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Interview: Roxy Rob

8 September 11 interview: Al Needham
photos: David Baird

You might know Robert Ivars Michailovs-Mètra as that bloke who walks up Mansfield Road as if he owns the place. You might think of him as a local fashion mogul who actually could have owned it, were it not for the drink. You almost definitely know him as Roxy Rob, and after you’ve read this, you’ll know a little bit more...

First things first; you actually don’t like being called ‘Roxy Rob’, do you?
I’m tired of it. Because most people don’t even know what it means. There’s kids who weren’t even born when I was running shops calling me ‘Roxy’. The thing that really annoys me is that people shorten it down to ‘Roxx’, which has dodgy connotations these days. And I’m not a drug abuser.

The first thing people automatically assume about you is that that you worked with Paul Smith. 
Load o’ bollocks. Can I say that again? Load of bollocks.

So what was the relationship between you and Paul Smith?
Me and Paul Smith? Ha ha! None. The first shop he ever opened was on Byard Lane, and was underneath the workroom where I started in May of 1968, on the day before my 16th birthday. He worked for Birdcage, one of the first boutiques in Notts, and his job was to get stuff made in London for the shop – but sometimes it was in his interests to slip one of his own designs in there now and then, and he got found out. And let’s leave it at that. I met him once. That’s it.

How did you discover your flair for tailoring?
When I was a lad, I used to love clothes – but I was a skinny, petite kid, so I had to piss about with whatever I bought to make it fit me. I used to sell Wrangler jeans seconds on Sneinton Market when I was twelve. Bleddy great job that was in ‘66 – I spent most of my time under the tables, watching women pulling the jeans on under their mini-skirts, seeing all sorts. Then I moved on to Douglas and Robert on Bridlesmith Gate, who were two of the finest tailors Nottingham ever had. I was one of the last two apprentices they took on, and he was called Duggie. So they took on a Robert and a Douglas.

What made you strike out on your own?
By the late sixties, loon pants came in; dead tight up here, flared out down there. Anyway, me and Jimmy Redman – who worked for a one-armed tailor, by the way - and a chap called Dar Ali were in a pub in Canning Circus. And I said, “Hang on – you’ve done a bit o’ tailoring, and so have I. If we can’t mek some o’ these loon pants, we want bleddy shooting.” So we all chucked in a few quid each and we cranked out loons in an attic above Dar’s dad’s shop on Woodborough Road - the first Asian supermarket in town. We were pooling our knowledge together and learning so much from each other. Dar had eleven in his family, so we’d already got customers. We were knocking ‘em out at two and a half quid a pair.

So you were big in the trouser department.
I started doing jackets, but I could never get the hang of collars. But it didn’t matter, because everyone had long hair, so I never bothered with ‘em. And I got away with it! The three of us went our separate ways, and I realised that I really liked working for meself, because I didn’t have to cut me hair. By this time I was 19, married, with two kids.  And I was handsome. The prettiest kid in town. My hair shone. And then I started Roxy Threads, in 1972, and opened up Roxanne – the ladies shop – later.

Which is where the name comes from. Were you into Roxy Music?
Yeah, but that’s not the main reason why. Roxy…it’s quite a classy name, in’t it? You could have Roxy Taters, or Roxy Gravestones. It had that Thirties feel that was big at the time.  My first shop was at Excise Chambers, up a scratty old alley that everyone used to piss up; used to be a bookies, so there were no windows. I got the place designed by a bloke called Ron Atkinson, who used to work with Paul Smith at the Pushpin Gallery, their art place. It was all brown and cream and Habitat wallpaper. And then the shop burned down.

No way.
I’d just done the upstairs up lovely – I’d got all me fabrics in, a proper workspace, and it looked beautiful. I was talked into getting new storage heaters in, but they kept the old wiring in. And I had to work non-stop – seven days a bastard week – for a year to get back on track.

And this was while everyone else was doing a three-day week.
Exactly. We were supposed to have the electricity off four days a week. So luckily, what with being up an alley, and as long as I didn’t have the music on too loud, I got away with it. I was faster than owt on that machine – I’d set meself a deadline to do as much as I could, and get so far ahead of meself that I’d have a walk round town, look at the fanneh, have a drink, stay out for a curry, come back and do some more work. Or have a kip on the bench.

We look back on the 70s as the decade that style forgot. Are you going to defend it?
The thing was, people had a different diet to what they have now, so everyone was slimmer, meaning that most of the clothes on sale were tighter, and fitted – and the kids could carry off more outrageous gear. You can’t wear that kind of stuff when you’re on the McDonalds and all that shit. Kids had more imagination then, an’all; they’d come into the shop after school with technical drawing paper, and they’d worked out the style they wanted. All I’d do is sit wi’ ‘em and say, well, that’s not going to work, but if we did it like this...and I’d go off an make it. They were the designers. All I’d do is help ‘em fulfil their dreams.

