The Sex Pistols of fashion: the brothers behind label Gio-Goi

Absolute Radio DJ Pete Mitchell talks to the Donnelly brothers about the ups and downs of their fashion career

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London has long been at the forefront of the fashion scene in the UK. Since the coffee bar culture and the birth of the teenager in the 1950s it has reigned supreme. During the 1960s Carnaby Street and “Swinging” London hit the heights with its mod look and target image, making front page news around the world. It was the birth of “Cool Britannia”.

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In the mid- to late-70s the capital was once again involved in another musical uprising. The beginnings of the punk movement began around the Kings Road in Chelsea at Sex, the notorious clothes shop headed by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.

The safety pin coupled with John Lydon’s sneer exemplified the movement and once again made front page news. When acid house arrived a decade later, the focus of attention switched to the north of England.

It was during the 1980s that Manchester began to prise the fashion crown away from the capital. The dawning of the acid house movement and street clothing changed nightclubbing in Britain for ever, as the streetwise fashion guru brothers Anthony and Christopher Donnelly took charge.

They were at the forefront of the new movement organising and promoted Manchester’s first illegal warehouse party, which was attended by 1,500 people including New Order and Noel Gallagher. They were way ahead of the pack and their northern grit would take them right to the top of the fashion world.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vcE3TfvTFA

Through the acid house haze and illegal raves rose Britain’s most credible clothing range, Gio-Goi, the brothers’ very own fashion range. Manchester became as cool as Paris, Milan and New York. I seem to remember for a while that everyone was wearing their clothing. Gio-Goi became as ubiquitous as the James flowered t-shirt design.

The label became a worldwide phenomenon as the “Madchester” scene took hold when the likes of Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and New Order all began sporting the country’s coolest clothing brand. The Donnellys made the front page of Vogue, leading its editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman to proclaim, “Manchester’s importance to fashion is unquestionable.” They were Britain’s answer to Dior and Yves Saint Laurent.

In 1994 the brothers were arrested thanks to alleged connections to Manchester’s infamous Quality Street Gang; they were jailed and lost everything. In a classic rags to riches story they made a remarkable comeback in 2005 dressing the likes of Pete Doherty and Kate Moss, Robbie Williams, Amy Winehouse, Arctic Monkeys and Liam Gallagher.

The Gio-Goi brand went on to hit the top of the Sunday Times list Fast Track 100 in 2009 with an annual turnover of £19 million which would peak at £40 million, before eventually crashing, losing the Donnellys millions.

Making more comebacks than Frank Sinatra, the brothers of fashion are now way down the road with their new business venture, Your-Own: a company set to become a billion-pound worldwide concern. They state “It’s not a rags to riches story. Our story is that we have just kept on going. We are very resilient.” 

All is revealed in their fascinating biography, “Still Breathing”, the story of their rise and fall and rise again, which is out now. “Staying around and doing it was the thing. We never ever gave in, we dusted ourselves down and starting again” states Anthony.

They sensationally made front page news in 1994 when ecstasy, heroin and guns were seized. Even the front cover of the book reads “From Organised Crime to Kings of Fashion”, accompanied by a picture of the brothers looking like the modern day Krays.

Anthony isn’t that happy, “Me and Chris didn’t agree on the layout, I didn’t like the picture for instance, we look too menacing. We are really positive and hard working and don’t judge a book by its cover, we were guilty by association. Most people who read the book are blown away with our story.”

The street clothing pioneers have been described by Vivienne Westwood as “ambassadors of a generation” and I suppose having the backdrop of the Manchester music scene was the perfect grounding.

Anthony said, “It’s impossible to deny Manchester’s influence and we found a way of exporting the ‘Madchester’ scene and its style. We ended up representing ‘Cool Britannia’ around the world.”

The mid- to late-80s in Manchester was a unique time. The Hacienda and ecstasy were at their height, the music poured out of every bar, pub and club and the university applications almost trebled. The city was at the centre of youth culture in Europe and everybody wanted to go and experience what it had to offer.

Inevitably, things moved on and people’s tastes changed. The brothers had to reinvent themselves. Anthony continues, “When I was growing up in Wythenshawe, Manchester, Ben Sherman was the thing. We all loved and wore their stuff and it was really significant. Now people look back on Gio-Goi with affection and nostalgia but we had to move on.” And move on they did.

“2008/9 was a great period for us. Hanging around with Pete Doherty, Kate Moss and the Arctic Monkeys at Glastonbury was a high point. The picture of Amy Winehouse is one of my favourites and the image of Pete Doherty is a work of art. Ian Brown with the knuckle duster is also amazing. Our clothing was once again appealing to a new generation.”

It’s all about the here and now for the very likeable Donnellys, and their unquestionable self-belief and determination will see them conquer and succeed once again.

“We continue to be active and Your-Own: is now a global company. You can see Wu-Tang Clan sporting it along with actor Michael Fassbender and Ian Brown. They all adore it,” says Anthony proudly.

There are many facets and components that make a scene and what happened in the 80s was a coming together of many disparate groups and individuals to create something tangible and unique.

Foremost it was about youth and music, compounded by a look and attitude, and for a while the fashion came first. It was an identifiable uniform that showed a real sense of unity and a common collective sharing of a time and space. Designing that look takes talent and a lorry load of attitude and the boys from Wythenshawe cut a swathe through it all.

The Donnelly’s were described as the Sex Pistols of fashion who made people look pretty, oh so pretty, and as they say, “it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re going.”

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Pete Mitchell’s show is at 10pm on Saturdays on Absolute Radio. Listen live here.