Together with his late wife Gerlinde, photographer, designer and artist Michael Costiff stood at the helm of the 70s and 80s clubbing scene, hosting their own night Kinky Gerlinky which drew the subculture media’s key movers and shakers from all over. Being indelibly tied to the visual and underground culture of that time, Costiff has amassed an astounding collection of iconic fashion pieces that paved the way for designers today. A 30-page portfolio in AnOther Magazine Autumn/Winter 2017 examines the impact of pioneers Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler, and would be incomplete without the voices of their key collaborators. This talk with Michael Costiff is one of a series of discussions investigating the power of Westwood’s punk.
AnOther Magazine: Will you tell us how your interaction with Vivienne Westwood began?
Michael Costiff: I used to live near Vivienne’s shop… I mean, when I first came to London it was like, well people tell me I’m wrong, but it was a sort of hippy, sitting-on-the-floor coffee shop. And then it was Mr Freedom of course! Do you know Mr Freedom? Oh God, that was huge! They did the first T-shirts with something printed on the front! That had never been seen before! That was all in the same shop. And then it became Paradise Garage run by this guy called Trevor Myles. And he used to do lots of Hawaiian shirts and had a big Cadillac – with flocked tiger skin – parked outside all the time. And it was all sort of bamboo-y. And Hawaiian shirts and dungarees and denim stuff. And then it was in the sort of 50s vibe. And it was the 50s vibe that Malcolm and Vivienne moved into and they were selling Teddy Boy suits and Brothel Creepers and stuff to Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls.
AM: And what was your first impression of them?
MC: Oh just another mental couple, ‘aving a go! [laughs] But they were great, they were really good fun! And, you know, always had lots to say – particularly Malcolm.
AM: What did they talk a lot about then? Do you remember?
MC: Oh God! Oh, ridiculous concepts! They were full of changing the world. They didn’t approve of lots of things. But then again at that time there were lots of things not to approve of.
AM: What kind of things?
MC: It was all quite sort of strait-laced, it was the time of Mary Whitehouse and no swearing on TV – all that business.
AM: Did that place feel like a release? The kind of vibe of that era.
MC: No, because King’s Road was just really buzzy. I can’t really describe it – it was the centre of everything really, everyone went there. But the thing is King’s Road is now really, really pretty. And the houses off every side street are very, very pretty. It does have a certain vibe – and a certain vibe that was ready to be offended.
“They were full of changing the world. They didn’t approve of lots of things. But then again at that time there were lots of things not to approve of” – Michael Costiff
AM: When did you first start collecting? Did you buy clothes then? Or did that come later?
MC: No, I bought clothes then.
AM: Do you remember one of the first things you bought there?
MC: The first thing I bought... Ooh, a see-through T-shirt, wet look T-shirts – skin tight! She did these fantastic Oxford bags that were pegged at the bottom and I had a pair in peach and in pale blue. And I had some brothel creepers from there. I never liked winkle pickers – I don’t like pointed-toe shoes, I stay clear of those. But I bought more than my wife at that moment, until it moved into Sex and then lots of skin-tight, wet-look trousers and cap-sleeved T-shirts, see-through stuff… and mohair jumpers – there were quite a few of those. The thing is about Vivienne and Malcolm is that they always used absolutely fantastic fabrics and I realised later that you can almost reach into a bag and feel a Vivienne Westwood outfit by the quality – they always used the most beautiful fabrics of good quality. And also everything was particularly well made, surprisingly. Nothing fell to bits. It was all properly done.
AM: Why do you think you were drawn to her designs, particularly?
MC: Because it was something connected… it became connected with music. But also it was something completely different. And the fashion press were really, really slow catching up with her. And the first time that they did mention or use Vivienne at all was when she did the pirate look. And that was because she did lots of quite frilly pirate shirts which those Tatler, Harper’s & Queen people really loved. They wanted those shirts and then they started looking at her other things, but they were very late at catching up on what she was doing, they just thought it was pretty dreadful. And also, Sex and Seditionaries were quite fearsome to step into – we used to have friends who were scared to go in and would ask us to take them in there. And then there was Jordan, who was there in charge and she was very scary to a lot of people back then. I mean, Jordan – Adam and the Ants Jordan – she was the queen of punk!
AM: You weren’t scared to step in?
MC: No, not at all. I like people so I can get on with anybody. I wasn’t even scared of the Teddy Boys roaming the King’s Road.