You were huge with the Northern Soul crowd.
I used to get people coming from all over to get their trousers made. Oxford Bags, they were called; huge flared trousers. Thing was, I knew absolutely nothing about Northern – I was well into me Zappa and Beefheart. I said to one of these kids, what the bleddy ‘ell do you do wi’ these trousers? And he said; “Come down the Palais this afternoon and see”. Went down, Northern Soul all-dayer…Jesus. They were spinning round, doing backflips…all sorts. And they’d go out on the Friday night, do an all-nighter, then an all-dayer and an all-nighter on the Saturday, maybe even another all-dayer on the Sunday, and then straight into work on the Monday morning. And they’d need at least two changes of clothing, because they were sweating cobs. So they’d be ordering new gear all the time. I was doing a mail-order service, because loads of the squaddies overseas were into their Northern…it was all lovely. At the time, I was making as much money as the Prime Minister. 

What were the widest flares you ever cut?
One lad from the sticks – I dunno, Clipstone, or somewhere - came in and asked for seventy-inch Oxford Bags. Seven-bastard-Oh! That’s nearly four metres of fabric! God knows why, it would have been like wearing a dress on each leg, but if wanted ‘em, he could have ‘em. He never came back, so I expect he was too embarrassed to show his face again, or he got ‘em took in somewhere else. Well, the Northern gear kept going right into the early 80s, but the fashion had changed to pegs – really baggy at the top, so you could still do the drops without ripping your arse, and tapered in, so you still looked good in a spin. Which was something the jazz-funk lads picked up on. We also did these box jackets, single-button – looked good on anyone.

What’s the favourite item of clothing that you’ve made – the one that you’d love to pull out, throw on the table and say; that’s how good I am?
It’d be a jacket I made for meself for New Years Eve once. It was silk, but it looked like a rug. And the colours changed along the roll, so if you cut one from one end and one from the other, they’d be completely different. Oooh…it was me coat of many colours. I’d put that on and me missus would know I was gonna be gone for a week or so. I used to knock about with Vivian Mackerrell – the original Withnail – at the time, and he used to go on about it all the time. ”Ooh, I love that jacket” And one night we were walking round the bottom of Hockley in the pissing rain, and he’s banging on about the jacket, and I’ve had enough. So I take it off and go; “Look, just have the bastard” and I throw it on a traffic light, miss, and watch it fall into a massive puddle. So I get it properly muddied up and chuck it him. And he says; “No, what I mean is I like to see you in it!” He was a lovely bloke, Vivian.

So what made you pack it in?
It was me 40th birthday, and I wrote a big long letter to John Major, Tony Blair, Prince Charles…all sorts of people. About my life, and how I was being taxed out of my business, and how expensive the rents were, and everything. I sent this to sixty different people, all recorded delivery. People would say to me, what you doing that for? And I said, I dunno what’s mekkin’ me do this, but I’ve got a feeling that if I don’t do this now, I’ll regret if for the rest of me life. I got 15 replies back; the best one I got was from an the local MP, Alan Simpson. He said; “Thank you for the letter you wrote to me, and the rest of the world. It reminded me of something my mother used to say; you’ve got a mind like a schoolboy’s pocket – you never know what’s going to come out next”! Isn’t that brilliant?

So you actually just walked away.
Look, by the end of it the rent on my shops trebled, at a time when the interest rate was 15%. And when that happens again – and it will - entire streets will go out of business. The rent was rocketing up, the interest rate was rocketing up, sales were dropping, and I’d had enough. People would come up to me and say; “Why have you stopped?” and I would just point at all the lads knocking about in shell suits.

So are you an alcoholic?
Well, let’s talk about that. I’m alcohol-dependent – that’s what the doctors call me, in any case. I’m not a chronic alcoholic. I used to like drinking and writing – or was it writing and drinking? People see me drinking, but they rarely see me arseholed. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but things flew out of me while I was doing it. Once I had a pen in me hand, all me troubles went away instead of them being stuck in your head, driving you insane. I’ve always been a drinker. When they asked me what I wanted to be at school, I’d say; ‘An educated tramp’.

But you’re hardly a tramp, Robert. You’ve got somewhere to live, and you always look dapper…
I’ve been going to this thing called Last Orders, an NHS service for alcohol-dependent sorts. The fact is, I’m after a period of abstinence, so I can sort out my living arrangements – and I fancy getting a couple of sewing machines and do some sewing for me daughter. She runs a shop on Forest Road, and if I’m clean, I can fill in for her so she can take me grandson on holiday. And if I fancy a couple of beers, I can wait until half six.

