In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Fiona Cartledge ran a stall, then a shop, called Sign Of The Times.
It started out stocking T-shirts, clubwear, fanzines, cassettes, bits and bobs.
Here’s a photo of the stall.
It had a profound affect on me as a teenager.
I would come down to London just to go to Sign Of The Times in Kensington Market. If I was lucky, I’d have saved enough to buy a T-shirt.
If I’d got no money, I’d go there just to gawp at the place, and to nick club flyers to stick on my bedroom wall at home.
Flyers like this one for the stall.
If it had such an effect on me, I’m sure the numbers it influenced are legion.
And yet Fiona is unsung, her story not told.
Making contact with Fiona has been one of the great pleasures of being involved in the ICA’s current off-site show A Journey Through London Subculture.
It was Princess Julia who put me in touch with Fiona.
I went round to her flat the Tuesday after Carnival, to see if I could borrow any flyers from Sign Of The Times to put in my vitrine.
I also wanted to record a conversation with her, to get her whole story, and be able to connect up her influence on my thinking.
Through her words, much can’t be learned about London in the 80s and 90s, and the paths of fashion just before luxury took over as fashion’s driving force.
[As I turn the tape machine on, Fiona is telling a story about how she used to sell Russian badges.I’m floored by this – one of my first active fashion purchases was to go to Camden Market in the mid-80s to buy a Russian star-shaped hammer and sickle badge, because I’d seen someone wearing one – probably Yasmin Le Bon – on the cover of British Elle, then a very new title. It turns out that Fiona was behind these coming into the country…And so she was influencing my idea of fashion even before I knew it]
FIONA CARTLEDGE: I used go to Russia to buy metal badges.
ME: Was it easy to get into Russia?
My dad worked there. He was working in Moscow. I’d left home obviously I was in my mid-twenties by then, I’d go back there and I’d buy all the badges and bring them back, and then sell them to Marx And Stalin, and there was also a stall in the basement of Kensington Market that did painted leather jackets? I can’t remember the name. Those fantastic ‘40s leather jackets with paintings on the back.
All I remember about the basement is that I’m really bad at walking into mirrors, and there was one stall that had a full floor length mirror that I would always walk into, because I was so nervous about going in there
It was scary wasn’t it.
I was like 16, I really wanted to understand it.
Leigh Bowery had a stall there, then he moved to Hyper Hyper, I had stuff from Leigh Bowery, I gave it all to Billy Boy. I gave a lot of my stuff to Billy Boy because I knew he’d look after it.
I was selling the badges with Marx And Stalin [A stall in Kensington Market run by two men, Carl Eckett and John Helmer. Marx And Stalin eventually morphed into Big Jesus Trashcan, another Kensington Market stall of which I was in total awe as a kid. According to Fiona, the pair of them “weren’t just about doing a pretty T-shirt. All their work was based on political and intellectual ideas”], and they were selling all the Russian T-shirts. And it was the time of the Dr Marten look and the MA1 thing was coming in, and the Russian badges and the Russian Cyrillic T-shirts and the Hammer and Sickle and all that. And it must have been around the time of the Cold War, so that whole theme was in the air.
Then I don’t know exactly what year they switched to Big Jesus Trashcan but it was probably about 87 and they were looking for more stuff to sell – they were very good at the T-shirts, but they didn’t have a lot of other clothing. I started making jackets out of the Turkish carpets you used to buy at Portobello, with Jesus faces on, they used to sell them. I used to cut up the carpet, and sew it onto the back of vintage denim jackets, which I’d get because I was doing vintage clothes on Portobello Market, and that’s a crazy story.
I used to go and buy them from this guy, he was called Billy… I can’t remember his second name, it’ll come to me, but he was quite famous, very eccentric and he had a massive warehouse in Shepherd’s Bush, and I used to go there, American Classics [a super influential store, still with a branch on Endell Street, which in the 80s fuelled the desire for Levi’s 501s and other now familiar but then hard to find US stuff] used to go there, and a lot of the big people who did vintage went there. I was only a small business compared to them, and we used to climb these mountains, I kid you not, higher than this ceiling, of vintage clothes.
