Leave the Boy Alone
“The BOY turned out to be the hottest property in advertising. Enigmatic smile on the delicate young face... The BOY was too hot to handle. Temples were erected to the BOY and there were posters of his face seventy feet high and all the teenagers began acting like the BOY, looking at you with a dreamy look lips parted over their Wheaties. They all bought BOY shirts and BOY knives running around like wolf packs burning, looting, killing it spread everywhere that summer”
- William Burroughs The Wild Boys
“We just wanted to open a shop, call it BOY, start trouble”- Stephane Raynor
Scene: Art school house party in 2002 or 2003. House is what appears to be an old coaching inn, now set back from the road in a second hand car yard. Abattoir behind. Sky is that Norfolk just before dawn peacock blue, but the air is still warm. Smell of wood smoke and skunk. Everywhere, people are interacting- dancing, laughing. It's a very good party- the music is loud and not a threatening vibe in sight. I have arrived with Dave the Rave, who gets invites to these things. Inside are more people dancing and drinking- the main room would have been the bar, and is so full it's hard to reach the decks. It turns out they appreciate my blend of old hardcore and jungle. 4AM by Orca- always loved this record but looking back now I find that it reminds me of THIS party, of all the parties I ever played it at.
Later on, once everything is calmer, I am sitting enjoying the little rushes passing the joints back and forth. On the other side of the room is a strikingly good looking boy walking around with a video camera. Being the deviant that I am, I decide immediately that I want to talk to him. Eventually, I manage to engage him in conversation and it's fantastic, because he is a proper deviant too. It's clear that he's straight, and does not see me as a sexual object- which makes me sad, but it doesn't matter because we share a horrible sense of humour. It also doesn't stop me attempting to try it on, laughably unsuccessfully, but he's really a very nice guy and doesn't seem to mind (too much). His name is Rhys, and it's his house.
Fast forward a decade. Dave the Rave has moved to Osaka and is painting beautiful graffiti for a living. I am still in Norwich, writing this gibberish and getting banned from places for violations of good taste in stand-up. I guess I'm living the dream, in other words. Or something like the dream... Meanwhile, Rhys has moved to London and set up his own clothing brand LONG. With an unmistakable and immediately recognisable collection of T-shirts and over 200 stockists worldwide- it's exploded... Furthermore, he has, (alongside his partner at LONG, Gareth Emmett) relaunched iconic fashion label BOY with its original creator Stephane Raynor; beloved of everyone from Andy Warhol to original Kings Road punks, to Rihanna. The original incarnation of BOY collapsed in the 1990s. Now, after a long period of absence, the prodigal BOY is back. The designs are striking- runic, potentially blasphemous, possibly satanic and clearly inspired by fascist aesthetics, while also nodding to various icons across time and space from alchemical symbols to Disney via Tom of Finland.
It transpires that I find myself writing a piece about fascist aesthetics in high fashion in reaction to the horrible fascist rant by designer John Galliano (see upcoming issue, Now or Never! #21) to some women in a French restaurant. The research for this piece leads me to suspect an undercurrent of Nazi ideology and imagery in the world of fashion- something to do with unblemished Aryan bodies and aristocratic narcissism. While I'm writing, the LONG/BOY t-shirt designs I've seen keep bubbling up into my mind- but there's a dissonance there- despite using elements of fascist design, the finished result is paradoxically enough, not a thing of fascism. There is obviously something quite complex going on. I decide to call and ask about it. Knowing Rhys as I do, I have a feeling there's some kind of post-post-modern mischief afoot. I am not wrong. This wasn't ever going to be John Galliano in a Paris eatery. This was going to be about culture jamming and style terrorism.
