Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Carnaby Street – Not What It Used To Be

I live right next to one of London's most iconic streets, known around the world as one of the great symbols of the Swinging Sixties, the period that changed not only Britain but the world. It was the street that said, 'This is London; this is now; and youth is in charge in a new classless society.' It didn't quite live up to its hopes - what ever does? - but it certainly changed the face of British fashion from deference to defiance, becoming the home of young, fun, but not very skillfully made clothes for teenagers of both sexes who were hands-on in forming the fashion and changing it with lightning speed when bored.

And that was Carnaby Street in 1960, when it developed from a louche but formless area of mixed and uncommitted social outsiders to a mecca for young male fashion followers, just as King's Road in Chelsea was initially doing for women, although each sex later joined the other to make the two streets the twin axes of cool fashion for the world.

Soho, where Carnaby Street is, has always been a male area, enjoying its notoriety as a place of brothels and its fame as a haven of acceptance and tolerance for all the byways of social nonconformity, skills and craftsmanship, as it still is today. But go back a century or so and we find that it was also a place where cultural giants lived happily. When I walk out of my front door I am very conscious that William Blake, Canova and Handel were just some of the great figures who lived less than a dozen steps from where I do now.

In 1960, Carnaby Street had a jack-the-lad confidence, even cockiness, as the first place in London to be working class in everything it stood for and yet having a universal appeal. It was also first to take menswear away from the grandeur of Savile Row and create its own look, initially aimed at gays but soon spreading its influence over all mens - and womens – wear.

This summer Carnaby Street is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding and especially its first ten amazing years as a valhalla for youth, freedom and nonconformity; the place where for the first time youth was in charge, the new buzz word was 'gear', and every young guy wanted it. We have had jazz bands, an exhibition and a good illustrated book (Carnaby Street 1960-2010) but nothing that can raise the creative temperature of Carnaby Street to anything that might represent life, let alone the pulsating energy of its brief past as a fashion crucible. Now Carnaby Street is all about cheap conformity with an emphasis on cheap jeans, T-shirts and trainers and is full of tourists hooked on a name long dead in real terms and really barely knowing what has drawn them there.

Carnaby Street now is famous for nothing more dynamic than once being famous. Sad really, I avoid it as much as I can, although it is less than two minutes' walk from my home. AS The Jam sang in 1977, 'Carnaby Street, Carnaby Street, Not what it used to be'. Even less so today, I'm afraid.


  1. It is true that there are no interesting stores on Carnaby Street itself, they are all chains like All Saints or shops selling "designer" trainers. But on some of the streets in the nearby area you can still find much more exciting fashion retailers, and there are frequently very good pop-up shops there too. Right now On|Off has a pop-up store just around the corner from Liberty with a really cool selection of new designers. And then, of course, there is Liberty, which will always be in my good books...


  2. Shame you can't repeat the past. I guess the East End of London is where the fashion buzz is these days..