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16 August 2016

#2 Barnzley

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Somewhere between fashion designer, music enthusiast, style curator and cultural icon, Simon ‘Barnzley’ Armitage is less about who he is than what he’s done. Starting out in London’s 70s punk scene, Lord Barnzley has been present in pretty much every significant cultural movement of the last four decades, from punk rock and rave to hip-hop and what would eventually come to be known as streetwear. In recent years, he has been head designer of London menswear label Child of the Jago, and heads up his two brands Crossed Swords and Thunders (debuting its first collection at Jacket Required this season), running operations from the eponymous Thunders shop — a store whose eclectic mix of music, culture and spirit reflects the character of the man himself.
 

Which subculture is your main point of reference?

The first thing I ever got into was The Mighty World of Marvel – shitty black and white reprints of the Marvel comics. There was an advert on TV around 1972 with The Thing and the Fantastic Four. Then as I got a bit older, I’d watch Top of the Pops or stay up late and watch bands on The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Then, almost overnight, punk rock happened. You hear that quote about the first time Elvis performed on the TV, how it was like the whole world was black and white and suddenly everything was colour. Punk really was like that. I knew what I wanted to do. It wasn’t a job or a career. I wanted to dye my hair a different colour, stick safety pins in my uniform, pogo and listen to punk rock.

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And what do you think about punk’s connection to fashion?

The thing with punk was you didn’t have to go out and buy loads of branded, expensive clothing. You could do it yourself. All you needed were safety pins and a bit of paint. It only lasted a few years and then it became boring, but it was a lesson; it taught me about reggae, ska, rockabilly, blues. I discovered music. I discovered dressing up. 

Years later, when I was working for i-D, I started cutting all my clothes up and stitching them back together, going out to The Wag. People would come up to me like, “Ah wow, can you make a pair for me? Are you into fashion then?” And it was like, “...What are you talking about?” I thought fashion was for old ladies. It was just an extension of punk rock. Do it yourself. That’s what brands are. Nailing your colours to the mast. This is what I am.

I do a lot of interviews myself, and so many people I’ve interviewed, I’d ask them why they got into music, and they’d say, “Because I was into clothes.” You’d go out and buy whatever was new, get stupidly excited over a mohair jumper or something, and then there’d be a group of you standing around in a ghost town with no jobs. So eventually you’d say, “Well, let’s get a band together.” “But we don’t play any instruments.” “...It never stopped the Sex Pistols.” 

If you were a poor, working-class guy, it was the one thing you could do. And then you could broadcast. It was never a career choice. Nobody had big aspirations. You did it because you liked the idea, and before that, because you liked dressing up. And now I make clothes because I like music.

 

The early days of hip-hop really seemed to capture that idea; clothing as a mark of your clique.

Yeah, and I was involved with a few of those groups, International Stüssy Tribe and all that. All it really was was a bunch of people hanging out who wore the same clothes, you know? For me, hip-hop was 1982, shortly after I arrived in London, but it didn’t really happen for another few years. It was easy to wear, easy to do. And when you look at the Beastie Boys when they arrived, they totally nailed it. But you’d go out to clubs and there’d be all these guys with long black Yohji Yamamoto coats, Shakespearean haircuts and pointy boots saying, “What are you guys wearing? You’re a mess. In the future everyone’s going to look like this.” And it never happened. In the future, everyone looked like the Beastie Boys. Now everybody wears sneakers. Everybody wears T-shirts. That’s what really happened.

 

It feels like London’s been a real focal point for the creation of new cultures and movements. Would you agree?

It’s true, but Manchester’s always run alongside those movements, with a slightly different take on things. London had the Pistols; they had Buzzcocks. Visage; Joy Division. Rave clubs; Haçienda, Happy Mondays; Stone Roses. 

But London was the place for me because it was punk rock’s epicentre. When I first came to London it was just crazy: one night it would be Siouxsie and the Banshees, the next night it was The Cramps. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I suppose it was the equivalent of fashion now. Everyone was walking around in Seditionaries clothing with blonde spiky hair and leather jackets. To me, it’s just a matter of perception. It looks amazing. Seeing somebody walking around in those clothes back then was like seeing somebody from Mars. It took me about three seconds to decide that I wanted to be a punk. It took me a few hours to actually be one. That’s how fast it was. 

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A lot of these movements quickly grew beyond their original meanings. How much do you think these descendent fashions relate to the original movements?

It’s a big point in this whole subculture discussion. History’s written by the winners, and people rewrite their own histories to make themselves seem cool. Maybe the subcultures of the 50s and the 60s that I grew up learning about, maybe what I know is a lie. The only people who really know what happened are the people who saw it. I’m sure a lot of what we hear is true, but I’m also sure that mixed in with the reality is a lot of bullshit. It’s down to people to figure out what really happened, if you’re really interested.

 

And where do you see things moving from here?

I’d like to think, considering the precarious social climate we’re living in, if I could design a new movement it would incorporate all these new elements; fucking off record labels and creating your own vinyl and artifacts, but at the heart, something close to the original punk rock. A massive ‘fuck you’ to the authorities. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. Something as important as what punk felt like to me. Come back with something that really strikes at the heart of the establishment. 

There are glimpses of it in places, but I’m not quite seeing it right now. Music and culture are quickly taken over by the aristocracy. Look at Mumford & Sons. It’s quite easy to be a quality band when your parents can afford all the equipment. But the Sex Pistols had all the best equipment too. It was all nicked. I don’t know if anyone has the commitment to hang around Hammersmith Apollo and steal all of Coldplay’s equipment but, yes, I’m encouraging kleptomania in the youth. Firstly, that’s how kids should be doing it. Secondly, we might not have to listen to so much Coldplay.

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Words By GregK foley - fcknyh.com | @fuckinyeh

Photography - Impossible Project

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