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Was Joe Corré right to burn his £5m punk archive?

This weekend, the son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren controversially torched his collection – we watched it happen

What’s the symbolic value of clothing? This is the question that’s been at the heart of the controversial decision made by Joe Corré, son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren, to burn his archive of rare punk memorabilia. Announced back in March, the widely derided proposal to destroy his £5m collection – including trousers belonging to Johnny Rotten and early pieces from his parents’ iconic SEX boutique – came in response to London’s 40 Years of Punk celebrations.

Marking four decades since The Sex Pistols released their first single “Anarchy in the UK”, over the course of 2016, institutions have paid tribute to punk through exhibitions, talks and workshops. Or, in Corré’s words, “punk has become like a fucking museum piece or a tribute act.” In the face of the movement’s total assimilation into the cultural canon (the official punk season was apparently given the green light by none other than her Majesty, famously the subject of the Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”), he claims that the objects in his possession no longer stand for anything. And while he seems to have pissed off a hell of a lot of people, he might have a point.

Saturday was the anniversary of the release of “Anarchy”, and the day marked out for the burning. To say it was relentlessly publicised is an understatement – over the course of a week, around a dozen bulletin emails were sent out by a (not desperately punk) PR team hired by Corré, promoting a press conference and detailing the preliminary burning of a God Save the Queen t-shirt and original Anarchy in the UK record. As for the main event, the (secret) location, revealed only to press on the day, was a boat off Chelsea’s Cadogan pier – decorated with theatrical grim reapers and a large version of Vivienne Westwood’s Climate Revolution map, displaying which parts of earth will be underwater if humanity doesn’t change its ways. A white curtain was hung on a platform, which dropped to reveal dummies (including Theresa May, Boris Johnson and David Cameron) dressed in the archive.

Corré himself appeared, welcoming those who had gathered on the bank, and began railing against the co-opting and commercialisation of punk. “Punk has become another marketing tool to sell you something you don’t need,” he said. “The illusion of an alternative choice. Conformity in another uniform.” After igniting a chest of merchandise, he set off firecrackers which lit the effigies, sending fireworks streaming into the dusk. As the crowd watched the clothes burn, Corré declared that the original movement “provided an opportunity for the no future generation of the 1970s” – that it was about DIY, a spirit rather than something tangible, and that it was never, ever supposed to be nostalgic. He also revealed a bigger message behind the event – gesturing to the map, he discussed the dangers of climate change, blaming bankers and global corporations for wreaking havoc on the planet.

After the burning, his mother Vivienne appeared, leaning out the top deck of a double decker bus. Although she didn’t directly address her son’s actions, her presence suggested a kind of unspoken approval. The designer criticised corporate greed and the political elites, urging people to switch to green electricity. If you can ignore the irony of burning things to raise awareness for the environment, it was clear there was an attempt to leverage the eyes of the media towards a worthwhile cause. “I never knew what to say before, ever since punk,” she admitted. “We never had a strategy then, that’s why we never got anywhere.” In last week’s press conference, Corré admitted his decision had sparked some frank discussions with his mother about home truths – after all, Westwood is an incredibly profitable business to have come from the punk, if an ethically conscious one.

The pier chosen was a short walk from the King’s Road, where Westwood and McLaren opened up shop and started a revolution that would forever change fashion – pre-burn, I dropped £9 on a croissant and coffee in a bougie cafe chain there. Times change, and in the decades since those early SEX days, punk has, in effect, become a parody of itself. Take one of the swastika t-shirts that went up in the blaze. When the anarchist punks first appropriated the Nazi symbol, it was regarded as the most shocking statement that could be made with clothing – a total rejection of British politeness and post-war pride. Today, considering the modern resurgence of the far right, that logo has reverted to a sign of hate rather than one of protest.

