The name behind Retro is Sue Tahran. Wearing a Retro T-shirt and hipsters without looking as though she's trying too hard, fortysomething Tahran works incognito on the shop floor, vigorously demonstrating the Atilla can crusher or modelling the latest inflatable flip-flops. "Keeping up with my customers is exhausting," she says, puffing on a Silk Cut Extra Mild in a nearby patisserie. "They have such a high level of design and fashion awareness. The demand is insatiable."
For 11 years, Tahran has sourced the entire stock of Retro and ensured its survival through the chrome-and-black Eighties to the irreverent chic of the Nineties. "There is more humour in Nineties' design - breaking rules and mocking conventions. But the bottom line for Retro is high-quality, modern design classics."
Tahran's latest product, "Boyfriend in a Box", could hardly be described as a design classic. "It's for the woman who has everything but time for a serious relationship," she giggles. These pounds 9.99 "boyfriends" supply the customer with a complete biography of his or her imaginary friend plus greetings cards, memos and photos for diary and desk. "It is all about tapping into my customer's sense of humour," says Tahran, who happens to be unmarried herself. "But I'd have to sell an awful lot of Boyfriends to pay Soho rents - they aren't my main source of income," she adds with a wry smile.
It is the homeware department, in the tiny basement space, and fashion on the ground floor that make Retro an essential in the Soho shopping landscape. "You know as well as I do that there are too many fashion and interiors shops in London already," says Tahran. "I try to identify modern classics and be the first to stock them. So, that means I take risks with young, untested designers. Other stores compete on quantity but I have to be more selective and trust the quality."
Retro's longevity is owed to Tahran alone. "I do read magazines voraciously and I am as visually aware as a Soho local can be. If you work in Soho, then you see fashion movements as they happen. I try to reflect what I see on the streets in Retro." She is like a basset hound with a scent when she hears about new designers. As well as stocking the kitten-soft classic John Smedley knitwear, she also enthuses over new labels Guerillawear, Mecca by Sabotage and WL&T. Farah's resurrection, with the Nineties' F-tab label, practically started in Retro. Tahran says, "When a product gets too visible in other stores, I replace it. Calvin Klein underwear has given way to Dolce e Gabbana, because cK is all over the place now."
To mark the tenth anniversary of Retro, Tahran refurbished the lower- ground floor and opened Home. "As with the fashion, other stores can stock a bigger range. As a small, independent store, we have to compete with smart, unusual pieces. I try to keep the cost below pounds 100, because interiors have a reputation of being overpriced. I want my customers to know they can get an acid-yellow Alessi kettle, a Lazy Fish, silver bottle-opener or an Inflate cushion here for under pounds 50." The H2O water glasses by Retro are ubiquitous in every loft apartment south of Watford.
Like many of London's sharpest retailers, Tahran served her apprenticeship on Kensington and Portobello markets for seven years. "I'd travel to the States and buy bales of unsold clothing, sight unseen, then weed out the rubbish and sell the gems like Burberry beige macs on my stall." Tahran also brought jewellery in Morocco, Afghanistan and Nepal when all things ethnic were in vogue.
"Leaving the markets for Old Compton Street filled me with horror, but in 1986 we opened American Retro. Very quickly the second-hand clothes were replaced by my first modern classics. I'd learnt from the markets that quality design made to last would always find a buyer. I wanted to see pieces that maybe a Sue Tahran in 20 years time would be selling on Portobello Road."
Eleven years later, Retro has survived in its original location while other shops in Soho open and close as swiftly as a shoplifter's handbag. "I think you have to move with the times and not be afraid to change. The only thing that never changes is the name above the shop." With an ever-expanding range of black nylon bags with white Retro logo, Tahran has made American Retro one of her design classics. Every Queen on Old Compton Street (the hub of London's gay scene) has a Retro bag. For tourists, it's the hip version of the "I've Been to London And..." T-shirts.
Tahran's buying success boils down to the universal appeal of Retro to Soho media types, design junkies and gay men. "Retro is for every race, colour, creed and sexuality," says Tahran. "Women like looking at Versace books of male bodies, too, you know. Gay men buy Dolce underwear but we have a lot women buying them for boyfriends and husbands. I don't want to see my men in droopy Y-fronts either, dear."
Tahran has stockists of Retro bags in Paris but has not considered opening outside London. "Soho has a vibrancy and energy about it that I love. I am prepared to adapt, but expand too much and you lose the exclusivity. I like to think that American Retro is a very special part of Soho and I'd like to keep it that way."
American Retro, 35 Old Compton Street, London W1, 0171 734 3477.Reuse content