Dates of Operation:
1976 to present
Location:    London, UK
Known Aliases :    Zipper Hardcore, Zipper XXX
Known Affiliations :    Alex McKenna

ZIPPER, first published in 1976, emerged as England’s leading “male pin-up” magazine, serving as a showcase for several of London’s most significant photographers of male nudes. The success of Zipper spawned video productions 1 and a family of related publications, in addition to serving as the impetus for the establishment of a Zipper store in London (283 Camden High Street).

Zipper’s history is a remarkable story of creativity and survival. Publisher Alex J. McKenna founded Zipper, producing 116 issues between 1976 and 1995. In fact, the magazine was called Alex McKenna’s Zipper for the first 59 issues after which McKenna’s name was removed from the cover (so it would “look cleaner” according to McKenna). Because of harsh laws in the United Kingdom restricting the production and distribution of adult material, McKenna and his colleagues always worked under the threat of police raids, confiscation of materials, and imprisonment. Despite such serious impediments, Zipper and its related publications survived and flourished well into the 1990s when laws regarding adult material became less strict.

McKenna began his publishing career in 1972 with the magazine Jeffrey. With business partners Chris Graham-Bell and Jurgen Dahmen, McKenna formed BDM Publications, which continued to produce Jeffrey, as well as Just Us and Line-Up. McKenna later owned and operated the Incognito publishing company with partners Graham-Bell and Alan Purnell. Incognito was responsible for producing such magazines as Hung Heavy, Taste of Beefcake, Black Studs, Him Exclusive, Leather Studs, Man, and Playguy (not to be confused with the magazine of the same name published by the Mavety Media Group in New York). The seemingly tireless McKenna also ran the Ajax Book Co. selling gay magazines by mail order.

After Incognito closed in 1976, McKenna and Purnell started Zipper Magazine. Originally intended as simply a magazine for gossip and information about local gay bars and discos, nude photography quickly became Zipper’s main focus. Purnell pulled out after two issues and started Him Publications (which was acquired by McKenna in 1982). After Purnell’s departure, McKenna combined Zipper with the Ajax Book Co. and traded independently (albeit briefly) as Ajax-Zipper. McKenna reunited with Chris Graham-Bell 2 in 1977 acquiring the failing publishing firm Millivres Ltd. whose assets included Mister magazine and an old, nearly bankrupt store on Camden High Street called Modern Books, London’s first licensed gay sex store 3.  Ajax-Zipper and Millivres Ltd. merged, retaining the Millivres name because it was already registered as a Limited Company. McKenna and Graham-Bell also took over management of Modern Books, renamed it the Zipper Store, and transformed it into one of the most popular gay bookstores in London (it exists today as the Prowler Camden store). In addition to Zipper and Mister magazines, Millivres Ltd. eventually added many titles to its line-up including Gay Confessions, Gay Reporter, Him Monthly (later renamed Gay Times), Overload, Vulcan, Young Hawks, and Zipper Leather. Millivres Ltd. also acquired the leather/biker magazine Sam, incorporating its name and subscribers into Zipper and hiring its editor, club owner Bryan Derbyshire, as a regular columnist for Zipper. Derbyshire later edited the newspaper Out and Him Monthly 4.

Although McKenna regularly published layouts from such US-based photographers as Colt, Roy Dean, Target, Malcolm Hoare, Phil Flasche, and Zeus (mostly in exchange for publicity), Zipper is best known for showcasing British photographers such as John Anthony, Mike Arlen, Mason West, and McKenna himself. For Incognito publications, McKenna routinely purchased photographs from outside sources or produced them in-house with Alan Purnell. No longer able to hire an in-house photographer for Zipper, McKenna decided to photograph most of the models himself. Starting modestly with a “cheap” Lubitel camera McKenna soon developed a distinctively clean, straightforward style with a preference for photographing bodybuilders. Rather than depending on model finders or searching for models himself, McKenna simply placed advertisements in free magazines and newspapers 5.  Many of his models were migrants to London, mostly working-class men from provincial areas throughout the United Kingdom 6.  McKenna’s first photo shoots took place in his flat in Cornwall Gardens, then a studio in Camden High Street, later an old factory in Kentish Town, and finally a studio on Arlington Road, Camden Town. In addition to using his own name, McKenna sometimes used the pseudonyms Harry Hudson, Percival Mackey, Alfredo, Sydney Kyte (names of 1930s band leaders) and Lance Leopard, Letch Feeley, or Carstairs Bagley (characters from Patrick Dennis’ book Little Me).

