So I was sorry for more than one reason to hear about his death, on that Friday morning. Not just because there would be no chance encounter in, say, Café Flore. I was sad because I had discovered he was more than just a 1970s anarchist. He was important to Fashion.
I bought Malcolm McLaren’s version of Madame Butterfly in 1984 for my mother. We both loved it. It was a re-mix, orchestrated, dance number which caught all the sadness of Puccini’s original.
Until 2007 I didn’t think about him, unless I heard his music. Then I began writing about Christian Dior’s New Look for ‘FASHION, MEDIA, PROMOTION ‘the new black magic’.
He wasn’t mentioned at the V&A’s 2007 haute couture conference, commemorating the return of Fashion to Paris, and London, in 1947, but radio producer, Susan Marling asked McLaren to present an anniversary show, for her, about Dior’s surprising success.
She was lucky to pin him down as by this time he was sharing his life with partner, the Korean American, Young Kim, in Paris and New York, and seemed hardly around either on website or his home city of London.
For the broadcast McLaren took us with him, to a stunning commemorative bash being held in Versailles near to Paris. Susan Marling could not have made a more fun choice.
McLaren’s witty approach was perfect for the camp, baroque, OTT, extravagant, unrepentantly decadent affair. McLaren described the party, in the Orangerie, in the Tuilleries Gardens, where the House of Dior’s 2007 collection was being shown.
It was seen as the most fabulous Fashion event of the year, to which they had ‘all been invited’. By 2007 McLaren obviously saw himself as a member of the exclusive international Fashion set; people like Elsa Schiaparelli’s granddaughter Marisa Berenson, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Anna Wintour.
He said the $2 million worth of flamboyance, flamenco dancers and fireworks would have ‘amused the Sun King himself.’
The collection, celebrating Art from Michelangelo to Cocteau, had John Galliano, Dior’s chief designer, taking inspiration from Goya’s Spanish dancers, Picasso’s harlequins and the Muses of the Impressionist and Modern painters; ‘many of whom were friends of Christian Dior himself,’ McLaren told us.
Susan Marling had invited him to present the show knowing he was a student of Fashion, and especially a student of Dior. Learning more about him as I reviewed Vivienne Westwood’s exhibition, V&A 2004-2010, which was attracting record crowds, from Dusseldorf to Bangkok, I realised how important McLaren was to her career.
Westwood is a woman who grew up with a fierce intellectual curiosity. There is some doubt whether this hunger would have been satisfied without her lucky meeting with Malcolm McLaren. He was in a permanent state of revolution against his background.
Whatever the facts, his family certainly owned and ran a Fashion manufacturing company, in London, and he went to various Art schools. So here are the roots for questioning and dissent, but also for looking and seeing style. His rebelliousness fascinated Westwood. She said ‘Malcolm’s a one-off,’ and it was their passion for clothes which united them.
Jon Savage, in an interview for The Face in January 1981, said McLaren’s anti-authoritarianism was a guiding principle but he effortlessly combined this with a love of Fashion, saying, ‘It’s the thing that makes my heart beat.’ Westwood affirmed: ’Malcolm has always been totally fascinated by clothes. They’re the most important thing in his life, really’.
When Westwood opened her touring retrospective exhibition in her home county of Derbyshire, in Sheffield, in 2008 she told the gallery curators and a television crew, filming the event, that it was Malcolm who had invented the underwear as outerwear idea. It is recorded that even though they had decided to specialise separately, him on music and her on Fashion, in the early 1980s, she was still being guided by him on ways to make the Pirate collection work.
It was this collection by being seen in Fashion magazines, which attracted buyers. The Media began to take an interest in the alternative, non-Fashion trained, Westwood who had begun her career assisting an anarchist; making clothing with political rather than commercial intent.
Westwood may not have known how much their obsession with Fashion would become the backbeat to the rest of her own professional life. She describes McLaren’s encouragement, as they created the bleached, razored, prototype Punk hair, meant to have influenced David Bowie, saying, ‘He took me by the hand and made me more stylish.’
The V&A Vivienne Westwood retrospective set off from the Pennine hills, in winter 2008, once again on its overseas journeys to set bells ringing on cash tills around the Pacific Rim. Whatever Westwood and McLaren set out to do, politically, in the 1970s they could not have realised how their project would grow to become a dynamic 21st century commercial success; and that an academically inspired exhibition, celebrating their vision, would travel round the world continually on view for more than five years.
To me MM is a Fashion rebel, an avant garde innovator. Fashion cannot progress or develop without these mavericks. They are necessary to shake up the establishment, to inspire designers and Fashion lovers. There are very few in any generation Anna Piaggi, Italian Vogue, Isabella Blow, Anna Wintour’s muse, Elsa Schiaparelli, Andy Warhol are people who prepare Fashion for the world by moving from the real to the imaginary in extreme directions. Malcolm McLaren was one of these rare creatives.
Image: FASHION MEDIA PROMOTION: the new black magic