Interview: Gene Krell, a life in clothing

Wednesday, July 31st 2019
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Gene Krell is a legend. Today the international fashion director for GQ and Vogue in Japan, he ran the seminal glam and dandyism shop Granny Takes a Trip from 1969 and later worked with Vivienne Westwood. He is a punk, a buddhist and a philanthropist.

But none of that seems that relevant to why it’s so enjoyable talking to him, today. Gene is hysterically funny, incredibly generous, and fascinating to listen to about menswear.

I say listen to, because as anyone that’s chatted to Gene will know, sometimes it can be hard to get a word in edgeways. But it hardly matters when the conversation is about making silk shirts for Marcello Mastroianni, the horror of best-dressed lists, and wearing berets in the rain.

This is a small extract from our conversation last month in Tokyo.  

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Gene, your history is in counter-cultural clothing, yet you’re never out of a jacket and tie. Why?

I’m motivated by the single mantra that it’s not what you do, but the reasons behind why you do it. So the clothing doesn’t matter, but doing it deliberately, for a reason. I’ll put the garbage out today in a tie because that’s how I want to appear.

My grandfather taught me that – he grew up very poor in Sicily. And I always used to admire guys like Alexander Haig – terrible man, great style – he used to have three suits when he travelled by plane: one when got on, another on it, and one more to wear when he got off.

A lot of people used to do that in the jet set too, have clothes brought to the plane for them to wear when they disembarked. Or have them pressed on the plane.

I’m covered in tattoos, all over, but that’s not something anyone in the world has to know. It’s up to me.

I remember once I was travelling to the US, and going surfing so I wasn’t wearing a jacket and tie. The security guys at the airport saw me, all the tattoos, and they asked where I was staying. When I said I was staying with friends, they replied ‘so you have no fixed abode?’ And then I had to go in a special room and wait – these are the effects of how you dress.

How involved are you today with modern menswear, and social media?

Not too much, I’m not involved with Pitti or anything like that. I went on Instagram because my wife said I could reach a lot of people that way, with my personal beliefs, that I could use it as a political and social outlet.

Someone contacted me on it recently, said they loved what I did and that I should have 25,000 followers rather than 3,000 - and all it would cost me was $100! But it’s about what people value from what you do, you know?

If I put up something about the number of under-nourished children in America, I get 60 likes; if I put one up about a Liverano jacket, I get 500 likes. But if those 60 people all get the message, and click the link, then the impact is huge.

Do you get asked about the interaction between fashion and charity, about having such expensive clothes and then pushing philanthropy?

Yes, that comes up a lot, but I think it’s about giving responsibly, giving a share of what you have. Every time I get a discount on clothes or on anything, I donate a share of it.

And we do things with Vogue here – we had a big party to raise money after the Haiti disaster, here at the office. We could have given more money if we’d sold the whole magazine, but what would that achieve?

I do think in the fashion industry we have a particular responsibility to the wider world. I grew up in poverty in Brooklyn - I was a boxer when I was young – and I never forget what that was like. It wasn’t like Williamsburg today – which seems to be nothing but Japanese boys sitting on the corner eating Brie…

When you come from that background, you feel you need to do something. I find Pitti and some things around it a little distasteful sometimes too. I don’t want to judge them at all - it’s not about the people – but in the abstract I find it odd. I couldn’t imagine the fakery of sitting on the wall and waiting for someone to take your photo.

I was filming this documentary recently, and a lot of the kids that were there, they went out and dressed up as me, I think because they knew about the punk thing, my association with Malcolm [Mclaren, Sex Pistols manager among other things] – may he rest in peace.

They all went to the thrift store and bought these suits, these big ties that said Atlantic City and things on them. It was fabulous. If any of the people here at the magazine had seen it, they would have thought they were hot – it would have been the new trend.

How much do you follow trends?

My problem, at this stage in my life, is I feel I’ve seen too much. I saw it all at the beginning, it feels like, when everything was started. I’ve seen that and then everything go round and round since.

It’s hard to look at anything and not feel that I’ve seen it somewhere before. That’s one reason – another reason – I nearly always wear a shirt and tie. It feels more universal.

Do you think clothing today is particularly bad in that respect, a lack of originality?

The biggest thing that strikes me today is how the clothes seem divorced from the culture as a whole – it all seems rather one-dimensional.

Back when I first started, there was a scene, a society. People would pop in to see Malcolm and talk about the restaurants that were happening, about some guy that was selling off old clothes and they were merging into their wardrobes.

It was organic and it was real. It’s hard to see a connection between most trends today and that kind of atmosphere.

Do you feel punk specifically has been watered down that way?

Yes, I think you saw that in particular with the punk theme at the Met Ball.

People asked me what I thought, and I said it had more to do with Halloween than with punk. Let’s face it, Anne Hathaway is not the first person you think about when you think about punk, is it?

I found it interesting walking through Harajuku today, that all the shops for teenagers try to put on that rebellious idea. They’ll have slogans like ‘We’re the people your mother warned you about’ when they’re nothing of the sort. The attitude has been co-opted.

Exactly – you can’t buy punk on your mother’s credit card.

It reminds me that a while ago Bill Cunningham, the photographer - a mentor of mine - he said ‘Gene, you’re respected in the punk community, let’s go take some pictures with them’. And I thought come on, they’ll laugh at me now, this old man. But anyway, we went and we ran across this punk family and I asked if Bill could take their photo – I said he’s a genuine journalist, a historian, not some voyeur – and they said ‘Yeah sure, that’ll be a buck each’.

