As we come to the close of a round of digital fashion weeks and face lockdown 2.0, the positive power of social media to connect with one another is prominent. In 2016, visual artist and art director Natalie Worgs began using Instagram to create a document and dialogue with her local community in South London.
Posting pictures and interviews onto the grid with the hashtag #girlsaboutpeckham, Worgs has now met, interviewed and documented over 300 SE15 girls. From artists, hairdressers and models, to good old plain hustlers, Worgs also champions exhibitions and creative projects. The magic of SE15 can be glimpsed with a quick scroll through @girlsaboutpeckham.
The platform has quickly grown, undertaking residencies at institutions including The Tate, BFI, London College of Communications and NYU, with Worgs recently hosting a workshop as part of UAL's Summer Sessions series and staging an installation as part of The London Design Festival. Worgs has created a platform which has enabled her to begin to bring underrepresented voices into historic institutions- certainly no small feat.
The now infamous account has evolved into a powerful online platform dedicated to girls, culture, style and community, more important than ever in an increasingly gentrified South London. The same people who turned their nose up at going South of the river 20 years ago have now decided it's the cool place to be, and so, expensive new builds have begun to take over. Last Thursday, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre which once provided a thriving hub, particularly for the Latin community, officially closed its doors to make way for developers. In Peckham, locals are currently challenging plans to develop the Aylesham Shopping Centre on Rye Lane, which would forever wipe out the the skyline with new 20 storey builds, promising only to exacerbate the housing crisis. In the face of it all, as Worgs explains: 'GAP is centred on responding to local needs and reflecting local issues through still and moving images whilst celebrating its organic and originally eccentric culture.'
In 2019, the platform hosted a digital and social event at Tate Modern, where Worgs introduced dancehall into the famed space for the first time in the two decades since its founding. The takeover also resulted in the first Girls About Peckham Zine, with the follow up due later this year. Themed Peckham 3000, (a nod to the genius that is André 3000), it's all about future subcultures and what the area will look like in the year 3000. Expect fashion editorials, articles, poetry, prose and artwork, all by local creatives.
At the beginning of September 2020, Worgs took up a space at the Livesey Exchange in Peckham as part of the London Design Festival. Projected onto a wall, surrounded by an installation of the cardboard boxes you'll find sprinkled along our local high street, Peckham girls are documented by Worgs in a video collage. A line drawing of the SE15 skyline by artist Misty Ingham is layered over the footage- it's the people who represent the landscape best. The voice of Marcus, who you'll find singing reggae by the JD Sports at the bottom of Rye Lane, plays over the top. Worgs has been recording the sounds of Peckham for over 1 year, she says 'What you hear is what you can feel'.
There was also a space on the opposite wall for visitors to engage in 'imaginative thinking' about Peckham's future, penning their thoughts about what they want to change or stay the same in SE15. The power Worgs has derived from the Instagram platform is palpable, but what it comes down to is the engagement of the local community.
Although @girlsaboutpeckham may be unique to its local area, it sets a blueprint for how digital formats of communication can impact any area in meaningful ways. During lockdown, Worgs teamed up with local artist Florence Goodhand-Tait @gowivflo after Worgs spotted her #SE15TulipGirls creations on Instagram, and suggested that the artist make them into bookmarks. They then collaborated, and made an open call to bring all the artists they could reach together, whilst also raising money for an online fundraiser for the Central Southwark Community Hub and Pamper 4 Heroes, a food bank and service delivering wellbeing packs to key workers. In the face of a pandemic and lack of affordable housing, Girls About Peckham enables us to stick together and to see the power we have as a commUNITY.
Hetty Mahlich, a fellow SE15 girl, spoke to Worgs about how her roots in fashion have contributed to the creation of the unique platform, and what the future holds.
Hetty Mahlich: How did founding GAP come about?
