Ray Brown is the man behind some of rock, and particularly metal's, most memorable outfits. In the 80s he was dressing the likes of Mötley Crüe, Ozzy, Judas Priest, Guns N' Roses, Bon Jovi, Metallica... the list is endless. He never counted himself as a designer, more a visionary who would sit down and talk to the bands about what it was they wanted and then went ahead and made it. We caught up with him and talked about the 80s, lunatic managers, lunatic band members and where he is now—still making outfits for his favorite bands.
Ray's great-grandfather's shears.
So Ray, tell me about your early beginnings.
When I was 16 and living in Australia, I left home and moved to Melbourne and had a clothing shop and then decided I was going to move to London in 1975. I was hand-painting shirts and had rented a studio at the Rainbow Theater in Finsbury Park. After this Rasta band Big Youth played, some guys broke in and stole all my shit. This was also around the same time that I made a couple of pieces for AC/DC's Bon Scott, before he died, and the US band Angel.
I complained about security and ended up being given the job as caretaker, and while living in the building, went on to manage the place and book bands. The Clash did four nights in a row there, so did Bob Marley, Public Image, Adam Ant—a lot of people that actually couldn't get gigs anywhere else.
VICE: So how did you start making clothes for Mötley Crüe?
Ray Brown: Well, the theater was gonna close down, so in 1980 I decided to leave and went to LA with $300 in my pocket, a few patterns, and these shears, which were my great-grandfather's. I got an apartment, rented a sewing machine, and started making jeans for people. I made a pair for a guy called Jerry Kramer, a video director, and when I went over to have him try the jeans on, a guy called Tommy Shaw from the band Styx was there editing a video. He was the same size as me and he couldn't get clothes to fit him so I made him something - a red jumpsuit. Within a few days, they contacted me and flew me out to Chicago to dress Styx and I still dress a couple of them. The first couple of people I dressed after that were a band called Saxon and a guy called Yngwie Malmsteen who asked me to make him look like Deep Purple's Richie Blackmore. Then came Ozzy, Judas Priest, Guns N' Roses, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi - every hair band you could imagine.
That's right: Jon Bon Jovi is rocking a Misfits patch.
This was when Ozzy had just launched his solo career, right?
Yeah. I'd gone up to where he was living, in Sharon's dad's house, Don Arden, who was this really heavy guy. I was threatened by him once. He was actually managing three or four artists I was dressing—Air Supply, Lita Ford, Vixen, and someone else? I'd made clothes for all of them and hadn't been paid, so I went up to his office one day and I'm sitting in the foyer and he's screaming at someone on the phone, threatening them, and I'm like thinking 'this is not good'. So then I get called in and I just said "Don, you know I haven't been paid," he lost it. He said "You ever come into my office again asking for money I'll have your legs put in concrete." But I ended up making clothes for Ozzy and I was making stuff for Randy Rhoads, his guitarist. He only ever got one outfit before he died. I actually still remember living in LA, driving down the 405 and they announced it on the radio. I had his clothes on the back seat. It was really weird. A lot of which my wife actually ended up wearing cos she was the only person they'd fit. He was tiny, he was like a girl - a 24" waist or something. I ended up moving to Phoenix to get away from it all a bit, kept in touch with some clients, and it started to build up again, so then I decided to drop out and retire and I went to live in Mexico for five years.
But people found me again! I never ever approached bands, they all came to me. I've been lucky, you know, I've had disagreements with people, told them to get lost, and they still come back. I don't call myself a designer, I always refer to myself as "the clothes guy". Someone that can create music, has an idea how they want to look on stage, so it is down to them to explain to me, even if it's just in bunch of "dudes" and "cool", then I interpret it into clothes. I have always bought fabric that I like when I see it, even if I don't know what I am going to do with it, and they would just come and go "Dude, this is cool, make me something out of this".
Those garter belt pants.
Isn't it amazing that these very masculine guys wanted to dress in the very feminine clothes?
Oh God yeah and they had so many women it was ridiculous. The garter belt thing was Vince’s idea. That was years before Madonna.
[Starts showing me pics of Mötley Crüe]
I actually did Tommy Lee's wedding stuff when he married Heather Locklear. I was at that wedding, I made the white leather suit he wore. I did Jon Bon Jovi's wedding clothes for him and his wife.
Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi all look like they dress at JC Penney or Walmart nowadays.
Quite honestly, I'm not really interested - I did them in their heyday. What I did then was the best it could be. Judas Priest are a different thing, cos I worked with them for so long, and they've maintained an onstage look and still pull it off.
Priest in their heyday.
Yeah, I saw them in the summer and I couldn't believe how many clothing changes Rob went through.
