It’s a special thing, being a Donnelly. Christopher was five when he first felt it. He was in class, at Benchill Primary School, Manchester, when he saw Mrs Heald, the headmistress, through the window. There were serious looking men following her and two police officers. He knew they were coming for him. “You get that feeling,” he says. “You just know.” Mrs Heald entered and announced, “Christopher, you need to go home with these gentlemen.” The other kids just sat, watching, as he went.
At home, he found his dad Arthur in handcuffs, suspected of a Post Office robbery in nearby Timperley. One policeman asked the boy where “the gun” was. Throughout his childhood, there were plenty of guns in the house, everything from useless antiques to a sawn-off shotgun. But Christopher knew what to tell the policeman. “I said I didn’t know what they were talking about.” But his father looked at him. “Go get the gun, Christopher.” He reached down the back of the settee and pulled out a replica firearm.
“That was my first encounter with the police,” Christopher says. “That was when I knew things weren’t the norm. You’d see your friends and their worlds. Our world was different.” His father and his uncle Jimmy were senior figures in Manchester’s violent Quality Street Gang, which ensured the family name was feared throughout the city. He and his younger brother Anthony grew up surrounded by criminals and the celebrities that were drawn to them. They took naturally to crime, enjoying teenage holidays thieving cash and clothes. As young Manchester United-affiliated hooligans, they went on violent outings across the UK and Europe.
But their destiny was to take a dramatic swerve in the late Eighties. As pioneers of the acid-house scene, they came to know some of Manchester’s most celebrated men and turned these relationships into the launch of their own fashion label, Gio-Goi. They’ve dressed a barely believable constellation of stars: The Stone Roses, Oasis, Pete Doherty, Rihanna, Arctic Monkeys, Amy Winehouse and Kate Moss. But theirs isn’t a simple rags-to-riches story. It’s also a tale spiked with ambition and ruthlessness, success and failure and recovery.
In a warehouse-style office above a central Manchester shop, the two men are recounting the story of their rise from the estates of Wythenshawe to supplying clothes for the cover of Vogue. These are men of presence. Now 48, Christopher is quieter and more fashion-forward in stylish knitwear and beard, whereas the charged ions of the football terrace still rise from Anthony, 45. Once his cup of tea has been brought by an assistant, he’s quick to define his preferred narrative for this profile. “What I want is a fair representation,” Anthony says. “I want to inspire kids. For me, it’s about turning a bad thing into a good thing. Yeah, we have a history. That’s who we were. So what?”
Before they were anything else, they were the sons of a dangerous man. A passage in their uncle’s autobiography, Jimmy the Weed: Inside the Quality Street Gang, recounts an unhappy customer of Jimmy’s vehicle lot being thrown into a car in a crusher. Arthur, their father, “had the crane already running… he dropped a one-tonne weight. After a few bashes, the car was like a pancake and the guy was screaming for mercy.” Other incidents, mentioned in the brothers’ own recently-published memoir Still Breathing, involve Arthur shooting at them with air rifles, knocking them out with bricks and attempting to run them over. Despite this, they insist they have “no bad memories” of him. “Even though there were these surreal moments,” Anthony says, “they were always balanced by love. You felt protected by it.”
“What’s strange and contradictory was that there was a strong moral code in our family,” their elder sister Tracey says. Like when it was discovered Anthony had been stealing, “Mum and Dad would go apeshit. And we know what my dad is. It’s very confusing.” But the family’s unorthodox lifestyle was such that most incidents which might have upset the children were soon overshadowed by the next one. “If something happened on a Saturday that other families would talk about for a month, with us there was always something bigger two days later. So you’d focus on that and carry on.”
Life was unpredictable but glamorous. Arthur would take them out of school on last-minute holidays far from England. Faces from other “firms” would frequent the family scrapyard, as would players from United and City – George Best, Martin Buchan, Stanley Bowles. While Anthony’s fellow pupils were paying off a £125 school skiing trip in 50p instalments, his dad handed over the lot in cash. For a while, they had a pet fox.
