Within House of Nutter, the journalist and author Lance Richardson unspools the strange, illuminative true story of Tommy Nutter, the Savile Row tailor who changed the silhouette of men’s fashion, and his rock photographer brother David, who captured it all on film.
In 1969, at the age of 26, Tommy opened an unusual boutique on Savile Row, the “golden mile” of bespoke tailoring. Shocking an 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 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 like Yoko Ono and Elton John, icons who relished his dry wit nearly as much as his photography.
Drawing on myriad interviews and taking advantage of unparalleled access to never-before-seen photographs, letters, diaries, and ephemera, House of Nutter presents a dual portrait of brothers improvising their way through five extraordinary decades, 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.
Recently, Lance spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright about the joy of writing such an elastic narrative, how fashion is a bellwether of the times, and why dream journals can make for the most fascinating reading.
Read It Forward: House of Nutter centers on Tommy and David, the Nutter brothers, and how they experienced a slice of history unlike any other. Tell us a little bit about what your book uncovers about these two men.
Lance Richardson: Tommy and David Nutter were born just before, and during, World War II in London and Wales. They grew up in the ’50s, which was a very austerity-oriented time in Britain, and came of age in London in the famous swinging ’60s. There was a lot of upward mobility, and they harnessed their own creativity as a way of pulling themselves out of this working-class background. In the process of doing that, Tommy becomes a quite well-known tailor on Savile Row, and then a very famous tailor on Savile Row, which is the center of Bespoke. It’s where you go to get measured up for your suits. He starts dressing the Beatles and Mick Jagger and Elton John and Diana Ross. His brother, David, who’s slightly older, becomes a rock photographer and starts photographing a lot of these same people, like Elton John and John and Yoko, in really unusual circumstances.
The book follows both of them over the course of five decades. By following them, it also tells the story of these five decades of history, particularly queer history since they’re both gay. It’s quite a surprising take on things, and shows exactly how much happened to gay people in five decades. It was extraordinary.
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RIF: I feel like what we wear on our body can dictate what’s going on in the world at times. How was the changing fashion of the ’60s and ’70s indicative of what was going on in the culture?
LR: Fashion’s an interesting one. I think people tend to think it’s a little frivolous, but it actually does, to an extraordinary extent, reflect the moment in time in which it’s created. In post-war Britain in the ’50s, when they were really young kids, there wasn’t a lot of cloth available. Everything was under rationing, so all the clothes were very conservative.
In the ’60s, when things start to loosen up and there’s prosperity, you’ve got this moment when influences from America and Europe are suddenly flowing into Britain. So you have this growing international influence that wasn’t there before, and at the same moment, you have the birth of the teenager. Coming of age at this time when there’s so much mobility and creativity, you end up with street fashion, like Carnaby Street with the mods and the rockers—all of that was happening, and being driven by the fashion world. Like the photographers photographing these amazing young girls in PVC coats with very severe haircuts by Vidal Sassoon and Mary Quant. Tommy was really caught up with that.
RIF: It’s so interesting. I hadn’t thought about this before you spoke about the rationed fabric, but lapels got wider, pant legs got wider in the ’60s and ’70s, and that could be boiled down to a celebration of having fabric again.
LR: Right. There were rules about how you couldn’t have cuffs on the bottom of your trousers because it was a waste of extra fabric. You couldn’t have all these things. Christian Dior in France in something like 1946—I’m probably getting the date wrong—he had the famous New Look, which was all about excess, about having extra fabric because it was a celebration of a time to be a little more decadent, to enjoy life again. I’d say it came to the men a little bit later, but then they made up for it.
RIF: You wrote that Tommy Nutter was unashamedly gay at a moment when being so could get you ostracized, if not worse. Where do you think his courage to be himself came from, especially at a time when so many were hiding who they really were?
