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The King of Carnaby Street

By Jeremy Reed

John Stephen arrived in London from Scotland in 1952 aged just eighteen years old. The son of a struggling shopkeeper, he had no money and no friends in the capital. Already burning with ambition and a style obsessive he found work at old school menswear shop Moss Bros, and gravitated towards Soho, which was the locale for the mod scene – and also for the sexually ambivalent.

He set up shop first in Beak Street with partner and lover Bill Frank. In 1956 they took a lease on the newly available 5 Carnaby Street, and by 1967 Stephen was operating a chain of 15 shops in the area. His talent, his drive and his colourful hipster clothes transformed this quiet back alley into the most fashionable street in the world. He dressed all the stars of swinging London, including the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Small Faces, Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Byrds and Bob Dylan. As Stephen himself said, “I was the same age and into pop music, so I gave kids something they could wear to complement that”.

Perceived by the mainstream as a style bandit who would quickly burn out, John Stephen was in fact a pioneer of the high turnover, fast fashion ethos which remains with us to this day. Soho scribe Jeremy Reed charts Stephen’s progress through the social and cultural changes of 60s and 70s London, changes that were mirrored and to an extent driven by his creations. As a piece of social history, this is a riveting account of London’s evolution as a style mecca, of Soho with it shops, nightclubs, bars and pubs, and the seminal figures of the sixties who frequented them.

Jeremy Reed is a well-known poet and biographer. He has published over thirty books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction including biographies of Lou Reed, Marc Almond and Anna Kavan. Among the prizes he has won are the National Poetry Competition, the Eric Gregory Award and the Somerset Maugham Award. He lives in London and writes every day in Soho.

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