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The Smoking Guns

The Smoking Guns


Words Kirk Truman

Photography Etienne Gilfillan

 

“We started something together that we were wholly in control of – it was the beginning of a new adventure.”

A transatlantic duo blazing their way through Soho’s music venues, clubs and bars, spinning Northern Soul, 60s rhythm & blues and old school rock-n-roll, Iraina Mancini and Samantha Michelle are an unlikely success story in an often male-dominated world. I talked to them about how The Smoking Guns got started, their Soho roots and the reasons behind their DJ venture.

Growing up in West London, Iraina Mancini has spent her life in the company of music. “My Dad was in a band with David Bowie,” she explains, “so I’ve always had something of a musical upbringing. He raised me on soul, and its been ingrained in me since I was a kid.” When she was just 18 she approached a band after a gig, telling them that their singer wasn’t the best and that she would make a better vocalist for the group. “I think I was very confident in those days for an 18 year old girl,” she says. “They turned around and invited me in for an audition. After that, I started a band called Mancini and toured around for a number of years, made an album and went on the road. I’ve been doing music ever since. As I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve become more of a songwriter for other artists. At the moment I’m recording an EP.”

Samantha Michelle, the other half of the duo, grew up in Toronto, spending much of her youth in Canada and the US, eventually settling in New York for sometime before moving to London. “Mine and Irania’s upbringings are polar opposites,” says Sam. “I didn’t grow up in a musical household at all. My father is a businessman, and my mother is a doctor. A creative life as an artist or musician was definitely not something that my family expected of me – it wasn’t a viable option. As a kid, I was always very artistically inclined. I would often paint, and I was a competitive dancer, but these were merely hobbies. I didn’t like the options that were presented to me in the world that I grew up in, so I wanted to build a new life for myself. The gateway into that for me was university. I worked hard to get into a good school, eventually studying in New York. My whole world became an incredibly different place for me as I explored the nightlife of the city, which had a strong influence over my taste in music. I felt like some of the music I was listening to was part of some kind of unspoken tribe. When I moved to London, I was instantly fascinated. It’s strange for me really, as I have no ties to the place at all, yet I’ve adopted it as my home.”

Sam and Iraina first met in Soho nearly five years ago at Dean Street’s Groucho Club. They quickly became friends, and their friendship became centred on their careers, with both of them working as actresses and DJing separately. One evening they discussed the possibility of starting their own project together. With their combined love of soul, rock and roll, and the music of the 60s and 70s, the two of them decided to pool their talents, forming The Smoking Guns late last year. “We thought maybe we could do something that we could be in control of, something fun,” says Iraina, “so we decided to DJ together. We made a pact: this time next year we’ll have really made this thing take off.”

“We were so fearless, and we believed in ourselves wholeheartedly,” says Sam. “In life, shit doesn’t go your way for whatever reason. At first it builds this distrust and lack of faith in yourself, and then something comes to you to make you realise your true potential. So together Iraina and I turned a new leaf – we started something together that we were wholly in control of. It was the beginning of a new adventure. We wanted to get to a point in our lives of primitive artistic pursuit.” And so The Smoking Guns was born. Once they’d decided to work together, Iraina and Sam wasted no time: in fact, they managed to land their first booking within five minutes. With their easy and approachable manner, perhaps it’s no surprise that the two quickly began to work with dozens of venues, particularly around Soho; and given their taste in music, The Smoking Guns carved out their own specialised niche. A female duo spinning Northern Soul, 60s rhythm & blues and old school rock-n-roll? Unheard of!

What might have been seen as a handicap in a musical scene that’s always been heavily male-dominated actually proved pivotal to their success, helping them to begin working alongside some of the most exclusive nightspots in the Soho neighbourhood, such as The Groucho Club, Soho House and Lights of Soho, with a number of weekly residencies all over London. “We were very lucky that we already had a core group of people that we’d already worked with in the past, so we had a good starting point. So much of my life has been spent here on the streets of the neighbourhood. It’s an incredibly important place to me. Its a personal experience, DJing for people we’ve grown up around and who are part of our lives,” says Iraina. “At the start, many of the people that we began working with or being booked by were people we already knew pretty well – it was a success on the back of our connection to Soho. The neighbourhood is dear to our hearts, and The Smoking Guns is a lovechild of Soho!”

What Sam and Iraina have created is refreshing and original, a shot in the arm for a music scene that has been losing some of its momentum in recent years. In just over 12 months, their friendship has blossomed into a successful musical collaboration covering all corners of Soho. Standing tall in their Joshua Kane bespoke men’s suits they give off an image of confidence and beauty that defies both expectations and odds, even in an ever changing and diversifying neighbourhood. The Smoking Guns have already begun to gain a strong following, creating a positive and uplifting atmosphere that echoes the neighbourhood’s yesteryear: crowds revel in the basement of Lights of Soho to the sounds of Bob Dylan and the Small Faces, while at the Groucho they scream with joy to the sound of The Doors and The Rolling Stones. Perhaps these two talented young ladies were destined to meet and combine to spread their musical message. As they continue to go from strength to strength, Sam and Iraina are two young guns to watch closely.

A Soho Office

A Soho Office


Words Griff Rhys Jones

Photography Archives


Some time ago, in the very early Eighties, Melvyn Kenneth Smith and I decided to go into business together. We had no idea what we were doing. Or what business to go into. We liked the idea of an office. Not the Nine O’Clock News had, I think, an audience of 18 million in one set of repeats. It was a pop phenomenon, like being a band. We were certainly arrogant, opinionated and ignorant enough to assume we could run anything. Mel and I had been producers and directors before we became performers. We were plucked from those jobs to do our party pieces on TV. This was our affinity. It bound us together. The late Harry Thompson paid us the compliment of saying, later, “you were the only ones who weren’t c*nts in the entire operation.” But then he didn’t really know us.

We were also pragmatic. I started producing commercials for the Not spin-off of records and tapes (this was before DVD). We decided we might make more, so we decided to make radio productions and we called it “Talkback”. We were starting a sketch show of our own sometime in 1982, working in the old Television Centre (the one they recently sold). The nearest place for lunch apart from a dispiriting staff canteen full of men with pints of beer was half way back to Notting Hill.

