Earls Court Elegance
Duggie Fields’ Earls Court mansion flat home is beyond groovy. A poptastic reliquary of paintings, pin badges, action men, mannequin appendages, lips, boobs and Princess Di. A huge work in progress covers most of the lino in one room. It’s going to be a sort of “greatest hits” of the cemetery’s statues.
Film DUGGIE FIELDS
Words and Photography
One figure has lost her hands but reaches up to a perfectly cerulean sky, the word HOPE etched onto her stone podium. When finished the colours of this painting will have the backlit lucidity of a laptop screen. All of Duggie’s paintings have the intense, primary quality of something created on Microsoft Paint. But his style predates home computers by a mile, and the incomplete piece at my feet betrays the simple pop perfection of finished works covering the walls. There are print-outs of photographs taken on Duggie’s phone and preparatory sketches all over the floor, and on the canvas a pencil grid made up of thousands of lines, which are slowly fading behind the many layers of acrylic.
Fields looks like his work. Or maybe it’s the work that looks like him. There’s the same pop-y immediacy – without your glasses on you could tell it was him across the street. There’s the quiff and spiral of hair kissing his forehead. Pristine white shirt, skinny black jeans, letterbox red jacket and sunglasses with thick, white plastic frames. Strong features. He’s outlined in black. Snapping a picture of Fields standing in front of a self-portrait (one of many, this from 1995) I notice not much has changed. The look has been pretty consistent since the ’70s. “I love dressing, but I don’t like spending money. I like bargains, and I like the feeling that this cost me nothing and I can go out and sit with the best-dressed person and not feel inadequate. Ten-pound trousers, £17 jacket, £10 shirt, expensive shoes – £30 – and I’ve had someone say to me, ‘Oh you have all your clothes made for you don’t you?’ No! So reality is illusion. I like the illusion.”
It’s hilarious that Fields was the muse of a 2007 Comme Des Garçons collection. Blazers and trews that cost far more than £17. That wasn’t the first time he’d been big in Japan. For a moment in the ’80s he was the face of Shiseido, and it caused a kind of Duggie-mania. “I got consumed, briefly. Did you see Lost in Translation? Take away the Scarlett Johansson love interest, swap the TV commercial from whiskey to women’s cosmetics, and that’s my story. It may even have been partially my story, because I met [the film’s director] Sofia Coppola in New York. I think I met her before she made the film.”
I ask him to take me through his beauty regime. Here’s how one becomes Duggie Fields each morning. “I get up, I check the computer, I turn it on if it hasn’t turned itself on. Maybe I set something working.” Pyjamas? “Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Dressing gown if not pyjamas, sometimes both. Then I make my bed. I shave. Then I exercise. Then I shower, no I brush my teeth, then I shower. Then I dress. This is my daily look at the moment. I can stay home or go out, and I can go out anywhere casual but also anywhere smart like this.
I feel fine wherever I go.” Products? “I don’t use any – Simple shampoo and an anti-bacterial wash and that’s it.” Quiff and curl? “Two seconds every morning.” No moisturiser? “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke.” Used to? “Yes.” Miss it? “No. I don’t miss anything. It’s a freedom to stop. Don’t miss coffee, don’t miss sugar, don’t miss milk, don’t miss cigarettes, don’t miss marijuana, don’t miss alcohol, don’t miss cocaine. What else don’t I miss?” Fields laughs. “They’re all freedoms.”
"Bisexuality was not an issue. It was much more fluid, free and not particularly talked about, because conversation wasn’t particularly cool either."