“The Pirate show in the Pillar Hall in Olympia. And that was sort of particularly grey and dreary time and to see that pirate look and the gold lipstick and gold jewellery and all that colour and multicultural models and pounding music just blew you away!” – Michael Costiff
AM: Were you ever in the same social circles as well?
MC: Yes and no. We had our own social circle. We dabbled here and there. The thing is, Gerlinde and I were a very stable married couple, who loved fashion and we went everywhere. But I was never a punk or a new romantic and I was never a person going out to get laid and end up in a different flat each week. But I probably missed out on all those things.
AM: Do you ever go and see your collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum?
MC: There is always something there. At the moment my wife’s buffalo outfit is on display in the costume hall, which has been there for a while. My bondage suit was on display last year. But the reason the V&A wanted it is because uniquely, we had clothes from every collection for the first 25 years!
AM: So, how would you describe that massive body of work she’s created, that you’ve also captured to a certain extent?
MC: Vivienne has a very inquiring mind and is super clever. It’s just her cuts and details that you had never really seen before! And it all sort of remarkably slotted together somehow. I did another interview with Another Man about the Pirate show in the Pillar Hall in Olympia. And that was sort of particularly grey and dreary time and to see that pirate look and the gold lipstick and gold jewellery and all that colour and multicultural models and pounding music just blew you away! It was amazing! Thrilling. You couldn’t wait to see what Vivienne was coming up with next, it was so exciting! And maybe I was always slightly disappointed because you quite wanted some of the things again from the last collection but they were already gone. You know, she’d got rid of the last lot and there was a whole new look coming in. And that was associated with the music genre, with Adam and the Ants, with The Sex Pistols, with Bow Wow Wow… and Bow Wow Wow wore the clothes, it was just great.
“There was a genuine underground, because things were so word of mouth and you’d find out things through your friends, or by doing research. Now everybody knows everything straight away” – Michael Costiff
AM: Do you think it will have a legacy, her work?
MC: Oh God! Yes! I mean the worst thing is, I find these days, with so many things, that if there is no footage of something, or no photos, it didn’t happen. I find history getting re-written quite a lot. But then again it’s like any time: you don’t realise what is really important at the time. It’s just part of what is going on, it’s part of your life. And I realise now, later in life, not to be too complacent because things don’t happen again. Enjoy the moment. It’s not going to happen again. I’ve been to so many amazing things that I loved at the time but I didn’t think I was at something important that people would be talking about. The other thing is, with the internet these days, you can see your past life all the time. Like in the past, once you’d done it was over and you and you’re onto the next thing, where everything comes back now.
AM: Do you think that at that time, with Kinky Gerlinky, you had a bit more freedom?
MC: Well there was a genuine underground, because things were so word of mouth and you’d find out things through your friends, or by doing research. Now everybody knows everything straight away. You could actually go to shows and concerts and just rock up, and get a ticket at the door. Now all those things are sold out in ten minutes to nerdy computer people.
AM: You’re both Northerners, do you see that relevant in her work? Your hometown, or that heritage? Do you recognise anything from there in her work?
MC: Yeah. In a way – because it’s quite hard up north. So, we know how to suffer. We know how to suffer in silence [laughs]. Nothing really fazes you when you’re surrounded by all these dreary Southerners.
AM: Maybe that is something you found interesting in her work? That kind of toughness, or boldness perhaps?
MC: Yeah, absolutely. She just went for it. All her things were just amazing. And as I say, it is the quality of these... Because when everything went to the V&A – Gerlinde and I never looked after our clothes, it was just the clothes that we wore all the time – and they were just amazed with the condition of everything. I think there was like a button missing here and a cigarette hole there, but they were just amazed how those clothes actually held up. Just good fabric and good sewing.
AM: Why do you think it’s important that those pieces particularly are in the V&A? Do you think it’s important?
MC: For me it is, because it’s in memory of my wife and I like the fact that our names are going to be in those fashion books for years to come and that students can see the clothes and be inspired by them.
AM: Do you see her influence on other designers or other works?
MC: I do. Of course, I always have done. But it’s really hard because, in a way, everything has sort of been done, hasn’t it? And you can research anything so easily. It’s really hard to come up with something new and revolutionary. So everything is bound to… it’s just in that mix isn’t it? We live in such a strange time. Like, if we wanted to know something, we had to go to the library and find a book. That was part of the fun for us, because you had to research things and find out about them yourself. Whereas you can just click a button now and everything is there.
This interview was conducted for the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of AnOther Magazine, on sale now.