The Eyewitness

Gene Krell had a ringside seat for punk as it unfolded, as Vivienne Westwood's right-hand man. Turns out, that's just the beginning of his story

Published May 02, 2013
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Gene Krell's list of titles is long—he is the international fashion director for the Japanese editions of Vogue and GQ; the creative director for the Korean editions of Vogue, Vogue Girl, and W; and a creative consultant to Allure and GQ Korea—but it's rivaled by the length of his entire back catalog. Raised in Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood, he left for London in the seventies, where he worked at the landmark psychedelic glam boutique Granny Takes a Trip. From Granny's, he befriended Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood—then installed at their shop just a few doors down the King's Road—and became Westwood's right-hand man as she went about launching her namesake line. From there, it was back to New York—and Barneys New York—and then to Asia, where he oversaw the launch of Korean Vogue and eventually ensconced himself in Tokyo as a sort of Our Man in Asia for Condé Nast. (All this doesn't even touch on his other passion: surfing.)

Impeccably dressed (Krell was attracting street-style attention long before street style, for which he has limited patience, and calls Bill Cunningham a close friend), impressively maned, and possessed of a resonantly nasal brand of Brooklynese, Krell defies all definition. It's been a long time since punk—a movement, he says, that failed—but he may go down as its most voluble eyewitness. Here, he speaks with about punk's politics and promise, as well as life with Westwood and McLaren.

There's been so much interest in punk with the Met exhibition coming up. I'm interested in your take, as someone who's experienced it firsthand.

What they're talking about has nothing to do with punk.

All the more reason to go back to the source.

It's a bourgeois, dilettante idea of punk. But there you go. That's part of the equation, you know. [But] I'm in an unenviable position because I'm actually very much part of the equation. I mean, I work for Vogue. But I have to say quite clearly that they never ask to exercise any, or implement any, control over my work—within reason. I don't know if there will be any punks there [at the Met ball]. I might be wrong, but you know. That's their idea of punk, I guess. I don't want to sound pious. It's just bizarre to me. It's like an oxymoron.

Maybe we can start with your experience at Granny Takes a Trip, and how you became involved with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in the seventies.

Well, the thing about it is that Vivienne and Malcolm and I, we weren't politically at odds, but socially we were. I was sort of like a glam-rock guy, and the very foundation, the cornerstone of [their] shop, was in direct contrast to that. They saw us as these bourgeois elitists making clothes for people who sip Champagne while writing letters of protest to Jacques Chirac. They were about some working-class yobbo from Glasgow. But the conduit was the music. You know, I was from Brooklyn; I grew up with doo-wop and so on. Malcolm was a passionate advocate of that genre…[and] growing up in Brooklyn, this musical designation was very much part of my DNA. We quickly found common ground in terms of art. Malcolm was remarkably articulate, and he never let the facts stand in the way of a good story. I always admired that about him. Like, his "friendship" with Guy Debord of the Situationists. Guy Debord is like forty years older than him, but that was very much how you characterized and then defined him. I love him, and I miss him every day. [Editor's note: A representative of McLaren's estate clarified that Debord was actually fifteen years older than McLaren.]

Walk me through how you made the move from Granny's to working with the two of them—with Vivienne, specifically.

I just began to broaden the narrative and broaden my perspective. You know, I wasn't in the best of health at the time, and Vivienne was well aware of that, and she fundamentally saved me from myself. We just began to initiate this idea of how we could sort of change people's concepts and change people's ideas and change their focus…it was really a growth, a maturing. Granny's was never politics. Far from it. It was more of the social revolution taking on. You know, Malcolm was involved vicariously with people like Cinque DeFreeze [of the Symbionese Liberation Army] and Angela Davis. These were the people that sort of fascinated him. And he was always attempting to create this polemic.

