Malcolm Mclaren Invented Everything
The Vice Interview
Illustration by Milano Chow
Malcolm McLaren began to design clothes in the early 70s, after he quit art school. In 1971, along with his then girlfriend Vivienne Westwood, he opened a boutique called Let It Rock. They sold gear for teddy boys, rockers, and greasers. Boring.
But then Malcolm met the New York Dolls, saw a little glimpse of the future of music, and convinced them to hire him as their manager. He designed a whole new look for them featuring red leather and Soviet symbols, and it totally failed and the band went down in flames. It’s become the popular punk party line to blame the Dolls’ demise on McLaren, but we think the real reason is because they only had a few good songs and were almost all worthless fucking junkies.
On a trip to New York in the mid 70s, McLaren met Richard Hell. He tried to become his manager too, but Hell said no. So McLaren did the next best thing: Returned to London, changed his shop’s name to SEX, and started selling Hell-inspired ripped t-shirts and bondage gear. Then came the Sex Pistols, blah blah blah, you should already know that part a thousand times over.
After the Pistols, McLaren founded Bow Wow Wow. Not only did he get the ball rolling on world music influencing pop, but he also invented a look for 15-year-old Annabella Lwin (he called it pirate punk) that is still giving men titanium boners to this day. Adam and the Ants used the pirate-punk look too, of course, but they aren’t giving anybody boners anymore.
Then McLaren got into rap, virtually introducing it to the UK with his Duck Rock album. He invented the buffalo gals look, which basically involved looking like an over-layered bag lady. Oh and he also stole the whole voguing thing from drag queens before Madonna did.
What this all amounts to is that Malcolm McLaren is at least partially responsible for every good idea from about 1970 onwards. The trickle-down from the fashion and music trends that he Svengali’ed is a part of almost everything that you like.
Vice met up with McLaren in Paris last month and he is one charming fucker—sweet as can be and hyperintelligent. He was dressed in blue jeans, a white shirt, an orange scarf, and a light brown overcoat. We ate at Au Bascou on rue Réaumur in the 3me. McLaren had sparkling Badoit water and a pork and cabbage stew.
Vice: Why did you get into the whole teddy-boy thing in the 70s?
Malcolm McLaren: I did it as an act of revolt against the hippies. I made myself a blue suit, copying the cover of an old Elvis Presley record, and I walked down the Kings Road to try and do something with my life. I wanted to be exploited but no cunt would even look at me! I was brought up in a family that worked in fashion and I had my art school hooligan imagination. The two came together and I set out to create antifashion.
So eventually, after weeks, I was stopped by an American guy dressed completely in black who pointed to a little hole in the road and invited me in there to sell clothes. It was 430 Kings Road and that’s where I began to create the “art school look” for the street. My girlfriend at the time, Vivienne Westwood, had a kid by me. She was a schoolteacher and I had to look after the kid. I convinced her to leave her job and I bought a couple of sewing machines.
So what was your first shop like, exactly?
It was called Let It Rock, which I later changed to Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die. That part of the Kings Road was known internationally as the tastemaking, rock and roll capital of the world, so people like the New York Dolls were drawn to it, along with people like Iggy. It was in the era of kaftans and beads so I put a jukebox in there that blared out rock and roll constantly.
But when the shop got successful I couldn’t bear it. I only liked it when it sold to the young and dangerous. When we sold to just anybody it became a commercial exercise. Whenever it started making money I closed it down. This would make Vivienne mad.
Can you explain your concept for the Dolls a little bit?
The idea behind the Dolls was to dress them in red patent leather and to debate the politics of boredom. I wrote a manifesto that was titled “Better Red than Dead.” It was at the close of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal was soon to arise. The idea was to put a certain social and political commentary back into pop culture. That was the start of the stage that the Sex Pistols would later perform on.
It wasn’t a very successful look for them, was it?
It was successful in the sense that it was a magnificent failure. I recall a journalist at the time, Lisa Robinson, rushing backstage, looking at the darlings of this demimonde of rock and roll and asking the question, pointedly, to Johnny Thunders, “Are you a communist?” His answer was simple and poignant. He said, “Yeah. You want to make anything of it?”
What made you want to open the store SEX?
I wanted to sell things that were normally sold in brown paper bags under the table. I tracked down manufacturers all over the UK… black rubber t-shirts, black rubber raincoats, tit clamps, and cock rings. We sold it all.
And the place looked like a sex shop?
People were terrified to come in. It was fantastic. At the very beginning, our clientele included the dirty-old-man brigade and a lot of them turned out to be famous politicians. One of them used to host the News at Ten and he would say to the girl in the shop, “Watch the news tonight because I’m going to be wearing rubber knickers!”
Then the kids started to come shop there.
Of course. They loved it because it was a new look and it was outlaw.
