Kahn and Bell: Fashion for all Sexes
Originally published in a special edition of ‘In The Pink’, edited by Sean Burns
Earlier this year a jacket designed by Kahn & Bell in 1981 tipped up on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. Resplendent in his UK Subs tee shirt the middle-aged owner barely cracked his face when the garment was estimated at 400 to 600 English pounds. Clearly he knew he had hung on to some ‘hot drag’ that was now worth kerching.
But why did this jacket emerge out of its 80s closet to be perused and valued by a tweedy antiques gent at the Black Country Living Museum and who were Kahn & Bell?
Long before Hurst Street became Birmingham’s very own ‘Gay Street’ offering its nightly offerings of stinky glamour, the fashion label and boutique Kahn & Bell was located at No72, offering a very different kind of allure and declaring its manifesto on photocopied posters “Fashion for all sexes”.
Founded by designers and urban warriors Jane Kahn and Patti Bell in 1976 the fashion emporium Khan & Bell was at the forefront of what became a defining look of the New Romantic movement in Birmingham. Their punk influenced theatrical style drew from Egyptian, African and Far Eastern art, combining elements of futurism and fantasy. Photographer Paul Edmond described them as “the queen and princess of the Birmingham New Romantic scene.…Patti was the Vivienne Westwood of Birmingham with Jane as Zandra Rhodes".
By the late 70s Birmingham was finally creeping out from under the shadow of power cuts and the three-day week. With unemployment running high and high street fashion a complete bore Kahn & Bell’s shop was a siren call for the punks, poseurs, freaks, geeks and queers from Birmingham’s council estates and suburbs. Kahn & Bell was a perilous wonderland of deviant haute couture but if you couldn't afford to buy into their high style then DIY was the solution: dad's old suit, a jumper from a jumble sale, some fabric from the Rag market, a pair of scissors and your nan’s sewing machine were all that was required to create a sartorial bricolage with bite.
To get a sense of what Hurst Street was like in the late 70s and early 80s think of run-down Dickensian shops, widows blackened with soot and post-war pictures after the Blitz. It was grim. But hidden in these dingy ruins was a rat run of delights for those seeking alternative pleasures. When Kahn & Bell closed for the day and night time fell Hurst Street was frequented by the alternative types. The street embraced ‘all sexes’ and denizens who frequented The Hosteria and The Australian Bar were punks and skins fraternising with queers and poseurs, and the generally rather ‘dodgy’. No one particularly cared who was gay or straight and to be honest it was difficult to tell as the application of powder and paint were almost obligatory. To be honest, even I wasn’t sure where I was on the spectrum.
Kahn and Bell was a beacon for the alternative and independent minded and it comes as no surprise that an alliance with The Rum Runner’s house band Duran Duran has gone down in pop history. Nick Rhodes recalls, “Once we started experimenting with different clothes at the time, we found Kahn & Bell. They were two girls, Jane Kahn and Patti Bell, the two most exquisite looking peacock girls in all of Birmingham. You saw them 10 streets away; they had such a huge charisma. Once we started wearing all the clothes from that period that they were making, it felt natural, and our identity developed from there. “
Patti Bell was asked to style Duran Duran for the band's "Planet Earth" video with a budget of £500 and if you look very carefully you’ll see Gay Jon dancing in the background.
Rhodes goes onto say “Our central scene evolved around 20 or so people: fashion designers Jane Kahn and Patti Bell were at the core and predominantly responsible for engineering the look. It was bright, brash and colourful. Regular participants in this soap opera were Mulligan, creator of the band Fashion, and his exquisite girlfriend, Jane, alongside Gay John, Whiskers, Patrick, Slag Sue and Martin Degville. There were also occasional visits by Boy George and, somewhat bizarrely, Pete Townshend of the Who. The Rum Runner menagerie was typically English, small, innovative and eccentric, filled with drama and humour. It was warm and friendly with a big personality.”
Kahn and Bell eventually went their separate ways in the 1980s. Patti stayed in Birmingham and went on to enjoy continued success with her outlandish, inspired and thought-provoking collections. With clients and customers from all over Europe, SE Asia and Japan, Bell still is very much a "grass roots" designer and can still be seen around Birmingham. How could you not miss her, the woman is the living embodiment ‘Eleganza Extravaganza’ sporting her very own brand of vicious realness.
About the publication
Between 1986 and 1990, ‘In The Pink’ was a free LGBT+ newspaper published monthly at the Trade Union Resource Centre in Digbeth and distributed to groups, pubs, and clubs around the West Midlands. The paper’s content varied from interview and listings to more political articles, thought pieces and health advice.
SHOUT Artist in Residence Sean Burns has edited a new issue of the paper, referencing the original formatting and commissioning a new collective of voices to reflect on Birmingham in the 1980s, discuss personal and collective histories and address some of the matters facing LGBTQ+ people in the region today.
With contributions from Clare Lyndsy, Danni Ebanks-Ingram, Elly Clarke, Harry Alimo, James Bartholomew, James Lawrence Slattery, Kim McAleese, Olivia Sparrow, Rhiannon Williams, Rico Johnson-Sinclair, Ryan Kearney, Sarah Dolman, Sean Burns, Trevor Pitt and Twiggy.
Created by SHOUT 2018 Artist In Residence Sean Burns, this unique publication brought together local histories, original editions of the In The Pink magazine, and new contributions from local artists and community organisers. 3000 print editions were distributed to venues across Birmingham and the wider West Midlands.
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