the london socialite with his own exhibition of club photography
If nightclubs and fashion are your thing, you’re going to love this new show from Michael Costiff, one of London’s most admired style icons.
Michael Costiff crams more into a typical week than most people can manage in a month. One minute he's creating or sourcing designs and pieces for his WORLDarchive space in the various branches of Dover Street Market around the world, the next he’s popping into Central Saint Martins to give a lecture to awe-struck fashion students, or being interviewed by authors and fashion journalists for their latest books or magazine articles. Add to this his frequent tendency to jet off to some far-flung location for an inspirational research trip and all the hanging out at fashion parties and clubs, and you start to understand why this London-based style icon is much loved in the worlds of fashion and nightlife.
For decades, Michael has been at the helm of various culture-defining moments. He and his late wife, Gerlinde, ran the legendary Kinky Gerlinky parties, attended by up to 3,000 of the capital’s fierce-est dressers and drag queens, back in the late 80s and early 90s, for example. The likes of Leigh Bowery, Derek Jarman and Divine were all close friends, who would regularly pop round to the Costiff’s west London flat for gossip and giggles. Back in the mid-noughties, Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo -- who Michael has known since the 70s -- partly-based a men’s collection on his distinctive dress sense and asked him to model at the runway show. He’s also modelled in an advertising campaign for Maison Margiela.
In 2013, Dior Men’s Artistic Director Kim Jones published a luxury book of photographs and collages from Michael’s archive of diaries and notebooks. Oh, and the V&A Museum acquired and now permanently hosts a collection of Vivienne Westwood originals which were formerly owned and worn by the Costiffs in the 70s and 80s.
Michael’s latest adventure is an exhibition of some of his original works from the 70s up to the present day -- covering everything from photographs of the aforementioned Leigh Bowery and other iconic nightclub ‘faces’, to big screenprints he initially created to complement his new collection at DSM, to enlarged versions of the original designs for flyers that once promoted forthcoming Kinky Gerlinky parties. Basically, if you love dressing up and love going out, you will love this show.
Some of the photographs in your forthcoming exhibition were also featured in your book, Michael & Gerlinde’s World -- Pages From a Diary, back in 2013. What made you want to exhibit them now?
The book was very warmly received at the time and so were the photographs -- everyone wanted to have their picture taken in front of them! I’ve had lots of people asking me ever since if they can look at them again, or buy them. So, I thought now would be as good-a-time as any to show them again, before I get too busy with some exciting new art projects that I’m working on…
You’ve been to so many parties, clubs, fashion shows and events over the years. What was it in the past that decided whether or not you took a camera out with you?
I often had a camera in my pocket, but often we were having such a great time that I completely forgot to take a single photo. I like to be fully involved in the things I am doing and really live in the moment. Sometimes stepping aside to take a photograph can separate you from that moment. If there was a big fashion show or event I would maybe take out my Nikon, or a small, good quality camera that I could carry in my pocket. I would only ever use a disposable camera in an ‘emergency’! I never developed or printed the photos myself. Usually, I’d take them to Boots or a local chemist to be developed -- you’d have to wait a few days for them to be ready, which seems quite comical when you think about it now.
Is there are particular event, or time period, which you wish you had documented more?
I went see so many punk bands in 1976 and 77, where it would have been so ‘uncool’ to take out a camera and be seen as a tourist. I do now have a slight regret about not taking more photos at the time, though.
Did you take many photographs at Kinky Gerlinky?
I took some but probably should have taken more, really. But I was always too busy, backstage, organising the shows and the catwalk competitions, encouraging the ones who were having an attack of pre-runway nerves, or checking that the right music was cued up for a performance, or trying to find a wig that had gone missing, that sort of thing!
How spontaneous or posed were the photographs that you took in clubs or at parties?
Most of my photographs are of people we knew, but I always asked before snapping. And when friends had made such a great effort with their looks, of course they wanted to pose for the camera. Leigh Bowery and Trojan were both particularly photogenic. Underneath all his make-up, Trojan [artist, friend and one-time flatmate of Bowery] was a very handsome and beautiful guy. He liked having his picture taken, but only in that typically sour, Trojan way! He wanted a good photo but he didn’t want to go through the motions. Leigh’s looks demanded that he was photographed and he loved having his picture taken! I’ve got photographs of him in New York, wearing the famous headpiece with the lit-up light bulbs. But what people don’t know is that prior to taking those photos, we’d spent a very long time huddled in a doorway on 14th Street, fiddling about and frantically trying to get both of the bulbs working! One of them had broken and Leigh couldn’t possibly make an entrance to the club with only one light bulb working! People thought Leigh and Trojan’s looks were extraordinary, but I find it all quite normal, really, considering their blatant and shamelessly exhibitionistic personalities, which I fully approved of!
