Review: The King of Carnaby Street: the Life of John StephenThe King of Carnaby Street: the Life of John Stephen
Published by Haus Publishing
Reviewed by Richard Canning
John Stephen’s name may have faded from general consciousness today just as clearly as it was unknown when the 18-year-old, near penniless Glaswegian arrived in London in 1952. But, as this first book about the man who singlehandedly reinvented Carnaby Street and, arguably, more than any other, defined the Mod look, reveals, Stephen deserves to be better remembered.
One reason why his profile may have disappeared since his suicide in 1969 is that Stephen of necessity kept certain parts of his life far from the public eye (‘please don’t mention my name, mention my clients’ was a typical comment). Happy to be photographed in one of his endless Carnaby Street fashion emporiums, or with a Mod girl contrivedly on his arm at a P.R. event, Stephen secretly lived in a secure gay relationship with Bill Franks in a luxurious flat in Jermyn Street. In the 1960s, of course, lots of things were hip and new and fashionable. But homosexual acts were still illegal, and being known as gay was a career cul de sac like no other.
Stephen’s first job was in Covent Garden’s Moss Bros., where he was able to learn the virtues of old-fashioned tailoring. To survive in the city, he took a second job, as a coffee bar waiter. Much of the fifties can be described as a long, challenging apprenticeship, but Stephen’s positivity, good looks and determination saw him through to owning a succession of lines of men’s and women’s leisurewear which would grace the entire decade he can be said to have defined – and which neatly, and chronologically, defined his own career success.
Stephen first moved into tiny premises on the then neglected Carnaby Street in 1956. His extravagant, tightly-cut designs for men had much in common at the time with the gear paraded in the windows of nearby sex stores frequented by gay men. But Stephen saw the opportunity for the sort of crossover success which, one feels on reading this book, may simply never have happened without him. Prominent public figures such as Sean Connery, George Melly and even Pablo Picasso might be seen dressed in Stephen’s threads. From 1960, both Billy Fury and Cliff Richard were regular customers. More occasional clients included the Yardbirds, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones. Professional scouser and “comedian” Jimmy Tarbuck, astonishingly, modelled for Stephen.
The only peer in terms of commercial acumen and association with the 60s zeitgeist was Mary Quant, whose name became as associated with her territory (Chelsea) as strongly as Stephen’s with his. Yet when young girls gathered on the TV set of groundbreaking music show Ready Steady Go (from 1963), they invariably aped presenter Cathy Kirby in dressing in Stephen’s outfits more commonly than Quant’s.
In many respects, the arc of Stephen’s life will strike anyone who knows the life story of Joe Meek, 50s/60s music producer and subject of the play and movie Telstar as depressingly familiar. (Meek himself, and his blond rocker boy “find” Heinz were both customers). He experienced sudden success, fame and wealth, only for it to lead him in endless, often self-destructive pursuits of unavailable boys, chemicals and (ever more frequently) in drink. Theirs is something of the myth of Narcissus here, too: Stephen himself was of very handsome appearance – as striking as the pop stars he dressed. But he was very short and, in fact, physically rather frail. By the age of 30, indeed, he was one of the very few who could comfortably get into the Mod trousers he designed, with their 26 inch waists and drainpipe legs. Jackets tended to be made with chests running from 34 to 38 only.
It’s a fascinating story, told in detail and with a boisterous enthusiasm. There are some wonderful vignettes, too – such as the image of Marc Bolan, wearing full make up and working as a Soho rentboy, scouring the bins around Carnaby Street for clothing cast-offs. But by 1965, with Stephen’s empire at its peak, and Georgie Fame opening his eighth store on the same street, the end was already in sight. Though Stephen would try hard to accommodate the aesthetic values and predilections of the first wave of hippies – and can even be said to be responsible for the adoption of paisley and striped kaftans by the new breed – he could see that a more fundamental shift away from the styles associated with him, and the Mod look in general. (Although the ‘glam’ look of the mid-70s has something borrowed from Stephen’s innovations, it acted, often, against the fundamentals of epicene body shapes and types; full-on hippie culture, meanwhile, grew ever more layered and bulky, in clothing terms – which would have been anathema to Stephen, had he witnessed it).
He dressed the Bee Gee Barry Gibb in 1968, the year in which Gibb was crowned Best Dressed Man (great photograph!). However, by then, Stephen not only had little left to achieve. His commercial stock was also challenged from the myriad flatterers and thieves, who would imitate Stephen designs, running up versions in cheaper cloth, on sale within days of Stephen unveiling his new collection. Reed interprets the late sixties as marking a progressive, pronounced sense of defeat in the Scotsman who had achieved so much: ‘The sixties were breaking up around him like the electronic sequences of red and blue Piccadilly neon.’
Like Stephen, Reed is a natural dandy, bon viveur and show-off, and the identification with his subject on occasion brings rewards. He seems to have been privy to much of Stephen’s life through conversations with his partner, Bill Franks, who is thanked here, but not exactly credited. In fact, there do not appear to many other sources – a pity, since many figures here of the period surely could have been persuaded to speak, and might have produced a more rounded character psychologically.
And Reed’s prose style won’t be to everyone’s taste; and there is so much repetition and indirection here that I began to long I had taken one of the many pills which got Stephen through a 16-hour day, and which Reed himself may perhaps have ingested, in order to come up with sentences such as: ‘Change was in the air, no matter how tentative, rather like a carjacker nicking the cellulose gloss of a polished wing before slashing it.’ Huh? This sentence is more of a car crash (something else with which Stephen was familiar). At 264 pages, The King of Carnaby Street feels, if anything, inappropriately bloated for its subject, and there are many moments of simply terrible infelicitous style. Take these two sentences:
In the face of anarchic turbulence beginning to infiltrate sixties culture, as the break-up of its earlier holistic grouping of fashion, music and a revisioned youthful ideology founded on the look of its identity, and liberated hedonism as its incentive to party, Stephen restructured the suit on a superb Mod line that deconstructed formal wear into a casual elegance that defined the basic principles of modernism, and as such could have been designed for the wardrobe of a Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg Avengers shoot. A Stephen first that was based on classic Mod principles of incisively clean and precisely detailed styling, his leisure knitted suits, coming at a time when confected decoration predominated as the fashion signifier, was a lost opportunity for Mods to regain an endemic fashion ascendancy and additionally to reinvent the ubiquitous role the suit played in society.
I know what Reed means, more or less, but the inelegance of the prose acts sharply against the precepts for which Stephen should be known: simplicity, directness, sharpness.
He was fully aware of his own talents, making his death at the young age of 35 all the more tragic… although the fact that he lived a literal half-lifespan has a certain apposite orderliness. (Stephen had first taken an overdose at the age of 30). He could, on occasion, parrot others’ high estimate of himself. He took to referring to his emporium thus: ‘Carnaby St is my creation. In a way I feel about it how Michelangelo felt about the beautiful statues he had created.’ Michelangelo Buonarotti, who was abnormally uninterested in clothing, his own hygiene or “look”, instead poured his aesthetic instincts into works of art which endure. Today, fashion continues, like all popular cultures, to rob relentlessly and ungenerously from its own trailblazers. Thus, while it isn’t fair to say that John Stephen does not have a legacy, it is certainly true that he is too rarely associated with what he individually made happen in late 50s and 60s London. John Stephen brought to life the idea of the savvy, fashionable teen rocker, and then the Mod, and kickstarted the cult of youth and adolescence which has taken hold of British culture now for fifty years.
Richard Canning. Canning’s most recent book is a biography of E M Forster (Hesperus Press).