via Chic is the New Punk
I first met Gene Krell of Vogue Japan and his wife Nao Krell, the visual merchandising artist and photographer, when I moved to Japan a couple of years ago. Brooklyn-born Gene is an industry legend in the worlds of fashion and music. Even before his career in journalism, Gene had already made his mark as the owner of the seminal London-based shop Granny Takes A Trip, an iconic arbiter of 1970s dandyism and glam-rock, and the sartorial hotspot for the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Marc Bolan.
Through his friendship with Ronnie and Jonathan Newhouse of Conde Nast, Gene brought Vogue to Asia, launching the title in Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Today, he remains the international fashion director of Japanese Vogue and GQ, and the creative director for Korean Vogue, W, and GQ. The practicing Buddhist is also known for his philanthropic activities, raising funds for the Philippines’ Haiyan victims and collaborating on a T-shirt project with A Bathing Ape’s Nigo to benefit Haiti. We chat with the endearingly affable Gene in Tokyo.
Thank you for taking the time to chat, Gene.
Nao and I were saying what a wonderful life you have. It’s hard to find people you love where you have so many common interests. There’s a commonality in you, Philippe, Nao and I in that we’re cultural cannibals. We remain curious in what’s behind ‘door number 3.’ From the first time we all went out, we just felt comfortable in discussing travel, culture, our perspectives, and the things that motivate us. It was just such a good fit. You need to be with someone that you constantly test the [creative] muscles with.
We enjoy being with you and Nao as well! Gene, tell us a little bit about how you started. Where did your interest in fashion come from?
My mother said I was already selecting my own clothes when I was five. I already had an innate sense of color and I think that’s always been my forte. I had always been a fan of Kandinsky. As a result of that, at a very early stage, I was already establishing a certain taste and it impacted virtually everything that I did in my life. I always considered fashion to be an art form – not a major art form – but I thought it was part of a creative process that really fascinated me. I was awful in school, I was fairly rebellious but I was already developing those kinds of interests. I was very much a loner but it was funny because even from a young age, I was very popular with girls. I had this image of being aloof and the things I concerned myself with – particularly growing up in the mean streets of Brooklyn in the ‘50s – cultivated a certain interest.
“I was making clothes at the time for Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and so on. The Japanese were very interested in the man that made the suits for Marc Bolan… I came to Japan and it was really love at first sight.”
How did you find yourself living in Japan?
I’ve always been interested in Asian culture but to be honest, when I was young, it was primarily Chinese culture. Then I moved to England and met so many wonderful Japanese people when I had my shop, Granny Takes A Trip. I was making clothes at the time for Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and so on. The Japanese were very interested in the man that made the suits for Marc Bolan – they were fascinated by Bowie and Bolan. I came to Japan and it was really love at first sight. I was enamored by the culture. I just established so many wonderful relationships. In addition, I was a practicing Buddhist for all my adult life. So that was another thing that drew me here.
When I was working with Vivienne [Westwood], I was invited back [to Japan]. This was the ‘80s. A number of people, primarily in the music business, they knew me through the shop. And you have to realize it was the bubble economy. You knew just about everybody and we used to go to Omotesando – Café Rope! – there was a café where we would all meet, and we all had money and we were all celebrating. It was just a wonderful place to be at the time. We all knew the designers who had shows. It was a golden moment of a mosaic of our lives. You just go there and if you were lonely, you were down, you just go there and you’ll find someone you knew. There was nothing like it before or since.
How did Vogue happen?
My relationship with Vogue goes back to the late Anna Piaggi, who was at Italian Vogue. When I had Granny Takes A Trip, she was very interested in the clothes we were producing and I worked with her. I was also very close with Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, who’s still a good, good friend, when I worked for Details magazine [published under Conde Nast]. Details, at that time, produced people like Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber, Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, and Stephen Gan.
Through a series of events, I was working for Vivienne and I wasn’t making any money. Though it was no fault of hers, it was a lot of mayonnaise sandwiches. I was living in Brazil and I moved back to New York. I was working at a club and at a shop designing clothes. I was doing the clubs to make money. When that dried up, I worked at Barney’s selling shoes.
In the meantime, I was still traveling to Japan making a little money there. But what I would do was fly Korean Air because the tickets were very inexpensive. The caveat was you had to stop off at Seoul. So I stopped off and I decided to spend time in Seoul. I immediately I saw the potential in the city. Why? I went to the Lotte Department Store and the women there were just beautiful and they were so stylish. I thought to myself, ‘There must be a magazine that echoes this kind of sensibility.’ I went to the bookstore and saw that there was no magazine that really reflected what was happening in the city.
I went back to New York, and I knew Ronnie from Details at this point, she was betrothed to Jonathan Newhouse. I was traveling using the money I made from the clubs, flying to Korea. I put together a staff there and made a proposal to Jonathan Newhouse and Mr. Si Newhouse to launch Vogue Korea.
