“There’s a real pressure in this industry to have a beat,” says debut writer Lance Richardson. “I respond to stories and to people more than to topics.” As an active reporter, Richardson has written for countless publications, oftentimes traveling to where his subjects take him. He’s spoken to an ayahuasca shaman in Texas, traveled through Kenya with Samburu warriors, and reported on homeless transgender youth in New York state. Needless to say, his beat can’t really be pinned down. And in House of Nutter, Richardson has chosen to write about a topic thematically antithetical to his habitual lines of inquiry: fashion. But to peg this book only as a contribution to fashion history would be limiting its breadth and intentions.
Tommy Nutter piqued Richardson’s interest when a friend of Nutter’s told him a story about a young Tommy trying to get into a party at the Tate Gallery. Nutter did not get into the party and, as a result, threw himself in the Thames in protest. “I thought it was a very odd overreaction,” says Richardson. Such was his initial introduction to Nutter, the young man, who, in the 1960s, would go on to become one of England’s most notorious and iconic tailors.
As an openly gay man, Nutter clothed some of the most notable icons of the baby boomer generation: John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Elton John, among others. It was Tommy Nutter’s close relationship with the Beatles that first intrigued Richardson. We all know the “Abbey Road” album cover, but we never really think about who clothed the Beatles for that image. “What I responded to here was not so much the fashion; it was not tailoring. It was this unusual character who had done some strange things both in his personal and professional lives,” says Richardson.
By identifying and researching Nutter’s select accomplishments, Richardson was able to write a new contribution to 20th century queer history. “I wanted to write something that was about the sweep of” queer history, says Richardson. Nutter functioned thanks to, in response to, and in rejection of British systems of power, gay liberation movements in New York, and the AIDS crisis. Having lived through momentous periods of history, Nutter was the perfect subject to undertake, or, at least, a yielding vessel through which Richardson could study queer history. In wondering to how weave together the elements that linked Tommy and queer history, Richardson called on Tommy’s photographer brother, David, who he happened to connect with through his LinkedIn profile. They met at a café on the Upper West Side in New York City, but their conversations, which initially were meant to be about Tommy, ended up being about something completely unanticipated.
Speaking with David provided Richardson not only with insight into Tommy’s life, but also made it clear that David lived through mirror situations. As two gays brothers, they often experienced similar hardships and freedoms. They were also uniquely outfitted to work together in a professional capacity. While Tommy made the suits, David photographed the editorials. Between the two of them, their Rolodex kept expanding. The book, which follows Tommy closely, cannot do so without going through the deeply intimate relationship he had with his brother. “They had this incredible synergy in their parallel careers,” says Richardson.
While Richardson initially set out to explore queer history through Tommy’s experience, House of Nutter recounts the beautiful relationship between two brothers who ultimately founded an empire, one that designers today draw inspiration from and that photographers use to better understand their craft. The book provides us with a queer context through which we can finally understand the aesthetic of many heterosexual pop culture icons of the 20th century. Richardson ultimately proves the point that to have a beat as a journalist may be limiting. If Richardson hadn’t searched for David on LinkedIn, met with the people who made up Tommy’s team, and let himself get carried away by the testimonials he listened to, the book would surely have become something else, and would ultimately not be the vital addition to the telling of real gay lives it ended up being.
Michael Valinsky is a writer from Paris and New York. His work has been published in Paper Magazine, them, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, OUT Magazine, and BOMB Magazine, among others. He currently works and lives in Los Angeles.