Dressing Above Your Station: Fashion in the Work of Steven Campbell

Cindy Sherman
Comme des Garçons
Dianne Benson
Golden City
Jean Paul Gaultier
Marks and Spencer's
sharkskin suit
Steven Campbell

On 31 March, the virtual exhibition Dressing Above Your Station will launch at www.dressingaboveyourstation.com. Presented by Tramway in Glasgow, the exhibition examines the role of fashion and textiles in relation to the work and cultural identity of the Scottish artist Steven Campbell (1953-2007). Campbell was a graduate of Glasgow School of Art, which he attended after working as an engineer at Clydebridge Steelworks. After graduating in 1982, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Pratt Institute in New York, where he gained great recognition, eventually returning to Glasgow in 1987. Campbell was proud of his working-class roots, and this social context informed his idiosyncratic and eclectic work, which included narrative paintings, installations, performance, community art projects, and writing.

Running until 26 June, the exhibition will include digital representations of Steven Campbell’s paintings, along with his clothing (notably his collection of Comme des Garçons) and other personal mementos. An audio tour of the show has been recorded by his wife, Carol Campbell. Until 17 April, the virtual presentation will also be accompanied by digital window projections in a shopfront on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, including a recreation of the 1980s Comme des Garçons store in New York, and a street poster campaign across the city center.

Dressing Above Your Station has been co-curated by Beca Lipscombe and Mairi MacKenzie. Lipscombe is a fashion and textile designer, printmaker, and one half of the fashion label Atelier E.B. MacKenzie is a fashion historian, curator, and the Research Fellow in Fashion and Textiles at Glasgow School of Art. Their ideas demonstrate how Steven Campbell’s depiction of textiles and clothing, in addition to his own personal wardrobe, illuminate the intimate relationship between the clothes we wear and our cultural identity. The project has also allowed them to reflect on their own aspirations, recalling growing up in Scotland and experimenting with their personal style, asking the question, “What does it mean to dress for the life you want rather than dress for the life you have?”

For V/A, Philomena Epps talked to Lipscombe and MacKenzie about their interest in Campbell, the relationship between his art and his wardrobe, and the challenges and opportunities of producing a digital exhibition.  

Text Philomena Epps
Images Provided by the Curators

PHILOMENA EPPS By way of introduction, I wanted to ask how you both discovered Steven Campbell’s work, and how you came to work together on this project?

MAIRI MACKENZIE I came to Steven properly through Beca. He’s part of the cultural ether in Scotland, and, once I tuned into it, I realized I’d seen his work many times before. After I saw Lindsey Young’s exhibition of his collages at Tramway, Beca and I got talking about it. Like any project I work on, it tends to start with late nights sitting around the kitchen table, having a chat, and just seeing where the interest lies.

BECA LIPSCOMBE We met because we were both working at the Glasgow School of Art. Mairi still works there, but I was teaching on a Masters program in Fashion and Textiles, and we became friends after I left. Having Mairi in Scotland was really important to me. I studied fashion in London, and Mairi had worked in fashion in London. We were there at similar times, from the 1990s into the 2000s. Mairi stayed there for longer than I did, but we both came back to Scotland. A lot of my friends here aren’t interested in fashion or work in fashion, so Mairi was the person that I could properly talk about it with. We have a shorthand. I can go to her and say, “Do you remember the Helmut Lang bustier top from 1996?” In his paintings, Steven Campbell captures a Scotland that Mairi and I grew up in, even though we grew up in different places. We can look at his work and we understand what he’s showing. Our grandparents, our uncles, our aunts all wore those clothes, and we can identify with the textiles in his paintings. My mum was my art teacher. I’m not sure how I discovered his work; it’s just always been there. The first time that I remember seeing it and it having a visceral effect on me was when I went to the Paisley Museum to do some research. Steven’s incredible painting Golden City, which was originally commissioned for Glasgow Airport, was hanging there. It is a huge work: 12 meters long in two sections. It made the hairs on my arm stand on end. It was a really powerful moment. After talking to Mairi about his work and seeing exhibitions together, this project just felt natural.

MM It is also about our own experiences. When people come to the exhibition, they might have a similar background to us, and we hope that it prompts some of their own recollections and brings a new perspective to their experiences.

Steven and Carol Campbell, 1982. Photo courtesy of Carol Campbell.

