The northern powerhouse, poorhouse... fashion house?
Despite having many integral aspects of British culture, northern England is frequently dismissed and forgotten, never deemed a tourist hotspot in the same way as London. In fact, the north is often completely disregarded within conversation of England, as images of palaces and red postboxes are deemed “the most British” while viaducts and moores go, sadly, unnoticed.
Recently, sections of the media have dubbed “the northern powerhouse,” “the northern poorhouse”. Despite attempts to glamorise cities such as Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds, the distinct lack of wealth in comparison to the south, remains extremely prominent, further exaggerating the gap between rich and poor. This economic divide, dating back centuries, prevents young people from having the same opportunities as their peers in other regions, especially in creative industries which require specialist education.
Somerset House has recently spotlighted the north, allowing southerners a glimpse into what the area is really like, in order to expand their pre conceived notions of the region. Curators Lou Stoppard and Adam Murray gathered work from artists such as Michelle Sank, Alice Hawkins and Alasdair McLellan to create a visual representation of the north. Stoppard and Murray aimed to prompt familiarity to those who had grown up in the areas photographed, writing “Ideally, many will see at least a glimmer of their version of the North here.” Despite the fact the models posing on council estates and fields are strangers to most visitors, their style and expressions are so ‘northern’, they could easily be an old schoolmate, friend or family member.
Recognition of the cultural significance of northern England is noteworthy, especially coming from an institution as prestigious as Somerset House, but does this reflect a shift in the north south divide?
For a region so poor, breaking into creative industries can seem daunting, as communities still hold long standing traditions of beginning work at a young age in favour of pursuing an education. Fashion student Ella Moore, from Leeds, however, is unfazed by these challenges: “There weren't many difficulties in pursuing what i wanted in fashion. I did fashion and textiles as a GCSE in high school and it progressed from there. There were some difficulties though, like the fear of not being successful as the arts aren't seen as academic subject like the sciences, especially in the north,” she says. It is for this reason that thousands of hopeful designers flock to the capital each year in order to pursue artistic dreams, “I believe that London is the best. Best for events, connecting people and living your dreams. However i do feel its hard to establish yourself as the city is so dense and filled with many people alike who want to be artists and designers,” Ella adds.
Writing about the North on the catwalk, fashion journalist Charlie Porter addressed the necessity of relocating to London for aspiring designers such as Ella, writing: “Designers from the North have to move to London to have any recognition,” adding, “Rare is the luxury designer with a northern accent.” This is in spite of the fashion industries infatuation with the region’s culture, something that has inspired countless collections by designers such as Raf Simons and Jun Takahashi. Porter suggests that this is a result of the strong sense of identity evident within northern communities, writing “Perhaps their interest comes from a yearning for identity, and a feeling of being able to belong.”
Barnsley born Bella White, 18, however, is one of few fashion students keen to break away from cultural stereotypes and embrace her influences from outside where she grew up: “A common misconception is that everyone is rough and dirty and wears tracksuits, but it’s not like that. I was influenced by artists like Rihanna and Beyonce which has nothing to do with the north”. Though many designers admire the strong sense of identity in the north, Bella rejects this, “I don’t think living in the north has influenced my work, as I’ve spent time living in Europe and have been mostly inspired by their cultures and style.”
Both Bella White, fashion student at Manchester University, and Amy Roe, fashion buying student at Huddersfield University have abandoned the idea that a successful career in fashion requires relocation to the South. Bella says “I think you can find influences within other places and cities as the culture and atmosphere is very different to London”, while Amy adds “The north has a rich history in textiles and a lot of the designers and brands based in London will use products that were produced in the north.”
It’s clear that the fashion industry loves the north, but will this ever translate into opportunity or increased wealth in so-called ‘powerhouse’ cities? Currently aspiring designers and marketers must head south to succeed, but with a new sense of passion instilled in those wanting to pursue creative careers, like Amy, Bella and Ella, there’s a hope for the future. This signals a redefining of northern culture. In the meantime, with few major designers manufacturing clothes in the cities which inspired the collections, Charlie Porter’s comments ring true: “Fashion’s love of the north doesn’t necessarily mean the north feels any of the love”.