Pippa Brooks discusses Mr Freedom with Paul Gorman
Paul Gorman first met Tommy Roberts 12 years ago when he was researching his book "The Look", his definitive investigation into the relationship between fashion and music. Roberts was an essential link, having been a pioneer from the early days of his boutique Kleptomania and the Mr Freedom shop of the title. This was just one of Roberts' retail adventures, which he first opened in the late 60s, but it broke such new ground, and the name "Mr Freedom" really epitomised the mood of the times. Roberts' attitude towards retail was all-encompassing; he said: "Fashion, business, life, love. I don't want to run a shop. I want to run a circus."
When I met Gorman, the detritus of his research was still littered around his computer. Roberts' 'wing boots', made famous by Elton John in the 70s, are perched on a shelf - such a statement then but still such an iconic, much referenced look. I wonder why no-one has written about Tommy Roberts' until now.
I was really surprised that nobody did it before, especially given the goodwill towards him. He's been in the V&A since 1971, all the people there know who is. When you look at his body of work, the daring, it just made it all the more exciting to do this book. I knew he was good, but I kept discovering stuff that was so rich, that I never knew. Even the crazy ideas that didn't happen, like having a concession in the pick 'n' mix in Woolworths or Peter Robinson which later became Topshop. I didn't know all this stuff until I started researching. I think people have found him problematic because in Britain we like people to know their place. He refused to stay put in a given area of design.
Pippa Brooks: When did you first become aware of Tommy Roberts?
Paul Gorman: I first became aware of him during the period he was managing Kilburn & The High Roads. Then through Practical Styling you gained an understanding about where he'd been/what he'd done. 'Today There Are No Gentlemen' by Nik Cohn features a combative interview with him, and that was (and is) something of a bible to me. I'd say next to Malcolm McLaren he was top of my list when I set out to write "The Look" in 1999.
PB: You've always been attracted to the unsung genius, those who have had huge influence in pop culture but not been given the credit for it, haven't you?
PG: He's one of those people who is right up my street because he never gets the credit he deserves. He really fast-tracked interesting ideas into the mainstream which is what I love about all the greats, whether it's Bowie time and again, or Boy George with sexuality, or Ian Dury, bringing disability into the agenda. Tommy managed Dury's band Kilburn and the High Roads after his shop City Lights closed down in 1974. In a sense, no one else would have them - a paraplegic drummer, a dwarf on bass and a front man with polio isn't an easy act to break.
PB: Dury's enormous success as a solo act later, proved once again that Roberts was on the money. That happened time and again during his career, didn't it?
PG: When he was having design meetings in 1969, he was referencing Sottsass - who founded the hugely influential Memphis design company in 1981 - when he talks about design, it's quite hard to keep up. But that was Tommy, always on to the next thing…
PB: Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood used to visit Mr Freedom in Worlds End regularly. They also took over the lease at 430 Kings Road (where Westwood still resides today) when Roberts moved to Knightsbridge. McLaren and Roberts remained close until Malcolm died. Do you think their careers and influence hold many similarities?
PG: I knew Malcolm and he used to talk about Tommy a lot. I think Malcolm got a lot of daring from Tommy. He responded to Tommy and always gave Mr Freedom credit because he also liked to make a statement. Malcolm suffered from a similar fate - it's going to take years for him to stop being associated with 20 months of his life.
PB: I love the bit in the book where you quote McLaren as saying that the blue suede brothel creepers he bought at Mr Freedom were the most important purchase he ever made. Because they were a reaction against everything that was happening at the time. Those shoes must have formed some of the inspiration for Let It Rock.
PG: You know Tommy told me that when Malcolm died a bit of him died too, which is really interesting.
PB: They're rare, these types who fan the flames of creativity and change in the way they did. Are there any other equivalents? It's hard to think of many, especially today.
PG: There are so few of these people of mettle or substance. Maybe George Melly - who Tommy actually gave all his Mr Freedom suits to, coincidentally - who was a fabulously knowledgeable modern art critic and collector, could recite Dada poetry, and was a founder member of the British Surrealist Society yet was 'good time' George, playing jazz and camping it up on TV. It's hard to think of any today. I quite like Kate Moross for her range of activities, her resourcefulness and her quality level.