I was moving away from the people who were very heavily involved in drugs and so on, and I was moving away from the attitudes that were so pervasive at the time, and I just sought solace with them, and it was a very easy fit. And we would engage each other. I mean, more often than not, we couldn't really agree in how we saw the world, and I think you learn more from people who offer different opinions than people who offer the same opinion.

I gather it was a heady time, hanging out at the shops back then.

The thing a lot of these kind of punk kids found attractive was that I was from Brooklyn—for them, that was the sort of pinnacle. That was the epicenter. That was nirvana. Still, I run into kids here [in Japan] that wear Brooklyn T-shirts. I remember I was at a shop [here], and the name of the shop was Brooklyn. I never bothered to tell the girl there, "Have you ever actually been to Brooklyn? It's a place I tried to escape desperately from when I was a kid." I saw things that people couldn't even imagine: stabbing, shooting, routinely. I grew up in Brooklyn in the fifties in Brownsville, which had the distinction of having the highest crime rate per capita of anywhere in America.

Photo: Alessandro Garofalo / InDigital / GoRunway

I'm interested in how punk music played off of, and into, the punk aesthetic. Even in the seventies, were the punk rockers playing with their look the way that people at the shops were?

That might be the best question you could ask. There were punks long before there was punk music. I mean, we used to disco dance at places called Rod's and the Sombrero, and we all looked like punks. We had bondage trousers. Malcolm was well-versed. I mean, he was a tireless researcher. He found all of these fetish books, and it was incremental. You began to see the beginnings of punk in the Let It Rock shop—you know, the bone T-shirts and this kind of thing. And Rod's was funny because in the daytime it was called the Furniture Cave and they sold antique furniture, and at night they would move all the furniture out and we would dance there. Of course it was unlicensed, but we would dance to like, Hues Corporation "Rock the Boat." Vivienne always hated that. She was a kind of rockabilly girl. The clothes were so interesting. I mean, a lot of it was really the origin of punk. It was very much embedded in the gay community. They were the ones who were captivated by the clothes and the imagery because it was so hard-core.

How underground was the community in those days?

Well, I don't know what that word underground means. You'd have to explain to me. I mean, there's always a pragmatism involved, and there's always ideas that people will place in the practical reality, so you can say quite easily that punk was underground, but people discovered and, indeed, ultimately exploited the fiscal possibilities, the economics of it. The underground is the term that's always escaped me. You had people like William Burroughs, who's supposedly an underground character, or Allen Ginsberg, and they would get $5,000, $10,000 in gigs. I mean, I work for Vogue, for god's sake. You can imagine what my more liberal friends thought. You know, I've lost friends over the years because they thought I sold out. When I worked for Vivienne, we went to Paris, and people were coming into the shop returning their clothes in protest. But if you have a message, you go to the source.

That's interesting. Can you expand on that a little?

If you have a message, you want as many people to understand that message as possible; otherwise it just propagates more of this elitist nonsense that we're subjected to. So I never felt like I had to apologize. I'm a Buddhist; I wear a Rolex watch. I never feel like I have to apologize. I worked for it. I think initially people hold you to a different standard, and that's where the problems lie. I mean, even with Malcolm, but Malcolm only said [things like] that because he felt it was exclusionary. And then, you know, he ended up with Swifty Lazar and Lauren Hutton in Hollywood.

I wanted to ask you about something you said in an interview with the Japan Times. You said, "Art must bite the hand that feeds it."

Yeah, exactly.

Is that something that the punk musicians were particularly attuned to?

Well, you know, this is chronic. I always find myself in hot water. But a person can't rub meat on their leg and complain when the dog bites them. For me, as I say, the imperative, which is paramount, is that I've never really had to or been asked to compromise the integrity of my work…[but] I just can't hold my fire [about] this notion that the people that are [now] in charge or dictate the terms are not necessarily the ones that really establish the notion—or even toy with the notion—of how fashion or how style really works.

