Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Sixties Boutiques #2 - John Stephen - The King of Carnaby Street

John Stephen, The King of Carnaby Street (b. 28/08/1932 d. 01/02/2004)
(This article was originally published on Atom Retro's Mod Clothing Chronicles)

This is the in place to be!

A figurehead of British fashion, a lost icon rediscovered and perhaps previously overshadowed by his contemporaries. The name John Stephen, the legacy Carnaby Street.

John Stephen's success in the Menswear arena more than matched the impact of Quant and Hulanicki on Women's fast fashion in the Swinging Sixties. Whilst not always being recognised in such high esteem as some of his peers, John Stephen is gradually coming to prominence, now regarded as one of the Uk's most innovative and inspirational fashion entrepreneurs.

John Stephen's flagship store, His Clothes on Carnaby Street
Moving from his native Glasgow to London at the age of 18 in 1952, Stephen found work within the Military Department at Moss Bros in Covent Garden. Here he honed his talent as a tailor, studying and practicing in traditional tailoring. Soon, Stephen moved on to find work at avant-garde and pioneering menswear shop Vince Man shop situated in Newburgh Street, London. Here, John Stephen saw first hand the huge potential and indeed the longing of the gentleman customer for a neoteric Fashion Menswear Boutique. One that expressed freedom through fashion, a modern outlook and that was in tune with the youth of the today and their social scene. As John Stephen was already part of this scene he already had a key understanding of customers wants and desires. Using Vince as a stepping stone to further his fledgling fashion career, Stephen worked double shifts as a waiter and at Vince to save up enough money.

In four short years, John Stephen with his new business partner Bill Franks was ready to embark on his first foray into shop keeping and success as an entrepreneur. The shop, opened in 1956/57, a first floor unit in Beak Street was short lived, not due to a downturn in sales, but a fire at the premises, forcing focus to shift to London's as yet unheard of Carnaby Street. Having already acquired the use 5 Carnaby Street thanks to his kindly Beak Street landlord, Stephen's empire was steadily growing.

Peacock Revolution to Pedestrianisation - The Carnaby Crusade!

"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

The year 1958, the setting Carnaby Street, a drab back Street in London's Soho district. Painting his shop a incandescent shade of canary yellow, playing the latest hit records and producing short runs of jeans, shirt and jackets. This fast fashion approach facilitated rapid turnover and is a business model that has been emulated a thousand times over. Growing up with the burgeoning social scenes and with his finger on the pulse of mens fashion, Stephen was to be a forerunner and key player in the mod subculture his clothes would come to define. Within six years, Carnaby Street, thanks to John Stephen was transformed from dreary back street to bustling epicentre of Swinging Sixties London. From the iconic and original His Clothes, Stephen also owned boutiques named Mod Male, Domino Male and Male West 1.

Stephen had a knack for coming up with fresh and 'of the moment' Mod styles with a limited edition ethos that saw lines deleted no sooner had they arrived in stock and flown out the door. This avoidance of repetition in lines meant Stephen's reputation and dominance in Menswear was guaranteed. Dressing a lifestyle with attention to detail and knowledge of the here and now enabled Stephen's empire to flourish into a Menswear monopoly. Soon, Stephen would occupy 15 shops in Carnaby Street alone. He presided over an era forever engrained in fashion history, positioning himself as king of Mod fashion and Mod Clothing, that would also open up the door to contemporaries such as Lord John (Warren Gold), Take 6, Gear, Mates and allowed notable tailors such as Dougie Millings to stamp their mark on the Mod and music fashion scene both in London and afar. Stephen's flamboyance and flair for Mod and Retro Clothing also paved the way for other fashion visionaries such as John Pearse, Nigel Waymouth and Sheila Cohen's 'Granny Takes a Trip' and Ian Fisk's and John Pauls, 'I Was Lord Kitcheners Valet'.

Such was Stephen's affinity with the Mod scene, the likes of Mod icons, The Who, The Kinks and The Small Faces would all dress in the Mod attire from one of Stephen's many boutiques.

