A fashion trade show that is as enormous as CIFF in Copenhagen might seem like an odd place to house a comprehensive exhibition dedicated to one of Britain’s most well-known, multi-talented and culture zeitgeist informing provocateurs. As you enter Crystal Hall, Virgil Abloh is pitted next to Malcolm McLaren – past and present colliding. The exhibition Let it Rock: The Look of Music The Sound of Fashion, is really a first and proper look at McLaren’s fashion output and how it interwove with the various musical epochs that McLaren championed. Structured as a journey through the various guises and guerilla changes 430 Kings Road underwent, we got to see unseen and rare original clothing, photographs, films and audio soundtrack and experience a concise yet simultaneously comprehensive look at how McLaren figured into this ultimately groundbreaking partnership between himself and Vivienne Westwood.
The exhibition is co-curated by Young Kim, McLaren’s partner who lived with him for the last twelve years of his life and the creator of my go-to resource about all things sub-culture, British and London, Paul Gorman. After a slow process of organising an archive of sorts, gathering up information and ephemera, they’re now ready to pipe up and let it be known what McLaren treated. In mainstream consciousness, Westwood’s fame has far outstripped her former partner, as her solo career in fashion took flight beyond 1984, when her and McLaren officially dissolved their partnership. Those formative years between 1970 and 1984 though is easily one of the most fascinating time in British fashion history where political climate, music, youth culture and a do-it-yourself, grassroots level creative expression all came together, centred on that infamous shop on Kings Road. That’s what this exhibition is focused on and that’s where McLaren can be discussed, not just as a svengali/manager type figure, but as an artistic/creative director with a hand on everything from the collaborators to the clothes to the store design to the show soundtracks and even on what was written on the programme notes. Much like a modern day creative director at a house, tasked with overseeing all aspects. Only McLaren got to have the final say in every matter.
The daily rags are quick to pick up on the more tawdry aspects of the less-than-acromonious fallout between McLaren and Westwood, exacerbated by McLaren’s death four years ago and ensuing dispute about his will. With Westwood still alive and kicking and with Young Kim fighting for a lasting legacy for McLaren, it can be a deeply touchy subject to dissect the work of the two.
But let’s put down the nit picking “who did what” and just get our heads round the fact it was an equal partnership. There were two names on those clothing labels – from the Seditionaries period onwards through to the more formal collections they showed under the label World’s End up – and that’s a good enough reason to celebrate and highlight the fact that Malcolm McLaren wasn’t just a “shop manager” as Gorman puts it. “For some people, as Vivienne continued in fashion they dismiss Malcolm’s design role,” says Kim. “I want people to understand everything from Malcolm’s point of view. Everything came from the mind of an artist, there was a reason for it, it was entrenched in pop culture and in terms of the clothes themselves, he had real knowledge.”
Clothing and pieces from the Let it Rock period
The first surprising fact to stake claim to McLaren’s fashion nous. His grandfather was a Savile Row tailor and his mother had a dress factory. He carried a knowledge of how clothes should be made. At the age of twenty-five, wearing his bright blue lame suit, which he designed, he happened to hap upon a shop called Paradise Garage. He was offered the backspace to sell his stash of rock ‘n’ roll records. Later the front shop was deserted and that became Let it Rock, a retrogazing haven for rock ‘n’ roll aficionados, but more importantly this was McLaren’s expression of recontextualising the past as something “cool” and relevant. Together with Westwood they sold rock ‘n’ gear, such as some ace ties that could slot right into Prada today, but selling wasn’t the point. “We agreed that it was our intention to fail in business and to fail as flamboyantly as possible, and only if we failed in a truly fabulous fashion, would we ever have a chance of succeeding.”*
Just as publications like the Sunday Times Style were picking up on this rockabilly/teddy boy vibe, McLaren and Westwood volte faced and opened in 1972-4 as Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, where printed slogan and graphic t-shirts were deliberately trampled on and messed up as much as possible. In the context of early 70s fashion mainstream mod/hippie hybrids, happing upon this Kings Road spot must have felt like a discombobulated trip. “I created something new by destroying the old,” said McLaren.
“It’s collaging, and combining different influences to create something new,” asserts Kim. Gorman then adds, “It’s postmodern. Today, we can place him as an artist within the narrative. There’s certain principles that define postmodernism and Malcolm ticks all of them. It was revolutionary at the time.”
