give us back our fashion heritage

Former shop owner Robert Orbach laments the demise of Carnaby Street

Carnaby Street in the mid-Sixties was the lifeblood of Soho. It was trendy, it was exclusive, it was in. This was the centre of it all. All other fashion branched off from Carnaby Street.

Last week, it went up for sale again, to yet another private owner, and when I look at it now, full of high street chains, I lament the loss of a great bit of British history. History shouldn't be owned by private individuals, it should be owned by the public.

It was the Motown/Atlantic Soul period, before the Beatles came to London, when I went to work in Carnaby Street. I had been working as a sales assistant on the Harrow Road in a place called Arthur's Modern Menswear - how about that for a name? But I was bored. I used to go to Soho when I was a teenager. I would tell my mother I was going to Hyde Park, but really I would go down and see people like Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele perform.

I got a job working in one of John Stephen's shops. He owned a few in Carnaby Street and really started the whole fashion thing there. The atmosphere was incredible. Most of the people who worked there were gay. "Nancy boys", people used to call them, and all those other ridiculous expressions. They were very creative people and that was what made Carnaby Street. The Mod fashion was in. There were shops such as Domino, Donnis and the Ravel shoe company. Marc Bolan used to come down all the time, and Rod Stewart, Pete Townshend - all the early mods, before they got famous. Mick Jagger came, the Yardbirds, everybody. They used to turn up in limos, in huge Rolls-Royces. I got to know them quite well. They could come to Carnaby Street and not be bothered.

It was alternative, it was an adventure and we were different. We used to wear yellow and orange shirts, three-button silk suits. There were motor scooters. It wasn't just the High Street, like it is now.

Later, I had my own shop, selling tunics. I'd wear an old hussar's tunic around the shop. It had a furry collar and braid on the front. It was used in the film The Charge of the Light Brigade. Jimi Hendrix used to come in and drive me crazy about this tunic and finally he persuaded me to sell it to him. He gave me pounds 100, which was a fortune in those days. He went on to wear it on stage all the time. I wish I knew where it was now.

When the Abbey Road album came out I got an Abbey Road street sign and got it signed by The Beatles and put it in the shop window. I wish I hadn't, because I came to work one morning and found the window smashed and it was gone. There were a lot of drugs, too. I was part of all that, I'm not embarrassed about it. If you wanted drugs all you had to do was go to the Roaring 20s club in Carnaby Street and score.

In the mid-Sixties there were lots of people with no business experience, but loads of talent and huge amounts of money in rock 'n' roll and fashion.

You'd never go to a business meeting straight: you were always stoned, so you'd take along an accountant and a solicitor and they would stick bits of paper in front of your face and tell you where to sign.

They did keep straight and they were the guys who eventually stole everything from Carnaby Street. They were like early yuppies and they changed Carnaby Street completely. A lot of Asians began coming to London and greedy white landlords would cram 10 of them into one shop and then charge them a high rent.

Westminster council should buy Carnaby Street and they should get someone like myself to change it. I would clear everybody out (all these chains of High Street shops), and give it back to talented, creative individuals. I would give them a plot at a sensible rent and they could produce and sell good stuff, without the pressure of paying ridiculous rents.

Of course, this couldn't happen because it wouldn't make so much money. And that's all a lot of people care about these days.

Interview by Matthew Brace


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