They’d get these huge bales of clothes in, and they’d cut the bales and the clothes would explode all over the warehouse. And you had to climb a mountain on top of these clothes in this vast warehouse, and you’d find things like a Salvador Dali tie if you were lucky, vintage prom dresses, everything, all types of vintage, because they’d come from the rag yards in America. It was the ripped jeans period, and so vintage denim was the big big thing, and American Classics particularly used to go there, and I’d go there and get a lot of not particularly good denim jackets and I’d put these Jesus carpets on the back, and I’d put really brightly coloured fabric on the sleeves and stuff like that. And they started to sell. And they put them in Big Jesus Trashcan and stuff to sell, and then I ran out of denim jackets so I had to make them up new, and Brian from Artificial Eye used to make them up for me, do you remember Artificial Eye? It was in the basement. He was the guy who did the Clockwork Orange stall originally, he also did manufacturing so he started making the jackets for me, because they were so flamboyant, a lot of bands bought them, people like Prefab Sprout, even Lenny Henry bought one, Bob Geldof ordered one, Mark had one obviously – Mark Moore, so they were getting a lot of publicity because of the bands, and it was from that that I realised maybe I could do a shop, which was what I’d dreamt of doing.
You were doing stalls before?
I was doing stalls before. Started off when I left college. Started off during punk. Basically a lot of the punks we couldn’t afford clothes at Sex and Seditionaries. The only people who could afford it were people in bands, or the people who worked there. So I got into vintage through punk. Then I got onto the Rockin scene which was all about vintage, so the way you got your clothes was you worked in a shop that did vintage then you got your discounts. We were literally so obsessed with clothes, we’d do anything to get them.
Then we started working on stalls on Portobello, and that shop called Radar that as quite significant in the late 70s early 80s in Portobello, and she knew everybody she was like friends with Duggie Fields and all that lot, and so all her friends would come into the shop, her partner Ed used to work at Oz in the 60s, he was doing all these graphics at the back, and a guy called Derek was helping him who’s now the guy who does Lewis Leathers, Derek Harris, you know Fiona Russell? Fifi Russell, she was quite a scenester at the time, she started Yip Yip Coyote, and she was there she was slightly older than me, and I worked there, and we all got into vintage, then Ronnie shut the shop and sold the building and moved out of London.
It was so good working there I didn’t really want to work for other people, so I did my own stall, I got into vintage through that. And then once you’re on the vintage scene, you realise there are these rag yards, and so you’d go to these rag yards, so all of that came through that.
You knew about retail and how to do the bare bones of it
Yeah it was like the market though it wasn’t like how retail is now, we just put the clothes on a stall and if they were good they sold. And obviously developed an eye. And I didn’t go to fashion college, so all my knowledge of fashion came through that, at the time I was into all types of fashion always, I started to really start to get to know about designer fashion through Billy Boy, because Billy Boy was I met him at a party with Laurence Malice [founder of Trade], because I was on the club scene I knew all these people. I went to this party at the Ritz that Billy Boy held, do you know about Billy?
I don’t, no
He’s a really interesting person you should definitely know about him, he’s the biggest collector of couture clothes in the world, he’s the biggest collector of Schiaparelli, he has a book on Schiaparelli coming out by Rizzoli next year, he’s a very significant person. It was through him that I got to know about designer fashion.
Then Acid House happened. I was at Camden Market selling 70s gear, like vintage. And Billy gave me a load of smiley badges that he’d found, huge ones, like the ones that they’ve got in the V&A Club To Catwalk show, in fact I’m pretty sure they came through me, I might have sold them to World actually, because I know they came through Michael Costiff.
I was flogging them all round town, selling these smiley badges, and there was this club that Nick Trulocke was doing. it was that club where everyone rowed, do you remember that? It was at Busby’s, everyone sat down and rowed, it was a 70s club [the night was called Discoteque].
And then suddenly all these kids in baggy T-shirts started buying them, and they were really keen for them, like desperate, and suddenly my takings went through the roof. And I said to my friend Steven Bradley I said, all these suburban kids want my smiley badges, why? And he said, there’s this club called Shoom. You have to go, and I was like, I’ve been out since I was 15, I was 27 at that point, I’m done with clubbing, I’m sort of retired now, and he’s like, no, no you have to go, it’s very different.
