Jack The Lad
In a conveyor-belt kind of fashion world, the inimitable Joe Corré, and his ‘cheeky’ clothing line, A Child of the Jago, sell a unique style out of Shoreditch, and beyond.
It’s the first real sunny day of spring when I head to Farringdon to interview businessman Joe Corré. His East London office is above the London headquarters of Illamasqua, the make-up business he has been at the helm of for the past 18 months.
After checking in with the beautifully made-up girls at reception, I hike the three floors to the office of Joe’s A Child of the Jago, his purposely small-scale clothing line, which, behind a heavy black door, is somewhat like stepping back in time into a Dickensian workshop. Creaking wooden floors, mannequins swathed in brown tartan, rows of tailored trousers on wooden hangers and a scruffy, yet loveable, little mutt, scurrying around my feet. Hiroshi, Joe’s graphic and production assistant, asks me to wait on a worn leather sofa. I spy Joe, on the phone and pacing his light and airy office. As soon as I sit, Joe’s dog, Alban, jumps onto my lap, and when I head into the office, he sits by my feet, licking my toes. “He must like you!” laughs Joe.
Joe Corré, the man behind lingerie juggernaut Agent Provocateur, which he opened in 1994 (and left in 2009), is undoubtedly fashion and punk rock royalty. His father was Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, and his mother, fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood. Not that this defines him, but it has undeniably had an influence on his political stance and interest in the fashion industry, hence the creation of A Child of the Jago clothing. Just don’t call him a fashion designer… “I don’t really do ‘fashion’,” he explains, “I can’t call it fashion because it isn’t trendy. I ‘do’ specialist dandy wear.”
Not that Joe is shy of talking about his parents and his childhood surrounded by ‘fashion’. “When I was a little boy, my father, and my mother had a shop, the name of which changed multiple times but which was last called World’s End, at 430 Kings Road, where they sold Teddy boy-style clothing, so called because it was inspired by what dandies wore during Edwardian times. They created pieces from scratch, as well as selling vintage things.”
Joe began helping in the shop, when it was called SEX, around the age of 16, and although it was located in Chelsea, the family looked to East London for inspiration. “East London has changed an amazing amount,” he laments. “My father, who was himself a ‘Teddy boy’ during the Seventies, took me to Brick Lane every Sunday. There was a big rag warehouse there, which used to have massive bales of rags. Old Jewish guys would buy a bale, and split it open on the market streets. My father and I would rummage for Edwardian clothes, fancy waistcoats and things like that.” East London influences Joe chats with ease. And, the reasons why he created an East London ‘dandy’ fashion brand quickly become apparent. “I read A Child of the Jago, Arthur Morrison’s 1896 book, years ago,” he says. “I always liked the part where the child character of Dickey Perrott is told by an older man to look at how well dressed criminals and the spivs are. The message was that if you want to get out of where you are, you’re going to have to dress your way out, otherwise the only way out, is in a wooden box. It was that kind of attitude that inspired me.”
His wholesale brand, Jack Sheppard, was named after the notorious thief who undertook a spectacular prison escape, and is from whom we get the term ‘Jack the Lad’. “I use references from characters in past times to create my designs, because I find them inspiring. People liked Jack Sheppard because he was a cheeky cockney. Every time he escaped, he would stick his nose up to the police, like, ‘come to get me again ʼave ya?’”
The sparkle in Joe’s eye as he recounts the story tells me he has some of that Cockney spirit himself. Given his punk roots, I wonder how he feels about consumer culture. “People are desperate to have something authentic,” he says, “something they can hold on to. But the things they’re after have become completely plastic, with no originality, like red phone boxes or Routemaster buses. Nothing is authentic any more.”
He identifies that this hasn’t just happened in retail, but, sadly, in the streets of London themselves. “Lots of areas have become like theme parks. That’s what has happened to the East End. Look at Soho, it’s had the guts ripped out of it. Everyone in East London has got a beard now! And wears Converse with the tightest jeans that look like they don’t fit your arse properly. Terrible style.”
Joe can see the issue, here: “When you end up with design ideas that have been born in London but are made in China, or end up on the high street, then you really lose the character of the designer, and you lose part of London.”
Creating limited editions
But, fighting to keep individuality, Joe’s innovative business model means he buys up quality end-of-line fabric from designer fashion houses, meaning everything at A Child of the Jago is limited edition, and he can offset the manufacturing and labour cost.
“The only problem with that, of course, is that I can’t wholesale Jago. Because if I buy say 60 metres of a fabric, it might make 10 suits, but when I run out, it’s gone. My clothing is not cheap, but it’s not expensive. It’s all relative. People have become accustomed to not understanding quality. They understand price, but not value. you have to make a choice about what you want to support.”
And support the brand, they do. It attracts many flamboyant customers, unashamed to show their character. “It has that handwriting all over it,” Joe continues, “and we are small enough to be able to react. For example, Congolese rumba music star Papa Wemba died while on stage, wearing one of our hats. So we seem to have become the Mecca for his fans, who are all after the same hat! They all dress up in the sapeur style that originated from the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Joe is all for secondhand clothes, too. “Adjust them, make something interesting,” he says. “With punk, all you needed was a packet of safety pins!
We need to stop this conveyor belt of consumption, which makes everyone look like sheep.”
Finding hidden gems
Clearly, his parents influence shines bright.
“My mum used to take me around London a lot. We’d always be in the East End buying garment components, then go to the factories, where people would make the clothes.” Is there anything remaining from that heyday? “I still see the guys at Crescent Trading (a Quaker Street cloth merchant). But as for the rest? The trade has gone, because there is no real local business chain to support it.”
A Child of the Jago and Jack Sheppard fly the flag for great British quality and personality, which is what makes the kooky Great Eastern Street shop and the Charing Cross Road shop such destinations. “They represents something authentically ‘London’,” he says. And the fabric he is leftover with? I can’t help but think of the Brick Lane clothing bundles Joe and his dad would rummage through… “We put all of our leftover bits in the basement of the Shoreditch shop. It’s all about finding that little gem.”
JOE’S EAST LONDON IN THE SEVENTIES
The front part of the Brick Lane market used to sell animals, opposite where Beach Blanket Babylon is, now. There were snakes, monkeys, every kind of cat, birds, parrots, you name it. But there were also animal activists on the other side with placards, shouting at people who bought them.
The area was mainly Jewish and white English East Enders, very poor people trying to make their own way in life. I remember a guy trying to sell me one shoe. Trying to tell me how good the leather was. What was I going to do with one shoe? I’ve got two legs!
There were still loads of bombsites everywhere, from the war. There would be groups of meth drinkers sitting in them, burning tyres and plastic, sitting on some old sofa. The smell was pungent. They drank meths mixed with milk in a pint bottle, which would turn the milk blue. I would ask my mum if I could drink the blue milk. Of course, she said ‘no!’, and now I understand why!