Legendary stylist and iconoclast Judy Blame passed away on February 19. The fashion world will remember him fondly, as will Karlo Steel, stylist, consultant, and the co-founder of the iconic New York menswear boutique, Atelier. While Steel was not personally familiar with Judy Blame, he was an avid follower of Blame’s work, which in turn influenced Steel’s own perception of fashion. In his own words, Steel recounts Blame’s impact on his career and the fashion world at large.
I’m trying to remember the very first time he crossed my radar. It was probably about 1984, there was a full length photograph of him in i-D magazine and he was wearing a bunch of rubber jewelry. It was rubber bracelets, rubber necklaces—they were all over the place. And I thought it was a very, very strong image and so the name stuck. Also because it was a boy named Judy.
[Editor’s Note: Judy Blame was born Chris Barnes, and later assumed the Judy Blame name. “Judy” was given by designer Antony Price, and “Blame” came from his friend Scarlett Cannon. Of his moniker, Blame said: “I wanted a lady name because everyone changed their name to one of the same sex, so I thought I’d confuse people. Judy was a nickname given to me by a friend and Blame just sprang to mind one day. It sounds like a trashy b-movie actress from the 50s – a bleached blonde tart who only made one film and never got anywhere—I like that.”].
And so I decided to continue following this rubber, exotic creature. He sort of looked maybe Middle Eastern or North African. I thought that was pretty interesting, too, because at that point, and even by today’s standards, fashion is a pretty white affair. The fact that he looked brown was also something that caught my attention.
My interest in fashion magazines started with three stylists: Ray Petri, whose work was predominately featured in The Face, although it was also in i-D, Simon Foxton, whose work appeared mostly in i-D and a little bit in Blitz, then there was Iain R. Webb, who was the fashion director for Blitz magazine. Judy Blame came on the scene right after that. He was part of the group working with Ray Petri. I remember that he started getting editorials in i-D around late 1984.
Webb, Foxton, and Petri were doing their thing in ’83. They sort of popped on the scene somewhere within that year. By 1984 they were established. That’s when Blame’s work also started to appear. It was about one year later, give or take. Of those four stylists that I mentioned, Judy Blame was arguably the most radical. There’s a reason for that. His approach was less conservative than all three of them. He championed the idea o beauty in the bizarre—fashion in terms of repurposing what’s already there. He anticipated the idea of upcycling and deconstruction by almost a decade. His favorite styling tool was the safety pin.
It was very punky, but he used that as an item to decorate, but also to hold things together. His styling also had a sort of political bite to it, which is something that the other stylists mostly shied away from. He tackled things like racism, ecology, and gender. Something that really can not be overlooked and should absolutely be brought to forefront was that he was a firm champion of diversity in terms of both race and also in terms of size.
You see, most of those stylists had an almost conservative approach when it came to casting. I would say Petri was probably the most conservative of them all, in the sense that he used models that were typically handsome or sexy. But Webb and Blame sort of plucked their casting from night clubs. It was this idea of finding someone with a very strong look. They didn’t necessarily have to be conventionally handsome or conventionally sexy or anything like that. He really, really pushed that to the forefront. I love him for it. It was very, very new.
It was also in the air because Petri and Simon Foxton were also casting models of color. It was kind of a new thing that was happening, but he tended to go for not only diversity in terms of race, but also in terms of what a model is supposed to look like. He was great in that respect.
You know, a lot of stylists really, at the end of the day, are frustrated designers. Blame had that extra thing in him where he would actually make things. Now, when we talk about making things, what we’re really talking about is primarily accessories. He would take, maybe let’s say a postman bag, and convert that into a skirt. That’s not quite the same thing as actually designing a skirt.
But the things that he designed were mostly accessories, in particular jewelry. There were things like wraps, scarves, and other things that are very simple to make. He also had a line of T-shirts at one point in the late ’80s. I think Dover Street Market may have even resurrected those at some point. He also did graphics and creative direction. He was definitely more than just a stylist. He was basically an all-around creative. I would be a little hesitant to call him a designer.
Personally, I think he did his best work with Boy Goerge. Because George was fearless. Boy George always wanted more. You have to remember that the stuff that he did with Boy George was in the ’80s, and that was a completely different era than the early ’90s. That’s when things absolutely shifted—and if you were a clued-up fashionette, you sort of swung with the times.
