Given Aberdeen Art Gallery has had to close due to the coronavirus outbreak, I’ve been sharing work on AAGM’s social media pages this week from my film and exhibition, The Bill Gibb Line, which was intended to run at the gallery from the 22nd of February to the 24th May 2020. This blog is a great opportunity to delve a little further into how the project came together…
The Bill Gibb Line is a film and exhibition that present new narratives across poetry and fashion inspired by the life and work of the internationally acclaimed fashion designer, Bill Gibb (1943-1988). In collaboration with Gray’s Fashion & Textile Design students, I have explored both ‘line’ and collage in poetry and fashion, and the personas we take on when we dress up in an outfit or inhabit a poetic voice.
Originally commissioned for Aberdeen’s Look Again Festival in 2019, the latest version of the show features garments and drawings from Aberdeen Art Gallery’s extensive Gibb archives, alongside prints of my performance poems, several of the students’ designs and a 12-minute spoken word film all inspired by Gibb’s clothes, fashion shows and wider legacy.
Shane Strachan wearing Kimberley Monaghan and Kirstie Noble; photograph by Graeme Roger
Born in 1943, Bill Gibb grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire. Encouraged by his art teacher at Fraserburgh Academy, he went on to study at St Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London before becoming one of Britain’s leading fashion designers in the 1970s thanks to the popularity of his romantic designs which expertly collaged historical references and global influences. At the height of his career he was dressing the likes of Twiggy, Elizabeth Taylor and Bianca Jagger, and around 7,000 people attended his 10-year retrospective show at the Royal Albert Hall in 1977. After this, Gibb’s company met with financial difficulties and struggled to recover as times and taste changed in the 1980s.
Each of the poems in The Bill Gibb Line focus on different Gibb fashion shows, from his first in 1967 up to his last major show, The Bronze Age, in 1985. Shortly after this, Gibb was diagnosed with cancer and sadly passed away early in 1988, aged 44.
Having grown up in Fraserburgh within a fishing family, I was always intrigued by Gibb’s farming-to-fashion story after coming upon a display of his work in Fraserburgh Heritage Centre when I was younger. During my PhD in Creative Writing at Aberdeen University, around 2013 I wrote a short story as part of my thesis inspired by Twiggy’s visit to Gibb’s family farms in April 1972. The story was published in an anthology and proved popular, so I was always keen to work on a larger project focused on Gibb. It took a lot of funding applications and rejections until I was finally lucky enough to receive a Scottish Book Trust Robert Louis Stephenson Fellowship in 2018 to work on something bigger.
Following the announcement of my Fellowship, the Look Again team, who are now based within Gray’s School of Art, got in touch to explore the possibility of me doing something for their 2019 Festival. I had been keen to make links with the Fashion and Textile Design department at Gray’s as part of my project research (I had very little knowledge of the fashion design process at this time!). We decided that a creative collaboration with the students could result in an exciting outcome for the festival. This led to the third year students at that time working on garments inspired by Gibb as part of their industry project during the Winter 2018 semester. I gave a lecture on Gibb’s life, work and legacy, and we all went on a research trip to Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums’ Treasure Hub which holds the largest Bill Gibb archive in the world.
Gray’s Fashion and Textile Design students explore the Bill Gibb archive at Aberdeen Treasure Hub
Around this time, I did several solo visits to this archive, as well as research trips to Fraserburgh Heritage Centre and the archive at Central Saint Martin’s in London thanks to support from Aberdeen City Council’s Creative Funding. I was particularly struck by the newspaper reviews of Gibb’s work in these archives – the language of fashion is inherently poetic in its exciting and exotic mix of sounds, and fashion writers often have a good ear for rhythm, playing with the cadence and beat of their sentences to mimic the drama and pizazz of the fashion shows they are reviewing. I soon found myself inspired to create found poetry that collaged and re-imagined these reviews into a mix of poetic forms; these found poems have gone on to be the core of The Bill Gibb Line exhibition.
As part of my Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, I was very fortunate to get to go on a month-long writing residency in France throughout November 2018 at Hôtel Chevillon in Grez-sur-Loing near Fontainebleau where Stevenson met his wife in 1876. Hotel Chevillion has been host to a wealth of creative talent since Stevenson’s time, including the musician August Strindberg and artists Carl Larsson, Julia Beck, John Singer Sargant and several of the Glasgow Boys including John Lavery. It also paid host to William Stott of Oldham, whose beautiful 1881 painting, Le Passeur (The Ferryman), was on loan from Tate to Aberdeen Art Gallery where it was on display from the re-opening in November until 8 March this year.
The visual arts have always had a big influence on my creative writing practice, and this was no exception during my time in France, living alongside Swedish and Finnish artists and having the opportunity to visit exhibitions in Paris at the weekends including Grayson Perry’s retrospective Liberté, Identité, Sexualité at Monnaie de Paris. Around the time I saw Perry’s exhibition featuring the vibrant dresses he wears when he is his alter ego, Claire, I was researching Gibb’s links with the artist Andrew Logan and his Alternative Miss World fancy dress competition which I’ve explored further in a recent article for Art UK. It suddenly clicked with me that the best way forward for my collaboration with the Gray’s students would be to wear the designs they created and match them with the many voices and personas I was hearing in my head in some kind of performance…
Shane Strachan wearing Charlotte Scoular; photograph by Graeme Roger
Several months later, I was in the green room at Robert Gordon University working with filmmaker Graeme Roger to make this a reality. After weeks of practising six of my finished fashion show poems, they were brought to life before the camera as I switched between male and female personas and a multitude of accents while dressed from head to foot in a selection of the bright, bold designs the Gray’s students had come up with. Performing my work is something I’ve always enjoyed doing, but having the opportunity to take this to the next level and in collaboration with others through the Look Again commission has really increased my confidence to see myself as equally as a performer as well as a writer.
The Bill Gibb Line film and accompanying exhibition went on to be well attended and well received during the two weekends of the Look Again Festival in June 2019. I was very excited to have the opportunity to exhibit the work on a bigger scale and over a longer period at Aberdeen Art Gallery – one of my main aims with the whole project has been to engage new audiences with Bill Gibb’s work and legacy. Although it’s disappointing that arts venues (and just about everything else!) have had to close due to Covid-19, I feel grateful that the exhibition was open for a month and was really pleased with the feedback received during this time. However, it’s been just as exciting to share the work digitally through AAGM’s social media this week, and I’m also lucky to have been in the position to have finished recording a podcast linked with the film and exhibition before lockdown, which I’ve released across the past couple of months.
The Bill Gibb Line podcast is be a limited series of 20-minute episodes featuring all of the poems I’ve written across the past year and a half, alongside a monologue composed of Bill Gibb telling his own story in his own words, which I’ve collaged from his verbatim using archival material at Aberdeen Treasure Hub and beyond. The first episode shot to #1 on Apple UK Podcasts’ Fashion & Beauty chart in its first week. You can listen to the episodes on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
I hope The Bill Gibb Line in all of its forms will inspire many more Bill Gibb fans for years to come!
Originally from Fraserburgh, Shane Strachan is a writer and performer based in Aberdeen. His fiction has been published widely, including Nevertheless (amaBooks), and his theatre work has been staged with the National Theatre of Scotland. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Aberdeen and he was awarded a 2018 Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship from the Scottish Book Trust for his creative work responding to the legacy of Bill Gibb.
Find out more at www.shanestrachan.com