Carnaby Street

 

UNDERGROUND on Carnaby Street as we continue to mark 30 years of our Originals collection.

Hailed as the home of modern British fashion, retail, and style; and of course a home of British Subculture. And the home of Underground between the years 1993 and 2001. It was during this build up to the millennium that the famed cultural district underwent another wave of cool and cachet. Thanks to Brit Pop, the world went mad for Cool Britannia. Think New Labour, the Spice Girls and Blur vs Oasis. Perfect territory for British style renegades Underground to open its doors.

It was in the nineties that the street(s- now composed of thirteen streets and termed Carnaby) most mirrored the heyday of the Swinging Sixties that many yearn for. It seems the Carnaby seems to be at the epicentre of time where the epitome of cool is British.

 

If you look at it’s history- it seems that the area has always had some magnetic pull for revelation or change- though probably less colourful than what it is mainly famed for. From being the grounds of the first pestilence house for those struck by the plague in the 1600’s, to being renowned for it’s female butchers in the 19th Century. The John Snow pub is named after the renowned epidemiologist who discovered that the water pump the building rests on was the cause of a cholera outbreak in the city. Immigrants were drawn to the area and had a huge effect on its bohemian build- demanding tolerance, freedom and inclusivity. William Blake was a resident. The gravitational pull for innovation continued through into the 20th Century, and the district really started to make a name for itself in the pop cultural arena around the 1950’s.

It is strange to consider it now- but before this time, there was no such thing as a ‘teenager’. Just children and adults- everything was geared toward those groups. It wasn’t until one or two astute business people started to acknowledge an emerging group of post-war people- living at home with new jobs, equalling expendable incomes. These new ‘teens’ didn’t want to dress like a child or their parents, yet were concerned about style. It was a whole market un-catered to. With Kensington and Chelsea preoccupied with young women’s dress, later manifesting as Quant or Biba; Regent Street covering mainstream shopping; Mayfair boasting affluent couture dress; Saville Row taking care of bespoke tailoring- Carnaby Street stepped forward to take ownership of serving the young, trend-orientated male market. This market demanded reasonably priced, key pieces in a variety of colours, items that can be mass-produced swiftly to account for changing trends.

 

Bill Green was the astute businessman who first acted on the growing shift. He opened the Vince Man Shop on Newburgh shop which retailed to these young adults. With a prime location and tantalising garments made in innovative velvets, silks and various colours it was very attractive to the gay community in the area. The business boomed- and one of the sales assistants working there saw an even bigger opportunity beyond the gay community- straight, young men. Glaswegian John Stephen stepped out to start his own business on the street, and soon enough he became known as ‘The King of Carnaby Street.

John Stephen in Carnaby Street

“My ambition in life is to see a young man walk down the street in a pink shirt and not be called gay” – John Stephen

He not revolutionised the street- but the way young people dress, and the retail industry itself. Employing bold techniques to get attention- painting the exteriors in bold colours, blasting upcoming pop music, having live women model clothing in the windows. Paying celebrities to be photographed on the street in his garments even. His first business, His Clothes, sold hugely popular short runs of designs- and soon enough the shops multiplied to include ones targeting young women. At Carnaby’s peak- he owned a huge, successful chunk of real estate of the area and the remainder were imitations of his business models.

Mary Quant described the entrepreneur “He made Carnaby Street. He was Carnaby Street. He invented a look for young men which was wildly exuberant, dashing and fun.” Mods and Hippies, Stars and Celebs flocked to the area- the Small Faces, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones were all regular faces.

Though by the time word that London was in full swing got round and the mainstream took notice- the original dedicated followers of fashion had lost interest. In 1966, Time Magazine cottoned on and first coined the term ‘Swinging London’ and outed Carnaby to the world.

‘In this century, every decade has had its city. The fin de siècle belonged to the dreamlike round of Vienna, capital of the inbred Habsburgs and the waltz. In the changing ’20s, Paris provided a moveable feast for Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald and Joyce, while in the chaos after the Great Crash, Berlin briefly erupted with the savage iconoclasm of Brecht and the Bauhaus. During the shell-shocked 1940s, thrusting New York led the way, and in the uneasy 1950s it was the easy Rome of la dolce vita. Today, it is London…’

Compare that to the founder of Biba, Barbara Hulanicki’s evaluations:

‘By that time I hated Carnaby Street, it had become so tacky and full of poster shops that sold psychedelic pictures of the Beatles and Alan Aldridge artwork’. After a move to pedestrianize the roads with some gaudy tiles- many saw that as the death of the district. Death to the diehard devotees from the origins maybe- but the street has since maintained a gravitational pull to subcultures across the decades. The newly formed Sex Pistols were photographed walking along the newly paved street, and as The Jam brought about the Mod revival- Carnaby took centre stage again as the geographical hub of subcultural style. Throughout the 80’s the street was dominated with Skinheads, Goths, New Romantics- congregating with the subcultural ghosts of the Carnaby’s past.

Though many have their opinions- it’s safe to say that Carnaby is a district that has arguably the richest subcultural history in the world. For us, as the British, Independent Subculture inspired brand- it was the obvious choice of locale to settle in London. The 90’s, like the 60’s, was a time that the world again looked to the thirteen streets that compose Carnaby to discover fearless music and style to welcome in the millennia. To quote the Independent newspaper in 1999: ‘end-of-the-century Carnaby is not so much a street, more a happening district.’

 

Underground’s shop front at 22 Carnaby Street, 1993-2001