Keanan Duffty is one of the most successful fashion designers in the world. He’s worked with David Bowie, Gwen Stefani, you get the idea. He and I have spoken at length about music and fashion, how they cross over and what works for creating a successful enterprise. He is also the frontman of the band “Slinky Vagabond” which has some Rock Royalty in the band. He is the most down to earth, and non-pretentious guy I have ever met, and so much of his success is because of the LGBTQ Community. You all have seen his work, now let’s talk ROCK & ROLL.
JH: SO Keanan thanks for taking the time.
KD: My pleasure, good to be here.
JH: Well, this is part 2, we are covering the fashion side of things, which is what the LGBTQ community is always very busy with because we did talk about you being the musical mastermind in Slinky Vagabond.
KD: Well, the melody maker in my band Slinky Vagabond is my buddy Fabio, who is the producer and guitar player. I am his partner in crime.
JH: Well, this is the thing about Slinky Vagabond, who could say “Yeah, I’ll get Earl Slick (Guitarist for John Lennon, and David Bowie) to play guitar, or Richard Fortus (Psychedelic Furs, Guns & Roses), or hey lemme get Midge Ure (Ultravox, Band AID, GOD) or Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols) to play on the album, that “King Boy Vandals” album you have a fabulous cast on there. (Here is the link to the Slinky Vagabond interview).
KD: We are really lucky is that most of the players are good friends of mine, and it was a pandemic project. I think that a lot of creative people have been able to put the pandemic to good use, a lot of people have been stuck at home, in lockdown, and it’s terrible, but the positive side of all of us being at home in lockdown we let the creative juices flow. For us, it was this new Slinky Vagabond record, I haven’t done any fashion, to be honest. But that is all going to change in March, we are doing a fashion show in Palm Springs. We are dipping our toes back into it, and it should be lots of fun.
JH: You had been teaching in Italy, you are not a big “Brand” line fashion designer, you seem to be the individual fashion designer. But you also have this book “Rebel Rebel, the Anti-fashion” about fashion and music. You had Bernard Patrick (BP) Fallon write the forward. He was responsible for getting U2 pushed into the mainstream in the early days.
KD: Yeah he was also the publicist for Marc Bolan (from T-Rex), and Led Zeppelin, Ian Dury (Ian Dury & The Blockheads), some of the iconic acts in the 70s. BP Fallon is a guru, he is a magic impish character through the history of Rock and Roll.
JH: So where were you teaching in Italy?
KD: I was teaching in a place called “Polimoda” it’s in Florence, which isn’t a bad gig to be going to Florence regularly to teach. There were some great young fashion students from all over the world that had chosen to study in Italy. That was a magical time for me, that started in 2017, by chance. In fashion and music, it has been very serendipitous.
JH: You were also teaching in New York right?
KD: Yeah I work with Parsons, which is a fashion school that is probably known to your listeners (Readers) from that show “Project Runway”. So it helped that school become a household name globally. There is an endless list of great graduates who have done wonderful things. It’s like in London there is St Martins, so they are both sides of the same coin. If you are lucky to win a place in either of those schools, it will put you on the map. I studied at St Martin’s, so I am very lucky to be able to be affiliated with both schools.
JH: Well we joked previously about that PULP song “She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge, she studied sculpture at St Martin’s college” but then you wrote that song about the PULP experience.
KD: Yeah, that was all SEX, DRUGS, and Rock N Roll, It’s all part of the human experience and I think that every young person should experience that sense of freedom. I was lucky to be in London in 1982 and that was just after the whole “New Romantic” movement. Which was really in 1982 the explosion of what they called “New Pop”, with bands like Culture Club with Boy George, and his sidekick Marilyn, who was one of the biggest glamour boys at the time. And then all of these great bands like ABC and Duran Duran all went on to have great global success. It all came out of this one club in London called “The Blitz”. So when I moved to London that little Amoeba was dividing and growing, you could go out every single night to see something inspiring. There was one club called “Heaven” in the back of that club was called “Cha-Cha” and the person who did the door was a young woman named “Scarlet”. They recently had an exhibit of photographs of her, she was very hardcore. She had her head shaved except for this cross, and cupid lips. And you had to try hard to pass the test, but once you got past her you got into this club that had lots of High Energy music, Patrick Cowley, The Flirts. Like Divine, who was adopted in London, not from John Waters’ movies, but as an icon of that time. Which was brilliant, it was the moment that the underground started to cross over and inspire the mainstream.
