Words Kirk Truman
Illustrations Lucy Bayliss
Really, London started here for me. As a teenager and a then indie/MOD-type some 5 years ago, I started my first job here in London, along the brick pathway of Carnaby Street. Though it wasn’t The Jam soundtrack roaring out of Liam Gallagher’s newly launched Pretty Green flagship store, likely as my new employer that took my attention, but my undeniable fascination with a street so poignant and defining of this corner of Soho.
Seemingly, the 1960s have become overwhelmingly synonymous with a certain street that runs between Beak Street in the south and Liberty of London in the north. Though, this area has a rich history and accounts of land exchange dating from the 16th century. Thomas Poultney, a landowner, came to acquire two then adjoining fields. These together were to be known as Six Acre Close on which there was a well and windmill, thus making for the site of Carnaby Street as we know it today.
Taking its name from Karnaby House, originally erected in 1693, Carnaby Street was laid out around 1685. The street itself has gone from fashion to fashion and has always been synonymous with trade; with a market having begun in the 1820s. In his 1845 novel, Sybil, Benjamin Disraeli referred to a once famous carcase butcher in Carnaby market, which would’ve no doubt sat among a mass of traders. From 1850 to the early 20th century, the area became heavy populated by tailors, dressmakers and ancillary trades, thus serving West-End shops and Savile Row tailors nestled behind Regent Street. Trade, however, was soon encouraged with the opening of clubs and music venues around Carnaby; The Florence Mills Social Club (a jazz club and gathering spot for advocates of Pan-Africanism) being opened by Amy Ashwood Garvey and Sam Menning in 1934 at no. 50.
By the late 1950s, men’s fashion had begun its lasting descent upon Carnaby when His Clothes was opened in 1958 by Glaswegian John Stephen. He was the first entrepreneur to identify and sell to the young menswear market which began its emergence in the 50s and 60s. A widely regarded pioneer, Stephen became one of the most important figures of 1960s fashion, voicing the bold claim “Carnaby is my creation” in 1967. Stephen was widely regarded as the founder of men’s Mod fashion, whether Carnaby was indeed his creation is a matter of debate. Nonetheless, he was a purveyor and designer of sharp tailoring and clothes for the 1960s Mods, with his exuberant array of clients including staples of the era such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Small Faces and Jimi Hendrix.
By the mid-‘60s, Carnaby Street had become the UK’s thriving home of men’s fashion, with Carnaby, Newburgh, Ganton and Kingly quite literally inundated with fashion boutiques all chasing Stephen’s own endeavour. Stores such as I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, Kleptomania, Mates and Ravel, to name a few of the array, honed in on the area. Soon designers such as Mary Quant, Lord John, Merc, Take Six, and Irvine Sellars were to come to locate themselves on Carnaby also.
The trend that Garvey and Menning began in 1934 with The Florence Mills Social Club continued below the very surface of Carnaby, with a variety of underground music bars nestled beneath the boutiques above. Music bars, such as the Roaring Twenties, in the surrounding streets became the norm: with bands such as the Small Faces, the Who, and the Rolling Stones frequenting the area to shop and socialise. Infamously, Carnaby quickly became a staple destination of the Swinging London of the 1960s. Awareness spread to North America and internationally in April 1966 when Time magazine published an article detailing the role of the street in Swinging London, describing Carnaby Street as three-blocks crammed with a cluster of boutiques.
Amid this clustering of boutiques and clubs along the buzz of Carnaby and its many corridors, it is no wonder that it came to be pedestrianised in 1973 by the Greater London Council, and now vehicular access is restricted between 11am and 7am. A comparison of the number of pedestrians entering the pedestrianised area indicated a 30% increase of a flow into Carnaby Street as a result of the pedestrianisation. A campaign commenced early 2010 to call for a similar exercise to be undertaken in the adjacent area of Soho.
On into the 1970s and 80s and Carnaby continued on as a destination for youth subculture. From the likes of punks, including the Sex Pistols, to rockers and goths; Carnaby continued to be a home for youth and inventiveness, where individuals flocked to leave their shells. In the late 70s, a Mod revival struck, helmed by bands such as The Jam, led by Paul Weller who was as much of a regular face of Carnaby in his teenage years as he still is today. This again brought the humming sound of a small army of Lambrettas and Vespas to the area, a humming which is still heard today on Carnaby from time-to-time. The energy itself is captured in the very fibre of the area in its distinction, quality shops, pubs and restaurants.
The narcissistic Mods that came to Carnaby to be seen and heard in the 1960s have come to helm the face of Carnaby’s history. Though still, beyond the heyday of this street which lasted but 10 years is a well- hidden tale of Soho’s rich heritage of trade and craftsmanship. Though it seems oh so tempting to cross thoughts of Carnaby with the Mods and peacocks of an era we shan’t forget, Carnaby is more than just a place, it is a rich heritage of the Soho we know today – a dedicated follower of fashion, a welcomer of the world.