The chains-smoking, fast-talking, lady-loving rapscallion, otherwise known as Mike Gallagher, is the absolute embodiment of old New York, and a living reminder of what this ever-evolving metropolis once was. Renowned the world over for his endlessly expanding archive of Twentieth Century art and fashion photography, magazines and paraphernalia, Gallagher has since 1991 supplied the biggest names in fashion, including Marc Jacobs, Steven Meisel, John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier, with inspiration material. For over 15 years, Gallagher’s labyrinthine bookstore in the East Village was the mecca for global fashion elite, and obsessives, after a sartorial fix – the shop’s closure in 2007 came as a result of the East Village being, as Gallagher put it, “raped by NYU”. Lamenting the decline of his ramshackle space, once surrounded by crackheads and crazies and now home to Starbucks and students, Gallagher now houses his archive of over a million magazines and countless photographs inside a barn on his “fashion farm” in upstate New York. Just a temporary solution, Gallagher is later this year reopening his bookstore in a new, as yet undisclosed, Manhattan location. On a spring afternoon in downtown Manhattan over some drip coffee and donuts, Mike Gallagher talked with Indigo Clarke about everything from his childhood frequenting flea markets, friendships with fashion heroes to his plans to recreate his iconic store.
“I opened my original East Village bookstore in 1989, specialising in fashion photography. I come from a long line of photographers – and I always really liked photography. I grew up in a darkroom as a kid, and always loved looking at pictures in magazines. When I was young, I would go to flea markets with my dad and loved looking through magazines, just flipping through them and looking at the pictures. I felt that fashion magazines had the best photos. They were sexy, they were glamorous, they took you to another place – they were all about delivering a fantasy. In Vogue and Harpers Bazaar you could find images by all the masters like Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Helmut Newton – all the giants.
I couldn't afford to buy the original photographs of course, but I could afford to spend one dollar on an old magazine. So, that’s what I did. I bought thousands and thousands of magazines over the years, collecting since I was a young kid. I bought old magazines and photographs from thrift stores and markets when they were viewed as worthless. I bought photographs worth thousands for a just few dollars back in the day. I had an eye for this stuff though, I knew what I was looking for because I loved it – I knew what a good image was. I started storing all of this in a basement on East 12th Street, Manhattan. That basement soon became a proper fashion hotspot. Around 1991, a friend of mine, who was friends with Steven Meisel, said he wanted to show Steven my collection. Steven came in and said, “Hey I’d like to buy a lot of this’ – and this was right as Steven was hitting it big as a photographer. I asked what he wanted to pay, and he said $30,000 for a large chunk of what I had… He then gave me lists and lists and lists of other magazines and images he wanted, and I realised I could make a business out of selling my fashion archive.
I was about 28, and it was pretty amazing to realise I could make a career out of collecting and reselling things I loved. I knew everything about fashion photography and its history, I had become a specialist – if someone asked me about a specific photograph, I could say almost instantly which magazine issue it was from. Before I knew it, all these grand old dames of fashion were calling me, great models of the past telling me about all the fashion treasures they had that they wanted to sell to me. I would buy their entire libraries – I would go in with a truck and pick up their amazing photographs and magazines they had grown tired of having around. All of the excitement, and my fashion archive business, happened within a year of opening my basement store.
Steven Meisel started it, then Anna Sui became a client – she was a close friend of his. Word of the stash of fashion treasures in East Village started trickling down to designers, stylists, hair and make-up people, advertising executives and creative directors; before I knew what was happening, the store became the hottest little shop in the world. It was a cool space. A rickety staircase lead you into a labrynthine basement room filled with everything good in photography, fashion and art from the 20th Century. When I originally got the space, it was disgusting. It was a crack-house, prostitutes were everywhere and crack dealers were in every corner… God I miss the 80s (laughs). But seriously, New York was wild then – I mean, Taxi Driver was filmed around the corner on 13th Street. Three years later, and people were still knocking on the doors looking for crack, meanwhile I had designers like Donna Karan and John Galliano sidestepping the crackheads to find inspiration from old fashion images for their collections. It was surreal. The thing was, I had always had good taste in fashion – my archive was Balenciaga, not JC Penny. The best people in fashion appreciated this viewpoint. I supplied Simon Doonan, Barney’s Creative Director, one year with all the magazines for the windows. He put my name in the window saying, ‘A special thank you to Mike Gallagher’, and all of a sudden everyone was calling me to do windows. I began doing the windows for a bunch of designer’s boutiques around New York. I really got lucky, I see that.