JH: Yeah, you are talking about these bands, ABC, and Duran Duran, I have stacks of their vinyl, I grew up on that. But I remember back then, the mid-80s, we were all looking at Europe as the place where it was all happening, so we looked at it all for fashion as well. So those of us who were listening to U2, and Depeche Mode, that is what we were trying to dress like, because that was European fashion. And you had said before, that the bands that “Made it” had a note “Look” to them, like Adam Ant, he was very distinct, but there were also bands like Theater of Hate, that was very much like U2, and even looked like U2.
KD: Oh yeah, Actually Kirk Brandon and Boy George were a couple for a while. But London at the time was very polymorphous, I think everybody slept with everybody else back then.
JH: Right, you see how Theater of Hate could have been huge because of their sound, but they didn’t have that “Edge” that little whatever U2 did and how they delivered that caught everyone’s eye. But if you go listen to early Theater of Hate, and early U2 they were almost the same thing.
KD: Yes, I think Kirk Brandon was extremely good looking and with U2, unfortunately, the best-looking guy in the band was the drummer. He looked just like Kirk, and they both looked like James Dean. They had that neurotic boy “Outsider” going for them. When I got to London, there was this fashion magazine called “The Face” which was the arbiter of style, it set the standard for the club scene, and what designers were doing. There was a journalist Robert Elms, he coined this phrase “Hard Times” and in one month everybody in London went from everybody looking really glamorous to wearing ripped jeans and brothel loafers, and “Teddy Boy” shoes, and having that Theater of Hate hairstyle, the boys and the girls, it was very androgynous, and from electronic music to funk, rockabilly. That was one month and then went on to something else. It was an amazing time, we were all chasing what was becoming the standard.
JH: SO, what was it that made the ”Right” guys hang on for so long? I mean U2 and Depeche Mode managed to do it with the looks and the sound, and there was Martin Fry in ABC, everyone referred to him with his macrame suits. But then Frankie Goes to Hollywood had their shtick, they were really into fashion (they sold clothes in their cassette covers catalog), but they also had their “Eye Candy” which was Paul Rutherford, all the gay men loved that guy, and all he really ever did was just dance and sing a little.
KD: Frankie was playing the circuit and they came and played in London at Camden Palace, which was the place where Madonna played her first gig in the UK. Nobody paid attention to most of them because they were all too cool for that. Except everyone was watching Frankie Goes to Hollywood, because Paul came out in leather chaps with his ass hanging out, with whip marks painted on him. And they had these two girls called “The Leather Pets” in their bondage gear. They sounded fantastic, and they sounded nothing like they did once Trever Horn got ahold of them, they had all the same songs, Two Tribes, Relax, Crisco Kisses, but they were this sort of white funk act. They were eye-catching, they had two singers, Holly and Paul, Paul was a great mover, dancer. Paul had the look, and Holly had the voice. Yeah, it also had to do with the fact that from Liverpool, they had that cheeky Beatles sense of humor, and they were transgressive, there was an interesting dichotomy of the band, two out gay men as singers, and 3 straight guys on the instruments. Holly would dress them up in leather bondage gear and they would do it.
JH: Yeah, you could see they were so straight they weren’t into it.
KD: Yeah, the look that Paul went for, it was the clone look, that was a bit controversial at the time, that became the mainstream. Nobody thought that Frankie was going to be on major television shows or have hit records, because what they were doing was so transgressive.
JH: Yeah, their videos were insane, they could have kept going, they would have been amazing. (*one Frankie video had a businessman going to an underground gay sex club. Another video had Ronald Reagan and Cherneko the Communist Chairman in a gladiators ring trying to cut each other’s gear off, that was pretty out there in 1984)
KD: Yeah, young people having tremendous success, and too many people having agendas. You know, Trevor Horn first offered “Slave to the Rhythm” to Frankie, which ended up that Grace Jones recorded. They didn’t want to do it. And their second album didn’t really hit the nerve of the public consciousness like “Welcome To The Pleasuredome”. Their first 3 singles were number 1 in the UK, the only people to do that were ABBA, The Beatles, and Frankie.
JH: I have my “Gay list” which is my music by queer artists, and “Pleasuredome” is still at number 1 and has been for years. SO, I know that you have seen the movie “Zoolander” and I know you laughed at everything in it.
