Q&A: BOY London on Outfitting the Punk Movement

The legendary British streetwear brand dressed Sid Vicious, now outfits Rihanna

Rihanna, Boy George and Andy Warhol
Courtesy of BOY
Rihanna, Boy George and Andy Warhol
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For 35 years, the British streetwear brand BOY London's logo has appeared on major music players from both sides of the Atlantic, including Boy George, Madonna, Sid Vicious and Rihanna. Starting auspiciously during the late Seventies UK punk scene, BOY quickly gained notoriety and rose from a local curiosity in London to an international, anarchic symbol for willful pop youth.

After shuttering for a period in the Nineties, founder Stephane Raynor resurrected BOY recently with the help of new creative directors Gareth Emmett and Rhys Dawney (of the label Long). They have helped reinstate the brand's subversive status in the pop world. "Pop stars gravitate towards BOY the same way today as they always have and that's just part of the magic of it," Raynor says.

Rolling Stone recently spoke to Raynor, Emmett and Dawney about BOY's hellraising history, its ever-evolving pop clientele and why it's important for the young to keep commercial powers on their toes. They've also created a spiky pop mixtape for Rolling Stone that features the Damned, Billy Idol, Pet Shop Boys, the Velvet Underground and more. It cleverly chronicles the legacy of the brand; you can download it here and stream it on Spotify below.

Before you started the label, Stephane, what was your role in the London art and music subculture?
Raynor: Before BOY, I ran fashion label Acme Attractions. It was the beginning of my life. The Acme shop was the sharpest place to be on the planet, managed by Don Letts [punk DJ and filmmaker] and Jeanette Lee [ex-member of Public Image Ltd.]. It wasn't just a place for clothes but a place for everyone to get together. On any given day, you could find Bob Marley, Billy Idol or Chrissie Hynde just sitting around on the floor. Along with importing the best dub sounds never heard before in the UK, the shop became a place of worship for the style kids of London. At that time, my association with Billy Idol was already pushing towards the dawn of punk and the creation of BOY.

What was your relationship to Malcolm McLaren in those early days?
Raynor: I went with a few guys and Malcolm down to Kings Road to look at a shop he wanted to open, which soon afterwards became the legendary Let It Rock. I started by selling Fifties clothing to him. The shop itself was amazing. It had Bakerlight radios outside and inside it was like a scene from a Dickens novel with Teddy Boys combing their hair, dwarves, circus freaks and half-naked girls in latex… It was superb.

What led to you officially start the BOY brand?
Raynor: Acme days were over, and it was time to move on up. So we decided we wanted to leave our basement and appear on the Kings Road. We called the new shop BOY and it caused a big reaction as most shops back then were called things like Jean Machine and the staff had afro hair. At the time, people didn't understand it at all, with the Pistols blaring from the stereo and Doc Martins nailed to the walls. It was pure black and chrome decadence. Decades on, it became regarded as "art."

What are some of BOY's most infamous moments?
Raynor: The shop being raided by police on the first day of opening, getting arrested for various offenses, windows being smashed, the enraged public, Sid Vicious coming in wearing high heels and tourists being afraid to come into the shop in case they got spat on. BOY had a great reputation!

What was a breakthrough moment when you realized the brand was a true phenomenon?
Raynor: When you're too close to it, you never recognize your own success. There was Madonna phoning, Blondie, Elton John, Andy Warhol: the whole world came to the BOY party. According to my P.A. at the time, we dressed every great celebrity and pop star there was. Everyone wore BOY. There was a famous photographer outside the shop once stopping traffic and suddenly it occurred to me then we were popular.

Why is there such a strong musical affiliation with the brand, and did you anticipate that?
Raynor: From the beginning of the pop explosion, music and fashion were inseparable. Stars of the dance floor, kids looking cool, bands, pop videos, drugs and more drugs: this is the story of my life and it couldn't be any other way. It's what got me hooked; it's my heroin. It's what everyone in the world is looking towards. We created it and I live it every fucking day of my life.

Who were some of the first musicians to wear the brand and how did they wear it?
Raynor: Here's a list of just some of them: Madonna, Pet Shop Boys, Billy Idol, Depeche Mode, Whitney Houston, Throbbing Gristle. Boy George wore it as a uniform. Some wore it well, some with pride, some with anger, some to be loved, some because they believed in it, some to be noticed, some got forgotten, some for publicity, some to be cool and some are dead.

