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Mark Wardel

Mark Wardel


Words Kirk Truman

Photography Etienne Gilfillan


“I’d found a balance between commercial work and making a living from my passion for my art…”

It’s early on a bright and chilly January morning and in his Limehouse studio, artist Mark Wardel and I are discussing art, fashion, music and Soho’s yesteryear to a soundtrack of ‘70s and ‘80s club tracks. In the background, multiple startlingly realistic life masks of glam-era David Bowie watch over us from the walls – just part of the internationally renowned artist’s work – as I meet the man behind the mask and learn about his early years in Soho.

This year will be Wardel’s 40th as a Londoner, having hightailed it down to the capital after finishing art school in Liverpool in 1978. “You had to be in London if you had ambition to be at the centre of things and be involved creatively in those areas. As a huge Bowie obsessive, music and fashion were key influences on me, so I knew I had to relocate.”

Mark hawked his art school portfolio around the advertising agencies of Soho, securing a job as a junior illustrator at the third one he tried: Robert Davies Design for Advertising, based in Canaletto’s old studio at 41-45 Beak Street. ”There’s no way that could happen today – you wouldn’t even get through the door!” laughs Wardel.

His earliest impressions of Soho came from 70s cult TV show Budgie and seminal documentary Johnny Go Home; they evoked a seedy, down-at-heel glamour that the teenage Wardel found both frightening and alluring. In fact, a series of coincidences and chance meetings meant that he moved rapidly from being the new kid in town to socialising with the heroes he’d previously only fantasised about meeting: David Bowie, Andy Warhol and David Hockney, among others. ”It’s almost like my life chose me rather than the reverse. I was suddenly hanging out with Antony Price (clothes designer for Roxy Music), who introduced me to all these amazing people. I started frequenting the Blitz club where I became a kind of ‘court painter’ to the club’s luminaries, including Steve Strange and a pre-fame Boy George, and life became just what I had imagined it would be in London.”

This included connecting with his ultimate hero, David Bowie. In 1978, Mark was hanging out with a crowd of Bowie fans outside Capital Radio, where Bowie was being interviewed. “I’d passed this picture I’d done, complete with a fan letter, to his American PA, Barbara DeWitt, who very kindly offered to put it in the boot of Bowie’s limo for me; after which I promptly forgot about it until about six months later when a hand-written airmail letter from Berlin arrived at my work address. I was totally stunned when I opened it and discovered it was from David Bowie!”

Shortly after this, in September 1979, Mark was introduced to Bowie at Mayfair nightclub Legends. He reminded Bowie of the letter and the two briefly chatted. It was a meeting that heralded an ongoing series of coincidences and connections between Wardel and his hero.

By late ’79, having left his job in the ad agency and with help from London club entrepreneur Campbell Palmer, Mark began his independent career as an artist, painting, exhibiting, Polaroiding, producing record covers and art directing video storyboards for Steve Strange, Spandau Ballet, Boy George, David Sylvian, Bryan Ferry, Marc Almond and others from his Brewer Street studio. “I’d found a balance between commercial work and making a living from my passion for my art.”

As the 90s dawned and the musical landscape shifted towards American-influenced house music, Mark was recruited by club promoter Laurence Malice to design and produce the artwork and visuals for the notorious gay/mixed/anything goes Clerkenwell all-nighter Trade at Turnmills. This gained Wardel the moniker of ‘TradeMark’, a tag by which he became known to clubbers worldwide. It was a whole new audience for his artwork, although after six years he suddenly quit. “The hyper-intense, drug-ravaged environment of Trade epitomised the apex of the ecstasy and cocaine culture of 90s clubland. It nearly killed me, and I eventually had to step back from it to survive… although it took me a long time to recover.”

With the psychic damage of the 90s receding Wardel threw himself back into painting and exhibiting, eventually coming across a life cast of David Bowie made in the mid-70s. “A friend of mine who was a bigwig at EMI had got hold of this beautiful cast of Bowie’s face and, knowing of my obsession, lent it to me so that I could take a mould from it and cast my own version.” Mark created a flawless version of the original and began casting and painting Bowie masks for fun and to give to friends as presents. He had not considered selling them publicly until 2013, when his masks came to the notice of the Victoria & Albert Museum, who were keen to sell them in conjunction with their blockbusting ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition. “They told me they would initially like to order 50 to see how it went. I was delighted, but also slightly freaked out as I had never mass-produced the masks.” Mark had to learn quickly: the official order that came through that night was not for 50 masks but for 300! He spent the next six months working around the clock to produce them. “I was going nuts,” he remembers. ”Bowie’s face was in my face day in, day out for that entire period… I was even seeing him in my sleep!”