That [used to be] not the case. Diana Vreeland rolled up her sleeves, and she worked with Twiggy and she worked with the great photographers. Very much hands-on. Now, the guy who delivers the bagels wants an on-page credit. I'm 67. When I first started shooting, I was very, very young at the time. I was working with Anna [Piaggi]; she was at Italian Vogue. Very often the model would bring and do her own makeup. They used fishing-tackle boxes in those days, and there were the photographers. There were the Avedons, the Irving Penns, and so on. And they really made the determination, you know? But one thing I must stress in the course of this conversation, which is a mantra of mine, is that you cannot compete with the past. I mean, I don't know Guy Trebay. Maybe he's a wonderful guy. I never met him and I don't really read his stuff very much. He could be a Pulitzer Prize winner; I don't know. But someone sent me this story in which he said that Justin Timberlake, a talented guy, is the new Cary Grant.

I thought that was a bit much. I was just talking about it with someone the other day.

There is no new Cary Grant. There's no new Marilyn Monroe. There's no new Audrey Hepburn. There's no new Caravaggio. People really have to come to understand that, and they have to accept the fact that you cannot use the same criteria in judging a painting by Fra Angelico as you would judge a painting by Julian Schnabel. And it's not to say Julian Schnabel isn't the greatest. I don't know. I don't care. I don't concern myself with that, really. But nevertheless, you have to bring in a new barometer. You have to look in the context of what modern society has to express. We no longer have this preoccupation with theology and modern art. All we can do is reflect the attitude of its constituency. So is Schnabel a great artist or Jeff Koons? I don't know. Do they represent something which is significant? Well, obviously, because they have an audience, much the same as Taylor Swift or a host of these others. I don't really listen to that stuff. It doesn't interest me. I'm not being pious about it; it just doesn't really accommodate what I'm looking for in music. For me, I prefer it to have a greater significance.

Photo: Via

That's interesting—context determines content. So we have to appreciate that there will be no new Cary Grant, no new Caravaggio.

What people tend to do is be guided by some idea that there's a power greater than them. So you look at Cary Grant, and this is the kind of yardstick, the measurement that they use. I mean, it's absurd to say that. And again, if he genuinely feels that way, I'm not here to demonize Guy Trebay or anyone else who chooses to put pen and ink to paper. But I just don't see the world that way, and I'm coming from a place where I worked with people who really set the bar extremely high.

So by that same token, are there no new punks? Is there something fundamentally misguided about looking back to punk in exactly the way these exhibitions and shows will?

There's nothing wrong with utilizing the past. There is something wrong with dwelling in it. People asked me if I wanted to reopen Granny's, and they were talking six, seven figures. And I said, "Well, the problem is Granny's was a time, not a place." And punk as we see it was a time, not a place. Look, I went with Bill Cunningham a few years back—we were in England together—and some of the kids recognized me. "Hey, man, I remember you. You're Gene Krell. Look at you. You're in a suit now." And I said, "Yeah, you know. I don't feel any different." And I still have the same things to say, and I still address the same issues, and I'm still a freedom fighter. So Bill said, "Hey, guys, can I take a photo?" And they said, "Yeah—five quid." And I said to the guy, "Is that why you're dressed as a punk? So people can pay you five quid as some circus clown? Is that what you think is the idea of punk?" And I mean, that's really an indication of how people perceive and play to the economic liabilities of what punk had to express. I mean, the fact is, punk didn't change shit…the meaning of punk is that we failed. I mean, Malcolm, you know what his mantra was? "I never want to end up as a museum piece." Well, guess what?

"Punk in fact self-destructed. It had to. There was
nowhere for it to go."

Do you think that the Met show is in some way the sort of nail in the coffin? I mean, is this coming full circle to exactly what Malcolm feared?