McKenna served as sole editor of Zipper until 1990 at which point Nigel Hatton assumed occasional editorial duties starting with issue 83. By 1992 McKenna was admittedly “bored with it” but continued to contribute occasionally to the magazine until 1995. After retiring as Zipper’s publisher, McKenna started a mainstream bodybuilding publication, The Beef Magazine, which he operates to this day.

In 1995 Zipper was “relaunched” with a new numbering system by Millivres Ltd. Simon Cork and later Sean Spence edited the “relaunch” issues. Zipper ceased publication in 2001. By 1999, Millivres Ltd. had merged with the publishing firm Prowler Press to form the Millivres-Prowler group, one of Europe’s largest gay publishing firms with Chris Graham-Bell as Chairman. Sean Spence, a former editor of several Zipper relaunch issues, became Millivres-Prowler’s Head of Erotic Business. As a long-time fan of the old Zipper, Spence decided to resurrect the title in 2002 as Zipper XXX, which features hardcore pictures from European and American adult film productions. Spence then launched a successful line of adult films under the Zipper name. Zipper Video now boasts over 300 titles in its portfolio.

The pioneering work of McKenna, Arlen, West, and Anthony represents a particularly creative period for British male nude photography and Zipper served as an ideal showcase for their talents. Not surprisingly, old issues of Zipper are much sought-after by collectors today.

Alex McKenna, shooting bodybuilder Harold Dickinson, c1983.


1  “The videos I did were very crude technically. Just unedited, unscripted VHS, using an expensive but terrible JVC camera. Video machines had only just come out and we were experimenting with the market. We also did copies in Betamax format. We’d just get a model to come along and tape him stripping and whatever. Home video, but nicer bods than we normally see.” (Alex McKenna, email corresponcence, Jan. 31, 2004) “There weren’t any cum shots. These were very prim times. Had an old factory in Kentish Town for videos, and then an old house in Islington. I gave the tapes of Duo and some others to Alan Purnell years ago. I suppose some old copies might still exist, but they were so awful! In one video a guy is wanking on a bed and the phone rang right next to him! We had to carry on as we couldn’t edit, so he just took the phone off the hook and carried on.” (Alex McKenna, email correspondence, Jan. 29, 2004)   RETURN TO TEXT

2  “…you need the right partners to make anything work. Chris Graham-Bell was essential to the project although he never took a photo, designed a magazine, or wrote a story! He didn’t even like serving in the store, which I didn’t mind in the early days. About the only time he DID man the store for a few hours, a gang of kids raided the place and smashed the front door with a rock. I think he got hit in the head and cut. He was always getting hurt." (Alex McKenna, email correspondence, Feb. 4, 2004)   RETURN TO TEXT

3  “ Modern Books was an old-style dirty book store…with magazines pinned up on peg boards; some straight stuff, drag queen magazines, and physique things. It was fascinating but tattered and not taking much money. The owner was an old chap called Pip Hindle-Briscall, a loveable eccentric. He died suddenly and his son didn’t want to be involved. The store was run by Roy Powell who is still director of Millivres-Prowler. Roy was struggling on his own and we made approaches to merge the firm. A perfect synergy. We bought off the son and Roy got a small but significant percentage of the combined ownership. As soon as we took over the shop, modernized it, and renamed it…the takings went up astronomically." (Alex McKenna, email correspondence, Feb. 4, 2004)

4  “ He went to live in Amsterdam after that and ran an S & M bar and hotel. He died about 2 years ago sadly. I liked him.” (Alex McKenna, email correspondence, Jan. 31, 2004)

5  " I had adverts in H&S, London free mags for Ozzies, and postcards in the NSS newsagent at Earls Court tube.” (Alex McKenna, email correspondence, Jan. 31, 2004)

6  “I was motivated by the need to capture these good bods and good faces while I had the chance. Even if they didn’t want to do nudes I would sometimes do pics in shorts or costumes if that would calm their nerves a bit. I realized that once the moment had gone you’d never see them again. If they would do erect shots, so much the better, but I never pushed it, so to speak.” (Alex McKenna, email correspondence, Feb. 1, 2004)





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Updated: December 2006


MANY THANKS TO: Mark Henderson and Alan T.for putting this page together.
Alex McKenna and Sean Spence for all their help of information and putting Zipper together over the years.