Style Files: Mr Don Letts Talks Us Through His Best Looks
Mr Don Letts, photographed for Nicholas Daley’s AW15 campaign, London, 2015. Photograph by Mr Iain Anderson
Mr Don Letts has lived the kind of life that could only have happened in a very specific place and time. Now 65, he was a product of the period in London when the Windrush generation met white working-class leisure time; when pop grew from a fad to an art form, where the counterculture flipped to shape mass communication.
Like a dreadlocked version of Mr Iain Sinclair’s Prisoner of London, he constantly crops up throughout pop culture’s history, at the edge of the frame for the key moments: escaping the Notting Hill Carnival riots of 1976 with Messrs Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer of The Clash. Running Acme Attractions on the King’s Road just along from Mr Malcolm McLaren and Ms Vivienne Westwood’s shop. DJing at The Roxy and turning the punks onto reggae. Shooting the video for The Clash’s London Calling. Escaping to Jamaica with Mr John Lydon amid the collapsing scenery of the Sex Pistols. Grafting sampling technology onto high-concept rock with Big Audio Dynamite. Making acclaimed documentaries on skinheads and radio programmes on dub. Inspiring fashion collections and shooting acclaimed feature films.
With this multifarious CV, it’s perhaps inevitable that he’s written his autobiography, There And Black Again (Omnibus). “It was great to see the impact and the possibility of culture, but it wasn’t that premeditated,” he says of his recent experience of reexamining a life lived in the centre of a creative revolution. “It was unfolding, and it’s only with hindsight now that you look at what you achieved and what happened with all of this stuff.”
Currently “juggling a mix of Stüssy, Fred Perry, Carhartt WIP, Maharishi, Noah, Norse Projects, Neighborhood and YMC”, and extolling the virtues of Mr Raheem Sterling’s Clarks Originals collaboration, his book is shot through with detailed descriptions of the fashions that shaped each period of his life. “We were just turning each other on through our respective cultures,” he says now. “It’s how we communicated.”
In the basement of Acme Attractions, Kings Road, London, 1976. Photograph by Ms Sheila Rock
“John Krivine and Steph Raynor had an idea to open a clothes store that also sold their 20th-century antiques. They opened this place in the basement of Antiquarius on the King’s Road, Chelsea. We just wanted to sell cool shit that we wore to like-minded people. Malcolm [McLaren] and Vivienne [Westwood]’s shop was already open down the road, and you knew there was this demographic out there that was looking for something different. But it wasn’t just about selling clothes – it was just as much about the interaction between the different factions and tribes. It was more of a club than a shop.
“The ‘leopard skin’ was actually pony skin or something. [Shoe designer] Terry de Havilland’s shoemaker, Peter Ashdown, made that for me. It was riffing on the whole The Harder They Come Jamaican style. That was a big deal to me. And obviously by this time, Rasta and reggae was part of my expression, hence the baby dreads are growing there. Those glasses I had made by one of these artisan guys on the King’s Road, modelled on a pair that I got from watching an Andy Warhol 3D movie.
“With the jeans, even back then Levi’s was the lick. They probably came from Jean Machine [Letts’ previous employees]. When that chain started, it was the hippest, most out there, most sexually liberated, music liberated, drug liberated chain of stores anywhere in London. It was an opening for me into the whole gay scene – I used to go to a club called the Sombrero, in Kensington. Bowie’s tailor Freddie Burretti took me there. Freddie was responsible for a part of the whole Ziggy look, and when Bowie got into that American thing. That 1950s vision of the future was still around because it was much more interesting, more futuristic than the future actually turned out.”
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DJing at punk club The Roxy, Covent Garden, London, 1977. Photograph by Ms Erica Echenberg/Getty Images
“That period was just three or four months, but at the time it felt like a year. So much stuff happened. If it wasn’t for my interactions with the punks, I don’t think you’d be speaking to me today. I owe them big time. That whole DIY ethos helped me to be who I am today. When my white mates were running around inspired by this punk energy and picking up guitars, I picked up a Super 8 camera and reinvented myself as Don Letts the filmmaker. Before this, I’d had a couple of different soulboy looks, there’s the punky thing, there’s the black and white, two-tone thing… And that’s all between 1972 and 1977. It’s like I was a different person every year. I was forever reinventing myself.
“That was a vintage jacket that I picked up – that patch on the arm was an original 59 Club patch. I would’ve thrown that on, I literally wouldn’t have thought twice about it because ultimately everything you had was cool. I'm still a bit like that. I can close my eyes and stick my hand in my wardrobe, and it’ll work. But I don’t remember buying diddly-squat back then.
“There was this weird black market. Michael Collins used to work for Vivienne and Malcolm, and he used to just give me stuff and vice versa. Her gave me a rubber shirt and forgot to tell me that you’re supposed to put talcum powder on first. And in trying to get it off I nearly strangled myself, I had to rip the bastard off on the bedpost.”