One of our main items were the erotic t-shirts. I used to bring them back from Christopher Street in New York. There was one shirt with a big black man with his huge penis drooping down. They were very, very tight, so you’d be wearing it and his wonger would be dropping down below your belly button. It was perfectly placed. Some of the kids, by the time they’d walk down the length of Kings Road to Sloane Square, would be arrested. We were raided twice by the police and went to court, but I didn’t give a damn. Everything got confiscated but we replaced it and all the kids thought, “This is the coolest place on earth.”
Well then why did you close it down?
It was at the peak of the Sex Pistols’ popularity. At the start, they appealed to the intellectually curious and the emotionally connected but then they became a fucking household name.
And that’s no good.
So I opened up another shop called Seditionary. I went to the war museum and got copies of photographs of the ruins of Dresden and blew them up and used them as wallpaper. Then I smashed a hole through the ceiling of the shop because I wanted it to look slightly derelict. I also had rats underneath the cash register, running back and forth. It was really fun.
And you had people like Boy George, Adam and the Ants, and Bow Wow Wow hanging out there asking you to make them a look, right?
They were there, yes. What happened was, I was involved in a French independent record company called Barclay. On the side they used to make porno movies and they wanted to get me to put some music to it. They said, “Don’t fucking give us a hard time with any music that’s copyrighted. Use African music or something.”
I went up to the library at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and they had a big music collection. I fancied the girl there so I would go every day and look at her and listen to ethnic music. She played me one of these records, mistakenly, at the wrong speed and it fucking blew my ear off. I thought, “What the fuck is that? It’s a hell of a beat.” So I took the idea back to London and I gave it to these kids who were called Adam and the Ants.
At the same time, Vivienne was diving into 18th-century fashion with these cheesy ball gowns and I said, “If you’re going to do that, Vivienne, you’re going to have to give it a label that kids will understand.” Vivienne was like, “Fuck the kids! I want to sell to elegant women.”
But we didn’t have a shop like that. We had to stay in the pop culture. We had to label it somehow, so I came up with this idea of taking images of pirates from the 18th century so the kids could key into it. I needed a group that looked like pirates. I told the kids in the shop: “You’ve got to look like a pirate! You’re not from this corny back alley of London anymore. You’re from Zanzibar and that’s going to give you license to play these drums that I’m now going to play to you that have this ethnic beat and you’re going to look like pirates!” That’s how Bow Wow Wow came about.
But why pirates?
At the time, a big news story was cassette players and the ghetto blaster and kids copying music off the radio. The record industry was trying to put a license on blank cassettes because kids were taping their own music. So it was all about piracy and my kids looked like pirates.
It was a perfect success so I said to Vivienne, “Let’s take this fucking pirate look to the catwalk!”
So was this around the time you started to fall out with Vivienne Westwood?
She wanted to be recognized as a designer and I wanted the exact opposite. Plus I’d learned to fuck some other girls when I was on my hiatus in Paris. Anyway, I knew that she was going to continue to push to create these 18th-century ball gowns and I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t see a rock and roll bone in its body.
I decided that I didn’t want to be a commercial success in fashion. I thought it would cost us a fortune and then we’d no longer be outside the culture, we’d be in it. I knew we’d end up pissing each other off really badly, which eventually we did. So I left and she said, “Well it doesn’t have to fuckin’ be like that.”
I said, “I thought that’s what you wanted to do. You can sign up with some Italian company and become completely engrossed in fashion and this whole heritage that you’ve had with me can stand you in good stead. And you’ll be able to live off that legacy and it’ll give you all the credibility you need.”
And that’s what she did. I went off to make an album of my own, called Duck Rock. The main single was “Buffalo Gals” and that’s what I based my last ever collection on.
How did that pan out?
I thought, “What does a buffalo gal look like?” And I came up with the idea that it would be like a big, fat girl that wanders around like a buffalo all over the planet. It was like a bag lady, basically.
The look included big sheepskin coats, giant hairy skirts, and a hat five sizes too big for you. We would throw a few ethnic patterns on it here and there. It was a scramble. I wanted the shoes to look like the polythene bags that bag ladies wear on their feet. So I did that with chamois leather.
How did the buffalo-gal thing go over with the fashion world?
I’ll never forget this moment when, after a show in Paris, this woman from Italian Vogue came backstage and convinced me that I’d better do something else.
How did she manage that?
She said, “Malcolm, Malcolm, the music is bellissimo, BELLISSIMO, but the clothes, they look so poor. Why you make everybody look so poor?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Well have you heard of Robin Hood? He’s a very big, famous character in English literature. I’m trying to make the rich look poor, so the poor can look rich! That’s the idea.”
She didn’t buy it?
She said, “Malcolm, you’ll never get away with this. The music is bellissimo, but forget the clothing.”
INTERVIEW BY ANDY CAPPER