Iggy Pop: Rocking the look

There's more to being a punk legend than the music – it takes raw style. Iggy Pop tells Carola Long about going shirtless, body glitter and transparent trousers

Iggy Pop's look might be famously distinctive, but I half-expected the punk rocker and general 'real deal' to play down the relationship between fashion and rock in favour of an "it's all about the music " purism.

That's despite the fact that his straight, Miami sun-bleached locks, bare, sinewy chest and perilously low-slung skinny trousers are just as recognisable as Keith Richards's piratical bandanas or Elton John's stack heels and cartoonish sunglasses. In a world where celebrities constantly reinvent themselves, his commitment to an authentic look is refreshing.

However, I'm pleasantly surprised to find that he and guitarist, James Williamson of his band the Stooges, reminisce enthusiastically about the highs and lows of their wardrobes; after all, they are here in New York playing a gig for Ray-Ban to relaunch six new versions of the label's classic Aviator sunglasses. The band, who are also back on tour revisiting their influential 1973 Raw Power album, are performing with several new bands including the Virgins and We Are Scientists, who have customised versions of the Aviators to underline and update the style's musical heritage. They have been worn by the likes of Debbie Harry, Bianca Jagger, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan.

"Image is very, very important, in music," drawls the wiry singer, in that nonchalant baritone, "it always was. However, the transmission has become more democratic, because of digital communication, so if you have a nice flashy shirt, or your arse-crack shows, you can get the message across without as much corporate censorship."

Showing his "arse", and other intimate parts of his anatomy, is fundamental to Iggy Pop's image. Take the transparent plastic trousers he wore to play on The White Room in 1997, which left little to the imagination. The 63-year-old singer, whose decadently lived-in appearance only adds to his charisma, came across the impulse buy whilst walking down Camden High Street. He says, "There they were in a shop, and I just thought they would look good – and they did, frankly." There's lesson number one for aspiring rock stars: forget modesty.

Of course, if you want to bare all, it helps if you have one of the most exposed torsos in rock. Even when Iggy Pop and the Stooges were finally admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, and Iggy turned up to collect his award in a black suit, he soon ripped his shirt off. "Why do I always take my shirt off?" He smiles, "Hey, I have worked with shirts. I worked with shirts for a period in the Seventies." He pauses meaningfully. "It's to get across." Another pause followed by a stare so intense it could blow an amp. "To get closer to you. It just gets across, like a lonely sax. It reaches in a way that works for me." It clearly also works for the crowd inside the Music Hall of Williamsburg, in Brooklyn: a group of hipsters complete with kooky glasses and shrink-to-fit jeans, plus celebrities and media folk, who either provide the human waves for Iggy's crowd surfing, or storm the stage – to the evident horror of health and safety officers.

At our interview, he is wearing a slim black suit with a black T-shirt, and black boots (no socks, they're not very punk), but his on- and off-stage looks have evolved over the years that he's been performing. "We have many strata in the history of our imagery," he explains. "For the first show we ever did I was wearing a white face and an aluminium afro wig with a maternity dress and golf shoes. We had oil drums instead of bass drums, black lighting, and a combination of Hindu imagery and R-rated swear words like 'pussy'." That was in the late Sixties, but when the Seventies dawned, Iggy thought: "It's a new decade I gotta lose the hair. I liked the Jetsons at the time, so I went with short, go-go, red hair and I bought some cheap silver lamé evening gloves at K-Mart. It was a look. Things ebbed and flowed later in reaction to glam – we provoked a lot of glam ourselves – but Alice Cooper and David Bowie and all sorts of people were moving in certain directions, and we started playing with the old make-up sticks a bit more."

Iggy Pop is known for electrifyingly visceral performances – with past antics including slashing his chest with glass and covering himself in peanut butter – and he knows how to enhance the spectacle. He explains that "because of deficiencies in the lighting system, to be more visible I used to pour baby oil over myself then pour glitter all over my body, just to catch the light. It spoke of refractions to come; it spoke of resonance." He is an entertaining mix of the broodingly poetic and the profane.

Some of the band's attempts to push boundaries on stage were less successful (even if they'd give Lady Gaga a run for her money). Iggy's bandmate Williamson, from whom he was estranged for years, remembers the time he bought custom-made boots but didn't get them until the last minute before a show. Williamson recalls, "in typical Stooges fashion, I didn't realise that when you have boots the reason why they are usually below the knee is that you need to be able to bend your knees. I couldn't sit down, so they had to lay me across the back of a limousine. Then literally I had to stand up the whole night. They looked cool though."

Other fashion mistakes came towards the "end of the end" of the Stooges, when, according to Iggy, the band "hooked up with the same dubious clothing designer called Bill Whitten, and he reimagined me as a giant praying insect or dragonfly or something, and James as some sort of vampire. We started looking like we had wandered in from a junkie sci-fi movie." "Very William Burroughs," I venture. "More Kenneth Anger," corrects Iggy. Even countercultural icons want their fashion references just so.