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Commissioned By The Daily Telegraph, 2004

The DIY Generation

On the average day visitors to the Gamble Room of the Victoria & Albert’s Museum in Knightsbridge can marvel at the glories of Britain’s nineteenth-century expansionism, and wonder if the nation will ever again live up to the greatness of its past. But an event in late September – the ‘Style Lounge’ round-table hosted by Marmalade magazine, a new digest for creative people – hinted at the shape and direction of Britain’s next economic and cultural empire.

An audience of young, colourful and opinionated designers, artists, writers, filmmakers, students and musicians listened in a debate on the issues facing Britain’s booming creative economy. None of the panel, however, were the besuitted mandarins typical of highly profitable industries. Instead they closely resembled their audience, and included the seminal graphic designer Neville Brody; the ‘guerilla filmmaker’ Franny Armstrong; indie record label boss John Wolzencroft; and Marmalade’s creative director Sacha Spencer-Trace – creative entrepreneurs with application and initiative to match their vision and talent. You’d scarcely guess their work contributes to a sector which now employs 1.9 million in the UK, generates £21 billion in London alone and is growing faster than any other area of the economy.

As everyone in the Gamble Room was vividly aware, creativity is suddenly very big business in the UK. ‘It is seen as the next big differentiating point for business, and the exchequer have very much got their eye on it,’ says Greg Orme, chief executive of the Centre For Creative Business, a new government-backed venture aiming to import business acumen into a flamboyantly productive, yet financially leaky economic realm.

But it’s increasingly the case that creativity is also about very small business. Soaring applications to art, fashion and design courses at university indicate a generation’s aspiration to work creatively. Yet while job opportunities remains scarce and funding restricted, the same generation are seizing the creative initiative and Doing It Themselves.

Today at the grass roots of British youth culture there is an entrepreneurial creed evolving in the fields as diverse as music, film, publishing, food, fashion, art, design and, yes, knitting - whose mandate is perhaps best expressed in Neville Brody’s observation on the evening that: ‘If you have an idea, you make it happen.’

Do-It-Yourself for a previous generation may have meant a Sunday putting up shelves. During punk, the widely-touted ‘DIY ethic’ described how launching an idealistic band, fanzine or record label could effect a new social order. In 2004, however, it signals a prismatic, generational sweep of can-do cultural activism that is providing employment for some, entertainment for many and conceivably a future purpose for the V&A’s Gamble Room.

Consider the fact that it’s now routine for new bands to promote themselves through ‘guerilla gigs’ – spontaneous concerts publicised by email that circumventing established venue circuits. Or that Mylo, this year’s breakthrough dance music act, produced his album before signing a record contract. Or that the founder of Innocent Smoothies, Richard Reed, had no training in business whatsoever before launching a brand that will turn over £17 million this year (‘It was as if you had to get someone’s permission to do this,’ he recently said. ‘We just walked into shops and started selling them.’)

‘Graduates aren’t leaving university now expecting to go into jobs with other people – they’re expecting to have portfolio careers working for a number of clients in a very, very specialised area,’ says Ian Danby, creative industries workforce development officer at the West Midlands Arts council. ‘What we get more of is young people looking to do more creative work in a do-it-yourself way.’

At the centre of the DIY generation is Marmalade, whose slogan - ‘the creative spread’ – tables its agenda to showcase and connect emerging talent and ideas across the creative industries, and it’s no coincidence that the new DIY bible itself began as a DIY publishing project.

‘Most magazine content is PR-led - you end up reading the same content again and again,’ says Spencer-Trace. ‘We came up an idea that would be fun but also functional and generous - a network for creative “stuff”. You always get someone’s email address in article about them, for example.’

Launched 18 months ago by Spencer-Trace and her partner Kirsty Robinson, Marmalade’s sales exceeded forecasts almost instantly, initially targetting an established audience in design, music, advertising and fashion. Yet they hadn’t banked on the overwhelming interest from graduates aspiring to become the next Alexander McQueen, Jonathan Ive or Tracey Emin – the emerging DIY demographic who define themselves no longer by what they buy, but by what they create.

‘The high street has hijacked music, fashion, art, and is brilliant at delivering packaged lifestyles,’ Spencer-Trace says. ‘But there’s too much out there. Unlike in the Eighties when people began expressing who they were by what they consumed, today the only way to express real individuality is to create stuff yourself.’

Marmalade’s pages reveal a close tonal reflection of the culture it both speaks to and emerges form. Layouts on, say, knitwear art or online protest films look spontaneous, ad-hoc and florid. They resemble art-school scrapbooks rather than the slickly self-aware and constipated aesthetic of the fading style magazine sector. Marmalade’s tone of voice is enthusiastic rather than the default mild-cynicism of the style press. A recent edition was themed ‘the mistakes issue’ – the handmaiden of any DIY endeavour, artistic or otherwise.