It was a round building. Once, trying to find a cup of coffee, I walked around three times before I realised it was a circle. The hutches faced out onto the central atrium. The only view out of the window was other offices full of people working. It didn’t inspire. I wanted to get back to the West End. I craved the glamour of a pub. Friends from university had a theatre promotions business with an office in the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. I suspect they needed to offset the costs so they gave us a desk and we started making commercials and pieces for Soho-based companies like Saatchi and Saatchi. After a while and a couple of jobs we moved and settled into Brewer Street.

I probably still walk past the entrance to that office every week or so. It was on the north side, down the Aquascutum end, opposite the Stone Island shop where I sometimes buy Italian football supporter’s clothing to wear on TV shows. But which walk-up was it? I can’t recall. I have forgotten to even try to remember. We took two rooms or maybe more. People joined us to write commercials. Vicki my old secretary left the BBC. We pitched to agencies and recorded in Angel Sound or sometimes on the barge in Little Venice that belonged to Richard Branson.

It was up there, on the canal, we recorded about six scripts I had written for Tim Delaney of Leagas Delaney. We were busy so we had to suggest to Tim that he joined us at around 11 at night while we “knocked ideas around”. One was a simple but alarmingly racist shop sketch. I offered the customer, Mel, who wanted a Japanese “videocaster” a “Phirrips”. Like most successful commercials it was popular with advertising people so it won a lot of awards.

But here we were in Soho. We went out to eat in Greek restaurants and could take walks peering into shops. This was before the Groucho Club had been invented. We went to basement dives called “the Marie Lloyd” to get drinks when the pubs closed. You could buy smoked eels at Hamburger Products down the other end of Brewer Street. It wasn’t White City. There were strip clubs all over the shop then, instead of just corralled down the corner of Brewer and Wardour. Meard Street was still shit street. Late at night, it was possible to walk your mother through there, trying to get to some restaurant or other, and find yourself passing several blokes pissing in the gutter and another getting a knee-trembler in the shadows. (Mothers are more experienced in life than you think though.) The French Pub was a stand-up, fall-down boozer rather than a fascinating part-gourmet eatery. The inmates turned to stare if a stranger had the temerity to march himself in. You had to sidle up to the bar.

We had a Soho philosophy. You needed nothing more than a tea chest, a cardboard box to sit on and a phone. Make money and you took home a share. It generally worked. Not everybody paid us. Our manager, PBJ, pointed out that our first big contract was not paid, six months after the job was done. I went and sat in the office of a major advertising company until I got a cheque off the boss, a now world famous PR Lord. I was pretty drunk. That seemed to help. But we moved. When? I don’t know. We went to Berwick Street. We got some sort of pokey offices out of a deal with Warner Brothers. I know we were in that street, because I recall I was once waiting for Mel. We were supposed to be back in White City, but he hadn’t shown up so I decided to get in the cab and go without him. The cabbie said he knew my voice from somewhere. “You’re Jeremy Pascal, off the radio aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Well you sound just like him.”

We drove off, turned right towards Oxford Street and passed the underground car park there. The cabbie said, “Look, look there! There’s that Mel Smith off the telly coming out of the car park.”  Mel was coming out. The cabbie was clearly in awe.

I pulled down the window. “Oi! Mel!!”

The cabbie was horrified. “Don’t shout at him. They don’t like it.”

“Get in the sodding car!”

Mel got in. The cabbie shut up.

But which order did this happen in? I don’t know. I remember I got my dad’s dog run over in Soho Square. Not something you want to do. I let him off his lead to run about a bit by the half-timbered hut and he chased a pigeon into the street. It was the squealing after he got hit that was the bother. Everybody looked at me like I was a murderer. The dog survived. It got its leg in plaster from a Soho vet somewhere. By that stage, we had first floor offices directly on the corner with Greek Street – big and airy rooms, with oblong-paned Crittal windows (now replaced by an ugly bank building), overlooking the dog-desecrating square. I went up to Star Warehouse in the old railway stables at the back of the Camden market and bought a pinball machine, a pool table and an orange jukebox. We believed they were essential to creativity. They went with us on yet another move to Carnaby Street. (Or was it the other way around? I remember the toys, but not the order of moves.)

The Soho Square offices had their charms. We were once taken up to the top floor where there was a beautiful darkened flat completely panelled out in shinny yellow satinwood that had belonged to Gracie Fields. But, ah, the joy of those Carnaby narrow 17th century rooms, poky stairs and clapboarded dados. Too many of the eighties edit houses and post-production facilities were squeezed into unsuitable 18th century listed houses with netted fire doors, glass partitions and grim noticeboards, but our place remained a house, with fireplaces in every room. We were always above a shop. Carnaby Street went on up into the roof. At a party crowding up the stairs, I watched a Harbottle’s lawyer patronise an anonymous-looking man about his music. “We sometimes represent groups. What’s yours called?”

“Pink Floyd.”

Carnaby Street was pedestrianised, like now, but in a yellow and black zigzag plastic. We kept taxis permanently hovering at one end or the other, waiting to take artistes to important lunches. Gradually the pool table and the pinball machines went. There was no room for creativity. They were replaced with desks. The company was doing all right. Nobody hung out and played very much any more. Mel had the orange, Sixties bubble jukebox transported off to his place. It was mine. I paid for it. But I didn’t say anything. He’s dead now and it sits in his empty Abbey Road house. I might try to get it back. It has pictures of the two of us wearing Greek costumes under its perspex lid. I don’t remember why the Greek costumes, or the silver boingers on our heads. Those should date it, but there is now no record of that headgear craze. It was around that time we decided to move to Percy Street in Fitzrovia. This was a big place. We even had the shop, with an old plate glass window looking on to the reception area decorated with pictures bought from Rebecca Hossack around the corner. That was the end of Soho for us. When was this? God knows. Must have been the end of the Eighties. It was in many ways.

 

Oliver Spencer

Oliver Spencer


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“I wanted to open on Berwick Street. I really believed it was the high street of the neighbourhood.”

Farringdon, Portobello, Lambeth: familiar names of London districts, but also those of a range of garments designed by Oliver Spencer, whose clothes, full of stylish accents and practical details, have earned a reputation for distinction, comfort and sheer cool. Designing and making handcrafted garments for modern men and women, Bloomsbury-based Spencer has produced his own individual take on relaxed British style, and a special relationship with the Soho neighbourhood stretching back to his youth.

