Barnzley Armitage and the Lost Art of Streetwear
by Jey Perie
I began this year with a new resolution. Since I am always on the road meeting new people and looking for stories, I asked myself, “why not start sharing these stories?” So, I started by going to London and tracking down the infamous Barnzley Armitage. He’s been involved in street wear and high fashion since the ’80's, and though I had never met him before, I had been living in Japan for a couple of years and always heard people talking about him. It was almost mythological. Anyone involved in the industry who had a “London story” would always mention Barnzley. Sometimes it was very positive and sometimes it was very negative, but it was always interesting.
One story I heard was that he was responsible for the “smiley face" t-shirt. So true or not, it was funny that someone had claimed that Barnzley invented such an iconic graphic tee. So, I mean, the evolution of this guy in the industry, in music, and in fashion, has really impacted both Tokyo and London. It’s amazing. He’s kind of a self-made legend, an urban legend that is very undocumented on the Internet. And that’s exactly what I find so fascinating about him.
If you try to do a search on Barnzley, there’s almost nothing. And that’s partly because most of the stories about him were created through memories. He never did press releases for any of his projects; they always just kind of happened. So if you were there to witness it, it was amazing. And if you weren’t, the only way to know about is was by hearing about it from someone else who was!
So I went to London and asked an industry colleague to “hook me up with Barnzley” and he said “ Yeah, I know Barnzley, he is a good friend of mine! I can set you up with an interview.” So we met up on a rainy Friday afternoon in Shoreditch. We talked about his entry into the London club scene and how the scene itself was pushing subculture style forward on a weekly basis. That is, until internet culture and the explosion of the fashion industry changed everything.
Jey: So tell us where you are from and how it formed what you became?
Barnzley: Well I grew up in Yorkshire in a small town, in a little sort of place. And I went to a school that was apparently voted the worst school in Britain. I thought it was grand, fantastic!
Jey: Well, if its not the best school, then it might as well be the worst!
Barnzley: Exactly! It was the worst, apparently. And I think it’s because when I was really young, I used to like be really bored, and sort of sit there smashing the school’s windows. You know when you’re like a 10 year old kid, you’re not doing it because you’re under the age of criminal responsibility… you’re just a kid, you know, with nothing else to do. I guess there wasn’t really anything apart from comic books and pop music. There was the Top of the Pops tv show once a week and Marvel comics. Early ’70's, there was like nothing really going on.
Jey: Did that push you to move to London?
Barnzley: Well no not really. I guess the pop music thing kind of took over from the comic books, and then the punk thing happened. And that was sort of like a year zero moment for me. Because before that you were just a little kid at home watching Marc Bolen and David Bowie. And as soon as that sort of happened, as a kid, you’re like, “Oh, okay! maybe I can do that." I mean, everyone had long hair then, so all you needed was a pair of scissors to cut your hair and a couple of safety pins to do the punk rock thing. You didn’t need to go out and buy loads of expensive fashion. Everyone wanted to beat you up. It was fantastic!
You know, as a young kid, everyone where I lived hated it. But I thought it was great. You know, after that, everything that I ended up getting into stemmed from that. Like reggae and rock, and you know, all pop music has a lot to answer to as far as forming the whole of culture because most references came from music. You cant quite describe that can you? That all of a sudden you listened to a record and made a sketch of a piece of clothing. And most people I know make clothes exactly that same way.
It’s funny because now all of the references always end up being the same. There are no new musical movements that influence clothing these days. I think there are kids interested in their little grime scene. They all like the same kind of clothes that have been around for ages. This sort of sporty kind of thing, you know, like "easy to wear" stuff.
Jey: Up until now, each generation would invent and find their own references.
Barnzley: This whole thing about people getting into this branded designer clothing. I mean, that never came on to my radar for ages. I mean, I’d been working for i.D. magazine in the ’80’s, going around to nightclubs with all this gear on. And, true story, someone said something to me about fashion and I was like "what do you mean?" I thought fashion was for old women! Seriously, or like, b- boys and trainers, it didn’t have anything to do with fashion, but yeah, I guess looking back now it did in a way.
But it’s interesting because you have all these journalists going around and talking about streetwear and blogs, like it’s this big business, this big industry. Because it really just wasn’t anything was it? It was a pair of trainers or an MA-1 jacket for them. This from here, that from there. It didn’t look like anyone was planning on making loads of money out of it. All of a sudden, it’s turned into this huge thing. But it’s interesting to have seen that from the beginning. And that this non-thing has become this huge fucking business! You know, it’s like seeing the birth of the food industry or the motor car business. You know it’s become this whole fucking thing that just happened out of nothing.
Jey: Did you just have to go to one store to buy trainers? Another store to buy jeans? and just put it all together?
Barnzley: Yes, and put it all together. And also there was no internet. So no one was being informed about where anything was coming from. Basically, local night clubs were the internet. You went to a club to see what everyone else was wearing. It was like, “Oh fucking hell, that geezer over there has a cool shirt, and, yeah, that other geezer over there has a nice pair of trousers." And then you would try to put it together the next week. And then some cunt would try to copy YOU thinking he could do it better. It evolved by everyone trying to outdo the other one, you know what I mean?