Fields started life in the countryside in a small village, then moved to a small town, then to the suburbs of London. “The suburbs were a miserable place for me. Borehamwood. It’s where they made films and TV so it had a glamour side to it, but it’s a massive council estate at the same time, and it’s very rough. If you watch Big Brother, that baying crowd is in Borehamwood, and it was in Borehamwood when I lived there. Just like that.” Technicolor had a big impact on young Duggie. “It was this novel breakthrough in the ’50s where you suddenly got these lush colours on screens. CinemaScope and Technicolor. It didn’t really matter what the movie was, it was CinemaScope and Technicolor, so you got scale and colour.” Life in Borehamwood however, was not In Glorious Technicolor. Seventeen and stuck in the suburbs. Thankfully one of Fields’ cousins started taking him into London of an evening. “We were going to this club where they put on a rhythm and blues night with an unsigned covers band called The Rolling Stones. So I was seeing the Stones with 50 people, before they’d made their own music. I thought they were great, I didn’t know they were going on to be ‘The Rolling Stones’. At the same time I was supposed to go to university in Liverpool to do architecture, but once I’d discovered this world, I thought I can’t leave London – and I didn’t. And that was a big upset for my family because I would have been the first to go to university, and I ended up going to a polytechnic to do architecture because that was the option in London.”
At the end of his first day studying architecture, after a sketch critique, he was told to go to art school. “I went to Chelsea Art School, which at that time was actually off the King’s Road, when the King’s Road was just starting to blossom into what drew thousands of people all over the world to London. So it was a very exciting time.” Did it feel exciting at the time? “Yes, but I didn’t know any different. But it was an incredibly small, little world with spots of incredible glamour, and sort of eye-popping style that I’d never seen before. There was a girl called Judy Guy Johnson who was early Vidal Sassoon, silver mini-skirt, long legs and this very cropped blonde hair, which was really new. It was unlike anything I’d seen in the country and in the suburbs, and then suddenly this was the world I walked into, and was made part of.”
So what did Fields look like on his first day at art school? “I had on a tailored suit. My father had let me have a tailor-made suit when I was 16, and I’d styled it much to his horror. I’d already decided that I wanted to self-identify, shall we say? That’s an expression that wouldn’t have come out of my lips then, that’s for sure.” The hair? “It started being backcombed on top and I’d started wearing make-up. I’d had a girlfriend at school whose sister hadn’t been impressive, but they’d moved to Kingston from the country and so I looked them up and the sister had turned into this incredibly stylish creature. And they had a party that I went to and all the guys were in velvet trousers with Cuban-heeled shoes and backcombed hair and panstick, and I liked that, and I thought I wanna be like that.”
Fields and his crowd were dressing up, trying things out. Dressing for each other, mostly at each others’ houses rather than nightclubs or out on the street. “There was a lot of pleasure in clothing, a lot of pleasure and importance in appearance. No social media and very few cameras, it wasn’t really about dressing for the camera at all. It was just about… the pleasure of dressing.” Was it about sexual attraction? Or was it more of an asexual glamour? “That’s hard to put one’s finger on. I’m gonna say bisexuality was not an issue. It was much more fluid, free and not particularly talked about, because conversation wasn’t particularly cool either. There’s a way of existing where you have a lot of laughter, but not a lot of verbal conversation at the same time. I don’t know how that works, but it did.” I imagine Fields and his friends, happening their way down the King’s Road, were massively intimidating. “I think there was an incredible snobbery, but I don’t think it was articulated. It was visual snobbery, when I look back on it, it was visual fascism. But I’ve always been slightly on the outside wherever I’ve been. That’s fine though, I’m happy with that role. It means I’ve survived.” Fields laughs.
"The club where I saw The Rolling Stones was a fleapit, but I’d never seen anywhere so hypnotic. To me it was the centre of the universeThe club where I saw The Rolling Stones was a fleapit, but I’d never seen anywhere so hypnotic. To me it was the centre of the universe."
