Issue 02: Ben Kelly

Photography: William Marsden / Creative Direction: Hamish Stephenson / Interview & Words: Tom Everest

This article is an excerpt from the Ben Kelly interview feature from Issue 02 of GAFFER: Heart & Soul. Available now from our online store now.

In July 2019, PUMA Football officially launched its ground-breaking partnership with Manchester City by releasing a pair of brand-new kits. The second of which, the black away shirt, celebrates the city’s “Madchester’ years – a period of ‘extraordinary cultural activity in the late 1980s and early 1990s.’ The official press release states that ‘the kit is directly inspired by former nightclub, The Haçienda, which was once an epicentre for music, bands, DJs and artists.’ Ben Kelly designed The Hacienda. Every last detail. Including the famous yellow stripes which have since become synonymous with a space that is considered to be incredibly significant for the role it played in modern British history and the regeneration of Manchester. The stripes you see on the right shoulder of the new Manchester City away kit – to quote the press release – are ‘a reference to The Haçienda’s iconic graphic identity.’ Ben Kelly was not credited, referenced or consulted at any stage of the shirt design.

“Design copyright is all you have as a designer,” explains Ben, as we sit in his serene office-come-studio which is perched at the end of his garden. “It’s the most important thing you own, it’s the one thing that protects you with your work.” His eyes wander to the solitary piece of clothing in the room. 

I can’t tell you how many side projects have happened as a result of The Haçienda. I could’ve run a small business off the back of things that have happened,” he explains. “There’s not a week that goes by in my life where I don’t get a phone call from someone, somewhere in the world – students, journalists, a fan, whoever – asking about The Haçienda. It drove me crazy in the first instance. I always called it the ‘monkey on my back’ but I can now say that the monkey has gone away. I’ve learned to cherish the whole thing. Because, the day I got on that train to go up to Manchester, my life changed.”

Very few nightclubs can lay claim to the stories, experiences and long-lasting legacy of The Haçienda. Originally launched in Manchester in 1982 by New Order and the team behind Factory Records, The Haçienda – despite it’s relatively slow start in terms of footfall and popularity – soon grew into a Mecca; a legendary space which was frequently visited by the who’s who in popular culture. That’s everyone from bands, musicians, 90s United footballers, artists, creatives and the average person on the street who was looking for a place of sanctum. It is now listed as one of the UK’s most important historic sites in popular culture and has been referenced by a whole host of other designers. Including, most noticeably Mr. Virgil Abloh and his brand Off-White.

“It’s a space that changed people’s lives. It sounds like a cliche but it’s true. It was a place for the people. The Haçienda was designed so it could always change with the times and the needs of whatever was happening. It was an absolutely incredible place.”

You can tell it means a lot to Ben. You can literally see him gazing through the rose-tinted glasses in his mind’s eye. But, how exactly does it feel to be the creative visionary behind such an iconic design? “For a long time I wanted to leave it behind,” Ben chimes. But, even now, 37 years since it first opened, the club never fails to surprise him. “Then I realised the real beauty of it. It’s a special thing to be part of.” 

“The club wasn’t an instant success though,” Ben adds. “It was quite empty when it first opened. There were only a few guys in ex-army greatcoats standing there. It took a while to get going. The problem was the people running the club at the start weren’t business people. New Order were propping it up financially for a long time. That was until the phenomenon of celebrity DJs, ecstasy and house music. All of those things came together in The Haçienda and it went mental. Of course, no one was buying alcohol they were just drinking water, so it still took a while to make the money.”

Kelly’s design was known for its completely revolutionary outlook. The big, open-space was originally viewed as a fairground of opportunity and Ben’s design reflected that. His inhibitions were let loose, his design focus switched from the unconventional to the conventional and back again. The club featured pillars in the middle of the dance floor, which were slightly raised from the rest of the space. So, Ben took stripes from workplace hazard signs to make the pillars clear, while the change in step was signified by roadside bollards around the edge of the dance floor. “When you entered the club on a night, it all became a lot more spectacular,” he explains. “We even installed cats eyes across the base of the dance floor so the lights would reflect off of them. It was all about the idea of using materials out of context and developing a language.”

“It drove me crazy in the first instance. I always called it the ‘monkey on my back’ but I can now say that the monkey has gone away. I’ve learned to cherish the whole thing. Because, the day I got on that train to go up to Manchester, my life changed.”

The club’s hallowed walls and dance floor have never stopped inspiring new ideas. Nor, have they stopped introducing Ben to new people. Including that of the aforementioned Mr. Abloh. “Years ago, someone told me about this brand called Off White. I thought ‘hold on, what’s going on here?’ I got a bit pissed off at first. I didn’t know anything about the label. One day I get an email, explaining how they’re launching the new collection and the man behind it, Virgil Abloh, wants you to attend the launch event because he’s a massive fan. So, I printed this email off and ran into the house to show my wife. My son, jumped up and said it’s ‘Virgil Abloh, you’ve got to do it!