KD: Sure it was very real. But, there was this one friend when I was growing up, he was the first friend when we were young to tell me he was gay. When Frankie Goes To Hollywood and then and Divine, and Do you wanna Funk by Sylvester… These hits were all big in 6 months, and my friend said “They have taken OUR music from us”. That they had taken what was part of the gay culture, from the underground. He liked it that way because it was special, that it wasn’t part of the mainstream. But what I have noticed is that things that come from gay culture have a very big influence, and they happen first in culturative minorities. Like In African American culture with hip-hop, and a lot of the music coming from the gay clubs in the UK, they kind of change culture, I think that has been a pattern. If you see who manages bands for example, in the ’60s Brian Epstein molded The Beatles, I don’t think they would have been as successful without him. There was an amazing gay woman Vicky Whickham, the producer of “Ready, Steady, Go!” (Ready Steady Go! Was a British TV show about music in the 1960s.) And as a “Taste-maker” she had incredible influence, you can’t underestimate this, and it still happens to this day, for example, we lost Thierry Mugler yesterday. I didn’t know him but I met him once at a fashion show in Paris, it was amazing. He had a model coming in on a winged horse in this gown that was worn by Jerry Hall (supermodel). A great showman who dressed some of the biggest icons in the world, Bowie for example, and Bowie’s wife Imam were in his shows too. These people all came from the 70s and they all merged at that time.
JH: See, you said to me many times that whatever the big creative movements were in music, and fashion, you would see it in the gay clubs where they were being quiet about it, at least a year before the rest of the world got it.
KD: The things that I liked, as a kid, they weren’t mainstream, and I think Punk allowed a lot of outsiders to come together en-masse, so whether it was a geeky kid in school, or someone questioning their sexuality, I mean, the clothes I wore were always very experimental, and punk allowed all of these young people to come together and to share ideas. Punk was so much a part of the gay subculture in the UK, especially in the town where I lived, if you were going to wear clothes that were not part of the mainstream was the only gay club in town and feel safe, you might not be hearing punk rock in this club, maybe more melodic dance music, but you could go and express yourself without any fear of violence.
JH: So what I thought was interesting at the time and you can explain it better than me, you had “The Sex Pistols” and the “Punk” look, but then you had the whole “Post Punk” thing when these bands had this very dark punk sound, but bands like Joy Division all dressed like blue-collar guys. WIRE was the same, they wore normal button-up shirts. Doing this highly developed punk music, but making a statement of NOT having a “look”.
KD: When punk started there wasn’t a uniform, and there weren’t rules you could wear anything. I remember someone turning up at a punk gig in a Beekeepers outfit. Someone once showed up with a box of chocolates tied to their head, it was like living surrealism. But in the UK then there were only a handful of newspapers, and it was them showing “This is the latest trend if you want to wear it”. So punk became associated with the Mohawk hair, the leather jacket and ripped jeans, Doc Martin boots, and violence. It wants like that in the beginning, it was a reaction against the mainstream culture, and there weren’t any rules. As soon as there were rules the original people involved didn’t want to have anything to do with it, so that was what happened in “Post Punk”. Like, Public Image (Public Image Limited, the John Lydon project after the Sex Pistols broke up) originally wanted to make dance music. They were pulling from Dub reggae, and funk, and probably getting it all wrong, but they created something new that became identified as Post Punk. Thus the “uniform” of the button-up shirt and skinny tie. Then as a reaction to that, there was this “New Romantic” which was a reaction to the Post Punk, so let’s put the makeup back on and try to do the Ziggy Stardust in more of a “street” way, and that really appealed to me, because I LOVE makeup.
JH: Yeah, the New Romanticism, the stuff I loved about that, you had Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes with his green lipstick. Limahl with his two-tone Ziggy Stardust mullet and man, Midge Ure’s sideburns. I loved the whole clash of the cultures when Grace Jones was dating Adam Ant, I would get Smash Hits, or NME, months-old issues cause we just wanted to see this as yank kids. All the gay kids at the dance clubs I went to, were getting these magazines, and man, they had it all down, music and fashion. They would see these magazine articles, or import album covers, and dress like they saw the artists dress. We always got to it, just later, cause it was out in the UK first.
