Clothes as a threat to society from 1950s to now


Told in advance by his publisher that Paul Gorman would be waiting in the reception area of Hotel New Otani, I find him jet-lagged, with a cold, and wearing a 25-year-old T-shirt that in suitably faded fashion screams “SEX PISTOLS” across his chest.

“She said I was ‘young’ and wore ‘very smart clothes?’ ” he chokes with laughter through a tissue. “Forty-three and jeans, more like.”

Paul is in Tokyo to help a namesake — a British fashion designer with over 200 outlets in Japan — open his latest capital venture, the Paul Smith Space, in Tokyo’s Jingumae.

“He’s very kindly hosting the launch of my latest book, ‘The Look: Adventures in Rock and Pop Fashion,’ as part of the opening party on April 5. The top floor of the brand-new building is an event space, where the book will be on sale for the next month. After that, go to major bookstore or order online through”

From Hendon in north London, Paul did what all bright lads of his age did in the 1970s: He gravitated into town. “I was quite well educated but never went to college.” His Irish father was a tailor in Islington, and “a very dapper guy, something I didn’t really take in and appreciate until I was working on the book. Now I can see that fashion’s in the blood.”

After enjoying a dropped-out punk lifestyle (he has known Malcolm Maclaren and Vivienne Westwood since he was a teenager), Paul found himself sidelined onto a trade paper. “The editor wanted me off the scene with his daughter.” With bits and pieces written for the Guardian and Evening Standard under his belt, he moved to Los Angeles and edited Screen International. Back in the U.K., he free-lanced for magazines (GQ, Mojo) and found that clothes opened up interviews like no other subject. “I’d ask Rod Stewart, ‘Do you remember Vince?’ and off we’d go . . .”

It took Paul seven years to write and compile “The Look.” So great was his enthusiasm (and fastidious his research) that the final draft came in at a hefty 140,000 words. The book now contains 120,000 words, bulked up with some 300 photographs, many of which have never been published or seen in public before.

“The Look” is far more than a straightforward history of fashion. “I wanted to take a close look at popular culture over the last 50 years. Also, having read an enormous amount of rubbish, I wanted to put things right.”

The book is about trends in fashion and music as political reaction against the drabness and uniformity of the early 1940s and the consequential conservatism of the postwar period. It’s also full of individual stories of people and pieces of clothing — like the guy who sold a certain neckerchief to Mick Jagger.

As Paul explains: “That’s why it took so long. I was tracking people down from the U.S. to the U.K., to France, Germany and Japan. It was an amazing experience; I feel very privileged.”

He investigates the rise and fall of Vince’s Man’s Shop, near the London Palladium. “Opened in 1955, it was where initially boys went to buy their swimming trunks. Vince was the first to put men into pink trousers. It was very gay. I found an ad with Sean Connery promoting Vince wear, just after he was a Mr. Scotland finalist. Yes, it’s in the book.”

Mary Quant’s shop Bazaar — the first boutique in the world (meaning it sold off-the-peg clothing) — was a hugely radical concept in 1955. Then there was John Stephen, who put Carnaby Street on the map in the early 1960s. “There’s to be an exhibition about him at the V & A (Victoria and Albert Museum) in June.”

Paul tracked down Bernard Lansky, now 86 and still going strong in Memphis, who dressed Elvis Presley when he was trying to make his name. “It was no accident that this young white boy chose to dress like a black pimp” — a revolutionary way of presenting yourself to the world, a surefire way to attract attention, a direct challenge to mainstream society.

Paul found Paul Reeves, originally of Universal Witness and now an antique dealer, closer to home. “The top floor of his house off the King’s Road is full of the clothes he designed for Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page. It was a stunning find.”

Now regarded as a leading authority on music and fashion, Paul is as busy with commissioned books as journalistic work. “In Their Own Write: Adventures in the Music Press” (Sanctuary 2001) was followed by “Nine Lives: Actor and DJ Goldie’s Life Story” (Hodder and Stoughton). Last year, not only was he one of the authors of the official “Live 8 Book,” but “Straight” with Boy George (Century 2005) proved a best seller. “The paperback’s out soon.”

Right now he’s working with Boy George’s mother, Dinah, on the story of her life in Ireland as an abused mother of eight: “Crying Salty Tears” for Random House. “I’m also writing a book on bereavement. My brother died last year. I’m trying to make sense of it, both for myself and hopefully to help others.”

Yes, he supposes he is getting more serious. But “The Look” is still important. “On one level I know clothes are just clothes, that it’s not what you wear but what you think that’s important.” But also he thinks it important to deconstruct challenges to convention. “Look at Smithie (Paul Smith). He’s very British, very individualistic. Interesting then that he has done so well in a culture that cultivates conformity.”

Paul Smith’s success here lies in the fact he creates classic neat quality clothes but gives them the kind of subtle twist that Japan really appreciates. His reputation in America is based more on his view of society. “There’s a photograph in ‘The Look’ of his store in California. The exterior’s a bright pink concrete shell. Inside, the store is housed in two rooms from an 18th century French chateau. He’s saying Hollywood is fake. It’s also a celebration of joie de vivre.”

As is “The Look,” plus a whole lot more. . . . The book includes a CD with 11 tracks spanning the five decades of fashion the book reviews.

Considering the future of popular culture, Paul is more than a little depressed. “In dressing as he did, someone like Boy George was making an informed choice. Now we’re into the era of ‘boil in the bag’ pop stars; corporate interests rule. Who’s benefiting from the public meltdown of Pete Doherty and Kate Moss? Dior.”

From where, he wonders, will the next strong statement emerge to challenge the current commercial stalemate of music, fashion and lifestyle? If it ever does. . . .