Imitation is said to be the greatest form of flattery. Ray Petri’s Buffalo aesthetic is one of the most copied styles within the fashion industry, but are these copies merely forgery or do they possess the genuine essence of their creator? According to Barry Kamen of the original Buffalo Collective, ‘Buffalo as a spirit died with Ray Petri.’ In an intimate interview with Barry Kamen and Tony Felix, also a member of the original Buffalo Collective, both reflect on how Petri changed their lives and tell the story of the legend many people don’t know.
History can be very unforgiving, and for this reason many people shun the past, living apprehensively in the present, afraid of the future. Barry Kamen and Tony Felix will never forget their past, a past that saw them traveling the world as models to work with designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Yohji Yamamoto. If asked if there is anything they would change, they might both respond nothing at all. However, what they would change about Ray Petri’s past is the moment – when lost in ecstasy – he contracted the disease that would end his life.
Petri was born 16 September 1948 in Dundee, Scotland, to a working class family. At the age of 15, Petri and his family took a six-week ship journey and relocated to Brisbane, Australia. While on this journey, Petri had a sexual encounter with a male, which would become the first of many. In Australia, Petri joined a band called The Chelsea Set and fathered a daughter named Lisa with his girlfriend Cheryl. Both lost in their youth, they decided to give Lisa up for adoption.
Music played a major role in Petri’s life and influenced his work even when he became a stylist. On a shoot date, Petri would curate an entire soundtrack to accompany and set the mood for a shoot. He was especially inspired by R&B, Motown, punk and reggae. ‘Ray had this really interesting taste in music. I mean most fashion people, when I go round their houses, their music is shit,’ says Felix.
Felix met Petri on 17 April 1985, which as he vividly remembers is the same day he was fired from his job working at a record shop. The 17th was also his 25th birthday. He was out having dinner with some friends at the Standard restaurant in the Grove and noticed a group of white guys staring at him all night. ‘When I got up to leave the restaurant, Ray approached me and said he worked in fashion and asked if I might be interested in doing some photos,’ recalls Felix. Felix asked Petri for a card; Petri responded, ‘Why is it that all black guys ask for a card?’ Six weeks later Felix was in Japan modeling, and he quickly became one of Petri’s boys – or as many coined him, Petri’s new boy toy. Felix, who had a son at this point, was not fazed by the assumptions, but made it quite clear he was heterosexual.
The truth of the matter was quite simple: Petri fancied black guys. Felix explains, ‘The same way that Bruce Weber was into shooting Brazilians, Petri was into shooting black guys.’ Petri’s introduction to the fashion industry came when he met the photographer Roger Charity. Maybe Charity was inspired by Petri’s effortlessly cool uniform, which consisted of a crisp white shirt over a Hanes t-shirt, with sagging Levi’s, a pork pie hat and brogues. Or maybe it was the influence of his extensive travels to India and Africa and his work in antiques at Sotheby’s that gave him a stylish, educated edge. Whatever it was, it became the beginning of what we now know as Buffalo. After meeting Charity, Petri’s social circle extended to include a motley crew of young stylists (Mitzi Lorenz), models (Simon De Montford, Talisa Soto, Naomi Campbell, Felix Howard, Howard Napper), singers (Neneh Cherry) and photographers. They all became key characters in the Buffalo Collective, a group of people with really great ideas and the tenacity to make interesting things come to life.
Initially, Petri found himself acting as an agent to many of his photographer friends, including Cameron McVey, Marc Lebon, Jean Baptiste Mondino and Jamie Morgan, but he soon discovered he had too many ideas to just sit behind a desk and book jobs. He wanted to create images that told a story and possessed a soul.
When Petri entered the fashion industry there weren’t many men’s fashion magazines. The best-known men’s titles were GQ in the states and L’Uomo Vogue in Europe. When he first arrived to England in the 60’s, London was at the peak of a social, political, style and lifestyle revolution. This was the perfect moment for Petri to do something radical, and after a brief return to Australia in the late 60’s to give The Chelsea Set one last failed shot, Petri returned to London in the 70’s full of ideas and ready to embark on something new. ‘What Ray wanted to do was take black and brown kids off the street and put them in a studio and shoot them like he was shooting for Vogue. People thought, are you fucking mad?’ says Kamen.
Kamen and his brother Nick were two of Petri’s favourite models. They appear frequently in the editorial shoots he styled for i-D, Blitz, New Musical Express and Arena. However, being a black or brown model in the 80’s was no easy task, even if you had the approval of Petri. Most modeling agencies only represented one light-skinned model. ‘It was tough being a black model. I was getting £200 for the day, and the main white guy got £900,’ says Felix. ‘Most companies would use a transsexual before they used a black person.’
Being brown was not any easier according to Kamen, who describes himself as ‘part Burmese and a lot of colonial stuff.’ ‘We never got a penny for any of the things we did and we never really did advertising because we were brown,’ says Kamen. Black male models were being used to contrast the English and Italian waif-y boys who had become popular during the period. They were symbolic characters of hyper-masculinity – or to be more frank, objects of desire.
Many fashion editors were dubious about Petri’s idea to shoot black and brown models in an editorial style, but Nick Logan, who was the Editor of The Face (1980–1990) and Arena (1986–1989), gave Petri what every creative person needs to gain success: a platform. It wasn’t long before Stingray, which is what Petri originally called himself, had established himself as what many believed the greatest stylist of his generation. The brilliance of his work was the attention to detail. ‘It wasn’t about the clothes; it was about the attitude. Everyone’s eyes, everybody’s thinking. You know it looks quite soulful, you know it was much more, you know Ray was a real romantic,’ says Kamen.
