the velvet underground's john cale on protest fashion in the age of trump

And his enduring love for the gender-neutral dress.

by Erica Euse
18 January 2017, 4:05pm

"We're going to be talking about one of my favorite topics: clothing," John Cale says to me over the phone in his thick Welsh accent.

The legendary musician is best known for co-founding The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed in 1965. But over the past 50 years, he's also cemented himself as a force in the fashion world. Alongside his bandmates, Cale helped pioneer the all-black-everything proto-punk uniform. He was briefly married to designer Betsey Johnson, and has walked the runway for Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto. Even today, at the age of 74-years-old, he's boldly rocking dresses by Hood By Air.

Cale's interest in music and style have always gone hand in hand. As a young boy in Wales, he attempted to recreate the sleek suits he saw his favorite rock and rollers like Bill Haley wear on television. "I'd try and get a pattern and organize it in such a way. I would always be messing with them and trying to make a different pattern than what was given." he explains. "In Wales in those days, you'd drive [tailors] crazy because they knew what they [liked] to do and they did that. They didn't like expanding on it."

Even in the early 50s, Cale gravitated towards the rebellious look of American rock and roll artists. He would slick back his hair and wear tight pants with pointy Winklepicker boots. "When Rock Around the Clock came around and Bill Haley and the others came to film theaters, I would go to the theaters and I ended up on the stage dancing."

Cale made his way to New York City in the 1960s. The young musician relocated to study classical music, but he ended up putting together what would become one of the most influential rock bands of all time. The eclectic group of artists became known for their groundbreaking avant garde sound and their effortlessly cool style, which quickly made them a staple in the downtown music scene and a favorite of pop icon Andy Warhol.

In their early days, the band outfitted themselves almost entirely in black—a color that proved especially useful when they didn't have access to washing machines. Cale would dress in an oversized jacket, turtleneck, skinny trousers, and dark sunglasses. When we speak, he recalls looking like a minister in old photos taken on NYC's Ludlow Street.

"We never agreed 'Now we are going to wear black,' I think that was one agreement too many for us," Cale said laughing. Still, the band's iconic all-black look became the go-to for New York's growing counterculture.

"We improvised the style and if [the pieces] weren't usable, you just went and bought the same thing again," he said. "So, you were locked into this uniform basically. Then it became the uniform for the art world."

It wasn't until 1968 when Cale married designer Betsey Johnson that he started to break out of his signature uniform. During their short marriage, Cale and his band members would request custom suits by Johnson, whose colorful punk-inspired pieces have become iconic in their own right.

"Lou wanted a gray suit made out of leather," he says, recalling one of Johnson's one-of-a-kind outfits. "When he got his suit back there was a weakness in the leather right by his crotch, so when he put his pants on it looked like there was a humongous codpiece. He came out of the dressing room wearing the suit and Sterling [Morrison] (VU guitarist) says, 'Wow Lou, I didn't know you cared.'"

After departing The Velvet Underground in 1968, Cale continued his solo career and remained a mainstay in fashion. In 1991 he appeared on the runway for both Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto during their first menswear shows in Japan. The combined presentation titled "6.1 The Men" acted as a protest to the Kuwait war and featured artists Edgar Winter, Dennis Hopper, and John Lurie, among others, who performed during the finale.

"Yohji's style was always gorgeous gabardine and you got this classic look," he said of Yamamoto. "The fit was just absolutely perfect." Cale also collaborated with Yamamoto on the Japanese designer's 1994 album Your Pain Shall Be Music and appeared in his show again for the fall/winter 04 season during Paris Fashion Week.

These days Cale prefers to dress down. Instead of suits, he favors the drapey relaxed look of Rick Owens and the classic appeal of Public School's menswear. Besides his affinity for the elongated silhouettes, the toned-down aesthetic offers him a level of invisibility when he isn't on stage.

"Most of the time in music, the difference between on-stage and off-stage is pretty clear. With Kanye West, it is not because he has unified the whole thing," he said. "But, that is generally the rule in music—that people get dressed up to go on stage. I like to get dressed up a little bit to go on stage, but I value my privacy, so I don't go walking around in my stage clothes."

While Cale prefers pieces that keep him under the radar, as a tense America prepares for Donald Trump to take office he anticipates that many more people will be using their clothing as a form of protest much like the hippies and punks did in the 60s and 70s.

"The punk movement really became a mass movement because people took what they were doing privately and made it public and wore all the vinyl and all that. It was identification," he said. "You identified yourself in a group. I think it will get really strong with people wanting to identify in a group because it is important especially in a political climate like this one."

Even after 50 years on the scene, Cale continues to reinvent himself, while staying true to the rebellious spirit that made him a musical legend and a style icon. The artist recently re-released his 1992 live album Fragments of a Rainy Season and has plans to drop a hip-hop inspired album later this spring. And of course he's still making waves with his gear. When I asked him about the photo he shared of himself last spring in a knee-length HBA dress and striped leggings, he made it clear that his revolutionary fashion sense is just as alive today as it was when he was when he was trying to dress like Bill Haley.

"I have no qualms with dresses," he told me. "I look pretty good in them."


Text Erica Euse
Photography Ben Colen

John Cale
Hood By Air
Lou Reed
Velvet Underground
Betsey Johnson
The Velvet Underground
Comme des Garçons
Yohji Yamamoto