at the time!
Tell us about the notorious incident when Sign of The Times invaded London Fashion Week....
The storming of Fashion Week happened because Bravo TV had a double decker bus, painted with zebra stripes and kitted out with a leopard interior, and said we could use it. I was upset that London Fashion Week was still not recognising new designers, even McQueen at this point, so we hatched a plot to storm it in the bus and do a show on the street outside the BFC tent. We had the girls - all friends from the shop - all dressed up and the boys all brandishing plastic guns. You couldn't do that now, but it was very funny. Harpers Bazaar took photos and a bunch of school kids got caught up in it as well - we even got featured on the news!
What eventually prompted the closure of Sign of the Times?
The Covent Garden shop was a huge hit and even more stars were coming in by then - Courtney Love, Michael Hutchence, all the top models. And the stylists Katy England and Katie Grand, as well as the stylists for people like Bowie and Michael Jackson. We made things for the Spice Girls and Take That and then we were asked to do a huge show for Pitti Imagine, which was amazing, all the top people in fashion were there in Florence. Unfortunately, though, it took everyone's eye off the shop and the bills built up rapidly. I tried desperately to get backing, something Dazed & Confused and Alexander McQueen were also doing then, but in my case I was unable to secure it in time.
How does 90s-London differ or feel similar to nowadays?
There is a harking back to the 90s right now - possibly a yearning for a more free time, as it's so expensive to live now due to crazy property prices and high student debt. The similarity I see is the explosion of creativity, on the internet, on Instagram and Tumblr and the renewed interest in DIY culture and rave culture. I am also seeing a rise in consciousness, especially the under 25s, with an interest in spirituality, veganism and politics, which all rose in the early 90s too. I am also seeing a rise in collectives and am collaborating with one, Raw Art Raw Essence, a group of young people giving young musical artists a chance.
Tell us about the book, how do you feel about it?
Putting together the book has been a real journey. I was initially resistant because there were some painful memories - quite a few people in the photographic archive had died over the years, far too soon. I spent the first two weeks after the book was commissioned crying and having nightmares. You also have to fully face up to your mistakes and your losses. But once I had got past that I could see the pictures as just recording a really fun time - a time that is now a lost London, where small businesses such as mine were able to trade in the centre of the West End and hire big venues such as Brixton Academy!
What are you up to at the moment, Fiona?
What I want to do in the future is use the Sign of the Times name as a platform for young talent to get them noticed, but not control them. I'm hoping to do an exhibition with my archive with events around it relating to today, as I feel there is a lot to learn still from the entrepreneurial spirit of the 90s that can translate to now. I have been working with a charity called London Village Network, with young people who are finding it tough in life, by motivating, inspiring and connecting them and widening their world.
James Anderson was a shop assistant at Sign of the Times back in the day. Sign of the Times is published by Wild Life Press on February 12th.
Text James Anderson