Return of the Rudeboy

As Somerset House launches its summer expo about the music and style obsessed sub-culture, creative director Harris Elliott and David Hellqvist discuss what brands modern day Rudeboys wear and who their ultimate style icon is

La Touche aka Mr Hat © Dean Chalkley

You see them in Hackney and Hounslow, in Chelsea and Croydon, on Savile Row and Sandringham Road: well-dressed young men that walk with attitude. It’s not far from a catwalk strut, defined by confidence and poise. But they’re not cads. Just being dapper is all good and dandy, but it’s the added swag and attitude that make them Rudeboys. Everyone can buy a fly outfit, not everyone can carry it off. As often is the case, it’s all down to the full package, it’s a lifestyle and a way of living. The music you listen to, the barber you go to, the kind of place you frequent for lunch, and whereabouts you go dancing in the evenings.

To some, the Rudeboy concept is a thing of the past, something young men lived 40, 50 years ago and then grew out of. To others it’s very much a modern day phenomena. To make that point photographer Dean Chalkley and creative director Harris Elliott spent the last year putting together a contemporary celebration of the Rudeboy lifestyle. Featuring images, a pop up barber shop, film screenings and seminars, Return of the Rudeboy a 360 take on the sub-culture. “The exhibition is relevant now because the Rudeboy mind state is growing so more people are choosing this way of expressing themselves,” Elliott explains.

Left: La Touche aka Mr Hat

The term ‘Rudeboy’ originates from late 1950s, early 60s Jamaica and spread to the UK shortly after through Ska music put out by classic record labels and bands, such as 2 Tone and The Specials. But it’s incorrect to say the movement just evolves around one type of music today: “Back in the day the Rudeboy soundtrack would have been reggae and punk but now, in the 21st century, Rudeboys cannot be defined by a singular style of music.” But for Elliott, it’s not just the tunes that characterises a Rudeboy. “No, it’s someone that has a strong spirit, a recognisable style that is sometimes hard to define… there is an element of sartorialism but there is often a twist to it, as it is not just about dressing smart, but also with a swagger and an attitude to match.”

So obviously a lot of it comes down to the clothes, the easiest way to visually manifest your beliefs on a daily basis. But it is more about style than fashion, it isn’t based on trends but an attitude and an approach to expressing oneself. “The key elements are tailored suits, hats, skinny ties, cropped trousers and some badass shoes. Back then the tailor was everything, there wasn’t Ready to Wear shops like now,” Elliott says.”There is a story that when Price Buster came to the UK, his first stop was to a tailor and he grabbed a pair of scissors and personally chopped 6 inches off the bottom of his trousers, then later that night he went on stage and that one act started a trend that many of us still follow today.”

“It’s a lifestyle and a way of living – the music you listen to, the barber you go to, the kind of place you frequent for lunch”

Dexter De Leadus - Shopkeeper © Dean Chalkley

Above: Dexter De Leadus – Shopkeeper

But the Return of the Rudeboy expo is, crucially, as much about today as yesterday. The people featured in the show are alive and well, strutting down London streets as I type. So what, I wonder, are they wearing now, what are the current Rudeboy staples? “Dr Martens boots, Mr Hare shoes and Spencer Hart shirts – but they would often still have their clothes tailored for them.” For Harris Elliott, the ultimate Rudeboys – past and present – are Jimmy Cliff, Mos Def and David Bowie.

Below, left: Sam Lambert – Art Comes First; right: Gary Powell – Composer, Musician, DJ

But what about tomorrow? Where is the next generation of Rudeboys living? Elliott thinks that – much like the punk movement in Tatcher’s 70s and 80s Britain – the movement evolves from areas and eras where people suffer and fight oppression: “The next embodiment of Rudeboys I feel will come from places like South Africa. Sub-cultures often emanate from the ground up, and it is poverty and the need to react and resist that causes most new movements to flourish, not needing mainstream appreciation.” And that’s exactly the point of a Rudeboy; they’re not looking for commercial confirmation, this is not a High Street lifestyle… A Rudeboy doesn’t dress for your approval but for his own pleasure.

Left: Sam Lambert – Art Comes First; right: Gary Powell – Composer, Musician, DJ  © Dean Chalkley

Text David Hellqvist
Photos Dean Chalkley

Return of the Rudeboy, Somerset House, 13 June – 25 August 2014, more info HERE