Most of those I did for this tour, some were from past tours as well. Basically, he just loves clothes. He also really believes it is a show and that you need to be entertained. Over the years they've always had a very defined look, which is that biker leather, studs type-thing and Rob just likes a little bit of flash. When I'm making clothes it's all about how it will look from a distance. It's all about the silhouette - to make them look as slim and skinny as possible on stage, so everything I do I think how it'll look from a distance.
So you made clothes for all the rockers and hair metal guys, what about the thrashers?
Well, I made some stuff for Metallica, like some leather pants for Kirk Hammett, and some jeans for James Hetfield. The first pair I made for James were black stretch jeans and I put black pockets inside and he sent them back cos he wanted white pockets! What the heck! I did them for two or three tours, that was it. And Megadeth I did on and off over the years, probably three or four times. I did them first when they first formed, it was all leather with zips and stuff, and I had little skulls hanging off a jacket that I made. Most thrashers were really jeans and t-shirts guys.
I don't try to dress everybody, there's certain bands that do quite well themselves. Nowadays it seems a lot of bands are not getting the chance to express themselves in clothing, because they're not having custom stuff made. At the end of the day, it's a show, the fans wanna be entertained, they wanna see their idols up there bigger than life, they don't wanna see them wearing something that they could wear - they'd like to try to emulate what they're wearing - but to see someone onstage wearing something from a store that three or four people in the audience are wearing, I think that's kind of stupid. And that's why I want to expand what I am doing here, not because I need more work, but because I really think rock musicians need to have the choice that if they wanna have stuff made, which is their dream outfit, then they can have it done.
Matt Bellamy in the plastic wire suit.
Did anyone's dreams ever surpass reality?
Not really. There's nothing that is impossible to do. I made Muse's Matt Bellamy a suit from plastic wiring, you know, that stuff is not meant to make clothes, it's bloody plastic wire. I mounted it onto some fabric, their stylist convinced me I could do it, I was cursing, but he's worn it loads, including at Reading this year.
When did you introduce the washable leather to the line?
Early 80s. It was just a fabric I found that a company was making and it wasn't selling because it was too expensive, so I bought all of it and since then I've had them make it exclusively for me over the years. It worked out amazing for me. It is unlike any other type of simulated leathers because it's strong enough to make pants out of, skin-tight, where you can do whatever you want in them and it won't rip. It does look like leather and you can wash it or dry-clean it.
Did anyone insist on real leather?
Slash always wanted real leather. I did a lot of pants for him and most of them were deerskin, the hand-stitched ones he wore over the years.
Alice Cooper in his nail jacket; Axl Rose doing the snake-dance with matching jacket; Randy Rhoads shredding like it ain't no thing.
So, tell me about Guns N' Roses.
Well, when they came to me they didn't have any money, they'd blown it all on drugs—their advance. This friend of theirs offered to buy them all a pair of leather pants each. Washable leathers. She brought them to me, they would come down with no money, Slash would ask to borrow money off me for a pack of Marlboros, Steven Adler would be throwing up in my trash can cause he'd just injected… Then they couldn't get management, as everyone they'd approached didn't wanna know. So I called a friend of mine, Alan Niven, to see them play and he signed them. Then as they began to get more popular, Axl got weirder and weirder. There was one incident where I was really busy and he wanted me to pick up some denim vest he wanted patches added on to. I'd sent a girl I had helping me out to pick it up, and he was so annoyed that I didn't come to see him personally that he threw a chair through a window at her. She came back so upset. He's bipolar, when he didn't take his medication he was nutty. He was regularly a day late to make overseas flights for tours etc. I don't think I did any work for him after that, I just told him to fuck off.
Anyone else you stopped working with?
Nikki Sixx. I was working on stuff from this new tour and a few days earlier he'd 'died' [from a heroin overdose] and he called me and said "I don't want the clothes any more, cos I've just died and come back to life and the tour is canceled". So I said "No, you own the clothes, I'm making them now". So then I went to their management, who also did Bon Jovi's management, and said, "He's having these clothes or I am not working with Jon Bon Jovi anymore". Then I got a call from the same tour manager, when he realized Crüe's Vince Neil didn't have any clothes, even when I told them I wasn't interest and hung up, he called me back and we made an agreement—they would credit me in the tour booklet, and they gave me a few gold albums and I would make some clothes.
Say, did a lot of the bands in the 80s wear that stuff day-to-day?
Well, I mean if you saw them on the street, you'd know they were in a band, from the way they put their clothes together. For instance, Guns N' Roses, all the time, would wear the same stuff during the day straight onto stage. They didn't even get changed. Crüe were the same. Even though the stuff they wore during the day weren't as outrageous as the stage stuff, you could still tell that they were in a rock band. It's a whole attitude about dress.
