Johnson's Mannequins Sophie and Steve. Lloyd Johnson: The Modern Outfitter exhibit at The Chelsea Space
I moved to London in May 1992 (so this Spring marks 20 years of living in London. Now do you understand why I’m so jaundiced, so hardened? Let’s call it my “Twenty Years of Depravity”). Shortly afterwards I started discovering my social niche, tentatively exploring the subterranean rockabilly and retro club scenes: More than Vegas, Blue Martini, the Frat Shacks, rockabilly reunions at Dingwall’s, boozy Saturday nights at The Elephant’s Head. What to wear? As a student in Canada I’d lived in a uniform of black t-shirts and black Levis – which wouldn’t suffice now. This was long before vintage mania and eBay, so I was still able to score the occasional piece of (relatively) affordable original 1950s and 60s threads in Camden Market. My much-loved friends Gail and Jasja (aka Sparkle Moore and Cad van Swankster) still operated their boutique The Girl Can’t Help It from there and I would often swing by on a Sunday afternoon to hang out and scan the stock for incoming engineer boots and cool shirts.
For new "reproduction vintage" rock’n’roll clothes, there was Ted’s Corner in Victoria (I still wear a pair of winkle pickers I bought there in the 1990s), but I quickly determined that Johnson’s Modern Outfitters was the definitive source for sexy rockabilly clothes. There were two branches: Kings Road (close to Worlds End, so just around the corner from Vivienne Westwood) and Kensington Market. Visiting either of them was a heady, almost sensual experience. Rifling through the ultra-desirable clothes was certainly trance-inducing, but there was also the shops' wonderfully kitsch Tiki-inspired decor. The staff was charismatic and glamorous: in the 1980s, being a Johnson’s shop assistant made it almost inevitable you’d eventually appear in a Face magazine photo spread, like a model or rock star. In the nineties, some of the Johnson’s sales people would eventually become friends of mine, like the fabulous Mari Mansfield (musician, DJ, Trans-Atlantic sex kitten and today a psychotherapist-in-training) and Dean Micetich (the musician formerly known as Kid Rocker, currently in The Black Tibetans, co-founder of biker magazine DiCE). Even the atmospheric music playing in-store (a melange potentially encompassing twangy / sleazy instrumentals to tinkle-y exotica-lounge) was great. The whole Johnson’s ambiance was intoxicating.
Sadly, Johnson’s came to an end by 2000, a casualty of astronomically high rents and the changing London high street, which has become ever more faceless, bland and corporate since. Looking back, it’s miraculous something so niche, edgy and subcultural survived as long as it did. I numbly went to their closing-down sales and snapped-up some clothes I still wear today. Nothing similar has ever come along to remotely replace Johnson’s, and I pretty much thought that was the end of the story.
At the time I knew virtually nothing about Lloyd Johnson himself, the brains behind Johnson’s and whose vision the whole enterprise had been. I subsequently learned his fashion career dates back to the late 1960s (as an art school graduate Mod from Hastings, he started selling clothes at Kensington Market as early as 1967) and that Johnson was an unsung pioneer (hell, a visionary) of fusing music and fashion (what the more famous Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood - very much his contemporaries -- would also do). In the 70s and 80s Johnson launched his retail outlets (the Kings Road outlet opened in 1978). Obviously it was his rockabilly-inspired La Rocka! range that I gravitated towards, but Johnson’s clothing incorporated all the key British youth subcultures: Teddyboys, bikers, punks, Mods, Goths and jazz-beatniks could all find something to treasure at Johnson’s. And rock stars, too: pretty much all my favourite musicians (everyone from Billy Fury, Jerry Lee Lewis, Iggy Pop, Siouxsie and The Banshees, The Sex Pistols, The Cramps, The Pretenders – even Hollywood show biz royalty like Fred Astaire and Liza Minnelli!) wore Johnson’s paraphernalia at some point. A true tastemaker and original, Lloyd Johnson deserves credit as one of the people who made London a cooler place and in a just world would be far better recognised for his accomplishments.