PE There is an intimate relationship between clothing and cultural identity. Choosing to focus on garments and textiles as a vessel to consider these ideas surrounding personality and representation perhaps makes it more accessible for a wider audience, as it encourages individuals to share anecdotes or their own recollections. I love the symbolic resonance of Steven’s painting being hung in an airport, thinking about Scotland as both a physical and psychic departure point. You moved to London, and Steven Campbell and his wife Carol left for New York, but you all ended up returning to Scotland.

MM You need to leave sometimes to appreciate it and come back again.

PE The exhibition uniquely examines the role of fashion and textiles in his work, and so I thought we could talk about the depiction of clothing, and then about his personal wardrobe and his particular relationship to Comme des Garçons. In my research, I noticed that he often depicts men in suits, in addition to the paisley print. His paintings seem very cinematic. There is a real sense of storytelling, and of travel and adventure.

MM There is action. It doesn’t feel static. He was cinematic in his delivery. He had a way of expressing ideas in an expansive and exploratory manner, and I think that comes across in his paintings.

BL The suit was plentiful for men and women to get in Glasgow. It was close to the Second World War, and there was this surplus of secondhand merch. The suit was a cheap way of looking like the dog’s bollocks. You’re not having to necessarily invest a lot of money. You could just go to Paddy’s Market, for instance, and get your sharkskin suit and look the business. From my research, a lot of the male characters wore suits to go to the art school, and not in a fuddy duddy way, in a smart way. It was making a statement.

PE I like the idea that as an artist, and specifically as a painter, you’re wearing a suit to make a mess. I saw an image of Steven Campbell wearing a three-piece suit in his studio that was absolutely covered in paint. It made me think about how an item of clothing that someone else might keep neatly pressed and dry cleaned in a garment bag in their wardrobe is being worn in lieu of something more utilitarian, like overalls. It seemed liberated.

MM In Glasgow, the working-class culture is to dress up and to look smart. It is maybe at odds with how other people outside the city might see it, but I think it is a Glaswegian thing, that idea of the super smart, dressed up, working-class guy. A lot of these working-class people were going to art school in that time because it was much more accessible then.

Fashion and art are strange bedfellows; they need each other in a weird way. You can’t separate them. Fashion wants art for the intellect, and art wants fashion for its broad and general audience.

PE You can demonstrate your identity through your choice of clothing, but it is still mutable. You can shape and edit your identity too, through experimenting with your style, and, perhaps, projecting a different version of yourself. This might be related to the title of your show: the concept of dressing above one’s station and going beyond what people might expect you to look or act like.

BL Absolutely, the theater of it. You’re able to create an illusion, or you can really change somebody’s opinion. We all judge a book by its cover, whether we mean to or not, even if it is just a person walking past us on the street. Fashion and art are strange bedfellows; they need each other in a weird way. You can’t separate them. Fashion wants art for the intellect, and art wants fashion for its broad and general audience. Steven’s work has made perfect bedfellows of art and fashion, even if he didn’t know he was doing it. So often Steven painted himself in his paintings, but he wouldn’t have said that when he was alive. When we spoke to Carol about it; she never used to see it either, but now she does. It takes outsiders when you’re too close. She lived it, and he painted it, so it’s very close for them. She enabled his work. He was so prolific, and she gave him the space and the time to do that. They grew up together.

MM We have great discussions, and thankfully, Carol is very happy with what we’re doing.

BL At the end of our Steven Campbell Annual Lecture in 2019, Carol said in all of the lectures that had taken place before, she knew the man that they were talking about, she knew the person that they were referencing. But when we gave our talk, she realized that she never knew this man. She was too interwoven and had never looked at Steven’s work that way. That was really moving for us.

PE The story goes that after Steven Campbell’s first solo exhibition in New York in 1983 at Barbara Toll Gallery, the infamous retailer Dianne Benson asked him if he would trade a painting for 10,000 USD of store credit at Comme des Garçons…

MM We initially thought it was Rei Kawakubo herself, but we did some digging and spoke to Adrian Joffe, and we realized it must have been Dianne.

Steven Campbell, Lady with Palette Hat and Hound, Portrait of Carol (1982).

PE I was reading a Vogue interview with Dianne Benson, where she spoke about her work in the 1980s and her relationships with Issey Miyake, Kenzo, Jean Paul Gaultier, etc. I hadn’t twigged until then that Cindy Sherman’s fashion series with Miyake had originated as an advertising assignment for her.