‘What our readers like is people who communicate something with feeling,’ Spencer Trace enlarges, ‘even when it’s bumpy and full of mistakes, the bumps become interesting because we’ve had have such as smooth surface for so long. It’s like, “wahey, here’s some texture.”’


It’s tempting to root DIY’s current flowering in the fierce oppositional politics of the punk era when radical music, art and fashion emerged in reaction to a conservative social consensus. And while the role models of today’s British creative elite – Damien Hirst, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen – owe a clear debt to punk, the new DIYers operate in a different climate with a new enemy: an unholy trinity of flatpacked lifestyle marketing, vacuous celebrity and corporate monoculture intent on stifling individual expression.

What new DIY practice does very well is ‘bootleg’ existing cultural phenomena for its own purposes, and reroute established channels and media to present unique experiences, an idea typified by graffiti artist Banksy’s subversion of authority symbols – policeman, soldier and city gents – painted on the ignored canvasses of urban wall space. Consider also ‘guerilla curators’ Catherine Patha, 31, and Tom Morton, 27, whose new exhibition Man In the Holocene (meaning the current geological era) shows at semi-squatted space in a zone of East London you won’t read about in Wallpaper*. From the outset the duo aimed to challenge curatorial practice, and Holocene is as interesting for its content as for the mildly situationist manner of its execution, which Morton likens to ‘a reverse Millennium Dome,’ no less.

‘Most people get a space and decide what to do with it,’ he says. ‘We define what we do in opposition to that. We started putting the programme together last November and didn’t have the space until July.

‘Catherine was the director of a Cork Street gallery and I’m editor of Frieze, so it’s not as if we’re punky outsiders. We’re closer in the spirit to late-Eighties rave than punk - that’s what informed our generation. Our idea of how to create shows didn’t fit in with the places on offer, so we made our own and did it on our own terms.’

Their plan is evidently paying off, as the duo have attracted interest from top-line curators Hans Ulrich Oberst and Maurizio Cattelan. ‘We came with this idea to some major figures and they responded immediately and very positively,’ Morton says. ‘It shows there is a space for DIY thinking within the art world.’

A mile or so further down Kingsland Road towards Shoreditch, brother and sister duo Teresa & Nick Lechford’s Carbon Industries typifies DIY the approach in an altogether riskier discipline - property development. ‘Maybe we were stupid,’ says former fashion journalist Teresa, 28, surveying her bar, Dreambagsjaguarshoes, an enterprise which now appears less stupid than brave, popular and profitable.

What the Lechfords lacked in capital and business skills they overcompensated for in drive, initiative and vision. ‘We wanted a hub for people like us,’ Lechford reflects, ‘who were interested in the same creative things. We did it the back-to-front way and on a shoestring, but we knew what we wanted to do and were prepared to risk it. We had to beg, borrow and steal. Compared to other bars who were opening up in the areas, it was a small amount of money, but a lot to us.’

In a stroke of genius they retained the original signage (it was formerly a pair of derelict accessory wholesalers) when they renovated the premises into a bar and gallery in 2002 – providing precisely the kind of consciously guerilla’ed ‘bump’ that sets it apart from its blandly standardised competitors. A great deal of elbow grease later, the Lechfords own and operate a micro-empire of creative locales including a café-shop (No-One), takeaway joint (Bang) and art space (17Space) all within staggering distance of each other in terminally fashionable Shoreditch.

Marmalade, Dreambagsjaguarshoes and Man In The Holocene point to a new appetite for making and consuming ideas, which in any economist’s words means a market. Thrust of the new DIY also owes much to connections and skills enabled by technologies (desktop design and music package, email, internet and mobiles) that were unthinkable even a decade ago.

‘There’s only one craft now, and that’s making your computer work so you can make music, art or writing and get it out to the world - it’s not about companies spending millions of pounds promoting something,’ says Bill Drummond, the ex-KLF star. Having cut a swathe through from punk (he managed Echo & The Bunnymen) to pop (The KLF sold millions) to authorship, Drummond now pursues a range of DIY art projects that exist both on- and offline (in people’s kitchens, in the case of his latest cookery-themed ‘work’, Soup). he views the sense of possibility and do-it-yourself empowerment offered by the internet in terms closely matching the spirit of punk.

‘Punk was incredibly invigorating,’ he says. ‘It made me feel everything was possible. I love the idea now that with the net everybody be in contact with everyone on the globe. If your project has got anything going for it, it will find its audience.’

© Kevin Braddock, 2004


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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