Words Cathi Unsworth
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“I never had the opportunity to go to university or the desire to… I became a jack-of-all-trades and wheeler-dealer.”
When Roger K. Burton first stepped inside The Horse Hospital on the Colonnade, it was not a pretty sight. “The building had been unused for about 10 years when my friend Guy Adams found it on a recce to Bloomsbury in 1993. When we first got in the door there were pigeons flying about, rats and mice everywhere and ivy growing through the collapsed roof; not to mention a thick layer of printing ink completely covering up the fabulous floor.”
By that time, Roger had made his name styling iconic music videos, and supplying original period clothes for films such as Quadrophenia, The Rutles, The Wall, Dance with A Stranger and Sid & Nancy. He had an unerring eye for detail – and the Contemporary Wardrobe, the largest youth fashion collection in the world, which had taken him an eventful lifetime to amass. Although it would take six months to get the place shipshape, he had finally found both the perfect home for his Wardrobe and the Capital’s last truly independent arts space.
Today, fashion students are flocking to The Horse to see the exhibition Rebel Threads that complements Roger’s luxurious new book, a catalogue of the collection and insider’s view of the styles that adorned successive generations of tearaways, from Spivs, Teds and Mods to Skinheads and Punks. But Roger was never a student. Everything he learned began in the Mod clubs of 1960s Leicester.
“I never had the opportunity to go to university or the desire to. Hating authority, I just wanted to leave school as quickly as possible,” he says. “I became a jack-of-all-trades and wheeler-dealer.”
Those trades included restoring antiques, which led Roger through the flea markets and junk shops of the Midlands in the 1970s, to the opening of his first shop, Pioneer Antiques in Leicester, later Hollywood Fashions. Now making a living from vintage clothing, Roger’s path crossed with two up-and-coming designers, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. By 1976, there was a buzz in the air, which the couple had anticipated. Punk damaged Roger’s business – but he loved it.
“In 1977, Rick Carter, Steph Raynor, Helen Robinson and I opened a shop called PX selling military clothing. We were offered this old fruit-and-veg warehouse on James Street by Andrew Czezowski, of Roxy club fame. I had a clear idea of what I wanted it to look like, and just happened to be passing a closed-down building in Mayfair when they were clearing it out. We paid £20 for all this industrial ducting and metal cages, which fit perfectly with the low-tech boiler room/submarine vibe I was after – all courtesy of MI5.” After that, he took a stall on Portobello Road, where destiny came calling, in the form of the art director for Quadrophenia.
“It was great to be able to supply most of the clothes for the film and use my first-hand knowledge of original Mod style,” Roger reflects. “But thanks to Punk and the New Romantics, period authenticity as a fashion was disappearing and led me to another way of thinking about restyling period clothes.” One way in which Roger developed this was with McLaren and Westwood in the redesign of their shops, World’s End in 1980 and Nostalgia of Mud in 1981, the latter being described by Peter York as the most innovative of the decade.
“Malcolm and Vivienne were going through one of their most creative periods, so it was very exciting to be able to spend time with them. Everything was drawn upon, from my favourite Midlands pub, the Crooked House in Himley, to pirate ships, Alice in Wonderland, Hogarth prints and the Sony Walkman.”
It was also the dawn of the pop video age and Roger styled both The Specials’ Terry Hall (in ‘Ghost Town’) and The Kinks’ Ray Davies (‘Come Dancing’) in the same 1940s pinstriped suit. “It’s funny, looking back. Both Terry and Ray were true professionals and generally bands were respectful, but of course, some tried it on. Debbie Harry didn’t want to give back a leopard print dress, until I put a huge price tag on it; likewise, Keith Richards tried to hang on to a beautiful old biker jacket. But George Harrison was a proper gentleman. He loved a Victorian frock coat I styled on him in a Traveling Wilburys video so much that he had me copy it exactly so he could wear it all the time.”
Since discovering the Horse, Roger has been a host and inspiration to two decades’ worth of fashionistas, film freaks, writers, artists, musicians and bohemian types. But life has not always been easy. “The owners have been trying to prise us out of the building for 15 years. First, they wanted to redevelop it, but we managed to get it Grade II listed. Then they tried to make me forfeit the lease. We got it listed as a Community Asset and, as the owners didn’t want to take on Camden Council, they have left us alone for over a year now. So, I’m optimistic about the future, particularly as 2018 marks a double anniversary, 25 years at the Horse Hospital, and 40 years of Contemporary Wardrobe.” The publication of Rebel Threads is a landmark for fans of real style – but does Roger see any new youth cultures on the horizon, or are we doomed to endlessly recycle ourselves now? “I wish I did, but you never know, in these less-than-certain times,” he considers. “One lives in hope!”