And so it took a couple of weeks to persuade me, and I went to Shoom and I was like, OHMYGOD. I’d been out all those years and I’d never seen anything like this. For a start you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face because of the smoke machines, it was the Fitness Centre one. And I got onto the House scene having thought I’d never go to a club again, and it all started from there really, and that’s what inspired Sign Of The Times.
The thing about Sign of the Times was I wanted to show all the crazy stuff that was going on in the clubs in a shop in the day, and obviously Ken Market was the perfect place to do that. And apart from Mash and Bond, and Bond was only doing a little bit of Acid House stuff, there was only me Mash and Bond. Can you imagine that? We cleaned up. It was fantastic.
Mash was the one on Oxford Street wasn’t it?
Yeah that was very commercial. He did phenomenally well, he was doing more the Kickers, the real rave end of it.
[As we’re talking, I’m flicking through Fiona’s clippings book ,and there’s a spread I recognise from British Vogue, of Plum Sykes with Stella Tennant. The credits say that Plum’s dress is from “Sign Of The Times”] Is that your dress?
Yeah yeah. Isabella Blow did that shoot with Steven Meisel. Some of Jimmy’s stuff’s in there [Andrew Groves, now course director of BA Fashion Design at Westminster, used to design under the name Jimmy Jumbles, and sell his work at Sign Of The Times.]
[We look through the clippings for a while, then go back to the story of Sign Of the Times]
So you took the stall where Big Jesus Trashcan had been.
Yeah so what happened was, I was doing well at Camden with the Jesus jackets and smiley badges, and I was starting to do T-shirts, and then Big Jesus Trashcan started to go a bit AWOL, and they lost their shop. Because I was supplying them, I knew about this, and so I went for their shop. They were cool with me getting it, and so I took over their space. I kept their Sistine Chapel painting on the ceiling, if you can remember that.
I can’t remember anything. All I remember is being so nervous, yours is the only stall I remember, so I definitely remember you came into it like that
Yup. Vision the hairdressers was just past us.
And then near the door in Sign Of The Times there was either a cheap bin, or cheap T-shirts or something, so I could stand near the entrance and be quite comfortable looking at them. But I’d bought a Big Jesus Trashcan T-shirt from them before, and from Sign Of The Times I definitely bought a Superdrug T-shirt that was in the cheap bin.
And I definitely bought more from you. Did you have T-shirts with Brillo on?
Yes, I think so. Yes.
I still wear that.
I wish I’d kept more, we had so many great things. We were also still selling the Big Jesus Trashcan T-shirts.
Maybe I bought it from you… No I definitely remember going to Big Jesus Trashcan.
They were amazing. It was such a great time. It was very, very underground, we all knew how important it was at the time, but none of us saw how people would look back on it, didn’t see the global impact of it, we didn’t even consider ourselves being in the fashion business at all. It was completely underground, as so much was then.
And you made clothes for going out.
Yeah it was an instant thing, and we just thought it’ll all be over and everyone will be onto something else and that’s why so many people, not just me, all the other shop owners and rave promoters, we didn’t keep things for posterity, it was really only people like Billyboy, and Billy was only really collecting high end stuff. I think he did buy a few Acid House T-shirts, but so much of the club culture stuff wasn’t valued. It just wasn’t kept. I think there are if you put feelers out there are various people with stuff, but it’s not been treasured like designer stuff was. But funnily enough had more impact probably.
So Sign Of The Times, was percentage was you making stuff and what percentage was other people’s stuff?
Well what happened, I was doing T-shirts and the jackets, and the jackets had Martin Luther King on the back and various other things I did on the back, and then Last Supper imagery, and then everything got too busy, I couldn’t keep up everything, so I started to, people were always saying, can you sell these T-shirts for me, can you sell this for me, so I decided to sell other people’s stuff, and that was what happened, and we started to portray ourselves as a young designer emporium. We just got deluged, that was when the recession started in the early 90s, and all these young fashion students were coming out of college with no jobs, and they realised they could make some T-shirts or make some clothes and sell them to us and make some money.
Because by that time Bodymap had gone and the ideal of being a young London designer was redundant.