MM We’re interested in recontextualizing Steven’s work and showing and connecting it with artists that he wouldn’t normally be associated with. So, you wouldn’t think of Steven Campbell and Cindy Sherman, or you wouldn’t think of Steven Campbell and Archie Brennan, the tapestry weaver. But we’ve managed to create these links that should provide a more expansive view of his work, his contemporaries, and the worlds that he moved in.

PE What do you think it is about the Comme des Garçons clothes that appealed to Steven and Carol? Beyond the initial exchange, there was clearly a harmony between the garments and their own sense of style, which is why they carried on wearing them.

MM They got it. There was an affinity there from the beginning. They wanted those clothes, they understood those clothes, and they continued to wear them ever since.

BL That is a testament to Rei; that’s over forty years. I have the ultimate respect for Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons, but I originally had dismissed her. When you work in fashion, whether you’re writing about it or designing it, you dismiss things along the way. However, when we received the clothes, I thought that they were just incredible. The textile quality is incredible. They’re very simple garments, but they just have that depth, that knowledge. It completely made me rethink the brand. It is so easy to think that those clothes have had their time, but they are just as relevant now as they were then. She really is a genius.

PE What was it like when Steven Campbell and Carol returned to Scotland, did their new look make them stand out?

MM In Scotland the clothes completely worked. They were in tune with that Glaswegian idea of dressing up and going out that I mentioned before. There were designer shops here in the 1980s that were the first to stock Comme des Garçons along with all the Belgian designers.

BL It’s such a big deal in Glasgow. It’s the reason Versace’s first major store outside of Milan was in Glasgow: the Versus store. Glaswegians love to dress up.

MM And they spend a lot of money on it as well. There is a really high per capita spend on clothing.

The Glaswegians have always cared about clothes and about how they look. They are prepared to pay for it as well. The only thing is you might get shouted at in the street.

BL Katharine Hamnett had her store here. We also had few shops that would stock Dries van Noten, Martin Margiela, Jean Paul Gaultier, right at the start of their careers. The Glaswegians have always cared about clothes and about how they look. They are prepared to pay for it as well. The only thing is you might get shouted at in the street.

PE So, you have to be prepared to defend your look?

BL Mairi, tell the story about your red boots…

MM I had taken these boots to get fixed at the cobblers, and they said they’d buy me a brass neck to go with them! They got some guy out from the back to check them out, and they were all laughing at them…

BL I used to love dressing up and playing with it when I was younger. When I taught in Glasgow I lived in Edinburgh, so I’d have to get the bus through Glasgow. I’d wear a long Barbour coat with a belt and pearl earrings, going for that Sloane look. The bus drivers hated me! I loved the reaction I got. I looked like I was from Edinburgh and I looked like I was upper class, and it really jarred with them. The driver called everyone else “darling” when they got on the bus, but never me. I think Steven Campbell and Carol liked to dress up in the same way. It gets you noticed. Steven’s paintings are just full of it. He’s also captured the tail end of Scotland as a textile power. We were absolutely incredible at textiles. We still are, but only a tiny percentage of the industry is left. Steven has captured what was an industrial revolution. That quality doesn’t really exist now. Or if it does, you have to pay a lot of money for it.

PE You’re not just dressing for yourself but dressing up for the attention, for the reaction, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. It’s a kind of crowing, of walking down the street, feeling people’s eyes on you. Steven’s paintings seem to carry that sort of energy and integrity. They have such prowess.

BL I love that you use the word ‘crowing’. I like to say it’s ‘peacocking’.

PE I wear lots of black, so maybe I’m more of a crow.

BL I’m definitely a peacock. It is a performance, and everybody’s at it…

MM …even if they say they’re not, they are!

It all comes back to textiles.

PE The paintings feel very three-dimensional. I read that Steven Campbell had worked in performance and installation before he committed to painting.

BL A great example of that is Steven’s painting of John Byrne, Waiting – Paisleycus Byrnicus Virus Invading Mr Gray, which was commissioned by the Paisley Museum. John is an illustrator and an artist, and they were doing portraits of each other. Steven really struggled with his portrait of John. In the painting, Steven depicted himself sitting the middle with this ragged leg, but John can be found camouflaged within the paisley print, with his teddy boy hair and long winklepicker shoes. John was from Paisley, the place where the paisley scarf shawl originated—or was nicked from India—and was produced. He was a ‘slab boy’, which meant he mixed up the colors in the carpet factories, just outside Paisley. It all comes back to textiles.

