Music legend Don Letts is sitting inside one of the design studios at Central Saint Martins. It is an unexpected place to find the man who is credited for bringing together Punk and Reggae music. He is dressed entirely in Nicholas Daley’s graduate collection – which references the very subculture that Letts was so involved in – and immediately it all begins to make sense. On top of one of the worktops sits a photocopy of the iconic photograph of Bob Marley standing next to Letts – it’s a powerful image and something that became a starting point for Daley’s own collection.
The thing that sets Daley apart is from other designers who have explored the same subculture is subtlety. His collection wasn’t based around a DIY aesthesic, nor was it highly abrasive; instead it was refined, considered and focused on the wearer. That being said, it captured the spirit of an era that was defined by an exploration of identity. A period that Don describes as “confusing.” But through the style and music that emerged from that scene, he considers a time where “we kind of found a way to express the duality of our existence which was black and British.” After Daley’s graduate show, where Letts charmed us on the runway, we spoke to the duo about their collaboration, Letts’s soundtrack for the collection and looking back at the past.
Below we exclusively stream Don Letts’s soundtrack for Nicholas Daley’s collection
Dazed Digital: Nicolas, why did choose Don as a muse for your collection?
Nicholas Daley: I began researching all these old photographs of the British Punk movement and I noticed this guy with dreads and thought, who is he? I had heard of Don Letts, but I had never really looked into his whole punk dread scene. Don was at the epicenter of that scene and what was going on with The Clash, so I thought he would be a great guy to use as a muse for the collection.
The whole Punk Rock thing? Let’s set the scene: we’re talking mid 70s, a lot of social crises, mass unemployment, strikes - black people already felt alienated, but by the mid 70s, society had managed to alienate its own white youth and they were looking for a new way to express themselves – the music was so removed from their own day-to-day experience, and one of the ways to create an identity for themselves was through Punk music and then once again, with that music, came a look.
DD: It was a scene that really represented the strong connections between music and style. I guess it was something that first came about in a big way during the 70s and then more so in the 80s…
Don Letts: Yes, but it’s always been a part of the tradition of English music - I mean the two are integral to each other - it’s a very British thing and ever since Rock n roll hit in ‘56 its been integral. The two things enhance each other.
DD: And when did you start realising there was this big connection there?
Don Letts: Realising it? For certain people it’s part of our DNA. If you look at pictures of Jamaicans – look at the guys that came over in the Windrush, they weren’t wearing loincloths. They had dapper suits, and we’re talking almost like Zoot suits and Gabardine Slacks and things like that its just an inherent part of my blackness, baby…
DD: It would be really nice to hear you talk about some of those memories…
Don Letts: You’ve got to put it in some kind of context – you’ve got to understand that I’m what’s called, first generation English born black and it kind of rolls of the tongue now doesn’t it? But when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, this was a really confusing concept – trust me. We kind of looked at America but we weren’t really American, we looked at Jamaica but we weren’t really that, we were this new hybrid and it didn’t really start to make sense until the advent something like Soul II Soul and all of a sudden we kind of found a way to express the duality of our existence which was black and British. One of the ways we did it was through music but the other way we did it was through style and we cherry-picked stuff from the Caribbean and America and other places and made it our own.
DD: Can we talk specifically about The Roxy?
Don Letts: The whole Punk Rock thing? Let’s set the scene: we’re talking mid 70s, a lot of social crises, mass unemployment, strikes - black people already felt alienated, but by the mid 70s, society had managed to alienate its own white youth and they were looking for a new way to express themselves – the music was so removed from their own day-to-day experience, and one of the ways to create an identity for themselves was through Punk music and then once again, with that music, came a look. It was basically a DIY thing and Punk cherry-picked from the last 50 years of popular culture but came up with a distinct identity that wasn’t slavishly copying all that went before – there was a lot of self-interpretation. A lot of people say Punk was about negativity and nihilism but it wasn’t, it was about freedom and individuality.
DD: When Nicolas first got in touch with you, what was your reaction?
Don Letts: That’s easy! I’m not up my arse enough to not appreciate that I’ve made a connection with someone who’s two or three generations removed from me. A lot of people come and go on this planet and don’t make a connection with anybody so I’m impressed that anybody gives a fuck in the first place. But it also speaks volumes form my cultural journey because when I started this shit, I was one of the first generation of British-born black’s to break out of that whole thing about what black people are ‘supposed’ to do.
