The post-punk pioneer and Visage front-man helped a generation of dreamers define the 80s, writes friend and collaborator Iain R Webb in the Guradian
I met Steve Strange in 1978 when I was a first-year fashion student at St Martin’s School of Art. He was hanging out at PX, a trendy boutique in Covent Garden, where he seemed to be a shop assistant alongside Princess Julia (who later appeared in his groundbreaking Fade to Grey video and was coat-check girl at his nightclubs).
I was never sure if he was actually employed by the owners of PX, but he made a good frontman, with his shock of coal-black hair, modelling the voluminous peg top trousers, leather army coats, fox furs and diamante jewellery. I did one of my first photoshoots with Steve and Julia at the store and Steve insisted on posing with a silver-topped cane. He was the ultimate dandy in an age, post-punk, when it was not the done thing. He was a maverick soul.
We were all ex-punks and Bowie freaks so Steve, along with musician/DJ Rusty Egan, decided to set up a club night called Billy’s in a basement in Soho devoted to Ziggy Stardust and all things future-gazing. Steve stood at the door dressed as a tin soldier wearing a Nehru cap, satin sash and toy medals. We bonded over a pair of Mary Jane ladies’ shoes.
His look soon morphed into sci-fi superhero (shoulder pads and zigzag braid), Little Lord Fauntleroy (velvet knickerbockers and lace jabot) to Robinson Crusoe via Robin Hood. For the latter, Steve asked my best friend Fiona and I to perm his hair as Fiona and her mum had permed mine.
When the night at Billy’s became wildly popular and Steve moved the whole shebang to the Blitz wine bar in Covent Garden we all followed. He was a latterday Pied Piper playing the best tunes. He provided somewhere for us fashion freaks to go and not be hassled. He also reminded us that we had someone to be.
The kids that turned up faithfully every week at his Blitz club were dreamers. We wanted to be fashion designers, pop singers, writers, photographers, makeup artists and film-makers. We wanted to impress Steve, not least to get through the door, but also because we knew he was one of us. He didn’t care that you weren’t a famous celebrity, he loved that people made an effort – and we did, for him.
Steve changed the London nightlife landscape. After the Blitz we followed him to Hell (another Covent Garden venue), and then on to Club For Heroes and the Camden Palace. He was a gentle man who could also be a right pain, but throughout the highs and lows he remained a faithful friend.
Recently, when planning his comeback album and tour, Steve asked if I would advise him on the latest fashions. I talked with him about working with fashion students from the RCA, how he would love their outre style and how they would love to collaborate with such an 80s style icon. Sadly they, and I, will now never get that opportunity, but Steve’s crazy, colourful antics will never fade (to grey).