We bring together Edward Meadham, Arvida Bystrom and The Slits front woman Viv Albertine together in a film by Sharna Osborne.
Taken from the Spring Fashion Issue of Wonderland Magazine:
“Reject Everything” was the fierce statement proclaimed at London fashion designer duo Meadham Kirchhoff’s street-cast SS15 show. Arriving at the event, you would have seen the set designed within an almost post-apocalyptic space in which bloodied tampons swung from the branches of trees. It played out like the pages of a fanzine; paying tribute to some of fashion’s most lauded designers, with Dame Westwood and Malcolm McLaren top of the list. Presenting each guest with a personal booklet, Edward Meadham and Benjamin Kirchhoff gave onlookers before finding herself inspired an insight into their world. Listing pro-lifers, women against feminism, fathers and celebrity culture in their handwritten “hate” list; and mothers, fags, dykes, queens, The Queen and Viv Albertine of The Slits under “love”.
Had you been a fly on the wall at the Meadham Kirchhoff studio last summer, you would have heard the rebellious sound of The Slits playing loud, whilst images of front-woman Viv Albertine plastered the walls. For those of you unfamiliar, Albertine’s position in female-punk history is landmark. One of the first ever female punk icons, she re-defined the cultural expectations of how women should dress, behave, and most importantly, what they could achieve. This collection was devoted to her success in refusing to be anything other than herself.
It soon became clear that the title of the show, Reject Everything, was so much more than a throw-away political comment. It was punk – not just in fashion, but more so in attitude. “Viv was my favourite Slit, I always love a blonde,” explains Meadham. “Her style has always had an enormous influence on my work.”
Though there’s one outfit in particular that’s most significant – the one donned by Albertine in the opening scene of The Punk Rock Movie, directed by The Slit’s former band manager, Don Letts. “Viv wears this pink little girl dress, then standing up from the bed she pulls on these shiny pink knickers whilst a long ribbon dangles from her hair,” enthuses Meadham. “This collection was entirely inspired and driven by everything Viv was, and still is.” And by that he means, life post- Slits too. Reading her biography – having expected to lose interest after the chapter documenting the band’s break up – Meadham found himself enthralled by Albertine’s account of overcoming depression, fear, an oppressive husband, suburban domesticity and a near death experience, and hungry for life, with a new sense of optimism.
In the weeks leading up to Reject Everything, Meadham knew what he had to do. “I nervously invited Viv to the show,” he explains. “Nervous, because I knew Viv hates nostalgia and has no interest in what’s commonly been labelled as ‘punk’ in the 35 years since she lived it.”
Of course, Albertine accepted Meadham’s invitation. He was terrified by what she might think, but after the show she introduced herself, expressed her appreciation for the diverse model casting and announced that she loved the girl in the opening look. Dressed in pink plastic marigolds and a graffiti-printed leotard (violet candy-floss hair worn high, eyebrows crayoned pink, eyes underscored in red) – that girl was model, photographer and artist, Arvida Byström. Meadham’s world was complete.
Having first been introduced to Byström by Tavi Gevinson in 2011 (when working on a mini-zine called Vomit Pink) – Meadham has since been mesmerised. “I immediately became obsessed with two of Arvida’s self-portraits – one with unshaven armpits (which at the time, I hadn’t seen in about a decade), pink hair tucked inside a choker around her neck; and one with a vacant, perhaps stoned, expression, pink moustache drawn above her lip,” says Meadham. “I don’t know how to express why or how I identified with these two simple self-portraits, but they were so pure, so sexual, so confrontational.”
Resisting the desire to invite Byström to walk in one of his shows until the perfect moment, Meadham maintained an online relationship with his muse. But when Reject Everything was born, Byström had to be cast. “Arvida perfectly embodies the spirit that I wanted from the collection, the freedom and irreverence I feel from The Slits and from Viv herself. In a world saturated with images of emaciated girls, sexually fantasised through the male gaze, Arvida’s self-portraits represent autonomy and self-sexual-expression.” Portraying the opposite of what is accepted and expected of femininity, Byström is setting a new standard for beauty, one that welcomes imperfections with open arms.