“It was arranged I would have a phone call with Virgil. In the first instance, I had no idea what he was talking about but he said he was a fan and shared his stories of The Haçienda – and how it was important to him although he’s never been there. He kept referring to the columns in The Haçienda and for a while I was lost in the conversation. Then the penny dropped. The stripes on the columns of The Haçienda are the ones on his bloody garments!

“He commissioned me to design a touring set that he could use anywhere in the world when he’s DJing – because he’s good at that too, of course – and one that can be used for fashion shows and events. So I did. It was this knock-down touring set that can be put into flight cases.

“Virgil explained to me that his remit is to try and show younger people where things have come from. So, they understand how things are like they are now and where the creativity in the first place came from. He’s amazing at that. He’s now the head of menswear at Louis Vuitton, of course. Which is incredible. I respect him greatly. He’s opened a lot of doors for me, too.” 

However, this isn’t really about Ben. The designs are his, yes. But, the space which he helped craft from a former Yacht showroom into one of the country’s shining lights, belongs to everyone. He’s never talking in terms of himself. He’s always talking about the long-lasting legacy of creative collaboration. Which has now made him and Virgil friends, not adversaries. 

The pair paid homage to The Haçienda with a project called ‘Ruin’ – an installation at London’s 180 The Strand. “The club culture has suffered,” Ben begins to explain. “In the experiences with my son, who’s out and about in South-East London, he has nowhere to go. There aren’t any spaces for young people to go in the same way that The Haçienda allowed for flexibility and affordability. So, that’s where the idea for ‘Ruin’ came from. It was a massive, fragmented and run down night club set which featured cut-ups of dance music history. Virgil came and did a DJ set there – Jarvis Cocker did a gig there, Bjork was there too.” It just goes to show that The Haçienda will never die.

Sitting in Ben’s studio is a bit like looking through the looking glass. It feels like you’re in a place where you don’t feel you should be; looking at things you perhaps shouldn’t be looking at. But, Ben ushers those feelings right out of the way by showing you everything there is. He points to a black and white photograph fixed firmly on the wall. “That’s Madonna,” he says. “Her first UK appearance was in The Haçienda. That’s her, look, on my column.” Elsewhere, tall silkscreen limited-edition prints of the interior of The Hacienda sit proudly on the floor behind the desk and he describes every little detail of them. Then, there’s a wood-saw with some stripes painted on it. I ask what the saw is or what it’s doing here. “It’s a saw with some stripes on,” he says bluntly. That’s Ben. Dry, witty and charmingly funny. So, this time, I don’t take it to heart. But when you see an abstract saw next to a Madonna photo you’d be forgiven into thinking it holds some significance. I was wrong. We move on. There’s a lot more to look at. Not to mention the catalogue of ‘columns’ which sit proudly on his desk. 

“If you look closely at these columns, you will see the fun I have,” he explains. “You will see references to artists’ work that has also influenced me over the years.” Ben goes on to earmark the work of Marcel Duchamp as a key figure of inspiration in his life and how Duchamp has pretty much inspired everyone in the modern creative world, someway or another. By acknowledging and paying reference to his inspirations in everything he does, Ben hopes that more people going forward will follow suit. “I hope people look at my work, whether that’s The Haçienda or a column, and feel like they’re inspired to do stuff. Luckily, my son is doing so. He is part of a South London collective called South Space Records. They are DJ’s, producers and artists and my son does all the visuals. They are taking the baton and they are running with it”

Again, it’s the enjoyment of the art that is all what Ben cares about. So, when he sees the shirt which is laid out before him, the overriding emotion is frustration. He’s frustrated that he was not consulted or spoken to at any point. “Had you not come to me, I would be completely oblivious to this all,” Ben says. “I’m looking at it and now I’m thinking, let’s put stripes on a ball and kick that bloody thing around.” He stops for a second. “Hang on, I’ve just had an incredible thought – Rob Gretton, who was the manager of Joy Division and New Order, who helped in their success and in the creation of The Haçienda. He was an inspiration. He was this genius maverick and he was the biggest Manchester City fan going. It’d be interesting to think what he would say about it. He’d probably think it’s the funniest thing ever. It’s mind-blowingly ironic to be sitting here and to connect the two.”

Ben reconvenes. “It’s beyond appropriation, though. It’s in another league. It could have been beautiful. Peter Saville (who was also part of Factory Records) designed the England kit once. We all could have done something like that. It could have been incredible,” he shakes his head. Ultimately, I can’t copyright stripes. I would be a very rich man if I could. As Neil Young says, ‘keep on rockin’ in the free world.’ But, now, what’s free in this world and what isn’t?”

Like this article? Enjoy all cover features and interviews in Issue 02: Heart and Soul – available now from the GAFFER Online Shop.

Subscribe now!