As they grew into partying teenagers, the family reputation meant cab fares and club entry fees would be excused at the mention of their name. “We fucking milked it,” Anthony laughs. The boys externalised their belief of their specialness with fashion. They admired their dad’s handmade shoes and his Lacoste and other labels. “As we got bigger, we’d rinse his wardrobe,” Christopher says.
“We were fanatical about fashion,” Anthony says. “There were only a few select people that were getting their hands on the proper stuff. I loved Fiorucci, it was just super-fucking special.”
“The way you got your personality, your vibe across, is the way you dressed,” says Christopher. “You don’t have a car, you don’t have a lot of assets. So that’s how you put yourself across. Fashion is so accessible now, but then, if you felt a bit special and were into your clothes, you’d do everything possible to get the right trainers.” This meant theft from shops but also entrepreneurial industry. By their mid-teens, the boys were travelling Europe, following rock and pop acts, touting tickets and selling unofficial T-shirts. “But we never made any money,” Anthony says.
Their lives were to change one evening in July 1986 when they bumped into a friend outside Manchester’s Maine Road stadium, the night Queen were performing there. The Donnellys were wearing their usual football casual outfits of jeans and polo shirts. Their friend Eric Barker, though, had come like nothing they’d ever seen. “He had a little skull cap on,” says Christopher. “Like what he wears off Channel 4 – the racing geezer.”
“McCririck,” Anthony pales. “Fucking hell, he won’t thank you for that. Saying Eric was dressed as John McCririck?”
“You said that,” Christopher says. “I said he had a hat on like him. And he had kind of pyjama bottoms, silk pants with a pattern on.”
Eric told them about a new, alcohol-free event that was happening on Sundays at a Manchester gay club called Stuffed Olives. They were playing this new kind of music, acid house. Intrigued, Anthony went along and bought half an ecstasy tablet – a yellow California Sunshine – for £12.50. “And I never looked back,” he says. “Stuffed Olives was like a spaceship that landed in the middle of the town. It was a completely different take on what we were used to.”
“We’d gone from being slouched in the pub, smoking weed and drinking, to being totally up for it and vibrant,” Christopher says. “It was a revolution.”
With uncle Jimmy’s sons, Anthony and Christopher began putting on illegal raves that have since become legendary. Mike Pickering, later to find fame DJing at the Haçienda club, played at them all. “I became their unofficial DJ,” he says. One of the early, pivotal events was Sweat It Out. Held on 8 October 1988, 1,500 people attended including members of New Order, Happy Mondays and Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson of Factory Records and the Haçienda. The event took place beneath some railway arches that the brothers had used bolt-cutters to gain entry to, before erecting a scaffolding stage.
“Sweat It Out was just amazing,” says Pickering. “I remember one of their uncles sat on a generator outside with a sawn-off shotgun. The police arrived at about 7am. We were clearing up. The floor was a mountain of water bottles; everyone was on ecstasy. The police didn’t know about ecstasy then. I said, ‘Look, officer, it’s respectable, no one’s been drinking.’ They said, ‘OK, clear it up, don’t come in here again.’”
As ecstasy use spread, its influence seeped into football terraces and the historical conflicts between rival supporters. “There had been a lot of violence,” Christopher says, “but there was a period of calm. You could go to Liverpool, to the equivalent of Stuffed Olives, and be welcome over there.”
Old friend Liverpudlian actor Stephen Graham remembers it well. “Back in them days, there was this Manchester-Liverpool rivalry,” he says. “The Donnellys crossed right through that. Loads of Scousers loved them.”
This was, in part, because they had a reputation for holding the best raves. “You had your nasty people who put parties on and ripped everyone off,” Graham says. “But then you had people who loved it for what it was. A lot of people were being ripped off with the Es and things like that. But the brothers were quality fellas. If you were on their side, they’d never do you no wrong.”