Just work generally was really tight, and interest rates went up to 15%, people forget how, it was a short recession compared to this one, but it was very deep, and people were just desperate for money, and in those days it was easier to do a bit of this, a bit of that, and also the clubs, a lot of the clubs used to make their own T-shirts, we used to sell Bastard Bunny, he’s making a revival.
Amazing [I used to love Bastard Bunny]. Would I have bought that from you then?
Probably. It was by Dave Anderson. He was selling them in a few places. He’s reviving that, he’s just done a Facebook page, he’s now called Fat Forty and Furious. I forgot the Weatherall connection with that, Sabresonic.
[Sabresonic was Andrew Weatherall’s club under the London Bridge arches in about 1993 – I went every week, the first club I had connection to in London] Because the Weatherall connection was, what was the connection?
They did it with him, didn’t they? It was with Sabresonic. Bastard Bunny now basically rants about everything.
How did you decide what to have in the shop?
The whole shop was about club culture. So it was about T-shirts, clothing, all that I had room for, young designers, some of the T-shirts were from the clubs, so we used to sell Boy’s Own T-shirts, we used to sell the jeans the Happy Mondays wore, we also used to sell fanzines, so I sold Boy’s Own, Bastard Bunny, I sold Encyclopedia Psychedelia, which was the one Fraser Clark did. Unfortunately he died a couple of years ago, he was from the hippy era, he did Megatripolis later on, had all the people talking about Gaia and new age stuff. I used to get a lot of stick from people, because people in London even now I think are very mono, they either want you to be all Boy’s Own or all hippy or all this and I just put it all together as you can see from my shop [she laughs] and a lot of people didn’t like that. Because they didn’t want hippy mags sat next to Boy’s Own sat next to something really gay, they didn’t like that mix up, that’s for me how my brain works, it just all went in there in one crazy mess, and you either got it or your didn’t.
But what I liked about it is that through all that I met so many amazing people, rather than knowing one scene, we got to know everybody because they would all come in at some point. So the customer base was really diverse, everything from drag queens to Paul Weller would all come into my shop, whereas some shops only get one type of person that’s into one type of music, then I’d sell jewellery, then we used to sell mix tapes, because all the DJs would bring mix tapes and we had a lot of DJs mix tapes from before they were famous, which was nice.
At that point Camden Market was very bootleg cassette wasn’t it? There was this whole cassette culture.
There was this whole cassette culture, the way you got known as a DJ was to give everyone cassettes of your work and they would book you through that. And also people used to tape club nights too, so the club promoters would tape their club nights and we’d sell them for the clubs. There was this club called Eclipse that used to tape their nights and we used to sell loads of those. It was everything to do with club culture. We used to have all the flyers from all the clubs, that used to bring people in, and then when things got tough we started selling tickets, and that was brilliant because that really bought people in, and then they’d buy an outfit at the same time, so the whole thing was about clubs.
And obviously a lot of the time when I was in Sign Of The Times I’d just be there to take flyers but… [we both laugh] Were there a lot of people coming in to get flyers just to decorate their bedrooms?
Yeah totally but it didn’t matter, it was just getting people in. People forget. We were doing really, really well, then suddenly in 1991, the recession really hit and it was just like a dessert, and I think there was a bombing of an embassy around the corner, some drama anyway, and a lot of people stopped their kids going to Kensington High Street, and suddenly a lot of us were in trouble. Rents weren’t that cheap, my rent was £300 a week. In the late 80s, it wasn’t that much bigger than this front room, this room and the kitchen. It was a lot of money, in fact they reduced our rents to £200 a week after that which was good, but it was a lot of money, so you had to take money all the time. The great thing about Ken Market which is so brilliant was you only had to give them a month’s rent to get in. So if you were small you could start a business. There’s not all this guarantees and all this six months rent and all this, and you could leave as quickly as that as well. I started selling club tickets and through that I got known for the tickets, then my friend Paolo Sedazzari said, why don’t you do a Christmas party? And so I said, yeah sounds like a good idea. And because we were selling tickets, we sold out straight away. And we got Rampling and Rocky and Diesel who later became
X-Press 2 yeah, and a few other people, and we did it at the Diorama, which was this amazing venue, this arts centre off Regents Park with a great domed ceiling I think Wayne Shires [amazing nightlife legend who ran The Cock, and now runs East Bloc on City Road] did a lot of parties too, and we sold out straight away, and everyone was like, this is amazing, when’s the next one? And I said, oh, Christmas? I hadn’t sort of clicked. And my Paolo said, you can do them more often than Christmas. So then we started doing ten a year. And the money from that went into the shop. But it saved me, because I would not have survived that recession if it hadn’t been for that. And so then I became embroiled in running clubs and the shop. Which was pretty crazy. But it fed off each other, which was good.
