He revolutionised black music in the late 70s when he created the hit–machine Chic, a singular mix of music and fashion.
Legend Nile Rodgers revolutionised black music in the 1970s melding fashion with music. A conversation in style.
Nile Rodgers is a legend. The man who produced global hits like “Upside down” for Diana Ross and “Let’s dance” for David Bowie is preparing the return of his group Chic after a 26–year absence. Two albums are ready, he says: the first is called It’s about time. After his spectacular success with Daft Punk, and the hit “Get lucky”, in particular, Nile Rodgers still talks about winning over the younger generations. He’s 65, has a gap between his front teeth, a young man’s grin and dreadlocks half–way down his back. He sports a canary yellow beret, lemon–coloured army trousers with splashes of grey, and a Chic T–shirt with a silver carabiner necklace. “Let’s talk about elegance,” he says. “I know a thing or two about that!
VOGUE HOMMES Where did you get your awareness and sense of style from? NILE RODGERS
My parents. They were so classy. We lived in Greenwich Village, in New York, at the time of the Beat Generation. My mother, Beverly, was a beautiful woman, who reminded you of the heroines in James Bond films. She was young — she had me when she was 13 — and wore brightly coloured clothes inspired by the early Carnaby Street years, like the ones Twiggy wore. She had an impressive Afro hairdo and symbolised “Black is beautiful” before its time. She was a natural beauty, and totally free. Her companion, my stepfather, had something of the Cary Grant about him. He was white and Jewish, and immersed in black culture. He had inherited a clothing business. At the end of the 1950s, it was rare to see a mixed couple. They were cool and invented their own style, which was totally on the fringe. Their everyday life was druggy — heroin — and they lived their addiction as a certain form of poetry. They were surrounded by a bunch of eccentrics: the guys dressed in false shirt fronts, frills or roll–neck sweaters, berets, caps and hats, while the women wore brightly coloured dresses, and carried sophisticated cigarette holders. Some of the coolest jazz musicians came by. Thelonious Monk even bought a fur coat from my mother!
The downside of it was that they dressed me like them. I looked like I had come straight out of a fashion magazine, which wasn’t always easy to live with in the street where I hung out with young Italian or Puerto Rican hoodlums. I was just a kid, I couldn’t decide what I was to wear, and I hated walking around looking like that, a Little Lord Fauntleroy from the ghetto, who was constantly teased and pushed around.
VOGUE HOMMES When did you first see a link between fashion and music? NILE RODGERS
The first record I was given was Elvis Presley’s Blue Suede Shoes and my grandmother, who bought it for me, also got me a pair of blue suede shoes. I was five, and going to a Catholic school. I wore a navy blue uniform embroidered with gold and those royal blue ankle boots. I looked very different from the other kids. For a long time, I thought I would get something new to wear with every record! And then, as I started to play in a classical orchestra from a very early age, I wore a tuxedo for recitals. I knew how to take care of every detail. Take the bow tie, for example. Most men don’t know how to tie them, so they wear the type that have a clasp. I hate that! You will never see Nile Rodgers wearing a tie with a clasp!
VOGUE HOMMES You hung around with the Black Panthers when you were a teenager. Were you influenced by their style? NILE RODGERS
No, I was a hippy. That was really the revolution that marked my adolescence. We bought second–hand clothes, and made our clothes ourselves. I had embroidered flowers everywhere and eccentric colours. The hippy movement really left its mark on America and it was a way of asserting yourself. I never thought I was particularly good–looking, and far less so than my friends and my younger brother, who was a real charmer. So I had to express myself differently, and shape my own identity through clothes and hairstyles. I have never had an ordinary haircut at any stage in my life: I dyed my hair with food colouring, which is all we had at the time. Style was my way of expressing my freedom. I wore whatever I felt like wearing, and that’s still the case today. Look at my toe nails ( Ed. he takes off his shoes and socks to show me his emerald blue nail varnish ): I have painted my toenails ever since one of my friends said he did that to have something beautiful to look at when he went to bed. “Try,” he told me, “and if you don’t like it, stop!” I listened to him and it seemed so perfectly obvious. Every evening, I go to bed naked and look at my decorated toenails. It’s much nicer than looking at dried–up toenails. I don’t varnish my fingernails simply because I bite them, and I wreck them playing the guitar. —›
Nile Rodgers produced Diana Ross and was a close friend of Bowie. He looks back on a life of elegance and taste.