It’s fair to say that growing up, most people develop some sort of miniature obsession for collecting things at some point. Whether it was hoarding shimmering crystals, buying endless packs of Pokémon cards, or lovingly pasting old postage stamps into a special stamp album, a bit of low-scale personal curation is a fairly commonplace hobby. For most people, it tends to fizzle out leaving behind nothing but one modest pile of Madonna t-shirts, or a slightly out of control record collection. On the other hand it’s incredibly rare to find somebody passing up going on holiday every single year in order to spend, say, over £200,000 on Spice Girls merchandise…
This weekend the biggest ever Spice Girls exhibition opens in London, taking over the exhibition space at Angel’s Business Design Centre for the next three weeks. Crammed full with bedazzled dresses and iconic costumes, branded polaroid cameras, beanie babies, dolls, and the lovingly renovated original Spice Bus, the number of items on display at SpiceUp London spirals into the thousands. And unbelievably, almost everything from this veritable Spice World belongs to one superfan – Alan Smith-Allison.
Alan grew up in Houston, a village in Renfrewshire, Scotland. Aged 15, he heard the band’s debut single, ‘Wannabe’ for the first time, and the obsession was immediate. “In the 90s, being gay, it was a bit uncomfortable at times,” Alan explains at the press preview of the Spice Up London exhibition. “I grew up in Scotland in a little quiet countryside town, and it wasn’t always the easiest. Not to be all ‘poor me’ – everybody was in the same boat in the 90s – but these girls came along and said, you know what, be who you want to be, it doesn’t matter. If you’re a bit different, and a bit quirky, embrace it, and go for it. As long as you work hard, and try hard, you can do whatever you want. That’s really what resonated from the Spice Girls, for me.”
The Spice Girls resonated so heavily that this self-confessed “magpie’s collection” – originally starting out with a handful of key rings and posters – grew into an archive of memorabilia big enough to fill an entire exhibition. Twenty two years after hearing ‘Wannabe’, he’s not exactly sure how much money he’s spent. “How much is a piece of string?’ he ponders. “If you look at the sets of dolls in [the exhibition], there’s a set of ‘Viva Forever’ dolls which were £700. There are a couple of CDs that are £500 to buy. I don’t know [how much money I’ve spent], and my partner doesn’t want to know. It’s well over £100,000. I would say probably a couple of hundred grand.”
In order to get his hands on must-have items like Mel B’s platform trainers and Baby Spice’s navy dress from their milestone performance at the ‘97 Brit Awards (Alan explains that Emma Bunton rarely puts her personal items up for sale, and instead keeps her own fashion archive) a few sacrifices have been made. First off, it sounds like Alan’s old house would’ve been a top candidate to appear on an episode of Hoarders.
“A lot of it has been in my house up until now, which is a bit stressful when you have two beagles that like to eat everything,” says Alan, sounding quite casual for a man who presumably spent many years of his life guarding incredibly valuable beanie babies from a pair of dogs. “The house was filled, bottom to top with stacks of boxes. We had a little maze where you could walk down and go to the living room, but apart from that… it was Spice Girls. There was a moped in the kitchen.” Thankfully, Alan has now moved out of his old house in Liverpool, and he says that the merchandise will never return to his new place. “I’m glad to get it out the house.”
“[Me and my partner] drove about in a banger for years,” he continues. “We just had to! Once you get into collecting the costume pieces – and some of them cost several thousand pounds each, as well – they’re not cheap to buy. They come up on the market, and you can’t control when things will go to auction, so sometimes I just need to suck it up and take the argument.”
Spice Up London takes place July 28 – August 20 at The Business Design Centre, Angel, London. More information and tickets available here.