Nick Kamen: the original influencer
Writer Peter Howarth celebrates the life of a man who changed the way we dress...
The sad news this week of the death of model, musician and songwriter Nick Kamen took me straight back to an extraordinary moment in 1985 when a young man from Essex walked into a launderette and caused a minor revolution in how British men dressed.
I refer, of course, to the famous “The Launderette” ad for Levi’s, first shown on TV in the UK on Boxing Day, 1985. It cleverly role-reversed the idea of objectification by having Nick Kamen stroll into a ’50s launderette, pour a paper bag of rocks into a washing machine – literally for stone washing – strip off down to his boxer shorts and throw his 501 jeans into the drum. The girls in the place are amused and delighted, the older folks nonplussed, and our hero ends the commercial sitting insouciantly reading a magazine, waiting for the wash cycle to run, wearing only his white boxer shorts and socks.
As Wayne Hemingway, fashion designer who co-founded the label Red or Dead in 1983, said on BBC Breakfast yesterday: ‘This was an advert that came totally out of club culture, and back then club culture was totally underground.’ He explained: ‘We didn't have the internet, we didn't have social media, so things stayed underground, and this brought a movement on to mainstream telly.’ With its vintage look and Marvin Gaye soundtrack (I Heard It On The Grapevine), the ad struck a chord, bringing the hip faux ’50s look that was embraced by ’80s clubbers into the living rooms of the masses.
At the heart of it was, of course, Nick Kamen, with the black quiffed hair and smouldering good looks of a young Elvis. Fascinatingly, for all its perfect Americana, the Levi’s Laundrette ad was a thoroughly British creation, written and made by Soho’s – not SoHo’s – ad firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty; and Kamen was no boy from Mississippi, but hailed from Harlow in Essex. Furthermore, the white boxers that he wears under his Levi’s were made by Sunspel of Long Eaton.
The wonderful thing about popular culture is that it is unpredictable. By definition, it is the “popular” that drives it – something catches fire with people and takes on a life of its own. It is the Holy Grail for marketing and advertising people, of course, and long before the concept of an idea going viral on digital platforms – long before digital platforms were even a thing – this could still happen, as it did with the Levi’s ad. And with its star.
Born Ivor Neville Kamen, Nick Kamen, as he was known, was part of London’s club scene, and before being cast for Levi’s had featured on the cover of influential style magazine The Face for its January 1984 edition, wearing aviator shades and a knitted Puma skiing hat. But it was his turn in Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s mythical US launderette that catapulted him into the public eye. Following this, he was approached by Madonna to record a track, Each Time You Break My Heart, which he released as a single from his first, eponymous, album. The song was written and produced by Madonna and Stephen Bray, with the Queen of Pop singing backing vocals. It made the top 10 around Europe and reached number five in the UK charts. Nick Kamen would have a career as a musician and songwriter for many years. Now he has died, aged 59, after a long illness with cancer.
Levi’s has a lot to thank Nick Kamen for. It is said that sales of its 501 jeans increased by 800% because of the ad and that it even had to be taken off air as the US firm couldn’t keep up with consumer demand. Sunspel, too, owes him a debt of gratitude. For while the knitwear company had helped introduce boxer shorts to the UK after it began manufacturing them in Long Eaton in 1947, they had always been something of a niche underwear choice over here.
Nick Kamen changed all that. Broadcaster, author and style journalist Robert Elms, who was part of the same cool ’80s sphere as Nick Kamen, said: ‘Before the boy in the launderette, nobody wore boxers.’ And with regard to the impact of the ad, Elms put like this: ‘The model was Nick Kamen, a hip face of the time, and white cotton Sunspel boxers were the inspired choice of underpants, appearing both timelessly cool, and crisply modern. Almost overnight, men who would once have seen boxer shorts as stuffily old-fashioned were clamouring to look like Nick Kamen and buying boxers in their droves. And ever since, a pair of white cotton Sunspels has been the boxer choice of those in the know.’
Ivor Neville “Nick” Kamen. 15 April 1962 – 4 May 2021.
Peter Howarth is the men’s style specialist for The Times Luxx magazine and the former editor of Arena, Esquire UK and Man About Town