I am fascinated by such phenomena. It is interesting to note that each generation since the Second World War has produced its own dissident youth culture groups, evolving and reacting against each other over time. Teddy boys, Mods and Rockers, Skins, Punks, New Romantics... And each has developed its own semiotic dress codes- ways to show you belong to the tribe... Shorthand for belonging... Since the '50s, these modes of dress became more fetishised and extreme- not just a way of showing belonging any more, but also a way of shocking “straight” society- an obvious example is John Lydon wearing a swastika- not because he was a Nazi sympathiser, but as an orchestrated fuck you. Predictably, some people were very offended- and they were meant to be- but they had missed the point. This was the pop art re-appropriation of the symbolism of fascism- reclamation- in the same way that the Gay rights movement adopted the pink triangle of their concentration camp uniforms as a symbol of defiance- and sure enough, the gay crowd “got” BOY in a big way.
I had been trying to condense my ideas about BOY into understandable English phrases for some time before I caught up with Rhys on the phone. This latest incarnation was a complex thing- a web of pop art ontological games and layers of post-post modern self reference, using iconic occult, fascist and pop cultural signs as objet trouvé - something like sampling- taking reified elements and presenting them in new context. It was also evading normal language and making me write like a tosser academic. But there was little to be done. It did indeed fulfill many of the criteria of the “readymade” type of “found art”- re-designating the found symbols as pure art objects in the same way as Marcel Duchamp to some extent, but also much in the manner of Jasper Johns. The layers of association were extremely dense- I was particularly reminded of the Jasper Johns Flag series of paintings, and of his bronze sculpture of a coffee tin filled with paint brushes- by placing the object with a non-art use in a fine art context (in the case of Johns, an art gallery, cast in bronze) the artist designated the object as fine art, while also retaining all the cultural history that intrinsically came with it. Work like this brings us back to fundamental questions about what art is, and more specifically, what art is not.
The BOY designs looked like a kind of ritual reversal of the accepted symbols of oppression with a healthy understanding of pop art, profanity and religious kitsch thrown in for good measure. A kind of reverse-reverse symbolism. The product of pop eating its own tail like Ouroboros. On one level it felt like a kind of cultural blood-letting- catharsis, a release of pressure. An exorcism perhaps, or a way of dealing with taboo images and ideas in a paranoid post-religious society. Both the sacred and the profane deal with danger, otherness, the forbidden and the taboo, and it is not simply word play to suggest that BOY has come to represent a strange pinnacle of “cult” design. There is something deeply apocalyptic about it.
There was a shift away from the blatant use of clothing as a kick in the face of straight society in the late 1980's and early 1990s- something I put down to the particular nexus of musical technologies (such as sampling), new drugs (MDMA) and the historical moment that produced electronic dance music and rave culture in this country. Suddenly the paradigm shifted. Instead of getting in people's faces with highly individualistic punk battle dress, the new paradigm favoured anonymity and disappearance- a complete rejection of society by groups like the New Age travellers. Interestingly, this was apparently much more of a threat to the fabric of society than previous dissident youth culture groups had represented- as is evidenced by the amount of legislation brought in to combat the potentially revolutionary aspects of the free rave movement.
In the time between the Criminal Justice Act and the Terrorism Act the UK has become the most surveillance obsessed society on the planet, boasting more CCTV cameras per citizen than any other. Paranoia and perpetual fin-de-siécle angst has become normality- everybody is expecting the apocalypse at any second. Subculture has responded by revelling in apocalyptic imagery, and particularly by the adoption of the hood- not style terrorism as the original punks would perhaps understand it- this is more covert, while still clearly designed to threaten mainstream society. In other words, a true product of its time.
To give a great example, there are even hoodies available online featuring textiles inspired by battleship 'dazzle' camouflage. This features geometric blocks of contrasting colours interrupting and overlaying each other. This has the curious effect of breaking the outline of the object- the battleship does not 'read' as a battleship. Fascinatingly, this has the same effect in clothing- in particular, that the outline and distinctive features of the wearer are broken up when viewed by CCTV and digital video cameras. People have even developed Dazzle make-up and hair-cut combinations which fool advanced face recognition software using the same techniques. The technology can't focus, and just slides off. Fascinating stuff and very much a symbol of this distinct moment in history. All this predictably terrifies conservatives and Daily Mail readers. What could be worse than gangs of youths? Gangs of youths who are invisible under CCTV. They imagine something like a cross between Predator and the London Riots. It's enough to give Littlejohn an aneurysm.
