In 1934, the 20th century witnessed the birth of a cultural revolution on the streets of London. A transformation was underway, and it all began with the opening of the Florence Mills Social Club at number 50 by Amy Ashwood Garvey and Sam Manning. This jazz club quickly became a gathering place for supporters of Pan-Africanism, setting the stage for the dynamic changes that were about to take place.

The Humble Origins of Carnaby Street

At the start of the 1950s, Carnaby Street was nothing more than a shabby Soho backstreet, characterised by “rag trade sweat shops, locksmiths, and tailors.” The street was even home to a Central Electricity Board depot that occupied a significant portion of it. However, the transformation of Carnaby Street into a global fashion destination can be attributed to the vision of Bill ‘Vince’ Green, a male physique photographer.

In 1954, Green took a significant step by opening a small clothing boutique called ‘Vince’ on the adjacent Newburgh Street. This boutique was strategically located to cater to the burgeoning homosexual body-building community that frequented the Marshall Street baths. Among those who contributed to the popularity of ‘Vince’ were the relatively unknown Sean Connery and the dashing boxer Billy Walker. To further attract customers, Green hired attractive young men as sales assistants, including the Glasgow-born John Stephen, who would later become known as ‘The King Of Carnaby Street.’

The Rise of ‘His Clothes’ and ‘The King of Carnaby Street’

In 1957, John Stephen opened his boutique, ‘His Clothes,’ after his shop in Beak Street was destroyed in a fire. His innovative fashion sense left an indelible mark on the street. Mary Quant once said, “He made Carnaby Street. He was Carnaby Street. He invented a look for young men which was wildly exuberant, dashing, and fun.” At this time, Carnaby Street was known as a hub for the gay community, and the clothing, including pink shirts and skin-tight white pants, initially targeted gay men but soon found popularity among the mainstream audience.

John Stephen’s success was a catalyst for other men’s fashion retailers, such as Gear, Mates, and Ravel, to set up shop on Carnaby Street. In 1966, Harry Fox and Henry Moss opened the first women’s fashion boutique, Lady Jane, further diversifying the fashion scene. As the street continued to evolve, Tommy Roberts made a name for himself with his gift shop, Kleptomania, before moving to Carnaby Street in 1967 and gaining fame in the King’s Road, Chelsea, with his Mr Freedom shop.

The Swinging Sixties and Carnaby Street

By the 1960s, Carnaby Street had become synonymous with the mod and hippie styles. It was a hub for independent fashion designers like Mary Quant, Marion Foale, and Sally Tuffin. Various underground music bars, such as the Roaring Twenties, popped up in the surrounding streets. Renowned bands like the Small Faces, The Who, and The Rolling Stones frequented the area, both for work (at the legendary Marquee Club around the corner) and for socialising. Carnaby Street had become one of the coolest destinations associated with 1960s Swinging London.

The Birth of a Vegetarian Icon

The culinary scene on Carnaby Street also made waves. In 1961, the first Cranks restaurant was opened at 22 Carnaby Street by David and Kay Canter and Daphne Swann. This restaurant played a pivotal role in popularising vegetarianism in the following decades.

The Global Fame of Carnaby Street

Carnaby Street’s fame reached international heights with Time magazine’s cover story on April 15, 1966, which celebrated its role as the epicentre of London’s swinging culture. The article highlighted the ‘gear’ boutiques where both men and women flocked to buy the latest clothing. It was a testament to Carnaby Street’s unique and influential style.

Pedestrianisation and Green Plaques

In October 1973, the Greater London Council pedestrianised Carnaby Street, restricting vehicular access between 11 am and 8 pm. This move was met with a 30% increase in the number of pedestrians entering the area, affirming Carnaby Street’s status as a destination. In recent years, efforts have been made to extend pedestrianisation to the adjacent area of Soho.

To commemorate the street’s impact on fashion and culture, Westminster City Council erected two green plaques. One, located at 1 Carnaby Street, is dedicated to fashion entrepreneur John Stephen, the Mod fashion pioneer. Another plaque at 52/55 Carnaby Street honours the Mod pop group, the Small Faces, and their manager, Don Arden.

In conclusion, Carnaby Street stands as an iconic symbol of the 20th century, a place where fashion, music, and cultural movements converged to shape an era. From its humble beginnings, it transformed into a global fashion destination, leaving a legacy that still resonates today. The spirit of Carnaby Street continues to inspire and influence, making it a timeless symbol of style and innovation.