A SEX ensemble from Kim Jones’ private collection
Then came SEX in 1974, probably one of most monumental shake-ups to the store and one that would coincide with of course, McLaren’s management and creation of the Sex Pistols as SEX customers like John Lydon, Paul Cook and Steve Jones and shop assistant Glen Matlock would come together in this uneasy, sleaze-filled store, fronted by giant pink rubber letters spelling out SEX. The motto underneath was “Craft Must have Clothes – But the Truth Loves to Go Naked.” Westwood’s adapted lingerie, fetish and bondage wear were presented on climbing wall bars, adorned with nipple clamps and whips. “You didn’t know what the fuck was going on,” remembers Gorman about the store. There was reason behind the provocation though. “Black expressed the denouncement of the frill. Nihilism. Boredom. Emptiness. How do you dress an array of disaffected youth?,” said McLaren. The things we take for granted today as standard “trend” items like a pair of spike-backed black shoes or a printed graphic t-shirt displaying nudity were ground breaking then. They did shake up the system. That street fashion of boredom would of course accompany probably McLaren’s biggest claim to fame – the birth of punk – although Kim and Gorman were keen to stress they didn’t want to focus on punk, around which there are so many misconceptions anyway.
SEX closed and reopened in 1976 as Seditionaries – Clothes for Heroes. It was to be the store’s most menacing manifestation yet designed by Ben Kelly of Hacienda fame, with a caged-up stark shop front, bombed-out ceiling and walls depicting the Dresden ruins. This was war. Jamie Reid’s graphics came into their own and the bondage trouser was born. From disorder and chaos came commercial cohesion though. Gorman observed that Seditionaries was a real “commercial” and on the back of Sex Pistols blowing up and media attention, those t-shirts and trousers were commodities. Sure, the label read “For Soldiers, prostitutes, dykes and punks” but at £30 a tee, these clothes weren’t cheap. From anti-establishment, Westwood and McLaren were slowly coming into the fold of the establishment, even as people from Vogue were being chase out of the store, as Kim recalled.
1981 Pirate Shirt
In 1981, McLaren and Westwood volte-faced again, buoyed by Westwood’s own desire to destroy punk and to sail away from the Kings Road. The store floated on waves and time went backwards on a thirteen-hour giant clock on the store front. This was also the beginning of the end for McLaren and Westwood’s partnership even though they arguably created their most cohesive and stirring fashion moments through showed like the Pirate, Savage and Buffalo collections – their originality still looking utterly captivating today as you look at the pieces in glass vitrines or hung up flat in-between perspex. This wild with abandon, layered and multi-ethnic collaged look was the product of Westwood’s buoyant creativity as well as McLaren’s own interest in influences from the third world. He connected 18th century men’s shirts to pirates and then to modern day piracy in music, where McLaren was having his own explosion of creation with records like Duck Rock.
A top made out of dish rags from the Hobo-Punkature collection
A knit dress from the 1983 Nostalgia of Mud collection
A Keith Haring collaborated ensemble from the 1983 Witches collection
McLaren’s final expression in retail and fashion resulted in Nostalgia of Mud, a short-lived store in town that pushed the idea that the roots of our culture lay in primitive societies. It sounds like an extraordinary interiors feat with a formal Regency-style foyer and then a collapsed floor so that you descend into a basement as if on an archaeological dig. Collections like Nostalgia of Mud, Hobo-Punkature and Witches were to be housed here.
The final vitrine showcasing the hat dubbed the buffalo hat, now so intrinsically attached to Pharrell’s image is a pertinent ending. Whilst Pharrell did credit McLaren at the Grammys, it’s Westwood who has profited from the association. As an idea, it was born out of McLaren’s research of traditional Peruvian dress but it was also a combined realisation, as so much of Westwood and McLaren’s work from 1970 until 1984 was. As a final item in the exhibition, it leaves us to ponder how do we move forward with this discussion of about this partnership as it can so easily descend into a “Who designed what?” quagmire.
The agreement between Westwood and McLaren to dissolve their partnership in 1984
That discussion wasn’t fully resolved in this exhibition but it did present a somewhat revisionist perspective to the tale, one that not many people will know about. Is there an absolute and categoric truth to be found in all of this? Probably not. But that the conversation about it is carried on by Gorman and Kim’s work is definitely encouraging. The exhibition will travel to Grenoble in France later this year and to other countries beyond that, hopefully with a book in the pipeline too. The historian in me says that it will take probably decades after this to uncover an even deeper understanding of this explosive and ultimately game-changing partnership. For now we can just fully appreciate the importance of their collective output at a time before fashion became product.
I thought I’d end this post beautifully not with a probing question but with McLaren’s 1984 masterpiece Madame Butterfly collaging opera with electro, deftly mixing and recontextualising styles and genres, just as he did with Westwood previously.
*All Malcolm McLaren quotes in the exhibition were said to Gorman in 2006 for his seminal book The Look: Adventures in Rock & Pop Fashion.