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BodyMap

Bodymap

Words by Grace Joel
Photography by Jan Lehner

 

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BodyMap is one of London fashion’s iconic double acts. David Holah and Stevie Stewart met at Middlesex Polytechnic in the early 80s, becoming friends instantly, and teaming up as a design partnership soon after, taking the fashion world by storm with their experimental stretch forms in graphic patterns. An instant hit with the press and buyers, the Daily News Record questioned whether it was “an outrageous pretension or merely a pretentious outrage”. Either way, with subsequent collections and theatrical shows entitled Olive Oyl Meets Querelle, Cat in The Hat Takes a Tumble with A Techno Fish and Barbie Takes a Trip Around Nature’s Cosmic Curves, their intention has always been to push the boundaries of inventiveness and just enjoy themselves. A central part of the Blitz Kids with their community of contemporaries like Leigh Bowery, Boy George, Princess Julia and Michael Clark modeling in their unconventional shows, BodyMap’s infectious energy was responsible for the renaissance of Swinging London in the 80s, what Mary Quant was to the 60s. Exactly opposite on the zodiac, David and Stevie complement each other and still remain friends and collaborators today.

Do you remember when you first met?
D: We both went to Middlesex and had a friend in common. She lived with me and told me about Stevie and that we would be going to the same college.
S: She was my best friend at the time.
D: She said, “you must look out for Stevie!”
S: So we arranged to meet. We made a phone call, like in the old school days, no mobiles or texts and we met at…
D: Southgate Station! You were waiting by the escalators.

When did you realise you wanted work together?
D: Well, we kind of hit it off immediately. While we were at college, they grouped us together on projects and we kind of became the ringleaders.
How was the partnership crucial to the aesthetic of the brand when you started out? What did each of you bring to the table that was different?
D: Well Stevie is a bit more business-minded and organised than I am, I’d say, so although we didn’t sort of plan when we left college to do a collaboration. They arranged for me to go to Paris to work in a French couturier and Stevie to go to Milan. She was more sporty and had more street cred, and I was more sort of a couture-o-phile, well they filed me under that anyway. Party dresses really. We did go to Europe to see what was going on and see if we could make any inroads there but it was quite a stifling sort of atmosphere.
S: Lots of older English were in the couture houses at the time, it wasn’t very young or forward thinking or energetic, very old school. That sort of fired our enthusiasm. We were both very pro England so that’s what we did.
D: We just decided really. Why don’t we pull our two final year collections together and re-jig them, make them a bit more commercial and we sold them together. At that time I don’t think we had a name. Did we have a name?
S: Not really…

Where did the name come from?
D: It’s an art piece called BodyMap and it’s 3000 photographs of pieces of a body laid out in a flat, two-dimensional kind of way that we worked with in our patterns, laying things out, making 3D to 2D, and our artist friend John Maybury, he mentioned it to us and we thought that works really well. And you were on the phone…
S: Cosmopolitan were on the phone and they’d used something and wanted to give the stockist information, and asked what’s the label called? We had five different options on a list…
D: I was like “Just tell them that one. It works pretty well?”

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Have you ever had any major fights or disagreements?
D: Actually we haven’t, have we? Well there was one time I ran away after we went into liquidation, and Stevie was quite annoyed at that point.
S: He was on tour with Michael Clark.
D: That was the easy route out while Stevie was left with all the damage as it were. That was about happy times, I turned my back on it and Stevie took it on and sorted it out. Sort of.

You were quite ahead of your time. At that moment did you feel like you were on to something new?
D: At the time we weren’t really conscious of it, we were just doing what we wanted to do. If you think of the time, in the 80s, no one was really doing what we were doing.  But we were just inventing things, inventing fabrics, ways of cutting, ways of putting it together, which actually didn’t fit what was happening at that moment, the normal way of dressing, so we pushed it. It wasn’t about fashion really, it was about us, experimenting and finding ways of making clothes and how to make things fit our approach of dressing and how we wanted to be perceived by the world.
S: I think we knew that there was a niche out there that we could fit into, There was a hole in the market for something like that. Plus we were really young and energetic, and it was a grey social climate at the time, but a lot of people seemed enthusiastic about doing their own thing. So with all of that and our energy we poached it.
D: People didn’t come to London, the press and buyers stopped coming after the 70s. The interest paled, no-one was coming any more. We actually started in New York with our first big show, we got a huge amount of interest. Our first big stockist, Susanne Bartsch, had this shop in New York. She came from London to New York and took all the fabulous designers of the time to her shop acting as an agent selling to all the big stores there: Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Bendels…
D: There wasn’t much happening in London and she had this big show.
S: New London in New York
D: We were the main story, along with Leigh Bowery. We came out shining stars and 
suddenly we had all this interest back home as well.
 Suddenly all the New York buyers were coming to London to see us and that got the whole ball rolling.
S: Putting London back on the fashion map….
D: Which we did! We take that as our credit, that we did that.