Having grown up in Coventry, Oli first moved to London in the early 1990s to study art. Frustrated by the limitations of art school, he abandoned his studies and enrolled in what he describes as the University of Life, selling second-hand clothes from a stall at Portobello Market. “Lots of things happened which I would describe as being pivotal in framing where my life would go next. I learnt lots of lessons – some good and some bad,” he says. He woke up at 4.30am every day so he could get his pitch, and it was there on the market stall that his relationship with clothes really began, giving him with an enduring love of the product and a passion for shopkeeping.

Oli spent a decade creating and expanding his first venture, formalwear brand Favourbrook, during which time he designed waistcoats for the 1994 film Four Weddings And A Funeral and began to establish his place on London’s design map. Eight years later, he wanted to embark on a new venture with even greater ambitions – success on the global scene. His plan was to produce a range of clothing that combined the quality and craft of traditional tailoring with a more relaxed modern style. His philosophy: quality needn’t mean formality; casual needn’t mean careless. “I have a feeling towards clothing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dressing up or dressing down – it’s involved in every step of my life in any case,” he says. “When my customers purchase something from us, I want them to feel a sense of belonging – as if they’ve bought something that’s like their best friend… something they’ve owned forever. Every season, I strive to get there. I want to create clothes that talk to people. Most of my customers like to be seen but not heard – that’s why I don’t brand my stuff.” The Oliver Spencer label was born in 2002, and its founder’s philosophy soon found a number of adherents in the heart of Bloomsbury and beyond. Oli’s arrival in Bloomsbury came about through friend and founder of Folk Clothing, Glaswegian fashion designer Cathal McAteer. The Oliver Spencer brand first came to Lambs Conduit Street in 2007, and Oli’s store at No 62 is home to the latest collection each season, with the original surviving shop fittings making for an immaculately dressed setting.

Since launching on Lambs Conduit Street, Oliver Spencer has continued to expand across London, opening shops in Shoreditch and Soho – an area that’s been important in Oli’s own life since 1989. “I first came here with an ex-girlfriend of mine who was a couple of years older than me. At this point, I was already into fashion. It was the middle of the summer, and I was wearing an old second-hand two-piece check suit with sandals – aged 18. I remember getting some strange looks! People could see I definitely wasn’t from the area,” he says. “My relationship with Soho has always been that of a stranger really. It’s always held this awe for me – I’ve always been a bit scared of it to be honest. When I was a kid at art school, Soho was this tricky place. It felt so grown up, with so much going on all around. To a young kid, it was a bit intimidating. It was full of many different tribes, and not everybody was necessarily nice, especially if you were an outsider coming here. Everywhere you turned, there were dark streets and characters lurking. Since then, my fear has turned into a fascination. On a Friday evening, I know if I get here after 9pm, I won’t be home until at least 3am. Its an absolute vortex.” After opening his Bloomsbury stores, Oli had always planned for Soho to be his next destination. “I knew exactly where I wanted to open: I wanted to open on Berwick Street. I really believed it was the high street of the neighbourhood. It was the first store we opened where the tills began to ring from the very first day… if the shoe fits, as they say.”

Oli is uncompromising in the standards he sets for production and provenance, sourcing the finest fabrics and yarns from artisanal British and Italian mills. He prides himself on producing his garments in only the best European factories and workshops, with around 40 per cent of the collection made here in London or elsewhere in England. Despite the emphasis on British quality, Oliver Spencer’s eye is firmly fixed on the global market. Today, his clothes are stocked in many of the world’s leading department stores, from Selfridges to Liberty of London, and he has opened shops in Toronto and Paris, as well as developing a profitable international online business. With wearers of his brand including Daniel Craig, Tinie Tempah, Alex James and Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp, Oli confesses that his next ambition is to become a household name.

 

Raymond Revuebar

Raymond Revuebar


Words Kirk Truman

Photography Getty Images/Hulton Archive


Behind its ever-changing façade, Soho’s streets still hold secrets; dig beneath the surface and you can find yourself transported back to a different time. Make your way through the daytime crowds of Berwick Street, head towards the seedy Walkers Court, and stick around until nightfall, when the infamous doors to The Box Soho are open wide. Step inside this relic of Soho’s not-so-distant past and you’re in what was once the Doric Ballroom, which in turn became the setting of the Raymond Revuebar, perhaps Paul Raymond’s most famous legacy to the neighbourhood he reigned over for so many years.

It’s a legacy that still haunts the streets of Soho today. As evening revellers pass along Brewer Street, most don’t look up to see the neon beacon of the Raymond Revuebar that still glows above their heads. But, in spirit at least, the centre of Raymond’s empire of erotic entertainment, sex, publishing and property lives on. Despite the change of name and ownership, The Box Soho remains true to the Raymond Revuebar’s legacy, serving up nightly helpings of titillation, nudity and sex. Paul Raymond pioneered Soho strip clubs and the soft-porn magazine trade and prospered for more than 40 years; it was perhaps an unexpected ascendency for an entrepreneur who started out as a wartime spiv selling black market nylons from a market stall.

Paul Raymond was a stage name he chose early in his career, but he began life as Geoffrey Anthony Quinn, born in 1925 into a working class, Roman Catholic family in Liverpool. His mother wanted him to have a sound job, something steady and respectable, like a railway ticket office clerk, and she never fully accepted his more risqué chosen career.

Despite his success and confidence in later life, Raymond was a shy youngster who often stammered. If his childhood taught him anything, it was the need to establish his independence, something that ultimately defined his character. He left school at 15, working at the Manchester Ship Canal as an office boy. After a stint in the RAF, he embarked on a rather different life. He purchased a mind-reading act for £25, billing himself as a clairvoyant, and in Liverpool became a theatrical agent and impresario. The manager of one theatre told Raymond that he would book his act – but there was a catch. Raymond’s two female colleagues would only be allowed on stage if they appeared entirely nude. He offered the two girls an extra 10 shillings a week and they agreed. At this point, the law stated that nudity was permitted in a theatre providing women didn’t move whilst onstage. Finding away around this obstruction became something of a creative challenge: by putting the girls on a rotating platform, Raymond found a way to make his early shows a success. This set him on a path through a changing Britain – one that led him to Soho and made him one of the richest men in the country.