No, no. You weren't listening to what I said earlier. It's not the nail in the coffin. Not at all. [I was talking to some] skinheads—not the hard-core ones, not the oi boys, or anything. And I said, "Why do you choose to shave your head? Girls don't find it attractive." And they said, "The way we see it, it has no practical application. Nobody wants to look like this. No one wants to dress like this." So it might be crap, but it's our crap. Where punk, you can see how people would distill it in a way. I mean, the perfect example would be Zandra Rhodes and the pin dress that she did, if you remember. And it ended up in Macy's, and they've done things with T-shirts that actually said "punk" on them. No, it's not the nail in the coffin because it really depicts the sort of rise and fall. I mean, punk in fact self-destructed. It had to. There was nowhere for it to go, you see? Tell me how punk changed anything.

I couldn't. I think you're right.

It didn't stop the war. It didn't. It had no impact whatsoever. It was farcical—we all agreed upon that. It didn't leave us disillusioned, because we saw that it really just couldn't find a home. In the end it became more of a social phenomenon than a political one, where you stopped some kid in the street and said, "Where are The Damned playing tonight?" And that was about the extent of it. When people grew tired of that and the aggression, they turned their attention to the New Romantics or the Pirates.

And yet it did create this enduring aesthetic, true to the original spirit or not.

…When we think of punk, we don't necessarily think of CBGB or that. You think of Malcolm and Vivienne and the Sex Pistols and The Clash because the visuals were so rich, and they were such a departure from anything that we had witnessed before, and we really began to examine or reexamine what we found aesthetically pleasing or what was beautiful. So, I don't know. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh. Maybe punk did accomplish that. I don't know necessarily. Because when you look at fashion now, that idea has been completely abdicated? I don't know if, again, the message was one that really had any true longevity to it, but maybe it wasn't meant to, you know? I don't know. You haven't told me what you think.

I think that no one influenced me more when I was a teenager desperately trying to be punk than Richard Hell on the cover of the Blank Generation album, in that great polka-dot shirt and the safety pins.

Richard was the most wonderful guy. He was very fond of my mother, may she rest in peace, and I remember a wonderful story. He had a terrible time; he was mugged and he couldn't pay his electricity bill, and he called my mom, and she was living in Brooklyn. And she said, "Come over." He ended up staying with someone else—I think it was Roberta Bayley at the time. He ended up marrying that quite famous rock singer, right? I can't remember her name now. She had a few hits and so on. And he's writing now. Again, I haven't seen him in years. They credited an interview with him but I never interviewed him. Not recently. So yeah, he was just an extraordinary character, and he remains such. But he might be a perfect example: Here's a guy who was for the most part the founding father, the godfather, and in many respects he never really profited or benefitted from it. And I don't mean necessarily in monetary terms; I mean in terms of the acknowledgement. It's rather amiss, but I don't know, man. No one ever said this place is fair, right?

As a foreigner in Japan, do you think there's some particular intellectual purchase that punk has with the Japanese? I think it's interesting how it seems to be a real touch point for a lot of Japanese designers.

I don't know how this is going to sound…but because you buy a pair of cowboy boots doesn't make you a cowboy. I think there's something very disingenuous about it. I don't think people here—people here are apolitical. I think they were attracted to the visuals of it and the aggression of it. I don't really think they understood the underlying message. I don't even know necessarily that it was a message, but the basic kind of precepts or protocol. It was just visually entertaining. That was about the extent of it. Most of these people, they bought punk clothes on their parents' credit card. And if that isn't a contradiction or the height of hypocrisy, I don't know what is.

I think maybe that's a perfect grace note to end on. Unless there's anything you'd like to add?

Yeah. The thing is that I wouldn't want to appear as being pessimistic. I don't think that's an attractive quality. But again—I have to make it perfectly clear—I don't think I'm the voice of punk or I'm the spokesperson. I don't think any one person is. I can only speak to you from my personal experiences, and I can say that because I was really privileged to be around the people who really formulated and formed the sensibilities and the ideas, and they were very resolute. And their intentions were extremely pure. But I remain guardedly optimistic. I think it's a little bit more difficult to find people who are open enough to continue the dialogue of what punk's ambitions were, and irrespective, I remain true to the premise, to the idea.

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