Interview with Sue Clowes

Photograph of Marta Melani, brand manager of the Sue Clowes company (left), and Sue Clowes fashion designer (right).


You re-launched your own Sue Clowes brand last year with your daughter. Why did you wait so long? What was the turning point for you to re-launch it? I always had the intention to start again but it was never the right moment. Fashion didn’t excite me anymore in the late eighties, it became just a hard nosed business: it wasn’t fun and enjoyable for me. Now people wear clothes with their personal taste and they don’t really follow a dictated label, so fashion is interesting again. I feel that my ideas for prints can be stronger today than before and my look fits in again. My prints were always different from others in the 1980s. I like to design outside of the box. I suppose the turning point for re-launching the Sue Clowes company was my daughter Marta Melani. When she graduated as a Fashion Designer she said: “Mum, why don’t we start the label again together?” Her youthful input has rejuvenated the style which is wonderful for me to see, and it has been very successful. Marta and I work really well together and we know exactly what we like and what we don’t. We both want to concentrate on men’s wear for the time being as for us it is a more receptacle market, particularly here in Italy.

 How did you get into fashion? I went to Camberwell school of Art at eighteen to learn how to design and print. By the time I’d finished I was already working with friends printing record sleeves and magazines. It was a bad period in London and lots of people my age didn’t have any money or a job. There just weren’t jobs as textile designers. Most of the mills had been closed. We all had to think on our feet and invent ways to sell the things we created or we’d live on chips! In 1979 I used to print t-shirts and all kinds of clothing. I had to find a way to put my printed fabrics into a saleable commodity and fashion garments was the way to go. So I’d print all week and at 6 o’clock on a Sunday morning I’d queue up for a stand on Camden lock market to sell my work. I worked hard and sold my prints to shops, like Axiom in The Kings Road, and bespoke orders for loads of band members. From there I got a shop in Kensington Market doing theatrical garments for The New Romantic era, and a shop called Street Theatre where I met George. Looking back I guess my mother influenced me. She was addicted to collecting anything old and unusual. We often went to the local jumble sale and I would plunge my hands into layers of clothing and drag out pre war silk scarves, cricket blazers, jodhpurs, dusty pink corsets, Fair Isle jumpers and all sorts of materials. This contact with unusual oddities influenced my style making me think of fabric fashion in a different way.

As you probably know, the MET in New York is having an exhibition about the impact of the punk movement in fashion. You lived in London during the punk era, what memory do you have of that time? Do you think punk is still relevant today? It was a very harsh period, an energy driven vocal movement. Most young people invented their own rebellious do-it-yourself look, cutting their hair and going around the markets hunting down unusual clothing. I remember rock against racism, questioning authority to change things for the good. UK was going through a political turmoil with high unemployment. I think you had to have lived through it this side of the pond to really ‘get it’. The initial punk – spiky hair, safety pins, The Sex Pistols and its commercialized look – was really short lived. The creative energy during the Post punk period had a greater amount of creative diversity and groups Subway Sect, Wire, Psychedelic Furs incorporated aspects of electronic and experimental music.

Is Punk still relevant today? If any movement that wants to change something for the good, then it is still relevant. But today Punk is only an inspiration for fashion and it hasn’t got the conception of the original movement: stilettos, cleavages and perfectly lined studs have nothing to do with how I remember Punk Rock.

 You famously designed the incredible style of Boy George and his band members in the early eighties. How did you meet Boy George? It was an interesting period when I think back and I appreciate it more than before. I was certainly very lucky to have such an amazing group to wear my designs with the unique and charismatic front man George. It was one of those one in a million situations where everything just clicked into place and took off. As I said before I first met George when he worked in Street Theatre with my sister Gillian. He was brilliant at selling garments and window dressing, and had a hilarious sense of humour too. It was The New Romantic period and I used to make one off garments to sell in the shop. When The Blitz Kids period fizzled out, the owner of Street Theatre opened The Foundry two doors down round the back of Carnaby Street. I began printing ties for zoot suits and George loved them. One night George and Jon came to my flat and we went out for a pizza and had a brain storming session. When we discussed the idea of the Culture Club look we realized that every member in the group was of a different religion. That’s where it all happened. I had a library of silk screens with loads of images, including the rose, the cross and the aeroplanes. But I think the print that really clinched it was the one I did for Mikey. The hobo print with all the painted reds and greens. That was the icing on a very amazing cake. But overall it was ‘Do you really want to hurt me’ that soldered everything into place and burst the bubble.

One of the most remembered symbols is probably the Star of David. Was/Is religion important to you? How did you come up with the idea of using the Star Of David? Was there a concept behind the use of religious imagery? I’ve always been curious about the meaning of religion and wondering about human existence on earth. When I lived in London I used to spend a lot of time in second hand book shops and markets researching unusual illustrations and designs to collect and print, including religious symbols. I had an expansive library of images on my silk-screens, which I used to orchestrate into different compositions. So I exaggerated what I was already printing into a curry of symbols: a cultural cocktail of religious images. George was of Catholic origin so I printed the red cross with planes and roses. Moss was the drummer and was Jewish, so I designed the Star of David with the roses around it. Hay was Protestant, so I printed the hearts and daggers t-shirt. Mikey was the bassist and of Jamaican ancestry, so I chose Rastafarian colours with the infamous hobo print. I did a look that bonded together cultures and religions into a recognizable look. I’m Jewish, I’m a Rasta, I’m a Catholic, I’m a Protestant, let me swap my t-shirt with yours and be friends! You have to remember that racism was pretty bad at that time so the idea portrayed in the Culture Club look was that wherever you are in the world, whatever your culture or religion “Let’s share! We all part of the same club called the human race”.

In his autobiography, Boy George said things went downhill at The Foundry after you disappeared. What happened? I never disappeared, during the success with the Culture Club look I was working on other projects and collections. I was selling the Dollymops and Rookies collection in Review on the Kings Road; the Flesh and Steel and MPH sport wear collection in Joseph, Bloomingdales and Barneys. I also designed a collection for Isetan in Tokyo…so basically I just moved on!

 In the mid-eighties, you became involved in “wearable technology”. You worked with Italian engineers and scientists, to pioneer clothing that incorporated technology. Can you tell us more about this project? What was it all about? I got involved with smart fabric. It was an era where the spot light in fashion was on technology. It was something new for me and was intellectually challenging. I became involved in a company that researched spin-offs from space from the European Space Agency. I studied how inventions in space could be incorporated in everyday clothing. An example of what we did was producing 53 overalls for formula one mechanics with a built in cooling system, partnered with McLaren Formula 1, Hugo Boss and ESA. We also invented a jacket padded with Aerogel to wear on a Antarctic expedition. Aereogel is an insulator that was used on the Pathfinder mission to Mars in 1997. I feel very honoured to have been involved on projects to design a better future, more practical and sustainable. There is amazing technology sitting there waiting to be applied into wearable clothing.

 What are you working on right now? What’s next for you? Marta and I want to keep the feeling of the original brand and at the same time develop a visual recognizable concept reaching a new generation, not only in textile print and fabrics, but also in garment shapes. We feel that our prints have a distinctive look that can brand a variety of products, like interior design. Now we are working on the Sue Clowes winter collection for men’s wear including bags, scarves and cardigans. Some of the original outfits from the Culture Club collection will be on show at the Victoria & Albert museum in ‘The Club To Catwalk’ exhibition from July 2013 until February 2014.

Sue Clowes and Marta Melani, illustrated by Catherine Denvir