- TextHynam Kendall
Once favoured by the likes of Sid Vicious, Viv Albertine and Debbie Harry, The London Leatherman is back – ahead of London Fashion Week Men’s, Hynam Kendall meets the man behind its renaissance
The London Leatherman – whose lesser-used alter ego was simply “Ken” – was arguably the harbinger of cool in London throughout the 70s and 80s, dressing The Sex Pistols from their very inception, as well as Debbie Harry, Viv Albertine and every other rock and punk icon of the era. He supplied Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Chelsea Sex boutique with their leathers, and even created the fated zip-mouthed mask worn by the Cambridge Rapist throughout his two-year manhunt. Ken’s is a tale that starts in underground queer fetish wear, moves on to dominating the punk scene aesthetic and then… well, limbo. After passing away in the early 90s, Ken’s The London Leatherman label disappeared, almost overnight. This year, however, that all looks set to change with fashion entrepreneur Dave Carroll’s relaunch of the brand. Here, Carroll talks us through its rich, offensive and bafflingly somewhat-forgotten legacy.
The London Leatherman Archive
Your history with The London Leatherman label spans right back to its beginnings, because your mother worked for Ken.
Dave Carroll: Yeah, I grew up in a very working-class area where it was clothing factories all around, and when there was the recession in the 70s they all closed down. Before that happened, my mum used to make trousers for the British army, but then nothing. So she ended up taking on work with this little leather shop that at that point wasn’t really known about. It was a store at this point, but very underground, and back then it was proper gay fetish stuff. But I didn’t have a clue what ‘gay’ was. As a kid, I would sit at home watching TV whilst my mum was at the table making leather jockstraps, they’d get put into bags for me and I’d walk round the corner and deliver them. I never thought anything of it. I’d describe the shop as mind-blowing; [Ken] had done out the front like a sauna with a little window, and in the window was a leather mask. People would walk past and think ‘What the fuck is that!’ They were freaked out.
But after a while, you started to take an interest in the clothing itself?
Dave Carroll: It was probably around 1978 when I’d have been 13. Punk was happening then and I was taking notice – Ken picked up on it. One day he said, ‘Your mum said you want this and this,’ and I ended up with a studded wristband and a belt. And then that was it: I’d arrived! During the six-week school holiday I started going down the Kings Road and the older kids all thought I knew everything because I had my London Leatherman gear on. I passed for older because of it too. He didn’t start out as a punk shop but he became a punk shop. He was doing everything for Malcolm McLaren at that time, who basically, looking back, nicked the whole fucking idea from Ken. Malcolm’s shop started as a 1950s Teddy Boy shop, it wasn’t until he discovered Ken that Malcolm started with the leather masks, leather belts, zips on everything.
To clarify, did Malcolm McLaren recreate The London Leatherman pieces, or was he buying it from The London Leatherman and re-selling it?
Dave Carroll: He was buying it and reselling, some of the garments even had twin tags in – both The London Leatherman and Sex tags. He’d go to Ken and say, ‘Can I get 20 of these, and put these labels in,’ and Ken would do it. At the time The London Leatherman was really shifting lots of stuff already by itself, but most of it was going to San Francisco because of the gay scene out there. This was still, despite accidently falling into punk, a gay fetish store. You know, it was a very discerning audience in San Francisco and they wanted the quality. He would use the same hide skins that Rolls Royce used for its cars, really thick leather. And they wanted his trousers because motorcycle trousers go baggy.
The difference being that The London Leatherman’s trousers had no lining, right?
Dave Carroll: Exactly, so they fitted like a second skin. It was like trying to recreate the Tom of Finland look, which was the defining look for the leather scene in the end. It was the fetish leather that was Ken’s real passion, the punk icon status came by accident. And he never really got where we were coming from – he’d say, ‘what the fucking hell have you done to your hair!’ He could never get his head around it.
The store was often at the centre of controversy. I remember hearing about a lot of raids, and there is still a t-shirt in the V&A brandishing an image of The London Leatherman’s leather mask from the shop window, because it ended up becoming the mask worn by the Cambridge Rapist. I remember seeing the mask in the window and then one day it was just gone.
But growing up and being into clothes, all the shops I liked got raided by the police all the time. I remember one time me and three other boys from the youth club were buying t-shirts from McLaren’s shop, and as we walked out a policeman threw us up against the wall. He opens up our bags – brown paper bags like you’d get in a sex shop, that was the idea – and he looked at mine, which was an ‘Anarchy in the UK’ union jack top, and he threw it back at me. My mates’ shirts were a cowboy one with two guys with their cocks out and one with Mickey Mouse fucking Minnie. He said, ‘If I ever see you walking along in that you’re nicked!’ It was offensive material displayed in a public place, you see. I miss that. Being able to buy a t-shirt and get fucking arrested for it. It was McLaren that sold those t-shirts with Ken’s mask on it.
Did your friendship with Ken last all the way up to his passing?
Dave Carroll: We lost touch for a bit when I stopped being punk. I was dressing up like a pirate at one point, but then got back into the bike and rocker thing in ‘85, so we reconnected. We were in each other’s lives on and off like that. And my mum worked on and off for him for the whole time he was selling. I think his business waned off by mid-to-late 80s because other people started making similar stuff. And after rock was the goth scene, and after that leather wasn’t so much a scene anymore. But his customers always kept their pieces. It wasn’t something you threw away. In my 20s I was in a band called The Pocket Rockets and we went on tour with the Chiefs of Relief, which had Paul Cook from The Sex Pistols in. I remember being in the dressing room and I had my leathers on and he went, ‘Oh my god, that’s The London Leatherman!’
Virtually nothing is known about The London Leatherman from the 90s to now, did it continue on in any form?
Dave Carroll: No, only via collectors. When Ken passed away in ‘92 the business just stopped. No one took it on. I started buying and selling on Portobello Road, dealing in clothes and I’d hear people talk about it. And then last year, in 2018, thanks to the internet, collectors started reaching out, searching, looking for pieces. The internet gave it a second life and that’s what spurred me on to do it, to relaunch it. I’m sure others thought about it – but I grew up in it, I remember Ken personally teaching me how it should fit, should feel. I know the history of it – and it’s my history.
Shop The London Leatherman here