Fields discovered the painting language that forms his work at art school – catalysed by a Donald Duck badge he’d wear on his black-velvet three-piece suit. Somewhat pissed off with his tutor, he stuck the badge in the middle of a large abstract canvas he was working on… and it seems from the pinhole made in that painting sprang the mad pop babelogue of Fields’ world. Donald, Diana, Disney, Duchamp and dicks. Surrounded by his work, it’s impossible to tell what was done 30 years ago and what paint might still be wet. “Yes, surprisingly. I’ve been in this one spot for 50 years and I find it hard to differentiate when I did something, because it’s in the same space. So space and time are just continuance, and it’s not part of the outside world.”
Although he still paints, Fields’ prolific output spreads far beyond the wooden frame of a canvas. Sound, poetry, gifs, animation, photography, performance. Check out the digital art gallery on his website (which is in itself a wonderful work of art). “I was 13 when I started experimenting with technology. I got a tape recorder, and I got a record player. I do not know what I was doing with it now, but I remember reel-to-reel tape and you actually had to cut with scissors and tape the tape together, but what I was recording I don’t know. I got a four-track recorder at one point, a Walkman answer machine where you could make answer machine tapes.” While we are together Fields gets a call that goes through to one of his notorious voicemail greetings: “We are disturbed, by that which surrounds, our inner fears, are outward bound. We go
to pieces, we constantly fall apart…”
“I got my first computer around ’95, and then I started trying to make more music and film.” This is also when Fields started to transform his physical paintings into digital works. “In the past, I’d had a lot of work professionally photographed, and once I’d got these photographs on the computer screen I could see where the lights were. As professional as they’d been, I could still tell where the lights were so the colour wasn’t flat, and I started thinking, well, I can make the colour flat on the computer but in doing that I destroyed the edges. So I learnt to redraw the edges. I ended up with new versions of my older work, and I could make collages of them, playing with space in a way that I couldn’t in the real world, by changing scale and making animations. And I’ve been doing that ever since.”
"I’ve been in this one spot for 50 years and I find it hard to differentiate when I did something, because it’s in the same space. So space and time are just continuance, and it’s not part of the outside world."
There may not have been social media in the ’70s but by golly there is now, and Fields is an avid adopter. His series Just Around The Corner started on Facebook as a document of what he saw… just around the corner. He seems drawn to the slightly dilapidated. The doll with a missing eye or misprinted lipstick. “It’s sort of balancing nature. Man’s interruptions and the imperfections as well as the perfections. It’s reality. So my reality includes a pile of rubbish which might be presented in an art gallery as art – there’s plenty of piles of rubbish in art galleries, I’m just focusing on the ones in the street.” Would he identify as a Bohemian? “I try not to identify as anyone. Bohemian is an interesting word, I’ve had a lifestyle that has Bohemian elements, definitely. Did that get me out of that label?”
The glamour and the ruin go hand in hand with Fields’ mantra-motto: Earls Court Elegance. “That was a ’70s play on the fact that Earls Court wasn’t exactly elegant. Although there are parts of it that are incredibly beautiful, Earls Court at the time was really rent boys on the corner, prostitutes on the street. When I first moved in here there was a club over the road that was violent and I could watch bloodshed from the balcony. It was very urban and gritty in a way that’s gone now. It was funny ’cause I ended up in Vogue wearing my Earls Court Elegance T-shirt. When Comme Des Garçons did the collection inspired by me they asked if they could use it. I said, ‘Have you been to Earls Court?’”
Other than his beloved SW5, I wonder if there is a certain place that holds a special glamour for Fields. After all he’s seen it all – swinging Biba and psychedelic Granny Takes a Trip… Warhol’s Factory and the backroom at Max’s. He pauses. “I don’t think luxury and glamour are the same things. There’s a whole luxury lifestyle and I can see it’s glamorous, but I don’t feel it necessarily, and it’s that feeling and seeing combined that’s important. The club I used to see The Rolling Stones in was a fleapit, but I’d never seen anywhere so hypnotic. It was a grotty basement, the walls dripped a bit. To me it was the centre of the universe, I’d never found somewhere so attractive. I’ve not found a place so attractive since.”