Raymond saw that the Lord Chamberlain’s restrictions surrounding on-stage nudity could be simply bypassed by turning public theatres into private clubs. In 1958 the old Doric Ballroom at 12 Walker’s Court, Soho, reopened as the Raymond Revuebar, hosting an array of explicit daily shows. At the time, this was one of very few legal venues in London offering full-frontal nudity. Though homosexual acts between men were illegal at this time, the Revuebar also operated a Sunday night show targeted at a gay audience. The success of the club was inevitably controversial, and in 1961 the chairman of the London Sessions called the show “filthy, disgusting and beastly”, and fined Raymond £5,000. It might have been a setback, but it also provided publicity for the shows worth many times this amount. By the late 1960s, the Revuebar was solely hosting striptease performances. This in turn made way for big-budget erotic shows of the type presented by Continental clubs such as the Crazy Horse. Performances involved a mixture of solo striptease acts mixed with simulated boy/girl and girl/girl on-stage sex. Known The Festival of Erotica, the show ran for many years, often with three performances a night.

By this time, Raymond had become a British institution. His realisation that the naked female body could deliver far bigger box office once it was relocated from Soho’s seedy cellars to the world of the theatre was the key to his success. Taking over the Whitehall and the Windmill theatres, his stage holdings grew, while his formula of providing nudity without actionable crudity was also applied to print publications like Men Only, Mayfair and Escort. Raymond’s wealth and empire begun to spread throughout Soho: he purchased freeholds of buildings throughout the neighbourhood, and created Soho Estates, amassing around 400 properties in the Soho area and becoming a commercial giant that dwarfed other theatre managements.

With competition from the wave of table dancing clubs that opened during the 1990s, audience numbers for traditional striptease shows were dwindling, and by 1997 Raymond sold the Revuebar to former Marseilles Ballet dancer Gerard Simi. The Revuebar hung on for a few more years, eventually closing in 2004. After the death of his daughter Debbie in 1992, Raymond stepped out of the media limelight and began to loosen his connections with the organisation he had built. A recluse in his last years, he died of respiratory failure, aged 82, in 2008, his granddaughters Fawn and India inheriting an estate estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.

You can recapture something of the glory days of Paul Raymond’s Soho in a new exhibition from Getty Images Gallery, which unearths rare photos of Soho’s past, and particularly of its nightlife and entertainment venues. The Raymond Revuebar, of course, is one of the exhibition’s focal points. Running until November 19th, the exhibition will be a trip down memory lane for some and an eye-opener for many others, juxtaposing the neighbourhood’s seedy roots with everyday Soho-ites through a series of beautiful photographs carefully selected from Getty Images’ vast historical archives – from David Bowie at The Marquee Club, jazz greats at Ronnie Scott’s and stunning images of Soho’s nightlife.

 

Filson

Filson


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“There’s an endless amount of inspiration within the Filson brand given that we’re over a century old…”

Filson is a brand that was born out of necessity: it arrived in the right place and at the right time, and with a sense of purpose that has kept it on course ever since.

Thousands of fortune hunters were stampeding through Seattle, heading north. Born in 1850 and inheriting his fathers pioneer spirit and love of the great outdoors, CC Filson was armed with a strong work ethic, a reputation for honesty and several years’ experience operating a small loggers’ outfitting store. He knew that quality was of vital importance and that the only thing good enough was the very best. It was said that if a man was heading north, he should come to Filson for his outfit.

The rugged quality of Filson products has been setting the standard for American outdoor apparel for over 100 years, as creative director Alex Carleton is well aware: he was a Filson customer before he even came on board the brand, growing up in New England with a love for the outdoors. “I was familiar with the products and always intrigued by the world they came from. I wanted to help reveal a lot of the untold stories that existed. I’ve always gravitated towards American companies that played in the arena of tradition and outdoor recreation. Filson is the perfect combination of both,” he says.

As creative director, Alex is a firm believer in working with what’s there and maintaining a connection with the company’s origins, purpose and sense of place. “I’m a creative, I don’t really feel comfortable working in a vacuum. It’s not my style. There’s an endless amount of inspiration within the Filson brand given that we’re over a century old. I’m cautious about not letting our narrative stretch too far away from where we are and where we come from. It’s really easy to keep close to the core when you love it,” he says.

As Alex explains, a book could easily be written about the story of Filson. Producing unfailingly reliable gear for outdoor work, the company’s golden age lasted for decades, with Filson kitting out the innumerable men heading north in the hope of making their fortunes. “The Cliff Notes go like this: CC Filson was a pioneer who, by way of Nebraska, landed in Seattle at the end of the 19th century. He and his brother opened what would be a modern day equivalent of a hardware shop in Pioneer Square. When gold was discovered in the Klondike, being the entrepreneur he was, CC targeted prospectors as his customers and outfitted them for the insanely harsh weather of the north. Filson is the original Alaska outfitter.” Come the 20th century, the brand introduced outdoor sporting goods oriented toward those quintessentially American pastimes of hunting and fishing. Today, Filson see themselves as offering a unique blend of products for both work and recreation – and not just in the wild northlands of the USA.

If London is the gateway to Europe, then Soho is the gateway to London, and Newburgh Street was where the brand came to open its first retail outlet outside of the US. “We opened our first store at 9 Newburgh Street in April 2013, and then our second store at 13 Newburgh Street in December 2015,” Alex explains. “At number 9, you’ll find our luggage, bags and accessories, and at number 13 our clothing, such as our famous Mackinaw jackets, cruisers and shirts.” Their Soho stores have managed to integrate into the surrounding neighbourhood in the same way that their US stores have done. It’s about establishing a feel for the environment and getting to know the local area and work with it. “Soho has a sense of adventure and discovery, and we definitely share those values,” he says, “We host an array of events that give us the opportunity to bring a slice of the Pacific Northwest to life, from Whiskey and Wax, where we will show you how to wax your jacket, to events hosted by people that live the Filson life, such as wild chefs and foragers.”

