SEX, King’s Road: a centre of flows of the punk movement…
…as a destination: of ideas coming from the US, Malcom McLaren as an agent.
…as an origin: of the proliferation of Punk to the wider public sphere – particularly in London. McLaren, Westwood and The Sex Pistols as agents.
We can track the movement of the Punk era from its origins in the US with bands such as The New York Dolls. They band managed for a short stint by the British manager, Malcom McLaren who, on his return to London in May 1975 set up the clothing store SEX in partnership with Vivienne Westwood. This store was to become a central point of flows of ideas of the Punk movement, both in terms of the style of music and as a style of fashion. That same year McClaren began managing The Sex Pistols – formed in 1975. They went on to be considered one of the most influential acts in the history of popular music and they are said to have initiated the punk movement in the UK, under the management of McLaren.
“Bernie Rhodes spotted me wearing my “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt and asked me to come back that night to meet Malcolm, Steve, and Paul in the Roebuck pub on King’s Road. Malcolm asked me if I wanted to be in a band.”
– John Lydon (The Sex Pistols)
This was the point when Malcom McLaren set up The Sex Pistols and over the several years they were together they gigged in many places throughout the UK, spreading ideas of the Punk movement throughout the country.
First gig: November 1975, St Martins School of Art
– Chelsea College of Art, London
– the 100 Club, London
So through McClaren’s experience in the US and the arrival of SEX onto the King’s Road, he became a key agent in the spread of ideas of the Punk movement.
Situationist effect on Punk
In the late 1960s McLaren was attracted to the Situationist movement, particularly the UK wing King Mob (a group which sought to emphasize cultural anarchy and disorder that occurred in Britain, and create a proletarian revolution), which promoted absurdist and provocative actions as a way of enacting social change.
The Situationist International (1957–1972) was a relatively small yet influential Paris-based group that had its origins in the avant garde artistic tradition. The situationists are best known for their radical political theory and their influence on the May 1968 student and worker revolts in France. The situationists could be termed anti-state communists: they were heavily influenced by Marx and did not identify with the anarchist tradition, yet shared the anarchist opposition to the state.
The SI’s political theory was influenced by Marx (German born), Hegel (German), Lukacs (German), the French group Socialism or Barbarism (from which they got their councilism and critique of the Soviet Union), the humanist Marxist Henri Lefebvre (French), and to a lesser extent people as diverse as Wilhelm Reich (Austrian) and Nietzsche (German). The SI always used what they found relevant in various writers and discarded the rest.
Key theoretical concepts:
- Recuperation and Detournement: Recuperation is the channeling of social revolt in a way that perpetuates capitalism. Punk rock culture being sold in boutique stores is an instance of recuperation. Detournement is something like the opposite of recuperation. It is the appropriation of images or ideas and the changing of their intended meaning in a way that challenges the dominant culture
- Alienation and Separations: He observed that the capitalist relationship of wage-labor puts the worker in the position of being forced to sell his labor-power (his time and energy) to the capitalist in order to survive. Like Socialism or Barbarism, the SI wanted to destroy the division between order-givers and order-takers. Punk rock culture is very independent and the artists don’t follow orders
- Specialization and Militantism: Capitalism produces a whole array of specialists (psychologists, professors, scientists, etc.) who work to perpetuate capitalism. Using the example of Malcolm McLaren, you shouldn’t have to be limited to one type of job.
- Subjectivity: The SI emphasized the subjectivity of revolt, the proletariat’s capacity be the conscious subjects of history and not the passive objects of bureaucratic design. Punk is very political and their music often have a lot of anti-establishment lyrics.
- Survival: The SI felt it necessary to emphasize that the survival that can be guaranteed by capitalism is not the same thing as actually living. Again this relates to them doing what they want when they want
- Ideology: Ideology is the false consciousness that is reproduced by the dominant social order for the purpose of its continued dominance. Racism, Social Darwinism, etc. are ideologies that have been used by capitalism for various reasons. Punk always questions various movements. Punk is never mainstream
Gentrification and the Flow of Punk
- The effect of gentrification on punk culture has been significant
- If we look at Punk London map:
- A lot of original punk places have closed down
- Punk venues were concentrated in Soho and Central-West London
- Most of these venues were informal or shared by punk with other culture
- A lot of original punk venues and stores were concentrated on King’s Road in Chelsea
- There was a real interchange of idea.