The one thing he did with Massive Attack was actually quite subtle. It wouldn’t be anything that one would look back on as being somewhat defining. I would say that out of all of the musical acts that he worked with, that’s the one that probably the least forward.
I think that his work with Björk was particularly important because he brought that sort of Belgian deconstruction look to the public— on the back of a very famous Iceland pop star. That in itself was kind of a radical feat.
You had this very unusual pop star wearing very, very unusual design and that was Blame’s work. Also, the work that he did with Neneh Cherry, especially with “Buffalo Stance,” also brought this idea. One also has to remember too, that was done in tandem with Ray Petri.
Here’s the back story: Petri was slated to do the styling for Neneh Cherry, but by the time they were meant to work together he was very, very ill, so Blame stepped in. How much of the way Cherry looked was attributed to Blame or to Petri is up for debate. It’s sort of looked more Ray Petri than it did Judy Blame. You had the MA-1 bomber jacket, you have the gold chains, the snapback hat, what have you. It certainly looked more like Ray Petri’s work than it did Judy Blame, but Blame’s the one who gets the credit for it.
The stuff that he did with Boy George was steeped in nightclub culture. It was about over-accessorizing, very exuberant, very colorful, steeped in a kind of punkiness. You also have to remember that in the U.K. there was a little bit of revival of punk circa 1986—because it was the ten year anniversary of punk.
There were people in nightclubs who were doing an ’80s spin on punk. Simon Foxton did this fabulous, fabulous editorial in The Face, I think it was early 1987, that was a punk editorial. There was a revival of that kind of aesthetic, so the work that Blame did with Boy George was in that whole thing. You also have to remember too that Taboo opened in 1985, so it was really all about excess. Margiela did his first show in 1988. By the time 1989 rolled around, people were really paying attention, he was sort of on everyone’s radar.
Having said that, I also know too that Judy Blame didn’t really like the sort of very understated, very downbeat look that was championed by Melanie Ward, Corinne Day, and David Sims. He thought that it was anti-aspirational and that if people looked like that already on the streets than why bother doing it.
Margiela was a favorite of those three, but Judy Blame sort of heightened that look by making it a little bit more fashionably surreal—I guess that would be the right way to describe it. He elevated it a little bit. He didn’t do it in a way that was so stripped down and so plain and so minimal. He maximalized it and turned it into a look that was not quite so easy to approximate at home.
I mentioned this before, I want to stress it again, he championed diversity—definitely in terms of race, and in terms of questioning this idea of what it means to be beautiful. He worked with very unusual types. He opened this shop in the East End of London called the House of Beauty and Culture. It was a collective of different people and Blame’s work. It was designers, furniture designers, and artists. The store I think ran for four years, if I’m not mistaken. I think it opened in early ’87.
A lot of the aesthetic for that particular shop was about repurposing. There was a furniture design duo called Frick and Frack that had their work in it. They were all about finding a disused door that had fallen off of an old building and turning that into a table, using plumbing fixtures to make lamps. That whole sort of idea of taking what’s already there and making it into something new was a recurring theme throughout that shop.
Judy Blame worked really closely with this designer by the name of Christopher Nemeth, who was once again absolutely ahead of the curve in terms of upcycling and deconstruction. Blame would go down to the banks of the River Themes and literally search in the mud to find things to make items from. He made a necklace once that was out of found human bones. It was that kind of spirit: It doesn’t have to cost money, what you have to use is your creativity. He was a master at that.
Out of all of those ’80s stylists, he was the most subversive. But, what what I want to add is that those four stylists that I mentioned—Ray Petri, Simon Foxton, Iain R. Webb, and Judy Blame—they were really sort of responsible for this idea of the “stylist” term and occupation coming into the public consciousness.
Prior to that, what you had were fashion editors. Those were the people who did the work of stylists, but their names were never mentioned. You may see “fashion editor” on the masthead of a magazine, but when you look at an editorial you didn’t see “styled by.” Those four were the ones who sort of brought that to the forefront. Of course, we’ve never looked back since then.
That was basically his contribution. One more thing I want to say is stylists, especially men, have a tendency to really back away from this idea of presenting themselves as a sort of fashionable object. They do the work, and the work might be very extreme, and it might be very good, but if you look at them, they’re wearing a T-shirt and jeans.
Not Judy Blame. He was living it. That means that when you looked at him, there was no way that you could think he was anything other than someone that was involved with fashion.