Nicholas Daley: Yeah definitely!
Don Letts: To me, I’m obviously black it’s not something that I have to prove and that’s what I saw in his work he wasn’t trying to be black – he decides what black is – it’s not what other people say it is and that’s something I spent my whole life doing, you know, making my own decisions as to what Don can and can’t do. So there’s a little bit of a mutual benefit – I get to find out what’s going on in the young people’s heads and I guess I’m turning them on from my experiences and I guess at the end of the day it’s all about turning people on. I didn’t come out of a void, other people turned me on and created this person that’s Don Letts is. With any luck I can do the same to another generation and I’m not trying to be a sports teacher here it’s just something you do intuitively and then with any luck, if it’s any good it will resonate with other people and if its really good it might resonate with other generations. What I’m trying to say is that I’m touched he gave a shit about Don Letts.
Nicholas Daley: Yeah, of course!
Don Letts: I mean, I’m the daddy! I mean I’m literally old enough to be his daddy, you know what I’m saying? So yeah I’m touched to have had a part in his story.
Nicholas Daley: As Don was saying, I just clearly identified seeing Don all those years ago and my own style and who I was, and seeing people around Dalston or whatever and I still feel I could really connect with Don and his style and the music and I thought it was important to hold on to that. I mean the fabrics were made here by Vanners and the hats were made by Christy's, one of the oldest hat maker’s. Even the Macintoshes were made by a factory in Manchester and they’ve been making Macs for years and years.
Don Letts: He wasn’t looking at New York – he was looking right here in the UK!
Reading Don’s book, Culture Clash was one of my big influences. And even the name itself, was something that caught me straight away and what I was trying to do in my collection was fusing all these British brands and companies that I’m working with whilst still incorporating the kind of Jamaican yardy feeling. I just wanted to be as genuine as possible and – that was my main thing, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. Obviously meeting Don was the icing on the cake completely ‘cus this guy is walking history!
Nicholas Daley: Yeah exactly - I think there’s a lot of designers where it’s a bit all over the place and I just wanted to keep it as genuine as possible. I mean, I plan to wear the majority of my collection and obviously you have like minded people like Don and the rest of my models to wear it ‘cus I think it’s important.
Don Letts: You know what I like about this collection? You can feel proud to be black and British ‘cus the truth of the matter is I’m really proud of that fact – there’s s lot of shit that you guys have come up with that I dig besides a cup of tea. I mean there’s some bad shit as well but yeah I dig it, Don Letts wouldn’t be the man he is today without a lot of that funky Caucasian input. There’s a bit of red, gold and green in the old red, white and blue!
Nicholas Daley: Exactly, exactly and I think that’s exactly what we have here in Britain that’s the most important thing, it’s that whole multi-cultural contribution. That’s exactly what I wanted to express in the collection.
Don Letts: That’s a good point – it’s a good sort of music, which is why I love this town! I really think it’s the people that embrace multiculturalism that will survive.
DD: Don, what other stuff are you working on at the moment?
Don Letts: Well, like everybody else, I’m out hustlin’! I’m serious – and the end of the day I’m hustling. There’s a glamorous hustle.
DD: You should always be glamorous!
Don Letts: I’m still making films, I’ve still got a radio show on BBC 6 Music and Clash radio and I’m still DJing nationally and internationally. I’ve actually just finished a four-part series about the Royal Family through the work of this photographer that’s been taking pictures of them for years.
DD: What photographer?
Don Letts: His name’s Kent Gavin. If you know anything about Don Letts you’ll know its very out of Don Letts’s comfort zone but I felt like I had to push the envelope – I can’t believe I just said that! And push out of my comfort zone, but you know what? I’m really pleased with the result.
DD: Can we talk a bit more about your film work on the sub-cultures of fashion. I know they were a bit influence on you Nicolas…
Nicholas Daley: I watched Don’s subculture films. They were all really relevant to what I was trying to get at.
Don Letts: I mean, unbeknown to me, without really thinking about it, a lot of my films obviously are integrally tied to music and to fashion. So the Punk rock movie…
Nicholas Daley: Yeah, which I watched as well.