After the V&A edition sold out there was still a demand for the masks and Wardel continued producing different variations. Then, one day in 2015, he heard that David Bowie’s office had asked for his contact details. His first thought was that he was about to be told to stop producing the masks; instead, he was delighted to discover that Bowie, through his company Isolar, wished to purchase two of them for inclusion in the official Bowie archive. This, along with the star’s death in 2016, neatly closed a circle of contact that had started back in 1978 and put the official seal of approval on a lifelong obsession.

Following Bowie’s shock passing, Wardel decided to step back from the ‘feeding frenzy’ of commercial exploitation and concentrated on quietly producing a small number of masks for discerning collectors only. However, now that, “a decent amount of time has passed”, he plans to mount an exhibition of his Bowie masks and artworks and is currently scouting a suitable space in which to mount what promises to be an amazing show. This could well be followed by a ‘Blitz era’ exhibition, as Wardel not only has a large collection of Polaroids from the period but has also taken life casts from Boy George and (shortly before his untimely passing) Steve Strange. “It’s strange, but with the weight of history behind it and a young generation’s fervent interest in the period, those long-ago Soho days, which really formed the ‘Big Bang’ of much of British pop culture, have never really gone away…”

To read more about Mark go to his website

Gary Kemp

Gary Kemp


Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Sandra Vijandi


“In those days, place was everything. You couldn’t find your tribe unless you went out the door…”

He explains to me, “Now, you can find it on your laptop. In those days you couldn’t.”Gary Kemp is talking about the reality of his youth. He goes on to say that where the internet has triumphed, the place has died out. “Any important youth movement was based around a place. Our place was Billy’s, The Blitz Club and then Le Beat Route club.”Guitarist and chief songwriter for new wave band, Spandau Ballet, Gary Kemp unravels his own youth at the epicentre of the new romantic era and the origins of Spandau Ballet here on the streets of Soho.

Born and raised into a working class family, Gary grew up alongside his brother and fellow bandmate, Martin Kemp, in a council house in Islington. Kemp began acting in 1968, appearing on TV and film from an early age. When he was just 11, his parents bought him a guitar that they’d seen on Holloway Road, for Christmas. “I still can’t work out to this day why my father thought it was a good idea” he says, “but it was an immediate epiphany of wanting to write songs from the age of 11. I didn’t want to play anybody else’s songs so instead I wrote my own. I think in truth I quite like being alone, I quite like the company of a guitar. When you’re a creative person, you sort of make your own friends, whether it’s a piece of art or a song.” Here, moving away from acting, Kemp began to concentrate on a music career.

Kemp began his relationship with Soho as a youngster. The neighbourhood has been an integral part of his life–forward from his upbringing and into his career as a musician and songwriter. During the 1960s, after a screening of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’at what was then The Cinerama on St. Martins Lane (now London Coliseum), Gary’s mother and father walked him and his brother through Soho for the very first time. “My father was completely confused by the artistry of Stanley Kubrick’s movie,”he says. “On the way back, we walked through Soho to get a bus. In those days it was incredibly seedy. There were pictures everywhere of various models and naked women. I remember having this red face. There was this silence in the Kemp family; my parents were old working class Islington people, and anything remotely to do with sex wasn’t spoken about. I remember Soho having this danger about it.” And, of course, inevitably post-pubescent Kemp was quite excited by the place, unlike the child who had seen it in the mid-sixties.

Kemp recalls his first solo trip to Soho as a teenager very clearly. “I went to buy a pair of trousers that looked like the pair Bowie had on the back of the Hunky Dory album sleeve, sort of big loons, and then I bought one of those long-sleeved big scoop neck t-shirts covered with stars trying to look all glam-rock”he says. On another later visit, he attended a David Bowie gig at The Marquee Club when it was based on Wardour Street, Bowie’s last ever gig in Soho. After the gig, The 1980 Floor Show, he wandered with a girl and some of his friends about the streets of 1970s Soho, which was to be his first real glimpse of the neighbourhood. “I really felt it that day. There was this frisson of sexuality in Soho when wandering around its streets.”

