Sid Vicious would never believe how much his old clothes are worth, and the lengths to which counterfeiters will go to fake them.
08 September 2021 | Mark C. O’Flaherty | New York Times
Not long ago, Paul Gorman, a pop culture historian in London, the author of “The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren: The Biography” and an authenticator for auction houses that specialize in rock fashion, was given a shirt attributed to Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Seditionaries label, circa 1977, to assess.
Made of muslin, it was decorated with an instantly identifiable graphic by the artist Jamie Reid, created for the sleeve of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” single.
If it were genuine, it would command a significant price at auction. At a Bonhams sale in May, a 1977 parachute shirt by Mr. McLaren and Ms. Westwood sold for $6,660, and a rare black-and-red mohair sweater embroidered with a skull and crossbones and the lyrics to the Sex Pistols’ “No Future” went for $8,896.
Mr. Gorman, however, didn’t believe the shirt he was assessing was what the owner claimed it to be.
“The muslin had been aged in some places,” Mr. Gorman said. “Yet in others the fabric remained too fresh. The inks were not of 1970s quality and had not diffused into the fabric.” When questioned about the provenance, the vendor withdrew the piece from the auction house and said it had subsequently been sold privately. “There is only one similar shirt in a museum collection,” Mr. Gorman said, “and I believe that to be dubious too.”
Welcome to the weird and lucrative world of fake punk. Over the last 30 years, pretend handmade original designs incorporating S-and-M and dirty graphics, innovative cuts and straps, military surplus patterns, tweed and latex — the stuff of the anarchic era that Sid Vicious and his peers made famous — has become a growth industry.
“Every month I get several emails asking if something is real,” said Steven Philip, a fashion archivist, collector and consultant. “I won’t get involved. People are buying fool’s gold. There have always been 500 fakes to one authentic piece.”
Half a century has passed since Mr. McLaren and Ms. Westwood opened Let It Rock, their counterculture boutique at 430 Kings Road in London. That store, now known as Worlds End, was a birthplace of street fashion. Its owners were the designers that defined the punk scene.
In the 10 years that followed, the store shape-shifted into Sex and Seditionaries, introducing a look and sound that remain deeply influential, and hence collectible. “Pieces are incredibly scarce due to a combination of factors,” said Alexander Fury, the author of “Vivienne Westwood Catwalk.” “They had minute production runs, the clothes were expensive, and people tended to buy them and wear them until they fell apart.”
Kim Jones, the artistic director of Dior and Fendi, has a significant collection of original pieces and believes “Westwood and McLaren created the blueprint for modern clothes. They were forward-thinking geniuses,” he said.
Many museums also collect the stuff. Michael Costiff, a socialite, interior designer and curator of the World Archive spaces at Dover Street Market stores, was an early customer of Mr. McLaren and Ms. Westwood. One hundred and seventy-eight outfits he assembled with his wife, Gerlinde, are now held by the Victoria & Albert Museum, which bought Mr. Costiff’s collection in 2002 with a contribution of 42,500 pounds from the National Art Collections Fund.
The value of vintage McLaren and Westwood has made it a target for fashion pirates. On the most obvious level are reproductions available online and sold straightforwardly and cheaply, without deception — just a familiar graphic on a simple T-shirt.
“The work came from an art world background,” said Paul Stolper, a gallery owner in London whose substantial collection of original punk pieces is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “One or two images from a period, like Che Guevara or Marilyn, end up disseminated through our culture. The Sex Pistols defined an era, so the imagery is constantly copied.”
Then there are the more overt forgeries, like cheap Fruit of the Loom T-shirts printed with a crucified Mickey Mouse, or the “SEX original” bondage shorts on sale for $190 at A Store Robot in Tokyo, easily identifiable as being unoriginal because of the new cloth and the fact that the style was never actually made in the 1970s. The Japanese market is saturated with fakes.
Last year Mr. Gorman found a garment on eBay in Britain listed as “Vintage Seditionaries Vivienne Westwood ‘Charlie Brown’ white T-shirt,” and he bought it for £100 (about $139) as a case study.
“It’s an interesting example of fakery,” he said. “It never existed. But the addition of a ‘Destroy’ slogan and the attempted shock in the use of beloved cartoon characters cast in a countercultural way channels the McLaren and Westwood approach. A specialist printer I use has confirmed that the inks are contemporary, as is the T-shirt stitching.”
Beyond platforms like eBay, however, fake punk has also infiltrated elite cultural institutions.
Young Kim, Mr. McLaren’s widow, has spent years trying to protect his estate and legacy. “I went to the Met in 2013 to examine their collection,” Ms. Kim said. “I was shocked to discover most of it was fake. The original clothes were tiny. Malcolm made them to fit him and Vivienne. Many of the clothes at the Met were huge, to fit former punks today.”
There were also other signs. “They had a pair of tweed and leather trousers, which were rare and genuine,” Ms. Kim said. “They happened to have a second pair, which were fake. The stitching was on top of the waistband, rather than inside, as it would be on a well-made piece of clothing. And the D-ring was too new.”
There were some raised eyebrows over the pieces in the Met’s 2013 “Punk: Chaos to Couture” exhibition, after Ms. Kim and Mr. Gorman commented publicly on the alleged fakes and numerous discrepancies in the credits for the show.
But questions exist around pieces that had already entered the museum eight years before. Examples include the bondage suits that were given prominent positions in the 2006 “Anglomania” show, credited to Simon Easton, a vintage dealer in London, and the Punk Pistol Collection, a vintage Westwood and McLaren rental agency that supplied stylists and film productions, and which Mr. Easton established online with his business partner Gerald Bowey in 2003. At some point the museum stopped listing the suits as part of its collection.
