From an early age, there was something different about Tommy and David Nutter. Growing up in an austere apartment above a café catering to truck drivers, both boys seemed destined to lead rather humble lives in post-war London—Tommy as a civil servant, David as a darkroom technician. Yet the strength of their imagination (plus a little help from their friends) transformed them instead into unlikely protagonists of a swinging cultural revolution.
In 1969, at the age of twenty-six, Tommy opened an unusual new boutique on the “golden mile” of bespoke tailoring, Savile Row. While shocking a haughty establishment resistant to change, “Nutters of Savile Row” became an immediate sensation among the young, rich, and beautiful, beguiling everyone from Bianca Jagger to the Beatles—who immortalized Tommy’s designs on the album cover of Abbey Road. Meanwhile, David’s innate talent with a camera vaulted him across the Atlantic to New York City, where he found himself in a parallel constellation of stars (Yoko Ono, Elton John) who enjoyed his dry wit almost as much as his photography.
House of Nutter tells the stunning true story of two gay men who influenced some of the most iconic styles and pop images of the twentieth century. Drawing on interviews with more than seventy people—and taking advantage of unparalleled access to never-before-seen pictures, letters, sketches, and diaries—journalist Lance Richardson presents a dual portrait of brothers improvising their way through five decades of extraordinary events, their personal struggles playing out against vivid backdrops of the Blitz, an obscenity trial, the birth of disco, and the devastation of the AIDS crisis.
A propulsive, deftly plotted narrative filled with surprising details and near-operatic twists, House of Nutter takes readers on a wild ride into the minds and times of two brilliant dreamers.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof*** Copyright © 2018 Lance Richardson
You may not recognize the name of Tommy Nutter, but you almost certainly know his clothes. Picture Elton John in the 1980s, playing piano on a vast arena stage while wearing a heavily padded suit that is half black, half white, like a yin and yang symbol. Or imagine Bianca Jagger sometime in the 1970s, languorous and grumpy in a pistachio-colored men’s suit as she fiddles with her Malacca cane. Or—a sure bet—recall the album cover of Abbey Road: four Beatles marching across the street in northwest London, with John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Paul McCartney dressed in immaculate bespoke.
Tommy Nutter was just twenty-six years old when, in 1969, he opened Nutters of Savile Row. He had no formal education as a fashion designer, and no advanced training as a tailor—nothing, really, except what he once described as an “in-built feeling for clothes.” And yet al- most immediately he found himself outfitting everyone from rock stars to members of parliament, Twiggy to Diana Ross. Within a few years, the Evening Standard pronounced Tommy “as established and as important as any British tailor or designer.” He accrued an avid following in America that stretched from New York to Los Angeles. People raved about his Savile Row suits, describing them as nothing short of art. In the words of one former client, wearing one made you feel like “an honored custodian of something spectacular.” Today, his trailblazing legacy can be sensed in the work of contemporary tailor-designers like Richard James, Ozwald Boateng, and Timothy Everest. Tommy Hilfiger recently credited his “irreverent approach” as an enduring inspiration. Even Tom Ford, arguably the most important figure working in menswear today, has acknowledged his influence.
I first heard about Tommy Nutter several years ago, when a friend told me the story of a young man who once, after being denied entry into a party at the Tate, threw himself into the River Thames. It sounded so outlandish, so extreme and operatic, that my curiosity was piqued. What intrigued me once I did further research, however, was not so much his burnished image as the “Tailor to the Stars”—an iconoclast who shook the foundations of a hallowed industry—but the tension be- tween his vaunted reputation and the realities of his private life.
Here was a man whose suits are now safeguarded in the Victoria & Albert Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, though he could barely manage a backstitch. Here was a man who comported himself with grace and hobnobbed with Princess Margaret at galas in Venice and Munich, yet had grown up above a humble café that catered to truck drivers. A man who’d managed to pull himself out of the working class using nothing more than the strength of his own imagination, an imagination so boundless, it seemed, that it could overcome all rea- son and even prove ruinous.
Tommy Nutter was obsessed with his public image. He was also gay, coming of age in the oppressive censoriousness of the 1950s. Indeed, his life vividly personalized forty years of critical gay history. From the underground queer clubs of Soho to the unbridled freedom of New York bathhouses to the terrifying nightmare of AIDS—Tommy was there, both witness and participant. As a gay man myself, it occurred to me that Tommy’s focus on outward appearances might have been a way for him to take control and overcome the more challenging aspects of his lived experience. After all, one way gay men mitigate the perennial pressure to conform to societal norms of masculinity is by striving for perfection (in body, in clothes, in career), overcompensating until that which sets us apart—our taste, say—becomes so impressive it assumes its own power.
Tommy ultimately died from AIDS-related pneumonia in August 1992. The lives of many artists, performers, and designers were lost pre- maturely to the plague and have since been unfairly marginalized in the collective memory. This, finally, was the strongest motivation for me writing this book: I saw an opportunity to rescue one person’s story from the drift of oblivion.
Of course, when you go rummaging around in the past there is a good chance you’ll stumble across something you never dreamed of finding. It happened to me early in the research phase, when I arranged to meet Tommy Nutter’s brother in a cafe on New York’s Upper West Side.
Seventy-seven years old, David Nutter turned up wearing a crumpled Rolling Stones T-shirt and clutching a tote bag stuffed with the kind of original photographs usually exhibited in a gallery. He had taken them all himself, he said; they were just sitting in his apartment in stacks of cardboard boxes. Over coffee, he made a range of passing references that seemed inscrutable in the moment—to an obscenity trial, to the birth of disco, to Starship 1, to Michael Jackson, to Mick Jagger. It would take me many months to untangle everything, and years before I understood exactly how kaleidoscopic the Nutter saga really was. But I quickly intuited that I was writing a book about two people here, two gay brothers, two halves of a larger, stranger whole.
Table of Contents
Part 1 1939-1968
1 Escape Artists 3
2 The Golden AGE 23
3 Young Meteors 41
4 The New Aristocrats 65
Interlude: Cilla and Bobby Get Married 91
Part 2 1969-1976
5 Discotheque in a Graveyard 99
6 A Complete Look 115
7 Blow-Up 131
8 Piccadilly Tom 149
9 Libertines 163
10 Muscle Queens and Mozart Records 183
11 That Wonderful Summer 205
Interlude: Louder Than Concorde 218
Part 3 1977-1992
12 The Velvet Rope 227
13 Are you Being Served? 247
14 Lost Boys 271
15 Humdrum Life 297
Epilogue! Dawn Black 325
Image Credits 371
Selected Reading 373