Over the decades, Filson has both maintained what works and continued to innovate. It’s interesting that while so many heritage brands have changed, and in the process lost themselves, Filson has concentrated on delivering what they always have: a guarantee of quality and a focus on making products geared for the wild. In the future, just as in the past, Filson will continue to serve those customers who demand the very best high quality apparel for outdoor pursuits, and the brand’s presence in Soho – bringing a taste of the far north to central London – will undoubtedly grow. “We shall continue to innovate our product offerings and foster that same entrepreneurial spirit that CC Filson had. We’ll continue to mine our archives and share our adventure stories while creating new ones today,” says Alex.

 

Bernie Katz

Bernie Katz


Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Edu Torres


“…Soho is a place of many emotions, a place of ghosts. A place you shouldn’t stay for too long… get in and get out.”

Bernie Katz lights a cigarette handed to him by Madness’s own Chas Smash as we chat in the smoking area of the Groucho Club where Katz has reigned as gatekeeper and host for almost a quarter of a century. Connected, intellectual and brilliantly eccentric, he’s inarguably one of Soho’s most familiar faces and one of London’s most famous hosts. There’s a story that, some years ago, an elderly lady arrived at the Groucho believing she was at Soho House. After Bernie had taken the trouble to walk her, at a steady pace, to her intended destination, he ran into a friend, actor Stephen Fry, who immediately dubbed him “the Prince of Soho”. The name stuck.

He looks the part too: the slickest, best-dressed and most charming fixture of the Groucho, clad head-to-toe in custom-made clothing by friend and tailor Chandni Odedra, a wardrobe that runs the gamut from leopard print to sequins.

It wasn’t always like this. Bernie was born and raised in South London, where his father was one of the area’s most notorious gangsters. The young Bernie saw drive-by shootings and extreme violence from an early age. One day, when he was just 15, a man burst into his family home in Kennington and shot his father dead right in front of him. The gangland upbringing his father’s way of life had exposed him to was now at an end, and Bernie moved on to another life. He worked for a period in a haberdashery store in Tooting, before getting a job at the long-gone Tiddy Dols restaurant (famed for its 18th-century Welsh Rarebit and gingerbread) in Shepherd Market. Thus began a career in hospitality that saw him move on to The Savoy and a restaurant in Italy.

At a time when private members’ clubs were archaic, men-only retreats, a group of publishers that included Carmen Cahill, Ed Victor, Liz Calder and literary agent Michael Sissons had an idea. They imagined a place that welcomed both men and women to meet, work and socialise – and so the Groucho Club was born. Almost a quarter of a century ago, Bernie was invited to work at the club by the late Dick Bradshaw, inventor of the espresso martini, to cover a waiter’s paternity leave. Despite describing himself as having been an awful barman and waiter, Bernie found himself with a permanent role at the club when the new father failed to return.

“There was once an amazing woman called Teresa Cornelys, a singer who became a lover of Casanova,” Bernie tells me. “She landed here in Soho in her late thirties, where in 1760 she invented the first private members’ club at Carlisle House, Soho Square, hosting a range of fashionable gatherings. Teresa and Soho is how members clubs came to be born.” It’s a tradition that Bernie takes pride in continuing. “The Groucho is like a family. Everybody looks after each other. Members, members’ children and members’ children’s children – it’s like an extended family for all. No matter who somebody is, if they come to see me, I’ll see that they land on their feet,” he says. “After being here for over 20 years, you get to know all sorts of different people. I’ve been captivated by the arts world, which has led me to work on numerous art auctions featuring everyone from Peter Blake to Damien Hirst. In addition to this, my sister has an autistic son, thus I’ve been able to organise auctions to benefit the National Autistic Society. I’ve dabbled a lot in the art world – hence I’ve got a great art collection. Let’s call that my pension!” he laughs.

In his time at the Groucho, Bernie has made the club his own, and in turn it has shaped him. “Without meaning to, without changing myself and remaining who I am, I have always kept my feet on the ground. I’ve never gotten too carried away… you’ve gotta remain as solid and as real as you can,” he says. “You do as you say, and say as you do. If you say you’re gonna do something, you’ve gotta do it and stick to your word. I think that’s what, for the want of a better word, has been the secret of my success as a host. I’ve always said I can do something or I can’t, and I’ve always delivered on what I say I can do. That’s been the recipe for my reign.” As well as having been shaped by the club, Bernie believes that Soho too has influenced him in many ways. He explains that while he loves working here, he likes to live at a “safe distance” from the area, finding comfort in his home in Kentish Town. “There’s so much you can say about Soho, and so little you can say that hasn’t been said before. Soho is like a Shangri-La: it’s music, art and fun” he says. “I can be anywhere in Soho and I feel at home, looked after. It’s a place of friendly faces.”

Bernie has noted how Soho has been changing in recent years, though for him this is part of its identity too and doesn’t affect the essential qualities of an area that will always remain close to his heart. “Soho is very fast-paced. It’s always changed and adapted to the times. It’s a place where you can be openly gay, black or white, whoever you wanna be: it’s a place for all. I’ve always thought of it as an animated film – it’s like a shop that changes every five minutes; though to my eyes, it hasn’t really changed all that much in hundreds of years. I think Soho will always remain vibrant and colourful,” he says. “Soho goes back as far as Henry VIII, hence the hunting cry ‘Soho!’ It began to modernise during the reign of King Charles II. Century after century, decade after decade, the characters haven’t really changed. It’s the most beautiful, magical, mystical and tragic place that there is.”

The many secrets and stories of Bernie’s life at the Groucho and beyond were revealed in the 2008 book Soho Society, in which he delves into the lust, envy and decadence of Soho’s party scene, and the lives of those who have joined him for the journey. Bernie’s future at the Groucho Club is uncertain; although he can’t imagine leaving the club any time soon, he explains that his long reign will eventually have to come to an end. His passion for the art world is something he’d potentially like to pursue further, launching his own ‘Prince of Soho’ exhibition, showcasing various artists’ work. For now, you’ll find him racing around the corridors of the club, or on his new regular show on Soho Radio. Whatever the future holds, the Prince of Soho’s reign is not yet done. As he says, he and Soho are “both colouring books that haven’t been coloured in properly yet… Soho is a place of many emotions, a place of ghosts. A place you shouldn’t stay for too long. Get in and get out.”