But not everyone was on their side. Still Breathing contains several moments that hint at horror. Charges of armed robbery against Christopher were dropped, for example, when the sole witness failed to arrive at an ID parade (“he had moved off the estate in a rush, apparently”); an associate who claimed an unfair share of rave profits ended up with “a car looking like Swiss cheese”; another employee with whom they had a falling-out had his car mysteriously blown up (the Donnellys soon owned his business, “funnily enough,” Anthony adds); yet another, who they insist wasn’t physically attacked, was sufficiently frightened that he “pissed his pants in front of everyone. It was in his trainers and he squelched as he walked out.”
“How can I put this nicely?” Graham says. “They’ve probably smashed a couple of bottles to build the shop. But they’re top guys. They’ve never killed anyone or anything.”
Happy Mondays’ dancer Bez, another old friend, is similarly cautious. When asked about their reputation for violence, he says, “There was that side to them, obviously. I didn’t see it because I was always friendly with them. But it’s not my place to talk about it.” Despite all this, and what appears to be frequently implied in their own book, they deny any involvement with aggressive acts. “We’re definitely not gangsters,” Anthony says. “Categorically. We’ve been misrepresented all our lives.”
Their reputation for exceptional parties and connections with the emerging “Madchester” scene drew the Donnellys into the worlds of pop music and fashion. That shift was made possible by the culturally transformative effects of MDMA. “When I first started going to the Haçienda,” says Tracey, who worked at the iconic club, “there was a definite divide between camps. You’d have the Haçienda and then you’d have Brewsters, football boys. My brothers were in there. Then all of a sudden all these people I’d grown up with were coming in. All the football lads.” Why did it change? “Ecstasy.”
The acid-house scene that bloomed through Britain had the Donnellys at its heart. “We were the fucking catalysts, myself and the Donnellys and a few other kids,” Bez says. “We started it all. And we smashed the fuck out of it. Without our involvement, it would’ve passed the world by.”
What energised the pair into saddling-up their ambitions to design clothing was irritation with those who had started doing it badly. “We were in the scene, we were the scene,” Christopher says. “And there are these corporate people trying to cash in on it, selling absolute shite.” Who? “I hate saying their name,” Anthony says. Could he mean Joe Bloggs? He grins. “I’ve no idea who you’re talking about. Never fucking heard of them.”
Christopher teamed up with Central Station, the Manchester agency behind Happy Mondays’ artwork, and designed a range of sweatshirts, joggers and long-sleeved T-shirts. They hired space at the Men and Boyswear trade show at London’s Earl’s Court, in September 1990, and decided to call their label Gio-Goi, two words randomly discovered in a Vietnamese dictionary that had the benefit of sounding reminiscent of Giorgio (as in Armani).
During the show, their genius for mayhem filled the venue. There was live music, chart star Adamski, the Mondays and Christopher padlocked in a fridge. By the end of day three, Topshop had placed a £3m order. However, they’d spent their last money having knitwear samples made in Lahore; they couldn’t afford to fulfil it. “We thought we’d arrived,” Anthony says. “Then it was, ‘Fuck, we’ve got to make this stuff now.’” Looking back, he realises that they needed professional management. “We were good at the hype, but because of the notoriety, there was always a reluctance [for others] to be involved,” he says.
So they came up with a new plan, purchased large quantities of plain shirts and hired a local company to embroider them. Just prior to Christmas that year, they had around 2,000 in stock. But they struggled to get them into independent Manchester fashion stores, who insisted they had no space. “We were saying, ‘Just take 50 T-shirts. You don’t have to pay for them if you don’t sell them.’ In an hour, they were back on the phone, ‘We’ve sold out. Can we get some more?’ Within two days we’d sold out. It just started rolling and rolling.”
Crucial to this success were their close relationships with the city’s musicians. “We played our part, the Mondays,” Bez recalls. “We wore the clothes and got the name out there. Because they’re connected, everyone was happy to do them a favour.” “Everyone” included The Stone Roses, New Order, 808 State and The Charlatans, several of whom wore Gio-Goi on the cover of the NME, which championed the “Madchester” scene. Soon, they were turning over hundreds of thousands of pounds per week, employing a staff of 20 and enjoying champagne parties in Paris, buying cars as presents and running up £2,000 restaurant bills. Gio became the label to flaunt in New York’s legendary Limelight club. Vivienne Westwood called them “ambassadors for a generation”.
