London's Carnaby St marks 50 years since Swinging Sixties

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The Independent Online

London's Carnaby Street, a potent symbol of the Swinging Sixties where the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix hung out, is marking 50 years as a style icon - and looking to the future.

Musicians, models and hipsters clad in flares and psychedelic colours made the street, and its flamboyant, independent clothes shops with names like Lord John and I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet, a global symbol of youth culture.

Its image faded in the 1980s and 1990s, although now the street - tucked away next to Regent Street, one of London's main shopping hubs - is trying to recapture something of that independent spirit.

Fashion historian Amy de la Haye, co-curator of "Carnaby Street: 1960-2010", an exhibition now running on the street and telling its story, said 1960s bohemians had been attracted to the area by cheap rents.

"Shops were playing music loud, it was like going to a nightclub during the day," she told AFP, describing the atmosphere at the time.

"Some people were going there for shopping but others were coming just to hang around, there was a carnival atmosphere. And you never knew who you were going to meet."

Photographer Philip Townsend, who chronicled the street and its outlandish fasions, put it more succinctly. "The skirts were very, very short. And there were lots of girls."

Following World War II and rationing, young people in 1960s Britain again had money to spend on luxuries like clothes and going out. Iconic designer Ossie Clark even created popular paper dresses for them to snap up.

This was a big change from how shopping used to be, according to de la Haye.

"Before, fathers and sons were getting dressed in the same shops," she said. "Suddenly, boutiques in Carnaby Street started selling colourful clothes, with unusual shapes and materials never used before. And unisex arrived."

In the 1980s and 1990s, following the emergence of the punk movement, the street lost its aura, choked by souvenir shops and downmarket clothes stores.

It remained a popular destination for tourists attracted by tales of what Time magazine christened "Swinging London" in 1966.

But in 1997, Carnaby Street and the smaller streets around it were bought by a property company which wanted to restore its image.

Now Shaftesbury, which owns the area, says that "65 percent of the shops are independents."

Carnaby Street itself is dominated by big name youth brands like Puma and Converse but the smaller streets off it boast more independent stores.

"The main street is not so much independent but it serves the purpose of bringing young people to Carnaby Street," said Filiz Ayan, manager of a local jewellery shop.

"They get plenty of choice, individualism which was the case in the sixties. It continues the heritage."

De la Haye said the area was "cool again", adding: "It has drawn the best of what were the sixties, with independent boutiques and lots of cafes, but it's turned towards the future."

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