It's 2008 and you've just woken up on a mattress on the floor of the Hoxton apartment you rent for £350 a month. You tie your hair back with an American Apparel scrunchie and check your BBMs. There's a party tonight in some tunnel in Shoreditch and Agyness Deyn is DJing. Last time, Uffie showed up wearing a t-shirt that simply read “Cocaine”. “C u there,” you message, before tossing your Blackberry onto a recent copy of SuperSuper! Magazine. You don't know it yet, but you are living in peak indie sleaze.
The term “indie sleaze” has been thrown around a lot lately, thanks to an Instagram account dedicated to the era and trend (their bio reads: “Documenting the decadence of mid-late aughts and the indie sleaze party scene that died in 2012”). The account mainly consists of flash-on party candids of everyone from Alexa Chung to Dev Hynes and Sky Ferreira, all smoking straight cigs and seemingly always at some fashion event where everyone is wearing neon-panelled shades and Converse.
It's hard to pinpoint “indie sleaze” – the account spans fashion styles and locations – but if we had a dart, it might land somewhere between Brooklyn and Shoreditch in their heydays, towards the end of electroclash and the beginning of Tumblr. Think: the colour of the 80s with a sprinkle of grunge from the 90s, It Girls like Cory Kennedy and Alice Dellal. American Apparel. VICE's Dos and Don'ts. Side fringes and bowl cuts and tights under denim shorts. House of Holland slogan tees and Uffie's “Pop the Glock.” Essentially: “hipster”, back when the word had a definition.
Mark “The Cobra Snake” Hunter – AKA the prolific party photographer responsible for all your fave indie sleaze pics – remembers this time fondly. He says one huge difference was the lack of social media, bar MySpace, which wasn’t accessible on most phones back then anyway.
“You go to an event [now] and people are playing with their phone and checking Instagram,” he says. “But you look back at the photos I was taking and there were no phones in hands. People were really letting loose. There [wasn't] the expectation or control that we have now, where everyone wants to look a certain way and curate their feed.”
Hunter says this lack of self-censorship led to a certain kind of decadence – people weren't so straight-edge back then. “I think that some of it was a bit destructive,” he recalls. “There was an excessive amount of drugs. So anybody that wants to relive or recreate this needs to be safe. My one take would be to 'party smart' if you're going to make those decisions.”
If you're old enough to envision the mid to late 2000s, you might remember the grip that fashion label House of Holland had on the indie looks of the era, particularly the brightly-coloured slogan tees with statements like “Flick yer bean for Agness Deyn”.
Label founder Henry Holland says he designed those T-shirts because he wanted something to wear in East London nightclubs. “Everyone was having a laugh at themselves. I think we all knew that we looked ridiculous. It was almost like… That was part of the fun.”
“Social media's made a massive difference,” he adds. “I don't feel like there's as much of a party scene anymore; people are too conscious and self-aware. People are on dancefloors Snapchatting or TikToking. Whereas we were just on dancefloors, dancing.”
Namalee Bolle, co-founder of SuperSuper! magazine – whose clubby, playful aesthetic was as indie sleaze as it gets – agrees: “We were enjoying the last face-to-face party era before everyone started branding themselves very seriously, rather than just expressing themselves simply for the art of it.”
No Bra, an electronic musician who toured with everyone from Patrick Wolf to The Gossip, also hung out a lot in Shoreditch at the time (her 2005 track “Munchausen” is an exceptional time capsule of the gay scene back then). She says it was fun – for a while. “It was exciting because every night there was somewhere to go. It was messy and fun. You don't see that anymore in London. People were out every night. Everyone would be going to a party or hungover.”
Still, she has zero nostalgia for the era. “In the end, it was important for me personally to get out of that environment. It was very heteronormative and benefitted the most heteronormative people,” she says. “People tolerate you, but they don't actively support you. But then I moved to New York and the culture changed quite rapidly. That was beneficial for me, and continues to be.”
Artist and producer Bishi Bhattacharya was resident DJ at Soho queer night Kashpoint at the time, and also toured with Patrick Wolf and Róisín Murphy. She describes the era as “the early days of VICE, American Apparel, day-glo, skinny jeans, asymmetric haircuts. Drag and genderfluid expression was massive on the underground and in fashion magazines but was frowned upon by straight monied hipsters, the music industry and the mainstream.”
Like Hunter, Bishi remembers people being a little more thrill-seeking back then – things could get messy. “People were much wilder, socially and sexually, for better and for worse. There was less social anxiety and a lot more mixing of people in between scenes. I’m a massive social media fan, but people let loose because they weren’t under constant surveillance.”
Much like No Bra, however, Bishi feels “no nostalgia whatsoever”. It was fun, sure, but the world has opened up since then: “Technology has given me unimaginable artistic opportunities,” she says. “I’m a part of the first generation of women in music who used social media to define ourselves on our terms.”
As someone who spent her teen years living in Shoreditch with a side fringe and neon faux snakeskin leggings, I look back on the 2000s with a sweet dose of nostalgia. This was, after all, the era of MySpace, MDMA and Wednesday night events where a Geldof might show up and play some Ed Banger records. That said, so much of it sucked. American Apparel was made for skinny people. It was cool to be casually misogynistic. The indie sleaze photos are exceptional, but the vibes were sometimes off – and many things have changed for the better.
“I’m really thrilled that conversations around queerness, trans rights, feminism, POC, body positivity, disability and sex workers' rights are so huge [now],” adds Bishi. “I’m proud I contributed to all of these conversations on an underground level when it wasn’t mainstream.”
Namalee is proud of what SuperSuper! did, too. It was an antidote to the more macho, white side of the scene. “I am mixed race and was fed up of fashion and style being so Eurocentric,” she remembers. “We were expressing multicultural identities on our pages and the loudness was all about saying ‘Hello we are here! Stop trying to limit our expression!’”
Hunter tells me that his calendar is suddenly crazy full, thanks to the recent indie sleaze resurgence. People want to party again post-lockdown, and they want the same sort of off-the-cuff blog-style photos. Whether it’s even possible to do this while living through the most heavily curated era in history remains to be seen.