When did you move to Covent Garden?
Well the reason why that happened was… Personally my favourite time of the whole experience was Ken Market, because it was a proper underground place, and it was properly young, and that’s what I loved about it, and it was very free, you could do anything and if someone like it, it would work. But then what happened was in the recession, suddenly those kids who were coming to Ken Market suddenly didn’t have any money at all, and the place that was doing better was Hyper Hyper, and that was more designer-y. So I went and got a stall at Hyper Hyper, and it was very different people shopping there, even if it was only across the road, and but again the rent was insane. I mean Hyper Hyper the stall was tiny, and it was still £300 a week, £15,000 a year. And we used to get the designers to do higher end stuff, so stuff would start at a higher price point, and we did have some great people, we got Julie X, she did all these cobwebby jumpers, we had Joe Bates, I don’t know if we met him there or if it was later, but we had Joe Bates designing for us
Yes, Joe from Sibling. He either started there or for Covent Garden, but when we got more designer oriented. And we got Björk in those clothes for her first tour, I think it was when we were at Hyper Hyper, all that with the arms that’s all Joe Bates, because she used to come in the shop and have chats and she asked us if we’d do the tour clothing. And so we got more into the fashion end. And then Isabella Blow came into the shop. I think she came in with Bruce Weber, Kate Moss and Steven Meisel. We were like ohmygod! Because we’d been totally underground in Ken Market. I started hanging out with Isabella, she asked me to be her assistant at one point and I said no! Because I had Sign Of The Times. But I went to all of McQueen’s early shows because of her. I went to that one in the Bluebird Garage.
Was that Highland Rape?
I’m not sure [I’ve checked since – it was Nihilism]. I went to all of these early ones. I remember going to the cashpoint so Issy could get out money to give him after. It was crazy. And we used to sell Dazed And Confused when it was just a pull-out. That was the other thing. Jefferson used to come in all the time. We did a fashion show in Brixton with Dazed And Confused for the second issue. Suddenly we were going into this high fashion arena, but the problem was we didn’t have enough space, and for the rent I was paying, so my dream was to get somewhere in Covent Garden. The rents had crashed because of the recession, really crashed, I mean literally went half of what they were before, which didn’t happen in this recession. When I went to look at the shop that I fell in love with that probably wasn’t a good choice because it was in Short’s Gardens, a bit people don’t go down that much, but I didn’t really understand that at the time, the rent had halved, and round that Neal’s Street area, it was before Duffer had moved in, there were twenty shops empty.
Were Rough Trade and Slam City Skates there already?
They’d been there a long time before we moved in yes.
So there was some footfall?
The problem is, and the shop’s had a succession of tenants since I left, they’ve had a stationers, Scribbler, they’ve not got Cambridge Satchel Company in there, the problem is that people turn the way Duffer was, but they didn’t turn so much that way. And I don’t want this to sound ridiculous, because I love cheese, but I was next to the cheese shop! Neal’s Yard Dairy! And so many people said to me afterwards, “Fiona, you were next to the cheese shop and I fucking hate cheese, I never came into your shop!” I never thought, cheese! It’s the best cheese shop! It wasn’t very famous then. But I didn’t see it as a handicap. Whereas a lot of people did see having a fashion shop next to a cheese shop as a handicap.
I don’t remember it being there then.
He’d only just opened. It was really wild. We used to do parties and we’d give them free beer and they’d give us free cheese. So I wanted this shop. I managed to get him down to 20 grand, but obviously that had the rates on it too. But I was paying £15,000 for this much in Hyper, but then I can get a whole shop plus the basement for £20000 plus rates so I thought, no brainer. But I didn’t have any money, so everything was done through the takings, so I had to keep Kensington Market on, keep Hyper Hyper on, which in retrospect was a big mistake because it took so much organisation and each of them had different stuff in them, and then to start Covent Garden, so one was funding another which was funding another. Which was exhausting. And doing the clubs at the same time. And it was all different people involved in that too.