Sunspel

Sunspel


Words Kirk Truman

Photography Etienne Gilfillan


“…many of the distinctive fabrics used were originally developed and created by the company; these continue to be used for our designs today.”

Among the maze of Soho’s historic streets it’s hard to single out one that could be termed the area’s epicentre: would it be Carnaby Street? Brewer Street, perhaps? Wardour Street has a good claim. But arguably Old Compton Street remains the quintessential heart of the neighbourhood; and in the past few years the street has become home to a welcome new addition bringing yet another layer of history and a unique heritage to the area. Originating in Nottingham, Sunspel has been crafting its high quality garments from the world’s most luxurious fabrics for 160 years. I spoke to the company’s CEO, Nicholas Brooke, about Sunspel’s Midlands roots, pioneering approach and iconic boxer shorts.

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, steam power had kick-started a period of enormous worldwide change. Born in 1822, Thomas Arthur Hill founded Sunspel in 1860. His father was a hosiery maker in Nottingham, and Thomas chose to follow in his paternal footsteps and enter the hosiery and lace trade. Hill found himself at the heart of one of the earliest manufacturing sectors to embrace the introduction of steam power – and he responded by becoming a fabric innovator, and one of the great early British industrialists. Opening a textile factory in Newdigate, Nottingham – which became the centre of British lacemaking – his vision was to create simple, everyday clothing from beautiful fabrics. It’s a philosophy that Sunspel continues to follow today. Hill’s use of lightweight and very fine cotton allowed him to pioneer the development of luxury undergarments as we know them today. In addition, some of the earliest garments produced at the Newdigate factory included some of the first T-shirts, tunics and undershirts ever made.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Sunspel had become one of the first British companies to export to the Far East, having built an extensive business across the British Empire. It was during this period that Sunspel came to develop its unique Sea Island cotton fabrics, sourced from the West Indies and used in its most luxurious products. “Sunspel became renowned for producing undergarments of exceptional quality,” says Nicholas. “Many of the distinctive fabrics used were originally developed and created by the company; these continue to be used for our designs today.”

Long established as a menswear label, Sunspel today is an authentic English heritage brand, making luxury wardrobe essentials for both men and women. Current CEO Nicholas Brooke became involved with the brand through a family connection, having been aware of Sunspel for some time and having a genuine admiration for the company’s heritage and history of innovation. When Nicholas and business partner Dominic Hazlehurst bought the company from existing owner Peter Hill, a relative of founder Thomas Hill, in 2005, it was important to them that the new owners would not close the existing factory, outsource the production or tamper with the fundamentals – but there was work to be done in bringing Sunspel into the 21st century. “The brand was not in great shape. We worked hard to bring it up to date. We had lots to work with: a great heritage, fantastic product and the potential for it to be restored to its former glory. It’s been wonderful to see how much the company has transformed and grown,” says Nicholas. “Cook pioneered the development of the T-shirt as we know it and also introduced the boxer short to Britain from the US in 1947,” he tells me. “The Sunspel boxer short was later immortalised in the 1985 Levi’s commercial with Nick Kamen, who was seen stripping down to his white Sunspel boxers. The brand has also come to develop a close association with cinema, working closely with costume designer Lindy Hemming to re-fit the Riviera polo shirt for Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (2006). It was an existing style, tailored to fit Daniel Craig – and the re-fitted version that he wore is the new standard for the polo. The brand has stayed true to its heritage, combining tradition and innovation to make exceptional quality, modern clothing for everyday wear.”

In 2012, Sunspel turned its eyes to Soho, opening at 40 Old Compton Street, on the site where the infamous Janus Bookstore once sold bespoke erotica. “Our next door neighbours are a vintage liquor store on one side and the original Patisserie Valerie on the other. Fine booze, fine pastries and fine clothing – what more could you ask for?” says Nicholas. As with their Chiltern Street and Redchurch Street stores, each Sunspel branch is the result of a carefully thought out process. Nicholas cites the Old Compton Street store as a destination for the brand’s fans and a place to be discovered by new customers. “The store stands apart as one of the only clothing stores on the street, and definitely the only store offering British luxury wardrobe essentials for men and women. It’s a vibrant area and I think Sunspel fits nicely into the architecture of the street,” he says.

If fits, too, into the way the ever-changing area is evolving. “It’s a place of neon lights and night-time haunts, eccentric characters and exotic entertainments,” says Nicholas. “Traditionally, Soho was known for its less salubrious offerings and over the years Old Compton Street has gone from a down-at-heel, seedy street to a more up-and-coming destination with a great mix of entertainment, food and stores. Albeit a bit more polished these days, I think it’s still an incredibly exciting area.” The Soho store is now established as an important and successful part of the brand, catering to a wide cross-section of Sunspel’s customer base. Nicholas feels that it has become an integral part of the fabric of the street and the wider neighbourhood. Having recently opened stores in Berlin’s fashionable Mitte district and in Omotesando, Tokyo, Sunspel is looking carefully at other store locations for the future, but Old Compton Street looks set to remain a major London home for the growing brand.

Shinola

Shinola


Words Kirk Truman

Photography Jamie McGregor Smith


Soho is a vibrant and culturally significant area… an ideal location for our first store outside of the US”

Curiosity got the better of me some months ago, and I entered a specialist emporium in the centre of Soho, above which hangs an eye-catching and distinctively branded timepiece. Inside, I found watches, leather goods, journals and bicycles. Priding itself on selling lovingly crafted products made in the USA, Shinola is a unique find even among Soho’s eclectic shopping streets. I asked Creative Director Daniel Caudill to tell me about Shinola’s Foubert’s Place store and to share the story of this quintessentially American brand.

Shinola is a relatively new Detroit-based design company dedicated to delivering world-class manufacturing jobs and making products of the highest quality and durability. A Bedrock Manufacturing brand, it was conceived in 2011 in the belief that products should be built in America and built to last; it’s a belief that emerges from the strong legacy of manufacturing in community-minded Detroit – a legacy that Shinola finds inspiration in. Standing for skill at scale, the preservation of craft and the beauty of industry, Shinola’s watch and leather factories are housed within Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, in the former Argonaut building.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Shinola’s Creative Director is responsible for each and every detail. Born in Trinidad & Tobago and raised in Montana, Daniel Caudill studied at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. He then went on to work alongside a number of apparel brands before moving into styling photoshoots for music videos and adverts, which in turn led to him becoming a consultant for a number of major American brands. Although everything at Shinola is a direct result of collaboration, it is safe to say that none of what makes the brand what it is today would exist without Daniel. “My role here is a culmination of my career so far,” he says. “A friend introduced me to some people when what would become Shinola was just an idea among a handful of friends. We would have conversations about what the aesthetics of the brand could be. These conversations went on to be the creative foundations of the brand.”