Around Autumn 2011 I saw something on Facebook about an upcoming exhibit (to be held at The Chelsea Space) honouring Johnson’s career, and that anyone with good condition Johnson’s clothes should get in touch. I contacted Lloyd Johnson himself via Facebook, we exchanged some messages, and I sent him photos of my La Rocka! clothes from the 1990s. He eventually came to my place in Archway in person one night after work to my to collect them, and he was modest, unassuming and gentlemanly – you couldn’t imagine anyone less “fashion-y.” He promised to ensure I’d be invited to the exhibit's private launch party.
(Clothes I loaned for the exhibit: Crocodile t-shirt. I also loaned an Indian motorcycle t-shirt and a pair of patent 70s Pimp Shoes. No, I can't believe I was ever this tiny / emaciated. This crocodile fetish t-shirt and the Indian motorcycle t-shirt both look like baby clothes to me now -- clothes for a very punky, kinky baby!)
(Black shirt. When I first got it, this shirt was shiny and very young Johnny Cash. Washing it over the years has turned it matte)
(Black Regency suit. I remember I was really skint when I bought this suit and it cost about £360 -- a lot of money for me in the early 1990s. I just thought, "Screw it!" and I wore it that New Year's Eve)
(Clothes I loaned for the exhibit: Blue Sharkskin Suit. I definitely bought this at the Kings Road branch during their closing-down sale)
Flash forward to the night of the preview party on 24 January 2012. Approaching The Chelsea Space, visible through the front window is the original frontage of the Kensington Market shop re-created -- enough to make me misty-eyed with nostalgia. First reaction: I’d forgotten just how beautiful the Johnson’s mannequins used to be! Second: None of the clothes I’d loaned made the final cut! Apparently over a thousand items were borrowed from customers and collectors around the world, and needed to be whittled down to a representative capsule of Johnson’s whole career. But hey, I’m not bitter. The collection they’ve assembled is exquisite and tells the story of how Lloyd’s ethos evolved over the decades, and it was a brilliant night.
Recreation of Johnsons front window: gave me a real pang of nostalgia! (I really should have taken this shot at the beginning of the night to give a better view, before the room was thronged with people! Doh!)
Apparently well over a hundred people crammed into a pretty small gallery: a testament to the affection and loyalty Johnson’s inspired in its clientele – and how much it’s missed. (The crowd spilled outside, where people could smoke and admire the row of vintage motorcycles the biker contingent had arrived on). I think I drank far more than my share of the flowing free beer and wine (at least judging by my thunderous hangover the next day) and it was great meeting up with old friends (and making some new ones). After the gallery kicked us all out, the party continued at the pub around the corner.
There's talk of the La Rocka! range being revived on a small-scale ... fingers crossed this happens.
Anyway, here's a sampling of my photos from the night:
Gold leather fringed biker jacket (with matching gold leather jeans) as worn by Lux Interior of The Cramps . A silver version of this jacket was worn by Liza Minnelli on a 1989 issue of Vogue magazine. Who would have thought Lux and Liza had anything in common?!
Red leather-fronted pony fur jacket (as worn by Jerry Lee Lewis!)(To see a photo of the man himself wearing it, click here)
Pale blue with red fleck zoot suit
Scorpio Rising / The Leather Angels: Ultra beautiful and fetishistic biker jackets on the leather jacket wall
Mari (who used to work as a glamorous Johnson's sales assistant in the early 1990s when she was a scary Tura Satana/Bettie Page-style brunette) and Julian
Julian (whose "flamejob" cardigan is from Johnson's), Kayee and I
Gold Leather Fringed Biker Jacket (as worn by Lux Interior of The Cramps) and I. (I wish I'd taken off my camera bag for this shot!).
The great man himself: Lloyd Johnson and I
The Leather Boys: Bikers Thomas and Jake (this was taken at the pub afterwards)