Isn’t that weird. In my head I would have said that you weren’t in Hyper Hyper and Ken Market then, just in Covent Garden. Maybe by then I was at college, which was near Covent Garden.
Ken Market was open for a whole year after I started Covent Garden. And Hyper Hyper was open for about a year and a half after I started Covent Garden. I couldn’t manage all of them. As with all these things, unless you’re on it 24/7 they start to slide, and as soon as the attention was on Covent Garden, the takings started to dip in the other two shops, and to be quite honest they weren’t making too much because the rents were so high. And also we decided to go properly more designer, and you know what it’s like, everybody wanted to be in the place that was getting the most attention, and Covent Garden was getting the attention, the others weren’t, and so Covent Garden was getting the best stuff. And it was amazing, because Bjork was coming in the shop a lot, because it turned out she didn’t know that many people in London and we always chatted to her, which sounds really ridiculous but that’s how things worked, we asked her to open the shop. So we did a shoot thing where we sent Jeremy Deller, who was working part time in the shop for about four years, we used to have to phone his mum to get him to come in, is he free on Saturday? His mum’s amazing. He’d come in on a Saturday, he was the photographer, Sidonie Barton, who after the shop shut worked at McQueen, and a girl called Ruth, we sent them up to Blackpool, and they did this shoot on the beach and a lot of Olivier Van Der Welde’s stuff. He now works at McQueen.
Olivier! He made clothes?
I had no idea!
He started off that whole distressed look actually. I spotted him in a club wearing this distressed stuff, and I said would he make stuff for me, he became one of our best selling designers. He was really good, really talented. He’s a really good designer. After Sign Of The Times ended he had a shop of his own in Portobello Arcade, but I think it was tough so he decided to join McQueen. Him and Sidonie have always been very close.
So anyway we did this shoot, did we have Joe Bates by that point? Christa Davis, I know she’s not very big now but she was very big in the 90s, Julie X and all these people, we sent them up to Blackpool, they did a shoot on the beach, and then they came back and we made a fake beach, we put sand in the shop window, we had all these sticks of rock, we had all of Jeremy’s pictures on the wall, which I gave away to the staff when I shut down because I couldn’t afford to pay them redundancy. They got no redundancy but they got original pictures by Jeremy Deller…
And so we put all these in the shop, and we did this mad Blackpool party, and Björk opened the shop by jumping on a real sandcastle outside. And we got all the paps there, and Paul Smith happened to come in with a bouquet for me, he was really supportive, and it was really bonkers, I’ve got pictures of that actually. And Donald Urquhart, who used to do a lot of stuff at my parties because he was a friend, he used to do drag shows with Sheila Tequila, he came along, and there’s pictures of him with Bjork, and it was just crazy. Bjork was going out with Stephane Sednaoui, he filmed it for her first or second video, there’s clips of us in the shop. And he filmed the opening party and used it in the video. And because of that we got lots of publicity, and then we started to do really well, and Elle did this big feature on me, and we did this show at Pitti which Ted Polhemus organised, they flew 26 of us out there, including a young Sophie Anderton, who was very beautiful, I mean really amazingly beautitful, and also that guy who’s become a really famous actor, can’t remember the name of, a whole load of us went out to do this show after Valentino, I mean can you imagine.
And it was actually quite good, and Sidonie art directed it with my friend Rebecca Tomlinson. Sidonie used to be a dancer, her background is dancing, so she did the choreography, and we all went there with Mike Flowers Pops, and they played too. So we did it at the Stazione, I don’t know some great big fucking place, after Valentino, and they had all these journalists, I’ve got the list somewhere of everyone who came, all these big power journalists turned up, and this little bunch of people from London who didn’t really know what they were doing did this massive show, which was really crazy. But the problem was, same old shit, everybody went nuts, we were all over the Italian press, it didn’t hit Britain really, but everyone wanted this stuff, but we couldn’t afford to fund the production of the clothing, we were trying to get advances off everyone, it was just very difficult. So things did get a lot better. But we got so much publicity from so much other stuff that all the high street jumped on us. There was that shop called Big Apple on Neal Street.