With music becoming an ever-prevalent part of his life, he was quick to form a band with school friends, called The Gentry. His brother, Martin, who was more a sportsman than musician, was later to join the band as a bassist. The band started to make their mark on Soho’s club scene, and Kemp regards Billy’s as the club that changed everything. At this venue, the band became acquainted with the late Steve Strange – who, in 1978, began organising ‘Bowie Nights’, a club night that was later moved to The Blitz Club. At this time, The Blitz had been a normal wine bar in Great Queen Street. Soon, a mass of outrageously dressed former punks, soul boys, rockabillies and art students descended on the club. Thanks to Steve Strange and ‘Princess’ Julia Fodor, The Blitz Club became a thriving realm of creativity – the beginning of the Blitz kids. “Soho was a very scary place for us to dress up in,” says Gary. “We’d arrive looking like space men from the 1920s. There were teddy boys, punks and skin heads patrolling the area. To me it was just full of rats and old rubbish. It was very, very seedy.”

The Blitz was a collective – the most out-there of former punks. It became a hotbed of talent for new music and fashion. The club boasted an array of rising pop-stars, from Boy George to Steve Strange. After a friend of the band, DJ Robert Elms, saw a phrase scribbled on the wall of a nightclub lavatory during a visit to Berlin, The Gentry was to be renamed Spandau Ballet and became a staple act of the club. “Steve Dagger and I decided this was our time. I bought a synthesiser and wrote what became the first album. We became a household band. We’re more of a 70s band, really – the blue plaque is still there where The Blitz Club was, to say we played our first gig there in 1979.”

Their first album, ‘Journeys to Glory’ (1981), propelled Spandau into the limelight, with subsequent albums seeing them rise to worldwide fame. “Our band started on the steps of a club in Soho. As the band succeeded, became globalised, and our lifestyles changed, so did Soho,”he says. During the 1980s, Spandau Ballet’s success went from strength to strength, with Kemp writing many of the band’s early hits in his parents’council house. In 1990, the band split –the same year that both Gary and Martin Kemp appeared in lead roles in The Krays, with Gary starring as Ronnie Kray.

Tensions between the former band mates spiraled over the publishing rights to songs, with singer Tony Hadley, drummer John Keeble, and saxophone player Steve Norman taking legal action against Kemp. “There were various no-go areas on the map in fear that we might run into each other,”he says. “The day I won the court case was the same day the Admiral Duncan was bombed in 1999. I thought to myself, ‘my band is destroyed and somebody is trying to bomb Soho back to the dark days’. It was a bad day. Nobody really won, I just didn’t lose.”

With Gary taking on a number of acting roles in-between living his life and having children, 19 years since Spandau’s break-up had soon passed. “I was remixing a live DVD of the band about 10 years ago and I couldn’t believe the legacy of the band. I felt that the records that got played on the radio weren’t a true representation of the band and what we were best at. We gave a good show, my God we were good, and we had so much fun.” In 2009, the band reformed, with their coming together documented in ‘Soul Boys of the Western World’ (2014), which Kemp co-produced.

After a nine-month world tour and relationships between band members stronger than ever, Fitzrovia-based Kemp expresses a desire to record a new album and continue to play live. At present, he is starring in the suitably entitled play ‘The Homecoming’by Harold Pinter, directed by Jamie Lloyd, at the Trafalgar Studios. And Kemp is walking to work, through his old haunt of Soho, six days a week until the end of its run in February.

 

Ageless & Bold

Ageless & Bold


Words Peter McSweeney

Illustrations Luke Stuart


Here is a low down on some of the faces of Soho over the years. All connected to Soho is many different ways, mostly legal. They represent the creative, edgy vibe that Soho brings to The West End. They are Artists, and all are unique with their defined identity. You don’t have to love them (some you’re not meant to) but they are have contributed to the rich culture and help to start new trends which were born on these streets.

 

– David Bowie –

 

Turned down a knighthood, had a hit TV show names after one of his songs and humiliated Rick Gervais in Extras for being a ‘Silly Little Fat Man’, David Bowie proves he is more than your typical Music Legend, he is also a Soho Legend. An over used term by stupid media who lack imagination but in this case it is more than appropriate. The Marquee Club (now no longer) was where he built a fan base appealing to both sexes and what ever side you batting for didn’t matter, Bowie was the man! He drank in The Ship and his fashion and style was developed by vintage cast off on Carnaby Street, not to mention he would rub shoulders with The Krays.  Sir David, as he would have been known had he accepted the call of the Queen, might not have had such an authentic Soho feel.