“In 2015, two McLaren-Westwood pieces in our collection were determined to be inauthentic,” said Andrew Bolton, the head curator of the Met’s Costume Institute. “These pieces were subsequently deaccessioned. Our research in this area is ongoing.”
Mr. Gorman sent several emails to Mr. Bolton in which he said other pieces in the collection were also problematic, but, Mr. Gorman said, Mr. Bolton stopped replying to him. A spokeswoman for the Costume Institute said that the pieces had been examined more than once by specialists; Mr. Bolton declined to give any additional comment for this article.
Mr. Easton wouldn’t comment for this article, emailing to say that Mr. Bowey was speaking for him, but his name is woven indelibly through the fake punk saga. For years his PunkPistol.com website, mothballed in 2008, was seen by many as a reliable archive resource for original McLaren and Westwood designs.
However, said Mr. Bowey, despite their best efforts to authenticate the collection, it was hampered by “the haphazard way the clothes were originally conceived, produced and subsequently copied. Today, even with the benefit of auction catalog listings, receipts and in some cases authentication from the Westwood Company there is still controversy attached to the clothes.”
The Investigations Continue
Mr. McLaren was first alerted to the scale of fraud surrounding his and Ms. Westwood’s designs by an anonymous email, sent to him on Sept. 9, 2008, forwarded for this article by Mr. Gorman and verified by Ms. Young.
“The swindler awakes to find fakes!” reads the subject line, with the sender identified only as “Minnie Minx” from firstname.lastname@example.org. Numerous individuals from the London fashion industry are accused of conspiracy in the email, which also refers to a 2008 court case in which Scotland Yard became involved.
“After a tip-off the police raid houses in Croydon and Eastbourne and there they find rolls and rolls of Seditionaries labels,” the email said. “But who are these new pranksters? Welcome Mr. Grant Howard and Mr. Lee Parker.”
Grant Champkins-Howard, who is now a D.J. and goes by the name Grant Lee, and Lee Parker, a plumber by trade, were called “old-fashioned con men” by Judge Suzan Matthews when tried at Kingston Crown Court in June 2010. Their property was indeed raided by the Met’s Arts and Antiquities Fraud squad in 2008, and a hoard of allegedly fake McLaren and Westwood garments and associated materials were seized, along with 120 counterfeit Banksy prints.
The two men were subsequently found guilty of forging works attributed to Banksy. Mr. McLaren, the only creator of the original Sex and Seditionaries garments willing to testify, was called on to examine the seized items and pinpointed the clues that the garments were fakes: the unfaithful sizing of stencil letters, inconsistent fabrics, use of YKK rather than Lightning brand zippers, incorrect graphic juxtapositions and white T-shirts dyed to look old.
“He was outraged,” Ms. Kim said. “He felt very strongly about protecting and defending his work. It was precious to him.” After the partnership between Mr. McLaren and Ms. Westwood was dissolved in 1984, the two had a long and high-profile feud that was never resolved, and the tension created a vacuum for forgers.
Mr. Howard and Mr. Parker received a suspended sentence in the Banksy case, but the case concerning the fake clothing was dropped when Mr. McLaren died, in 2010, as he was the key witness for the prosecution in this area.
As it turns out, however, Ms. Westwood’s family may have inadvertently created or fueled the industry around fake punk. “I created limited-edition runs of some early designs to raise capital to launch Agent Provocateur,” said Joe Corré, the son of Mr. McLaren and Ms. Westwood, who opened his lingerie business in 1994.
“We recreated T-shirts with chicken bone lettering and the studded ‘Venus’ T-shirts,” Mr. Corré said. “They were labeled limited-edition replicas, made in editions of 100, and sold to the Japanese market.” Before these detailed and expensive replicas appeared, copies of the work were restricted to obvious screen-prints on wholesale T-shirts, produced quickly and sold fairly cheaply.
Mr. Corré said Vivienne Westwood authorized the reproductions. Mr. McLaren was angry. In an email dated Oct. 14, 2008, directed to a group including the journalist Steven Daly, who was researching a potential story on fake punk clothes for Vanity Fair, Mr. McLaren wrote: “Who had given them this permission? I told Joe to stop immediately and wrote to him. I was furious.”
Mr. Corré recently became a director of the Vivienne Foundation, “to sympathetically exploit copyright of her work to raise money for various causes.” He said he will be exploring how to “bring an end” to the fakes. Ms. Kim continues to fight for Mr. McLaren’s legacy and believes he is being airbrushed repeatedly out of his own history.
Mr. Easton and Mr. Bowey’s Punk Pistol enterprise continues to sell pieces attributed to Ms. Westwood and Mr. McLaren via the Etsy store SeditionariesInTheUK, much of it with letters of authentication from the Vivienne Westwood Company, signed by Murray Blewett, the design and archivist manager. These include a striped shirt with a Peter Pan collar and an upside-down silk Karl Marx patch, and a Levi’s-style rubberized cotton jacket.
The internet is less stringent than most of the auction houses, which would not comment for this article but say they represent only pieces that come with bulletproof provenance, namely photographs of the owner wearing the clothes in the 1970s.
As long as there’s a market, there will be forgers.
“It’s important to understand that a lot of the victims of the fakes are willing victims,” Mr. Gorman said. “They desperately want to believe they are part of the original story. Which is what fashion is all about any way, isn’t it? It’s all driven by aspiration.”