Oh god. I remember [it was where the Birkenstock store is now]
They would just come in, buy stuff without us knowing, and a version would be all over theirs two weeks later at half the price. And because we were off Neal Street, people would just go to Big Apple first and get the copy version. And my takings literally in the Covent Garden shop went from a really healthy amount to half, within six months. And it was just, we were falling behind each week, each week. They saw what we were doing, and just thought, we could do this on a massive scale for half the price. People were still skint, so you’re going to pay £60 with us, or £30 with them. We were still taking money, but not enough to pay for everything we were doing. I was falling behind, falling behind, desperately trying to get backing, people falling through. I did this deal with a company called Biba, I was led to believe that Barbara Hulanicki was involved, it turned out it was just some Hong Kong people, we tried to do a deal with them to save it, I didn’t want to do it.
In retrospect I really should have done is actually just let out part of the shop to the designers who were still doing well, because we had some designers at the time, people like Mickey Brazil, do you remember her? She was doing very very well, I should have done that. But the pressure was very immense. I also got attacked at the same time, I had to fight a court case, very stressful, because it happened where I lived, so I was going back every night to the same place where I was attacked. The stress in my life was insane, the debts were building up, I got to the point where that bill came, I couldn’t it, couldn’t pay the rates, I had to shut. That was that.
The worse thing about that, if I’d stuck it another year later, which I wasn’t able to do, but a year later, everyone got backing! Because it was the dot.com boom, people were throwing money at any stupid idea [both of us laugh]. But you know it was crazy and it was good and you look back and, I’d just come from a market stall, I wasn’t a top businesswoman, I didn’t, in those days now you can find out about business anywhere, but in those days it was very hard to find out about how to run a business. I really needed a manager, I was doing too much, all the clubs, all the shops, and you know.
You say that, but the thing is shops like yours and clubs like yours, there aren’t manuals on how to run them. They just happen. So yeah, you could write a business plan for one now, but it would be a really boring shop that’d be too cautious and wouldn’t allow things to happen. If you’re allowing things to happen, then…
And we did morph. The thing is we did really change from the Acid House days of 88 to where we ended up in 96. We’d gone through a massive change, to go from selling club T-shirts that were sold in underground clubs to being in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar is a massive journey. It was only done by moving with the trends each time. Once you get to the higher level you do need money. You do need money behind you. And it’s very hard to fund a shop like that through the takings. But I really beat myself up about it, for years, you know obviously I saw a lot of people who started later than me, who hadn’t gone through the terrible recession bit that we’d gone through, suddenly all get backing and suddenly get huge and I really felt like a big failure, not being able to achieve that.
Well you shouldn’t.
A lot of the people who were with me did go on to do other stuff but to be honest it did make me allergic to the fashion business for a long while. I felt quite used and spat out.
But anyway the fashion business has completely changed. And a lot of the people who got backing have been kind of ruined by what happened with fashion and luxury between 97/98 and now.
Oh the business has changed beyond recognition. If you think about it British fashion wasn’t taken seriously, it was only when McQueen got the job at Givenchy, I mean Galliano was taken seriously and there was Westwood, but it wasn’t not on the scale it is now where British designers are just sought after, that mentality wasn’t there. And fashion was still seen as one of those frivolous industries that someone with too much money might put in if they fancied it. It wasn’t seen, certainly the banks didn’t take it seriously or anything like that.
It’s only now, in the last couple of years, there are young designers now who aren’t assuming they have to be luxury, or aren’t assuming their idea of fashion has to be cocktail dresses or smart clothes, which is what the last ten years have been. It’s only now there are people like Nasir Mazhar and Christopher Shannon
I don’t know those people
They’re doing, for want of a better word, street looks, but it’s more than that, it’s fashion, it’s doing stuff they want to wear.
Like Carri Mundane [Cassette Playa], like a continuation of her.
I think the last fifteen years haven’t been friendly to the way you ran a shop, because yours was about ideas.
Probably not. I think the worst thing for me was the rents. Because although the £20000 plus the rates seemed cheap, actually the problem was, and something I didn’t understand at the time, once I’d moved out of the umbrella of Ken Market and Hyper Hyper, they were generating press for everyone in those places, suddenly we had to do it all ourselves, which we were really good at, actually, me and Sidonie were a powerhouse of press, but at the same time we had to do it ourselves, whereas before we’d just give it to the press office and they would get Elle to feature it or whatever.
