Costumiere Extraordinaire

Roger K. Burton opens his contemporary collection.

On the same day that Clash sits down with the man behind the Contemporary Wardrobe, almost to the hour, A$AP Rocky arrives at the Dior haute couture Spring/Summer ’13 show dressed in a full Shaun Samson look. The outfit is from Samson’s Autumn/Winter ’13 collection, debuted in London just two weeks previous; chinchilla ear muffs, smart white shirt under striped monochrome hockey top, baggy leather shorts and a pair of black Doc Martens.

Prior to his Clash cover shoot last summer, A$AP was only aware of Shaun’s clothing via a few pieces he’d glimpsed in Opening Ceremony; by the end of the shoot he wanted the designer’s full MA collection.

As A$AP takes to his seat on the front row, Clash takes their seat in Roger K. Burton’s office, upstairs at The Hospital Club in Bloomsbury, the space his company has inhibited for the last twenty years. Green walls, old coats hung up across a number of hooks, book keeping files on a top shelf, a glass cabinet filled with various trinkets and a free standing heater; in the toilet there is a vintage ‘Extra Value Meal’ sign, McDonalds having been a former client.

The Tuileries this is not.

Roger K. Burton set up the Contemporary Wardrobe in 1978 as a specialist hire company, and today it is Europe’s largest collection of Street Fashion. His big break - or sudden career realisation - came with the role of costume stylist on the film Quadrophenia, in which he kitted out the entire cast in authentic ’60s clobber, but for which he wasn’t credited. Since then he has worked on numerous films, on a host of commercials and styled a ton of musicians. A quick peruse of the CW website offers up names such as David Bowie, Coca Cola and Chariots Of Fire.

The impressive figures are all there too: one hundred music promos up until the late-’80s, one hundred and fifty commercials, and fifty music promos post-1990; Burton is a man who has barely sat still throughout his extensive career. Indeed, in a blog post on the site he writes: “I experienced speed and became hooked on life, not ever wishing to sleep through a single moment, there was just too much to do and never enough time to do it.”

The CW collection itself boasts an excess of fifteen thousand garments, designed between 1945 and today; “I’m a magpie basically,” he figures. Walking into the pink room, next door to his office, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled across a cousin of Beyond Retro or Rokit.

Working closely with musicians has been a constant for Burton; having worked alongside Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in the ’70s - most notably designing their World’s End store - he is from perhaps the first wave of notable band stylists. So how collaborative should a musician and stylist be? “Depends on the musician really. Some, well most of them are very opinionated and have some kind of idea of what they want. Whether it’s right for them is a another thing, I think it’s the stylist’s job to bring out the best in that musician, and maybe introduce them to stuff that they’ve never seen before.”

Herein lies the link to our Dior friend, welcomed into the depths of Samson’s world by Clash Fashion Director Matthew Josephs, leaving an international poster boy for the young designer.

Openly obsessed with the past (when pushed he will confirm 1950s America as his favourite era: “there was a sense of exploration and travel and people really experimented with things”) his key passion is learning. Though he has made the same claim about fashion in the past, in conversation he is most animated when talking about discovery (though of course much of today’s chat is in regards to clothing).

Having experienced firsthand every subculture to infiltrate the UK since the ’60s, Burton subsequently decided that none were as laudable as his original Mod get-up; “I experienced a lot through the hippie movement but hated the clothes - these people knew nothing of simplicity being the essence of style,” he has written.

Decades on, he is excited by London’s new wave in menswear, both at London Collections and on the street. “It’s great to see boys actually wearing clothes differently and adding a bit of colour. We’ve had thirty years of black clothes, I’m blacked out completely, so anything that’s not black I think is great.”

Burton first moved into The Horse Hospital in 1993; originally christened The Chamber Of Pop Culture, the debut exhibit to dwell at the space was Vive Le Punk!, a selection of pieces from Westwood and McLaren’s shops Let It Rock, Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die, SEX and Seditionaries.

“The mainstream is well taken care of by endless galleries and event spaces, I like to think we’re a little home for nomads in a way,” Burton says of his businesses home, twenty years down the line. Despite being barely a month into 2013, he readily reels off a programme’s worth of forthcoming exhibitions, beginning with Morton Bartlett next month.

Attention to detail is the standout credential that the Contemporary Wardrobe possesses, and before Clash departs the conversation turns back once more to film. Burton sits on the jury at BAFTA and has spent the last month watching several hundred films. “Have you seen The Hunger Games? Not a bad story, good casting, but what a lost opportunity. The costuming was just, like Lady Gaga on acid but really bad and really cheap.”

Words and photos: Zoe Whitfield

This is an excerpt from the March 2013 issue of Clash magazine. Find out more about the issue.

Tonight The Horse Hospital shows a triple bill including Vive le Punk. Find out more about the screening.

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