“I grew up in a small town in Scotland and the Spice Girls came along and said, ‘You can actually be anything you want to be. It’s alright to be different,’” says Alan Smith-Allison, curator of “Spice Up,” a new exhibition now on view at London’s Business Design Centre, which unveils the story of the world’s biggest girl group through their memorabilia and costumes. “They also represented that if you work hard enough and you try hard enough you can achieve anything you want to. That resonates with a lot of fans. The Spice Girls really taught us to believe in ourselves.”
The idea for “Spice Up” arose in 2016 when Smith-Allison put on an independent exhibition of his extensive Spice Girls collection in Cyprus. “It looked so colorful and amazing out on display, so we then decided we needed to take it to a bigger scale and go on tour with it,” the curator says. While the band members themselves are not involved in the exhibition, the group and their management team are aware of the show and have given “Spice Up” their blessing.
Smith-Allison began collecting Spice Girls items in 2007 when Melanie Brown, known in the band as Mel B, put up some of her costumes in a charity auction. Since then he has accumulated thousands of pieces from charity auctions and eBay, and has become one of the biggest collectors of Spice Girls materials in the world. “Spice Up” features more than 7,000 items of merchandise and memorabilia, as well as 300 costume pieces, including outfits, shoes and jewelry.
The exhibition primarily comes from Smith-Allison’s personal collection, which previously lived in boxes around his house, but five other Spice Girls collectors from around the world have lent items. Liz Smith, who holds the Guinness World Record for the largest collection of Spice Girls memorabilia, contributed several pieces, as did David Roos and Andrea Consiglio. Smith-Allison also worked with several designers, including Academy Costumes, to flesh out the exhibit rooms. Many of the items have never been publicly displayed before.
“This is the first time they’ve really all been brought together and they’ve all been on display with design information,” Smith-Allison says. “We’ve got sketchbooks and hand-drawn items. There’s loads of stuff that people wouldn’t have known before that we’ve uncovered by speaking to the designers. We’ve discovered some unknown and very quirky facts.”
One of the most striking discoveries involves a replica of a gold-and-diamond cross David Beckham purchased for Victoria Beckham. Because insurance issues prevented her from wearing the real cross onstage, Beckham instead donned a fake version created by Academy Costumes. The design company recently uncovered the cross in a box and has lent it to the “Spice Up” exhibit. “Nobody knew was that there was a replica of it,” Smith-Allison notes.
The exhibition is laid out chronologically, for the most part, beginning with the band’s singles and the costumes associated with each track. There’s a section dedicated to their movie, which will be shown on a loop in a theater adjacent to the main exhibit room, and another that collects hundreds of costumes from the live shows. One of the key outfits, for Smith-Allison, is Geri Halliwell’s red dress from the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony. Halliwell commissioned the dress from bridal designer Suzanne Neville, and it includes a 24-carat gold filigree and thousands of silver and gold crystals. “That is a really iconic piece for us,” Smith-Allison says. “The detail on the dress is amazing.”
Other costumes include Mel B’s Dane 3001-designed circuit-board-like catsuit, which she wore at the band’s Istanbul concert in 1997, and Halliwell’s white “Girl Power” dress from the group’s Saturday Night Live performance of “Say You’ll Be There.” Notably missing is Halliwell’s iconic Union Jack mini-dress, worn at the 1997 BRIT Awards. That dress is currently on display at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, which declined to loan it to Smith-Allison. And though “Spice Up” includes dozens of costumes and outfits from both the group’s and its members’ solo careers, there are very few pieces from Emma Bunton. The former Baby Spice has kept most of her ensembles while the other Spice Girls have donated theirs to charity, most conspicuously Halliwell, who got rid of everything when she left the band in 1998.
The exhibit also reveals the massive amount of brand tie-ins and sponsorships the Spice Girls netted during their career. On display are dozens of empty potato chip bags, the result of a partnership with Walkers Crisps, who produced 51 flavors of Spice Girls chips, 10 for each band member and one for the group overall. Hundreds of items reveal the intense obsession with the Spice Girls in all levels of pop culture: Impulse deodorant and body spray; limited edition Polaroid cameras; a Playstation game; Cadbury chocolate bars; party supplies, pizza and towels from grocery chain Asda; and collectable Pepsi cans. There are even three Aprilia Spice Girls mopeds on display, notable because only 200 were ever released in the U.K.
“It was merchandise on such a worldwide scale,” Smith-Allison says of the massive amount of memorabilia the group left behind. “It wasn’t just in Europe — it was everywhere. People have asked me, ‘Do you think you’ll finish your collection?’ And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to finish it because I don’t think I’ll ever know everything that was merchandised. They set the precedent and other people have been trying to emulate it. No one else has quite reached this scale. I think One Direction were the closest to emulating exactly what the Spice Girls managed to do.”
“Spice Up” features the Spice Bus, a red London city bus used in the Spice World film, which is parked outside of the London Design Centre for the duration of the exhibit. The bus is owned by the Isle of Wight Harbour Marina and has been refurbished thanks to a crowd-funding effort by Smith-Allison. The bus will travel with the exhibit to Manchester on August 24th, where “Spice Up” will be displayed through September 4th. Overall, “Spice Up” will visit 12 cities around the U.K. in the next 18 months before traveling overseas. More than 10,000 tickets have been sold so far for the London stop, showing that the group’s fan base remains strong. (Recent Spice Girls reunion rumors surely aren’t dampening the show’s appeal.)
“They’ve just had a massive impact,” Smith-Allison says of the group. “Feminism is really coming to the forefront and that brings them back and makes them more relevant. Who doesn’t love a little bit of fun and girl power and cheesy pop music?”