- Sex Store itself is directly connected to another Punk store that opened in Kings Road in 1974 – Acme Attraction
- Malcolm McLaren the owner of Sex and its predecessors changed the style and name of the store after the observing the success of Acme Attraction
- Interestingly both stores started no more as booths in larger establishments on Kings Road
- Even though gentrification disrupted the flows of punk culture, which were mostly informal and relied on plentiful and cheap property
- This led to the emergence of a sanitized commercial version of punk
- These stores should be seen as a part of this process rather than victims to it:
- Sex is now a part of Vivienne Westwood’s World’s End concept of stores
- Acme Attraction evolved into Boy the Store that later became BOY the brand
Spread of Punk Fashion
The iconic punk fashion, with its plaid, zippers, and safety pins, was influenced by the band previously managed by McLaren, New York Dolls. Though they didn’t do very well, they set the stage for the aesthetic of the subculture. The style was established by the designs of Vivienne Westwood who found inspiration from bondage and fetish wear. Because of these extremely provocative designs and the high prestige/influence of SEX, other punk clothing stores popped up to cash-in on this new trend…or, really anti-trend.
One of the first imitators was BOY, a shop which opened up on King’s Road in 1976. Stephane Raynor, who ran the fashion label Acme Attractions before opening up BOY, had previously worked with Malcolm McLaren. When he opened BOY it quickly gained world wide prestige and like SEX, it’s prominence seemed to come from it’s infamy. Boy is still an icon to this day, though ironically its punk origins seemed to have gotten lost amongst the homogenous $50 t-shirts the brand now sells. BOY was worn by some of the biggest celebrities of the day, Boy George, Billy Idol, Pet Shop Boys, which helped spread the brand.
These stores were the only ones at the time to sell the clothing and the makeup of the movement. These things couldn’t be found at any regular store, which added to the prestige of the stores which did sell them.
In 1977, Zandra Rhodes brought affordable punk fashion to the mainstream masses on King’s Road. In transforming punk style with the pre-ripped jeans, golden safety pins and adding reds and purples to the usual black punk uniform, the anarchist counterculture was commercialized in a way it hadn’t been before.
In the 1980’s, punk fashion was still strong, but street punk was gaining prominence, bringing the movement away from the celebrities and to the working class. Street punk cemented the image of the ‘Punk’: mohawks, Dr. Martens, spike studded collars, and plaid. A lot of street punk was DIY, people would rip their own fishnets and write slogans across t-shirts in permanent marker. The 1980’s also brought punk to the catwalk, with trends inspired by the street culture. Jean Paul Gaultier was one of the designers who turned punk into couture, giving the style an androgynous look with his skirts for men.
Punk fashion went full circle in 1981 when Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren brought their ‘Post-Punk’ line of clothing to the catwalk in a show called ‘Pirate’. The new movement strayed away from the dark, “underground tunnel feeling” as Westwood called it, adding corsets to the Dr. Martens. Today, Westwood’s original punk designs can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
There is a clear traceable flow of punk fashion, from its New York origins, to the counterculture of SEX and BOY on King’s Road to the affordable, mainstream fashion of Zandra Rhodes, to the DIY style of street punk, to the Post-Punk couture of the catwalk and finally to the V&A where these designs are archived as a display.
And now? Vivienne Westwood: from London to Tokyo.
The little boutique still exists and is at the same place. It is one of the four stores in London where you can buy Westwood clothing. However, since 1979, it is called “Worlds End” (it is how this Chelsea area was called during the 19th century, being on the very outskirts of London).
This was a kind of analogy to recall customers and passers-by that the punk movement was – at least at its beginnings – a subculture and therefore far away, both spatially and conceptually, from the mainstream culture of the centre. It was a way to confront establishment again.
In 1984, McLaren and Westwood separated and the store closed.
However, it reopened in 1986. Vivienne Westwood’s mother was working there.
It is now still open and is an official “Vivienne Westwood” store. This store is obviously different than other stores owned by Westwood because of its history. This has become an iconic place to go in London, for those who are interested in punk history and for tourists. Indeed, it is still seen as the “official shop” of the punk movement, a sort of pilgrimage site for (former) punks.
Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the customers of this shop are no longer underprivileged punks, but rather wealthy people. The store in itself has also been affected by gentrification. As a case in point, the cheaper dress would cost you about £180.
Vivienne Westwood is now a very popular fashion designer, with stores all over the world. Her name has become an international brand, and she has built a business empire. Indeed, she owns now more than 100 stores, especially in East Asia (16 stores just in Tokyo, 8 in Osaka), which is a very successful market for Vivienne Westwood. She is especially popular in Japan. In an interview to JapanTimes in 2015 (*), Vivienne Westwood even declared that the success of her stores in London was mainly due to her Japanese Londoner customers.
The same phenomenon happened with Acme Attraction which became BOY. Of course, this brand is not as famous as Westwood’s, but they still own two stores… in Shanghai and Jixi City, China! The “flow” of punks seems to have drifted towards East Asia, which has become the epicentre of punk fashion.
In this article in JapanTimes, Vivienne Westwood also says that “My studio is in London, so we’re creating in England, we do shows in Paris, produce in Italy, and Japan is the market.” Hence, the evolution of the store, both outside and inside, and its replications all over the world, illustrate how the punk movement went from a subculture to a mainstream and very international one, creating new flows of people and goods between Europe and Asia.