What pubs do you frequent nowadays?
None – I’m barred out of ‘em all. My being-kicked-out record? Want to guess? Two seconds. I defy any man to get kicked out quicker than that. The Lancashire Hotpot, or whatever it’s called. I walked in, stood in the doorway, the landlord pointed at the door…two seconds. I don’t care anymore. When’s the last time a pub in town had a decent pinball table? How often do you find a pool table in town, even?

Erm, yes. A lot of the stories we’ve heard about you involve getting naked around pool tables...
I’ve played pool naked all over the place. Thing was, I’d wear them denim shirts with the big cuffs. And some twat’d go; “Hey, your sleeve’s touching the ball”, so off it’d come, so there in’t no arguments. Go on, two shots, carry on. Then when I’m battering them and I’m on the black, and they’ve got five balls left, off comes everything.

We don’t know how true this is, but we were told that some shoegazey band in the Maze got really upset at the sight of you dancing naked to them not so long ago.
What? Me? I don’t remember that.

Apparently, they begged you to leave, because they were hoping to attract some girls with their cascading waterfall of sound, and they ended up with you with your kit off, giving it some.
No, I can’t imagine that. You know what Nottingham’s like. The Whispering Village. Tell ‘em that I must have had an acid flashback, and they started to look like a pool table.  By the way, there’s a band going about who’s got a song about me, called The Best-Dressed Drunk In Town. That’s quite sweet of ‘em, in’t it?

So what’s an average day for you?
I wake up. Get out a bed. Drag a cooommb across my head. Ha ha! I fill my day. Talk to people. At the moment, I’m trying to leave it until the afternoon before I start drinking, but I’ve had a couple of Magners today, and some Special Brew, so that’s…21 units. Look, people see that I have one of these cans in me pocket more often than not, but it’s like a hip flask to me. I don’t drink to get drunk.

But what do you do?
I observe people. I’ll sit in a bus shelter and look at people going home from work, and I can see it on their faces; “Awr, look at that poor little sod sat there on his own, with a can in his hand.” But I’m looking at them and thinking; Jesus, look at that poor cow. She’s done a hard day’s graft, and now she’s got to go home and the kids are gonna be all; “Mam, gi’ us some munneh for skunk! Press me cloes! Ah’m norreatin’ that! Some friggin’ mam yo’are!” Bollocks to that.

What are your favourite spots?
I’ve been spending a lot of time here (by the War Memorial in the graveyard), for personal reasons. For my lady, who died last year – my lady, my girlfriend, my best friend, my trouble…I miss her so much. I’ll put me can down here, and she’ll knock it over. Just to let me know she’s watching over me.

So who do you know on Mansfield Road?
Who doesn’t know me?

OK, let’s throw some names at you. ‘Denis’.
Denis? Denise? Dennis? With the tits? Yeah, he used to come in the shop to have his elasticated bottoms took in. He’d whip ‘em off and stand behind me when I was on the sewing machine. And I always let him tell me how much he was going to pay. He’s alright, he is. Me and him used to talk all the time on Mansfield Road - me with a beard down to me waist, him with his tits – we must have looked a right couple…

Donovan? Jesus, he used to buy clothes from me years ago. I see him often, and I say to him; “You done two albums…don’t lie to me, because I know you’re working on the third one. I know you are”. Look, do you think someone like James Brown would have some pussyclaat supporting him? When he started up, with his first band, you couldn’t even smoke in Donovan’s presence. But his label got rid of his band, they get in a new band, and the next thing you know, he’s walking the streets. He actually asked me to be his manager once. I said; “Donovan…I can’t even manage meself” but what I did was tell him instead of asking people for change, he should ask if he can sing for ‘em.

Pound Woman.
Pound Woman?

The one who sticks her hand out and goes; “PAAHND!”
Oh! Sue! She drives you mad, she does!

Nottingham’s supposed to be heaving with clothes designers nowadays. What advice would you give to them?
Learn to SEW! Don’t just draw the pictures and pretend. SEW IT! And put it on your friend. That is the beginning and that is the end. Come on, let’s go down the road. I need another can now.

OK, just a few more questions then.  You’ve stayed in Notts all your life; what changes have you seen?
There’s a lot more narrow-minded, selfish, self-obsessed twats knocking about. You know why some people are scared of me? Because I talk to them like normal people used to back in the day.

What’s the one thing that you’d like people who see you in town to know about you?
I am me.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to LeftLion readers?
Be you.



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