Never mind the Bollocks

With the King and Queen of punk as his Mum and Dad, no wonder Joe Corre grew up to run an underwear empire. Here, he talks about Malcolm and Vivienne, his extraordinary childhood and how he got big in pants

On The Way from the Tube station to Joseph Corre's underwear shop you pass the 100 Club, the basement venue in Oxford Street where the Sex Pistols revealed their astonishing, incompetent, brutal and compelling sound to the world. These days, the safety pins and bin liners of punk rock seem quaint, a reminder of yet another failed attempt at youthful rebellion. Repackaged for the nostalgia market ("Happy Christmas, Granny. Here's a copy of The Best Punk Album In The World ... Ever. Volume Two.") it is kept alive for the tourists by a forlorn group of stragglers on the King's Road. Back then, it actually seemed important. People were genuinely frightened.

For some, the summer of 1977 was about celebrating the Queen's Silver Jubilee, with street parties, bunting and union flags on little plastic sticks. For others, it was about "Anarchy in the UK", "Pretty Vacant", and "God Save the Queen" being banned by the BBC. Malcolm McLaren was the art-school poseur who talked up the revolution as the Sex Pistols' Svengali (although he always preferred to think of himself as Fagin). His partner, Vivienne Westwood, defined punk's fashionable "anti-fashion" look with the bondage clothes she made and sold at their shop in Chelsea's World's End.

For Malcolm and Vivienne's son Joe, the summer of 1977 was about packing sandwiches and bottles of pop into a bag with a tent and going for a bike ride with his half-brother, Ben. The pair set out to cycle from their home in Clapham to their maternal grandparents in Devon, a distance of more than 200 miles. In the early hours of the next morning, the boys were stopped by the police, who thought they had caught two child runaways. A telephone call home revealed that this was not the case - Ben and Joe were doing it because Mum and Dad, the King and Queen of Punk, had told them to. It would encourage independence, they said. The children were allowed to finish their journey, which took four days. Ben was 12 at the time. Joe was only eight years old.

He's 30 Now, and smoking full-strength Marlboro cigarettes in a chic Italian coffee bar with a fire burning in the corner. These days Joseph Corre (pronounced "Corray") is a man who sells crotchless knickers for a living - through his shop, Agent Provocateur - though to compare him to Ann Summers would provoke his famous temper. He is tall, thin and cool, with a long feral face, in which can be seen the reflections of both his parents. Sideburns dissolve into stubble. His medium-length hair is brushed and gelled back in fairly standard, tousled, rock'n'roll fashion.

"When I was growing up, in my childhood, I was given a hell of a lot of independence," he says, looking over my head and out of the window as he talks. The voice is familiar - not the camp, convoluted drawl of his mother but the voice of the south-London street urchin who just happened to go to public school. The aitchdropping whine of his father, in other words. "Independence was forced upon me."

In what way? The question clearly bores him. "Oh, you know, you must have heard the stories."

They are easy to come by. When you grow up with two highly successful people who love to play media games, your intimate moments become a matter of record. Besides the bike ride and a four-week trip to France with another child at the age of 10, there's the story about Joe taking a liking to playing in dustbins, after McLaren had thrown his toys away because he wouldn't tidy his bedroom. Then there's the one about McLaren (who refused to let his son call him Dad) paying for Joe to go on a school skiing trip, as long as he read a book on the Sex Pistols first. The day before he was due to leave, McLaren discovered that he hadn't read the book. The trip was off. "Children are never easy and I had to cope with Malcolm, too - he was like 10 children all by himself," Westwood herself would write later.

Joseph Ferdinand was named after a painting by Velazquez in the National Gallery. His father insisted that he take the surname of his grandmother, Rose Corre, who had become McLaren's legal guardian after his parents split up. McLaren never saw so much as a photograph of his father until they were reunited in the late 1980s, and once also said he had spoken no more than a few words to his mother in 40 years.

Vivienne Westwood was a 26-year-old art teacher, married with a son, when she met McLaren, a teenage student friend of her brother. They stayed together for nearly 17 years. Joseph was born in Stockwell in 1968. "I said not to worry, I was on the Pill," recalled Westwood. "Only I was lying." She was persuaded to have an abortion, but changed her mind at the door of the clinic. The couple spent the money they had borrowed for the operation on a blue cashmere suit.

Joseph was sent to boarding school at the age of five. "It seemed the only way to have the time to be creative and to keep up with Malcolm," wrote his mother. Her son went to two boarding schools that year, then to day schools in Balham, Chelsea and Putney. Before he was 16 he also went to two more boarding schools and a comprehensive in Battersea. Why so many?

"When I was quite young," he starts, before pausing to suck on another filter. "Oh, I don't fucking know. I always thought my parents couldn't afford the fees, so after a couple of terms they would take me out without paying." That was also what they told the papers - though when the adult Joe confronted his parents, they insisted it was the schools that had been the problem.

Children who move around a lot often find it hard to make friends. Was that true of Joe? "Maybe. I don't have a lot of close friends. I know a lot of people. I'm not a loner or anything."

