With its strong visual language echoed around the globe by major names across fashion and the arts – where New Order meets Off-White and Raf Simons meets Joy Division – it is the perfect moment to reflect on the past 40 years of northern cultural identity, all the way from Sheffield up to Berwick Upon Tweed.

But North: Identity, Photography, Fashion isn’t an exhibition about northern style. It looks at the way the region has influenced fashion and visual culture, taking inspiration from particular towns, with singular motifs and themes appearing across different cultures. The three galleries of Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery join photographs by Jamie Hawkesworth and Glen Luchford alongside artwork by Jeremy Deller and the seminal Peter Saville parka by Raf Simons (autumn/winter 2003). With the diversity of the show reflecting the eclecticism of the towns, we asked the curators, SHOWStudio.com’s editor at large, Lou Stoppard and Manchester-based academic Adam Murray to guide us through the ways of all things North.

Q: Is there a north and south fashion divide and how does that manifest itself in the moment or in the history?

Lou Stoppard: I don’t think there’s a fashion divide, I think there’s a divide generally in the country. Colloquially, it’s how people talk about being northern or southern. We’re quite a strange country in the way that there is this big split that exists, in the way that people approach the country and it’s because of that split that you do get the sense of styles being “from the north” or “from the south”. But there isn’t really a blanket northern style – there are great differences between different towns.

Q: So it’s kind of more of a difference in identity?

Adam Murray: That’s what our shows about really – exploring regional identity. There isn’t one single 20-word statement you could write about what northern identity is. But you can write loads of 20-word statements about elements of it, being rooted in fashion and image-making.

Q: When you were looking at the north, what made the geographical boundaries?

Adam Murray: The kind of official boundary of where it begins and ends is debated forever really, it’s one of those classic pub arguments. But it’s really important that we’re not just focusing on Manchester and Liverpool – we’ve got Sheffield, Cumbria, York, Berwick upon Tweed, which is actually the border town between England and Scotland. It’s not just urban centres, there’s a lot of countryside and rural areas that’s been dealt with in the work.

Q: Was there a particular period of time that you looked at?

Adam Murray: There were two starting points I guess. So in terms of the very specific fashion context it’s from 1980 to now, as we took the birth of style magazines, The Face and i-D as the starting point. But the show goes back to 1937 and the research project called Mass-Observation which saw Bolton as the case study for a social ethnography study, researching on visual codes and motifs of the everyday British people.

Q: The North is so essential for the music of England and the world at large, so how does music tie into the whole idea of the northern perspective?

Lou Stoppard: Music is integral to the cultural output of the north, so as you speak to a lot of people about northern culture, they’ll start speaking about bands. So it could be Morrissey, or they’ll talk about Stone Roses or Ian Curtis. The music you listen to when you’re young has a huge effect on you. I wouldn’t want to speak on behalf of him but I think for someone like Raf Simons, his interest in the region probably did begin with listening to Blue Monday and thinking about the world that New Order were occupying and what the streets were like and that kind of fed into this broader interest.

Adam Murray: Another thing we’ve looked at is this notion of groups of people, either subcultures or football fans. And music and sport are the two biggest things where communities come together, with a lot of those group gatherings informing the work.

Q: Adam, in relation to your project Preston is my Paris… What’s the relationship between the two?

Adam Murray: Umm none really (laughs). Clarks shoes filmed an advert where they made seemingly boring English towns look like exotic places, with someone frolicking around Preston, but making it look like Paris and then it zoomed out and she was in a car park in Preston. It’s the idea that wherever you happen to be, you can make it as exciting as being in Paris or New York.

Lou Stoppard: Someone like Jamie Hawkesworth, whose work is in the show, got his break because he was [at University of Central Lancashire] in Preston and was taking pictures of the community, especially people in the bus station, with a project that became his breakthrough. This is a really difficult time for a lot of young people, especially for people working in creative industries, with a lot of pressure, having to be in London and having to go to big art colleges. I hope that this exhibition spotlights how a lot of people actually have made it because of the towns they were in and how they really authentically and passionately documented them. Actually, being away from that hub or bubble is really important.
Peter Saville, the graphic designer, very kindly gave us a lot of great advice over the course of the curation of the show and he spoke about this idea of being away from the scene, it fosters this sense of ambition and determination. That maybe people who grow up so close to everything don’t have… When you are away from the cultural epicentre, which is London in the UK, you feel this increase burst sometimes to do something and you’re very aware of the distance you will have to travel, not geographic distance, to make it in some ways. I think this can foster this amazing ambition and ‘why not’ attitude.

Q: As London is becoming so overcrowded, are Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Preston going to become more credible as cultural centres?

Adam Murray: I think they already are, Manchester has a huge international festival, which has premieres of work before anything else, which then travels to New York. Liverpool has a big arts biennale every two years, Newcastle’s got the Gateshead and The Sage and The Baltic. Hull is the capital of culture for this year, all this exists. I think the issue is that the people who have the power to cover it or explore it are on the whole based in London. So there’s an element of laziness to an extent in exploring that so hopefully what might happen is more media agencies are able to have people embedded within these places rather than just visiting for the odd thing.
What we’re trying to do is offer themes and ideas and points of discussion really, and this is one of those things that hopefully will come from the discussion in terms of infrastructure. Because higher education in the north is as big as it is in the south. It’s just what happens to those young people once they graduate is another point of discussion. Hopefully all this will come from, what is essentially three rooms of images and clothes and films.

Q: What was Virgil Abloh’s involvement in the exhibition and the whole collaboration with Ben Kelly… how did that come about?

Lou Stoppard: Well when we started working on the exhibition the big challenge was trying to gather together all the objects, as there were so many different things that we were looking at. So we started with photography and then we moved through to clothing, films, artworks and we got to a point where we started to really want this to be a diverse exhibition that features lots of different mediums.
I’ve known for a while how obsessed Virgil was with the North, as one of his shows had a soundtrack of an interview I’d done with Peter Saville. So we got in touch with him to talk about the show and initially we wanted to show some garments, as he had done a knit that featured motifs of Oasis. Then he mentioned he was working on this installation with Ben Kelly and obviously because the exhibition is so eclectic and includes so many different forms it felt great to have the installation in there. We’re obviously massive fans of Ben Kelly’s work, with The Haçienda being a huge part of the northern influence and there are a lot of objects that show that influence.

Adam Murray: I think it also perhaps brings in an audience that wouldn’t necessarily engage with this kind of show. I think they posted an image from the exhibition on the Off-White Instagram, and loads of teenage kids that are really into that clothing all of a sudden wanted to come.

Lou Stoppard: The joint efforts of Ben and Virgil sum up lots of the themes of the exhibition, which is about looking at the original work and then the way that has influenced someone and what shape it has then taken. It just looks really beautiful. The Open Eye is an amazing location, on the Liverpool waterfront on Mann Island. You see these kind of epic columns, those stripes, their influence almost monstrous across pop culture, design and fashion.

Interview by Dino Bonacic

North: Identity, Photography, Fashion is on display until 17 March at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, Mann Island, Liverpool Waterfront, L3 1BP. Find out more information about the exhibition at openeye.org.uk.