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The good, the bad and the ugly
Big Audio Dynamite, This Is Big Audio Dynamite album artwork, photographed in London, 1985. Photograph Mr Dan Donovan
“BAD [Big Audio Dynamite, Letts’ band with Mr Mick Jones after he left The Clash] obviously owe a big debt to Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. But again, all this is stuff I was wearing all the time. That sleeveless sheepskin was from PX, Helen Robinson’s place. And that shirt was made by an artist called Sarah Crowest. I remember Keith Richards trying to buy that off my back in Jamaica, and I wouldn’t part with it. It’s a silk screen-print with these African shields on it.
“You can’t see what I’ve got at my feet, but I had those crepe soles by Florsheim, which I really like. The hat – there’s imitation things now, but the beaver skin used to be big back in the day. There’s something I wish I’d kept. We got them made on Orchard Street, the lower end, in Manhattan. It was about eight blocks down, old school, 1980s. It was a marketplace, very Jewish. There was this weird unspoken sync that just happens in a group but that was because it wasn’t an ‘image’. I don’t think there’s anything that you saw me in onstage that you wouldn’t see me wearing off stage.”
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Big Audio Dynamiter
Big Audio Dynamite on their “E=MC2” single artwork, photographed in London, 1986. Photograph by Mr Terence Donovan, © Terence Donovan Archive
“With BAD, I did shop a bit. I would’ve bought a few things that I thought would look good on stage. Places like Duffer with the John Smedley tops; American Classics, always the odd bits in there, Johnsons [on King’s Road]. But this was our lives. We didn’t go, ‘Alright, what are we going to dress up like today?’
“I picked that suit up from somewhere that I probably wouldn’t normally shop, a place in Covent Garden. It was like a summer suit, it wasn’t lined, so it’s deconstructed. And then my man in the background’s got that 1960s spy thing going on. Mick is wearing is a rubberised white coat from Chipie – I’ve still got that. But it wasn’t like we put that on that for a shoot, there were no stylists involved. We already looked like a band. By the very nature of the culture that we’d grown up on and been informed by, it was in our DNA. There were a lot of people walking around back then looking like they were in bands, but they probably weren’t. You had to have your look together, have a fucking cool attitude and have a great soundtrack. And then you were through the door.”
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London, 1993. Photograph by Mr Alain Dister/Retna Pictures
“Stüssy used to look after Big Audio Dynamite, in a nutshell. It was, let’s put it, a mutual admiration society, and that’s back when Shawn Stüssy himself actually ran the company. When you were buying a bit of Stüssy clothing, it was almost like you were buying a ticket to a club, you know? It wasn’t just about the item of clothing, it was about this whole world and aesthetic that people like Shawn, and his customers and collaborators shared.
“We all had the same cultural references – whether it be Lee Perry, or Bruce Lee, or Bukowski, or sound systems, or The Clash. We all recognised those in each other, recognised like minds – it’s just this unspoken means of communication. And I also liked the fact that it was functional. There came a time in my life where things needed to be functional. You had to be ready for war or relaxation.”
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Photographed for Nicholas Daley’s AW15 campaign, London, 2015. Photograph by Mr Iain Anderson
“He built a whole collection based on my life. [Mr Nicholas Daley originally based his Central St Martins graduate show in 2013 on Letts, before the pair then worked together on both of Daley’s 2015 collections.] It’s interesting when shit like this happens because it gives your work meaning. He’s somehow tapped into the world of Don Letts, whatever that is, and it resonated with him. There were cultural reference points that he was obviously interested in. But I don’t think it’s good for your head to be thinking about this. I think it’s much more important to keep doing what you’re doing and then hope that it resonates with someone, and they’ll take that creative ball and run with it.
“Everything I chose and wore, I liked. But I’m 65 now, so I was very aware that a lot of it was for a younger person. And you’ve got to have a certain bit of dignity as well, you can't be a clothes horse. I’ve got stuff in my wardrobe, I’m looking at it like, ‘Can I really pull that off now?’ and then I’m like: ‘Ah, I’m black, maybe I have another five years!’”
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At home, London, 2018. Photograph by Mr Eddie Otchere
“That shirt was designed by me for Fred Perry in 2016 [as part of the brand’s Tokyo Specials series]. They did a collaboration where I designed one, there was one designed for Amy Winehouse, Paul Weller and a few other people. And they asked us to put together something that was unique from their range. That style of shirt was very classic Jamaican, a kind of yellow knit with a black fleck in it, the collars are slightly extended beyond the normal collar. It even had a Rebel Dread special Fred Perry label in it.
“I’ve got my Stüssy ghetto blaster jewellery, and that’s a Stüssy Tribe ring. It’s about 30 years old now. Those glasses are Stüssy as well, I still wear those every day. My watch is a Breitling Colt Quartz – I don’t like when they’re too big and ostentatious. And the hat is from a brother on Portobello Road who makes them especially for me, a Rasta bredren called Mattick. People call them a tam; I call it a crown. That’s essential wear for me now – [it’s a] bit of a liability under here.