His Name Was Blame: A Legend of London Fashion Remembered


The man who would be Blame was born Christopher Stuart Barnes on Feb. 12, 1960. He died Judy Blame, rechristened and reimagined in his own image, a magpie jewelry designer, fashion stylist and art director, who emerged from the creative ferment of London’s 1980s club scene, on Feb. 20 in London. The cause was cancer. He was 58 years old.

Mr. Blame was largely self-taught and entirely sui generis: a handsome, strong-nosed, gravel-voiced charmer with a peripatetic country background who reinvented himself as a London dandy. (“It was a bit of a frisson, in those days,” said his friend, the photographer Nick Knight, of a man moving through some of the dodgier parts of London in the 1980s and 1990s named and attired as he was.)

Lured to London by the promise of punk — on his second day in the city, he went straight for Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s Seditionaries shop, where he bought a pair of bondage pants from Ms. Westwood herself — he arrived in time for its decline and came into his own in the clubs of Soho, then a gritty neighborhood.

Working as a coat-check boy at the gay club Heaven in Charing Cross, he came to his adopted moniker. “Judy” was bestowed upon him by the glam rock designer Antony Price, in a camp homage to Judy Garland; and “Blame,” as his friend Scarlett Cannon recalled, for his habit of giving patrons whichever of the coats in his care he thought would best suit them — often not the ones they had come in with.

“When there would be chaos, someone would say, ‘Blame Judy,’” Ms. Cannon said. Reversed, it stuck.

Mr. Blame was born in Leatherhead, in the county of Surrey in southeast England. His father, Peter Barnes, was an engineer and metallurgist, his mother, Patricia Barnes, kept house while her five children were young. (Mr. Blame was the second.) Mr. Barnes’s work took the family to Spain for a few years when Mr. Blame was young. He credited his love of art to afternoons spent wandering alone at the Prado, while his mother did the family’s shopping. Returning to England, they settled on the edge of Dartmoor, in Devon.

From an early age, Mr. Blame was dramatic and flamboyant, his youngest sister, Jenny Forestell, remembered; and he always had, in his own recollection, an eye for fashion. (“Even from my Leatherhead days, I would be the one going, ‘Oh, mother, not those shoes with that dress,’” he once said.) He papered the walls of his bedroom with posters of David Bowie and Marc Bolan, played his records till their grooves ran flat and escaped to London as soon as he could, at 17. Overwhelmed by the city, he retreated to Manchester for a few years, but returned to London in 1978.

Punk was fading, but club culture was rising, with parties like Blitz its cotillions. They drew a diverse crowd: artists, musicians, filmmakers, drag queens, students at Central Saint Martins (the art and fashion college, which was next door).

“It was like the final class, if you like,” said John Galliano, who was studying at Saint Martins at the time. “It was like a collective of creatives, and of course we became friends. That energy influenced us all.”

“Judy, like most of us, would do all sorts of looks,” Ms. Cannon said. “You might turn up one week in rubber waders or the next week in a wedding dress.” Mr. Galliano remembered him in a black rubber skirt and a jacket from a costume shop. Years later, he said, “I do remember the rubber skirt. How could you forget?”

“They’d start making their outfits on a Saturday for a Tuesday evening,” said Mr. Knight, who first encountered Mr. Blame in the 1980s. “The idea that they’d dress in designer clothes, or anybody’s clothes other than the ones they made, was absolutely preposterous. It was exactly what they wouldn’t do.”

It was for these nights — and eventually the one he created with Ms. Cannon and Michael Hardy, called Cha Cha, held on Tuesdays in the back bar of Heaven — that Mr. Blame began making jewelry out of beads and found bits. He realized, Ms. Cannon said, that by adding jewelry to a wardrobe staple — a long chemise by David Holah, who later was a founder of the cult label BodyMap — one outfit could become many.

Soho was dicey in those days. “The pubs had sawdust on the floor still,” Mr. Galliano said. “The working girls wore trench coats and little else. It was an exciting place, a dangerous place.” And in the neighborhoods where Mr. Blame and his cohort lived, worked and played, being openly gay and wildly dressed could be dangerous.

“I do remember him being set on more than once,” Ms. Cannon said. So the community became all, and clubgoers became friends and collaborators.

“We’d all left home,” said John Maybury, a filmmaker and one of the so-called Blitz Kids, who met Mr. Blame at the time. “We were living our invented lives. In many ways, we were strangers to our families. We reinvented ourselves enough that we had our own world, our own milieu.” And within it, Mr. Maybury said, “Everyone was expected to bring something to the table.”

Many who would later become better known than Mr. Blame passed through the doors of those clubs, or the squats where they lived relatively rough nearby: Boy George, Mr. Galliano, the performance artist Leigh Bowery, the director Derek Jarman. But everyone lent a hand to another in a time of need.