LR: It’s a really interesting question. The first is simply him; some people are irrepressible, and they can’t be contained by the boundaries society places on them. Quentin Crisp is a very famous example. It was just this particular person, and as I was saying, it was the era and the age—that he was a teenager at this moment when kids were being incredibly creative and feeling emboldened to express themselves in ways that transgressed gender boundaries. You had young men, even young straight men, wearing colored pants that a few years before would’ve been coded as queer to a lot of people. So I think it was a moment in time when he felt he could do that.
The other thing is David, the fact that he had this ally at home. They were both gay, and I think that would have certainly made him more comfortable with himself. It’s worth pointing out, though, that it’s not like he was walking around with a neon sign saying he was gay. His parents didn’t know for decades. He definitely took extensive measures to conceal it from them. He was selective, but he didn’t make much of an effort to disguise it from the larger world.
RIF: He found himself in a community of likeminded people, embracing this freedom across music and sexuality. One of the things I love is how this is a tale of two cities: we have New York, where David ends up, and London, where Tommy is working. How did the cities reflect upon, and imprint upon, Tommy and David?
LR: It’s interesting how they were essentially living parallel lives. Obviously, they both grew up in London in the swinging ’60s, and if you were to meet David today, he’s still very British in his way, but he moved to New York in 1971—the same year John Lennon so famously said that Britain was over. He was done, and the future belonged to America. He moved to New York, and David moved about three months after John and Yoko did. Not because of them, but he knew them, and I’m sure it added to his desire to leave what he saw as a country where the party was over. The ’60s had been this enormous party and then really fizzled. There’s an obscenity trial that David’s involved with, so there’s a real sense of, “Well, that was fun. It’s done. I’m going to leave now,” and he moves to New York.
New York in the ’70s was famously dump and broke, scary, and dangerous, and he gets mugged and attacked several times. But it was also a place of extraordinary sexual liberation and excess with drugs and alcohol. He gets caught up in that and spends the rest of his life trying to recover from the effects of this addiction and the things he experiences. He comes to New York and falls into the underground. It really defines who he becomes as a person, in a way that Tommy’s staying in London always defined him differently; he was much more stuck in this older version of glamour. It’s that more elegant glamour, and that’s Tommy. David gets a little grungier in New York.
RIF: It was the next frontier of the gritty counterculture.
LR: In London, Tommy sees that, and he yearns for it the whole time. As Britain goes through its ups and downs in the ’70s and ’80s, he never entirely gets over the sense that it’s more interesting in New York, and he writes letters to David saying, “Tell me what’s happening. What’s happening on Fire Island? Is it all going on? It’s boring here. I’m bored.” He never shakes that.
RIF: Describe the incredible impact both of these brothers had on the worlds of fashion and music, art, and certainly photography. They touched a little bit of everything.
LR: Tommy opened his store on Savile Row in 1969. At that particular moment, Savile Row was very staid. It was where your father and grandfather would go to get immaculate suits, but they weren’t adventurous, they weren’t colorful. They were perfectly made, but they were like drapes or something; they weren’t that interesting. Tommy blows it open by taking that creativity, the carefree, devil-may-care attitude of the young people around him on Carnaby Street and with the mods, and blends them together. He brings the street fashion and combines it with the incredibly high-end craftsmanship of Savile Row.
In doing so, he becomes one of the first menswear designers before it was a category people recognized. There was no one. There was no Tom Ford. There were people who were designing for men, certainly, but it wasn’t necessarily their main gig. Tommy deliberately stepped into this categorical vagueness between a tailor and a designer, and no one really knew how to categorize him. He lamented that later in his life, saying he didn’t think he was one thing or the other. In stepping into that space, he made a clearing for people in the future, and that was a major influence he hasn’t necessarily been fully recognized for.
In terms of what he did in a more direct, visible sense, he dressed some of these amazing people who are now iconic. He was the person they went to for their clothes. So he influenced the imagery of these famous images, like the Abbey Road crossing. We look at it—and you know exactly what it looks like—and it looks like that partly because of him and the suits he made. David, on the other hand, as a photographer, took some of these photographs we now associate with these people, so we’re looking through his eyes when we look at them. He influenced the way we think about these icons.