From Shinola’s signature watches to leather accessories, journals and bicycles, the brand’s crucial founding ethos is that their products should be built to last. Using high quality, labour-intensive materials, experienced craftspeople and the finest manufacturing processes available, Shinola’s products are more than just accessories for modern day living. “We wanted to make beautiful products,” says Daniel, “but more importantly we wanted to create jobs, which is still one of our proudest achievements to date. The company grew naturally when we made the decision to move to Detroit in 2012. From there, we found and trained people from within the community, built a factory and started manufacturing beautiful watches, bicycles, leather goods and journals.” Daniel and Shinola believe in the history of Detroit, but also in its future, which is why they’re based there. Investing in skill, Shinola is creating a community that is thriving through the excellence of craft and pride in work. The brand is reclaiming and redefining the meaning of American luxury goods: they are things that are made well.

London was the ideal choice for Shinola as the first bricks-and-mortar outlet outside of the US, with Daniel describing the city as the gateway to the world. “We opened our first store at 13 Newburgh Street in October 2014,” he says. “In December 2015 we moved to a bigger store just up the street at 28 Foubert’s Place and added a Shinola clock to the outside of the store, which is an oversized take on our original Runwell watch.” In establishing the store here in Soho, Shinola used the same approach that it had in the US, integrating and collaborating with the local community. “We throw great events and parties for our neighbours, customers and local agencies and always try to be interesting to them, be it through craft-maker events or book launches or whiskey and food tasting,” he says. “Soho is energetic and spirited, with adventure on every corner, including ours. We identify locations and stores based on the beauty of the raw space and the community we are surrounded by. Soho is a vibrant and culturally significant area with a strong sense of community – an ideal location for our first store outside of the US.”

In almost no time at all, the Shinola brand has gone from strength to strength, growing and evolving constantly in the process. It has gone from employing just nine people to 540, working in multiple factories across multiple new product categories. “The people who work in our factories are always learning new ways to improve how we make our products, as well as learning to make new ones,” says Daniel. “We are also opening a lot of stores in some cool places; we’ll have 22 by the end of this year.” Shinola’s future in the Soho neighbourhood is certainly bright, as they continue to interact with the surrounding area from their Foubert’s Place store. Moving forward, the brand is set to continue working on a number of projects, such as expanding their women’s line, and introducing new and exciting product lines: watch this space!

Mark Baxter

Mark Baxter


Words Jason Holmes

Portraits Kirk Truman


“Anyone can fit in up here in Soho. We’re all chameleons…”

He harks back to an age when a man’s word was his bond, when deals were sealed with a handshake and when the world turned, so it seemed, at a far slower pace. He’s the author of Elizabeth, Peter and Me, Tubby Hayes: A Man In A Hurry and the co-author of The A-Z of Mod and The Mumper, but he’s better known to the denizens of Soho as the über-connected, go-to public relations man who walks this small corner of central London with a rare, old world sensibility that sees him bring people together, be they bar owners, writers, rock stars or tailors – and all for the greater creative good.

Upstairs at the French House, Mark Baxter looks out into the mid-morning street, removes his spectacles, stirs his cappuccino and takes stock. “I live south of the river, and when I was a little kid my mum and my old man would bring us over here to do typical sightseeing stuff like Trafalgar Square and the lights of Christmas. Back then, I realised how close we were to Soho. It’s something like 25 minutes on the bus from Camberwell in south-east London, which to me is sometimes an angry place. Nothing’s ever been easy down there. It’s hard to make a living. There are some tough people. And me, I won’t take no for an answer. My old man used to say ‘If you can’t go through the door, go through the window’. In other words, don’t give up.”

But as a kid in the early ’70s, he was still taking it all in. “As I got a little bit older, and I’m talking 12 or 13, I used to get the number 53 bus from school on the Old Kent Road straight into the West End. That’s what I used to do, regularly. I remember Soho back then – I remember all the peep shows – but it was pretty seedy to be honest. But all my mates stayed locally, played locally and worked locally. I saw a different world up here, but it was quite hard for me to get people to come with me to see it.”

Baxter, like a lot of London kids, would play the Red Rover game: you’d jump on a random bus on a day fare and see where it took you. It broadened his horizons. “Coming here opened my eyes. When I had my first real job on Fleet Street in 1982, in the print trade, I started coming to Soho with a bit of money in my pocket and started enjoying the clubs and the clothes and record shops. Me being a curious person, I started checking out a lot of art galleries and museums. You had to seek this stuff out because there was no Internet back then, obviously. By travelling around London, I’d see posters for things like a Terence Donovan or Terry O’Neill exhibition. I’d check them all out and it was a big step for someone like me, from the place I came from. By exposing myself to a new world, the world of Soho, and walking around and seeing stuff, I began to meet like minds on my circuit.”

Baxter’s voice is a deep south-east London reverberation that fills the room. The words come in rapid waves, their sentiments unashamedly upbeat about what can still be achieved in this historic square quarter mile. “Anyone can fit in up here in Soho. We’re all chameleons. A lot of people I know up here, we meet for a coffee for an hour or so, and they’re either seeing their tailor or they’re here for a casting or a voice over. No one’s dwelling in the box for too long. Everyone’s flitting between things. I mean, this area is still full of great talent, but maybe back in the 1950s someone might have been in the pub all day, long drinking. These days Soho is a different place. You can’t live your life that way now, not if you want to make a pound note.”