The time he did spend at home sounds relatively happy and calm, although he did once admit to taking "a bit of pot" from the age of 12. "I don't really think we had a rock'n'roll lifestyle. Someone like Sid Vicious led a rock'n'roll lifestyle." (Sid, of course, died a rock'n'roll death too, soon after that of his girlfriend Nancy. Some criticised McLaren for pushing him on towards greater feats of self-abuse.) "I don't think my parents were like Sid Vicious, because he was ... almost part of an experiment. It was almost like they were scientists working in a laboratory and he was one of the test tubes."

Asked if he ever gets to see his father, Joe becomes cautious. "I see him now and again, yeah. I have ... a fairly good relationship with him. It's fine, really." There is a pause. "For everybody, at some stage, your parents fall off their parapet [sic], and become less important in your life. It's a bit hurtful sometimes."

Was it you who put them up there in the first place? "Yeah. Absolutely. Of course. I thought they were fucking great. They were involved in all that punk-rock scene and everything, and on the front of the Sun as being the leaders of this youth revolution, something that I thought was fantastic at the time. They really had an effect on the culture of this country. I was in awe of that, and thought it was something very special."

Being left alone so much gave him an advantage, he insists. "I had got a lot of self-confidence, and found out for myself at very early ages what other people take years to discover."

After Leaving school at 16, Joe ran a market stall, became a runner for an advertising agency and saved enough money to go off to Italy and Greece, where he worked in bars. For eight years he helped his mother build up her design company. They re-established her World's End shop, and took advantage of an extraordinary rise in critical opinion. Westwood, something of a laughing stock in the years after punk's demise, has now twice been named British Designer of the Year, and was awarded the OBE in 1992. John Fairchild, publisher of the hugely influential American fashion magazine Women's Wear Daily, famously considers her to be one of the six great designers of the 20th century.

"She's done some fantastic things, and I'm proud about that," says Joe, who is wearing a grey leopard-print top with the Westwood logo on it. He left her company three years ago to start a lingerie business in Soho with his girlfriend Serena Rees. They sell an upmarket, beautifully made and accordingly-priced range of underwear, from baby-doll nighties and updated French-maid outfits to black leather bondage bras and silver mouth braces. A second Agent Provocateur shop opened this month in Knightsbridge; there is also mail-order business, and a franchise at the Fiorucci store in Milan.

As we talk, the owner of the coffee shop approaches to show Joe a fashion- shoot in a glossy magazine for men. It features a woman wearing his products, which have also been seen on the pages of Vogue and The Face. Would it not be fair, I wonder, to say that Agent Provocateur has only received so much publicity because of who he is?

"Yeah, sure," he says, throwing me. "Absolute-ly fair to say. Completely fucking right." Doesn't that bother him? "I don't have a chip on my shoulder about it. I might feel like that if what I was doing was really rubbish, and people were only interested in it was because I had some credibility from my parents."

We Talk about lingerie. Joe is scathing about the other shops in Soho. "They are so unsexy. It's a lager-lout take on what sexy is supposed to be: lager-flavoured nipple drops in Ann Summers, or a 99p G-string thing that just looks awful. Everything comes in one size. I want to create an environment which reflects and suits the product: intimate, glamorous, sexy, fashionable, sumptuous, relaxed, with a boudoir feel to it."

There are no strip blinds in Agent Provocateur. The mannequins in the window are dressed in fur coats, opened to reveal black lingerie with cutaway nipple holes. Previous displays have included naked dummies with "Boycott Shell" stickers in intimate places, and a giant Christmas tree in the shape of a penis, with snow spurting from the top. Someone complained about that. "It amazes me how straight some people are. I can't understand it." It is unfair to judge a man on the sins or exploits of his father, but when Joe complains that such prudery is "typical of the British attitude" it is hard not to hear the words of McLaren or Westwood over the years.

His defences are not yet as eloquent as theirs, however. He has been called a misogynist and, to the inexpert eye, his products do look as much of an imposition of male fantasy as the tackier (and cheaper) versions for sale down the road. "I had this woman come into the shop once, who said, 'Someone bought me this thing but I can't possibly wear it, I'm a feminist.' I thought, 'What the fuck does that mean?' This stuff is really feminine, makes you look fantastic as a woman. What's wrong with that? People are so fucking confused."

He is, he says, trying to promote the idea that femininity is at least as powerful as masculinity, maybe more. Asked what the women who work with him think about that, he seems completely thrown. "What do they think? I do ... I don't know. All the girls ... I think that a lot of women are - no they're not - they don't even need to think about it in that way. They just are feminine."

There is another woman in Joe's life now, his five-month-old daughter Cora. He and Serena plan to buy an old building in Spitalfields where their offices and home can be combined. The next question is obvious: what has he learned about parenting from his own childhood?

"I got myself into situations where now, it would be really hard now . . . I don't know what I'd feel about my daughter being eight or nine years old and going on the Tube around London on her own. I don't know whether I'd feel cool about it, really. I'd kind of be worried that something might happen to her, do you know what I mean? I don't know whether there are any more nutters around now than there used to be." Then a suspicion enters his mind that seems at odds with his whole life. "It's hard to say whether I'm being a bit conservative." !

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