It took about a year and Jonathan got me a call with Doosan, one of the largest companies in Korea and in Asia. I met with them and they were impressed, but I didn’t hear back from them. Then a business-class plane ticket to Seoul arrived and I didn’t realize that I had already been hired! They gave me the job of Creative Director and it was green lights from the first day. The first issue sold out within one day and we had to go into second printing immediately. The day after my mother died, I had to go into a photo shoot for the cover of Vogue Korea with Linda Evangelista and I dedicated it to my mom.
I don’t really think of my life in terms of purpose or accomplishment – I’m very much a Taoist in that way – but I can’t say that false modesty is a virtue. A magazine of that quality was quite extraordinary because we didn’t have editors that had real experience, they didn’t know what shooting was. That’s what novices they were. When I look back, I have to say that was really quite remarkable. They had Singapore Vogue originally, but it wasn’t a major Vogue [and it folded] so I’m often credited with bringing Vogue to Asia. I would always say there was Singapore Vogue but I will take the compliment!
On the success of that, I got a call asking if I will establish Vogue Taiwan. So I did. Then Conde Nast bought out my contract from the licensees and I came back to Tokyo to help launch Japanese Vogue.
What was it like to bring Vogue to Japan?
If you look at Japanese Vogue, it’s very independent, it doesn’t really look like a Vogue. And I struggled, all that grey hair – I never had that before I came here! It was absolutely daunting because I had to do a Japanese magazine but yet a Japanese magazine which reflected the policies and attitudes of Vogue. And we weren’t welcome – remember that we didn’t launch that magazine for three years. It was extremely difficult. I didn’t want the magazine to look like a formula, but I wanted the magazine to have a certain kind of technique. The thing is, you have to provide something that doesn’t already exist so people will come and that’s what I had to do when I came here. And I had to really be demonstrative about it, I had to say how I saw the magazine because I was the only one that had experience in the creative element of the magazine. I knew some of the language and I had some friends here and knew which people I can sort of integrate into the fabric and the mosaic of the magazine. When you look at it now, whatever one might say about it, I think it’s a terribly interesting magazine. It very much captures the mood of what goes on around here.
“If you look at Japanese Vogue, it’s very independent, it doesn’t really look like a Vogue… I think it’s a terribly interesting magazine. It very much captures the mood of what goes on around here.”
How has Japan changed since you first came here all those years ago?
Japan is one of those places that when you live here, it doesn’t really give you much to feed off of. People are drawn here because they think, ‘Yeah man, the sushi is really amazing and the women are geishas off the street, and the manga and Harajuku!’ I mean, I knew Gwen Stefani and there’s no such thing as a Harajuku girl. The girls on that video were Chinese-Americans! Every time a friend of mine comes and says, ‘Man, I’m dying to live here!’ I never try to dissuade them or disillusion them, and I’m not trying to be disrespectful – this is my home – but you have to realize that Tokyo is not an easy city to inhabit for foreigners. You’re continually kept at an arm’s distance. When I go to Paris, people don’t even recognize the fact that I work for Japanese Vogue – I’ve said that to you before. I’m both amused and perplexed by it because I initiated the magazine, I launched Vogue here. And that’s one of the juxtapositions that exists here. It’s true that it’s safe, it’s clean, it’s all those kinds of clichés but when you scratch the veneer a little bit deeper, it really reveals a dark underbelly. You have to have that kind of experience and you have to have tolerance to really understand that.
I find Tokyo now, the consciousness has been somehow diminished. I don’t see now the creative muscle that we had in the ‘80s but you can say that about virtually any city today. But Tokyo doesn’t really cultivate it, it doesn’t really encourage it. I spoke to Yoon [of Ambush] today and she sort of said the same thing. I don’t relish in the fact that I’m so critical but it’s because I love this city so much that I am critical. I see young people who aren’t encouraged [to be creative].
I was booted out of CNN because I was doing commentary for them and they asked me, ‘Who’s the new Rei Kawakubo?’ And I said to them, ‘Who is the new Massaccio?’ That can only happen in a certain space and time that doesn’t exist anymore. The thing is, culture is born out of a reaction, they’re born out of what precedes them and there’s nothing here that preceded them that would call for that dramatic or radical a change. People here are very sedate in their attitudes and they’re very provincial. It’s very telling that AKB48 is the only thing that this culture has really produced in the last few years. Where are the great writers? Where are the great filmmakers? This society no longer considers those things virtuous. There’s very little you can point to here today that really gives a sense or an idea of how much this culture has contributed on the world stage. It doesn’t exist now.
Fashion today has become so commercialized from when you first started in it. How do you reconcile with that and how do you stay motivated doing what you do?
