Raised on the mean streets of Brooklyn’s Brownsville district, Gene Krell is a self-proclaimed tough guy who cites as one of his heroes a little-known but highly colorful “Dadaist professional boxer” called Arthur Cravan.
Odd, then, that he should have found his life’s work in the effete world of fashion, where — besides his role as international fashion director of Vogue and GQ Japan — he is creative director at Vogue, Vogue Girl and W in South Korea as well as a creative consultant to the Korean editions of GQ and Allure magazines.
The pugnacious fashionista began his ascent to stardom working at legendary ’60s London boutique Granny Takes a Trip. His performance there attending to the likes of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and Marc Bolan quickly led to a position as the right-hand man of designer Vivienne Westwood at the height of her ’70s punk powers.
Krell parted ways with Westwood in 1982, and headed back to New York and a day job selling Armani in the high-end retail emporium Barneys New York — while by night becoming a flamboyant fixture on the hedonistic nightclub circuit.
Within a few years, his friendship with publishing mogul S.I. Newhouse and Ronnie Cooke, who would later become Newhouse’s wife, led to an offer to oversee the launch of Vogue in South Korea, and later, in Japan.
Krell, who is now 58 and lives in Tokyo with his wife, merchandise display artist Naoko Inagaki, made time for The Japan Times last month in Akasaka’s suitably boisterous Aux Bacchanales brasserie.
In Japan you’re best known for the features on fashion history you write in every month’s issue of Vogue. Do you find that at all odd?
No. There has been tremendous interest in them. Fashion for me is an extraordinary timekeeper. You see somebody in an Afro hairdo and some gal with bell bottoms and you immediately focus on the period and you conjure up all these images of the ’60s, the time of the Kennedy assassination, and when we lost Martin Luther King. Fashion provides a visual counterpart to that, and that’s why the history pages are relevant.
In many respects the history pages have given me a tremendous amount of credibility.
I think they lend the magazine credibility, too.
The idea of Vogue initially was not to have a large constituency so much as an erudite one. They weren’t concerned so much with reaching a huge audience as reaching one that really understood, and was able to distill, culture in some way. And that’s still, for the most part, the concept behind it.
These days you work on features rather than photo shoots. Why is that?
I like to be fairly autonomous. With the protocol as it is, you have to deal with so many people to get a fashion shoot into a magazine, so it just no longer interested me.
These days I work on a lot of personality-driven stories. Fashion in itself doesn’t really dazzle, doesn’t really fascinate. It’s always the people that are most interesting, so I concentrate on the people. People don’t really care about some fabulous gown unless they see it on someone like Nicole Kidman.
You chose to focus on male style icons for your column in GQ. What was the rationale behind that?
What I wanted to do was to focus on characters that had a very strong image. We started off with [Italian movie idol] Marcello Mastrioanni, who I actually knew. The latest one is [’60s-’70s conceptual artist] Joseph Beuys. On occasion I try to impersonate the characters. The previous one was [French icon] Serge Gainsbourg, I met him in Paris, and we also did [French filmmaker] Jacques Tati and [classical pianist] Glenn Gould. One day I’ll run out of ideas, I guess, but for the time being I’m enjoying myself.
Do the GQ pages sum up your own personal attitude to style?
If you read Baudelaire’s “Ode to a Dandy,” what he says, fundamentally, is that we characterize dandies as being flamboyant, but in fact, the dandy is defined as someone who makes a singular statement. That’s what I’m trying to say with those pages. It’s not about “You should look like this guy,” or “To be cool you have to have a 28-inch waist,” or “In order to impress your girlfriend you have to signal the waiter like that.”
Ethically, do you have any problem with fashion?
I’m a Buddhist and I wear a $15,000 watch and I’m not apologetic about it because, as a Buddhist, I believe, fundamentally, that there is a balance in life. Anyway, I have no problem with that.
I make my living from fashion, too, and I’m hesitant to attack the system . . .
But, you know, art is meant to bite the hand that feeds it.
But still, do you ever feel any guilt regarding your lifestyle?
If I stay in a hotel room one night, that would probably feed an entire village and I have to wrestle with that. At the same time, I think it’s the outcome which is most important. I’m not trying to hide a sense of guilt by talking about my sterling character, but my wife and I have 10 kids we support around the world. I donate a great deal of the money that I earn to charity. When I do work outside of the magazine, the money — not all of it, but some of it — goes to charity.
So should I apologize for leading a decent life? Where do you draw the line? I shouldn’t ride a surfboard that costs $1,000? I just think you have to be conscious of the human condition above all, and hopefully I am.
Are there any lifestyles that you are uncomfortable with?
I was watching the MTV music video awards recently and there was [hip-hop artist] Bow Wow and Paris Hilton talking about their $200,000 watches . . . in a way I do find it pornographic.