Don Letts: It was the first Punk movie of its kind at the time and has a lot of fashion tips if you’re that way inclined, but that’s not why I did it. I was inspired by the whole DIY thing and expressing yourself. I made a feature film called Dancehall Queen – I don’t know if you’re familiar with that – but in Jamaica it’s the number one movie Rasta! It was very of its time and shot in the late ’90 in the advent of the whole dancehall thing and if you want to talk about extreme fashions, serious ‘Ghetto Bling’, check out Dance Hall Queen. What else is there? Subcultures…
Nicholas Daley: The subcultures thing is really good!
Don Letts: I flagged that up ‘cus I’m really proud of that, 6-part series that I did for Fred Perry on their website and it looks at all the subcultures. British youth cultural movements since its birth, which I really indentified with the late fifties and the Teddy Boys right up to it’s death as I’ve identified it in the late 90’s. Yeah 6-part series, I’m really proud of that and that’s all about fashion and music…
Nicholas Daley: Yeah they’re really great.
Don Letts: I highly recommend it if I can say so myself! But not because I made it. I’ll tell you why because this thing that the British do so damn well isn’t done all around the world. Trust me, I’ve been around the place a few times and it is something that’s very special and something that’s informed the person that I am today. For whatever reason it’s doesn’t’ really exist like it did back then – it kind of died out at the end of the 90’s as we approached the 21st century. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing I’m just stating a fact, but I’m old enough to remember everyone of them being affected by it, literally every single one of them, even the God damn Teddy boys!
DD: Which subculture has the biggest influence on you?
Don Letts: Obviously Punk, but then people don’t realize that the skin-head movement – and I’m talking about the fashion version not the fascist version – was a major thing in this country when the white kids were looking to the West Indies, particularly Jamaica it has to be said, for their style tips – the trilby hats, the two tone suits, the slightly raised trousers where all Jamaican. So I mean the whole skin-head Ska movement had a big part to play in fashion and then punk really. But also people don’t realize how big the whole Soul Boy scene was because before Punk Rock, for most working class white kids in the UK, it was the soul scene. In fact there was a bit of an overlap in ’75 and ’76 you could to clubs and see Soul Boys and Punks Rockers dancing together. So the Soul Boy scene has a major impact and then Rave came along and killed it all. Style I’m talking about - to be honest, how stylish can you be when you’re sweating you’re bollocks off in a muddy field?
Nicholas Daley: Exactly!
DD: How did you interest in fashion develop?
Don Letts: I left school and started working in the King’s Road in Chelsea, and my initial influence that rode into being the Don I am today, whatever that means, was through fashion. I used to run a shop that you should look up called Acme Attractions and this is back in the day when there where two hip shops on the King’s Road: my shop and Vivienne and Malcom’s shop down the road called Sex. This is the time when shops were the kind of hip places to hang out, they weren’t just a place were you bought clothes, they were a place where like-minded, alienated people hung-out and through that interaction, other ideas would spring and one of them was Punk rock. People don’t realise that some of that shit emanated from two shops; mostly Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne’s shop, the other was my shop. Vivenne’s and Malcom’s shop was more…
Nicolas Daley: It was very aggressive…
Don Letts: Well I tell you what, it was bloody expensive! In Vivienne’s shop a pair of trousers were 50 quid and in my shop a pair of fluorescent pink Zoot Suit trousers were 15 quid, Rasta! But Vivienne and Malcom’s stuff, as brilliant as it was, it was clothes as art – very Eurocentric, whilst Acne Attractions signposted the multi-cultural way London was heading and that’s what I’m all about. Culture clash!
Nicolas Daley: Reading Don’s book, Culture Clash was one of my big influences. And even the name itself, was something that caught me straight away and what I was trying to do in my collection was fusing all these British brands and companies that I’m working with whilst still incorporating the kind of Jamaican yardy feeling. I just wanted to be as genuine as possible and – that was my main thing, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. Obviously meeting Don was the icing on the cake completely ‘cus this guy is walking history!
Don Letts: I liked it when people were asking Nicolas: “who’s the old guy on stage?”
Nicholas Daley: I was like: that’s my Dad!
Don Letts: See told you, I’m the Daddy! My mates call me The Don, but my mates call me, “The Daddy!”