Like glam rock, flares and platform shoes, Athena posters caught the mo od of the Seventies and early Eighties. Now, though, the company may be going t o the wall
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The Independent Culture
THINK OF ATHENA posters. You remember: a slim girl scratching her bum by a sunlit tennis net; a thick-muscled man cradling a baby in soft black and white; shiny dolphins leaping over a setting sun; Che Guevara staring towards utopia; and glossy-l ipped faces kissing in airbrushed bliss. You think of being a teenager, a student, covering walls with Blu-tack and fantasies and defiance that turns, later, to embarrassment and denial.

In the small dark rooms along the corridors of College Hall at the University of London, the fantasies are still there. Keanu Reeves stares, cropped and dreamy; sepia children kiss in a field of flowers. But the posters are few and scattered, mixed in w i th ethnic drapes and magazine cut-outs, and their images are grainy, not trademarked, different from the Athena catalogue - the man is holding the baby at a different angle. These are rip-offs, German imports, cinema giveaways. Not one is from Athena.

Athena's bedsit dream factory is in trouble. It's losing money (£5m last year, a third of its turnover), and can't pay its bills (it owes between £10m and £15m). On 28 December it was abandoned to receivers by its owner, the troubled publishing and retail group Pentos. "We couldn't give it away," said Pentos head Bill McGrath. Receivers Grant Thornton are trying to find buyers for some of Athena's 160 shops, but the secretaries at headquarters have already stopped using the company name when they answerthe phone.

Down the road from College Hall, an Athena shop with rust on its neon sign and walls painted an Eighties mix of pale grey and red fleck is selling off its dolphin posters on the cheap. Sale signs fill the windows, dwarfing a thin scatter of merchandise and drawing glances from the pavement but few customers. The people who do walk in - men and women in their thirties, not teenagers - move quickly between the chipped poster and card racks, then leave after a few minutes. The manager says: "We're pissed off. No one's told us what's going on - I found out from a friend at Pentos. We're just being dumped." She looks resigned, as victims of bankruptcy and downsizing usually do. The shops in Ealing and Kensington have closed already, and hers will too when its stock runs out. But no one's buying.

ATHENA wasn't meant to be like this. A Norwegian businessman called Ole Christiansen opened the first shop in Hampstead in 1964 to sell poster reproductions of Toulouse Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha. He saw a middle- class niche: affordable Old Masters. Buthis market quickly changed. London was starting to swing, the young consumer was being discovered, and, most crucially, higher education was expanding. Exiled from the decorations and restrictions of home, students had money and bare walls in plain new halls of residence to cover, anonymous spaces to personalise and claim as their own.

They wanted images of the new cultural and political forces - rock stars, revolutionaries - and recognition of age-old interests like sex and cars; the fast-expanding television, film and record industries wanted free advertising for their new products. Posters were big, cheap, potentially ubiquitous, and thus ideal for both sides of the new youth culture equation.

A renaissance in poster design was already underway, fuelled by Pop Art and the drug culture and the increasing experimentation of record sleeves. New reproduction and printing technology made it affordable; Athena was the first in Britain to see the opportunity, and set its designers to work popularising the designs coming out of counter-culture centres like San Francisco. It opened more London outlets and started supplying other shops too. The Tennis Girl was on her way.

Athena hedged its bets with posters specially for children, while its teenage and student range dipped and swerved with the currents of pop culture: from psychedelic swirls and dyes for the Sergeant Pepper period to saucy girls and Tolkeinesque trolls for the era of On The Buses and Stairway To Heaven. "Athena sort of knew what was going on in the student culture", says marketing expert Peter York.

"Although I suspect it was more for guys than girls."

But the company had more cultural than commercial clout - by 1976 sales were still only £2m, concentrated on London, Oxford and Cambridge. And it found that as each generation grew up, it grew out of having girls and boys on motorbikes on its walls and dismissed Athena products as a thing of the past. Like a teen dream pop star, Athena couldn't grow beyond this constricting cycle - and was probably wise not to try.

Then, in 1980, Pentos bought the company, and thought it had found a way for the posters to reach beyond bedsits and into young couples' living-rooms. Pentos boss Terry Maher had the shops redesigned as flash, modern "galleries", and planted 20 more eachyear on prime high street and shopping centre sites. With the new streamlined shops came a new streamlined aesthetic: airbrushing. This technique, which sprayed paint precisely into bold and superficial shapes, had been used by artists like Philip Castle in the Seventies. But Athena performed its usual popularising trick using less sophisticated, universal imagery - a pouting woman melting a Dali-esque telephone, a heavily-rouged woman dropping pearly tears (they always seemed to be women) - and soon the idealised, sheeny strokes of airbrushed posters were everywhere. They were perfect for the superficial times. "The reason airbrushing appealed to me was that it could make things look better than they really were," says Jarvis Cocker, singer of Pulp and pop culture authority, whose last album, His 'n' Hers, featured an airbrushed, Athena-esque picture of the band. "It was the feel of super-real modernity," says York.

