The way stylistic values are passed down from one generation to the next finds its ultimate expression here in a collaboration between the acclaimed style and subculture photographer Ewen Spencer and his son, Kuba. In the photographs, Ewen and Kuba wear pieces from the C.P. Company FW018 Collection at a variety of locations around their adopted home of Brighton, a town by the sea with a rich youth culture heritage and strong residual affinity with stylistic tribalism. The series of images lead us away from the obvious glare of the arcades and pleasure pier to places that are special to them: Sheepcote Valley, Black Rock, Volks Railway. One thing that usually gets lost when people talk about subcultures is the tenderness. The vast array of coming-of-age films, white- wall retrospectives, photo-books and written tributes to youth tribalism draw focus mainly to the butterfly thrills of violence and sex, and the resulting hard currency of experience: blood, bruises and recessed knucklebone; diary crushes, alleyway clinches and notches for teenage bedposts. But there’s more to being part of a gang than just the damage you do. When TV documentarians look back at punk,they obsess over its nihilistic anger and social frustration – the filth and the fury. Dig out old polaroids from the time, though, and 90 percent of the kids in them aren’t scowling, they’re beaming: ecstatic, surrounded, accepted. Backwards glances at drum ’n bass, rave, New Romantic, grunge or any other storied scene from the last century tend to run the same. In the rush to caricature and titillate, there can be an erasure of the familial love and care at the heart of all subcultures, not to mention the vulnerability inherent in surrendering to something bigger than yourself and its ethos.
Ewen Spencer has been photographing subcultures, in the UK and abroad, since the early 90s.
In his work that sense of tribal tenderness is virtually ever-present, even if it’s lurking in the background as a fight threatens to break out on an underage dancefloor, or two grime MCs are clashing in an East London basement. It’s easy to turn up to a party and capture the fun. It’s infinitely harder to fill one image with all the heartbreak, hope, anxiety and envy that lurks at the edges of hedonistic uproar, yet Ewen manages to do this over and over again. Hailing from Newcastle, Ewen got his start working for magazines like The Face and Sleazenation in the 90s after he’d moved to Brighton for art college. He now calls the town home, describing it as the “perfect place” to raise his kids – one of whom, Kuba, he has collaborated with for this new photo-series for C.P. Company’s FW018 collection.
When he was still studying, the town provided Ewen the perfect base from which to make regular raids on the capital’s 90s party scene. “Coming out of the political and ideological landscape of 80s Newcastle, I landed in a world where suddenly everything felt achievable,” he explains. “Having your twenties in the 90s was almost like living through the 60s. There was a great celebration of British culture at that time, and it felt wonderful to be a part of it in Brighton, where I was doing my major university project on the Northern soul scene. Brighton has a massive history of subcultural irreverence, which I was drawn to.” Ewen remembers how that interest in subculture and style was stirred in him by his own father. “Growing up, all my pals joined the local Sea Scouts,” he recalls. “I told my dad I wanted to join too. He said, ‘Do you like people telling you what to do?’ and left it at that. I think he recognized something in me from his own youth. Then, when I was ten, he bought me records by The Jam and Madness.” From there, a love of what style and music could do when thrown together drove Ewen through a teenage Mod phase that endured even as he passed through the street soul and house scenes and on into the late-century optimism of Britpop. “Eventually the way I dressed was less linked to the Mod revival scene and morphed into more of a Casual kind of look,” he says. “It was a logical progression, I think. Clean cut, slightly anonymous, irreverent... Dress smart, talk filthy, that kind of thing. Rave and punk were too messy for me.” Following his own father’s lead, Ewen and his photography have helped hardwire in Kuba a preoccupation with clothes and tunes. Now aged 20, Kuba has his own fashion label, LERÊVE, and writes music at home in Brighton. He also models and this, alongside his work on LERÊVE, allows him to travel often. “I find people my age with an interesting look on Instagram and arrange to go and shoot them wearing the clothes, whether they’re in Brighton, London, Paris or New York. It’s fun travelling with a purpose.” Ewen’s earliest professional strides were also sartorial. “I started out working in little independent clothing boutiques around Newcastle aged 16 – that’s when I was first acquainted with C.P. Company,” he recalls. “The first shop to stock it was this place called Marcus Price. It was like an Aladdin’s cave, it had all the best stuff, so as soon as me and my mates saw C.P. in there it became basically untouchable to us.”
A year after Kuba was born, in 1999, Ewen was shooting in London clubs for his acclaimed series on the UK Garage scene.
Published at the time in The Face and enjoying a highly successful second life as the 2013 photo-book UKG and film Brandy & Coke, the photos make clear immediately why their author has been the definitive chronicler of British nightlife for two decades. Each individual image feels like its own living world, one of Versace threads, gold chains, status-signalling champagne flutes, Moschino prints, hoop earrings, long leather jackets and midnight shades. Ewen’s photos evoke more than just the key signifiers, though; you can taste, smell and hear them. That tenderness is there, again, as are the motivations and emotions of the people they capture. “My lasting impression of them was how much more rich in detail they were than my fading typecast memory,” Mike Skinner once said of the series in the Guardian, which impressed him enough to enlist Ewen for the liner shots for Original Pirate Material, his debut album as The Streets.
Every youth cult that comes the UK’s way has its own unique tenets. But in 2018, afforded an overview of a century or so of tribal style, it is possible to draw connecting lines, form a kind of roadmap of inspirations and antagonisms that result in new movements, not entirely untouched by the old movements. Ewen’s early attraction to the smart, hide-in-plain-sight, communal spirit of Mod is echoed in the subtle signifiers, fastidious details and sense of community that attracts Kuba to C.P. Company. Underpinning every British subculture is the same tribal urge, banging quietly like a swallowed drum, of young people looking for definition, solace, excitement and loyalty in their lives. Some of the newest work Ewen has been shooting has been in collaboration with Kuba, for Arena Homme+. The ongoing series, titled “Caught By The River”, has seen Ewen using his son both as a muse and a representation of himself as a teenager, retracing his steps through style and music as a young man in Newcastle and then London. “I was posing as if I were him growing up,” explains Kuba. “I ended up shooting him a few times myself, too.” In these photos, taken by Kuba, Ewen becomes someone or something else – a carnival hand, Steve McQueen, what Ewen describes as a “kind of Bryan Ferry alter ego... the pictures are kind of like dream sequences”. The resulting images are touching, wry, poignant and a little bit eerie, too. At the core of them once again is that vulnerability, the love and care that make our most tender bonds the hardest to break.
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