The SpeedQueen boutique became a vital stop off point on Saturday afternoons before Saturday nights, not only for the racks of one-off or vintage clothes sorted by story, rather than gender, but for the counter of free glitter spray and make up that everyone was free to come and experiment with.
“Leeds had so little you could buy in the way of dressing up and alternative wear when I started in the nineties,” says Suzy Mason. As host of the Kit Kat Club, then Vague, then SpeedQueen clubnights, dressing up was a way of life for Suzy, so she used to travel to London for black lipsticks, diamantes, professional makeup and coloured facepaints, and cause ripples of dancefloor sensation every Saturday night. “I was constantly getting people coming up to me saying, where did you get that from?”
Suzy always had a different outfit; she’d ask herself, every Friday night, what can I try this week? “I haven’t gone to the club in a moustache, or a men’s suit. What identity can I explore this Saturday?” And the SpeedQueen boutique was Suzy’s way of helping Leeds clubgoers to get dressed up with her.
“On a Saturday we used to have this counter for coloured hairsprays and glitter and makeup, and we used to have teenagers queuing down the street and coming in four or five at a time. We put a budget together so we could say this was all free, and then they could all dress up and spray themselves up and then just go off round town.”
That welcoming generosity was vital to SpeedQueen and instinctive to Suzy. As a kid she used to ask ladies from the old folks’ home at the end of her street home for tea, and she is still working to take glitter to lustreless corners, along with Mark Wilks, whose Tortoise label made clothes for the drag queens at SpeedQueen fashion shows, and basques for Victoria Beckham.
Together Suzy and Mark have begun workshops with older people with mobility issues, dementia or learning difficulties, many of whom worked in Leeds’ clothing industry in their younger days. Those dormant techniques are being revived for therapeutic and productive weaving, knitting and crochet workshops. Making things sure beats staring at the telly all day; and feeling the fabrics brings back memories of more glamorous days.
“It is very humbling,” says Suzy. “For me, having worked in such a high octane, glamorous, hedonistic, crazy kind of world, to move into this community work just feels completely right with all my experience. I think what me and Mark bring, because we’ve spent so long in clubs, is we bring glamour to it.
“Brenda is a double amputee and has no legs, and all the stories she tells us are about how she used to get dressed up and go dancing at The Scala, but never paid to go to a dance because she was always so well dressed.
“And it’s just like, this is SpeedQueen and Vague! But twenty years before! The same politics, the same cheekiness with the gorgeous young girls. When we started they told us at the centre that Brenda was very disengaged and very grumpy and she didn’t like to get involved in anything, but we have this wonderful relationship. She wants to make bags for young girls, so we’re trying to hook her up with some fashion students who will work on the design with her. She wants to be part of society.”
Whether it’s a nightclub, or a makeup counter in dreary, glitterless Leeds, or a community centre, glitter and glamour aren’t just products, but they’re states of mind that anyone can access. Beauty more than anything else is a feeling, and once you access the feeling, you can take it anywhere.
“When I speak to other women my age, I just think, woah, what have I experienced? What have I lived through?” says Suzy. “I remember seeing the party scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and all these crazy sixties movies and thinking, I want to go to parties like that when I’m grown up.
“And we did. We created it and we lived it and it really was incredibly dynamic, exciting, risky, dangerous, fun, experimental, everything. And it was real, and it wasn’t just me, it was lots and lots of people all building it in their own way.
“There had been a recession, half of Leeds was shut down. I think in 1989 there was The Faversham if you wanted to go out for a drink and that was about it. It was quite boring. So a lot of us set about to regenerate the city. I don’t think it was as conscious as that, but it was just like, we want to live somewhere that has got more going on, so let’s make it, because it doesn’t exist.”
And they did; they always will. ••