So what happens when the original symbolic power of an item like a swastika t-shirt is lost? The meaning of the object changes – it slips into history, becomes a relic of days now past. What it stood for is gone, and gone for good. So what’s it worth, really? How do you honour its original intent? In the case of punk, destruction can seem like a fitting legacy. Whatever else they were (attention-hungry, a toys-out-of-the-pram tantrum, maybe), Corré’s actions were a fundamental rejection of nostalgia; his refusal to ascribe value to these artefacts may have been the only truly punk thing he could have done with them.

That’s not to say the criticisms levelled against him weren’t valid – why not sell the goods and donate the money to charity? (So they can end up on a banker’s wall? He responded. No thanks.) Or he could have allowed them to go to a museum, to be archived as history. But that’s the kind of establishment approval that punk was against – these clothes were created to shock and rebel, not to be looked at from behind a glass cabinet or used as references for high price designer items, borrowing the trappings of punk to sell something politically toothless.

There is, however, the question of all the attention he sought to generate. To Corré’s credit, 80 per cent of proceeds from a documentary about the burning will be going to charity, but just how punk is a press release? How punk is inviting a bunch of journalists to watch your act of resistance, rather than just doing it? Why not just set your archive on fire in some lonely back lot at night? Here is perhaps the fundamental paradox of punk: its rebellion was always designed to attract attention, to spark public outrage. The Sex Pistols were punk, but they were also marketing geniuses. Johnny Rotten basically acknowledged as much with his follow-up, Public Image Ltd. Punk may have rejected nostalgia, but it wanted you to know just who it was who was doing the rejecting. In seeking to give these items a fitting punk send off, Corré was swept up in the past logic of the movement: a logic according to which you had to be shocking to get attention, in turn to reject nostalgia. You could therefore argue that the desire to make a punk gesture is itself the ultimate nostalgic indulgence.

“I never knew what to say before, ever since punk. We never had a strategy then, that’s why we never got anywhere” – Vivienne Westwood

As much as complaining about something “going mainstream” is regarded as an entirely embarrassing sentiment to share, it’s an accurate one to describe what happens to subcultures. True moments of creative and cultural resistance are fleeting. Born in the liminal spaces that make up the underground – the squats and sweaty nightclubs, photography studios, impromptu concert venues – they are moments that are definitive precisely because of their transiency. Once you become conscious of them, try to capture them, they’ve already begun to cease existing; their original spirit has changed.

Today, years on from when those era-defining moments in style and music culture were formed on the dancefloors of The Roxy, the Batcave or Blitz, authenticity is subsumed and commercialised faster than ever. DIY fashion, then a necessity, has been replaced by a sickening surplus of clothing, made cheaply overseas and sold to us as aspirational. Clubs and squats have been shut down, and now Tumblr-fetishised images of subcultures past serve only to sell us mass market homogeneity – Kurt Cobain’s thrift store shirts can be snapped up at your local Urban Outfitters. It’s easy to feel like nostalgia is all we have, easy to retreat into it instead of forging something new.

In the crowd, some recognised a familiar face – a purple haired Jordan Mooney, the punk icon who worked in SEX, starred in the films of Derek Jarman, and appeared on stage with The Sex Pistols for their first TV performance (Nazi armband et al). “It’s a state of mind,” she declared of punk, dressed in a Marlon Brando t-shirt and discussing the moment the actor refused his Oscar in protest of Hollywood’s portrayals of Native Americans as a punk act. “I really believe that it’s in your head, rather than what you look like.” Mooney, who not long ago sold items from her own rare archive, admitted that she’d had reservations about Corré’s plans, but had come around. “Good on him for doing it... I just don’t know why kids want to dress like eachother so much. I feel fearful of it, I really do. It’s just retrograde. Primark is just rags. Burn the whole lot of it down.” Like Jordan, Corré also had his mind on the youth of today, living like the punks did in an era marked by social unrest. “Confront taboos, do not tolerate hypocrisy, investigate the truth for yourself,” he instructed as the clothes burned. This is the real legacy of punk. It’s a message that’s hard to disagree with.