Suddenly I was having to pay for everything – in Ken Market and Hyper Hyper the electricity was included, all that sort of thing. Suddenly I was having to pay or binmen, pay for electricity, all these other costs, and so running a shop was hugely much more expensive than having a little unit in Hyper Hyper or Kensington. You needed staff to man it, you needed more staff because it was bigger, all these costs rose exponentially, but the takings hadn’t risen enough to match them.
But you know, I look back now, and this is all thanks to Facebook, it’s put me back in touch with loads of people who had had a good experience from the shop, who really thought what I did was important, and that made me realise, to be less hard on myself. The trouble is with all that shit is you only remember the end. All the brilliant bits from ‘87 up to ‘96, all the incredible things we did, the amazing people I met, the wonderful people who came in the shop, all gets forgotten by the really crap bit at the end, because I actually went bust. So traumatic. When you’ve been fighting everything you do to keep something open, and then it ends, all you can focus on is that bit at the end. And you forget about all the other stuff. And so all these people coming back saying, I had the best time of my life there, you think, oh wow, it was worth it.
And when so much that what you were about was celebration, to then go from celebration to bust
And people, I’ll be honest, as soon as I was off the scene, it was like, “who’s Fiona?” If I tried, which I didn’t try, I couldn’t get on the guestlist, you’re old news. And I knew that, I’d seen that happen to other people, I wasn’t naïve. It was quite hard, from being up there to suddenly crashing. When I did the stall in Covent Garden, I went back to doing teenage stuff, street stuff from America, selling things like Emily Strange, a lot of people were really shocked because they thought, god, Fiona could have been so big in fashion. But what they didn’t realise was I was absolutely exhausted. I was absolutely mentally and physically drained by it all. I’d just got this flat from the court case, I just thought I’ve just got to get my head together. The few people from fashion who treated me normally throughout the whole thing were Michael Oliviera-Salec [director of Blow] who’s just been amazing, McQueen, who would come over and say hello to me on the stall, and Giles Deacon. And those three people were so amazing to me, and it didn’t matter to them if I had Sign Of The Times or not, they still said hello to me, and I really appreciated that.
The thing about McQueen was even after I lost Sign Of The Times, he sent me invites to every single one of his shows, until he went to Paris, with a good seat, that he could have given to anybody, couriered round to my flat. And that was probably to do with Sidonie as well, but how amazing. He had this really real side of him, it was quite touching. It was a side of him that people didn’t see so much. He remembered people, he wasn’t just this big successful person.
But I think for me, the thing about the whole Facebook experience and having gone out again after being quite reclusive for about 10, 12 years, is that I love street fashion. The whole high fashion thing never really grabbed me. I mean I love it, and everything that I did with Billyboy and the couture, I like the clothes but I find the atmosphere a bit too pretentious. I mean going to Carnival yesterday, the looks that some of these kids come up with by themselves, that really turns me on.
You need to see what some people are doing now. It’s really interesting. Nasir Mazhar particularly. And there’s Aaron Tubb who’s one of Jimmy Jumble’s most recent graduates, he did these amazing pieces with Cyrrilc on it.
It’s amazing, super graphic and particular. Interesting that those ideas are making sense again.
Yeah yeah. I mean so many references from the 80s. I know people are going into the early 90s. Have you seen that shop Cult Mountain? In Bethnal Green Road?
You should really check that out. This girl called Jylie Navarro sells there, she’s really amazing. She does the most incredible knitwear. She’s this girl from Leeds, I’m not even sure if she’s been to fashion college, she’s very un-fashiony. Sort of coming up from the street and selling loads of it. It’s crazy shit. She’s very talented. And she’s a one woman force. That’s quite similar to a lot of what we were selling. That’s a very mid-90s looks.
[I get my phone out] This is Aaron’s stuff.
Oh wow wow, I love that. That’s great. Oh is he with Ella Dror? I’ve heard of her. [And from hereon in we start to show each other stuff, and begin looking through her boxes, and finding memories, and really you had to be there, so I’ll stop the transcription here].