He cites Mark Powell, Michael Caine and Paul Weller as inspiring working class figures who worked hard to prevent their creativity from being stifled. “Despite where you start, it’s where you finish that’s important,” he says. “I identify with guys like this. Most of my mates have moved to Kent or Essex, but I’ve always loved the multicultural atmosphere of London. I’ve always been a people person. I think that’s probably what it comes down to: what people bring to the mix, what they’re wearing, listening to or reading. To me it’s always endlessly fascinating. I always wanted to learn, but transforming ideas into making them happen is the hard bit. And trying to get someone to pay you is another matter. My grandad was a rag and bone man, and that is basically selling. So I’m convinced that it’s in my genes. It doesn’t matter what it is, I can find an angle to sell you something. I’ve always had that, and to me it seems fairly obvious sometimes. People like my grandad were the early recyclers. Everything was about profit. This comes from a really mixed background, that working class work ethic. It’s pure graft. There’s no other way out of this: you’ve just got to graft your way out.”

When asked about Soho’s future, he’s frank: “Soho’s on a tipping point. Family-run businesses are being offered silly sums of money for their businesses, and if you’re of a certain age and think that you might want to retire… I can see Soho changing very quickly as new money comes in and buys people out. So we should make the most of Soho now and get the best out of it while it’s still here with the last vestiges of the past. Places like the French House should be celebrated.”

The French tricolour outside the window is whipped into life by the wind, and Baxter eyes it. “You can still find a little piece of old London here in Soho, that’s evolved naturally, organically; but money always wins in the end. The pound note will dictate what survives and what prospers. Soho is trying to attract new people. Old locals are few and far between these days. The balance has been changed – and massively. If rents go through the roof, these agencies and businesses around here are going to go elsewhere. We’re hoping against hope this place is not going to change, but inevitably, it will. It always has.”

Kim & Paul Abraham

Kim & Paul Abraham


Words Jason Holmes

Portraits Edu Torres


“I’m an old punk… I socialise in Soho. It’s still got a buzzing community…”

The three cats come walking around the chairs and move up to me, the interloper. They look me full in the face before leaping onto the sofa to take an even closer shufti. Then, having seen enough, they lazily depart, mews proclaiming their hunger. My gaze shifts back to Paul Abraham who sits across from his wife Kim. We’re seated in their flat, perched high above Endell Street and within sight of St Giles, Covent Garden.

“I’m an old punk,” Paul tells me, “and I used to come to Soho to see punk bands. It was the lure of music, I suppose, that got me coming to Soho. One of the venues was the Marquee, another the Wag on Wardour Street. And near here, where we live now, was the Roxy Club on Neal Street. The West End in 1977 was an interesting time, quite a dark place. I would spend all day walking around Soho and the West End. And today, well, I still feel there’s a vibe in Soho that’s nowhere else. Originally, it was the music that attracted me. Plus the fact that It never felt like white suburbia.”

Nor will it ever, despite Soho’s growing residential aspect. And in Soho you can still spot the odd punk refugee who made it out of the maelstrom and lived to tell the tale. If you blink you’ll probably miss them – although you can see Kim and Paul walking through Soho most days, their combined sartorial flair setting them apart from the thronging pavement crowds. They’re the type of Londoners one rarely spots these days, but when you do, your eye is arrested. Kim and Paul come from a dying band of stylists who once inhabited the clubs, walk-ups and bars of a grittier, some would say more honest, era in Soho’s history. They wear their clothes as a defiant semaphore in a world slowly turning grey and uninspiring. It’s this, perhaps more eloquent, language of clothes that rises above the mundane argot spoken by the homogenised masses who have drifted by stealth into the Soho maze. And it’s a sartorial language that Kim and Paul speak very well.

Of the Soho she remembers, Kim says: “It never had a hang up about itself. It was always diverse, and it was diverse class-wise as well. There were expensive places you could go, but there were also places where you could get a cup of tea for ten pence. There was a real mix of things.” With Paul hailing originally from Bromley in Kent, and Kim from Hornchurch in Essex, it’s the classic tale of a man and woman being drawn inexorably to the bright lights of the big city.

Currently employed at the world famous Savile Row tailor, Huntsman – upon which the 2014 film Kingsman: The Secret Service was based – Paul is part punk, part stylist and part forward-thinker who tenaciously worked his way into the discreet world of high-class tailoring via an unusual route. “I got a job working for Christina Smith who owned a lot of property in Covent Garden. I was doing carpentry and decorating work for her while also singing in a band. But, of course, the band split and I began to work for her on a full-time basis, and it was then that I got further involved in the Covent Garden area via her and the community centre.”

Then he got married. Then divorced. “At the time when I met Kim, I was going through a divorce, so she suggested I go for a more steady job, and so I went for a handyman’s job at Huntsman on Savile Row. And I’ve been here ever since. A lot of Savile Row is very discreet,” says Paul. “For example, you don’t disclose who your customers are. It’s a gentlemanly agreement; it’s as simple as that.” Kim currently works as a primary school teacher at Netley School, just off Tottenham Court Road, which serves the Regent Park Estate. “The vast majority of people who live in the West End are ordinary people,” she says. “Covent Garden is full of social housing and people aren’t earning huge salaries on the whole around here. So when the Stockpot on Old Compton Street went, it was a bad thing.”

Paul agrees: “Old Compton Street is generic now. I know London has always been changing, but the question now is whether it is changing for the better.” It’s a genuine concern for a couple who once loved the vibrant undercurrent of Soho nightlife. But Paul returns to the sartorial side of things again as the cats drift back to see what all the noise is all about. “When I think back to Carnaby Street, even in the late ’70s when it was a bit run down and grotty, you could still get great clothes made there, and cheaply. But now it’s just chains. That is what’s sad about so-called progress. But I wouldn’t mind moving back to Soho,” he says after a moment of reflection. “I used to live on St Anne’s Court and I still drink there. I socialise in Soho. It’s still got a buzzing community.”

“Soho was edgy because of the characters who lived there, so if you remove them, if you social cleanse the area, then it’s going to change and become something completely different. And this,” says Kim, gesturing to the decor of their flat, “this is our little bubble.” Their home is a time warp of figurines, paintings and ephemera from decades they remember with fondness, and they can maintain this microcosm as they see fit while the outside world marches to a different drum. “The stuff in here makes us smile,” she says, “and we’ve always liked dressing up. We always will. And there are still a few eccentric characters about. But I’ve always said that when I’m older I’d like to go and live in Brighton which, frankly, is Soho-on-Sea.” Paul mutely concurs. Now it’s just the cats left to convince.