When Eighties taste shifted away from surface glitz to the new "authenticity" of Levi's and ancient soul music in the second half of the decade, Athena's posters changed too. It bought the rights to reproduce Robert Doisneau, then started publishing "realistic" but flattering black and white photographs of its own, shot by big-name photographers, set in white borders and clip-frames like gallery exhibits, and costing £10 each (£10 more for the frame) rather than the £5 of the old range. The most su c cessful new poster - and, with over 3 million copies, it was Athena's most popular ever - was the man and baby, entitled, with wine bar sophistication, L'Enfant (1986). Creative director Paul Rodriguez wanted posters that reflected the rising popularity ofbody-building; but "the male is not the greatest purchaser of prints," says the then publishing director Roger Watt, "so we had this idea of using a baby to get women to buy it. We shot two rolls over a few days, and in three months it was in the shop s." Spencer Rowell, who took the photograph, says: "It was a move up from monkeys on toilets."

By the end of the Eighties, instead of fading with the counter-culture it had traditionally fed off, Athena was booming. Sales rose to £50m, 20 times those of its supposed Seventies heyday. It had reinvented itself, by becoming a more sophisticated absorber and recycler of its young buyers' preferences, hippie or yuppie. "It gets down to detail like: what cars do they like?" says Watt.

(The answer was, and still is, Volkswagen Beetles - "Any poster with a Beetle in it sells.")

Athena's designers watched American trends carefully, read Smash Hits and Just Seventeen, and went to film premieres and concerts. Its buyers fanned out looking for pictures, and bought up the ones they liked, leaving photographers with 10 per cent royalties and control of the copyright. Athena paid well, albeit slowly, and famous

photographers were happy to work for them, drawn by the mass exposure it gave their work. Some, like Rowell, got their names printed at the top of posters, which were stuck on walls from public schools to community centres. But others preferred to remainanonymous. "It's nice to have a cult image," says one, "and Athena is very tacky."

AT SOME indeterminate point in the late Eighties, Athena finally lost the youth plot, and began to suffer the classic backlash against a ubiquitous product: people got sick of it. "Athena in itself became a cliche," says York. "Instead of having a Che Guevara poster like everyone else, people began to want something a bit special." Athena posters slipped down the age groups from students - whose falling grants drove them to cut up magazines instead - to sixth-formers, and then fourth-formers, as young consumers became more sophisticated and choosy.

Meanwhile Athena's retail arm was embarked on a typical Eighties over-expansion, buying more and more leases for shops, in the most expensive locations and at the height of the property boom - with rents that couldn't be re-negotiated in the future. By 1990, the stores needed a refit, too: "The image of the shops was a bit unfortunate," says Watt. "It never seemed to be right up there with the retail outlets that were fashionable."

Athena also unwisely started selling products besides cards and posters, products it knew little about. The Athena shop near College Hall is cluttered with backpacks by "Men With Attitude", dinosaur soft toys, out-of-date football cards, books of fractalpictures, all with nothing in common but their cheapness. "Our store product is simply not good enough,"

admits ex-managing director Mark Jenner. Sales started dropping in 1991, and have sunk by a few per cent a year ever since, plunging profit deep into loss.

But Athena's fall has not been all its own fault. Posters are not necessities, and, says Jenner, "In a recession, who wants to buy the stuff?" Hard times brought rip-offs too: "You could walk along the pavement and buy two black-and-white prints for £2.50 when we were doing them for £12.50," says Watt. Pirates just walked into an Athena shop, bought a poster, put it through a colour photocopier, and distributed the copies. Prosecutions were rare: it's hard to protect the copyright of a poster that is already a reproduction. "In the end, a reproduction is just a reproduction," says York.

Athena lost much of its ability, crude at the best of times, to reflect the Zeitgeist. York says: "There are so many more ways of serving up images now. Young people have their own televisions, Segas, lots more things they can put on their walls." You can buy posters in museum shops, book shops, card shops - and tastes are changing. Last year, the Fine Art Trade Guild conducted a survey of the most popular poster images sold from a cross-section of hundreds of shops, most more exclusive than Athena; onl y one of Athena's designs made it into the top 10. "People are going upmarket," says Imogen McEvedy. "They want to buy something that will keep its value, that not everyone else has."

The publishing part of Athena was bought out by managers last year. Renamed Cartel International, it may survive on its own; only 30-40 per cent of its products are sold through the Athena shops (a lot of its dolphins and Cindy Crawfords are exported). But public and press alike still think of the two companies as one. And the great teen market of yore is probably gone for good; there are 25 per cent fewer teenagers in Britain now than in 1983. Of course, Athena hasn't become completely out of touch - the 1995 catalogue has a Kurt Cobain RIP poster, and its "semi-drug-culture-type-thing is selling well," says Linda Worsfold, the current publishing director. But the closure of the Athena shops would leave the publishing side with few high street outlets.

In the future, Athena is more likely to be selling film merchandise like Jurassic Park posters (100,000 last year) to children, than to be selling rebellion to teenagers. Athena will be a minnow in Hollywood's global food chain. There's an irony here: airbrushed album sleeves are back, and so are pin-ups, thanks to the booming "lad mag" Loaded, just as the old Athena designers are being put out to grass. But it's not a tragic one - unless you'll miss the Tennis Girl.