Four months after the show, following the news that Meadham Kirchhoff would not be showing at London Fashion Week for AW15, Albertine agreed to model the Reject Everything collection exclusively for Wonderland, along with pieces from her own archive. Meadham knew exactly who he wanted to shoot it. “I don’t like men and I definitely don’t like male photographers. I don’t trust them,” he explains. “When I was looking for someone to shoot, it immediately became obvious to me that this was going to be my first project with Arvida. Not just because she opened and closed the show, but because I wanted the images to have a sense of honesty, spontaneity and life.”
That’s exactly what Albertine brought to the shoot. Life. Arriving on set in a casual checked shirt, faded black jeans and ankle boots (with barely a scrap of makeup on), it was hard to believe she celebrated her 60th birthday the day before, more so when she danced around in front of the camera, guitar in hand, effortlessly at ease. “Don’t make me look boring,” she laughs. With an array of eclectic 70s archive pieces stacked on the rail before her, it would have been nearly impossible to. During the shoot, Meadham lusted over a pair of Albertine’s red killer heels purchased at legendary King’s Road boutique SEX, two pairs of her Seditionaries boots, a square cowboy t-shirt (that he later wears for a portrait), and, most impressively of all, her pre-Slits band mate Sid Vicious’ leather jacket. The pair talked at length about Sid and Nancy, and Meadham’s love for 70s boys – Billy Idol, Vicious and Paul Simonon. They certainly don’t make them like that anymore.
Suspicious of modern day girl-punk and almost oblivious of the Riot Grrrl movement, if one thing pisses Albertine off, it’s how far into music history you have to delve to find The Slits. “Back then we were abused and attacked everywhere we went, we didn’t look like anyone else on the streets, we didn’t act like other girls,” explains the singer. “Our audiences had never seen girls on stage playing electric instruments before. We felt very achieved this with the album Cut, but it took about 30 years for people to realise we broke new ground. Including our record company, Island Records, who now admit it’s one of their top fifty albums of all time,” she laughs.
Just like her music, Albertine’s dress sense was considered “out- there”. Aged 15 and penniless, Albertine longed for Ossie Clark dresses, Bus Stop Boutique mini skirts, granny glasses and bags from Biba. “Every Saturday afternoon I would go to Kings Road or Kensington High Street and just look at the people going in and out of the shops,” she recalls. “The boutiques were like beautiful grottos, full of real dress-up stuff.” Unafraid to shock, Albertine’s outfits were a mash-up of little girl dresses, bondage, S&M, ballet costumes and Brownies uniforms – all thrown together with a pair of Doc Martens to boot. Just like Meadham, Albertine was pioneering individuality, fighting for freedom and striving for equality. “It was a comment on what was expected of girls at the time. Juxtaposing those ‘uniforms’ threw all of those roles into relief. It made you see them all differently and question them. Why are they so ridiculous? Why are we allowed to wear tutus and ribbons, but not dog collars and rubber stockings?”
Gender was irrelevant, they were unified by punk. “We weren’t critical of anyone that was thoughtful and relevant, but we were extremely critical of lazy and fake creativity,” recalls Albertine. “We weren’t verbally supportive and touchy-feely or all west coast about it, rather, nothing bad was said and you turned up to each others’ gigs if they were doing OK. We thought people who were not into what we were doing and thinking were backward.”
Leaving Byström to shoot a series of self-portraits wearing Reject Everything, we headed to Albertine’s Hackney home (where she lives with her 15 year-old daughter). What was behind the front door was somewhat unexpected. Rather than surfaces crowded with dust- coated ephemera, the new-build house was clean and modern, vacant of Albertine’s past; save for a framed photograph of herself, Debbie Harry, Siouxsie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde, Pauline Black and Poly Styrene. But, when you take into account that Albertine traded in the daily grind in favour of re-learning the guitar for her debut solo album The Vermilion Border – 33 years on from ‘Cut’ – it’s clear she’s still got it. Punk-rock luminary, coolest mum ever and Meadham Kirchhoff’s muse, in the words of Edward Meadham, “Viv Albertine is more punk than you’ll ever be.”
Film: Sharna Osborne.
Words: Brooke McCord.
Photographer: Arvida Byström.
Fashion Editor: Edward Meadham.
Hair: Sarah Jo Palmer.
Styling Assistant: Kathryn Hewwitson.