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Keanan Duffty is one of those people who really makes you feel liked you missed out on something when he speaks of his youth. The makeup, the capes, seeing Madonna at a little dive in London. It simply isn’t fair. Luckily for us he has never lost his Glam Rock/Punk/New Romantic edge and his designs harken back to the best elements of those eras. Based in New York he has been making music and fashion for over 20 years and is a very active CFDA member who never ceases to amaze us with his new projects and ideas. His collaboration with Target and David Bowie several years back sent Duffy’s name into an iconic stratosphere.
Duffty’s 2009 book Rebel Rebel Anti-Style was another huge success and his blog is a continuation on that dialogue of interesting people with intriguing style. Interviewing Duffty was quite a trip, from his trash bag tees to his layout in The Face and winning his wedding in a competition. A rebel if there ever was one.
Where did you grow up?
In a town called Doncaster in Yorkshire England. It’s a coal mining and farming area.
What was life like in the rural world for a young punk?
It was a misspent youth! As misspent as I could make it. I was minutes from Sheffield where Human League, Pulp and many great post punk bands started so it had some great nightclubs and music venues. I would hang out there. Leeds had a good youth culture too.
What was your first intro to music?
As a really young kid I would watch TV pop shows. The glam rock thing really got into my blood. I loved both the look and the sound. But they always seemed so out of reach. You couldn’t really dress like Ziggy Stardust on the streets without getting your head kicked in.
But then Punk started so you could dress a little more out there. And the music of punk was DIY so that demystified it all. You could buy an old guitar and bang around with your friends and call yourself a band.
Is that how you stared your band?
Yeah, Sordid Details was my first band when I was 14. We would play in church halls and school gyms. Surprisingly alot of people came to hear us. It was such a small town everyone wanted to know what was happening.
So your first band was punk?
The punk thing was great as a launchpad. I would cut my flares and wrap them with duct tape to make skinny jeans and make tees out of garbage bags. But it wained very fast and electronic music was starting to happen so I kind of went that route and into the New Romantic thing.
Er, was school at all in the equation Mr. Duffty?
Sure! But I always had ‘party eyes’ when I went into class. In the New Romantic band I was in, Wonder Stories, both of the other guys were older than me and working. We would go out in his butchers van in frilly cloaks and full makeup and I would stay at his place afterwards. I never mastered getting all the eyeliner and lipstick off.
What did people in town say?
There were so many coal miners in my town they all had this black eyeliner look even after a shower! It was the lipstick and beauty mark that they noticed on me. But it was fantastic. All these towns around England were interested in this scene so you felt part of something. New Romantics were an amalgamation of punk, glam rock and disco.
When did you move to London?
The Sunday Times Magazine used to write articles about the fabulous nightlife in London and half of the kids went to Central Saint Martins College. So I figured that was the place to go. I figured I could get a grant from the government and go to this school and study fashion and go to these clubs. I had it all figured out!
I made a portfolio and interviewed and got in. This was 1982 and it wasn’t nearly as strict as it is today.
What kind of fashion were you interested in?
Street Fashion. I knew Chanel and all that but I was loving Westwood, McLauren all the UK based street designers who were dressing the bands I loved.
While I was in school I would screen print tee’s and put them in my window and people would come knock on the glass and buy them.
That sounds so Dickensian Keanan!
Right? That doesn’t happen anymore. Falcon Stuart was a music manager who was working with Adam Ant and X-Ray Spex and his wife was working on a book on t-shirts. They contacted me to be interviewed for the book and invited me over for dinner. He ended up asking me for a demo so I got to record in the EMI studios in Manchester Square-the same studio the Sex Pistols and Beatles recorded in. I didn’t give it much mind then but I look back and realize how amazing that was.
That is epic! What happened after graduation?
I was making music all through college and was getting some good press for my music and fashion in i-D and The Faceso when I graduated I started focusing on my own collection. I sold to Joseph on Sloane Square and some other shops on the Kings Road -making it all myself in my apartment. I had no idea how to have a business so I started working for a design consultancy kind of like WGSN. They had offices in New York and Tokyo and I loved the energy of New York in the early 90s- Joey Arias, Amanda Lepore and all that crowd were doing so much.
I moved here and started dabbling in music again. I actually had Amanda Lepore in one of my videos as a nurse.
When did you start your own line?
In 1998 I moved fully into my own collection. We made a line with 12 pieces in it, went to the Tranoi trade show in Paris and got great buys from some cool stores. It was great to have that freedom designing for myself. And I could still do my own music.
I feel like you were one of the first people I knew to collaborate (Reebok, Doc Marten, Aveda, Kid Robot and Medicom Toys)- what brought that on?
That came out of necessity. Paper Magazine was looking for emerging designers to do a presentation at 7th on 6th. They included me and Reebok was the sponsor so we took our shoes they gave us and customized them and Reebok loved it and suggested a collaboration. They ended up sponsoring our fashion shows for three years at Bryant Park- that was huge for us. I realized this was a smart way to do business – it was a win win situation.
And you started doing more consulting (Target among others), how did that come about?
I had been consulting since college. The money from it funded my collections but Target was one of the biggest ones. They really liked what I had to say and asked me to launch my own brand. It took a couple of years to develop and they became more design focused. We launched in 2006 and it was there for three years in 1400 doors. It was cool to reach so many people. But it spoiled me a little bit! I needed something to boost my creative hunger.
What are you working on now?
I relaunched my own line last fall and am in a couple of stores in New York. I
am keeping it small so I can continue consulting and designing and of course, making music.
You just signed with Harley Sears. Congrats!
Thanks! He is a friend of mine and has been involved with music management for a while. So we are getting some of my old music on iTunes and getting to work on some new pieces with some 80’s artists we love.
I love your wife and business partner Nancy, when did you get married?
1999. We won our wedding in a competition. Nancy entered this competition in The New York Times to get married on the Empire State Building on Valentines Day. She did it on a total lark and we won. We thought it was a message from the universe and did it. We had a mariachi band and a reception at our apartment.
She has always been a business partner of sorts but recently she has gotten into reality shows as a ‘fashion producer’ bringing in suppliers and casting back room people and creates some of the challenges on ’24 hour Catwalk’ and ‘The Fashion Show’ with Mizrahi.
What is next for you?
More of the same! I just keep doing my thing. Sometimes you are in sync with what’s happening in the world and other times you are not. But I just do what I do, it doesn’t matter what’s going on. There are always people out there who will understand your point of view. And I continue to scare my parents which is always fun.