What’s your magic formula for taking a great photograph of someone?
Well, Derek Jarman, in his book, complimented me on my mastery of lighting -- showing off someone’s best features and making the bad ones disappear! With pre-digital photographs I would make subjects pose to the hilt and meticulously frame them with the camera. With digital, it seems if you have all the right ingredients and take a hundred different shots, there will always be one good one somewhere.
Did you originally intend for these photographs to be exhibited at some point in the future?
Not at all. Nowadays, your photographs can go around the world the moment you have taken them, but there seemed little point in the past to take lots of photographs. Who was going to see them? Maybe you would show them to friends who came to your house, but that was about it. Gerlinde and I did so many different and random things -- so, taking photographs and sticking them in our diary was just a way of remembering what we had done that week.
Which is your own favourite photograph from this exhibition?
It’s one of the earliest ones I took during a photo session with my, at-the-time, new Nikon camera, taken in the flat of our friend, Stephen. I gave him a bald head, painted him green and there he lays, wrapped in gauze. It’s beautiful and other-worldly. I used it on invitations for my exhibition at The Photographers Gallery, in 1979. That came about because I had done all these photo sessions with friends like Stephen, just for fun, and the first person I showed them to was one of the curators at the gallery, who immediately decided to give me my own exhibition there! The exhibition got a great response. People at that time didn’t know what to make of it. Some of the images that were shown still look quite modern and space age-y, I think.
You have done quite a bit of modelling work -- on runways, as well as editorial or advertising campaigns. Do you enjoy being scrutinised by a probing lens?
I’m always surprised when asked to model. It’s always fun to do, you get fussed about with and made to look your best. You get to try on lovely clothes and always meet lots of great creative new people. I’m never particularly keen to see the results, though! I suppose it’s because I’m not 18 years old any more… ha ha! Given a choice, I prefer studio-based work rather than being on the catwalk.
There is also a selection of your screenprints in the exhibition. Tell me about those…
There are some screenprints of my drawings of punk personalities that I did for a punk-themed installation for Comme des Garçons in Tokyo. And each season at Dover Street Market I design a new limited edition screenprint to celebrate the theme of that season’s collection -- some of those are included, too. There are also large screenprints of promotional flyers for Kinky Gerlinky from the late 80s and early 90s. I designed almost all of the Kinky Gerlinky flyers, back then. I would cut them up and paste them together with a Pritt Stick and scissors on our kitchen table, usually while surrounded by friends who’d popped round and were gossiping and trying on their outfits for the next Kinky Gerlinky party! Then I would photocopy the design and have thousands of them printed up to give to people out and about in clubs. We chose a different theme for each party. We kept the themes pretty vague -- ‘Models Ball’, or ‘Night of the Leopards’, or ‘Planet Kinky’ -- as we wanted something that everybody could have a go at, either in a big way or with just a gesture. We didn’t want very specific themes that would demand a trip to a costume hire place. It was more about people interpreting it in their own way, and the flyers represented that individual spirit.
Is it a good thing that everyone these days is taking photos of everything while it happens?
Well, why not? It’s easy and cheap to take pictures on your phone and at least it means that things won’t be forgotten about, or are less likely to be misrepresented in the future. I do find that many events from the past have since gained unwarranted prominence and importance, simply because there is good photography or footage of them. If things weren’t photographed at the time it seems almost like they never happened -- because they fade from people’s memory -- so the result can sometimes be a very twisted or inaccurate perception of the past, which misses out all the stuff that wasn’t actually documented. Then again, I don’t worry about these things too much as I am always too busy, going out with my friends and having fun!
Michael Costiff: Photographs and Screenprints. Stash Gallery, Vout-O-Reenee’s , 30 Prescott Street, E1. From May 23 to June 15. Open Tuesdays to Saturdays.
Photography Michael Costiff