"The most punk thing I ever saw in my life… like a bomb against the status quo, because it was saying these violent shoes have the right idea and they are worth more than your fashion, which serves a false value. This is right out of the French Enlightenment”.
Let It Rock customer Iggy Pop, who wore a pair of Denson’s boots for The Stooges first UK performance, speaking to the international audience at the BBC’s annual John Peel Lecture in 2014 about Malcolm McLaren’s Denson display.
by Paul Gorman
In the autumn of 1960, 13-year-old south Londoner David Jones was already showing signs of being a forward fashion thinker.
Living in Bromley, Kent, the boy who would become David Bowie sported a radical-for-the-times American “college boy” haircut and had started a trend at his school for wearing tight, narrowly tapered trousers (which brought about condemnation from the headmaster).
But it was the young David’s shoes that truly set him apart.
David Bowie & George Underwood in Denson shoes, 1960
Photo: Any Day Now, David Bowie 1947-74 The London Years, Kevin McCann (Adelita, 2011)
Obsessed with keeping up with the latest trends, the teenager persuaded his schoolfriend George Underwood to accompany him on a trip to a shop a 30-minute bus-ride away in Lewisham. This store, he had heard, stocked the brand that was desirable above all other for Britain’s youth: Denson.
That day they each purchased a pair of Denson’s buckled Hi-Poynter winklepickers, and were soon to be seen proudly wearing them in one of Bowie’s earliest media appearances when he and Underwood were photographed by local paper The Bromley & Kentish Times, during a visit to the American Embassy in central London’s Grosvenor Square.
For one of the greatest manipulators of visual style of all time, there is no coincidence in David Bowie choosing Denson shoes. Over the decades since its inception in the early 50s, the name of Denson has become synonymous with the sharp-dressed subcultures which emanate from these isles, whether Teddy Boys and Modernists in the 1950s, Mods and Rockers in the 60s, and punks, New Romantics, Rockabillies and Goths in the 70s and 80s.
To understand what makes Denson unique, you have to go back to the beginning.
In the early 50s, Davis Senker became one of the first style entrepreneurs to launch a brand aimed entirely at the youth market in recognition that “teenage” was on the rise in the form of a new and rebellious demographic, eager to rock the norms of post-WW2 austerity.
Infused with the disruptive sounds of raw rock’n’roll which filtered across the Atlantic as the decade progressed, these young Brits rejected the verities of their parents’ generation, in particular adopting their own visual identity to set themselves apart from straight society.
The most prominent of these, of course, were the Teddy Boys, Britain’s first youth cult who took their cue from a passing Savile Row trend for narrow-cuffed guardsman fit trousers, fancy waistcoats, gamblers’ ties and long drape jackets. They soon matched their outfits with Denson’s recently introduced thick-soled brothel creepers, while Davis Senker also honed an Italian footwear take for slim pointed shoes which became known as winklepickers.
Denson 1951 launch advert - featuring range of brothel creepers
The winklepickers were also sported by off-duty Teds and matched with tight jeans and leather jackets by their motorbike-crazy counterparts, the Rockers. Denson was also popular among Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community. As well as being a canny businessman, Davis Senker was also an early adopter of the power of advertising, and his ads for “Denson – for the man with personality” could be found in such papers as the Daily Graphic, which was circulated among expats from the islands.
Denson 1963 Pop Weekly Advert
As British menswear came into focus with such Soho boutiques as Vince Man’s Shop and the “King of Carnaby” John Stephen’s chain of outlets, so a new strain of sartorially aware youth emerged. The King’s Road legendary design entrepreneur Lloyd Johnson first encountered a group of Modernists as a 14-year-old attending a battle of the bands event in south London in 1959. These stylers, he says, wore bum-freezer jackets with cutaway collars and half-belts on the back, narrow ties and tapered trousers with slits up the side. One their feet were side-laced Denson winklepickers. “ I went up to one of them and asked, ‘Why are you dressed like that?’” recalls Johnson. “He spoke the immortal words to me, ‘Because I’m a Modernist.’ It blew my mind.”
Joe Jackson 1978 - Is She Really Going Out With Him? Cover / You Got the Fever (A&M) UK Edition featuring side-laced white Denson winklepickers
Modernism soon turned to Mod, by which time Denson shoes became synonymous countrywide with the fashionable young. Jeff Dexter, who would go on to became one of Marc Bolan’s closest friend and a prime mover in the British counterculture as a DJ, event organiser and band manager, recalls the giant billboards promoting the shoe brand in the area close to D.Senker’s Shoreditch headquarters which abutted his school. “I got my first pair of Denson’s while I was still there,” says Dexter. “The rear entrance to my school was opposite the factory store rooms, and sometimes there would be rejects binned outside. All the boys were hell-bent on getting a pair of Denson’s.”