But getting back to the BOY, what I find really interesting is that since the label appeared in 1976 it has been adopted by many disparate youth culture groups, spanning generations in a way which would appear to be unique in popular culture- in other words, it remains a consistent stream of imagery throughout the culture of youth rebellion, worn by many leftists and anarchists but never (to my knowledge) by the far right wing. The punks loved it, but so did the new romantics and various gay subcultures and now it has been re-appropriated by a new genus of mutant post-industrial, post-internet, post-rave, post-Brass Eye, post-war-on-terror popular culture that now exists.
This new generation of designers, writers, musicians and artists are by nature highly referential, having been exposed to a greater number of quick fire images than any previously. They read semiotics quicker than any previous generation- and their visual vocabulary is huge. They are also highly aware of advertising mechanisms and sales-speak and treat it at best with a wry smile but often with open contempt. They are suspicious- particularly of politics and religion. They are tribal in outlook, satirical in temperament and their work nods to eclectic influences from every age since the monkey picked up a pen and started making marks. These people could only exist now- they are the curious product of the particular economic, technological and political times they live in. They are also the latest incarnation of a cultural lineage which touches on the attitudes of punk rockers, Victorian Decadents, the Beat Generation, and groups of dissidents, anarchists, pirates and heretics going back to the ancient world. Iconoclasm has a long and honourable history. As does satire.
This interview appears in the current issue of Now or Never!
Paul Knight talks to Rhys Dawney about LONG clothing and their infamous club nights, Rihanna and relaunching iconic clothing label BOY London....
I pick up the phone. It's been a long time since we spoke but we seem to pick up right where we left off. The success doesn't seem to have changed Rhys in any noticeable way- which comes as a great relief- it's just like old times.
So how did it all come about?
I used to hang out in the East End, and one day came across Stephane's shop on Redchurch Street- it was a bit like a junk shop crossed with a Fritzl style dungeon. I met Stephane there- we got talking and he started telling me stories about selling shirts to Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood from the back of a van. He later opened the infamous ACME Attractions store selling pieces like the famous Tom of Finland cowboy print shirts. It got so popular that eventually everyone from Madonna to Boy George wanted to be seen wearing BOY. Unfortunately it collapsed under the weight of its own success and then, as Stephane would put it “everyone got shot”.
It all sounds fairly reasonable.
Stehane was still selling vintage BOY pieces from his shop, but there was a 25 year hiatus before we started producing the new designs. The last year has been a rollercoaster- we now have outlets all over the world, and I'm about to launch the LONG/BOY range in Selfridges- they are letting us DJ in the store!
So what about the political significance of the designs?
Well, Stephane would definitely say that the original punk ethic wasn't political- at least not in the way that it became later- it just wasn't there to begin with.
Fair enough. But what about the occult significance?
Well, I wanted to design things for LONG which referenced the things I like- the LONG font is from an Ouija board for instance. The Blair Witch looking rune you've seen means “unity” and was a way of referencing the rave ethos while also referencing horror movies and other stuff I like- even old war games. The original BOY logo was designed by Peter Christopherson from Throbbing Gristle- who also designed the cover of The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. The symbolism we've been using is confused, stolen and borrowed from elsewhere.
And the parties?
The parties began as a way to raise brand awareness, but also an excuse to put on the kind of parties we wanted to go to ourselves- a logical progression from the old house parties.
But it wasn't like any of this was planned. When I moved to London, I spent two years working in shit jobs and going mad- it was making me ill- but right when I was on the point of giving up, this all happened. Now we've just been asked to DJ in Berlin and Barcelona… Last week BOY ended up styling Rihanna for the Jonathan Ross Show- it's weird, she is obsessed with East London. She shot her last video here and wore BOY leggings. Britney even filmed a video recently outside Nando's in Dalston...
It is, as they say, a funny old world. Well, so much for theory. It almost seems like Rhys is too busy for theory- too busy having fun by the sound of things, and that's no bad thing. We resolve to hook up and drink. I'm pleased, because to be honest, it's still very hard to leave the boy alone.