Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 5
Tuesday, 3rd Apr 2012
Hip Teens 'n Blue Jeans
I left home at sixteen and rented a flat in Wandsworth with a bunch of mates from school. It was an arrangement that didn’t last long, as we continually had arguments about who should do the washing up (same thing that screwed the hippies). So I moved in with my brother Desmond, who was living in a big house in the Whitehorse, Brixton, where I had the attic room for a few years. It was the start of the seventies and despite all the “Keep Britain White” shit, in that area people of different races basically got on. At the dole office there wasn’t a white queue or a black queue—we we were all in the same queue. Like many others I found myself wandering the streets looking for work in 1972 after leaving school. My world at that time revolved around Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul.
Now anyone who wanted the hippest clothes in town would go straight to the King’s Road in Chelsea. It was Mary Quant's opening of Bazaar in 1955 that put Chelsea, and the King’s Road in particular, on the fashion map. Fashion has always been a big part of working class lifestyle because it was the only way they could empower themselves. It was all about trying to find an identity and asserting your sexuality . For young people fashion and music went hand in hand. In the sixties Granny Takes A Trip dressed the stars. The Beatles could be seen wearing Granny’s shirts on back of the Revolver sleeve and check the Rolling Stones on the sleeve of Between the Buttons. A few doors down from Granny’s, at 430 King’s Road, was Hung On You which later became Mr Freedom. Tommy Roberts’ and Trevor Miles’ Mr Freedom was like being in a giant play area for kids, with a stuffed blue gorilla, a revolving silver globe hanging from the ceiling and jars of sweets behind the counter. The clothes were influenced by over-the-top fifties fashion and Hollywood. The shop was full of pop-art items like Mickey Mouse T-shirts, Superman jackets and fake leopard-skin everywhere.
Amongst Mr Freedom’s customers were Peter Sellers and Mick Jagger. Malcolm Edwards, later known as Malcolm McLaren, could also be seen browsing. When Tommy Roberts split to set up another shop, Miles rechristened Mr Freedom as Paradise Garage, opting for a different look that could be defined as ‘Pacific Exotic’. There was an Americana feel to Paradise Garage, as he had imported Hawaiian shirts and used jeans from New York. Miles soon found that he was facing serious competition from established places like Granny Takes A Trip, as well as newer upstarts like Alkasura that sold crushed velvet clothing to rock stars like Marc Bolan. When Trevor Miles went off on his honeymoon he was oblivious to the fact that the manager he left in charge had rented out some of Paradise Garage’s shop space to Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood who promptly set up Let It Rock. They started by selling fifties records and clothes and soon they had taken over the whole shop. At that time not only the retro-looking Teddy Boys were interested in fifties clothing, the fashion elite were as well. The whole look was epitomised by Bryan Ferry and the early Roxy Music albums. Let It Rock was the only place that sold brothel creepers, as well as hound’s-tooth drapes with velvet collars and mohair jumpers. On a typical day there was an assortment of drag queens, Teddy Boys and people like sculptor Andrew Logan buying the clothes. What Let It Rock did was give fifties fashion an authentic street edge.
I'd always recognised the limitations of fashion so instead of spending time developing a fashion sense, I spent just as much time developing common sense. I realised that having one without the other just made you a clothes horse. Besides style came naturally as it had always been an element of Jamaican culture. Just look at the pictures of the Windrush generation coming off the ship, those brothers weren’t wearing loin cloths we’re talking tailored suits with Trilby hats and the women looked pretty smart in their coats and dresses too. I spent a lot of time browsing in the King’s Road, and was immediately attracted to the lifestyle of the people working there, so it was only a matter of time before I got a job briefly at Oggi E Domani, a high fashion Italian L’Uomo Vogue style boutique. Unfortunately my relationship with my parents was not great around this time. Having sent me to grammar school, I was now working in a clothes shop on the King’s Road Chelsea and they saw me as a failure.
After a few years at Oggi E Domani I moved on to Bilbos who were the sole importers of Gul & Bla jeans back then. Man that got the girls in and after a bit of flattering sales patter it was a cinch getting their phone numbers. Good times. Not long after I jumped ship and started working at the Jean Machine. Hard to believe now, but for a period of time the Jean Machine on the Kings Road Chelsea was the hippest place to work in London. It was all the sex, drugs and rock n’roll. Its staff and customers all wannabe Warhol stars—characters like Andrew Logan and Piggy, Luciana and Michael and Golinda, who'd all emerged from the Biba/ glam rock/ Bowie scene. They were all freaks in their own right. I was the young whippersnapper, as I had come up from South London, whereas all the other staff came from Chelsea and Kensington. The management hired only what they considered to be ‘the beautiful people’—not just in looks but also in attitude. Loud queens, obvious dykes, part-time trannies, and me black and confident. Or maybe it was just that they wanted someone with an Afro to complete the cast.
The gay crowd were very much a part of Jean Machine scene. That's how I got into a club that I used to go to called Sombreros on High Street Kensington; Bowie used to pop in along with Eva Cherry and the tailor Freddy Berretti. It was totally hedonistic and devoid of politics—in an odd sort of way a politic in itself. These were truly great times and the perfect place to further my education. Arguably better than the sixties, since it was less naive, there was none of that ‘make love not war’ slogan shit, we came to party, and in between partying we sold jeans.
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