Did you party with all these guys?
Yeah. I am amazed I never let anyone down. Those were some pretty wild times. We were always at the same places, socializing and stuff. Over the years there's a few people that I became close with, Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi is one of them.
The godfather of metal, Tony Iommi.
Did you dress their girlfriends?
Nah. Like I said, I did Vince's wife, Sharise.
They never wanted matching outfits?
It was never really in the budget. They would just go to Trashy Lingerie, or one of the stores along Hollywood Boulevard. I made some for the wives, Tommy's mainly - Heather Locklear and Pamela Anderson.
Did you find that after the 80s your workload had slowed down?
Not really. I don't ever recall not being busy. Rockers have always wanted their own look onstage. There wasn't as much extreme clothing, like all the hair band-looking stuff, which was fairly extreme, some of that stuff was pretty out there. I look back and I think 'did I really do that?' It was pretty pure, though, it wasn't contrived. It was how these guys thought.
Did you make any of the accessories too?
I did back then, yeah. I made a lot of guitar straps, In fact, I made the original heavy metal guitar strap for Judas Priest, which is now all over Camden. I gave the original to the Hard Rock Cafe in Phoenix.
Left: Jared Leto. Right: Lady Starlight.
So how come you came back to the UK then?
I left the States because I didn't wanna stay there and live off what I'd done in the 80s, cos I love music so much that there's always so much new stuff always coming round. I was lucky enough to come here and work with Muse. I just did stuff for Lady Starlight, a friend of Gaga's. She's a DJ and she's going to be on Priest's tour. Right now I am working on some stuff for a new band called Rival Sons, who are nominated and playing at the Classic Rock Awards.
[Shows me a pic of Lady Gaga onstage in a very Priest-esque outfit on a motorbike]
This was last weekend in Las Vegas. Judas Priest for 25 years have had a Harley Davidson on stage. Here she is, studded leather—
Your studded leather?
No not as good! Plus a Harley Davidson… They're really surprised. She's done a song called "Judas" and it's like, come on. One thing would be fine, but all three things together? Perhaps it is a tribute, as she is a big Priest fan.
You worked on a collaboration with Lina Osterman recently for Jared Leto?
Yes. Lina is a friend of his and we worked on the design, I made it, and he has worn the clothing a lot.
100,000 Swarovski crystals.
Matt Bellamy's suit had a 100,000 Swarovski crystals on it, right?
They applied them to the fabric first. I had to cut the fabric out, Swarovski applied the crystals to each piece, and then I had to put it together - it was a nightmare.
How did you get to working with Muse?
Well, I worked with a stylist on this, cos basically, I'd seen them and decided I wanted to dress them, found out they had a stylist and sought her out and just started making suits for Matt. Basically, she was getting suits from Topshop and then had someone adorning them and she agreed to let me try a couple of suits for Matt, he loved them and it just went on from there.
So that's the main difference from dealing with bands in the 80s then? You now deal with stylists instead of the bands direct - is that weird for you?
Well, yeah, it's kinda weird.
Because the stylist isn't in the band?
Yeah, I guess. I understand where stylists are needed, as far as getting clothes for celebrities, for movie stars, stuff for the red carpet, for photoshoots, etc. But when it comes to clothing related to the stage, yeah, it is kinda weird. The only people whose opinion really matters is the band. I don't think you can really tell people how to dress, unless they really don't have a clue, and very few people don't have a clue.
Again, I believe if someone can create music, they also have an idea of how they would like to look onstage.
A very Balmain-esque Ray design on the left.
Have any of the fashion houses come to you for advice or anything?
All the fashion houses, Balmain, Burberry… Actually, Burberry's done three or four collections of studded leather jackets, which look like Judas Priest jackets. No, they just steal my designs. People have sent me pictures of Burberry stuff all like 'you made this, right?'
So what do you think of the fashion industry?
I love the fashion here. One of the reasons I left America was because I have always been drawn to British and European fashion and if you look at anything that goes on, music or fashion, chances are it came from here first. I never found a lot of creativity there, in America it is whatever is the trend at the time. In the UK it changes so quick, all the time.
So what's the deal - is it all custom made or is it a line?
Basically, I do custom tour clothing and it's only in the last few years I've been working on doing a clothing line.
Hey, if I wanted to buy some of these washable leather pants, how much are they gonna set me back?
About £550? But, they'll last you for a really long time. My styles, I think, are pretty classic. I don't make clothes that come in and out of style. I'm trying to find the right people to do my clothing line with - a large rock clothing shop - but in the mean time I just keep making tour clothing.