For anyone looking in from the outside, the Buffalo Collective was the group to envy and the dictators of what was stylish. They could do no wrong in their tracksuit pants, Armani suit jackets, Ray Bans, beautiful brogues and hats. Their style had been mimicked internationally and trickled up into the collections of Jean Paul Gaultier, Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto. What Petri had taken from the streets of New York and Bangkok had now found an international home in the styles of the streets and couture design.
Despite the fact that Petri’s work could be seen practically everywhere during the 80’s, he was not a wealthy man. He was the 80’s version of Vincent Van Gogh. Today, stylists like Katie Grand, Joe McKenna and Tabitha Simmons demand respectable sums for their work, but during Petri’s era the idea of a stylist and what they could do was still being defined. Even so, Petri was less interested in the commercial aspect of fashion, which stultified his creativity. Kamen recounts an instance in which Petri walked out of a big-paying advertising job for Macy’s because he wanted to show the Calvin Klein underwear label in the picture and they refused.
Petri’s hope for the Buffalo Collective was that someone within the herd would make it big, bringing the rest of the team along on the journey of success. The camaraderie of this idea is inspiring, but unfortunately the man who stood as the core of the beautifully styled façade of the Buffalo Collective was breaking down internally.
‘Ray was never going to be happy, because he wanted buff-looking young black guys,’ says Felix. One of the torments of many gay men is wanting what they cannot have and filling the void with empty vacuous sexual encounters. These encounters would lead Petri to his deathbed.
The last editorial that Petri styled, entitled The Long Goodbye, was for Arena and shot by Charity, the same photographer who had introduced him to the fashion industry. He shot his two favourite models, Nick and Barry Kamen. It was around the same time that he received a call to style an Armani ad campaign, which would have surely delivered big bucks, but Petri was too weak and declined.
Ironically, at the same time that Petri was dancing with death, Felix came quite close to dying as well in his fight with lymphoma. He managed to visit Petri a few times while undergoing chemotherapy, but revealed, ‘Not one member of the Buffalo Collective visited me when I was sick.’ The team’s camaraderie was already fading, but Felix always considered himself a happy outsider of the Buffalo Collective. His commitment to his son kept him grounded and outside of the nasty politics of trying to be Petri’s lap dog.
Surrounded by his herd – Mitzi Lorenz, Jamie Morgan, Howard Napper, Roger Charity and Kamen, who sketched Petri’s last breath – Ray Petri passed away in 1989 due to complications from AIDS.
Following his death, the Buffalo Collective met for dinner. The intention was to stay together and continue Petri’s legacy, but unfortunately that never happened.
Everyone went off and started doing their own thing, but if you manage to get hold of one of the members of the Buffalo Collective there is still a reverence when they speak of Petri. Felix commented that his career as a paid model is largely due to the work he received on behalf of Jean Baptiste Mondino. ‘There was one guy. If not for him I would never have had any money; he’s the only one that has given me what I thought were decent paying jobs,’ says Felix. He still credits Petri with introducing him to Mondino and allowing him to see what he was capable of in another way. ‘Ray opened a lot of doors for me.’
Kamen, on the other hand, has become the gatekeeper of Petri’s legacy. When Petri was dying, Kamen promised him he would put together a book of his work. He spent six years working on Buffalo: Ray Petri with Mitzi Lorenz; much to his surprise, when it was published the only person who received credit for the work was Lorenz. He admits, ‘I was slightly annoyed with her, but I did it for Ray. I was pissed off that anyone’s name was on it, it should have been Buffalo by Ray Petri and that’s it – let’s not take any credit here.’
Today, Kamen continues his work as an artist and has managed to infuse his style into his paintings. ‘I brought my art into the paintings right deeply into the styling now so that all the references were very much all about classic kind of imagery,’ says Kamen. Inspired by Petri, he still works on styling editorial shoots and works a lot with Jamie Morgan, but does fashion on his terms; otherwise he walks out.
Felix’s tango with fashion has come to a sort of end. He’s slightly annoyed with the industry, possibly because, as he recollects on his experience, he realises how it took advantage of his naivety. ‘Fashion is a hungry beast, you know, it keeps trying to find new things, but you just hope that everything it finds it doesn’t destroy,’ he says. His focus is now on martial arts and finishing up his psychology degree. He is a World Martial Arts Champion, British Tai Chi Champion and Kung Fu Champion…basically, don’t mess with Felix.
Everyone lives in hopes that something they do will be remembered, but only a few will be legends. Ray Petri is more than a legend; he is a culture, he is a lifestyle, he is a soul and he is a voice. Without him, one of the greatest spirits of fashion would be dead.
With special thanks to Barry Kamen and Tony Felix
This piece is an excerpt from PETRI(E) Inventory 65
Words by Zadrian Smith
TagsBarry Kamen, Bruce Weber, Cameron McVey, Felix Howard, Howard Napper, Jamie Morgan, Jean Baptiste Mondino, Joe McKenna, Katie Grand, Marc Lebon, Mitzi Lorenz, Naomi Campbell, Neneh Cherry, Nick Kamen, Nick Logan, Ray Petri, Roger Charity, Simon De Montford, Tabitha Simmons, Talisa Soto, Tony Felix, Zadrian Smith,