I said: ‘Wait, time out, is that why you’re dressed like that? To have your picture taken? You’re a disgrace to the uniform.’ And then one of the other guys recognised me, and he apologised and we had a laugh about it.

I think what you conclude is that punk always had this commercial viability, and by the time it filtered down to the masses – which I don’t mean as a pejorative term – it had already defeated its initial purpose: to make something that would create or incite change.

Does that creativity reflect in dress you admire today?

One of things I like most is guys that take our menswear clichés, the things that we’ve learnt from, and play with them.

Like Gianni Agnelli with his buttoning the shirt under his watch, and then his grandson Lapo having the clothes altered and playing around with them too. He was one of my biggest advocates, Lapo, for some reason, always encouraging me to get out there.

Even that guy at Pitti, Lino Ieluzzi, and the unbuckling of the shoes. The look isn’t my thing, but it’s those little points. Playfulness.

So it’s about how they express themselves in those quirks?

Yes, and I think it’s driven by personality as well – that’s a lot of the point. Style isn’t linear, or universal.

I have it written into my contract that I’ll never do a best dressed list in the magazine, for the same reason. I like character. I like how Tom Waits looks; I like how David Lynch looks. But would you put them on a best-dressed list? Maybe not.

It’s our originality, which is of course not dependent on economics. Anyone can have personality in that way. I love the way you’re dressed too – sorry, I don’t want it to sound condescending – but the simplicity of it, the materials.

Coco Chanel used to go up to people and thank them for being so stylish, for making the world look like that. And people would say ‘Wasn’t that Coco Chanel?’ I do it all the time now with people, thanking them.

Recently I was in the airport and I saw this guy – he was about your age, his hair was sticking out, unshaven, has this big old shirt on, sleeves rolled right up, big watch, no socks and espadrilles. Kind of like an Ibiza hippy I would call him. And he looked so good, it all worked so well.

Did you go up and tell him?

No I didn’t, that’s a good point. I was reluctant I think because he was there with his wife and they were deep in conversation.

Often it’s scary, you have to be aware of that: there’s a constant sense of peril, the person might turn round and say ‘piss off!’. But it’s easier at my age, it is, you have a certain security from it.

You can be an eccentric when you’re old?

Yeah you can, though money helps a lot with being eccentric. If you have a poor old guy with dementia no one is going to call him eccentric – it doesn’t happen like that.

But yes, I compliment people pretty routinely now. And it’s nice when it happens in reverse too.

I remember I was in Paris a while back for the shows, and it was raining as it often does. I walked through the Rivoli and bought a beret for 5 euros, stuck my wet hair up into it. Then at the show some guy says, ‘Wow, I love the beret. Now, how would you say you’re wearing it?’ I think I just smiled at him.

Would you say a principle of good dress, for you, is to not overthink it?

Yes to an extent, but I think more importantly it’s about a dialogue. It’s about trying things, putting them out there, interacting. And unfortunately Instagram and things aren’t great for that. It’s a quick, final judgment.

You need to communicate – with history, with the subcultures. You need to reflect what drives you, what motivates you.

I find it off-putting too when you see these pictures of people, and they’re in a different outfit in every single photo. I mean, the Duke of Windsor is considered by most standards one of the most stylish guys there’s ever been – and the guy owned 30 suits. By modern standards that’s not a lot; and many of them were ceremonial: tux, white tie, military dress.

When you see photos of him he’s normally in that flannel suit, the wide short tie.

Did you ever meet him?

No, but I remember Suzie Menkes saying she met him – and of course Bill knew him very well. Suzie said she was invited onto this boat of his: it was August and he was in this checked flannel suit, with a Fair Isle vest underneath. He must have been boiling, but that’s what he always wore.

It was clothing that was very personal to him

Yes - it’s personal expression that makes fashion interesting, not trends and not telling everyone what to do.

When I was growing up, the last thing anyone wanted to do was dress like their father. And now these 20-year-old kids in Japan, they want to dress like Marcello Mastroianni – who I made clothes for by the way, silk shirts if you’ll believe it.

I remember I gave the shirt order to this Italian guy who was making for us, and he thought I was joking, when he saw the name on the ticket. I had a shop that was attached to a nightclub, that’s how the connection came.

What were you saying about the 20-year-olds, that they didn’t necessarily express themselves?

No, but then again you do have to remember the context in Japan. It’s only since the adoption of American dress in the 50s that any of this has been real. They’d never seen clothes like that before. Some people say that was why the Yakuza wore high heels, because they couldn’t distinguish between male and female clothing.

It was all so new – people like Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley looked liked aliens to them. So I think you’re still seeing just this consumption of everything else, which it’s difficult to then be original with.

I remember talking to Yohji Yamamoto about this – and he said that’s why a lot of the suit sleeves in Japan are still often really long. It’s because the most glamorous thing was to go to Europe and shop, and of course the sizes were too large, so everything was big and had long sleeves.

And that became a status symbol?

Exactly, and those things still live on. Same as what I said about the Yakuza, they saw all these Princess Anne heels that came over. And it wasn’t necessarily getting anything wrong – they just saw things differently.

They saw the mules Marilyn Monroe wore and though they were sexy. You see it with the sumo wrestlers too, they wear pink and everything over the top. They don’t really make a distinction between the sexes when it comes to dress.

That’s very refreshing.

Absolutely. And I think it’s about a lack of pride too – a very Buddhist philosophy. Don’t take too much pride in what you are, be humble, try things, experiment.

A nice message to finish on, many thanks Gene.

You too Simon, thank you for your time.