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Steve Strange talks to Amie Mulderrig about the Club to Catwalk exhibition at the V&A
He’s credited as one of the founding fathers of the New Romantic movement. His records provided the soundtrack to those fumbling school disco snogs in the 1980s. Celebrities including Jack Nicholson and Sylvester Stallone have attended his club nights. And now some of his outfits, which inspired generations of clubbers, are set to be celebrated in a special exhibition Club to Catwalk at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
But even at the grand old age of 54, Steve Strange’s mother, Jill, is still doing his laundry.
“My mum is still looking after me,“ he laughs heartily.
“We’ve always had a close relationship. When I dyed my hair orange at 12 and was suspended from Oakdale, she stuck up for me. Eventually I had to dye it back, but few mums would stick by you like that. She’s cool.“
In fact, when we catch up, Steve’s resting up at his mum’s house in Porthcawl following a “manic and magical” showcase gig in Cardiff with his reformed band Visage.
It’s a marked change in fortunes for the former club host and musician.
At 15 he went to London, finding work in Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s shop Sex in the Kings Road. There followed a disagreement over a blue tartan outfit: “Vivienne found out I’d taken it from the store when I bumped into her at a gig“, and a feeling of disillusionment with the punk scene: “I had black friends and suddenly punk involved all of these racist, violent, national front types.” So he turned his back on that scene and ran his own weekly club night instead.
With an as yet undiscovered Boy George installed as a cloakroom attendant, and Marilyn, in full drag, as the cigarette girl, these nights, such as Billy’s and Blitz, are now the stuff of New Romantic legend.
“I was very strict on the door,“ says Steve reflecting on the period. “If people turned up in a wetsuit with their face painted black and white I’d turn them away. Our nights weren’t about being weird, it was about people embracing and expressing how they felt.
“That’s why this Club to Catwalk exhibition at the V&A is so important. The clothes we were wearing from that period are still really relevant. Without trying to sound too bitchy, Lee Bowery’s clothes were terribly made, but my they were magical.
“It wasn’t a freak show, it was about being creative, it was about balancing classic style alongside the outrageous. We became known as the Cult with No Name, the Blitz Kids.
“There was an instance where I stopped Mick Jagger from coming in. That was to do with fire safety though. If we had too many people in the club we’d have been closed down, I couldn’t make exceptions. Unfortunately a tabloid hack was there that night and so it appeared all over the papers – I’d booted Mick Jagger out of my club night. Turns out, it was the best thing I could’ve done.“
From there, Steve’s career rocketed. He formed the band Visage in 1979 alongside Midge Ure and Rusty Egan, they grabbed the world’s attention with dancefloor classic Fade To Grey, which reached number one in nine countries and number two in Britain. There was an appearance in David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video, as well as modelling stints including for Jean Paul Gaultier.
But just as quick as his ascent did his life quickly fall apart. He developed a drug problem, battling a severe heroin addiction for years on end and Visage split in 1985 following two successful albums, Visage and The Anvil.
Then in the late ‘90s his world “turned upside down“ following the deaths of “dear friends“ Michael Hutchence and Paula Yates, and his London home burnt down.
Since then his life has not been without drama. After a series of “bizarre episodes“ he was diagnosed as being on the verge of a nervous breakdown and spent several weeks at a psychiatric hospital. And a further relapse in 1999 resulted in him being given a suspended sentence for shoplifting.
Steve is somewhat reluctant when it comes to talking about his descent. Throughout the interview his voice is quavering, almost to the point of slurring, perhaps belying the fact that he has indeed been through some very ’dark times’.
“The music industry definitely fostered drug abuse with me,” he says frankly. “There was no way I could be in five countries in one day, it’s inhumane to expect someone to leave Heathrow and fly to Paris to do a TV show then fly to Italy, then Spain, or Germany or Greece or wherever.
“I’m going back into this with my eyes open. I’ve got a really good team around me, none of us even really drink. I might have the odd glass of red wine or a bit of a pear cider – those days are behind me.“
Visage, who reformed for the second time last year, have only Steve as the original member. With a tour planned for September the future certainly looks bright for the group.
And, just as in his Blitz Kids days fashion is playing a key part. “Michiko Koshino will be doing the clothes for the tour and the stuff we’ve been wearing on the showcases have been created by a very pioneering designer. But when it comes to fashion I like to think I don’t follow it, if anything, I dictate it.
“I get that from my mum, I get my showmanship from her, she is the show. When she promenades she sets the fashion in Porthcawl.“
The Club to Catwalk Exhibition is at the V&A, Cromwell Road, SW7, until February 16, 2014.