It was in this way that Mr. Blame began fashion styling. Friends like Ray Petri, the stylist-ringleader of the Buffalo collective, whose heady pictures, mixing fashion, sportswear and the street, filled the pages of magazines such as Face and i-D, began calling on him for jewelry for shoots. When Boy George rose to international fame, he called on Mr. Blame for occasional styling, too; in 1984, when Culture Club, his band, won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, Boy George accepted wearing a full complement of Judy Blame jewelry. (He had gone to Mr. Blame’s studio to pick up several pieces, and, unable to choose, wore them all.)

When Mr. Petri became ill with AIDS, he suggested Mr. Blame to some friends, like the singer Neneh Cherry. Ms. Cherry was finishing her debut album, “Raw Like Sushi,” and filming a video for its single (and Buffalo’s anthem), “Buffalo Stance.” Mr. Blame stepped in to style it, beginning a long friendship and collaboration.

“Judy always had an amazing sense of clarity of what something should go with,” Ms. Cherry said. “I felt, without a doubt, from the minute I got to know him, that he could see me.”

In his own work, Mr. Blame was an alchemist of the unlikely. He was fond of what he called mudlarking, collecting flotsam and junk from the banks of the Thames to incorporate into his pieces. “I’ll take a piece of rubbish and make it the chicest thing you’ve ever seen in your life,” he said in interviews. As the years went on, he would scavenge pins, buttons, bottle tops, coins, bones and cigarette papers. Nothing was off-limits, including the occasional piece of drug paraphernalia. (After struggles with drugs and alcohol, he was sober in recent years.)

But like a fashion world Zelig, Mr. Blame was also involved with, and left traces on, many of the fashion moments and movements of the ’80s and onward. He worked closely with the fashion designer Christopher Nemeth, whose cobbled-together finery — made of canvas from his own paintings or purloined mail sacks — remains a cult fascination.

He was deeply involved with the House of Beauty and Culture, the craft collective that made art out of found bits and industrial castoffs, and its shop, open for a few years in the late ’80s, which kept irregular hours and was adored by those with the adventurousness to find it and the persistence to penetrate it. (“Even when you have found it, you might not know you are there,” a reporter wrote in The New York Times of a visit in 1987.)

Mr. Blame continued working with musicians on their looks, including Ms. Cherry, Kylie Minogue, Massive Attack and a young Björk, who met him when she moved to London in 1992.

“He came with me to a lot of these first things I did,” she said. “Looking back on it, what I’m most grateful to him for is he made me really comforted. He told me that he loved my clothes, that he really liked my strange, idiosyncratic style. He gave me confidence to come to the fashion world, that I had the right to be just who I am.”

He went with her to Paris to shoot the cover of her first solo album, “Debut,” and, when her luggage was lost, popped into Martin Margiela’s studio to pick up new pieces for her to wear.

Though he was funny and cutting and unsparing in skewering fools, he was devoted to those he supported, like Mr. Margiela, and the designers in whose work he took an early interest, like Helmut Lang. He took Edward Enninful, now the editor of British Vogue, under his wing during Mr. Enninful’s earliest years as a young editor at i-D Magazine, where Mr. Blame often worked, and put him up in the house where he was staying in Kensal Green. (It belonged to Ms. Cherry.) Mr. Blame met Kim Jones, later the men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton, at a club during Mr. Jones’s college days.

Growing up, Mr. Jones idolized Mr. Blame, pinning up pictures of him from The Face and i-D. “There’s that lovely quote, ‘Never meet your heroes,’ and I believe that a lot of times,” Mr. Jones said. “But there are exceptions. I’ve still got a card that he gave me the first time with a land line phone number. I laminated it because I was so in awe.” Mr. Jones later invited Mr. Blame to collaborate with him on a series of Louis Vuitton accessories using motifs from Mr. Nemeth.

The list of designers he worked with is long and various — Comme des Garçons, Giles Deacon, Marc Jacobs, Christopher Shannon, Sibling and Moschino — but it was his personal work and archive that were finally acknowledged in a retrospective at the ICA in London in 2016.

“Judy was sagelike,” said Gregor Muir, now the director of the Tate’s international art collection, who was executive director of the ICA at the time of the exhibition. “Things that passed through his fingers became imbued with this sort of luster. He was so profoundly shocking in terms of what he would reuse.”

He drew a connection between the ad hoc nature of Mr. Blame’s work, with its emphasis on reuse and recontextualization, and the early work of the so-called Y.B.A.s — the Young British Artists of the 1990s, including Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas — who practiced a similar sort of upcycling of everyday items, be they pharmacy cases, cigarettes or toilet bowls.

Mr. Blame never got rich from his work, as did some of his contemporaries, but he never seemed terribly concerned on that point. “He was unwilling to compromise in the way that a lot of people fall into doing,” Ms. Cherry said. “He lived his way, always turned slightly to the side. Obviously, it’s not the easy way to live your life. I’m sure that he could have made more money and been more famous. Like he said, ‘I am a legend and an icon.’” (Mr. Blame pronounced the word “legend” in a style all his own: “leg-end,” with a hard G.)

Mr. Knight said: “There wasn’t anybody else like Judy. These fashion eccentrics or originals or dandies — whatever you want to call them — they’re the sort of people who make the fashion world go round.”

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