Malcolm McLaren: The Definitive Punk Visionary

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Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood, 1976
Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood, 1976

We break down the Vintage Style of doyen of punk, Malcolm McLaren

In 1971, having been expelled from yet another art school, Malcolm McLaren walked down the Kings Road wearing a replica of Elvis’ blue lame suit. That day he would be given the keys to his first shop, which he would run with the then-unknown designer Vivienne Westwood. He called it Let It Rock and the rest, as they say, is history.

McLaren created the sartorial signature of the 1970s punk era, responsible for torn vintage T-shirts, dog collars and spikes. He coined the term ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ and designed the infamous swastika T-shirt worn by Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols, whom McLaren managed. He fused pop culture, art and fashion, pioneering thick-soled ‘brothel creeper’ shoes, Teddy Boy suits and tartan. Cut-up ransom letter typography, bondage-leather trousers – that was all McLaren, spearheading anarchy throughout the decade, blindly ignorant but revolutionary in his success.

"He fused pop culture, art and fashion, pioneering thick-soled ‘brothel creeper’ shoes, Teddy Boy suits and tartan"

‘Let It Rock’ went under several names - Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, Sex, Seditionaries and eventually World’s End. This was all part of McLaren’s clever marketing drive to keep people interested. It pushed sexual taboos with rubber curtains and printed T-shirts featuring semi-naked cowboys by US artist Jim French, topless models and pornographic text from the book School of Wives by Alexander Trocchi. Denim waistcoats and leather jackets hung from the walls emblazoned with slogans such as “No Future” and “Destroy”. In 1974, McLaren and Westwood designed costumes for the New York Dolls which included red patent leather and a Soviet-style hammer and sickle motif. Post-punk, McLaren became a successful musician in his own right, with his hip-hop flavoured album “Double Dutch”. He thought of himself as a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Outlaw” and was a true British eccentric.

McLaren passed away in 2010 after a long battle with cancer, leaving the world with the same unexpected shock with which he arrived, bequeathing a legacy of punk and all that it encapsulated, a maverick spirit that still beats on today. The Malcolm McLaren award was established in 2011 to celebrate, perhaps ironically, his anarchic influence on modern culture. The latest prize was awarded this week, during Sunday’s Grand Finale celebration of New York’s performance art biennial, to Ryan McNamara for his performance, “Meem: A Story Ballet About the Internet".

Text by Mhairi Graham