I never feel that I really have to defend what I do and I’m quite happy to make the kind of money that I do. Money in itself buys a certain degree of freedom and it also enables people to broaden their narrative and perspective. I wear a lot of nenjus on my wrist everyday and I never feel I have to justify or rationalize what I do. The Buddha said it’s quite natural to want beauty in your life, they believed that gold was pieces from the sun that had broken off and fallen to earth. I don’t know if that’s an attempt at justifying the fascination but it points to something that remains in the conversation – fashion in itself is part of a creative process and that in itself is its virtue. It offers people a self-esteem.
I’ve told this story before: My sister-in-law – may she rest in peace – she suffered terribly from muscular dystrophy and she saw a photograph of a dress worn by Paulina Porizkova. So I told a friend of mine, Michael Weaver, about it and he quickly found the dress. I gave it to her and she just held it up. She had all her pain, she stood up and she felt whole again. Fashion really has this ability – we have the ability to do that – to really impact people’s lives.
Fashion is also the greatest of all history lessons, of culture. You see some guy with an Afro hairdo and you immediately recognize the period. You see some broad shoulders and you think, ‘Joan Crawford, 1940.’ So I return to my original statement: I don’t think it’s fashion itself that I have a problem with. The other thing is that for me, and I learned this from one of my late great mentors, the late Bill Cunningham, I don’t really associate with ‘fashion people.’ I feel it’s injurious to my attitude, my outlook, and my perspective. You can easily get caught up in all those things but I’m driven by one singular fact in that it’s about the work. Once you lose sight of that, I think you’re in peril.
In terms of inspiration, we all witness the same things in life. It’s a question of being imaginative and how you distill those ideas. That’s what makes the great designers – the Vivienne Westwoods, the Rei Kawakubos, the Cristobal Balenciagas – that’s what distinguishes them. They know in a sense how a society reveals itself in certain ways and it’s how you utilize that and how you translate it that distinguishes the masters from the wannabes.
“In terms of inspiration, we all witness the same things in life. It’s a question of being imaginative and how you distill those ideas. That’s what makes the great designers – the Vivienne Westwoods, the Rei Kawakubos, the Cristobal Balenciagas… It’s how you translate it that distinguishes the masters from the wannabes.”
Where are your favorite destinations to travel to?
It’s something that the great American insurance salesman [and American Modernist poet] Wallace Steven said when they asked him what’s the most beautiful thing in the world? He said, “Why, the most beautiful thing in the world is the world itself.” That’s always cultivated or amplified my curiosity. Because it’s a question of challenge, of discovery. You really want to have an understanding, particularly now, where the world stands.
I told you that I’ve been reading particularly on Lee Kuan Yew. I know he has detractors and I don’t agree with them – you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Was he flawed? Most certainly he was flawed but you have to look at his achievements and what he did for the people in Singapore. When you look at the world now and the kind of animosity and acrimony that exists, you think that we need a man with that kind of vision.
When you travel to Singapore – and I don’t want to paint with a broad brush that things are perfect there; love is never perfect – people maintain their cultural roots and they wear that as a badge of honor. I’m really drawn to Singapore. A lot of people say it’s because I’m a New Yorker and the multi-ethnicity of New York is reflected in Singapore. Currently, we’re fascinated with Peranakan [Chinese-Malay] culture. Singapore declared their independence as a city-state in 1965 but those cultures, they still thrive there. They integrate in a way which can only be admired.
The other place I love is Hong Kong. The most difficult part of growing old is saying goodbye to people and things you love and appreciate and value. That’s why Nao and I are doing this book on Hong Kong because it’s rapidly disappearing. Nao’s photographs are absolutely beautiful. She doesn’t leave a stone unturned. It’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears so I’m really proud of her.
There are other places I’m passionate about, too. Florence, where I used to go 3-4 times a year. I love Italy though my Italian is getting a little bit rusty. Hawaii as well, Nao and I used to love to surf and we have so many dear friends there. And you know, I’m a New Yorker. And London was where I made my bones, I was educated in London in a way through the people that I met and worked with. I learned about the process, about research, to use all I have read and all I have come to understand from conversation, to speak to people to learn. And it all has a relevancy.
You have to look at travel two ways – you have to go for a certain kind of challenge and yet there’s a real solid comfort in returning to a places that are familiar to you.
I did a whole issue called ‘Rice’ where I got the world’s top photographers and illustrators who asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ I just told them one word: Rice. The results were fantastic – we did punk rice, Day-Glo rice, Ruben Toledo did a wonderful illustration, Richard Burbridge photographed rice with a telescope and the rice looked like an entire world of its own. I used rice as a common denominator to world cultures. We sold all the artwork and donated the money to the World Food Bank. So there are ways that you can initiate ideas that are beneficial, in a real hands-on way where there is no abstraction to altruism. There’s so much to discover and explore in this world.