I don’t want to paint with a broad brush, but I do see elements in the rap community espousing almost a kind of anarchy without morality. Some elements of that culture are terribly misguided. When people equate rap music as being the new punk — the new frontier or revolution — it had the possibility initially, but it was diverted somewhere along the line by the sheer economics.
It seems to me a complete reversal of what the punk movement and maybe the hippies were driven by. We wanted to create a world that was more egalitarian, in which people would benefit from our ideology. I wish we heard more songs about the tragedy in Mali, where one in 20 children die before they’re a month old. I don’t hear any lyrics saying the women of Mali don’t name their children for the first month because they don’t want to grow attached to them.
You just wish there was a little bit more spirituality and a bit more emotional content other than the emotion of wanting a bigger diamond watch.
Are there any stars you respect?
Richard Gere is a good example, and I salute people like Bono. In a way it’s almost become cliche to take a dig at him in some way, painting this portrait of him as pursuing some kind of Samaritan altruism which is self-gratifying. But that’s absolute nonsense. I just wish there was a host of others who were so committed.
Also Bob Geldof — wonderful guy. These are people who care. You know, it has to be a lifelong commitment, you have to put your name on the line, and I don’t witness as much of that as I wish I did. It takes Herculean efforts, and I don’t know if most people are prepared to do it; certainly not most of the rap community.
Do you feel that Japanese high school girls carrying Louis Vuitton bags cheapens the idea of fashion and luxury? If anyone can buy into Chanel and Dior, does that cheapen their legacy?
No, not at all. The question that should be raised is, “Is it modern?” because that’s how those companies function. If you continually cater to 70-year-olds, you’re doomed to failure.
If we look at Louis Vuitton, they’re constantly reinventing their products. Years ago they employed Marc Jacobs, who has really turned things around for them. Marc Jacobs in turn got these hip gals — Jennifer Lopez, Scarlett Johansen and a host of other “It” girls — to represent the label. He procured the services of Stephen Sprouse to do the graffiti bags, and then [artist Takashi] Murakami [to reinterpret the LV monogram].
So, I don’t think their major concern is preserving the tradition so much as keeping the tradition alive through modernization of some kind. Do you see any problems with the direction the fashion industry is going?
Fashion is the only industry where you can pursue your interest without having any ability whatsoever. I won’t hold my fire here. You know [The New York Times reporter] Jayson Blair was raked over the coals because he put his name on words he didn’t author, but [U.S. rapper] P. Diddy won an award for best designer despite the fact that he admits he doesn’t design the clothes.
The problem that I have with it is that the craft is lost. You know [Cristobal] Balenciaga was a designer who could do everything from the sketch, to the test pattern, to the hard pattern, and then sew the dress himself. And you look at it now — that’s very, very rare; very, very hard to find now. We’re in danger of losing the virtue of the industry, of losing the skills.
[These days] what is important really is putting an image to the brand more than anything else, and I guess that started in the ’70s as well. I see fewer and fewer people driven by the sheer beauty, the poetry of what fashion can express.
So I think that’s the danger: P. Diddy or Jay-Z or Jennifer Lopez or Gwen Stefani launching fashion brands and stealing the limelight with the closing catwalk shows in New York . . . You know, it’s very easy to bamboozle people . . .
Are there any designers you respect?
I think I’m the only person on the face of the earth who has actually had the opportunity to work with both [Comme des Garcons designer] Rei Kawakubo — I did four collections with her — and Vivienne Westwood. I have tremendous respect for both of them.
She navigates the waters in a different way, but I also have tremendous respect for Miuccia Prada. I think she’s the person who really redefined modernity and the way we look at fashion.
Her greatest contribution was that she set the rules aside. As a result, fashion became a lot more eclectic, more motivated by what works and what doesn’t. If you want to wear rubber work boots from the 99-cent store with a couture dress, that’s OK. So I think that of all the designers in the last 20 years or so, she’s the one who has really defined the idea of what fashion’s capabilities are — and in a very, very unique way.
How did you come to work with Rei Kawakubo?
First of all, what happened was that she wanted to work with Vivienne for the 10 Corso Como Comme des Garcons store [in Tokyo’s upscale Aoyama district]. Then she was very interested in my history pages in Vogue, and she wanted to reproduce the history pages in the window of the shop. I told her I thought I had an idea, but I wanted something that would enable the customers to interface with the stories — I wanted it to be participatory.
So we said why don’t we do a series of themed products based on stories from those history pages? We did Bell-Bottom Blues, then Be-bop Bohemian, where we bought up all these vintage scarves from Paris and printed all these Dadaist sayings over them and that collection actually showed in Paris. Then the third one was Tribal Nation, that was all about subcultures: Mods, punk rockers and stuff. Then the climax was Sport.