Steven Campbell, Waiting – Paisley Byrnicus Virus Invading Mr Gray (2007).

PE That painting has been reproduced on one of the four posters you have created for the exhibition. They will be put up throughout Glasgow, and form a key part of the show, alongside the shopfront projection, and the virtual exhibition itself. What made you decide to work in the digital space?

BL From my point of view, I’ve put on exhibitions in the past and felt very guilty about the temporary build and what it takes in order to show the exhibition. Here, we’re not flying all these huge artworks around the world to show them. We’re cutting down the carbon footprint. Time, energy, and power are all still used, but I don’t feel so guilty about the end result. It also was an opportunity to try something that was outside of our comfort zone. It’s a challenge and I’ve never done anything like it before. If another space wanted to show the exhibition, say a museum in Japan, then we would reconfigure the exhibition for that specific space. We would rehang it virtually and open it again, just like in real life. It can travel without being shipped. With my company Atelier E.B., we think about these things constantly, so if I’m not thinking about it when I’m creating an exhibition with Mairi, then we’re not being true to ourselves. I know these are concerns of hers as well.

MM The space is an exact scan of Tramway 2. We’ve been able to hang things in mid-air, so there is an uncanny aspect, but the dimensions, the height of the room, are all in 1:1 scale. With clothing in museums, there has always been a disconnect for me because of the mannequins. It is often quite eerie. You can’t get good access, it’s behind glass, or you can’t see it properly. So for me, the virtual aspect of looking at Steven’s clothes is much more intimate than it would be if viewed in a museum. You can see the detail of the threads. There is a hat where you can see a mouse has eaten it and there are nibble marks on the edge. Everything is in super high definition; you can zoom right in and look at a label. I think as consumers we’re also more literate when it comes to reading clothing online because that’s how we shop now.

The clothes are the most important aspect and we’re creating the theater around it to be convincing.

BL The clothes are shown just as Steven and Carol found them. That is the beauty of the virtual space: it is more of a spec drawing. The clothes are the most important aspect and we’re creating the theater around it to be convincing.

PE I know you’re also working on a simulated version of the 1980s Comme des Garçons shop on Wooster Street in New York, to be projected. Tell me more about these shopfront projections.

MM The projection will be sited at 274 Sauchiehall Street at the site of the McLellan Galleries. Sauchiehall Street is around the corner from the art school. It used to be one of the grandest shopping streets in Glasgow, but has now become very tired. There has been a lot of fire, destruction, and abandonment on that street. You will do a double take, thinking, what is that, what is going on? It harks back to the history of Glasgow and it refers to the exhibition.

BL A single projection will present a series of encounters from the exhibition, designed to draw in the Glasgow passer-by. Transitioning into one another, these moments highlight the exhibitions use of innovative technologies, including photogrammetry and high resolution scanning. The projection will range from a digital representation of two mannequin-style exhibition visitors, to the recreation of the Comme des Garçons store on Wooster Street, to a simulated dynamic display of one of Campbell’s paintings, which transforms into undulating fabric. As the exhibition is virtual, we need to have a connective tissue back to reality, which is why we are launching something on a main shopping street. Then we will have the poster campaign running throughout the city as well in order to drum up an audience.

Steve Campbell and daughter Greer in Tournus, France (2001/2002). Image courtesy of Carol Campbell

PE I love the poster that uses a family photograph of Steven on holiday with his daughter, with her looking absolutely miserable about his choice of outfit.

BL Mairi and I remember being embarrassed by our relatives. It is a strong part of growing up. Or, as Carol puts it, their kids used to say, “Why can’t we have a Marks and Spencer’s Daddy?” Now, the kids are like, “Wasn’t Steven incredible?” Certain people don’t become adventurous with their clothing; they stick out and don’t like it. For others, it is their calling. For Steven, it was his calling.

Text Philomena Epps
Images Provided by the Curators
Cindy Sherman
Comme des Garçons
Dianne Benson
Golden City
Jean Paul Gaultier
Marks and Spencer's
sharkskin suit
Steven Campbell