PB: The list of 'firsts' on Roberts' resumé is staggering: the first to exploit the T-shirt as a fashion item, the first to license Disney characters on those T-shirts, the first lifestyle store, the first Americana burger bar in London (when we didn't have ANY McDonalds!), the pioneering of Hi-Tech and gadgets, and even the first to import mobile phones…
PG: I'm knocked out by all this stuff. The timeline is incredible. I was discussing the book with Peter York recently and he couldn't believe City Lights was in 1972, and that the shop opened that early. He said, "I always think of Covent Garden as being Paul Smith in '79 or Paul Howie in '75." If even York doesn't know this stuff then you know this book needed to be written.
PB: In May 1971 the LA Times called Mr Freedom "the Andy Warhol of the Fashion World", but there are references to art throughout Roberts' career. The "POW", "ZAP", and "LOVE" jersey dresses evoked Lichenstein, the reworking and re-sizing of everyday objects had the feel of Claus Oldenburg. The furniture which played with perspective was a very 60s-conceptual art idea and the plastic flies garnishing every portion of soup in his burger bar Mr Feed'Em, along with the scarlet cream buns and psychedelic bread were Surrealism brought into the everyday.
From Kandinsky printed satin and clothes printed with famous artists' signatures like Picasso and Gaugin and even Robert Crumb-type graphics, this is what elevates Roberts' contribution to fashion and retail above and beyond mere 'trends'. And I think what makes his legacy stand the test of time. Do you think his art training has played an important part?
PG: Yes. The words he uses for colours, he's so articulate. A lot of people I interviewed have said "but he wasn't a designer", but that's the whole point; he wasn't a designer, he was a design editor. The people he collaborated with early in their careers, whether it was Mark Brazier Jones, Tom Dixon or John Wealans, who became really big in shop design in the 80s. Imagine if your first gig was being given 3 floors and a basement at Mr Freedom. Don't worry about the money, just do it. That was a gift to someone like that. For a lot of the people that worked with him over the years, it was probably the best work they ever did. Tommy's got that generosity of spirit. He even gave The Sex Pistols their first rehearsal space!
PB: I love the fact that Peter Blake really rates him and that he thought Mr Feed'Em, Roberts' diner, was one of his shining moments. What is your favourite Tommy Roberts era?
PG: My favourite is City Lights on Floral Street in Covent Garden. I think there was a lot of romance in it. You had to go up two flights of stairs. I loved all the Perspex stuff and the Hammer Horror chairs.
PB: It's more than fashion, isn't it?
PG: Absolutely, it's visual culture. I never went to art school but something about visuals really resides in me and it's the only information that I can absorb. Fashion, like the music industry is a disgusting business, but when you get the chance to profile people like this or raise their profile, it's worthwhile.
PB: It's amazing the way he jumped from clothes to food to music to gadgets…
PG: You get the idea with him, or Bowie, or Barney Bubbles, who I've also written about, that he was very restless. Having done one thing he'd move on to the next. With Practical Styling in the 80s, the genius of his partner Paul Jones, was to set Tommy in context. He was good at focusing and Tommy recognised that in him. The team he surrounded himself with was always very important.
PB: I think to call Roberts 'heroic' is appropriate. This book is such an exciting read of discovery and the chutzpah with which this man has made his various inroads into pop culture is so inspirational, which of course must have been your intention.
PG: He's still enigmatic to me. I have that quite OCD thing where I get obsessed with presenting people and giving them their just desserts. Tommy was cosily tagged jolly, chirpy Pop Art Mr Freedom, but when he went darker with City Lights and Ian Dury, and then High Tech PoMo at Practical Styling, it overwhelmed the gatekeepers of taste - from the media to academia. He's unpindownable. And that's why I wrote the book, because those are the people I engage with.
'Mr Freedom - Tommy Roberts: British Design Hero' by Paul Gorman is available later this month.