Gio-Goi’s first blip came when the makers of their knitwear tried to take the company over by registering its name. They decline to reveal their identities, acknowledging only that they were “associates” of their father. A meeting was held on the top of the Arndale Centre car park, during which “something happened”. The dispute was later settled by lawyers. The brothers won.
Chris concedes the situation “was very difficult.” It sounds potentially threatening. “I don’t want to discuss it,” Anthony says. “Like you’ve already said, they were friends of my dad’s. It wasn’t a great time for any of us. It got settled by lawyers.” But it nearly went the other way? Anthony laughs and says to his brother, “God love him. He came in from about three different angles, then.” You’re not going to tell, are you? Anthony’s smile says fuck off. Whatever took place, the incident is significant enough for Bez to bring it up, albeit enigmatically. “They had a fall out,” he says. “I don’t really want to go into details. I don’t talk, me. I’d rather just stay silent.”
Worse was to come: in October 1994, the brothers and Arthur were arrested. The family maintain their innocence, claiming to have been entrapped by the police. “I think they looked at us and said, ‘It’s not possible that these two people from the Benchill Estate are running this multi-million pound business,” Anthony says. What were the charges, exactly? “I can’t remember. You’ll have to speak to my lawyer, and he’s a bit poorly at the moment. He’s unavailable for comment. He has a sore throat.”
Anthony was charged with conspiracy to import 32,000 pills, Christopher with supplying drugs and money laundering, and Arthur with six charges of supplying drugs, including heroin. Although Arthur was eventually sentenced to six-and-a-half years on a plea bargain, Christopher was released without charge after two days and Anthony, after being held on remand as a Category A prisoner, received nine months when the seized pills were found to contain only diazepam, a class C drug.
Stress was to play a significant part in the collapse of Gio. “There were just bigger things to concentrate on,” Tracey says. “People were talking about 20-year sentences. That’s where people have this wrong perception of the family. They think it’s water off a duck’s back. But it’s not. It’s devastating.”
The brothers emerged broke and spiritually wounded. “I don’t think anybody goes through something like that and comes out unscathed,” Tracey says. “They’re more wary of people now. They don’t suffer fools so easily anymore.”
It took some years for the Donnellys to regroup. “But what happened next was pretty much history repeating itself,” Christopher says. In 2004, they decided to relaunch the label by booking space at a Berlin fashion trade fair. “We bought a load of underwear from Topshop, put Gio-Goi on them and hired 10 lads and 10 girls from a model agency.” The barely-clothed models paraded through the fashion show, handing out invitations to Gio-Goi’s event. “We put on this catwalk show, even though we didn’t have any clothes,” Christopher says. “Most of them were just out of my wardrobe. We put in a load of smoke machines. Nobody could see what the garments were. There were 300 people outside who couldn’t get in. We created this huge hype.”
“It was pretty audacious,” says Anthony. “But that’s the magic ability of the Donnelly brothers, isn’t it?”
As it had worked in 1990, so it did in 2004. This time, though, the brothers decided to secure corporate investors to fund a proper launch. They struck a multi-million pound deal, selling a controlling 51 per cent stake of Gio-Goi to Melville Capital, then went to work raising its profile, this time by association with a new generation of musicians.
Perhaps their greatest coup came when they hosted a party for Pete Doherty, gifting him some Gio clothes and ensuring photos were taken. Their friendship developed to the point where Anthony began acting as his chauffeur. One morning, in a pub in Bath, Anthony signed Doherty to an exclusive three-year contract in which he’d market Gio-Goi exclusively. There was even a clause, they claim, that if Anthony was to find Doherty dead, he could dress his corpse in Gio. When the brothers were told Doherty was due to be shot wearing Christian Dior for the cover of Vogue Hommes International, they cited their contract, agreeing the shoot could only go ahead if they could attend. The photographer was Mario Testino.