They were incredibly successful, but then somehow we couldn’t reproduce the magic. We continued to dialogue but we [Conde Nast] were launching two new magazines in Korea and one in China and we were both so busy . . .
So what about your relationship with Vivienne Westwood?
We became friends in London. I worked with her after leaving Granny’s. . . . She got me off heroin. She ran after me in the street with a bondage strap. . . . She thought I was going to score. I was actually going to buy her flowers; that was the irony of it.
I’m probably closer with her than I am to anyone in this world, apart from my wife. At times we don’t speak for months, but we’ve just been through so much together. It would be impossible to characterize — I couldn’t do it justice. But, you know, I think she always held it against me for being American.
What’s your relationship with America? Would you go back?
No, never. I would never go back to live. They say you judge a society by how it treats its poor. All you have to do is look at how they, particularly the current administration, treat the underclass. It’s shameful. It’s a disgrace. I’m ashamed to carry the passport. I bear no malice to the American people — I’m one of them — but the way the government is running things . . .
My mother suffered from a series of illnesses, including Alzheimer’s and heart disease. She suffered so much, but she was just passed from place to place like she was some stray cat. It was so inhumane and so blatantly cruel and I could never forgive my country. When I look at the promise that America once held at one time . . . to see that so corrupted through Gestapo-style scare tactics . . .
Do you feel that way about New York, too?
New York is a shadow of what it once was. It’s a city that has lost its soul entirely. It’s become so institutionalized about how they define success, so I think that’s deadened its creative muscle. It’s motivated by the wrong reasons.
How do you feel about Tokyo?
It’s unquestionably the most stylish city in the world. If I was wearing these clothes in New York, I’d get cat-called “You f**kin faggot” — it’s happened to me. I’ve had people throw food at me.
Look, man, I’m a tough guy from Brooklyn, I had to fight my way out. My brother is still a Mafioso, my father was a cop. I’m a leatherneck; I started out as an amateur boxer and you have to put up with that. Look at my nose, it’s been busted more times than you’ve had hot dinners — I don’t know if it’s going this way or that way. My hands, forget it, man.
But here in Tokyo, people relish stylish dressing. At this stage in my life you can’t imagine how wonderful that is. In New York you don’t find that widespread — that’s the key word, “widespread” — appreciation.
What’s your philosophy regarding personal dressing?
I’m no intellectual heavyweight, but I once wrote a letter to then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher complimenting him on how he always looked so well groomed. He wrote back, surprisingly enough, and said that he did that to show respect for people.
Whether I knew it or not, I’ve always been driven by that very notion. My father, even for taking out the garbage, he would have a tie on with a starched white shirt. I’ve always delighted in that idea. And when I read that letter, I realized I had had the inability to articulate that point, but that’s what it is — it’s about showing respect.
Apart from appreciating the freedom to dress wildly, how do you feel about being a foreigner in Japan?
The thing you have to confront here on a daily basis is the fact that, to some extent, you’ll always be an outsider. I accept that, and if you can’t accept that you’ve got to pack up your bags. It’s part of the equation; this is a primarily monoracial society . . .
[Tokyo] is provocative enough that it consistently keeps you on your toes. But how that translates is I think that I’m a far better writer, a far better journalist, than I was in the States or in England.
But in terms of style, this society can be very one-dimensional. Are punks really punks here? Are rockers really rockers? Do they appropriate images without really understanding the underbelly of them? Do they appropriate the fall of the raindrop as just the fall without the raindrop? Of course they do. Do I care? At times I do.
How do you feel about the apathy towards politics among young Japanese people?
What happens here is that people don’t really understand, particularly young people, how they could utilize the idea of being politically savvy or being politically involved. That’s because in the circles that they run in, that kind of jargon, that kind of language, has relatively little significance.
It’s not what their lifestyle pertains to, that’s not even on the back burner. So, as a consequence, they’re not motivated, they’re not involved. They feel they’re not touched by it, that they’re helpless in some way. So they’re completely apathetic.
Now people are distracted . . . [and] they don’t seize the opportunity to really understand how the political system in this country works, the old-boy thing and so on.
Politics doesn’t enter the arena, because people don’t really see how the outcome is going to impact or affect their lives.
If politics had a practical reality, if they closed down all the Prada shops, perhaps they’d take to the streets — it would take something of that magnitude.
I think that’s a suitable point to stop. Is there anything you’d like to add?
I’d like to include a message to all my friends at the Outrigger in Waikiki: Barney, Uncle Bill, Uncle Ted and everybody. I love you very much. Uncle Timo, we miss you desperately. Here’s another story for the scrapbook.