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Vogue wrote of BodyMap and their contemporaries in 1984, “Young designers are re-drawing the hemline, any line, and not always with a ruler.” Do you think that naivety and experimentation was vital to what you created?
S: Definitely. We wouldn’t just take the normal rules of pattern cutting, for example, if  something was upside down and we liked the way it cowled or whatever then we’d put that as a statement. We sculpted on the stand, saw how it looked, how it worked, in 2D in 3D, played with shape. If we felt something was interesting, we thought we would work with that, go from there. Kind of like a stone gathering moss, you know, one thing from another, sparking lots of ideas, one thing led to another, we weren’t following any rules or traditions.

It seemed your shows were a lot fun, now it seems everything is carefully casted, styled, marketed, manicured….
D: Very manicured. That’s a good word. It’s very manicured. At that time, the energy of what was happening in London in fashion, music, dance, art… it was a wave coming from the punk revolution.
S: All the clubbing and everything. Everyone would put their looks together for the clubs and congregate.
D: Everyone was making this sort of street theatre.
S: All the people involved were just starting off on their careers and were very passionate about making something different, whether it be music, fashion or whatever.
D: It wasn’t about celebrity, it was about your passion. Whatever your art, your creativity, you contributed what you felt was your part.
S: It wasn’t about money. It was about wanting to make your mark, your difference. I think after post-punk, after the anarchy and everything it was about wanting to make a difference.
D: We were on the crest of that wave.

Do you think that sense of community was a reason for that success?
D: The community inspired us. There isn’t that same community anymore. We were always friends with everybody, helped each other out. Our circle of friends were all artists, musicians, film makers, dancers, fashion designers all starting out.
S: I think Malcolm Mclaren and Vivienne Westwood were quite inspirational with that fashion/ music thing as well. Bow Wow Wow and all that sort of thing, we looked up to that as an inspiration, definitely.
D: We were friends with Boy George, Michael Clark, Sade, Leigh Bowery, all the people of the day who were doing stuff, they’d wear our clothes, be in our shows… It kind of worked hand in hand, it was a good vibe.
And business took off!

“All of a sudden, what had been a private party became the focus of international interest.  But when street style tried to regain its old outrage, big business recoiled and the custodians of British fashion cried out in horror.”
– THE FACE – 1985
 
Lots of your collections and their titles have two opposing elements or characters married together to create something new. Where did these ideas come from?
D: They were about what we were inspired by at that time more than anything. The Querelle collection, for example, the film had just come out and we loved it. So it was about this sailory feel with stripes and wide trousers we were already working on and we wanted that quirky angle because Popeye was a sailor, we wanted a quirky girl, Olive Oyl was the one, so it became Querelle instead of Popeye, a macho, butch but camp sailor.
The Cat in the Hat was because of my niece. She used to be in all of our shows and was reading Dr Suess at the time. It was the same stripes we were doing at the time.
S: Then we went to see Rumble Fish, the Coppola film with all the new actors, The Brat Pack.
D: Which was very influential for us, the modern and old, mixing it up a bit. We thought, “let’s do that”, add the modern feel and the Dr Suess-like quirk. We did the mesh fabrics and prints, with all the bursts of colour from the film because we were very monochromatic before – it was all cream, off white, black. The two Japanese fighting fish were the only colour in the black and white film, so we used it as our title inspiration and it all rolled from there… The Sun, The Moon, The Stars or a Racoon, and so on.

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Your clothes are quite unisex and free, yet they still seems so current now. What do you think gives them their 
timeless appeal?
D: We were really ahead of our time and forward-thinking in the way that we cut. Back then, we were putting boys in skirts and tights and boob tubes, mixing it up and people kind of went with it. After our first shows, we were the darlings of the fashion world, then we did our Barbie Takes a Trip Around Nature’s Cosmic Curves show. We went completely psychedelic, like an acid trip, basically, boys in girls’ clothes, and girls in boys’ clothes. We put bald wigs on our models and big glittery glasses, but it was like Marmite: people either loved it or hated it. We did these swim suits made out of shiny lycra that looked quite S&M and everyone thought we’d gone off on one. Models changing on the runway, not behind the scenes, all the rails in front of the curtain instead of behind. They didn’t like that at all, did they? The Americans thought we were going a bit too far with it. We got slated, but you need a gimmick! But that’s the undulation of the fashion world. BodyMap held a `Survival in the Fashion World’ party in 1989. Unfortunately, the business folded in 1991.

How have you remained friends so long? Do you still collaborate?
S: Yes, we were friends from the off.
D: We know what each other wants and is good at. Stevie is amazing at lots of things I can’t do, like patter cutting. I have other strengths, but I’m trying to think what they are! I’m more artistic, not so technical. I do know everything. I’m just more clumsy if you like, but I bring different things to the table.

What are you doing now?
S: I just finished doing the costumes for Kylie Minogue and her dancers, Rambert Dance Company and Michael Clark Dance Company.
D: I’m working on my art practice. I’ve just teamed up with a company called Miameea, who are using my art prints on luxurious, marrying the art with the fashion.

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Fashion: Grace Joel
Producer: Sarah Jo Palmer
Make-up: Linda Andersson using Bobbi Brown
Hair: Declan Sheils using L’Oréal Professionnel
Casting: Rebecca Knox
Models: Soujourner at Storm, Jon at Select
All clothes: BodyMap