All my friends were famous in the industry, so people started thinking I was as well which must have helped roll things along. I know my stuff though, so people were interested in what I had to say – even if I was just a boy from Brooklyn. Among the top tier of fashion, people aren’t as pretentious as you’d think – it’s the lower rung assistants etcetera that are nightmares. It becomes a small click at the top, there really aren’t that many serious players in the business, and they all know each other. The coolest thing about my career has been that many of my heroes as a kid went on to become my best friends later in life. The incredible Richard Avedon I became really tight with, I became Henri Cartier Bresson’s archivist – I even got close with the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve. Before Avedon passed away he knew he was sick, he called me and said ‘Take everything’… Photographs that had never been published, his actual copies of Vogue and Bazaar he shot for, he gave to me. These I cannot part with. I do hold on to a lot of photographs that I develop an attachment to – I definitely don’t sell everything. Being friends with these amazing people has been the best thing about doing what I do. Even today, when people ask me what I do for a living I say, “I don’t know – I just do what I love.” I’ve always had a fascination with the past – everything I wear is vintage pretty much, things I’ve bought from thrift stores. They just have so much more character and value to me than the mass-produced pale imitations available today.
New York has lost its imagination and personality in the same way a lot of new fashion has. Something that’s been interesting actually, has been to see what the designers buy off me each season – it gives me a pretty good idea of what will be on the catwalk. I foresaw a bit of an 80s resurgence for AW10. I didn’t want to see the 80s come back again, it was boring and all just about money. The 60s was the period when people felt good, when everything was new and exciting – Carnaby Street, Warhol and the Factory, Bob Dylan, The Who… Everything was fresh, hip and new – acid came along, young people had more power and people’s attitudes changed dramatically. It came after the 50s where everything was robotic and paranoid, America in a corset. Aesthetically, the 60s influence will never die – just like Marilyn Monroe will never die. Designers always go back to the 60s, it just keeps coming back around. I had to close my East Village store because NYU edged me out – they totally took over, and killed, the East Village. When my space was around, which was up to just a couple years ago, it was always available to students and anyone who was interested to look, not just to high-profile clients. All my interns came from FIT or Parsons – I’ve seen a lot of kid’s come through, learn a lot from working among the archive, and make big successes of themselves later on. These students got to learn the history of fashion through researching images for my clients.
Some of my clients have included John Galliano, Richard Avedon, Steven Meisel, Pat McGrath, Verushka the famous 60s model and so many more. After closing my store, I moved all of my material to a giant barn on my farm upstate NY in the Catskills, that I call the “fashion farm”. I call it that because I see it as the farm designers and photographers bought for me from their patronage over the years. Inside my barn right now is the largest fashion archive in the world – all piled up inside. If any of my really top-end clients need a fashion fix, I let them come down and look through what’s up there, mainly about 50 years of Vogue and Bazaar. This space, though, isn’t open to the public because it’s my actual residential property. I estimate I have around a million publications, two hundred thousand books and too many photographs to count. I have amassed so much that I have multiple copies of most of the magazines. I’m now in the process of setting up my new store, which is a huge undertaking. I’ve been cataloguing everything, and I’m more organised now than ever. I’ll be making sure all my material will be digitally archived so people don't have to look at the actual magazines, but can instead look through thousands of images on screen.
The rape of the landscape by corporations like NYU – because that’s what it is, a corporation – has meant it has become devoid of everything that made it beautiful artistically and culturally. It's becoming an accumulation of badly designed dormitories and Starbucks – it is losing that edge that made it exciting, losing the ability to inspire the imagination. It's become a black hole for culture. People used to look interesting – crazy girls in 12-inch electric-coloured heels walking around in broad daylight – I miss the bohemian, eccentric aspect of it all. Everything vaguely interesting has moved out to Brooklyn for christ’s sake. That's why I feel it’s so important for me to start up my independent bookstore again. I’m open to making the new space encompass a bit of everything – it will include a performance space, screens with vintage fashion shows playing, free internet so people can hang out there, gallery, and café. I’m in the process of designing the space and concept now in readiness for upcoming spring. Everything’s in order – oh, except for a location. Still looking for the perfect space…”