Pardon me for mumbling. I simply haven’t released my *facepalm.*
In the past few months I’ve been following allegations that multimillionaire Joe Corré – spawn of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and late Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren – would set fire to roughly $6,000,000 worth of punk memorabilia. That’s right. Six. Million. Dollars worth. Or five million pounds worth, if you’re across the pond.
Corré’s pyro-maniacal threat was sparked in response to Punk London, an admittedly cheesy, year-long cultural celebration of punk’s history supported by the likes of former London mayor Boris Johnson, The Heritage Lottery Fund, and other emblems of – as Corré stated in an interview – “the establishment.” Whatever that means. (Does it mean white, multimillionaire males, perhaps?)
I wasn’t sure if Corré, who is also the founder of exorbitant lingerie brand Agent Provocateur, would follow through with the burning. It was doubtless a publicity stunt, but would the match be struck? Apparently so. While we were still trippin’ on tryptophan this past Saturday, Corré, who hired a PR firm promote the event, took to the River Thames with Westwood in tow and burned the artifacts on a boat; complete with flaming effigies of David Cameron, Theresa May, etc. Flames engulfed everything from rare Sex Pistols recordings, punk-era merchandise, and clothing that belonged to Corré’s famous parents. The date, November 26th, marked the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistols single “Anarchy in the UK,” which is super hilarious because I imagine Corré must have had to get a permit to set fire to things on a boat in the fucking Thames river. Or maybe he just paid the relatively small fine of 5,000 pounds to get out of trouble. That must be chump-change for a man with millions of pounds to actually burn.
Corré’s actions and statements are all so conflicting, hypocritical and ironic, it is difficult to know where to begin untangling such a knot; almost as difficult as figuring out how to get the hell out of an Agent Provocateur “playsuit.”
Where do I begin?
The first problem with Corré’s “thesis” is one of timeliness. To say, as he told The Guardian, that “the establishment” has “privatised, packaged and castrated” punk, and that the movement has become a “McDonald’s brand … owned by the state, establishment and corporations,” is wildly funny to me. Because: no shit. Is it really news to anyone over the age of 12 that punk has been commodified like every other branch of subculture that has ever existed? Where was Corré with his torch in 1988 when the first Hot Topic was opened? Where was he in 1992, when mum Vivienne Westwood accepted her Damehood from The Queen of England, or again in 2006 when she accepted another such honor from the Prince of Wales? Corré has stated that one of his issues with the Punk London affair was its affiliation with the Queen, but I don’t see him setting fire to his mom’s $100 t-shirts over her affiliation.
Another problem is Corré’s warped notion that punk was ever anything philosophically aspirational to begin with. Politico-punk didn’t surface until long after punk was officially declared dead, long after the nihilistic first wave in the ‘70s petered out, which had nothing to do with providing answers for lost youth. And as someone who believed in the “ethos of punk” so much that I had an entire cigarette burned into my left wrist because I found it “symbolic” – that is still hard for me to say a decade later.
Punk is music, sprung from boredom and disenchantment with a previous era. It is a reaction, a notch in history’s belt that is perpetually replaced by the next one. Jerry Lee Lewis. Dylan. The Stooges. Wu-Tang Clan. Nirvana. They all disrupted a previous form, but no one ever wrote a manifesto. To think that punk ever existed in a vacuum safe from historical cause-and-effect is beyond naïve.
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The fact that Corré chose the 40th birthday of “Anarchy in the UK,” is doubly hilarious because he seems to forget that the Sex Pistols were a marketing tool…an entirely fabricated band – fabricated, by his dad.
Corré’s remark that punk is now a “McDonald’s brand” is undercut by the fact that the Sex Pistols were, from day one, a McLaren brand. The late manager and former owner of SEX – the clothing store that first began co-opting punk culture – was entirely divisive when putting together Rotten, Vicious, and co. In Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil’s famed punk oral history Please Kill Me, McLaren explains his motives for the Pistols:
“Richard Hell was a definite, hundred percent inspiration, and, in fact, I remember telling the Sex Pistols, ‘Write a song like ‘Blank Generation,’ but write your own bloody version,’ and their own version was ‘Pretty Vacant.’”
“I just thought Richard Hell was incredible. Again, I was sold another fashion victim’s idea.” “He was this wonderful, bored, drained, scarred, dirty guy with a torn T-shirt. I don’t think there was a safety pin there, though there may have been, but it was certainly a torn and ripped T-shirt. And this look, this image of this guy, this spiky hair, everything about it – there was no question that I’d take it back to London. By being inspired by it, I was going to imitate and transform it into something more English.”
Perhaps hypocrisy is all Corré knows, given the conflicted business legacies of his parents, both of whom have profited heavily on punk. Vivienne Westwood’s fashion empire is wholly at odds with her “activism.” I noticed this especially when I interned at her Battersea studio in the summer of 2013, straight out of college.
Interning is regrettably unavoidable in the fashion industry, and companies often depend on the free labor they exploit. This is certainly the case at Vivienne Westwood Gold Label, where unpaid interns trace and draft patterns, cut fabric, sew samples, run errands, create technical sketches, and perform numerous other invaluable jobs. I once made a tulle skirt as tall as me with something like 30 meters of fabric. It took about two weeks. The studio was littered with plastic buttons, which we sometimes had to make, emblazoned with slogans like “Climate Revolution” and “Global Warming;” the unsustainable material of the buttons themselves completely betraying such phrases.
I wasn’t the only person to notice the hypocrisy of a high-end fashion brand hiding behind faux ethics. In 2013 a sustainable fashion publication called Eluxe Magazine, which claimed after one of Westwood’s fashion shows that:
“The sheer number of outfits (there were literally dozens of looks) and obviously petroleum-based materials shown on the runway seem to have already violated both her ‘cut out plastic whenever possible’ and ‘quality vs quantity’ points, proving that the Vivienne Westwood label is not eco-friendly.”
It has also been mentioned that despite Westwood constantly urging consumers to “buy less,” her company produces nine full fashion collections per year. The hypocrisy is rife.
But I digress. More infuriating than Corré’s blatant hypocrisy is his cynicism. His arrogance. His flagrant assholery.
To torch five million pounds worth of anything, even, say, toilet brushes, is an insult to all of those who cannot afford such pointless, teenage acts of “rebellion.” Corré’s actions reflect his superior economic status. It reminds me of one of my favorite fashion history facts:
Prior to the French Revolution, it was en vogue amongst high court and the aristocracy to powder one’s skin and hair to a shade of ghost white. We’ve all seen the rococo paintings, but do you know what they used as powder?
Flour. They used food, while hoards of peasants were starving to death. But what did Marie Antoinette care? She had plenty of cake. And Corré has plenty of money.
And he didn’t torch toilet brushes. He set fire to cultural artifacts – to patrimony. I feel like there was a group of people in the 1940s who used to burn items of artistic heritage, like, maybe books? I just can’t remember what they were called…
Outside of all of these issues, the saddest thing to me about Corré’s bonfire is he could have done something constructive with his inherited, entirely un-earned wealth. There have been numerous suggestions, including the request that he sell the lot and donate the proceeds to charity, to which Corré replied that “the job of the state is now taken up by the charity sector. We have charities where people are earning £250,000 a year to sit on the board, these things are becoming corporations in their own right.” What a convenient response.
My personal suggestion to the pompous Corré, the punk heir and lord of overpriced panties, would have been to donate the materials to a non-profit, anti-capitalist organization such as The Archive of Contemporary Music (ARC) in Tribeca. The ARC’s sole purpose is to preserve our audible culture, and all media related to it, for the sake of posterity and education. Highbrow, lowbrow – it is all worth preserving regardless, because its very existence teaches us about ourselves as creative beings.
But as destruction is the opposite of creation, perhaps Corré can’t wrap his head around that.