‘In the future, everyone will blame the eighties for all societal ills,’ said Peter York, the author and cultural commentator. Are the 1980s fair game? Was the decade of power suits and voodoo economics a gaudy omen or wilful anachronism? Stuart Husband backcombs his hair, fishes out a designer label, and takes a trip down memory lane…
Cornelia Guest, Beverly Johnson, Billy Dee Williams and Grace Jones (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

It was when I was whisked past the queue at Area, one warm but windy Manhattan night in 1985, that I finally understood how much louder and larger the eighties were than the preceding decades. I was on a journalistic assignment with the group ABC — who by then had ditched their early eighties pomp in favour of an edgier and far less successful iteration as a garish, LinnDrum-tastic disco troupe, complete with cartoon avatars — and our cachet (and accents) meant we were spared the line, not to mention the daunting $15 entrance fee, and granted V.I.P. entrance to a place that, as The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote, “was less a dance club than a sanctum; to get inside was to be baptised, consecrated, canonised”.

Area, along with other nightlife meccas like Paradise Garage, Danceteria and the Limelight, epitomised the new energy of New York, a city that had hauled itself back from the brink of bankruptcy at the start of the decade and was now partying hard, fuelled by stimulants both established and novel (cocaine was everywhere, ecstasy was just making its arms-aloft presence felt), but also by new money. Various Big Bangs set the eighties pace — there was the deregulation of the City of London in 1986, driven by Margaret Thatcher, which produced a free-for-all as brokers, jobbers and the City’s traditional merchant banks merged and/or were acquired by much bigger U.S., European and Japanese banks (and which created the bonus culture, along with an estimated 1,500 millionaires), while in the U.S. there was Reaganomics, President Reagan’s heady cocktail of laissez-faire economics and whopping corporate tax cuts. “There’s a Big Bang in the City/We’re all on the make,” as Pet Shop Boys put it in their paean to the new rapaciousness, 1988’s Shopping. And there, in the heart of Area, momentarily distracted from the star-spotting as I passed various roped-off banquettes — was that Madonna? (no); was that Andy Warhol? (yes) — I was pulled up by an all-too-apposite symbol of eighties excess: the club’s most notorious flourish, a massive tank full of dwarf sharks, casting their predatory eyes on the fun and frolics occurring in the establishment’s sepulchral corners.

But there was another eighties explosion that proved crucial to the fostering of the decade’s self-image: that of the media. With the launch of The Face, published by Nick Logan in 1980, and the resurrection of Vanity Fair three years later, the term ‘style magazine’ came into parlance, and the hedonistic, entrepreneurial generation that came to define the eighties — in music, fashion, art, finance, architecture, design, just madly posing, whatever — was exhaustively documented and celebrated. I played my own, minuscule, part in this, joining a music magazine fresh out of college (actually, not even finishing college; jobs were thick on the ground and light on the entrance requirements in those days), and covering the rise of a bunch of disparate pop stars, from Marc Almond to Boy George and Bananarama, all of whom seemed alternately thrilled and bewildered to be raking it in and to be asked — by the newly minted glossy pop weeklies, or the hastily assembled features teams on the tabloids and broadsheets — what their favourite colour was or who their best-ever snog had been with. Expense accounts ballooned, junkets mushroomed — I’d been put up in the Chelsea Hotel on the ABC trip, the romance of which was only slightly soured by the fact that I spent each night perched on a stool wielding a baseball bat, as hundreds of prodigious cockroaches scuttled out of the hole in the shower stall — and restaurants, clubs and cocktail bars started springing up to cater to this new elite.

“The eighties gets rather a bad rap today — you know, all backcombed hair and ‘mobile’ phones the size of wheelie-bins,” says the tailor and designer Timothy Everest, who started the decade working for Tommy Nutter, and ended it with the launch of his own atelier (he now heads up MbE, a line of bespoke casual pieces including Harringtons and chore jackets). “But I remember Tommy saying that it was the first time since the sixties that people had that real gung-ho spirit; they really felt they could do anything. Something was happening every night, and if it wasn’t, you went out and did it yourself. It was really exciting.”

“It was suddenly like we’d come out of the darkness of 1970s punk to vibrant designer noise and images,” the P.R. guru Lynne Franks — inspiration for Jennifer Saunders’s Eddie in Absolutely Fabulous — reminisced to The Independent. “It was all about ‘designer’ with a big D: Designer labels, Designer drinks, Designer architecture, Designer causes, even Designer spirituality.”


    Stuart Husband


    January 2022


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