Gary Kemp could have been a fashion historian. But he had another career in mind.
Kemp was the brains behind the Eighties supergroup Spandau Ballet. The band, which was formed in London in the late Seventies, emerged as one of the most successful of its time, racking up 10 hit singles, including “True,” “Gold” and “Only When You Leave,” and charting eight top-10 albums.
Spandau Ballet’s career is being chronicled in a new documentary called “Soul Boys of the Western World,” which had its premiere last week.
Although their music was part of the Eighties London scene, Spandau Ballet was just as well-known for its fashion. The band members — who include Kemp’s brother Martin Kemp, as well as lead singer Tony Hadley, Steve Norman and John Keeble — helped ignite a major fashion moment in the U.K. along with Duran Duran and Boy George.
Called New Romanticism, the movement traces its roots to the nightclub scene in London around 1979 and is alternately known as Blitz kids. That reference comes from a popular underground club called the Blitz, where the Spandau Ballet boys spent their time and developed their style. It helped put London fashion back on the map in a way it hadn’t been since the Swinging Sixties.
But Gary Kemp’s interest in fashion started much earlier than Blitz.
“My dad was a teddy boy — he was a rock ’n’ roller,” he said. “He spent all the spare cash he could, as a young man, buying or finding clothes.”
It didn’t take Kemp long to follow in those footsteps.
“Your education wasn’t your statement; your job wasn’t your statement; your clothes were your statement,” he said.
Kemp said kids at that time were “looking for tribes,” and by hitting clubs such as the Blitz, they could find like-minded people. “There’s a line where pop culture and youth culture go hand-in-hand that goes back to the beginning of rock ’n’ roll in London,” he said. “For example, The Who represented Mod culture. It was a very English thing, with club kids dressing up in Italian suits, riding scooters,” he said. “It was acquisitive, aspirational.”
That moved into psychedelics with “the peacock look,” he continued, “and that would have been represented by Pink Floyd.” From there, it was the punk-rock-inspired outfits designed by Vivienne Westwood, for the Sex Pistols. “Punk was really an art-school-designed cult,” Kemp recalled.
But the real “seminal moment” for Kemp was when David Bowie emerged onto the scene with his “Glam Rock” fashion. “That’s when I came in really. I wanted to look like him. I wanted my mom to make me some pants that made me look like Bowie.”
He cut his hair and wore makeup and embraced Bowie’s androgynous look. “We’d all grown up with Ziggy Stardust,” he said. “But there were no stores to buy it. In a way, it was a mix-and-match dressing-up, stolen from history.”
Kemp said it was all about “looking outrageous, looking different, standing out from the crowd. It was definitely a combination of gay and straight, working-class and middle-class art student. We weren’t inventing clothing to be in a band, we were kids wearing those clothes and then stepping up onto the stage. This was youth culture inspiring pop culture,” said Kemp.
Once their careers took off, the Spandau Ballet boys became the trendsetters. “We were drawing the attention of news reporters and photographers and High Street stores. Princess Diana was wearing Pie Crust high-collar shirts and knickerbockers. Designers were looking to the street and Soho, and we were the focus of fashion coming out of Soho.”
During the band’s “True” tour, in 1983, their fashion changed and became dressier.
“Whatever we did became High Street, so we started to do something else.” Specifically, zoot suits.
But Kemp said he actually preferred the look that came after, during the group’s “Parade” tour, around 1984. “It was much more Baroque. I think what happened is that as we became a successful touring band, we were no longer those kids in the street, we were no longer going to those clubs. Even though London is an exciting place, all of those poor Blitz kids were becoming rich kids because they were becoming successful.”
So Spandau Ballet embraced the start of the designer movement, turning to Jean Paul Gaultier, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons.
So what does Kemp think of fashion today?
“I’m disappointed at the homogenization of looks. You don’t see young kids coming up with many ideas of their own. They can create their identity on their Facebook page or their Instagram site. They don’t need to create it on the street. They don’t need to find their tribe by going out in a uniform and going to a club. They can do that on the Internet.”
But he still remains hopeful.
“I’d love to go to Soho and see a bunch of kids come around the corner dressed like they just walked out of a Dickens novel or something like that.”