KD: I don’t think that’s true, New York had an amazing scene where the art world, the underground cabaret, and the music world were all coming together. There was a club called “Club 57” it was in the basement of a church, my wife used to go there. They had an art exhibit about it a few years ago, and we went to the opening, and what it showed me was this club culture in the late 1970s early 80s, and what the New York scene did better than what happened in London was they integrated the art world. At Club 57 one of the guys working the bar was Jean-Michelle Basquiat and the other was Keith Herring, and they were artists, and they hung their art that you could buy, at the bar. These places had lots of artists all working and starting there, along with clubs like the Pyramid, and the Palladium. And there was this scene going on in New York that we just didn’t know about in London, it was pre-internet. So we heard about it happening in New York 6 months later after it had all changed. I think that if we had the kind of communication then that we do now, we would have had this mutually uplifting scene. I’m sure that today there are really cool things going on in Jakarta or China that we don’t know about that hopefully are percolating and creating that next wave of youth culture.
JH: I remember you saying recently that with the internet and the DIY world, for the young gay kid out there, we are on the verge of another “Andy Warhol” moment.
KD: Yeah, what is interesting about society today is that we are all interconnected via social media, which is great, but it doesn’t give time for things to gestate. It sort of happens and is over quickly, Andy Warhol said everybody would be famous for fifteen minutes, today it’s for fifteen seconds. The downside of that is that someone could take that fifteen seconds, and make a career out of that, but be seen as exposed too soon and then deemed sort of “over” amongst their peers, and in more mainstream society and I think it’s hard for a music artist, for example, to look at the long term career, of someone like U2, because they are exposed to the bright lights of celebrity very quickly, and then be deemed “over” because of cancel culture, on the extreme left or right, and be canceled rather quickly. I think young people are under that spotlight. You do and say stupid things when you are a kid, it’s part of growing up. It was funny when I was a kid in school, I was about 16, I went to this gay club, and this guy was the school bully he showed up. He came and asked, “What are you doing here?” I said “What are YOU doing here”, and he said, “Well, I can’t really be myself, and I have to have this tough image”. I felt really terrible for the guy then, but I think kids even today have to have a front, and an image in media, and social media, and be themselves behind the scenes.
JH: So in your book who were some of the big names you have designed for? I mean, from the toes to the hair you have done it all. How many pictures of David Bowie can you have?
KD: When I was about 12 years old, I worshiped David Bowie, but he was only a part of the pop music I was listening to, but I was also buying albums buy “The Sweet”, Marc Bolan, and “Slade” all those glam rock bands of the early 70s. I would glue glitter on my jacket even. But I didn’t “GET” Bowie until a couple of years later, about 75 when I started listening to Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. And I got the New York Dolls albums on vinyl, and that was where I started to get Bowie, and he was a great teacher to young people, he was always name-checking people like the beat writers, Jack Kerouac and William Burrows, so many things I learned about from David Bowie. I learned about fashion and performance art from Bowie, and then I got to meet Bowie and then he told me he didn’t like fashion. I know he was lying through his teeth.
JH: Did you ever work with Grace Jones?
KD: I never did work with Grace, I did one show called “The Chocolate Club” it was funded by the chocolate lobby, for that show you had to create a garment of chocolate, and I had this friend who worked for me as a sort of “Grace Jones” look alike. We had to keep the girl slightly frozen. We did try to get Grace one time, her publicist said that Grace is really difficult?
JH: Did you ever work with Madonna? Or any other musicians.
KD: I did with Gwen Stefani, but never did work with Madonna, though my wife knows her, she knew her in the early days. Madonna was great, she took that Paris high fashion runway and brought it into the streets. Along with that, today all of the fashion boutiques don’t exist, and you have these fantastic designers doing it all online, and the question is “how are you going to be heard above all other noise?” you have to be heard, the traditional way was to get readership in a magazine. That was a formula, that would still work if the stores were there to support it. Bowie said to me once, you HAVE to cross over into the mainstream and be seen, you can retreat into the “Cult” status if you kept your audience, if you were TOO far into the mainstream, you left them behind. When you’re back on your heels the people who keep you through that are the cult following. Nick Jonas doesn’t have that, it doesn’t matter how much he spins his celebrity, he doesn’t have the cult audience that Lady Gaga has. It’s important to know that.
JH: So, what’s on the calendar for you then?
KD: On the 22nd of March, I am doing a show in the retail area of Palm Desert, it’s the 15th-anniversary fashion show. Every night there is a show, they have major brands, and I am doing “Rebels on the Runway” this rebellious Rock and Roll Fashion show. With a soundtrack of full-on Rock and Roll, I haven’t done a runway show for a few, it’s really a privilege to get back out to do a fashion show in front of these people. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
JH: That does sound like a LOT of fun. I hope you have a great turnout, thanks for your time Keanan.
The Full audio of this interview can be heard here.