Why did the brand become intrinsically linked to Boy George?
Raynor: In the late Seventies, George was starting to get noticed and I was involved in the creation of the New Romantics, along with the Blitz Club and my shop staff, Steve Strange and Princess Julia. George wanted to create a stronger identity, and as he was called Boy George, BOY seemed to be the perfect choice. George, being George, took it to the extreme, wearing BOY day and night in public appearances, shoots and music videos – so much so that people thought he owned the label!

You also see a lot of photos of Pet Shop Boys in BOY regalia.
Raynor: Pet Shop Boys had a massive impact on the world when they released "West End Girls"  and again seemed to be drawn to the label. They subsequently wore BOY stuff everywhere and their influence on promoting the brand seemed to seal BOY's fate as being recognized as a super brand. Funnily enough, they walked past me in my car the other day and I thought, 'That's strange. I'm just doing a Q&A for Rolling Stone and there's the Pet Shop Boys.' Things happen to me like that all the time.

How did you evolve the BOY brand in the Nineties?
Raynor: BOY defined the style of the acid house era and kickstarted the smiley craze with its shop in London's Carnaby Street. It dressed the crowds for the Summer of Love in Ibiza and was even there at the birth of Britpop. Then it went under concrete, but that's another story.

Watch BOY London's notorious "Acid Smiley" promo:


How did you get a new generation of pop stars like Rihanna to pay attention to and adore the brand?

Raynor: We didn't! Throughout the history of BOY, no pop star or celebrity has ever been targeted by us or paid to wear the brand. Pop stars gravitate towards BOY the same way today as they always have and that's just part of the magic of it.  Meeting the Long Boys [Gareth Emmett and Rhys Dawney] was the best move I've made this decade. Their determination to resurrect BOY was unstoppable and they propelled the brand into 2012. My meetings with Rihanna's team afterwards helped secure our position not just in London, but in the world.

Rhys and Gareth, what has it been like taking on the roles as new Creative Directors to help relaunch BOY London?
Dawney: First and foremost, we're both huge fans of the brand so it was an honor to be a part of it.
Emmett:
We just wanted to do BOY justice and put it back on the map as one of the most iconic fashion brands on the planet.

Is the Internet and its early adopters a big part of BOY's marketing approach now?
Dawney: The Internet has played a huge part in BOY's comeback. It's the first fashion brand to be resurrected by public demand on the internet and now it's taking over.
Raynor: You can't fully understand BOY from just seeing it on a rail in a shop; you need to be immersed in it.

What do you think of the Tumblr kid phenomena? The "Y2K" kids? Do you connect with the so-called "Y2K Kids?"
Emmett: It makes sense. The Internet empowers people, especially young people, to do whatever they want. The commercial world can't get its head around what's happening on the Internet and it can't keep up with it either, which is how it should be.

Does BOY consider itself a subcultural staple, and what does that mean in 2012?
Dawney: BOY is a story that just keeps on going. It's been a part of every youth movement that's mattered since the Seventies and has out lived them all.
Raynor: BOY helped create fashion subculture. It's one of the reasons all fashion youth of today – gay, indie, cult, goth, fashionista, MTV and club kids – even exist.

What are the hallmarks of the BOY style in 2012, and how do those relate and differentiate from those back in the early days?
Emmett: BOY lends itself to so many different styles and subcultures, it's impossible to say. Ultimately, it's all about how you wear it as an individual. You have to have the confidence; otherwise you won't pull it off. I think in a lot of ways, people are still intimidated by the brand today, the same as they were when it first came out.
Raynor: BOY is a masterpiece that will never be repeated; it's like a punk Coco Chanel. It's immortalized in the Hall of Fame and everyone wants a piece of it. There is nothing to compare it with; it's pure art history and people can feel that even in 2012. I get comments like, "I don't know what it is but I heard about it and I want it."

How actively are you involved in London musical and nightlife now?
Dawney: Very involved. We DJ [as LONG X DJ] all around London as well as putting on our own CLUB BOY events and fashion parties. The last club night we did was actually in Hollywood, but we've got a pretty exciting event coming up in London for our next fashion collaboration, too.

How does BOY endeavor to keep the value of its brand distinct and separate from the swaths of street labels who claim to be "musically indebted?"
Dawney: BOY, for better or worse, is woven into the fabric of popular music culture. It doesn't claim to be anything, it just is and that can't be explained.

Do you find the band/brand collaborations that go on constantly nowadays a case of overbranding, or is it wise?
Emmett: It's the future. Collaborations open your brand up to new audiences as well as cement your place in popular culture forever. Anyone who doesn't understand that will ultimately get left behind.

BOY London's Spotify Playlist: