As a countercultural movement, punk is equally remembered for its powerful music as it is for the eccentric outfits worn by its members. The bright colored mohawks, piercings, tattoos, leather jackets, and combat boots came to define an era where conservative governments drove young people to seek expression through rebellion and a defiant attitude against the establishment.
Bands like The Clash, Sex Pistols, and The Ramones came to embody the punk movement, and their outlandish style was imitated by young people everywhere. We tend to associate punk fashion with the bands that wore the outfits, but rarely do we talk about the designers and stores that provided these iconic frocks. And perhaps there’s none more influential than Vivienne Westwood and the three versions of her punk boutique.
It all started in 1971, when Westwood and her boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren, opened a small store at 430 Kings Road, London. At first, they sold records and memorabilia from the fifties. Eventually, they incorporated outlandish clothes to their inventory. They changed the store’s name to Let It Rock once they became the owners later that year. After one more refurbishment, which altered the name again to Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die, it would finally be baptized as SEX in 1974, the name featured in large, pink letters above the front entrance.
The couple’s radical political views led them to generate an alternative style in fashion as a way to go against the establishment. They incorporated the biker look to their clothing line, with lots of leather and zippers. This became an emblem of punk best exemplified by Sid Vicious’ outfits. The bassist from the Sex Pistols constantly wore a leather jacket covered with metal accessories. This legendary band helped bring fame to the shop, as it was inside the building where the Sex Pistols came into existence.
Glen Matlock, the band’s first bassist, used to work as store attendant at SEX. In 1975, McLaren introduced him to Paul Cook, Steve Jones, and John Lyndon (Johnny Rotten), all customer. The name of the band was changed from The Strand to Sex Pistols, to include the name of the store, and Westwood and McLaren (their manager) would go on to dress them for their concerts. This move has been a controversial one throughout the years.
Punk rock emerged as a counterculture movement, and some critics have said that SEX found a way to capitalize on its antiestablishment ideals. It commercialized on its ethics and turned it into part of what it was supposed to rebel against. By defining the punk look and making a fortune from it, SEX is now seen as one of the main causes of punk’s downfall, as it became a fashion statement rather than an expression of anger against the system. In 1976, “God Save the Queen” went to the top of the British charts, a signal of punk’s co-optation by the mainstream.
Despite criticism, Vivienne Westoood’s website states that she became disenchanted by punk going mainstream. In 2016, she and her son burned 5 million British pounds of punk memorabilia to protest the movement selling out. Nowadays, she continues to work as a designer and activist. She recently had a fashion show that included environmentalist calls to action. Whether Westwood brought about the end of the punk era is up for debate, but her influence in defining the movement’s esthetics is evident.
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