Jey: So when you moved to London, this movement was already in full motion?
Barnzley: In 1979 I ran off to see The Clash. So that punk thing was sort of on its way and sort of an eye opener. And coming here for the first time and seeing that everybody had spiky hair and had all these little things going on and it was totally cool. But yes, for me, London in those days was really different. I didn’t really know what was going on, but everyone used to dress up and there was pop music playing everywhere and it was fucking amazing. I mean, it was just the excitement of being really young and "knowing" what was happening.
Jey: Do you think that’s because England had such a conservative and rigid regime at the time? That it in some way had a positive impact on youth culture?
Barnzley: I think now everyone’s a bit more yuppified. In those days, no one was really concerned about having a job or about what you were going to do in the future or where you were going to work or how you were going to eat or where you were going to live. You know people used to live in squats. I remember there used to be this hippie estate agent guy around and there were just punks and new romantics hanging around and I would ask if I could just crash at their place. You would just give them a few bucks and they would just give you the keys. There was always somebody cooking food, getting us on guest lists at clubs. Nobody EVER paid to get in.
Jey: Early ’80’s London was mostly Soho and Central London?
Barnzley: Pretty much, there was like the Beatnik Club and pretty soon they opened The Wag. So kids would just go out dancing every night. I guess it was the tail end of the new romantic thing, right before hip hop happened. They loved to dress up and go out. And people would just be taking speed all night and copping off each other, going back to someone’s flat to stay up all night. Looking back at it right now, we were really like degenerate teenagers, but it was loads of fun!
Jey: So how did you transition from creating your own club style to being a part of the industry?
Barznley: I don’t really think I’m a part of any industry at all. I mean, I make everything up as I go along. But I definitely don’t feel like I’m part of this whole business.
Jey: You do what you feel, and sometimes it’s a part of an industry and sometimes it’s not.
Barnzley: I definitely don’t feel as though I make things deliberately for people to buy. I mean, I get involved with things that I like. And if people buy it that’s great, and if they don’t buy it, I mean, that’s tough. You know, but it’s nice if they do.
Jey: How would you describe your relationship with Japan? You’ve been back and forth?
Barnzley: I love Japan! I think its fucking amazing! And I tell you I have this one Japanese guy who has been working with me recently. He made all the patterns, sewed all the samples, then did all the Illustrator and Photoshop things, all of the graphics, and then tidied up the entire shop! I mean, he put all the records and things in alphabetical order. You know, I’ve never seen anything like it before. He was one guy doing the work of 10 people. If I would have had 10 English guys, they wouldn’t have even done the same amount of work as this one person.
I just like the perfectionism of doing things properly. I get so used to things being really slack here. It’s always a struggle to get things done in time, to get the clothes into production, its quite difficult. In Japan, if they say something is going to be there on March first, its going to be there. I like the "honorableness" of Japanese people and how they do what they say they are going to do. I really admire that. And the fact that the attention to detail is really good. Working with an English factory is so frustrating, because you go there to make a jacket and it will wind up being about 9 cm wider than I had asked for it to be. And you don’t get that in Japan. They make things better.
Jey: Yes, that's the Japanese. They maybe cannot invent it, but they can always make it better.
Barnzley: They take everything that we have and add their own little piece and make it a billion times better. I mean, they are really the ones who are responsible for the whole street wear thing. If it wasn’t for their input, it wouldn’t have been as good. The Japanese manage to pick up on all of the really good things and put it together.
Back in the day, our young people used to be very hip, you know, the ’60's and the Beatles, and all these guys were wearing all these great clothes. But at some point along the way, we started to lose our way culturally and started only going to the pub and getting absolutely fucking smashed. And kids now make that their priority. That’s where all of their money and attention goes now. They don’t like to go out and go dancing and buying really nice clothes. That not the main thing now.
Jey: What about hip-hop?
Barnzley: Hip hop fucking made a massive impact. I mean, the first time I ever got the hip hop thing was from this guy Nick Egan. When I first came to London, I used to live in a little flat and Nick Egan's manager lived around the corner. it was obvious that this was the thing! I mean it’s just like the punk thing, all you needed was a puffy jacket and some sneakers and you were in business. Very street and very exciting for young people. Even the Beastie Boys did this. They really looked the part. And you could have been a regular white kid and done this. Just like punk. All you needed were a pair of straight leg pants and some Converse.
Jey: It’s crazy that now people who really participate in the counter culture dress very “ normal" because they don’t want the outfit to speak to who they are. They want to wear a black t-shirt or white t-shirt, denim, and a pair of sneakers, so that their work or their passion can talk about who they are, rather than signaling through a typical fashion way. So maybe you have to look more closely. Could it be that this new kind of style “hiding” IS the new signal?
*Barnzley Armitage photographed by Jey Perie
*visit Barnzley's newest London shop Thunders
*for more on Barnzley, listen to the podcast Generations of Culture