"Carnaby is my creation. I feel about it the same way Michelangelo felt about the beautiful statues he created."
- John Stephen

From His Clothes to Her Clothes:

 Paying careful attention to the desires of Mod Males, Stephen would tailor his Mod Clothing packages to incorporate specific detail. He pioneered the use of triple and double button sequences on Mens shirts, incorporated Psychedelic Retro paisley patterns on shirts and ties and also manufactured collarless Mod suits, which he first introduced in the late Fifties, a few years prior to the famous Beatles (Dougie Millings designed), Pierre Cardin inspired collarless suits.

John Stephen talks to a young Mod. This kid is Angus Young, who grew up to be the lead guitarist in AC/DC! 

John Stephen had found a unique way to offer contemporary Mod Clothing at affordable prices. A
passer by could count the money in their pocket and realise that the eye catching piece in the window of His Clothes was within their budget. Regency Dandy attire at reasonable rates - a must have have for any discerning Mod Clothing connoisseur.

In 1967, Stephen added women's clothing to his Mod orientated repertoire, opening shops such as 'His N Hers' and 'Trecamp'. Once again anticipating hot styles and applying the same innovative approach to designs, John Stephen was easily able to attract a female following to his previously male orientated boutiques. Audacious Psychedelic prints on classic Mod shift dresses, Stephen also embraced the late Sixties Kaftan culture with outlandish oriental inspiration to tunics, shirts and accessories. Mod mini's with mad prints were perfectly suited to the Dandy-ist fashions found in the male counterpart boutiques. As his shop declared, this was a real 'His 'N Her' story. Famous celebrities including screen icons Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich were even sporting John Stephen Mod inspired women's attire. Stephen's androgynous themes cleverly crossed over from women's to men's fashion. Coupled with this, the direction of store layout's could easily cater for a myriad of flamboyant tastes and be quickly adjusted to reflect the latest trends.

The times they are a changin':

By the lates Sixties, the Mod subculture Stephen's designs epitomised was changing. Stephen realised this and began developing new ideas to encapsulate the changing fashion trends. With links to football manifesting itself in the form of advertising hoardings at the Mexico 1970 World Cup, Stephen was attempting to broaden his market reach and scope. Stephen would even have franchise agreements in place in Russia and the USA.

As the Seventies and a new decade dawned, Stephen's business model had been replicated on London's busiest high streets. Carnaby Street once a hub for Mods and Mod Clothing was now merely a tourist haunt, a shadow of it's former glory. Stephen realising this decided to branch out and opened a wholesale arm to his operations that included a factory for clothing manufacture in his native Glasgow. This factory would employ in excess of 100 people.

Domino Male and Trecamp in 1966
The end of an era and a new dawn:

John Stephen floated his company in 1972, but after a series of leaner years and a downturn in fortune, Stephen sold the brand and ceased trading under his name in 1975. Stephen would then go on to re-invent himself as Francisco-M, focusing on cutting edge fashion with a continental influence, inspired by the fashions of Italy and France.

In 1975, amidst the closure of his Mod related operations, the V&A museum in London acquired John Stephen's complete archive of works. This is held by the V&A costume department and to this day a number of retrospective exhibitions have taken place to celebrate his work.

As a further accolade, John Stephen was commemorated with a blue plaque on Carnaby Street to celebrate his achievements in transforming the street into a mecca of Swinging London, an icon of Mod culture and of course Mod Clothing. After all, His Clothes was the first fashion boutique to open down Carnaby Street all those years ago in 1958.

From the 'Peacock Revolution' to dandy Mod and Edwardian fashions, John Stephen put his sartorial stamp on the Swinging Sixties, Carnaby Street and Mod Clothing. A vanguard of young Mods had Stephen to thank for allowing them to ditch the staid and tired threads of their fathers and and dress impeccably, with originality and outlandish Mod flair. His Clothes signalled the start of something special, the start of a Mod revolution and the start of a whole new concept in Mens fast fashion.