Natalie Worgs: In 2013-14 I started calling myself 'Girl about Peckham', but then decided I didn’t want the focus on me. I created a fashion story on 'a girl about Peckham' focusing on local spots that I love and using only local fashion boutiques that are sadly no longer open due to early gentrification of the area. At the same time I felt people wasn’t ready for what was in my head, so I continued to listen to conversations and I started to notice the clothing of the girls was changing, then I brought my project back out.
HM: Tell me a bit about your background working as an art director and stylist, and how your fashion work has informed Girls About Peckham.
NW: My work started off assisting a stylist, at the time I was going through a down moment after finishing uni and it was recommended to me that I start writing a fashion blog. I called it a fashion 'blag' not blog, that became my daily medication instead of anti-depressants. My journey has led me to work with some fantastic people who influenced how I feel about my work- it’s ok to be different, it’s ok to be who I am, it’s great to be a Black creative. I enjoy working behind the scenes, and I find music is my source of creating stories. I also love details, symbols, I feel a connection with people. I’m able to identify unique, real life trends and patterns. I do the same with my fashion work.
HM: What role did the platform take on for you during lockdown?
NW: Over lockdown we started an IG live series called How much have you changed? So basically I caught up with old and new girls who I had taken portraits of and new girls who I want to feature. We had great fun, the girls really shared a lot and I asked the same questions each time. The feedback about how relaxed my voice was or how I chose to go live from in my house was great- once I did the live from my bedroom. It’s returning with bigger guests and our new branding this October.
HM: Since you started the platform, how has the community of Peckham girls you’ve met, documented and engaged with changed? I’m thinking here particularly about gentrification and the influx of people moving to Peckham/Nunhead/New Cross/Camberwell.
NW: I’ve met well over 300+ girls, with a great handful becoming friends or working with me on projects. I feel my project shows how Peckham has changed/it’s no longer/is changing. I noticed the changes early, it was through what the girls were wearing and the dissolving of the original girls of Peckham- the ones I would hang out with, catch jokes with as we shared stories as I got my hair done. The local Jamaican spots where they held late night blues, there's one I would go to under the bridge in Peckham. The conversations happening about businesses closing down or new businesses coming into the area charging £5.00 for baked beans and toast. My work not only documents the girls, the images also show massive changes with the area structure and buildings.
Lets be frank and honest, gentrification has brought people to Peckham, the negative headlines kept them away but the positive headlines soon started to change with the new girls, as did Rye Lane itself with new businesses. I remember on Rye Lane the markets would be playing some kind of dancehall or lovers rock even AfroBeats, if it wasn’t that they would celebrate you by trying to speak in your native tongue whilst calling you Auntie, sadly all that has gone.
I feel like the gentrification of Peckham has separated the community as it can feel as though the changes are to make the newcomers feel comfortable, not the original people of Peckham who love and STILL hold down Peckham- we literally get the sh*t stick basically. People come to shoot their campaigns and so forth, the essence and character of Peckham is raw and real, and you get what you see, RUFF with the SMOOTH. Developers don’t care about commUNITY they only see people as abbreviations, numbers, facts and figures.
HM: What are your goals for the future of GAP, the girls and the wider local community?
NW: Continuing to build our magazine- we are about ready to present our next idea through fashion. Artists from as far as Spain and Italy have submitted to the Community Project Fund Raising - SE15 Tulip Girls project, which will hopefully be a commUNITY exhibition next year. I also definitely want to drop some merchandise, but most importantly it's being that platform that the wider community seeks out. As the mother of the community, I’m always seeking information, it’s so important, my days at university really taught me that. We are all money rich and time poor however I’m using my time to build campaigns in support of the community.
HM: Which Girls About Peckham should we be following?
NW: @hair.by.rosie.grace @tensstudio
HM: Are you working on anything exciting we should look forward to? I know zine #2 is coming soon, what can we expect?
NW: Peckham 3000. I’m so happy that I picked this theme as for me the future is so important, what we do now speaks volumes. Local creatives, recipes, editorials, poetry and articles. Also our new initiative P's...
Keep your eyes peeled over on @girlsaboutpeckham for more information on P's, coming soon.