RIF: Just by reading, I feel like I got to touch a bit of the Beatles and Bianca Jagger. When you look at the Beatles on the Abbey Road cover, which three are dressed in Tommy’s designs?
LR: It’s John, Ringo, and Paul. George is wearing denim because he did things his own way, but that wasn’t actually planned. Peter Brown, who was Tommy’s partner for a while and the assistant to the Beatles, the manager after Brian Epstein died, told me it wasn’t planned. They just happened to be wearing clothes that day that expressed how they were feeling, which in itself is an interesting thing to think about—the way they wanted to express themselves was in Tommy’s clothes.
RIF: When you think of shoots nowadays with racks of clothing, it’s amazing that they just went out into the crosswalk.
LR: Today it would all be planned in advance and strategized for a coherent image.
RIF: Maximum impact.
LR: Right, and with designers sponsoring that moment. Tommy had no idea until they saw the picture, and he was delighted. He told people for the rest of his life, “Oh, yeah. I did that.”
RIF: That’s so cool. Are people like magazine editors and fashion designers still drawing consciously, or even unconsciously, from Tommy’s work?
LR: There are designers we revere today who later acknowledged a direct influence. Tom Ford is one, and possibly the most famous menswear designer working at the moment who’s acknowledged being influenced by Tommy. Tommy Hilfiger said that Tommy Nutter’s brazenness and willingness to be a bit of an exhibitionist really inspired him back in the day when he was still a young, up-and-coming designer. As recently as February, Todd Schneider did a collection at New York Fashion Week that was inspired by Tommy Nutter. You’ve got a designer still referencing him nearly 50 years after he opened his shop.
If you wanted to go more into the tailoring world, there’s an entire group of people now who quite openly acknowledge that they’re tailor-designers, that ambiguous space Tommy opened up—they inhabit that freely in a way they wouldn’t have been able to without him. There’s some of Tommy’s adventurousness with clashing patterns and the size of lapels and certain stylistic things as well. I certainly see images sometimes and have to do a double take because they seem like something he would have done, or something that he’s inspired.
RIF: That’s so cool. Where did you get the idea to write House of Nutter? What was the first seed?
LR: It’s funny—someone the other day called me a fashion writer, and I’m like, “I’m not a fashion writer at all!” I usually write about wolves in the west or something; I’m much more of an outdoor adventure writer. It’s strange that I would write this book, but the reason I did is because I don’t have a beat. I want to write about the things that intuitively interest me. When I start on a project, I don’t always necessarily understand why I’m writing about something, and it’s through the writing process that I work out why I’m doing what I’m doing.
The original seed was when a very good friend of mine told me a story once about this man named Tommy Nutter, a known tailor in London, who went to an opening of an Andy Warhol exhibition in the Tate Gallery and was denied access because he didn’t have a ticket, so his response was to run across the road and throw himself into the Thames. I thought that was a bit of an unusual overreaction. I did some reading, and the more I read about him, the more I became intrigued. I realized at a certain point that his life mapped in an unusual way onto the contours of 50 years of queer history. I thought it might be an interesting way of telling that story through this one man.
You’ll note I haven’t mentioned David, because I didn’t know he existed. I met him in New York and found him on LinkedIn of all places. I arrange to have coffee with him, and he turns up wearing this crumpled Rolling Stones t-shirt. I think my original notes from that meeting say, “Is David going to be a problem?” He struck me as really eccentric and maybe a little unhinged, and I say that with love now because, of course, he wasn’t unhinged. He was telling the truth about everything. It was only gradually that I realized the story I was telling was twice the size I thought it was, that it was actually about two people. It was very intuitive, the whole process.
RIF: Right, because in your research, David was meant to add some color about his brother as an interview subject. Then, suddenly, you discover this treasure trove. What was it like?
