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The Brit Factor

by Bee Beardsworth

The post-Thatcherite Britain of the 90s heralded an era of cultural innovation, style and iconography that extended well into the 2000s and is still easily recognised today. The rise of Tony Blair’s “trendy” New Labour launched a political phenomenon that ricocheted throughout the fabric of British culture – “New Labour, New Britain” – and the landslide victory of 1997 led to the abandonment of nationalisation and the embracing of market economics.

Charles Saatchi (who had made his name as the first advertising agency to work with a PM, namely Thatcher herself) displayed his art collection at the Royal Academy. The show, entitled Sensation, made headlines worldwide for the transgressive and now infamous works including Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Every Slept With 1963 – 1995. Artists from the notorious show were anointed as the new enfant terrible of the arts world, ushering in the era of the YBAs (Young British Artists).

British fashion was also causing quite a stir. The July 1990 issue of The Face featured a completely unknown 16-year-old Kate Moss captured giggling and waifish on Camber Sands by photographer Corrine Day, styled by Melanie Ward. Breaking with the glamour centric, pop-addled culture of America, this grungy, totally unglamourous and pretty deconstructed look became known as Cool Britannia and, more equivocally, Heroin Chic.

British pride and heritage emulating through the music and films of the Cool Britannia era. Whilst Blair posed with Oasis (great PR), Blur and Robbie Williams publicly feuded, the Spice Girls wore Union Jack sequins at the Brit Awards and ecstasy-fuelled ravers sweated and smiled on the dancefloors of Ministry of Sound and The Haçienda. Iconic cinematic offerings of the day ranged from Richard Curtis’s Four Weddings and a Funeral to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting.

One man was there to capture it all – photographer Dave Benett. Benett has captured some of the most iconic and celebrated celebrity images of the last few decades – moments including those featured in this spread. Born in Mauritius, Benett emigrated to Liverpool as a child, attending the same school as Paul McCartney. Cutting his teeth in the darkroom of a Fleet Street agency, Benett now counts moments such as snapping Nelson Mandela in his home in Cape Town among his most cherished memories. His three words to describe the 90s – 2000s UK: “Cool, Manchester, New Labour.” His personal favourite photo: “Kate Moss in an Alexander McQueen dress leaving the National Portrait Gallery with a cigarette in her mouth.” A mainstay of the London scene, as well as perhaps its most proliferate documentarian, Benett retains an air of mystery that’s perfectly balanced with his signature charm, and one can only imagine the stories he has – however, a picture does speak a thousand words, so you absorb some of them for yourself. To him, home means losing himself in a long, romantic walk on Hampstead Heath. Truly a Cool Brit.

Dave Benett’s extensive archive will be on show at JD Malat in London, 2022. For more information follow @davebenett.

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