Just as Denson had understood how to meet British youth desires in the 50s, so in the following decade as its shoes were taken up rock’s first wave - Paul McCartney was spotted in a pair the year before the Beatles released their first single – the brand homed in on the fact that they had become a crucial element of stagewear for performers and musicians from the Rolling Stones and The Pretty Things to the Kinks and The Who.
1961 Denson Springers - Cuban heeled Chelsea boots two years ahead of the Beatles!
Denson styles regularly appeared in both editorial and advertising in the teen and music press, from the New Musical Express to Disc to Rave, as well as national papers such as the Daily Mirror, while shoe retailers around the country installed “Denson Fashion Centres” for their customers.
The back cover of Iggy & The Stooges 1973 album Raw Power featured Mick Rock images of Iggy Pop wearing Denson boots for the band’s performance at the King’s Cross Cinema in July 1972.
When the late cultural iconoclast Malcolm McLaren opened his mould-breaking 50s emporium Let It Rock with his partner Vivienne Westwood at 430 King’s Road at the beginning of 1972, he made sure that Denson shoes were included in the mix, selling such original Denson styles as Fine Poynts. Early Let It Rock customer Iggy Pop, who wore a pair of Denson’s boots for The Stooges first UK performance - at the King’s Cross Cinema that summer – told the international audience at the BBC’s annual John Peel Lecture in 2014 that McLaren’s Denson display ‘was the most punk thing I ever saw in my life… like a bomb against the status quo because it was saying these violent shoes have the right idea and they are worth more than your fashion, which serves a false value. This is right out of the French Enlightenment”.
Malcolm McLaren in his & Vivienne Westwood's newly opened Teddy Boy emporium 'Let It Rock', January 1972. At his feet are pairs of Denson boots. Photo: David Parkinson.
Dr Feelgood frontman Lee Brilleaux wearing Denson creepers in Avignon, 1975.
Since Iggy, there have been many others who have plugged into the values he identified in Denson’s, from the hard-driving r&b merchants Dr. Feelgood, who praised the company’s chisel toes and Cuban heels as “pure poetry” while their frontman Lee Brilleaux was very keen on the company’s creepers, to the new wave singer-songwriter Joe Jackson, whose white side-laced numbers were used by photographer Brian Griffin as the front cover of his breakthrough album, the title of which sums up the Denson attitude: Look Sharp.
Joe Jackson's 1971 debut album cover featuring Denson shoes ranks #22 on Rolling Stone's greatest album covers of all time list
And now, Denson has been reborn in the 2020s as a powerful design force in the lexicon of style.
With profound understanding of - and extensive experience in - the world of contemporary footwear, the owner Luke Creaton is determined that the return of Denson is infused with the Look Sharp attitude.
The new Denson shoes not only draw on this independent spirit and rich history of subcultural significance, they also express traditional craft values.
Handmade in England’s centre of footwear excellence, Northamptonshire, Denson supports local economies while guaranteeing excellence, durability and repairability by dint of Goodyear welted construction and premium materials.
Combining quality with timeless design, Denson has returned in a time of fast fashion like, as David Bowie would attest and Iggy Pop might say, a bomb against the status quo.
Paul Gorman 2020 - Resident archivist
Paul Gorman is an author, journalist and cultural commentator who is based in London and has lived and worked in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in the world’s leading publications, including The Guardian, GQ, The Observer, Sunday Times, LA Times and Vanity Fair.
He has worked with many prominent style brands and staged exhibitions in the UK, Denmark and France, contributing to shows at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Gorman has published 12 non-fiction books covering the worlds of music, media, popular culture, fashion, art and design, including:
- The Sunday Times best-seller Straight with Boy George (Hodder & Stoughton 2005).
- The Look: Adventures in Rock & Pop Fashion, introduction by Sir Paul Smith (Adelita 2006).
- Derek Boshier: Rethink/Re-Entry, foreword by David Hockney (Thames & Hudson 2015).
- The Story of The Face: The Magazine That Changed Culture, foreword by Dylan Jones (Thames & Hudson 2017).
- The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren: The Biography (Little Brown 2020). This was published to universal acclaim, described as “Excellent” (Sunday Times), “Compelling” (The Observer), “Epic” (The Times) and “A magnum opus” (Vogue).