As the son of British designer Vivienne Westwood and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, Joe Corré probably doesn’t need to prove his punk bona fides — or maybe he does. And as the founder of Agent Provocateur lingerie, Corré has drawn a fair bit of controversy — his brand lives up to its name with its daring, frequently explicit videos featuring models like Kate Moss and celebrities like Kylie Minogue and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
A flair for the provocative and a flair for punk have come together in Corré’s latest stunt: Over Thanksgiving weekend, on the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’s “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the punk scion and businessman set more than $6 million in punk memorabilia ablaze on the banks of the Thames. Ostensibly protesting Punk London, a celebration of the movement that had the Queen’s endorsement (there’s nothing less punk than royalty; the Queen might be quirky, sure, but not punk) and the support of many British cultural institutions, Corré was joined by his mother Westwood for the bonfire, where he burned effigies of politicians like David Cameron and Theresa May, stoked the flames with rare records and custom garments, and set off fireworks.
Corré has been promising to set fire to his punk memorabilia since March. Sitting in a chair, in tortoise-rimmed glasses, a sweater, and an oxford shirt, he told Dazed, “I think the statement is important.” (He preceded that by acknowledging that he and Westwood were still discussing what, exactly, it was that they were trying to say.) He first attempted to sell his original acetate of “Anarchy in the U.K.” on eBay; when that failed, he decided to burn it all down.
So the question remains: Is it punk? Or is it just the death of punk?
“We never had a strategy then, that’s why we never got anywhere,” Westwood announced to the waiting crowd during the Nov. 26 bonfire, referring to the early days of punk. After debuting a rap tape and declaring Hillary Clinton evil, she presided over the burning of millions of dollars’ worth of museum-caliber punk artifacts, because apparently punk is more about a DGAF ethos than any particular aesthetic. Indeed, Corré said he thought his dad would find the whole affair “hilarious.” And with grand dame of punk’s approval, how could it be anything but? There's nothing less punk than memorabilia, right? (But then, with a plan nearly a year in the making and a press release to boot, how could it be?)
In a 2004 essay entitled “Punk Is Dead! Long Live Punk!,” critic Jessica Hopper wrote of the Vans Warped Tour, “Punk in its primal form is of course a deeply anticommercial genre.” But a version of it has been sanitized and sold and collected and museum’ed, all forms of preservation and promulgation that are at odds with the movement itself.
The Warped Tour-ification of punk is something of an analogue to a city-wide London celebration of the ’70s and ’80s subculture. Back in the ’80s, Westwood herself was instrumental in packaging punk for a consumer audience; and though the Sex Pistols were one of the forefathers of the underground movement, their music, too, has been co-opted by the masses, growing more palatable with each spin on the radio.
That’s Corré’s real gripe — that what was once a chaotic movement has been cleaned up and processed and endorsed. Corré’s flaming funeral pyre to punk is, quite literally, anti-commercial — in that it demonstrates an outright refusal to profit from punk. (We might argue, of course, that he already has; he sold his collection to fund Agent Provocateur in its early days, eventually buying it back when he had the resources.)
It’s a pretty meta move, we must admit: It’s equal parts protest of the now-corporate nature of punk and a funeral ceremony sending punk off in a blaze of glory. That’s probably how it was always meant to go, anyways; it’s ironic, or something, that a protest of a celebration of punk turns out to be punk’s most fitting celebration. It's kind of punk, but it's kind of anti-punk.
As Corré said ahead of the bonfire: “It’s time we threw it all on the fire and started again.”