On the day, Christopher was unusually nervous. “I’m the one that had to stand there in front of these people from Christian Dior and Vogue with all my samples. What if our stuff’s shit and theirs is amazing?” But once he was in, he persuaded them that Doherty would be more comfortable in clothes he preferred. The singer chose Gio-Goi.
It was a time when the label also dressed other high-profile acts like Arctic Monkeys, Plan B, Rihanna and Amy Winehouse. But, back in the office, they claim Melville Capital weren’t appreciating their work. “We’re not kids anymore, but we’re still very connected to what’s going on in music, on the streets, at the football,” says Christopher. “But the people making the decisions were completely disconnected.”
“It’s about realism,” Anthony says. “People know there’s something that surrounds our brand. But they wanted to become the brand. They started enforcing their will on the design team, grabbing anything out of thin air that they thought was cool. They actually printed a shirt that said ‘Party Hard’. Just blatant things. And we were unable to maintain the brand because we made the foolish mistake of selling the majority stake.” It must have been heartbreaking. “It wasn’t cool.”
“I’m not saying it was ever going to be Prada or Gucci,” says Christopher. “But it had a level of respect, and it was losing that respect. People could smell it.”
Gio-Goi’s former creative director, Steve Atkinson, remembers the tension between the brothers and their new corporate bosses. “The two sides had a little bit of a coming together every now and then,” he says. “We witnessed a couple of heated moments. More so from Anthony. Chris would be a dangerous man when he warms up, but he’s a mellow guy, overall. But Anthony was never one for sitting back. Anthony would react. It got to a point where they just stopped coming in.”
Perhaps inevitably, in January 2013, Gio-Goi went into liquidation. “Chris rang me on the Friday,” Tracey says. “He said, ‘It’s gone, it’s finished.’ And on Monday morning we were sat together saying, ‘OK, what are we going to do next?’” They focussed on starting their new casual/street-style label, Your Own Clothing. Already, YO has been worn by stars including Idris Elba, GZA, Deadmau5 and Method Man. Such resilience is part of what makes the brothers such immutable entrepreneurs.
“It’s from the childhood they’ve had,” Tracey says. “When you’re used to always having things happen, you just carry on. You don’t give up.”
Stephen Graham compares the brothers to Jay Z and argues that class snobbery has worked against them. There’s certainly something in the idea that, had they been born the sons of an aristocrat, they’d be millionaire bankers by now, and knighted.
But they weren’t. And a crucial detail in what makes the Donnellys different from other people – tougher and more resilient – is to be found in their relationship with their father.
“Even the games we used to play with him were different,” Anthony says.
“He shot me in the leg,” Christopher says. “He’d make us run up a hill. He’d give us 10 and then start shooting with an air pistol. It was scary but funny at the same time.”
Once, Arthur chased his sons down the street in a car, attempting to run them over. It’s the kind of event that might send more ordinary personalities into therapy. But for Anthony, “that’s actually comedy. It’s like The Keystone Cops. A Benny Hill chase.”
So in that moment, as you’re being chased, are you terrified? Or are you laughing? “Laughing.”
Anthony is baffled at my horrified response to his father’s actions. “I remember that incident well,” he says, “and you’re seeing it completely differently.” He’s mystified, too, at the reception to their book which, while funny and compelling, also writhes with vanishing witnesses, piss-filled shoes, fathers knocking sons out with bricks.
“People have said it’s a bit dark,” he says. “But I can’t see it. It’s full of light.”
The Donnelly brothers have always known they’re special and yet perhaps they are unaware of just how unusual they are. Their immersion, from an early age, in experiences that most would find traumatic has made them blind to darkness. But it’s also a crucial element of the success of Gio-Goi and Your Own Clothing. A fashion brand is a story we can dress ourselves up in, and theirs is one that many want to use to cover the mundane realities of their own lives. And, unlike in the case of certain other brands, which project an image that is less than authentic, the Donnellys’ story also happens to be true, giving credibility first to Gio-Goi and now YO.
“There’s a thousand brands who are just making clothes for the sake of making clothes,” Anthony says. “And there’s a lot of people that fucking pretend to be bad. Probably a good idea to end it there.”