LR: Right, he was meant to be a source. He wasn’t meant to be half the book. It was every writer’s dream, to have someone come to their apartment. After that initial meeting I arranged to have him come over, and I was asking questions about their childhood, mining him for details about his brother, and he started mentioning, “When I was hanging out with Michael Jackson”—and not in a conceited way, just offhanded, not even realizing what he was really saying, because he’s the most guileless person you’ll ever meet. He just casually mentioned things, and I’d be like, “What? Excuse me? Can we just rewind that? What do you mean you were in Gibraltar when John and Yoko got married? What were you doing there?”
I gradually pulled the story out of him from over a year of him coming over on Monday afternoons. It was almost like therapy. He’d sit on my couch, I’d give him Milano cookies and pump him for information, and then he started bringing over boxes. Then I realized exactly what he had, and what he’d done, because he’s bringing over boxes full of the most extraordinary photographs taken of all sorts of things: famous people, drag queens in 1963 before it was even legal, his brother, his family, the most wonderful pictures. But he’d also bring over letters that Tommy had written from London, and eventually 17 scrapbooks of every cutting that Tommy had ever found about himself—just handed to me, and some from obscure sources that I’d have never found otherwise.
The last thing he gave me was 26 years of diaries he’d written. He’s got the most amazing diary. Each page is a day, and it’s ruled in half. The top of the page is what he did that day. It’s very, “I got up, had coffee. Saw this person. Took a Quaalude. Blacked out.”
RIF: The usual.
LR: The usual. For him, it was. The bottom half of the page is a dream diary, and it was more vivid than the top half. He had the most insane dreams. When you sync them up and see what he was taking and what he was doing, maybe it makes a bit more sense, but his recall was extraordinary.
I remember a certain point in the process, my editor writing me an email saying, “Look, I know the dreams are really interesting, but you have to cut them all out because you’ve put so many in,” and I just kept putting them in. I was like, “Oh my god, this is Freudian. It’s really relevant. It’s important.” So we removed them except for a few key ones, but that was the last thing he gave me, and it added this insane layer of immediacy. Some of the things about nights out with Elton John, you read them, and if I didn’t know how they were made, I’d wonder, because they’re so detailed in some places.
RIF: I can’t imagine it without the two dueling stories. They’re inextricably linked and inform one another. What a find. I bet your heart stopped when you realized it was going to be a bigger book.
LR: It did, a little bit, but I was so excited about how it was going to be a bigger book and the scope of it, how wonderful he was and that he was right there with me the whole way telling me his story. I was never worried. If I was worried about anything, it was the reaction of the publisher when I called them up and said, “Hey, you know this book, well, maybe it’s 30,000 words more. Is that okay?” I was more worried about that than I was about more work.
RIF: What do you hope for as people read this? What do you hope they take away from it?
LR: I feel like everyone’s going to take something different because it crosses so much ground. For me, the thing that was the most surprising and stayed with me long after I finished was the sense the AIDS crisis ended; that it was awful what happened, but it ended. I learned talking to David that for some people, it never ended. Some people live with the fallout of what happened every day. They are ghosts in this city, in New York, walking around. They’re sitting on the subway. These faces you look at and maybe don’t think about, they’re carrying this incredible trauma. David lost everyone. Tommy was 49 when he died, and god knows what he would have gone on to do. We’ll never know. It’s appalling that what happened happened, and was allowed to happen for so long.
RIF: Was there anything surprising in your research that stopped you in your tracks?
LR: It would be having someone sitting right in front of me who had lived that and could tell me in vivid detail what it’s like. You hear about survivor syndrome, which is a sense of guilt at living through something when everyone else died. You read about it, and it’s an abstract thing. You don’t necessarily appreciate what that really means, and to have someone on your couch telling you what it means, and what he’s gone through and lost, was hard to listen to and think about for long periods of time, because I then had to work out how to present it to people. You don’t go into a book about a tailor on Savile Row expecting to be confronted with these big, existential questions and lingering questions of trauma. It was unexpected and difficult, but important, and I’m really glad the book was elastic enough that it could encompass it, ending with a story that’s even more important.
RIF: And that’s what makes this book so incredible. Thank you so much, Lance.
Author Photo: THEGINGERB3ARDMEN