It has been a big few months for Manchester. First came the opening of Factory International, the £242m arts centre on the River Irwell, billed as the most significant UK cultural venue since Tate Modern. Then came the announcement that the wider city region had been chosen as the new home for English National Opera, reluctantly forced out of London as part of the government’s levelling up agenda.
Finally, on Thursday, Chanel strutted into town, taking the bold/lunatic decision to stage an alfresco catwalk show in the city’s Northern Quarter. So, is the soggy Cottonopolis – the French fashionistas at least had the sense to bring their own roof – having something of a moment?
Many Mancunians would argue the city has always been at the centre of the cultural world, if not the world. The former council leader Sir Richard Leese, who presided over Manchester’s regeneration for more than 20 years, was often asked how he felt about second-city status. “We’ll let London and Birmingham fight it out,” he used to reply.
Others complain that Manchester is trading on past glories, more interested in commodifying/beatifying its cultural exports of 30 or 40 years ago than nurturing new artists.
Case in point: the council ploughed £70m into Factory (named after a record company that went bankrupt in 1992) yet has an annual culture budget of just £10m to fund libraries, galleries, museums and other cultural institutions across the city.
Second case in point: invited earlier this year to take a band to South by Southwest new music festival in Austin, Texas, the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, chose as his headliners New Order (est 1980).
Meanwhile, new bands struggle to find affordable rehearsal space as the old mills are turned into luxury flats, and long-established grassroots venues such as the Night & Day face an uncertain future after noise complaints from new neighbours.
Chanel said it chose Manchester for its annual Métiers d’Art show because it was “one of the most effervescent cities of pop culture and an avant garde one, whose bands, spanning all genres, have changed the history of music”.
To illustrate this effervescence it got Peter Saville (who designed the record sleeves for Factory) to do the event branding, and released a teaser video soundtracked by New Order’s Blue Monday – the same obviously excellent but 40-year-old song that featured in Free Your Mind, the Danny Boyle-directed reimagining of The Matrix, which opened Factory International in October. Chanel’s video was compiled by Sofia Coppola and featured LS Lowry, the suffragettes and Hulme Crescents, a housing estate demolished in 1992.
Meanwhile, the only Mancunian band with a track in UK Spotify’s most played artists of 2023 is Oasis, with Wonderwall. It is as if the past 30 years never happened, only instead of the Gallagher brothers frowning on the front row in their cagoules, it was Liam’s sons, Gene and Lennon, kitted out in Chanel tweed – alongside, naturellement, New Order.
But regardless of this wave of increasingly tedious nostalgia, Manchester does have a proper buzz, aptly for a city with the worker bee as its civic symbol.
Come for a night out, obviously. The Warehouse Project if you want to dance to big name DJs with 10,000 others; the White Hotel near Strangeways for more underground sounds.
Definitely come here to eat. Swerve the London blow-ins such as Sexy Fish, the worst-named restaurant chain in the world, who just want to drain the wallets of the city’s footballers, and try independents such as The Spärrows, Another Hand or Erst instead.
Next February, the Michelin guide will announce its 2024 winners at the Midland Hotel, prompting speculation that more Manchester restaurants will be awarded a fabled star, after Mana won the city’s first in 40 years in 2021.
Manchester will get its second arena in 2024, with Co-Op Live opening next door to Manchester City’s ground at the Etihad, thanks to investment from the football club and Harry Styles. But if you don’t fancy paying £100 to watch Liam Gallagher sing all of Definitely Maybe from the nosebleed seats, there is new music most nights of the week at Yes or dive bars such as Big Hands and The Peer Hat. Aitch, a local rapper with a huge following (who also got the Chanel invite), has a new album out next year.
So yes, there is a lot going on in Manchester. But if I hear Blue Monday play one more time, I’m moving to Leeds.